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Alfasi, Isaac ben Jacob


ALFASI, ISAAC BEN JACOB (known as Rif ; 1013–1103), author of the most important code prior to the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides. In a sense, Alfasi brought the geonic period to a close. The last of the Babylonian geonim, Hai Gaon, died when Alfasi was 25 years old. Alfasi himself was called "gaon" by several early halakhic authorities. *Judah b. Barzillai al-Bargeloni sometimes refers to him simply as "the Gaon." Alfasi was a native of Qal'at Ḥammad near Constantine, in Algeria, and is therefore sometimes called "ha-Kala'i." According to Abraham ibn David, Alfasi studied in Kairouan under both *Nissim ben Jacob and *Hananel b. Ḥushi'el, but nowhere does Alfasi mention them as his teachers.

After a period of study in Kairouan, Alfasi settled in Fez (hence his surname "Alfasi" or Rif, initials of R . I saac F asi). He remained there until 1088, when, in his 75th year, he was denounced to the government by enemies and was forced to flee to Spain. After a few months in Cordova he moved to Lucena, where he remained until his death. Shortly after his arrival in Lucena, he became head of the yeshivah (1089), following the death of Isaac b. Judah ibn Ghayyat. The most famous of his many students were Joseph *Ibn Migash, *Judah Halevi, Ephraim of Qal'at Ḥammad, and Baruch b. Isaac ibn *Albalia. Before his death, Alfasi designated Ibn Migash as his successor, even though his own son, Jacob, was a distinguished scholar. His death was mourned in dirges by various poets, among them Moses Ibn Ezra. Another, hitherto regarded as by Judah Halevi, is now attributed by Abramson to Joseph ibn Sahl. In his Shirat Yisrael, Moses Ibn Ezra praised Alfasi, describing him as a man unsurpassed in keenness of intellect, whose wisdom was deep beyond compare, whose pen was swift, outdistancing that of any rival, and whose equal in intensity of religious feeling could scarcely be found. Alfasi dedicated his life to the study of the Talmud and its dissemination among the masses. Long before he came to Spain, his intellectual stand was decided and he was not influenced by the cultural life of Spain.

Hundreds of Alfasi's responsa have survived. Many of them were written while he was still in Fez, the majority in Arabic. In character and in style, Alfasi's responsa are still close to those of the Babylonian geonim. Alfasi's fame however rests on his great work Sefer ha-Halakhot (or Halakhot Rabbati). In the composition of this work Alfasi had a two fold purpose: (1) extracting all the halakhic material from the Talmud, ascertaining the decision, and providing a comprehensive compendium for ready reference; (2) preparing an essential summary of the Talmud, thereby facilitating its study. Concerning the first purpose Alfasi confined himself to those portions of the Talmud which were still operative and practiced, and excluded those of only academic importance. His code, therefore, covers the three orders, Mo'ed, Nashim, and Nezikin and the individual tractates Berakhot and Ḥullin. Even here Alfasi omitted entire chapters, such as the laws of the Paschal sacrifice (in the tractate Pesaḥim) and all that portion of the tractate Yoma which deals with the Temple Service on the Day of Atonement. Alfasi arranged laws scattered throughout the orders Kodashim and Tohorot which retain their relevance such as the laws of the Torah scroll, mezuzah, and tefillin, under the special title of Halakhot Ketannot. Sefer ha-Halakhot deals with 24 tractates of the Talmud.

Alfasi's quotations from the Talmud are often longer than necessary for the mere determination of a decision; often he explains the cited passage. For the most part, his explanations are brief, and in several instances discernible only when compared with the talmudic text. He comments at some length on instances where the geonim differed in their interpretations, discussing the different views and giving his own interpretation. Such treatment at times mars the structure. Alfasi himself apologized for it in several places. On the other hand these extended comments greatly enhanced the value of the book.

