Joseph Kimhi

Joseph Ḳimḥi (Kimchi) (Qimhi) (11051170) (Hebrew: יוסף קמחי) was a medieval Jewish rabbi and biblical commentator. He was the father of Moses and David Kimhi, and the teacher of Rabbi Menachem Ben Simeon and poet Joseph Zabara.

Grammarian, exegete, poet, and translator; born in southern Spain about 1105; died about 1170. Forced to leave his native country owing to the religious persecutions of the Almohades who invaded the Spanish Peninsula in 1146, he settled in Narbonne, Provence, where he spent the rest of his life. The Provence region of southern France, at a time when the local Jewish population was under the considerable influence of the neighboring Spanish-Jewish community to the South. He is known to have written commentaries on all the books of the Bible, though only fragments of his work have survived until today. The foundation of his work is a literal reading of the Hebrew text and its grammatical analysis, interspersed with contemporary philosophical musings. This reflects his opposition to a christological reading of the text, which highlights allegory. In fact, Kimhi participated in several public debates with Catholic clergy, in which he highlighted his own method of reading biblical texts. His opposition to the contemporary Christian reading can be found in his Book of the Covenant (ספר הברית).

His son David, though but a child at the time of his father's death, may also be considered one of Ḳimḥi's pupils, either directly through his works, or indirectly through the instruction he (David) received from his elder brother Moses.

Relations with Ibn Ezra

Abraham ibn Ezra, who in his wanderings visited Narbonne in 1160, must have met Joseph. The latter followed Ibn Ezra in some particulars, e.g., in the use of the stem for the paradigm of the verb. Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, quotes Ḳimḥi in his commentaries on the Bible. Both scholars worked at the same time and along the same lines to popularize Judæo-Arabic science among the Jews of Christian Europe by excerpting from and translating Arabic works. Although Ibn Ezra was Ḳimḥi's superior in knowledge, the latter can rightly claim to have been the first successful transplanter of Judæo-Arabic science in the soil of Christian Europe. His diction is elegant and lucid, the disposition of his material scientific, his treatment of his subject even and without digressions; so that his works are much better adapted for study than those of Ibn Ezra, which lack all these qualifications.

Relations with Rabbeinu Tam

Another famous contemporary of Ḳimḥi was Rabbi Jacob b. Meïr, surnamed "Rabbeinu Tam," of Ramerupt, who was the greatest Talmudic authority of the day. This scholar, wishing to settle the literary quarrel between the followers of Menahem ben Saruḳ and of Dunash ben Labraṭ, had written a book of "hachra'ot" (decisions), in which he took the part of Menahem. These decisions did not satisfy Ḳimḥi; and, feeling himself better able than Rabbeinu Tam to pass judgment in the case, he wrote (1165) his "Sefer ha-Galui." This work falls into two parts: the first treats of the differences between Menahem and Dunash; the second contains independent criticisms on the former's dictionary. In the introduction Ḳimḥi apologizes for daring to come forward against so eminent a man as the leading Talmudic authority of his time. Hearing that the ignorant among the people will attack him on that account, he puts into their mouths the words which Abner, the captain of Saul, spoke, when David cried out to the king: "Who art thou that criest to the king?" ('I Sam. 26,14'). His fears were realized; for Benjamin of Canterbury, a pupil of R. Tam, made observations on the "Sefer ha-Galui," defending his teacher. He also called Ḳimḥi in a contemptuous sense "Ha-Ḳore" (= "The Crier"), because the latter ventured to cry his contradictions to the "king," i.e., R. Tam.

Grammarian and Lexicographer

In Ḳimḥi's grammatical works "Sefer Zikkaron" (edited by Bacher, Berlin, 1888) and "Sefer ha-Galui" (edited by Matthews, ib. 1887) he is dependent on Ḥayyuj for the treatment of his subject, but in his explanations of words he relies mainly on Ibn Janah. On the whole, he is not original; in minor points, however, he goes his own way, becoming therein the model for future generations. Thus he was the first to recognize that the hif'il has also a reflexive and an intransitive meaning; he was also the first to arrange a list of nominal forms, to indicate eight verb classes, and to classify the vowels into a system of five short and five long ones. In his works he pays frequent attention also to the language of the liturgy. In his etymological explanations he seeks for analogies in Bible, Talmud, Targum, and in Arabic. In cases where such analogies are wanting or unsatisfactory he is guided by the principle, "The unknown must be deduced from the known." Not seldom he explains difficult words on the basis of phonetic laws laid down by himself.


