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Rabbi Nathan Ben Jehiel

Rabbi Nathan Ben Jehiel

(4790-4866; 1030-1106)

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(Author of the ARUCH)

Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel was born in Rome during a relatively quiet period. He belonged to one of the foremost Jewish families in Italy - the Anav family. His father, Rabbi Jehiel ben Abraham, was a great scholar, who headed the rabbinical college of the Italian capital, and who earned a name as author of teveral "Piyutim." In his early youth Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel was little inclined to follow in the footsteps of his learned father. After receiving initial instruction in Hebrew, he preferred the life of a businessman to that of a scholar. He left his father's house and traveled about as the assistant of a merchant of linen wares. The drudgery of this unpleasant trade soon convinced the young man that he should return to the tradition of scholarship which his ancestors had upheld for centuries. As soon as his employer died and he was freed of his apprenticeship, Nathan went back to Rome, and ruefully took up his education where he had left it. Due to his brilliant mental gifts, he was soon able to catch up with his two brothers, Rabbi Daniel ben Jehiel and Rabbi Abraham ben Jehiel, who were studying under the guidance of their father. But whereas his brothers were satisfied to stay in Rome, Rabbi Nathan went out into the world to study under the great scholars of his time.

His first stop was in Sicily. There Rabbi Matzliach ben al Bazak had just returned from a long course under the last of the great Gaonim of Pumbaditha, Rav Hay Gaon. Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel spent several years under the guidance of Rabbi Matzliach, who held the position of "Darshan" (Preacher) of Sicily, until he had completely mastered the methods and the interpretation of the Gaonim of Pumbaditha. (Many students of his great work, the "Aruch," amongst them Rabbenu Tam, believed firmly that he was a disciple of Rav Hay Gaon himself, so well had he taken over Rabbi Matzliach's teachings.)

From Sicily Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel crossed the Mediterranean to Kerwan in North Africa, where the two great scholars, Rabbi Hananel ben Hushiel and Rabbi Nissim ben Jacob Gaon, headed a famous Talmudical academy. A large portion of Rabbi Nathan's work was rightly attributed to the teachings and writings of these two scholars, especially Rabbenu Hananel. (It was the opinion of Rabbenu Tam and Rabbi Isaac ben Moshe, author of "Or Zaruah," that all statements in the "Aruch" which were not quoted in the name of any particular scholar, should be attributed to the authority of Rabbenu Hananel).

Later on, Rabbi Nathan was attracted to Narbonne in France, where Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan (The Preacher) was conducting a famous Talmudical academy. Rabbi Nathan spent several years at the feet of this great man who was a great authority on Biblical and post Biblical Hebrew literature. Rabbi Nathan paid him much credit in his "Aruch," as did also Rashi in his famous commentary.

At the age of about thirty-five, Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel decided to return home. But on his way through Italy he made good use of his brief visits at several Talmudical academies. He was especially impressed by the heads of two Italian Yeshivoth, Rabbi Moshe of Pavia and Rabbi Moshe Kalfo of Bari.

At last Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel arrived in Rome. He came several months before the death of his learned father. At his request the funeral of Rabbi Jehiel was conducted in the manner of simple rites prescribed by our Sages. This was an innovation in Italy, where it had become the custom of the Jewish nobility to arrange highly ceremonious funerals, and served to make Rabbi Nathan a famous man among the scholars of the land. Together with his older brother Rabbi Daniel, and his younger brother Rabbi Abraham, he took over the direction of the Talmudical Academy of Rome, which attracted many students. Inquiries from many countries were directed to the "Three Gaonim of the House of Jehiel." Rabbi Daniel, who was respected by the many Christian scholars of Rome and who was consulted by the Vatican on several occasions, was the author of a commentary on the Mishnah; Rabbi Abraham was an expert in Halachah. Thus the three brothers brought the standards of Jewish scholarship in Italy to a height which it hardly ever reached afterwards. Even their famous younger contemporary Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, Rashi, turned to them for their opinion in matters of Jewish law.

Unfortunately Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel suffered much sorrow in his private life. His wife bore him five sons; but as soon as they reached the age when they promised to follow in the footsteps of their illustrious ancestors, they died of some strange sickness. Only the last one, named Reuben, survived. Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel found solace in unceasing research and in much philanthropic activity. He reorganized a great deal of Rome's Jewish community life. He instituted welfare organizations, loan associations, sick benefits and hostels for the poor. At his energetic instigation a new "Mikvah Kesherah," was built and opened in the year 1085. Seventeen years later he and his brothers consecrated a beautiful new Synagogue in Rome, which was considered among the outstanding Jewish buildings in Italy.

This Shul was dedicated in September of 1101. Several months before, in February 1101 or Kislev of the year 4861, Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel finished his monumental work, the "Aruch," after approximately thirty-five years of work. The "Aruch" is an encyclopedic dictionary that covers the entire Post-Biblical literature of the Talmud, the Midrashim and various Targumim. Long before anything like a lexicograph science developed, Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel wrote his all-embracing work which-for many centuries set the standards for the most rigorous lexicographers. In it he explains, every expression used in the Hebraic and Aramaic writings of the great Jewish scholars after the conclusion of the holy Bible. He often quotes the numerous commentators of the Babylonian, African and French schools before him. He draws heavily on Rav Hay Gaon's notes, especially his commentary on Seder Taharoth. He constantly quotes his teachers and their respective teachers, Rabbi Gershon of Mayence, Rabbi Hananel, Rabbi Mazliach, Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan, his father Rabbi Jehiel, and many others with whom he came in contact. He also made some use of the "Aruch" of Rabbi Zemach ben Paltoi published some time before his, but by far less complete and comprehensive. Thanks to the "Aruch" of Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel many quotations and passages from earlier literature have been preserved, though the originals were lost. Because Rabbi Nathan was a great linguist, he was able to explain many difficult words which would have otherwise remained a mystery to us. In addition to Hebrew and Aramaic, Rabbi Nathan knew also Arabic, Persian, Greek, Latin, French and, of course, his native Italian. He also was a proficient student of medicine, astronomy, mathematics and geometry, and was therefore able to solve the problem of the most difficult words and passages of the Talmud, Midrashim, etc.

As soon as the "Aruch" was completed, it won general approval and popularity. It became an indispensable reference book for scholars of Jewish learning to the present day.

The "Aruch" was brought to Rashi's attention by an illustrious scholar from Rome: Kalonymus ben Shabathai, the father of the great family of Kalonymus, who migrated to Worms. Rashi, who conducted his famous Yeshivah in Worms, was so impressed by the "Aruch" that he used it extensively for the second edition of his commentary.

The "Aruch" was one of the first Hebrew books to be printed. The first known edition of the "Aruch" was printed in 1477.

The "Aruch" is the only great literary work of Italian scholarship which can measure up to the writings of the Spanish French and German Talmudists. Through it Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel earned a prominent place among the "Gallery of Our Great."

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