Rabbi Yiḥya Ṣāleḥ (alternative spellings: Yichyah Tzalach; Yehiya Saleh) and who is also known by the acronym of Maharitz (Heb. מהרי"ץ) = Moreinu HaRav Yichyah Tzalach (1713 – 1805), was no doubt the greatest exponent of Jewish law known to Yemen. He is to be remembered mostly for his ardent work for the preservation of Yemenite Jewish customs and traditions, which he articulated so well in his many writings. In this regard, he was strongly influenced by the Rabbis of his previous generation, Rabbi Yehudah Sa'adi and Rabbi Yihya al-Bashiri. Initially, Rabbi Yiḥya Ṣāleḥ worked as a blacksmith until the age of thirty, after which he worked as a scrivener of sacred texts (Heb. "sofer").
Life & Works
Yiḥya was born in the lunar month of Cheshvan, in the year 5474 anno mundi, a year corresponding to 1713 CE, to Joseph b. Ṣāliḥ. Ṣāliḥ, his grandfather (d. 1749), was a survivor of the infamous Mawza Exile, and the founder of the Saleh synagogue in Sana'a, and one of the city's judges and ritual slaughterers (Heb. shochet).
Rabbi Yiḥya Ṣāleḥ was contemporary with Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai, a great rabbinic teacher and scholar, with whom he exchanged responsum while the latter lived in Egypt. Rabbi Yiḥye Ṣāleḥ (henceforth: Maharitz) is the author of the Questions and Responsa, Pe'ūlath Ṣadīq and has also written a brief but comprehensive commentary on the Yemenite Baladi-rite Prayer Book, entitled ‘Eṣ Ḥayyim in which appears the responsum addressed to him from Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai. Maharitz also compiled a work on Bible orthography (Hebrew vowels and trope symbols used in biblical texts) known as Ḥeleq Hadiqdūq, among other writings (see: infra).
Although Maharitz served as chief judge (Av Beit-Din) and President of the rabbinic court at Ṣanʻā’, for most of his life, he worked under the shadow of his co-religionist, Shalom Cohen al-Iraqi (al-Ousta), who had attained high acclaim and eminence by virtue of his role as comptroller of the customs and of the royal buildings and gardens; one of the most honorable offices in the king's court at Sana'a.
Little is known about Maharitz's father, Yosef Ṣāleḥ, except that he studied under his wife's father, Rabbi David Qafih. Rabbi Suleiman, Maharitz's brother, is known to have compiled a work on the laws governing the Passover preparation, known as Zevaḥ Pesaḥ. Maharitz's family is reported to have traced their lineage back to Oved, one of the progeny of Peretz, the son of Judah.
Maharitz was gifted at an early age with a good memory and quickly developed his learning skills. As a young man, he learnt under his grandfather, Ṣāleḥ Ṣāleḥ, and at one point served under the great rabbinic teacher and scholar of his day, Rabbi David Mishreqi (d. 1771), who is the author of the commentary, "Shtilei Zeitim," on the Shulhan Arukh. His influence over the young Maharitz must have been astounding, for Maharitz mentions him in his Questions & Responsa:
- "…This practice [of not shaving one's head during the first thirty-three days of the counting of the 'Omer] has spread in several places. But in this, our place, the land of Yemen, they did not have this practice, while it has only been recent (approximately forty years) that a certain wise man from the isles of the sea did come forth, and while he was passing through our city, he did compel the public to practise the same from the argument that it is a prohibition [rather than a custom], and actually forbade them against their will! And, lo! The great Rabbi, Rabbi David Ben-Zimra, and Rabbi Menahem Lunzano, wrote that several communities shave their heads each Sabbath eve (Friday) out of respect for the Sabbath…
- …It has now been about twelve years since we re-enacted this practice of shaving one's head [during the counting of the `Omer], that is, a few of the more zealous ones amongst us, in accordance with the instruction of our teacher and Rabbi, even the honorable teacher and Rabbi, David Mishreqi, whose inheritance is in the Garden of Eden, who was the most able Rabbi of the city, and who did practice the same, by himself, and so did I practice the same, and many others with me. Now the proper rule of conduct is thus, to be inclined after the Rabbi of one's generation, as it is written: 'and unto the judge' (Deut. 17:9), even if it were a thing which stood contrary to the first custom, the Law has given him authority to decide in such matters as his eyes shall see fit, in order to put the matter in question in its rightful place, and by his mouth shall they encamp, and by his mouth shall they journey, just as RASHDAM (R. Shemuel Di Medina) has written, in Yoreh De'ah, Section 40."
