Alfasi, Yitsḥaq ben Yaʿaqov
ALFASI, YITSḤAQ BEN YAʿAQOV
ALFASI, YITSḤAQ BEN YAʿAQOV (1013–1103), also known by the acronym RIF (Rabbi Yitsḥaq al-Faasi); North African–Spanish Talmudist. Alfasi spent the majority of his life in North Africa, where he headed the school in Fez (Fas in Arabic, hence his name). At the age of seventy-five he was forced by political intrigues to leave for Spain, where he presided over the school at Lucena. Despite the hostility of some native scholars, the aged Alfasi gained wide recognition in his new home, attracted many disciples (among them the brilliant Yosef ibn Migash, his successor at Lucena), and was described by the twelfth-century historian Avraham ibn Daud as the leading scholar of his time. Alfasi's exposure to Spanish Jewry came at the end of his long life; he was not attracted to the philosophy and belles lettres characteristic of Spain but remained a towering Talmudist.
Alfasi's major achievement was his digest of Talmudic law, Sefer ha-halakhot (Book of Laws; Jerusalem, 1969), which encompassed all topics relevant to Jewish practice of his time, thus eliminating materials connected with the Temple and its system of priestly dues, sacrifices, and related purities. Coming toward the end of the geonic period, Alfasi perfected the digest form pioneered by the eighth-century Halakhot gedolot and others. Like them, he retains the structure of the Talmud itself, which he condenses, rather than presenting a topical discussion (for which some precedent already existed) or a code. Nonetheless, Alfasi's work overshadowed that of his predecessors completely. In essence, he managed to strike a balance between the prolix, often indecisive Talmudic discussion and the brief, intellectually unsatisfying digest of earlier authorities. Alfasi's digest provided the halakhic decision through its careful elimination and shaping of materials, yet it also retained the basic Talmudic discussion. Thus, his work satisfied the needs of authorities and students alike. Indeed, Alfasi's work was often studied in place of the Talmud, inasmuch as it presented the most significant aspects of the Talmudic discussion and guided the student toward a conclusive position on the given issue. Ibn Daud appropriately termed the digest a "miniature Talmud," and the name stuck.
The degree and nature of Alfasi's independence was already a topic of discussion in late medieval times. It would appear that Alfasi occasionally adopted a critical stance toward certain Talmudic materials, and this evaluative posture is a component of his decision-making process. This aspect of his work came to the fore when he decided on the status of various Talmudic comments, a technique apparently utilized later by Maimonides. Alfasi was a central figure in assuring the Babylonian Talmud's ascendency over the Palestinian Talmud: his statement (at the close of his digest of ʿEruvin ) that the Babylonian Talmud, being the later work, knew and incorporated all that was valuable in the Palestinian had great circulation and influence. Nonetheless, modern scholars are divided as to the extent of Alfasi's own rejection of the Palestinian Talmud. Alfasi's attitude toward the nonlegal (aggadic) portions of the Talmud is also noteworthy: unlike his predecessors, he included moral and theological materials that bore on actual practice.
Alfasi's digest became a major force in the subsequent shaping of Jewish law. Maimonides considered himself to be in the line of Alfasian tradition, claiming that he was in basic disagreement with Alfasi on only ten issues. Yosef Karo named Alfasi as one of the three authoritative medieval sources for his Shulḥan ʿarukh, the basic code of Jewish law that Karo compiled in the sixteenth century.
The best overall discussion of Alfasi remains the detailed treatment of Isaac Hirsch Weiss, Dor dor vedorshav, vol. 4 (Vienna, 1887), pp. 281–290. Salo W. Baron's A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2d ed., rev. & enl., vol. 6 (New York, 1958), pp. 84–90, 367–370, provides an intelligent historical overview as well as an ample bibliographical survey.
Gerald J. Blidstein (1987)