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  • The Approach of R. Yair Hayyim Bacharach to Women's Performance of Time-Bound Positive Mitzvot:The Implicit Polemic with Sefer Hakanah
  • Shimon Altshul (bio)

Rabbinic approaches to women's performance of time-bound positive commandments have ranged widely over the course of Jewish history. Many factors account for this. In addition to the ever-changing conditions of Jewish society and culture in the medieval and modern periods, substantial variations in the economic, legal, and religious standing of women have exercised an abiding influence on their performance of rituals normally practiced by men.

My objective in this article is to demonstrate how a remarkable passage in Rabbi Ya'ir Hayyim Bacharach's Mekor Hayyim, his commentary on the Shulhan Arukh, exemplifies his use of Kabbalistic sources to explain the reasons for halakhot. This is neither an unfamiliar nor an unexplored subject. In his magisterial essay on the halakhic and meta-halakhic method of R. Yair Hayyim Bacharach (1638–1702), the late Yitzchak Twersky noted that: "[R. Bacharach] uses Kabbalistic sources extensively in his Mekor Hayyim, particularly with regard to minhagim [customs] and ta'ame halakhot [reasons for the Halakha]."1

the commentary "mekor hayyim"

At the age of 33, at the height of his powers, R. Bacharach began to write what he intended to be the definitive commentary to the section Orach Hayyim of the Shulhan Arukh, which he called Mekor Hayyim. He invested great effort in it, was immensely proud of the final product, and hoped to publish it as the first fruit of his scholarly labors. But due to an unanticipated chain of events, his wish never came to fruition2. R. Bacharach began to write his commentary in 1671, and most probably completed it in 1678. He acquired impressive approbations for it from no less than seventeen distinguished German rabbis, with the first approbation dated 1678. Since he only had enough funds to publish one book, he reluctantly decided that it would be proper to give precedence to the responsa collection of his departed father and [End Page 42] grandfather, which he called Hut haShani, before publishing his own work. Ironically, this admirable decision sealed the fate of Mekor Hayyim, since at the very same time, unbeknownst to R. Bacharach, the author of the commentary Magen Avraham, R. Abraham Gombiner, was facing similar challenges with regard to his pioneering commentary, which he completed in 1671. Insufficient funds precluded him from publishing it in 1673, and the appearance of a competing commentary (Olat Tamid and Olat Shabbat) compelled him to revise his entire commentary in order to disprove the errors in the latter and demonstrate his commentary's superiority. He died in 1682 after years of illness, his work still in manuscript. Yet, thanks to the efforts of his son and the printer Shabbethai Bass, the commentary Magen Avraham was published in 1692 and subsequently became the predominant commentary to the section Orach Hayyim of the Shulchan Arukh. On the other hand, R. Bacharach's Mekor Hayyim, which he partially revised in order to take into account the Magen Avraham and Turei Zahav commentaries, remained in manuscript, and only a third of it survived.3 The book—or what remained of it—was published for the first time in 1982 by Machon Yerushalayim—some 300 years after it was written.

In the introduction to Mekor Hayyim, R. Bacharach explained the purpose and objective of his commentary:

The Rav Beit Yosef, (i.e. Caro's Shulhan Arukh), along with glosses 'the Torah that Moses set' (the glosses of R. Moses Isserles), writes succinctly and only presents the final decisions [of the Law], while my commentary…will discuss every matter thoroughly…and will explain, challenge, and advance unprecedented halakhic decisions…at times adding minor matters and customs-so that my commentary will lack nothing."4

R. Bacharach felt that in his day there was still "no adequate commentary" available for Orach Hayyim,5 in contrast to the other sections of the Shulhan Arukh, to which commentaries had already been written,6 and he saw it as his mission to provide the definitive, comprehensive commentary that would fill the gap.7 He therefore dealt with each section in sequence, citing the...


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