Rabbi Shlomo ben David de Oliveyra haLevy, came from Lisbon, Portugal, from a family of anusim, converts in Spain, whose original name was Benveniste. The Oliveyra surname was adopted by the family after the Inquisition, and it was chosen because according to their family tradition they were descendants of Yitshar, the son of Qehat, (Shemot 6:16) of the Tribe of Levi. Yitshar means, “fine olive oil.”
Rabbi Oliveyra served as teacher in Yeshibat Keter Tora in Amsterdam. In 1698, after the death of rab Ya’aqob Sasportas, he was appointed in his place as Ab Bet Din, Senior Rabbi of the Rabbinical Court of Amsterdam, which later on included all the Sephardic communities in Europe.
The signature and haskamot (rabbinic authorizations and introductions to Jewish books) of Rabbi Oliveyra are found in dozens of books published at that time.
Rabbi Oliveyra was a prolific author. And while he wrote several books that are no longer in our hands, such as a commentary on Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, we now have access, thanks to the magic of the Internet, to most of his writings.
Here are some of them.
DARKHE NOAM (Hebrew): A student’s guide of the Talmud. It analyzes many Aramaic terms and especially Talmudic technical expressions. This book is an indispensable tool for beginners who want to study Gemara. And it is based on two previous books, which record the way Gemara was studied in Spain: mebo haTalmud, by Rabbi Shemuel haNagid, and Darkhe haTalmud, by the famous Rab Isaac Canpanton.
DARKHE HASHEM (Hebrew) is a compendium of the 613 mitzvot, biblical commandments, arranged in alphabetical order.
Before describing the next books, I would like to explain that Sephardic communities had a very specific order in terms of Tora studying, which today many communities have lost. Along with the intensive study of Tanakh (the 24 book of the Hebrew Bible) one of the first disciplines to which the student was exposed, during elementary school, was the study of diqduq, or Hebrew Biblical grammar.
This includes, first, learning to pronounce correctly the Hebrew constants and also know how and when to pronounce the Hebrew vowels (as sheva, qamets qatan), which is not always evident from the visible text.
This knowledge must also include a total mastering of the te’amim, what is known as musical notes, but which really are firstly tonic accents and punctuation marks. If a student did not have a complete mastery of Biblical pronunciation, he was not considered to be yet “literate”.
Only then, once he had learned the precise pronunciation of the words, he would proceed to study Hebrew semantics, that is, theunderstanding of words.
The same happened with the Aramaic language: for a beginner student, to understand all the books of the Tanakh (including Daniel Ezra and Nehemiah) it was necessary to know Biblical Aramaic. Which was also a prerequisite to move into the next level of Aramaic: Talmudic and Rabbinical Aramaic.
Without these basic intellectual tools, Tora study would be deficient. And the student would always be depending on a teacher to translate the basic texts.
A deep and solid knowledge of the Hebrew language was considered a prerequisite for the serious learning of any other Tora discipline, such as Mishna, Gemara, Halakha, etc.
Now, we can proceed to present the literary production of Rabbi Oliveyra, who was literally “a master of the Hebrew language”.
Among his many books we can mention:
ZAYIT RA’ANAN: An alphabetical Glossary and explanations in Portuguese of many difficult words of the Mishna, Gemara and medieval philosophical books.
TE’AME HATE’AMIM (Hebrew): Explanation of the te’amim, the biblical accents and punctuation marks, especially the te’ame emet, that is, Yiob, Mishle and Tehilim, which are different from the rest of Tanakh. This book is mentioned by the Hida in his book Shem haGuedolim.
YAD LASHON: A treaty of Hebrew grammar, explained in Portuguese.
ETS HAYIM: A book of Hebrew semantics, which includes a glossary presented in alphabetical order, with words in Hebrew and Aramaic (translated into Portuguese).
DAL SEFATAYIM: A book that explains the principles Aramaic grammar in Portuguese.
SHARSHOT GABLUT: Another book of Hebrew and Aramaic semantics, presenting the roots of the words in alphabetical order. This was an essential tool for writing poetry in Hebrew (learning rhyme and metrics), an area in which Rabbi Oliveyra excelled.
AYELET AHABIM: A long poetic and philosophical composition on Aqedat Ytshaq, that is, the sacrifice of Isaac.
Rabbi Oliveyra also translated parts of the book Shene Luhot haBerit by Rabbi Yesha’ayahu Rabbi Horowitz (the Shela”h haQadosh, 1565-1630).
He also translated from Arabic to Portuguese the famous Canon of Medicine by the Persian physician Avicenna.
Min HaShamayim (=providentially) I found a link in Googlebooks with almost all the books of Rab Oliveyra in a very clear and readable digital edition. The book is called in the original Portuguese: “Livro da gramatica Hebrayca and Chaldayca”. (Amsterdam 5449.1682) and HERE is the link. The reader will note that after the first book, the others were scanned backward. Therefore, I recommend to start from the end, with the book Darkhe No’am, the guide for studying Gemara.