Bahya ben Asher
He is considered by Jewish scholars to be one of the most distinguished of the Biblical exegetes of Spain. He was a pupil of Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (the Rashba). Unlike the latter, R' Bahya did not publish a Talmud commentary. In his biblical exegesis, R' Bahya took as his model Rabbi Moses ben Nahman who is known as Nahmanides or Ramban, the teacher of Rabbi Solomon ben Adret, who was the first major commentator to make extensive use of the Kabbalah as a means of interpreting the Torah. He discharged with zeal the duties of a darshan ("preacher") in his native city of Zaragoza, sharing this position with several others, and on this account received a small salary, which was scarcely enough to support him and his family; but neither his struggle for daily bread nor the reverses that he suffered (to which he referred in the introduction to his commentary on the Torah) diminished his interest in Torah study in general, and in Biblical exegesis in particular.
His Torah commentary
Among R Bahya's principal works was his commentary on the Torah (the five books of Moses), in the preparation of which he thoroughly investigated the works of former Biblical exegetes, using all the methods employed by them in his interpretations.
He enumerates the following four methods, all of which in his opinion are indispensable to the exegete:
- The peshat, the "plain" meaning of the text in its own right.
- The midrash or the aggadic exegesis.
- Logical analysis and philosophical exegesis. His aim is to demonstrate that philosophical truths are already embodied in the Bible, which as a work of God transcends all the wisdom of man. He therefore recognizes the results of philosophical thought only insofar as they do not conflict with Jewish tradition.
- The method of the Kabbalah, termed by him "the path of light," which the truth-seeking soul must travel. It is by means of this method, Rabbeinu Behaye believes, that the deep mysteries hidden in the Bible may be revealed.
R' Bahya's commentary is considered to derive a particular charm from its form. Each parashah, or weekly lesson, is prefaced by an introduction preparing the reader for the fundamental ideas to be discussed; and this introduction bears a motto in the form of some verse selected from the Book of Mishlei / Proverbs. Furthermore, by the questions that are frequently raised the reader is compelled to take part in the author's mental processes; the danger of monotony being also thereby removed.
The commentary was first printed at Naples in 1492; and the favor which it enjoyed is attested by the numerous supercommentaries published on it. Owing to the large space devoted to the Kabbalah, the work was particularly valuable to Kabbalists, although Rabbi Bahya also availed himself of non-Jewish sources. Later editions of the commentary appeared at Pesaro, 1507, 1514, and 1517; Constantinople, 1517; Rimini, 1524; Venice, 1544, 1546, 1559, 1566, and later. Not less than ten super-commentaries are enumerated by Bernstein (Monatsschrift xviii. 194-196), which give further evidence of the popularity of the work.
His next most famous work was his Kad ha-Kemah ("Receptacle of the Flour") (Constantinople, 1515.) It consists of sixty chapters, alphabetically arranged, containing discourses and dissertations on the requirements of religion and morality, as well as Jewish ritual practices. Kad ha-Kemah is a work of Musar literature, the purpose of which is to promote a moral life. In it Bahye discusses the following subjects: belief and faith in God; the divine attributes and the nature of providence; the duty of loving God, and of walking before God in simplicity and humility of heart; the fear of God; Jewish prayer; benevolence, and the love of mankind; peace; the administration of justice, and the sacredness of the oath; the duty of respecting the property and honor of one's fellow man; the Jewish holidays, and halakha (loosely translated as "Jewish law".)
Another work of R Bahya, also published frequently, and in the first Mantua edition of 1514 erroneously ascribed to Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, Nahmanides, bears the title of Shulkhan Arba ("Table [of] Four"). It consists of four chapters, the first three of which contain religious rules of conduct regarding the various meals, while the fourth chapter treats of the banquet of the righteous in the world to come.
A work might have been written by Rabbi Bahye under the title of Hoshen ha-Mishpat ("Breastplate of Judgment".) Reference to this work is made only once by him, and it is unknown if this work was actually written or not.
Works incorrectly attributed to him
A number of works whose author is simply "Bahya", or whose authors are unknown, have been attributed to Rabbi Bahye ben Asher. Many modern day authorities on Rabbi Bahya's writings have shown that many of these attributions are spurious.
- Ha-Emunah ve-ha-Bittahon (Korets, 1785)
- Ma'arekhet ha-Elohut (Mantua, 1558)
- Ma'amar ha-Sekhel (Cremona, 1557)
One book ostensibly written by R' Bahya, edited by M. Homburg under the title of Soba Semakhot ("Fulness of Joy"), as being a commentary on the Book of Job, is actually a compilation made by a later editor from two of Bahye's actual works, Kad ha-Kemah (Constantinople, 1515) and Shulhan shel Arba (Mantua, 1514).
Rabbeinu Behaye's works possess especial value both for the student of Jewish literature, owing to the author's copious and extensive quotations from Midrashic and exegetical works which have since been lost, and for the student of modern languages on account of the frequent use of words from the vernacular (Arabic, Spanish, and French) in explanation of Biblical terms. They also contain interesting material for the study of the social life as well as for the history of the Kabalah, the demonology and eschatology of the Jews in Spain.