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I remember reading that there was a letter (Geonic, I believe) advising his correspondent to look at the interpretation of a local Christian clergyman of a pasuk; that his was better than the one that the correspondent had. It’s been brought as an example of שמע האמת ממי שאמרה. Can anyone help find that source?

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Not a letter from the Gaon, exactly, but a personal instruction to that effect.

The story is that one day, in the Yeshiva in Baghdad, they were debating the meaning of the phrase שמן ראש אל יני ראשי (Tehillim 141:5). Rav Hai Gaon instructed R' Matzliach ibn al-Bazak, later a dayan in Sicily and one of the teachers of R' Nassan Baal HaAruch, to ask the local (Nestorian) Catholicos for their interpretation of the verse. When R' Matzliach demurred, Rav Hai told him sharply that our holy predecessors never had a problem asking members of other religions, or simple shepherds or cowhands, for the meanings of words in the Torah - and R' Matzliach then went and did as he was told.

R' Matzliach in turn tells the story in a letter to R' Shmuel Hanaggid. The relevant excerpt is in Ginzei Kedem 3 (1925): 67.

Note that it's not that Rav Hai tells R' Matzliach that the non-Jewish interpretation is better, just that we need to know it.

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  • Thank you. That's exactly it.
    – dwachss
    Aug 2 at 17:43
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    I think it is important to point out that he only consulted them regarding translations of the word. It is very common for chazal, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, etc. to use non-Jewish sources for etymological research. But not for their method of interpretation. The original source does not say anything about קבל את האמת ממי שאמרה.
    – N.T.
    Aug 3 at 5:49
  • @N.T. - very good point.
    – Meir
    Aug 3 at 17:26
  • @N.T.: I agree that the original source was for the meaning of the word. But, the contexts in which I've seen it cited were all pushing the point about the acceptability of using non-Jewish sources more liberally.
    – dwachss
    Aug 5 at 17:54
  • @dwachss: I don't doubt it, but I think they are misconstruing Rav Hai Gaon's intent. I'll be dan l'kaf zchus that they are making an innocent mistake; I just think they are wrong.
    – N.T.
    Aug 6 at 0:39

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