Rabbi Yichya Kapach – A Short Introduction

86) A TRADITIONAL SCHOOL OF YEMENITE RATIONALISM:

 
Rabbi Yichya Kapach  (1850-1931)

INTRODUCTION:

While the common perception is that Sefardim and Yemenites are more inclined towards the mystical traditions of Judaism than their Ashkenazi coreligionists, this is not necessarily the case.

Yemenites, firstly, are a distinct group from the Sefardim and Ashkenazim.

Secondly, there has always existed a very rational segment of the Yemenite community which opposed mysticism.

They were generally known asTalmidei HaRambam (the ‘students of Maimonides’) or more recently, as theDor Deah (the ‘Generation of Reason’), or simply as Yemenite rationalists.

ORIGINS:

These rationalists were originally a major sector within the ancient Yemenite community. They based their teachings directly on what they considered to be the most accurate representation of Judaism. For them this was Talmudic Judaism (10-500 C.E.) as transmitted by the Geonim (650-1038) and early Rishonim (1038-1500) – particularly the teachings of Rambam (1135-1204).

While the rest of the Jewish world certainly acknowledges and studies Rambam, he is not regarded as the final authority on halachik matters. As a general rule, most adhere instead to the codification of the law as per the Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), who lived some three hundred years later.[1]

For the Dor Daim, however, what happened in the halachik world after Rambam is of little consequence to them. They maintain that there was too much interference and influence particularly from the Jewish mystics in the post Rambam era, which introduced what they considered to be superstitious practices into Judaism – and shaped a modern system that little resembles the Judaism of Rambam. Even Rabbi Yosef Karo, in their view, was influenced by some mystical practices which he introduced into his Shulchan Aruch and which are not found in earlier Talmudic sources.

One of the reasons why they follow Rambam so closely was because he had collected the most accurate Talmudic texts and manuscripts at the time, and he based his writings on those. Therefore the best way to get a window into authentic Talmud was through the portal of Rambam, especially his Mishneh Torah, which was a most comprehensive anthology of all Talmudic literature.

The fact that some Yemenites were traditional rationalists was already recorded in the writings of Ramban (Nachmanides 1194-1270) who was born just forty nine years after Rambam.

However around the 1600’s the spread of Kabbalah took on a new impetus and it reached Yemen where many Yemenites were tremendously influenced by its mysticism.[2]

 
Rambam Tzitzit with 13 knots

The Yemenite community then split into two groups: The Baladi (‘from the country’) or traditional rationalists – and the Shami (‘from the north’, i.e. Palestine), who adopted a more sefardic approach and accepted Rabbi Karo and his Shulchan Aruch over Rambam and hisMishneh Torah.

The Rambam-faithful Baladi Jews, however, remained true to the vision of their master. They are also known technically as mekori’im, (‘originalists’) or ‘Rambamists[3].

They prayed from a shorter version of the (Rambam’s)siddur (because he didn’t want to ‘burden the community’).[4] They Yemenites tie their tzitzitdifferently, with 7 or 13 chulyot or knots and an ‘open space’ between each knot, according to the custom of Rambam.  They also wear a tallit on Friday nights.

THE RATIONALIST YEMENITES:

About a century ago many of the traditional Baladi or Maimonidean rationalists became known asDor Daim. They felt their community was becoming so superstitious and fatalistic to the extent that they even questioned the legitimacy of their Judaism. They believed an over emphasis of mysticism was contributing to an overall decline in the social and economic status of their society.

In order to intellectually and economically uplift his community Rabbi Yichya Kapach (1850-1931) started a new religious schooling system which included some secular studies. (In this sense he may be regarded as the Shimshon Rephael Hirsch of the east.) Rabbi Kapach made it his life work to acquire and collect as many of Rambam’s original manuscripts, and even fragments of manuscripts, as possible.

