By: David Silverberg

A scion of one of the most distinguished rabbinic dynasties produced by Spanish Jewry, Hacham Shemuel Laniado began a new legacy for his family in the Middle East. The upheavals that shook the Sephardic Jewish world in the aftermath of the 1492 expulsion from Spain led to Hacham Shemuel’s ascent to the highest position of spiritual leadership in Halab, Syria, where he exerted profound influence upon generations of Syrian Jews, and where he composed a treasury of scholarly works that have become staples of Sephardic Torah literature.

Rabbi Shemuel Hazaken

The widely accepted view among historians identifies Hacham Shemuel Laniado as the grandson of a sage bearing the same name, and who is referred to as “Rabbi Shemuel Hazaken – Rabbi Shemuel the Elder”. Hacham Eliyahu Mizrahi, the rabbi of the Jewish communities in Eress Yisrael, mentions Rabbi Shemuel the Elder with great reverence, in a responsum addressed to the community of Adrianople, Turkey, calling him, “the sage, the rabbi – our Rabbi Shemuel Laniado.”

Rabbi Shemuel Hazaken left Spain during the expulsion in 1492, and at first settled in Adrianople, before proceeding to Halab. His son, Hacham Avraham, was a lecturer and recorded his public derashot (sermons). These manuscripts are cited frequently in the writings of Hacham Avraham’s son, the younger Hacham Shemuel. Hacham Avraham passed away in 5385 (1585).

Basking in the Glow of Safed

The precise date and place of Hacham Shemuel Laniado’s birth remain unknown, and different theories exist as to whether he was born in Syria or in Safed. What is clear from his writings, however, is that he spent a considerable amount of time studying in the city of Safed during the city’s glorious period, absorbing the wisdom of the famous disciples and contemporaries of the Arizal (Rabbi Yizhak Luria, 1534-1572). Hacham Shemuel often cites commentaries and insights that he heard directly from Maran, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulhan Aruch. His scholarship in the area of Kabbalah was profoundly influenced by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, one of the premier masters of Kabbalah, under whom he studied. Hacham Shemuel continued studying Rabbi Moshe’s teachings even after the latter’s passing, as evidenced in one passage where he cites an insight he heard in Rabbi Moshe’s name after his death from his son, Rabbi Gedalya.

Hacham Shemuel was also among the throngs of eager students and laymen who would assemble to hear the public lectures of Hacham Moshe Alshich, another of the towering luminaries of Safed at the time. Like Hacham Shemuel, Hacham Moshe hailed from a family that had been expelled from Spain and settled in Adrianople. Hacham Moshe was a revered lecturer, and his lectures were later published as a Bible commentary that until today ranks among the classic commentaries to Tanach. Hacham Shemuel reverently refers to Hacham Moshe as “hehacham hashalem – the complete scholar.”

He confers this title also upon another of the enduring sages of Safed, Rav Haim Vital, the foremost disciple of the Arizal. The two scholars shared deep mutual affection and established a close relationship which extended beyond the years they spent together in Safed. Hacham Shemuel would eventually assume the Chief Rabbinate of Aleppo, while Rav Haim ultimately left Safed to serve as a rabbi in Damascus. The friendship thus endured as the two giants together worked to lead, guide and inspire Syrian Jewry.

Hacham Shemuel studied under other scholars of Safed, as well, including Hacham Shelomo Halevi Alkabetz, Hacham Yisrael Di Koriel, and Hacham Moshe Najra.

“I Have Sent You a Man Who is Like Me”

Hacham Shemuel’s period of learning among the giants of Safed came to end when one of his mentors, Rabbi Yosef Karo, determined that it was time for the young scholar to assume the mantle of rabbinic leadership. Maran sent Hacham Shemuel to the renowned community of Aleppo, and sent as well a letter extolling the rabbi’s scholarship and credentials. In this letter, Maran announced to the Jews of Halab, “Shalahti lachem ish asher kamoni – I have sent you a man who is like me.” Maran held Hacham Shemuel in such high regard that he considered him as great a scholar as himself!

Hacham Shemuel served as leader of the rabbinate in Aleppo, but his reputation spread far beyond the limits of the city, through his published works. He composed commentaries on the entire Tanach, and while most of his writings have remained in manuscript form, three of his books have been published and have since become cherished works of Torah scholarship.