Of his exegetical works few have been preserved. Mention is made of his "Sefer ha-Torah," a commentary on the Pentateuch; his "Sefer ha-Miḳnah," a commentary on the Prophets; and his "Ḥibbur ha-Leḳeṭ," of unknown contents. A commentary by him on the Song of Songs exists in manuscript; his commentary on Proverbs has been published by Bär Dubrowo under the title "Sefer Ḥuḳḳah" (Breslau, 1868); and variants to the badly printed text are given by Eppenstein in "Zeit. für Hebr. Bibl." v. 143 et seq. A fragment of his commentary on the Book of Job has been published by Schwarz in his "Tiḳwat Enosh" (Berlin, 1868); the remaining portions, by Eppenstein in "R. E. J." xxxvii. 86 et seq. Many exegetical remarks are scattered throughout Ḳim-ḥi's grammatical works. His method is mostly that of the peshaṭ, i.e., literal interpretation. He frequently follows the Spanish school, without, however, reading into the Scriptural text the scientific knowledge of his own time. He pays a great deal of attention to the context, a point usually neglected by Haggadists. His explanations are short and terse. While criticizing at times some untenable explanations of his predecessors, he accepts such as seem to him to be correct. He is the first eclectic of the Provençal school of exegetes.


Ḳimḥi tried his hand also at writing poetry. His liturgical hymns and other poems which have come down are indeed distinguished by beauty of form and elegance of language. In spirit, however, they can not be compared with the works of the great Spanish Hebrew language poets. Nevertheless, he retains importance as one of the Provençal poets. His poems met with consideration at the hands of later generations and were frequently quoted by them. He is the first known author to write poems in the Magen Avot genre, and apparently is the inventor of the genre, which later became popular in Germany.


He translated Baḥya ibn Paḳuda's ethical work "Hobot ha-Lebabot" from Arabic into Hebrew; and he turned Solomon ibn Gabirol's "Mibḥar ha-Peninim" into metrical form under the title "Sheḳel ha-Kodesh." Of the translation only a fragment has been preserved, which has been published by Jellinek in Benjacob's edition of Ibn Tibbon's translation of that work (Leipsic, 1846); the "Sheḳel" is still unprinted. In his translation, aiming chiefly at elegance of expression, Ḳimḥi does not keep to the original. He works too independently and, carrying into the work his own spirit, he often obscures the thought of the author. Notwithstanding its defects, his translation is not without merit. It has contributed to a better understanding of the Arabic authors, and is, therefore, to be considered in a certain sense as supplementing the works of the Tibbonides.


Finally mention must be made of Ḳimḥi's apologetic work "Sefer ha-Berit," which contributed to Jewish polemics and apologetics in the Middle Ages, though it was not printed until a fragment was published in "Milḥemet Ḥobah" (Constantinople, 1710). This work was written at the request of one of his pupils who wished to have a collection of all the prophetic passages in Scripture that might serve as aids in refuting those persons who denied the Torah. It is in the form of a dialogue between a loyal Jew and an apostate. The loyal Jew claims that the true religion of the Jew may be recognized by the moral conduct of the individual; all Jews are intent on carrying out in their lives the Decalogue; they give no divine honors to any one besides God; do not perjure themselves; commit no murder; and are not robbers. Their children are educated in the fear of God; their women are chaste; the Jews are hospitable toward one another, perform works of charity, and redeem captives—all virtues which are not found in such a high degree among non-Jews. The apostate admits all these claims, but points out that Jews demand high interest on loans. This objection the loyal Jew meets with the statement that non-Jews also are usurers, and that they impose upon members of their own faith, while rich Jews lend money to their coreligionists without any interest whatever. The "Sefer ha-Berit" is of importance as showing the moral condition of the Jews at that time, and as bearing testimony to the conditions of those days, in which the Jews in the Provence could freely express themselves not only with regard to their own religion, but also with regard to the religion of their neighbors.


  • Blüth, in Berliner's Magazin, xviii. 1, xix. 89;
  • Eppenstein, in Monatsschrift, xl. 173, xli. 83;
  • R. E. J. xxxvii. 86;
  • Zeit. für Hebr. Bibl. v. 143.G. C. L.
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