Shorshei Kerem Rosh Nevolim by Mordekhai ibn Shakhran
edited with introduction and notes by Rabbi Alter Brandwein
(240 + xii pages, $100)
Emeritus Professor of Palaeooinology, University of Weinburg
As has been reported widely, the Sefer Shorshei Kerem Rosh Nevalim by the 10th century exegete, Ibn Shakhran, was found recently in the wine cellars of the Vatican where its folios had been used as stoppers in ancient amphorae. Until now he was only known from scattered quotations but now we can appreciate his deep understanding of the Tenakh in all its brilliance.
The author obviously chose this name for his sefer as an acrostic of his name. It is also a reference to his home town, Gibraltar, which had been known, previous to the Arab conquest, as Nebelberg from the Visigothic word meaning 'foggy mountain', because of the clouds that often envelope its summit, or el Pe'on, the Rock, as it is still called by its residents, HaTsur in mediaeval Jewish works. The Arabs renamed it Gebal Tariq, the mountain of Tariq, after their leader. In defiance, the indigenous population called it 'el Pe'on del cabecilla', literally the rock of 'the head of the gang of scoundrels', rosh nevolim.
It seems that his idea that Hebrew words were derived from four letter roots from which one letter was removed to give different nuances of meaning, drew the ire of his contemporary, Dunash Ibn Labrat, who wrote of him "Ben Kaf keVen Quf ", implying that, with such opinions, his name should have been with a quf rather than a kaf. This may also be the earliest reference to the colony of Barbary apes which still live in Gibraltar. Ibn Ezra was moved to defend our author against this calumny in his comment on Tehillim (81,17) "umitsur devash asbi'eka - kemo
hamefaresh hagadol Ibn Shakhran me'ir Tsur shemidevarov anu sevei'im devash." This may itself be an allusion to Ibn Shakhran's introductory comment to the Megillah "Why is Shushan always referred to as 'HaBirah' - because it was the centre of beer production in Achashverosh's
empire." In Biblical usage devash invariably refers to date honey, the raw material for beer manufacture in Bavel, barley beer being peculiar to the land of Madai ('Beer Production in the Bible and Talmud' by Professor Yehoiyada Felix, Beer Sheker University Press, 5715*)
To give the readers a better idea of his approach, we quote some further insights on the Megillah which will whet their appetite for more.
Noach and the Megillah
Ibn Shakhran notes that, throughout the Torah, the name of Noach is spelled chaser, yet in the Megillah, we find it spelled malei in three places, a hint to be livesumei bePurya ad delo yada, in that one should be as malei yayin as Noach (Gen. 9,21). He notes (Esth. 9,17) that this must be the source of the beraisa brought in the Avos deRabbi Natlan (Schlechter edition, 1,1-3, Van
De'Stijl Brothers' Press, Weinheim, Baden, 5526*): "HaBakbuk kibel haYayin meKerem umesarah leNoach (Gen. 9, 20-21), veNoach liVnos Lot (19, 31-36), uVenos Lot leOved Edom haGitti (2 Sam. 6, 10), veOved Edom haGitti leNaval haKarmeli (1 Sam. 25, 36) [There seems to be a chronological inaccuracy here since Naval was prior to Oved Edom, but perhaps this is a case of ein me'uchar umukdam beshikhrus - when drunk one has no perception of time - S.B], veNaval haKarmeli leBelshatsar (Dan. 5), uVelshatsar leAchashverosh, veAchashverosh asah mishteh lekhol sarav ve'avadav (Esth. 1, 3) " Noach hayah omer 'Al sheloshah devarim haOlam omed, al haYayyin ve'al haShekhar ve'al haSaraf' " Hu hayah omer 'Im ein kerem ein yayin ve'im ein yayin ein shikhrus' '' Its repetition (9,18), supports Rav Yeina Saba's memra in Massekhes Shikurim. (Falsher edition 7,12, Tokayer Press, Martha's Vineyard, Mass., 5716*) that 'livesumei applies to both days of Purim, umeshum sefeika deyoma machmirin bazeh"!
In his comment on "ya'asu eits gevoah chamishim amah" (5,14), Ibn Shakhran brings Midrash Shekhar Tov which explains that Haman obtained this piece of timber from Noach who had used it as one of the cross beams of the ark (Gen. 6,15):
"How is it that Noach was drawn into the Megillah? Our Sages teach that when Zeresh told Haman to hang Mordekhai on a gallows fifty amos high, he asked her where such an enormous piece of timber might be found. To this she replied 'Did not your ancestor Noach build his ark
with such mighty beams? Go to him and ask for one!' This advice greatly pleased Haman and he did so. When he came to Noach with his request Noach refused, so Haman grabbed one end and tried to make off with it. At this, Noach grabbed the other end to prevent its loss but, being
an extremely elderly man, could not stop Haman who thereby dragged him with the beam into the Megillah." Since it says (Esth. 9,16) "veNoach mei'oyeveihem", which he translates as "and Noach from among their enemies", Ibn Shakhran points out that Haman's hatred of Jews must have come from Noach together with the rest of his junk
The mothers-in-law of Achashverosh
It seems that surrogate motherhood was still known in his days since he comments on the verse "Gam Vashti haMalkah asesah mishteh nashim" (1,9) "HaKesiv 'mishteh' im hei, vekakri 'mishtei' im yud, vezeh sod gadol - achas lezera' veachas le'ibbur" and notes that both are named in the Megillah, "Bo'arah" (1,12) and "Keshokh" (2,1). The former was obviously the biological mother as he explains "venikreis al shem zeh mipnei shehe'erah bah ba'alah", so the latter must have been the surrogate. He notes that it is clear that these two must be the mothers of Vashti since they are brought in connection with her downfall.
He comments "al tikri 'kam bechamaso' (7,7) ela 'beKam chamoso' vezeh shemah shel imah shel Esther " she was also known as "Shokhakhah" (7,10) and this is no contradiction to the verse 'she had no father or mother' (2,7) because her mother's name had been forgotten. Though some
say Esther had two mothers like Vashti, this is a mistake: her mother's name was 'Kam', and 'Shokhakhah' was rak kinnui be'alma".
There are many further insights brought by Ibn Shakhran for which the reader is recommended to obtain a copy and intoxicate himself with its wisdom, "halo hem kesuvim al sefer (10, 2)".
*Note that hashtus, hashikor and hashasui have gematrias 5715, 5526 and 5716 respectively. Also this year 5765 is the gematria of hashetuim (with two yuds from the shem hameshulav of course!)