Yiḥyah Qafiḥ

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Rabbi Yihya Qafih

Yiḥyah Qafiḥ (Hebrew: רבי יחיא בן שלמה קאפח also Yiḥyah ibn Shalomo el Qafiḥ) (1850–1931),[1] known also by the affectionate name "Ha-Yashish" (English: "the Elder"), served as the Chief Rabbi of Sana'a, Yemen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unto Rabbi Yiḥya Qafiḥ is attributed the statement: “By trying to satisfy everyone's opinion, sometimes you do not fulfill the obligations of any!”[2]


He studied under Rabbi Yiḥya b. Yosef al-Qāreh, and received his ritual-slaughtering license from him in 1870. Although Rabbi Yihya Qafih served for only one year (1899–1900) as the Chief Rabbi of Yemen (Turk. Ḥakham Bāshī), he was a permanent member of the rabbinic court in Sana'a until his death, serving with the Chief Jurist and Rabbi, Yihya Yitzhak Halevi (d. 1932), whose signatures appear together in many of the court documents and responsa issued in the first quarter of the 20th century.[3] In the late 19th century, he was the host to the Austrian Arabist and archeologist, Eduard Glaser,[4] who conducted research in Yemen, and at the turn of the 20th century, he carried on a written correspondence with the Chief Rabbi of Ottoman Palestine in Jaffa, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kohen Kook.[5]

Rabbi Qafiḥ had served as one of the chief instructors in the city's largest seat of learning (yeshiva), held then in the synagogue known as Bayt Saleḥ, until a famine in 1905, resulting from a war with the Ottoman Turks, forced the closure of the yeshiva. After being incarcerated twice[6] by Muslim authorities in 1914, being released only in Adar of 1915, Rabbi Qafiḥ regretted his earlier reticence in not speaking out against certain ills of the community.[6] He began to be more vociferous about the people's neglect of Halacha for more mystical matters. It was around this time that he founded the Dor Deʻah movement in Orthodox Judaism, to counter the influence of Lurianic Kabbalah and restore the rational approach to Judaism, such as is represented by the thought of Maimonides and Sa'adiah Gaon, and to encourage strict adherence to the Halakha as formulated in the Mishneh Torah.

Rabbi Yiḥyah Qafiḥ was known to have "spent huge sums in order to recover manuscripts, even fragments of manuscripts of his [Maimonides'] works."[7]


The work for which Rabbi Qafiḥ is most well known is Milḥamot HaShem (Wars of the Lord, which takes the same name as earlier books). In it he argues that the Zohar is not authentic and that attributing its authorship to the Tannaitic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is to besmirch him. Milḥamot HaShem maintains that the theology of Lurianic Kabbalah promotes the worship of Zeir Anpin (the supposed creative demiurge of God) and the Sephirot and, in doing so, is entirely idolatrous and irreconcilable with the historically pure monotheism of Judaism. This stance met with much opposition, and led the Rabbi to become engaged in a respectful correspondence with Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, who was known for his emphasis on mysticism).[8] Rabbi Qafiḥ sent a copy of Milḥamot HaShem to Jerusalem in hopes of expediting its printing there, so that in the event additional objections would be raised he would have the opportunity to respond while still alive, but delays and a prolonged printing process resulted in his death soon after its printing and editing.[9] Some contemporary Rabbis of the Haredi camp, such as Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, have echoed condemnation of Rabbi Qafiḥ's work as heretical.[10] Others, such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, have expressed disagreement with Rabbi Yihyah Qafih's work but maintained that such views are not heretical.[11] Others yet, such as Rabbis Eliyahu Dessler and Gedaliah Nadel, maintain that it is acceptable to believe that the Zohar was not written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and that it had a late authorship.[12]

Rabbi Qafiḥ identified a strong superstitious influence in Yemen which he saw as contrary to Orthodox Judaism. For example, his grandson Rabbi Yosef Qafih related one of many Yemenite customs for "חינוך הבית" whereby they would bake plain bread without salt and prepare "the table of appeasement."[13] Inviting more than 10 children aged seven or eight who waited outside, they set the table, scattering thin-ash upon it; crumbled the plain bread into bits, placing them upon the table holding the ashes; and exited the kitchen stating, to the demons (Hebrew: שדים), "this is your portion."[14] Shortly thereafter they would abruptly open its doors, whereupon the children bursted in, grabbing the saltless pieces and eating them. Rabbi Yiḥyah Qafiḥ sharply opposed these minhagim being of the opinion that, in addition to the stupidity of the matter,[15] they are Biblically forbidden because of darkhei haEmori.[16]


Rabbi Yiḥyah Qafiḥ's grandson, Rabbi Yosef Qafiḥ, succeeded his grandfather in Yemen, and later in Israel, to become one of the foremost leaders of the Yemenite community. He published corrected and translated versions of texts (see his published works), including all of Maimonides’ Jewish[17] works based on centuries-old manuscripts rescued and preserved by his grandfather.