Rabbi Kapach went so far as to teach that the Zohar was a forgery which even contained aspects of idolatry! Rabbi Kapach referred to those steeped in mystical traditions as ‘ikshim’ or ‘people who withhold knowledge from their contemporaries’. He systematically set out his views in a book called Milchamot HaShem which criticizes the very foundations of contemporary mysticism.

These Yemenite rationalists were specifically opposed to the kabbalistic concept of zeir anpin[5], which if taken in a literal sense, assumes certain G-dly powers and could be conceived as an entity somewhat separate from G-d.[6]

Many of their objections were based on their interpretation of Rambam’s prohibition of ‘ribbuy reshuyot’ or multiplicity of spiritual reigning powers.

They quoted Rambam: “There is one simple Essence in which there is no complexity or multiplicity of notions, but one notion only…”[7]

Neither did they entertain the kabbalistic concept of reincarnation, and cited Rav Saadiya Gaon (892-942) who regarded this idea as foreign to Judaism.

The Dor Daim also rejected the practice of asking tzadikim or even angels to intercede with G-d on behalf of another. In a similar vein they disagreed with the popular concept of visiting gravesites of holy people, as they claimed this resembled idolatry. They say that for this reason we were never told where Moshe is buried.

Interestingly enough, they do not reject the more ancient form of secret mysticism known asMa’aseh Bereshit as practiced in Talmudic times – but firmly held that in no ways did it remotely resemble the modern interpretations of popular kabbalah of contemporary times.

REACTION FROM OTHERS:

Many take great umbrage to the Dor Daim’s open distrust of mysticism which has to a large extent become normative the modern Torah world. And, as to be expected, many disagree with the idea of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah superseding Rabbi Karo’ s Shulchan Aruch.

Some halachik authorities – while themselves in disagreement – do nevertheless tolerate their pro-Rambam and anti-Zohar position. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, for example, disagreed with Rabbi Kapach but did not consider his works to be heretical.

Others, like Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, have gone so far as to declare some of the writings of Rabbi Kapach as heretical.[8]

Today, many Dor Daim are secretive about their rational Maimonidean leanings for fear of ostracism by the wider community[9].

This – because of or despite – the fact that they probably represent the most accurate depiction of Rambam’s halachik and theological worldview, in living reality today.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Yemen History and Culture, by P. Ram

Tema, Journal of Judeo-Yemenite Studies

 

[1] Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) is regarded as an early Acharon (1500-present day), although he was born towards the end of the period of the Rishonim (1038-1500).

[2] A similar phenomenon also occurred with some eastern Sefardim who followed the Ben Ish Chai, who allowed the kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria to sometimes override Rabbi Yosef Karo’ sShulchan Aruch. Sefardi Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef tried to ‘wean’ some Sefardim off the Ben Ish Chai for this very reason.

[3] Not to be confused with modern-day groups who go by this name.

[4] This followed the version as presented in Rambam’s Sefer Ahavah.

[5] Also known as ‘the lesser countenance’.

[6] See Sefer HaBrit 29:15 and Yosher Levav p. 4

[7] Moreh Nevuchim 1:51

[8] Nezer Chaim p. 176

Rabbi Dessler and Rabbi Gedalia Nader (1923-2004, a leading student of Chazon Ish) do not consider questioning the authorship of the Zohar to be heretical. Even the Nodah BiYehudah maintains that the break from Rashbi (who is considered to have authored the Zohar), to the time when the Zohar was popularised, is too long for its authenticity to be undeniably accurate (Derushei HaTzlach).

[9] Rabbi Yosef Kapach (1917-2000), grandson of Rabbi Yichya Kapach, and a highly respected world authority on Rambam, may have been pressured to remove himself from his grandfather’s anti-Zohar stance before he could take up a position of leadership. Although he did say that it was better to draw spiritual sustenance from the writings of Rambam himself.

The Rambam’s Mishneh Torah according to Ktav Yad Teiman, with commentary by Rabbi Yosef Kapach

From Kotzk Blog, here.

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