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Rabbenu Chananel

Rabbenu Chananel ben Chushiel – רבנו חננאל בן חושיאל (d. 1055/56) was the first Talmud commentator in the Sefardi tradition. His commentary was widely used and admired, and is today printed on the outer margin of the standard Vilna Shas.

Name(s)Rabbenu Chananel ben Chushiel
רבנו חננאל בן חושיאל
Datesdied 1055/56
RegionSefardi – Tunisia – Kairouan (al-Qayrawān)
Teachers/InfluencesHai Gaon
Students/FollowersRabbenu Nissim Gaon, Rif
Major WorksCommentary on the Talmud

Life

Rabbenu Chananel was from Kairouan (al-Qayrawān) in present-day Tunisia, northern Africa, an important early center of Torah learning outside of the established centers of the east. His contemporaries sometimes refer to him as being “of Rome,” corroborating the tradition that the family was Italian in origin. This is consistent with the later report of R. Avraham Ibn Daud (sometimes called Raavad I) in his Sefer ha-Kabbalah, in which he relates a founding story of Sefardi culture. Ibn Daud states that R. Chushiel, Rabbenu Chananel’s father, immigrated from southern Italy to north Africa and that his son, Rabbenu Chananel, was born in Kairouan. However, a letter from the Cairo Geniza written by R. Chushiel—one of the earliest fragments to surface from the incalculably precious geniza—states that he is awaiting his son’s arrival from Italy. This, nevertheless, confirms the contours of the founding story preserved in Sefer ha-Kabbalah.

Talmud Commentary

Rabbenu Chananel’s Talmud commentary covers the tractates commonly studied in the yeshivas of his day, including Berachot, Seder Moed, most of Seder Nashim, most of Seder Nezikin, and Chullin, of which only a fragment remains, indicating that the whole commentary has not come down to us. Rabbenu Chananel’s commentary does not gloss line by line like Rashi’s, but paraphrases the discussion and seeks a resolution to the sugya (section of Talmud). He also gives definitions of difficult words in the Gemara, many of which were picked up by the Aruch, the first Talmudic glossary, by R. Natan ben Yechiel of Rome. In addition, Rabbenu Chananel makes relatively frequent use of the Yerushalmi, often comparing the two Talmuds. He makes use of earlier Gaonic material, especially the Talmud commentary of Rav Hai Gaon, which is otherwise known only from fragments.

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