Samuel Ha-Nagid
The Scholarly & Literary Acheivements of the Nagid, Zinberg

Samuel ha-Nagid was educated in one of the Talmudic academies which Hasdai Ibn Shaprut established in Spain under the supervision of Rabbi Moses and his son Rabbi Enoch; the latter, scholars from Babylonia, had laid the foundations of Talmudic and Judaic study in Spain. Samuel was the first significant product of these academies. He was the first expert in the Talmud, the first Jewish scholar who grew up on Spanish soil.

In the year 1027, Samuel was recognized as the chief rabbi, the spiritual head of Spanish Jewry. Ten years later, the last great Gaon in Babylonia, Rav Hai, died. Samuel, the chief rabbi and head of the Spanish academies, became in fact the spiritual heir of the Geonim of Babylonia. When, following Rav Hai's death, the well of Talmudic knowledge in Babylonia dried up (the academy in Sura was closed in 1034 and the one in Pumbeditha in 1040), the academies in the West under the supervision of Rabbi Samuel became the new, living spring that watered the field of Jewish knowledge.

His Mevo Ha-Talmud (Introduction to the Talmud), in which he tried to bring the massive material assembled in the Talmud into some order, was accepted throughout the Jewish world, and to this day the Talmudic text is printed together with the scholarly notes of the celebrated Spanish rabbi. Samuel also wrote novellae to the Talmud (an explanatory compilation of halakhah [religious law])under the title Hilkata Gibbarwa.

Samuel, however, did not devote himself exclusively to the laws of the Talmud. "Occupy yourself diligently with secular books," he used to say; "they will be useful guides in social life." And he practiced what he preached. This rabbi was a first-rate scholar of literally encyclopedic knowledge, a brilliant philologist who, with full right, had the courage to enter into a long learned controversy with the great Hebrew grammarian Ibn Jannah….

[The Nagid's] great Bible dictionary, which consists of twenty-two parts, was compiled by a man who did not spend all his days in study of Torah. Samuel was not only a professional scholar interested in scientific questions, but also a statesman, politician, and general who was as much at home on the battlefield as in the academy.

He inscribed his name not only in the history of Jewish science, but also in the history of Moslem Spain. In his youth Samuel had been a simple shopkeeper, but because of his brilliant capacities reached the highest levels of political power. As prime minister (vizier) of the caliphs of Granada, Habus and his son Badis, he was, in fact, for many years head of the government of Granada.

This rabbi and statesman, diplomat and philologist, was also the founder of secular Hebrew poetry. The 12th-century historical writer Ravad (Rabbi Abraham Ibn Daud), who recounts in his Sefer Ha-Kabbalah interesting details about Samuel ha-Nagid's life, adds: "In the days of Hasdai the Jewish poets had barely begun to chirp, but in Samuel's time their voice already resounded loudly."

. . .The Jewish vizier, the great scholar and lover of the Hebrew language, endeavored to represent all the multicolored exciting tones of life in the ancient, sacred language of the Psalter and the Song of Songs, of Amos and Isaiah. He himself sings wine songs, invites his friends to "drink from pitchers, both by day and night." He also dispatches poems of praise to his friends and associates, and writes elegies on the deaths of distinguished figures, such as Rav Hai Gaon and others. But the best and most original elements of Samuel ha-Nagid's literary legacy are the triumphant war poems that he wrote on the battlefield.

excerpted From: Zinberg, Israel. A History of Jewish Literature. Bernard Martin, trans., ed. Copyright 1988 Ktav Publishing House, Inc. (Hoboken, NJ), pp. 25-29. By permission of Ktav Publishing House, Inc.

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