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Nissim ben Jacob ben Nissim Ibn Shahin

NISSIM BEN JACOB BEN NISSIM IBN SHAHIN (c. 990–1062), together with *Hananel b. Ḥushi'el, the outstanding leader and talmudist of North Africa. His father headed a bet ha-midrash in Kairouan and was the representative of the academies of *Sura and *Pumbedita for the whole of North Africa. Little is known of Nissim's personal history. It is known that he, too, was head of an academy in Kairouan and maintained close ties with the academy of Pumbedita. After the death or Hananel, he was appointed by the Babylonian academies Rosh bei-Rabbanan ("Head of the College") in his stead. There were close ties between Nissim and *Samuel ha-Nagid. Samuel supported Nissim financially and Nissim served as the principal channel for Samuel's knowledge of Babylonian teachings, particularly those of Hai Gaon. When one of Nissim's sons died in childhood, Samuel composed a poem in consolation for the bereaved father. Nissim's daughter married Joseph *ha-Nagid, Samuel's son, and on that occasion Nissim visited Granada and taught there. According to Abraham *Ibn Daud, Solomon ibn *Gabirol was among those who heard his lectures. Nissim's teachers were his father, *Ḥushi'el, and possibly also the latter's son Hananel, whose teachings reveal a close affinity with that of Nissim. Nissim obtained a great part of his halakhic tradition from Hai Gaon, with whom he corresponded. Noteworthy among his pupils is Ibn Gasom, the author of a book on the laws of prayer (see Assaf. bibl.).

Nissim was a prolific and versatile writer. Five works of great length and value are known to have been written by him:

(1) Sefer Mafte'aḥ Manulei ha-Talmud (Vienna, 1847) on the tractates Berakhot, Shabbat, and Eruvin was first published from an early Hebrew translation and then included in the Romm (Vilna) editions of the Talmud. Subsequently, many fragments of the Arabic original were published. It is a reference book for quotations encountered in the course of talmudic study. It also gives the sources of the beraitot and mishnayot quoted in the Talmud as well as parallels in the Talmud and Midrashim and includes extensive commentaries on many talmudic themes. Only the sections on the orders Zera'im (Berakhot), Mo'ed, and Nashim are extant but it is probable that theoriginal scope of the work was greater.

(2) Commentaries on a few tractates of the Talmud, apparently written in Hebrew. Only a few fragments from several tractates are extant.

(3) Halakhic rulings. A few fragments of what was evidently a comprehensive work are extant.

(4) Megillat Setarim (completed in 1051 at the latest). This work was very well known among the *rishonim, Sephardim as well as Ashkenazim. It was written for the most part in scholarly terms. The book contains many variegated, unrelated topics on all subjects coming within the range of interest of the scholars of the generation–beliefs and opinions, scriptural exegesis, religious polemics, explanations of passages in the Talmud and Midrashim in halakhah and aggadah, responsa on various subjects, customs and their sources, and other matters. This characteristic aspect of the book, as well as its bilingual construction (Hebrew and Arabic), which resulted in its division into two works even during the author's lifetime, led copyists in different places to arrange it in different orders according to their needs and interest, and in consequence to vary the numeration of its passages. Various compilations were made of the work, which were occasionally drawn upon by other authors such as Jacob *Tam whose Sefer ha-Yashar includes a number of rulings from it. The halakhic compendium Sefer ha-Pardes (written by *Rashi's school) may also have drawn upon it. Although the work is no longer extant, the discovery in the *Genizah of a subject index contained in the indexer's copy (published by S. Assaf, Tarbiz, 11 (1940), 229–59) has made knowledge of its contents far more precise. The book exercised a great influence upon the major halakhists of subsequent generations, including Isaac *Alfasi, *Maimonides, *Nathan b. Jehiel of Rome, *Abraham b. Nathan ha-Yarhi, and *Isaac b. Abba Mari.

(5) Ḥibbur me-haYeshu'ah (Ferrara, 1557), Nissim's best-known work, is a collection of Hebrew stories and folktales taken from early sources. It is designed to strengthen belief, faith, and morality among the people and to raise their spirit. This work, possibly the first prose storybook in medieval Hebrew literature, paved the way for Hebrew belletristic literature as a literary genre. Tradition has it that Nissim dedicated the book to his father-in-law, Dunash, who is otherwise unknown, to console him in his mourning. The first printed edition was published from an early Hebrew translation, and the Arabic text was published by J. Obermann (see bibl.). The Hebrew version has been frequently republished, not always according to the same translation. A new Hebrew translation, together with critical annotations by H.Z. Hirschberg, was published in 1954. Additional Arabic texts have been published by S. Abramson (see bibl.). The work circulated widely even before its first printing, and had a great influence on similar story collections. Ma'asiyyot she-ba-Talmud (Constantinople, 1519) was based upon it, and the Ḥibbur ha-Ma'asiyyot (ibid., 1519) is an anthology of its stories. Many of the stories included by Gaster in his The Exempla of the Rabbis (1924; 19682) were taken from it.

Although some other works have been ascribed to Nissim on the basis of various quotations, it may be assumed that all these are from the works already referred to. This may not apply to his many responsa, which are recorded in the works of rishonim, though these too may have been included in his Megillat Setarim. Most of Nissim's works found in the genizah are undergoing the process of identification and publication. S. Abramson devoted the labors of a lifetime to the collection of Nissim's work from the genizah, from manuscripts, and from printed works, and published a monumental work.


Rapoport, in: Bikkurei ha-Ittim, 12 (1831), 56–83; S. Poznański, in: Festschrift… A. Harkavy (1908), 211–8 (Heb. sect.); Mann, Texts, index; J. Obermann (ed.), The Arabic Original of Ibn Shahin's Book of Comfort (1933); A. Aptowitzer, in: Sinai, 12 (1943), 118f.; Zunz-Albeck, Derashot, index; S. Lieberman (ed.), Hilkhot ha-Yerushalmi le-Rabbi Moshe b. Maimon (1947), 14f.; Assaf, in: KS, 28 (1952/53), 101ff.; S. Abramson, Rav Nissim Ga'on (1965); idem, in: KS, 41 (1965/66), 529–32; idem, in: Sinai, 60 (1967), 12–16.

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