The most famous of Hacham Shemuel’s works is Keli Hemda, a collection of sermons on the Humash. Originally published in Venice, in 1596, the Keli Hemda was twice reprinted, and several works have been written based upon this volume. In 1863, a book entitled Teru’at Melech was published, presenting a collection of commentaries to verses in Tehillim from Keli Hemda. Another work, Hemda Genuza, a collection of selected passages from Keli Hemda,was published in 1903.

Hacham Shemuel’s second work, a commentary to the Nevi’im Rishonim (Early Prophets) entitled Keli Yakar, was published in Venice in 1603. (This work should not be confused with the Torah commentary with the same name published around the same time by Rabbi Shlomo Efrayim of Luntshitz, Poland.) The Keli Yakar is a thorough textual commentary that probes the meaning of each and every phrase, unearthing the profound messages concealed deep within the words of the Prophets of Israel. The commentary serves also as a comprehensive anthology of Midrashic passages relevant to each verse, presenting a detailed analysis of the contrasts between the different interpretations and the implications of each debate.

The commentaries of the Keli Yakarwere frequently cited and discussed by many later scholars, including  luminaries such as Rav Haim Palagi of Izmir, Rav Haim Yosef David Azoulay (the Hida) and the Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad). Additionally, many of the commentaries that appear in the widely-acclaimed anthology Me’am Lo’ezto the Early Prophets are based upon the Keli Yakar.

The last of Hacham Shemuel’s published works is Keli Paz, a remarkably comprehensive commentary to the Book of Yeshayahu, generally considered among the most difficult of the books of the Prophets. This volume, which is almost unparalleled in scope by other works of Biblical commentary, presents a detailed, in-depth analysis of each word. Rabbi Yechiel Hillel Altshuler, author of the classic Messudot commentaries to the Nevi’imand Ketuvim, includes Keli Pazin his list of Bible commentaries upon which his works are based, together with the well-known commentaries of Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Abarbanel and Hacham Moshe Alshich.

As the titles of all three works begin with the word “Keli– utensil,” Hacham Shemuel has endearingly become known as the Ba’al Hakelim, referring to his authorship of these three classic texts.

A Legacy of Piety and Scholarship

The date of the Ba’al Hakelim’s passing is subject to debate, though it is generally assumed that he passed on in either 1605 or 1610. While his burial place has not been conclusively determined, one account claims that he was interred in a catacomb near the Great Synagogue of Aleppo.

Hacham Shemuel ibn Sid, the leading rabbi of Egypt at the time, delivered an emotional eulogy on the occasion of the passing of Hacham Shemuel Laniado. Citing the Talmud’s comment that “when a scholar dies – all are his relatives,” Hacham Shemuel emphasized that the entire Jewish world must mourn the devastating loss of a scholar of the Ba’al Hakelim’s stature. He further noted that Hacham Shemuel Laniado’s literary output makes him the rabbi of all Jews, who must all join in lamenting the loss of this Torah giant.

Hacham Shemuel’s son, Hacham Moshe Laniado, succeeded him as rabbi of Halab, and capably led the community until his emigration to Jerusalem in 1623.

Hacham Shemuel was also survived by a son-in-law who shared his son’s name – Hacham Moshe Laniado. This Hacham Moshe was Hacham Shemuel’s nephew, the son of his brother, Hacham Yizhak. Moshe grew up in Safed and was orphaned as a young man. After suffering unspeakable poverty and hardship, he came to Aleppo where he married his cousin, Hacham Shemuel’s daughter, and found work as a teacher and lecturer. Hacham Moshe was entrusted by his father-in-law with the publication of Keli Yakar, and also published two scholarly works of his own – a collection of sermons entitled Magen Avraham, and a commentary to Shir Hashirim named Nekudot Hakesef.

Hacham Shemuel’s other son-in-law was Hacham Mordechai Hakohen Ashkenazi, whom he cites on several occasions in his writings and describes as “hehacham hashalem” – the same accolade he confers upon his mentors in Safed. Hacham Mordechai authored a commentary to the Torah entitled Rosh Mor Deror.

Hacham Shemuel Laniado’s name and works have become synonymous with the standards of piety and Torah scholarship for which the rabbis of Halab are known and he remains a distinguished link in the glorious chain of the Sephardic Torah tradition. His writings, which are still studied and cherished by scholars even today, are a reflection of the Torah greatness that characterized the ancient community of Aleppo, and help maintain the everlasting bonds that connect us and future generations with our rich, centuries-old Torah heritage.