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Kafaḥ (Kafih, קאפח), Yosef

KAFAḤ (Kafih, קאפח), YOSEF (1917–2000), Israeli rabbi and scholar, grandson of Yiḥye *Kafaḥ, who was born in *San'a, *Yemen, first became a gold-and silversmith there and also owned a textile business. In 1943 he emigrated to Palestine and worked as a gold- and silversmith in Tel Aviv. Eventually, he gave up his trade and settled in Jerusalem where he enrolled in the Merkaz ha-Rav yeshivah. In 1950 Kafaḥ was appointed a member of the bet din of Tel Aviv and a year later of that of Jerusalem.

Encouraged by M. Berlin (*Bar-Ilan), Kafaḥ began to publish research in Yemenite Jewish literature and translated important works, written in Arabic, into Hebrew, including an edition of Maimonides' commentary on the Mishnah containing the Arabic text with a new Hebrew translation and notes (1963–68), and a three-volume edition (1963–68), consisting only of the translation. His scholarly editions of Arabic texts with Hebrew translation include: the Yemenite Nethanel b. Isaiah's commentary on the Pentateuch, Me'or ha-Afelah (1957); Saadiah's translation and commentary on Psalms (n.d.); Nethanel b. (or al-) Fayyumi's Gan ha-Sekhalim (1954, "Garden of Intellects"); and a collection of various translators and commentators on the Five Scrolls (1962); Saadiah's Emunot ve-De'ot (1970); Maimonides' Book of Precepts, his Guide, and his epistles to the Yemen and on resurrection with a concordance of biblical references in all his writings (all in 1971). He also edited a commentary by Saadiah on the Pentateuch (1963) and on Psalms (1966); Isaac Alfasi's Halakhot on Ḥullin (1960); Abraham b. David of Posquières' She'elot u-Teshuvot ("Responsa," 1964) and his ritual treatise Ba'alei ha-Nefesh, with Zerahiah ha-Levi's strictures Sela ha-Maḥaloket (1964); the responsa of Abraham b. Isaac (of Narbonne; 1962), and those of Yom Tov b. Abraham (Ritva; 1959). He translated Nathan b. Abraham's commentary on the Mishnah from the Arabic (1955). In the field of liturgy he edited a siddur, Shivat Ẓiyyon (1952), and a Passover Haggadah according to the Yemenite rite with commentaries translated from the Arabic (1952). An important contribution to the history of Yemenite religious culture and folklore is Kafaḥ's Halikhot Teiman (1961). He received the Israel Prize in 1969 for his translation of Maimonides' commentary on the Mishnah. His translation of Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed appeared in 1972 along with his translation of Ibn Pakuda's Ḥovot ha-Levavot. Kafaḥ went on to write a total of 83 books and 182 articles. His collected writings, Rav Yosef Kafaḥ: Ketavim, appeared in three volumes in 1989. His magnum opus was a 23-volume edition of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah. Kafaḥ's edition contains a corrected text according to Yemenite manuscripts, as well as cross-references to all of Maimonides' other work and Kafaḥ's own concise commentary. Despite his contribution in translating and publishing the works of Saadiah Gaon and the relatively large corpus of medieval Yemenite philosophical works, the center of Kafaḥ's intellectual universe was Maimonides. Kafaḥ never founded or taught in a yeshivah. Aside from his work as a rabbinical judge, he was the rabbi of a synagogue in Jerusalem where he gave both daily and weekly classes, many of which were devoted to the study of Maimonides. These classes were attended both by his congregants and by many others.

In 1969, Kafaḥ was appointed to the Rabbinical Council of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. He became a member of the Rabbinical High Court in 1970. Throughout his life, he received numerous prizes. Aside from the 1969 Israel Prize, he received the Rav Kook Prize from the Municipality of Tel Aviv-Yaffo twice, in 1964 and 1986. He received the Bialik Prize in 1973, the Katz Prize in 1986, and the Yiẓhak Ben-Zvi Prize in 1994 for his work on Yemenite Jewish communities. In 1997 he received an honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University. When asked why he never entered politics, Kafaḥ answered that instead of trying to understand ministers and MKs, he would rather devote himself to understanding the commentaries on the Mishneh Torah. He retired from the Rabbinical Court in 1988 at the age of 70 and from the Rabbinical Council in 1997.

Known as a very precise person, who was always on time and never long-winded in speech or in print, Kafaḥ was a unique rabbinic figure. His legacy includes historical works alongside the traditional rabbinic commentaries and halakhic responsa. At the same time, contrary to current trends, Kafaḥ viewed the scientific and medical statements made in talmudic and medieval Jewish literature within their historical context. If these statements contradicted modern science, then they were to be discarded. Kafaḥ contended that these statements were actually the opinions of the non-Jewish scientists of those eras and therefore had no lasting authority. On the other hand, Kafaḥ is quick to point out that this proves that these ancient Jewish sages did study science, thus teaching us the great value in studying science today. Kafaḥ viewed scientific knowledge as necessary for forming firm religious convictions that are the essence of Jewish belief.


Kressel, Leksikon, 2 (1967), 725–6. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: A. Levi-Kafaḥ, Holekh Tamim (2003); R. Cohen, Ẓafnat Pane'aḥ: Bibliografyah Mele'ah shel ha-Rav Yosef Kafaḥ (2001); Z. Amar and H. Sari (eds.), Sefer Zikaron le-Rav Yosef Kafaḥ (2001); Y.Ẓ. Langermann in: Aleph, 1 (2000) 333–40.

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