Rabbi Yiḥya Ṣāleḥ (Maharitz) seemed to have kept a low profile during the persecutions which affected the Jewish community of Sana'a in 1761, at which time twelve of the city's fourteen synagogues were demolished by order of the king, Al-Mahdi Abbas. The reason for the king's displeasure is not presently known, but the community's respected leader who was entrusted with the role of mediating between the king and the people, Rabbi Salem Cohen al-Iraqi (known also by the title of Nasi, or Prince), and who had served under two kings from 1733 to 1761, was imprisoned and held in bonds until he could pay a high ransom for his release. At the same time, writs then issuing from the king forbade Jews in the city from building their houses higher than fourteen cubits.
Halacha - Jewish legal law
Maharitz at first decided Halacha according to the position of the Shulchan Aruch, but later changed his approach in order to uphold Yemenite Jewish traditions and which were more aligned with the Halachic rulings of Maimonides (Rambam). In this decision, he was influenced by Rabbi Yehudah al-Ṣa'adi and Rabbi Pinḥas Iraqi HaKohen, men of the previous generation who fought to maintain and to preserve the old Yemenite Jewish prayer rite amidst trends to change over to the Spanish-rite. Concerning this troublesome time, Amram Qorah writes:
- "Then were those Rabbis awakened who had always prayed in the Baladi-rite (Tiklāl), the head of whom was Rabbi Yehudah b. Shelomo al-Ṣa'adi, and the Judge, Rabbi Pinḥas b. Shelomo HaKohen al-Iraqi, of blessed memory, and they wrote proclamations in the form of rabbinic decrees saying that it is forbidden to change the customs of one's fathers which were established according to the words of the Geonim of old, and [according to] the 'Composition' left to us by Maimonides who came after them."
Rabbi Yiḥya Saleh wrote an extensive commentary on the old Yemenite Jewish Prayer Book in which he mostly upholds the old practices described therein (e.g. the practice of saying only one Mussaf-prayer during Rosh Hashanah, etc.), although he also compromises by introducing elements in the Yemenite prayer book taken from the books of the kabbalists and the Shulchan Aruch. He is often seen praising the old Yemenite customs and encouraging their upkeep:
... I have also with me a responsum concerning the matter of changing our prayer custom, which is in the Tikālil (Baladi-rite Prayer Books) for the version found in the Spanish-rite Prayer Books, from the Rabbi, [even] our teacher, Rabbi Pinḥas Ha-Kohen Iraqi, ... and he has been most vociferous in his language against those who would change [their custom], with reproofs and [harsh] decrees in a language that isn't very cajoling. May his soul be laid up in paradise....
Still, Maharitz's endorsement of certain Halachic rulings found in the Shulchan Aruch was the cause for some Yemenite Jewish prayer-rites being cancelled altogether, and for other extraneous customs introduced by the kabbalists being added thereto. For a broader discussion on this subject, see Baladi-rite Prayer.
Death and Legacy
Maharitz died on Saturday, the 28th day of the lunar month Nisan, 5565 anno mundi (1805 CE), in Ṣanʻā’, Yemen, and was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Abraham, in the post of chief judge (Av Beit-Din) and President of the court.
Among his books were:
- Pe'ūlath Ṣadiq (Questions & Responsa)
- ‘Eṣ Ḥayyim (Commentary on the tiklal (Yemenite Baladi-rite Siddur)
- Ḥeleq Hadiqduq (Orthography of biblical texts)
- Me'il Qaṭan (Commentary on a work written by Rabbi Yeshayahu Halevi Horowitz)
- Sha'arei Ṭaharah (laws of Niddah = the Menstruate Woman), in Arabic)
- Zevaḥ Todah (Concerning the laws of Ritual Slaughter, known as shechitah)
- Sha'arei Qedushah (A condensed work on Ritual Slaughter and the laws governing defects in the animal)
- Oraḥ LaḤayyim (Commentary on the Five Megillot).
- Virtual library at Maharitz.co.il including many of the Maharitz's books
- , Sa'arath Teiman, pp. 19-24
- Yitzhak Wana, Rekhev Elohim (ed. Yitzhak Ratzaby), Benei Barak 1992, p. 13, note 1
- The responsum appears in Tiklal ‘Eṣ Ḥayyim Hashalem, Shimon Tzalach (ed.), vol. 1, pp. 192a-192b, Jerusalem 1971, an excerpt of which reads as follows: "Now I, the younger, sent unto the Rabbis of Egypt (may God protect them), a query concerning those who practice concluding [the Amidah], both, in Hashkiveinu and in the benediction, Yir'ou 'Eineinu, etc., [with a blessing that employs God's name], and I reprimanded [them] over this matter, telling them that they tend to make innovations in the ancient custom of our forefathers which was not to conclude [there with a blessing that employs God's name], just as it is presented [here] before you. And that reply which came from them (their Preserver is uplifted and high) was this: 'Our eyes have seen what your Excellency, the glory of the divine Law, has asked concerning the custom which a few communities practise, [even] new things [which have come] of late, to conclude with the benediction Hashkiveinu. And afterwards, they [once again] conclude [with a blessing employing God's name] in the verses, Yir'ou 'Eineinu, [etc.] …We searched the matter in the books of the righteous that are found with us, [both] former and latter, and what we were able to find [was this]: Surely the custom [in] the land of the gazelle (i.e. the land of Israel), and [in] all the cities of Turkey is that they do not say [anything], except the benediction of Hashkiveinu and its concluding [blessing]. Yet, no more [will they say]. It is the correct [version], indeed, whether [in those versions which are] revealed or hidden. Nevertheless, those who practice saying, Yir'ou 'Eineinu, etc., the proper order in this is to say exactly as it is now practiced anew, for this third blessing was enacted in the days of the Geonim… Now may the peace of the Rabbi be multiplied, as the soul of those who are signed [in this letter], here, in Egypt. Chaim Joseph David Azulai (mire and clay ), Chaim Abraham Turnaga (mire and clay)'."
