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Aḥa (Aḥai) of ShabḤa

AḤA (Aḥai) OF SHABḤA (680–752), scholar of the Pumbedita yeshivah in the geonic period and author of She'iltot ("Questions"). He came from Shabḥa, which is adjacent to Basra. When a vacancy occurred in the geonate of Pumbedita a few years before the death of Aḥa, the exilarch Solomon b. Ḥasdai appointed Natronai Kahana b. Emunah of Baghdad, a pupil of Aḥa, as gaon (748). Incensed at this slight, Aḥa left Babylonia (c. 750) and settled in Palestine. His departure deeply affected his contemporaries and many followed him. By the next generation a considerable number of Babylonian Jews were settled in Palestine. In many places they even built separate synagogues following the Babylonian ritual. The She'iltot (always so called, and not by the more correct name She'elata), was the first book written after the close of the Talmud to be attributed to its author. Much of its subject matter is very old, even antedating the final redaction of the Talmud. There are statements in the She'iltot that do not appear in the Talmud or which are there in a different version. It also contains "reversed discussions" (i.e., where the statements of the disputants are reversed, contradictory, or different from those in the standard texts). Other portions belong to the period of the savoraim and of the first geonim. A number of decisions cited by the geonim as the tradition of "many generations" or which refer to "earliest authorities" are verbally reproduced in the She'iltot. Even the legal terminology is identical with that of the legal decisions of the savoraim as transmitted by the geonim. Nevertheless, apart from his quotation of the decisions of other authorities, it can be assumed that some of the halakhic decisions are his own.

Both in content and in form, She'iltot is unique in Jewish literature. It is unlike midrashic literature since its halakhic elements exceed its aggadic. However, it has some similarity to Midrash Yelammedenu in that both deal with halakhah derived from Scripture. It is also without parallel in the literature of the Codes, being arranged neither according to subject matter nor according to the sequence of the sections in which the Pentateuch is divided. Aḥa's method is to connect decisions of the Oral Law with the Written Law. The connections are often original and even surprising, though sometimes unconvincing. Often he bases a legal decision not upon its halakhic source in the Torah but on its narrative portion. The laws of theft and robbery, for example, are based on Genesis 6:13: "And the earth is filled of violence because of them." For the laws of the study of the Torah he finds a passage in the section of Lekh Lekha. In the section Va-Yiggash, which tells of the famine in Egypt, the author launches a remarkable attack on hoarders and profiteers: "And he who acts thus shall obtain no forgiveness." She'iltot thus concerns itself not only with the ritual commandments but also with the "duties of the heart," the ethical obligations required of man. Time and again he denounces unethical conduct and praises high moral standards; some of the she'iltot are elevating ethical discourses. The book is written in Aramaic; had it been translated into good Hebrew, it would doubtless have enjoyed wide popularity. Various scholars agree that the She'iltot consists of sermons delivered during ordinary Sabbaths as well as on the Shabbta de-Rigla (the first Sabbath of the academic term, a month before Sukkot) and during the Sabbaths of the *kallah months. It was almost certainly the custom during the geonic era to give the she'ilta form of sermon in the synagogue of the yeshivah. Some assert that both types of lecture (the metivta and the perek) delivered at the Babylonian academies remained in the archives of the academy and only during the geonic period were they copied and edited. (See *Academies in Babylonia and Palestine.) The chapters included in She'iltot are those on which discourses were delivered by the amoraim before the close of the Talmud and during the early geonic period. According to this opinion the She'iltot contain such discourses which were assembled and edited by Aḥa (Mirsky).

Each she'ilta is divided into four parts. The first serves as a general introduction to the subject, speaks of the value and significance of the particular commandments, and serves as a preparation for the question that is to be discussed. The second part is always introduced with the words: "but it is necessary that you learn," or in an abridged form: "but it is necessary," followed by the question. Then comes the third part, the homiletical part, which begins: "Praised be the Lord, who has given us the Torah and the commandments through our teacher Moses to instruct the people of Israel," after which the preacher proceeds from subject to subject. The fourth part is introduced by the formula: "With respect to the question I have set before you…," and then answers the question propounded in the second part. Some assume that the lecture was called "she'ilta" because its most important part is the question and its solution. However, not all the she'iltot have come down in their complete form: in most of them the third part is missing. One she'ilta is to be found in the Talmud itself (Shab. 30a) and it appears that this pattern of public sermon is ancient.

