Rabbeinu Shmuel bar Hofni HaKohen was one of the very last Geonim of the famous Yeshiva of Sura in Babylon. He was born in the year 4729 (969), and was the son of the Gaon Mar Rav Kohen Tzedek, who was the chief rabbi of Fez in North Africa. Rav Shmuel bar Hofni later became the father-in-law of the celebrated Rav Hai Gaon of Pumbeditha.
For a time Rav Shmuel bar Hofni headed the Yeshiva in Mosso Mechasia, near Sura. In Sura itself the Yeshiva had closed down after the death of Rav Saadia Gaon in 942. The great Yeshiva of Pumbeditha continued to flourish under the leadership of the celebrated Rav Hai Gaon, the son of the equally famous Rav Sherira Gaon. Rav Shmuel bar Hofni decided to reestablish the great Yeshiva at Sura, and under his leadership it began to flourish once again.
Rav Shmuel bar Hofni was recognized as one of the great Talmud authorities of his time. Like his more famous predecessor, Rav Saadia Gaon, Rav Shmuel combined Talmudic scholarship with proficiency in other fields, such as Jewish philosophy, interpretation of T'NaCh, and other areas directly and indirectly relating to the Torah and its application in the daily life.
Although it was not easy for the newly reestablished Yeshiva at Sura to compete with the Yeshiva of Pumbeditha (only about 100 miles distant), Rav Shmuel succeeded in gaining considerable recognition. Inquiries as to Halachah and clarification of difficult Talmudic passages were addressed to him as well as to the Yeshiva in Pumbeditha, from Jewish communities in various parts of the world. He, too, maintained contact with the growing centers of Talmudic learning in North Africa, particularly Kairuwan. On their part, the Jewish communities in various parts of the world recognized the two great Babylonian Yeshivoth and their heads, the Geonim, as the supreme Torah authorities. Distant as well as near Jewish communities considered it their duty and privilege to contribute funds toward the support of these Yeshivoth. Their support was all the more important in view of the fact that the economic position of Babylonian Jewry was getting steadily worse.
Rabbeinu Shmuel bar Hofni wrote many works and essays on the Talmud and on Talmudic law. Most of his works, however, were lost in the course of time. Unfortunate as it is, it is not surprising. For in those days, when there was no printing press, works had to be copied by hand. This was a tedious and expensive task which very few could afford. Moreover, Rav Shmuel bar Hofni had written most of his works in Arabic, which was the language most widely used by Jews under the vast Arab empire. In Jewish communities outside the Arab sphere, such works could be useful only if they were first translated into Hebrew. Indeed, it is in their Hebrew translations that many important works of such great luminaries as Saadia Gaon, Bahya ibn Pakuda, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and the Rambam were preserved. Rav Shmuel bar Hofni's works were not so fortunate, and as a result only fragments of his works have come down to us.
One of his major works was an "Introduction to the Talmud," which contained 150 chapters. It was written in Arabic, and, except for a few fragments, it is no longer in existence. It is thought that this Introduction may have served as a basis for the well-known Mevo haTalmud ("Introduction to the Talmud") written a century later by another great "Shmuel", Shmuel haNagid, or Samuel ibn Nagrela. Incidentally, the latter, too, has come down to us only in part.
In those days, when the Talmud was practically the only source of reference for the various laws practiced in the daily life (systematic codes, and, eventually, the Shulchan Aruch, came much later), Rabbeinu Shmuel bar Hofni saw the need for compiling handy references for the various laws scattered throughout the Talmud. And so he wrote many essays on various individual laws, such as Tzitzis, Shechitah, laws of partnership and commercial transactions, and others. But, as already mentioned, these works were lost; some of them are known to us only by their titles, while only fragments remained of others.
The best preserved work of Rav Shmuel bar Hofni is his Shaarei Berochos ("Gates, i.e. chapters, on Benedictions"). It deals with the laws concerning the blessings which we make over various foods, as well as before performing certain Mitzvos. In the second chapter of this work, the author classifies all the blessings into seven groups: blessings relating to our senses (food, drink, smell, sight, hearing), blessings over the performance of Mitzvos, and others.
In addition to the above mentioned works on Halachah (law) Rav Shmuel bar Hofni also wrote a commentary, in Arabic, on the Five Books of the Torah, as well as on certain books of the Prophets. In his commentary he gives the simple meaning of the text as well as their deeper thoughts and insights.
Rav Shmuel bar Hofni died in the year 4794 (1034) and was laid to rest in Mosso Mechasia. For a time his son Israel succeeded him as Gaon of Sura, but the glorious days of Sura were no more. Four years later, his son-in-law, the famed Rav Hai Gaon, also died, and the great Yeshiva of Pumbeditha, like its sister Yeshiva, was also on the verge of dissolution. Here, too, the students tried to maintain the Yeshiva under the leadership of the Resh Galuta, Rav Chizkiah. But these efforts were thwarted when Rav Chizkiah was falsely accused of high treason two years later and executed by the Caliph.
Thus came to an end both great Talmudic academies of Babylon, Sura and Pumbeditha, where the Talmud Bavli had been forged, developed and finally recorded and expounded over a period of some 450 years. Fortunately, Divine Providence had seen to it that before the sun set over these great centers of learning, the sun of new centers of learning began to rise brightly. In North Africa, Spain, France and Germany, new luminaries arose, who continued to forge the golden chain of Tradition. The study of the Torah continued to flourish without a break, in fulfillment of the Divine promise that the Torah shall never be forgotten.