Sefer ha-She'iltot

The first halakhic code.

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It is by reason of the Aramaic formula introducing the fourth part -- u-Ie-inyan she'ilta di-sha'ilna -- that the book is called Sefer ha-She'iltot. As it has reached us, most she'iltot are lacking various parts, mainly the "discourse. "

Relation to Subsequent Codes

From this brief description of Sefer ha-She'iltot, its characteristic feature is clear: halakhah and aggadah are employed together in the style of the ancient discourses, with a view to determining halakhic conclusions. A comparison with the usual forms of codificatory literature raises the question as to whether this book should really be classified in that category.

However, there are two reasons why Sefer ha-She'iltot must be considered before discussing the books of halakhot produced in the geonic period. First, Sefer ha-She'iltot brings together in one place a substantial number of problems and laws in various halakhic areas, and one of its purposes is to set forth correctly the controlling law and make clear the reason for the legal conclusion. Second, Sefer ha-She'iltot served as an important and highly authoritative source for a series of classic books of halakhot written subsequently, as indicated by the following statement of Abraham ibn Daud in his Sefer ha-Kabbalah:

"After R. Samuel bar Mari there was a great scholar [by the name of] R. Aha of Shabha, who composed his She'iltot on all the commandments specified in the Torah. This book, which has survived to this day, was examined and scrutinized by all who lived after him; we have heard that to this day not a single error has been detected in it."

Genesis of Sefer ha-She'iltot

A tradition regarding the composition of Sefer ha-She'iltot reported by Menahem Meiri has evoked considerable wonder and speculation among scholars. In Bet ha-Behirah, Meiri wrote:

"We have a clear tradition about R. Aha, of blessed memory, that he had a son who was not at all inclined to study. He therefore composed for him Sefer ha-She'iltot, so that on every sabbath, as the weekly Torah portion would be read, there would be explained to him through the book well-known laws from the Talmud."

However, without entering into the specific details of this tradition, it should be pointed out that its basic concept -- the objective of composing a concise halakhic work understandable by young and old, scholar and layman -- appears often in one form or another in the works of quite a number of codifiers. This objective is no reason for wonderment: it is implicit in the very concept of a code summarizing Jewish law -- or the law of any legal system.

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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.