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Sefer ha-Tashbetz – Responsa I Kabbalah Print E-mail

writingsThe 30th of Adar is the Yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon ben Zerach Duran – the Rashbatz, talmudist and philosopher, author of responsa Sefer ha-Tashbetz. He was born on March 7, 1361,

and died in 1444.
R. Simeon b. Zamah Duran (1361-1444) was known as Tashbetz, after the initial letter of his name preceded by the initial letter of the word Teshuvot (Responsa). He was born in Majorca, where he practiced as a physician after study there an in Aragon in Spain. In addition to his vast Talmudic knowledge, Duran was thoroughly versed in philosophy and in Kabbalah. He left Majorca for North Africa, eventually serving as a Rabbi in Algiers. In his Responsa he defends re right of a Rabbi to accept a salary, of which he availed himself. To some extent Duran and Perfet were rivals, but Duran succeeded Perfet when the latter retired from the position of Rabbi of Algiers, He was the author of a number of philosophical works, and it is not surprising that theological topics are deal with in his Responsa.

Rav Duran has a Responsum on a Kabbalistic theme. The Zohar observes that in the first portion of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) there are sixty letters. The questioner, Isaac b. Saadiah of Tens, was puzzled by this statement, since there are far more than sixty letters in this portion. Duran replies that the ‘Midrash’ (the term he uses here for the Zohar) means that there are sixty words in the portion. Actually there are only forty-eight words, but the verse: ‘ Blessed be His name, whose glorious kingdom is for ever and ever’ (which the Rabbis say should be added after the first verse of Shema) has six words in the Hebrew. It was evidently the custom, in the time of the Zohar, to repeat this verse when reciting the evening Shema so as to make a total of sixty words. The purpose of this was for the sold to ascend at night to the Throne of Glory, there to become attached to the sixty princes surrounding the Throne. These are referred to in the verse: ‘Behold it is the litter of Solomon; threescore mighty men are about it’ (Cant. 3:7).

Rav Duran then discusses ‘blessed be His name…’. The Talmud tells us that Moses did not say this verse but that Jacob did (because he had heard the angels singing it when he had his dream of the ladder reaching to heaven). Since Moses did not say it, there was a danger that it would be treated lightly. Consequently, in the time of the Zohar, they repeated the verse, we say it in a whisper because we do not wish the angels to overhear and be envious of us for using their verse. But on the Day of Atonement, when we are like the angels, we say it aloud.

Not happy with this explanation Duran concludes that, after all, the Zohar might possibly mean letters, not words. The sixty letters are to be found in the first verse of the Shema, if each letter (except the he, which is spelled without the silent alef) is spelled out in full- i.e. shin, mem, ayin and so forth.
Duran returns to the problem in another Responsum. Here he remarks that his previous reply regarding the sixty words will not do, since the Aramaic word used in the Zoharic passage can only mean letters. He admits the force of the objection, but still feels that the word can occasionally mean words. However, the better explanation is the other he had given, namely, that the reference is to the sixty letters in the first verse spelled out in full.

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