- Amram Qorah, Sa'arath Teiman, pp. 19-23; 173, Jerusalem 1988.
- Carsten Niebuhr, Niebuhr's Travels through Arabia and other Countries in the East, vol. 1, Edinburgh 1792, p. 408
- Tiklal ‘Eṣ Ḥayyim Hashalem, Shimon Tzalach (ed.), vol. 1, p. 73b, Jerusalem 1971
- Printed in Siddur Shivat Zion, ed. Yosef Qafih, Jerusalem 1952
- Yosef Ṣadok, "Sefer Wehaṣdīqu eth haṣaddīq," p. 26, Bnei Brak 2010.
- Questions & Responsa "Pe'ulath Ṣadiq," vol. 2, responsum # 76.
- Carsten Niebuhr, Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegenden Ländern (Description of Travel to Arabia and Other Neighboring Countries), Zürich 1992, pp. 416-418 (German)
- Amram Qorah, Sa'arath Teiman, pp. 17-18, Jerusalem 1988.
- The Yemenite custom of praying only one Mussaf-prayer during the Jewish New Year, rather than making first a silent prayer followed by a repetition of the prayer made aloud by the Shaliach Tzibbur, is described by Rabbi Yiḥya Saleh (Maharitz) in his Tiklāl Etz Ḥayim, facsimile edition, published by Karwani Yaakov of Rosh Ha-Ayin, Vol. II, on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, s.v. תפלת מוסף, and which Yemenite practice is similar to a teaching brought down in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 36a – 36b). Maharitz makes use of harsh expletives while writing about the preservation of the original Yemenite Jewish practice: “…'Moreover, it can be stated that the benedictions [made in our prayers] on New Year's day and on the Day of Atonement are different, for [on these days] the emissary of the congregation who leads them in prayer fulfills everyone's obligation.' Wherefore, it was thought by Rabbi Yonah that even if someone had turned his heart to other things while in the midst of [saying] a benediction, the emissary of the congregation [still] fulfills his obligation. Yet in the other blessings he does not [fulfill his obligation]. So has it been stated under this man's name. For our purpose, I have copied down all of his words where a lesson was to be learned by such words of an exemplary nature as far as several halachic practices were concerned. And in the Tiklāl that our teacher wrote, even the Rabbi, Yiḥya al-Bashiri of blessed memory, it is written in the Arabian tongue, of which this is its content: 'Let it be known that, throughout the entire course of the year, men ought to pray silently. After which, the emissary of the congregation prays with a loud voice in order to fulfill the obligation of those who do not know [the prayer themselves]. However, during the Mussaf prayer on the New Year's Day the custom is not to begin by praying silently, but rather the emissary of the congregation begins praying aloud and he fulfills the obligation of, both, those who know the benedictions in their entirety and those who do not know them. The reason for this being that the benedictions are long [during these days of the year] and not everyone is familiar with them as is the emissary of the congregation. Yet during the other days of the year, the emissary of the congregation does not fulfill the obligation [of any], except only of that person who knows not [the benedictions].' You have, herewith, been shown [the matter] so that you might know just how many great multitudes of men confirm our customs, even the custom of our ancient most forebears [as it has been passed down unto us] nearly since the days of the destruction, as it is generally held and accepted by us, [which is to say], the traditions of our forefathers. So who is it that after considering these mighty kings (who all agree with common consent, and all walk with perfect persuasion of the affirmative [saying] that there must be only one [Mussaf] prayer), will yet incline his thoughts, as it were, to contradict their practice? Certainly he ought to be apprehensive and wary lest they [come and] crush his skull…. Hear my son the instruction of thy father, and do not thou forsake the law of thy mother. Be attentive to this and note it.” END QUOTE
- Yiḥyā Saleh, Tiklal 'Eṣ Ḥayim Hashalem (ed. Shimon Tzalach), Introduction, Jerusalem 1971 (Hebrew)
- , D'var Mordechai: Eulogies p. 67; Arichat Shulchan p. 6
- Amram Qorah, "Sa'arath Teiman," p. 23, Jerusalem 1988.