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HAKDAMAH (Heb. הַקְדָּמָה), introduction to a book. The first known hakdamah is the introduction to the *Halakhot Gedolot . In effect it is a sermon in praise of the Torah which its author saw fit to place at the beginning of his book as a preface. In medieval literature the hakdamah served as a literary genre and halakhic authors regarded themselves duty bound to attach a hakdamah to their works. Generally speaking the author in his hakdamah gives his motives for writing the book, and says something about its contents, but very often the hakdamah has important literary value of its own. Spanish and Italian authors also gave their hakdamot an aesthetic form by means of rhyme, meter, and even verses and complete poems, and some of them are literary gems. Especially noteworthy are those of Naḥmanides who wrote many fine hakdamot, of especial merit being those to his Milhamot ha-Shem and his Toratha-Adam. Some hakdamot are complete works, both in scope and in quality, and of these the introduction of Menahem b. Solomon *Meiri to his commentary Beit ha-Beḥirah on Avot is especially noteworthy. Occasionally the contents, purpose, and scope of the book cannot be fathomed without the hakdamah. Because the ordinary reader usually omits the reading of the hakdamah, some authors literally adjured copyists not to copy their works without the introduction, as did, for example, the author of *Ha-Ḥinukh . So important was the hakdamah regarded that a popular proverb has it that "a book without a hakdamah is like a body without a neshamah" ("soul").

[Israel Moses Ta-Shma]

The hakdamah attained full development with Saadiah Gaon, in the tenth century. A systematic thinker, he found it necessary to explain what had motivated him to treat the particular subject he had chosen, thus laying the foundation of his thesis as well as apprising the reader of the content of the book he was presenting. He followed this pattern in his siddur and particularly in his philosophical work, the Sefer ha-Emunot ve-ha-De'ot. In his rather lengthy introduction he states that he wrote this book in order to resolve the doubts and confusions of his contemporaries concerning their traditional faith. The method followed by Saadiah Gaon was further developed and perfected by Moses Maimonides. He used his prefaces to certain orders, tractates, and chapters of the Mishnah, to sections of his great code, the Mishneh Torah, to expound his own philosophical ideas, in addition to elucidating such recondite subjects as the various degrees of ritual impurity dealt with in the order of Tohorot or the plants mentioned in the order of Zera'im. Thus, in the "Eight Chapters" prefacing his commentary on the tractate Avot, he unfolds a complete system of ethics, while in his introduction to the tenth chapter of the tractate Sanhedrin, where the afterlife is mentioned, he discusses resurrection, listing what he regards as the fundamentals of Jewish belief, the 13 "principles" of Judaism. Maimonides' philosophical magnum opus, the Guide of the Perplexed, has both a short dedicatory preface addressed to his favorite pupil for whom it was written, as well as a fairly extensive general introduction, outlining his understanding of the text of Scripture, which, according to him, cannot always be taken literally. He also cautions the reader not to judge the merit of his book by a few isolated statements but to consider it in its totality and with the same seriousness with which it was written. Among the medieval Jewish scholars whose prefaces to their works are worthy of note, Abraham ibn Ezra stands high on the list. In a rhymed introduction to his commentary on the Pentateuch, after dismissing as worthless four other methods of interpretation, he summarizes his own approach, namely that of a critical understanding of the biblical text, making use of all the aids of philology available, regardless of the conclusions to which such an approach may lead.

The prefaces of books by medieval Jewish authors started out, like those of the Muslim writers of the time, with praise of God. With the introduction of printing it became customary for publishers, editors, and even proofreaders to write prefaces asking the indulgence of the readers for typographical errors and mistakes due to other causes.

[Samuel Rosenblatt]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.