Many scholars have dealt with the question of whether Aḥa wrote the book of She'iltot while he was still in Babylonia or after his immigration to Palestine. Some are of the opinion that Aḥa began it in Babylonia and completed it in Palestine. There are indications which point to its having been written in both countries. According to Weiss, Graetz, and Poznanski, the She'iltot was compiled in Babylonia. L. Ginzberg, basing himself upon linguistic evidence, thought that the book was compiled in Palestine. On the other hand, J.N. Epstein concluded that its language is the Aramaic of the Talmud with the special nuances of the Aramaic of the geonim, and that therefore it was probably compiled in Babylonia. One problem still inadequately investigated is the extent to which the She'iltot makes use of the Jerusalem Talmud. Some scholars (Ratner and Reifmann) maintain that this is a major source. Poznański, on the other hand, points to only seven passages definitely taken from the Jerusalem Talmud. Ginzberg and Kaminka refute much of the evidence supporting the view that the She'iltot made use of the Jerusalem Talmud.

The She'iltot has come down in a fragmentary and defective form. In its extant state it contains 171 she'iltot, some repeated twice or even three times, some fragmentary. Tcherno witz has endeavored to explain the unusual repetitions on the assumption that the She'iltot was directed against the Karaites who were making considerable progress at that time. Aḥa's sermons deal particularly with those commandments which the Karaites disregarded, particularly those of rabbinic provenance. In various manuscripts, especially in the Cairo Genizah, there are she'iltot and parts of she'iltot not to be found in the extant editions. Excerpts of she'iltot are to be found also in the Halakhot Gedolot and in several other sources. Some scholars think that Halakhot Gedolot was composed before the She'iltot, whereas others maintain the opposite view, holding that Halakhot Gedolot drew upon the She'iltot. Halakhot Pesukot is also considered to be later than the She'iltot. It seems probable that after the publication of She'iltot, the geonim continued to preach she'iltot orally and that these formed the basis of the Halakhot Pesukot which were later compiled by the disciples of Yehudai Gaon. Special mention should be made of the book Ve-Hizhir, apparently written in Palestine in the tenth century, which contains a large number of she'iltot. A whole literature of she'iltot then grew up which used Aḥa's book as a prototype. The rishonim also made great use of the She'iltot.

She'iltot was first published in Venice in 1566. Other editions worthy of mention are (1) She'iltot with the commentaries She'ilat Shalom and Rishon le-Ẓiyyon, by Isaiah Berlin Pick (1786); (2) with the commentary To'afot Re'em of Isaac Pardo (1811); (3) with Ha'amek She'elah of Naphtali Ẓevi Judah *Berlin, considered the most complete commentary (1861–67; 2nd edition, with additions and supplements, 1947–52); (4) with the commentary Rekaḥ Mordekhai of Eliezer Mordecai Keneg (1940); (5) a new edition with a voluminous introduction, commentary, and variae lectiones, published by S.K. Mirsky (Genesis and Exodus, in 3 vols., 1959–63). Mirsky mentions 11 manuscripts of She'iltot and 4 commentaries which have never been published.


J. Reifmann, in: Beit Talmud, 3 (1882), 26–29, 52–59, 71–79, 108–17, 144–8; L. Ginzberg, Geonica, 1 (1909), 75–79; A. Kaminka, in: Sinai, 6 (1940), 179–92; J.N. Epstein, in: JQR, 12 (1921/22), 299–390; idem, in: Tarbiz, 6 (1934/35), 460–97; 7 (1935/36), 1–30; 8 (1936/37), 5–54; 10 (1938/39), 283–308; 13 (1941/42), 25–36; V. Aptowitzer, in: HUCA, 8–9 (1931–32), 373–95; S.K. Mirsky, She'iltot, 1 (1959), 1–41; Baron, Social2, 6 (19582), 37–40, 336–9. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: R. Brody, The Textual History of the She'iltot (1991); E. Itzchaky, in: Moreshet Yaakov, 5 (1991), 128–32.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.