Sefer ha-She'iltot

The first halakhic code.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with the author's permission from Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles (Jewish Publication Society).

Commencing with the eighth century C.E., the considerable halakhic literature of the geonic era that is extant reveals ever-increasing activity in regard to codification of the halakhah. The codificatory literature of this period took several forms, but the feature common to them all is that they are books of halakhot, i.e., their declared aim is to present the halakhic conclusion and final ruling after a concise discussion of the underlying talmudic and post-talmudic sources.

The first such book of known authorship written after the completion of the Talmud is Sefer ha-She'iltot by Aha from the town of Shabha near Basra in Babylonia, who lived in the first half of the eighth century C.E. Aha was not officially designated as gaon. As Sherira Gaon relates, Aha was a candidate for the office of gaon in the academy of Pumbedita, but Exilarch Solomon b. Hasdai appointed Natronoi Kahana, who was a student of Aha, whereupon Aha settled in the Land of Israel, where he resided until he died.

Nature and Purpose of Sefer ha-She'iltot

Scholars have extensively considered the nature and purpose of Sefer ha-She'iltot. The most likely hypothesis is that it is essentially a collection of sermons. It is in the same style and form as the sermons that the leading Sages, as early as in the talmudic era, would deliver on sabbaths and various other occasions. However, Assaf wrote, "it is more halakhic than aggadic; its codificatory motive is quite prominent and it very soon came to be used and relied upon to provide the answers to practical legal questions."

Aggadic Form, Halakhic Content

Sefer ha-She'iltot is unique in its literary form. It is not arranged either by subject or in the order of the talmudic tractates, but rather, like midrashic literature, follows the sequence of the Torah. Each she'ilta (singular of she'iltot -- the origin of the term is explained below) discusses a particular halakhic subject that is conjoined to the biblical passage directly relevant or otherwise appropriate to it. Interestingly, in the case of some of the she'iltot, the passage to which the she'ilta is linked does not contain the halakhic source on the particular subject, but merely refers to the subject in the course of a narrative.

For example, the laws of robbery and theft in Sefer ha-She'iltot are not linked to the verses that are their halakhic source, but to the passage relating the story of Noah and the Flood, where it is said: "The earth is filled with hamas [lawlessness, violence, or oppression, connoting lack of respect for property] because of them; I am about to destroy them with the earth." Thus, she'ilta 4, to the biblical portion of Noah, begins:

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Menachem Elon

Justice Menachem Elon has had a long and distinguished career as a legal scholar. He is a retired professor of Jewish Law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a prolific author on Jewish Law. In 1977 Justice Elon was appointed to the Supreme Court of Israel and served as its Deputy President from 1988 until 1993. He lives in Jerusalem.