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1499: Va'yishlach 13th of Kislev 5774 16/11/2013

In the past we have discussed the "She'iltot" and "Halachot Pesukot." The first book contains various passages from the Talmud which are linked to specific mitzvot. In the second book conclusions are drawn about interesting issues in the Talmud. In this article, we will discuss the book "Halachot Gedolot."

The author of Halachot Gedolot (Bahag) tried to gather together all of the halachic conclusions in all the tractates of the Talmud. It goes without saying that issues in the Talmud that are pertinent to our times are treated in greatest detail, but the book also mentions halachot in such sections of the Talmud as Zera'im, Kodashim, and Taaharot. It seems that the author of Halachot Gedolot was familiar with the She'iltot and Halachot Pesukot and used them extensively.

Who is the Bahag, the author of Halachot Gedolot? What connection is there between him and other important works that were created before or after his time? Many researchers have studied these questions in the last two hundred years. We will try to summarize the situation here.

A Doubtful Attribution

In the responsa of Rav Sherira Gaon, he attributes Halachot Gedolot to Shimon Kayyara:

"With respect to what you asked... that there is a dispute between Halachot Gedolot and a different Gaon, in that Halachot Gedolot allows this... and a Gaon disagrees with that item and writes that Rab Yitzchak Bar Shmuel is wrong... We see that what Rav Shimon Kayyara wrote in Halachot Gedolot is a quote from an article by Rav Acha from Shabcha in a she'ilta in Behaalotecha ... and Rav Shimon copied it into Halachot Gedolot."

Who was Rav Shimon Kayyara, and what does his name mean? Rabbi Prof. Simcha Assaf writes that the name Kayyara implies that Rabbi Shimon's business was to sell wax. Evidently he lived about two generations after Rav Yehudai Gaon, in the city of Batzra, which was under control of Sura. The halachot and the customs that appear in the book correspond to the rulings of the Geonim of Sura.

The first Raavad (Rabbi Avraham Ibn Daud (1110-1180) led to some confusion in his book, Sefer Kabbalah. "In the days of Rav Shmuel (Bar Mari) Rav Shimon Kayyara lived. He was not appointed a Gaon, and he wrote Halachot Gedolot. He wrote Halachot Gedolot in the year 1052 (counting for "shtarot") which is the year 4501 (741)... He was followed by Rav Yehudai (Ben Mar Bar Rav Nachman) for three and a half years, and he died in the year 4523 (this should be 4553, 793). He wrote Halachot Pesukot, which he collected from Halachot Gedolot." Thus, according to the Raavad, Rav Shimon Kayyara lived before Rav Yehudai Gaon, and Halachot Pesukot is a summary of Halachot Gedolot. However, many early commentators, such as Rashi, Rashbam, the Rashba, and others attributed Halachot Gedolot to Rav Yehudai Gaon.

Notes and Additions

Dr. Aharon Shweka writes, "the book Halachot Gedolot is one of the most important books of halacha that was written in the era of the Geonim, and it is the work of the Geonim that is quoted most in the literature of the early commentators. The book was widely distributed – in the east, North Africa, Spain, Italy, France, and Germany. In the era of the Geonim we find it quoted many times in questions to the Geonim..." (Studies of the Book Halachot Gedolot – text and editing). People who studied the book made corrections and added responsa by later Geonim. For this reason, it is not easy to determine what was in the original book that was written by Rav Shimon Kayyara.

Halachot Gedolot was first printed in Venice in 5308 (1548). This edition was the source used by Rabbi Avraham Shimon Troib (5573-5636, 1813-1876) to print Halachot Gedolot in Warsaw in 5635 (1875), adding his own comments and notes. During the years 5648-5652 (1888-1892), Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (5580-5659, 1820-1899) printed Halachot Gedolot based on a manuscript in the Vatican. This manuscript differs from the Venice edition. His grandson Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (5662-5758, 1901-1998) printed Halachot Gedolot in a critically analyzed set of three volumes in Jerusalem during the years 5732-5747 (1972-1987), based on a manuscript from Milan. This manuscript is similar to the Vatican manuscript that was published by his grandfather. However, no scientific edition of the book has yet been published that would include the many segments from various archives that we have. This might allow us to differentiate between the original book and the many additions that took place during the years.

A Dispute about the List of Mitzvot

In the beginning of Halachot Gedolot there is an introduction, although it is not definite that it is really connected to this book. The first part of the introduction is a long sermon praising the Torah. The second part is a listing of the mitzvot. First the negative mitzvot are given, followed by the positive mitzvot. There are 71 negative mitzvot listed, starting with the most severe and going on to the simplest ones. The first ones are those punished by the four types of execution in the Beit Din, and these are followed by sins punished by "Karet," and then death by the hands of G-d. This is followed by a list of 271 prohibitions for individuals. There are then 200 positive mitzvot for individuals and 65 mitzvot for the community. The total is 613 mitzvot. The Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvot was strongly opposed to this list by the Halachot Gedolot. In his dispute about the Rambam's list in Sefer Hamitzvot, the Ramban tried to defend the list of the Halachot Gedolot.


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