To a certain extent Alfasi models himself on the Halakhot Gedolot, but Alfasi's book is much superior. The halakhic material is three or four times that in the Halakhot Gedolot; the aggadic material is even more. Alfasi exercises greater freedom in the handling of his material, and in the placement of certain discussions, often assembling into one place statements dealing with a specific subject but scattered throughout the Talmud. For example, he assembles all discussions on the scope and definition of censure and reproof at the end of chapter two of tractate Shabbat. Similarly he arranges the discussions of the Gemara relevant to many Mishnayot. He first quotes the discussions which bear directly on the Mishnah, then those which have a loose bearing on it, and finally those which have some association with it in terms of subject matter. Alfasi cites all the material from the Talmud necessary to establish the argument for each law and for every opinion, whereas the Halakhot Gedolot, for the most part, quotes only the law itself. Alfasi's sources are varied, but usually he does not identify them. In addition to the Babylonian Talmud and the geonic literature, he uses especially the She'iltot of *Aḥa of Shabḥa, Halakhot Pesukot, Halakhot Gedolot, Hai Gaon's responsa and commentary, and Hananel b. Ḥushi'el, upon whom most of his book is based and which he mostly copies. Other sources are an anonymous Sefer Metivot, Nissim Gaon's works, the Hilkheta Gavrata of Samuel ha-Nagid, and *Ḥefeẓ b. Yaẓli'aḥ. Nevertheless, Alfasi only dealt with those laws which originated in the Talmud. Alfasi also dealt with the aggadah in the Talmud which had been almost completely ignored by all the codifiers before him. He included those aggadot which taught good conduct and moral behavior, paving the way for all later codifiers. Alfasi's book is thus a source of considerable value for the aggadah also, and justly deserves the name "Talmud Katan" ("Little Talmud") given to it.

The Sefer ha-Halakhot was first published in Constantinople (1509), and this edition is now very rare (it was published in Jerusalem in 1969). The second edition (which was published in Venice, 1521) has many addenda from various glosses, thus altering the form of the book. All the later editions up to the Vilna Romm edition (1880–86) were based upon the Venice edition. The Vilna edition was compared with the first edition but is an eclectic version and so only enhanced the confusion. A complete and scientific edition – based on ancient prints, manuscripts, and *genizah fragments – is still lacking. The Pressburg edition (1836) includes pseudo-Alfasi on Nedarim. An important aspect of the Halakhot is Alfasi's numerous revisions of what he had already written "and ordered to be corrected." These corrections were partly due to criticism, especially from his pupil Ephraim. This is attested to by various rishonim (e.g., Ba'al ha-Ma'or by Zerahiah ha-Levi to Sanh. 28b): "It seems that because of this Alfasi changed his opinion and ordered the erasure of what he had written on the subject… and the substitution of the corrected form… as you can find in some of the copies," and as Alfasi himself comments (A.A. Harkavy (ed.), Koveẓ Teshuvot ha-Ge'onim (1887), p. 327). His corrections have not always been included in the different manuscripts, and this accounts for the many variants in the versions of his book.

Jewish scholars of later generations were unstinting in their admiration of Alfasi and his book. Maimonides wrote "The Halakhot of the great rabbi, our teacher Isaac, of blessed memory, has superseded all these works (geonic codes)…for it contains all the decisions and laws which we need in our day… and, except for a few halakhot, not exceeding ten, his decisions are unassailable." Nevertheless, in one of his responsa Maimonides wrote that he differed from Alfasi in about 30 instances. In a letter to his disciple Joseph b. Judah, he advised him to make Alfasi's Halakhot his major study; and Maimonides himself taught it to his students. *Isaac b. Samuel ha-Zaken said of him: "A man will toil in vain to produce such a work, unless the spirit of God rest upon him" (introduction to *Menahem b. Aaron ibn Zerah's Ẓeidah la-Derekh, Ferrara, 1554). *Abraham b. David of Posquières, who tended to be severely critical of other authors, wrote of him: "I would rely on the words of Alfasi even if he should say that right is left." Even Alfasi's critics, and those who commented upon or supplemented his writings, never set out to find flaws in his work, but merely to correct whenever they deemed necessary; for they recognized the great usefulness of the book and wanted to see it used more widely. It was recounted that Jacob of Marvège, a tosafist, inquired in a dream whether the law concerning a certain case was according to the geonim or according to Alfasi; he received an answer from heaven: "And I shall establish my covenant with Isaac" (Gen. 17:21). Menahem ha-*Meiri always referred to Alfasi as "the greatest of codifiers." Joseph *Caro regarded Alfasi as the first among the three pillars of learning upon whom the house of Israel rests (Alfasi, Maimonides, and Asher b. Jehiel), and upon whose authority he determined the laws in his Shulḥan Arukh. Thus Alfasi's influence pervades Jewish code-literature up to modern times. At the close of the Middle Ages, when the Talmud was banned in Italy, Alfasi's work was expressly exempted, so that between the 16th and 19th centuries it was a principal subject of study among Italian Jews.