Further reading[edit]

  • Galei Or - Historical Chapters, by Shalom b. Hayim 'Uzayri, Tel-Aviv 1974 (Hebrew)


  1. ^ The exact date of death, according to Professor Aharon Gaimani, was the 11th day of the lunar month Kisleu, 5692 anno mundi, or what was equivalent to 2 November 1931 (see: Tehudah – vol. 30 (ed. Yosef Tobi), Natanya 2014, p. 83, note 1).
  2. ^ Written by Rabbi Yiḥya al-Qafiḥ, and co-signed by six others, in a responsum put out by the Court (Beit-Din) at Sana'a, and published in the book, Tzohar Le-ḥasifath Ginzei Teiman, by Yehudah Levi Nahum, Tel-Aviv 1986, p. 273 (Hebrew)
  3. ^ Tehudah - volume 30, (ed. Yosef Tobi), Netanya 2014, pp. 48–54 (Hebrew)
  4. ^ The following testimony is brought down by Rabbi Yōsef Qāfiḥ (Ketavim - Collected Papers, vol. 2, Jerusalem 1989, p. 861): "The city of Ṣan‘ā’ is built at the foothill of the mountain, Jabal Nuqūm, on its west side. On the top of this lofty mountain are the ruins of a not-so-large, fortified city which bore the name of Barāš, and which tradition avers used to be a Jewish city. When I visited there in 1937, I found a few remains of large stone walls still standing upon their ruin, as well as two ritual baths that had been carved out of the rock, and also the ruins of a synagogue with the compartment that once served as the Ark (Hekhāl). The walls were made of large stones, roughly eighty cm. and higher. I did not find there engraved stones with images or with writing. However, my grandfather (Rabbi Yihya Qafih) told me that when the well-known Jewish researcher, Eduard Glaser, visited Ṣan‘ā’ in 1882, and who visited also the same area, he informed him that there were Jewish inscriptions there from the year 900 of the Seleucid Era. That is to say that in anno mundi 4349 (589 CE) Jews were already living in the town of Barāš."
  5. ^ Shmuel Yavne'eli, Masa Le'Teman, Tel-Aviv 1952, pp. 187–188; 196–199 (Hebrew); Shalom ben Yiḥya Qoraḥ, Iggeret Bokhim, Beth Shemesh 1963, p. 18 (Hebrew). One of Rabbi Qafih's students who would later rise to prominence in Israel, Member of Israeli Parliament Yisrael Yeshayahu, published exchanges of correspondence between Rabbi Qafih and Rabbi Kook in his book, Shavut Teyman, Tel-Aviv 1945, pp. 212–222 (Hebrew)
  6. ^ a b Shalom ben Yiḥya Qoraḥ, Iggeret Bokhim, Beth Shemesh 1963, p. 17 (Hebrew)
  7. ^ Rabbi Yosef Kafach - A Life Fulfilled by Matis Greenblatt
  8. ^ Tohar Hayiḥud - The Oneness of G-d in its Purity p. 40.
  9. ^ Shalom ben Yiḥya Qoraḥ, Iggeret Bokhim, Beth Shemesh 1963, p. 18 (Hebrew)
  10. ^ Tshuvos Derech Emunah , p. 30.
  11. ^ שאלות ותשובות מעין אומר חלק א, chapter 7, siman צג.
  12. ^ An Analysis of the Authenticity of the Zohar (2005), p. 39, with "Rav E" and "Rav G" later identified by the author as Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler and Rabbi Gedaliah Nadel, respectively (Rabbi Dr. Marc Shapiro in Milin Havivin Volume 5 [2011], Is there an obligation to believe that Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai wrote the Zohar?, p. יב [PDF page 133]):
    "I approached Rav A [Aryeh Carmell] with some of the questions on the Zohar, and he responded to me - 'and what about nikud? Nikud is also mentioned in the Zohar despite the fact that it [is] from Geonic times!' he said. I later found this comment in the Mitpachas Seforim. I would just add that not only is nikud mentioned, but only the Tiberian Nikkud - the norm in Europe of the middle ages - is mentioned and not the Yerushalmi nikud or the Babylonian one — which was used then in the Middle East, and is still used by Yemenites today. Also the Taamay Hamikrah - the trop - are referred to in the Zohar - only by their Sefardi Names. Rav A told me a remarkable piece of testimony: 'My rebbe (this is how he generally refers to Rav E [Elijah Dessler]) accepted the possibility that the Zohar was written sometime in the 13th century.'"
    "Rav G [Gedaliah Nadel] told me that he was still unsure as to the origin and status of the Zohar, but told me it was my absolute right to draw any conclusions I saw fit regarding both the Zohar and the Ari."
  13. ^ Yemenite-Arabic: מַידַת אַלנִיִיֵה. (Hebrew: שולחן הריצוי.) Compare Isaiah 65:11.
  14. ^ Yemenite-Arabic: הַדֵ'א קַסמַכֻם. (Hebrew: זה חלקכם.)
  15. ^ Hebrew original: שלדעתו נוסף לטיפשות שבדבר
  16. ^ Halikhoth Teiman (1963), p. 202. See also Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, Chapter 46, footnote 22 in Rabbi Kapach's edition.
  17. ^ As opposed to, e.g., medical.

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