There is an extensive literature of commentary on Alfasi, some in amplification, others in condensation of his works. Among his critics and commentators were some of the greatest talmudic scholars, such as Ephraim his pupil, Zerahiah ha-Levi, *Abraham b. David, *Jonathan b. David ha-Kohen of Lunel, *Naḥmanides, *Meshullam b. Moses of Beziers, Aaron ha-Levi of Barcelona (see *Ha-Ḥinnukh), *Samuel b. Meir, Jacob *Tam, *Nissim b. Reuben Gerondi, and Joseph ibn Ḥaviva, author of Nimmukei Yosef. Almost all of them were scholars of Spain and Southern France, for in these countries, especially the former, the Halakhot was studied even more than the Talmud itself. More often than not, these commentators amplified, updated, and extended the discussion of Alfasi's themes rather than actually commenting on his text. A commentary on Alfasi to Ḥullin by an anonymous Yemenite scholar of the 12th century (1960), attests to the wide popularity of this work. The vast literature that was produced about Alfasi further testifies to the high regard in which he was held by subsequent generations.

In addition to the critics and commentators to Alfasi there is a ramified literature including works not really dependent upon Alfasi, but which follow his method of arrangement rather than that of the Talmud. The most eminent are those of Asher b. Jehiel and Mordecai b. Hillel, though the latter does not mention Alfasi at all. There are other books which include the whole of Alfasi and which expand his work with parallels and references to his sources and responsa. The most important of these is Sefer ha-Ittim of Judah al-Bargeloni.

Over 300 of his responsa, translated into Hebrew, have been collected and published (first edition Leghorn, 1781). Over 150 were published in their original Arabic with a Hebrew translation by A.A. Harkavy in Koveẓ Teshuvot ha-Ge'onim (1887), most of them having previously been included in the Leghorn edition. Another edition (Ginzei Kedem, 4 vols. (1930), 38–49), based upon the Oxford manuscript, was published by B.M. Lewin. Most of these responsa too are included in the Leghorn edition with some changes (cf. also Kohelet Moshe of S.A. Wertheimer, 1899). Another collection of Alfasi's responsa was edited by Z. Byednowitz (1934). Most of these are included in the previous editions. All these responsa were republished by Z. Leiter (1954). Many of Alfasi's responsa are still extant in manuscript. Variae lectiones based upon manuscripts were published by A. Sofer in his Teshuvot Ḥakhmei Provinẓyah (1967). Many of Alfasi's responsa are scattered throughout the works of the early halakhic scholars, such as Judah al-Bargeloni, in the books of those who used his works, including *Isaac b. Abba Mari, Baruch b. Isaac, and Judah *Almadari's commentary on Alfasi's Sefer ha-Halakhot. Several of Alfasi's responsa are to be found in the famous collection of Maimonides' responsa, Pe'er ha-Dor, Leipzig, 1859, nos. 182–208.


B. Cohen, in: jqr, 19 (1928/29), 335–410; Lewin, in: Alummah, 1 (1936), 105–13; H. Tchernowitz, Toledot ha-Posekim, 2 (1947), passim; Benedikt, in: ks, 25 (1948/49), 164–76; 26 (1949/50), 322–38; 27 (1950/51), 119f.; 28 (1952/53), 210–32; N.N. Rabinowitz, Ma'amar al Hadpasat ha-Talmud (1952), 256–7; A.N.Z. Roth, in: Sura, 3 (1957/58), 143–50; Habermann, in: Tarbiz, 19 (1959/60), 190f.; Sh. Abramson, Rav Nissim Ga'on (1965), 214–22 and index, s.v.Yiẓḥak b. Ya'akov Alfasi; idem, Bi-Leshon Kodemim (1965), 64–71; Sh. Shefer, Ha-Rif u-Mishnato (1967). add. bibliography: E.D. Shevet, "Meḥkerei Mavo be-Mefarshei ha-Rif," diss., Bar-Ilan Univ. (1995).

[Simha Assaf /

Israel Moses Ta-Shma]

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