Monday, December 8, 2014

History: The Early Rishonim of North Africa, Part II

Rav Leibowitz

Note: This post has been incorporated into a pamphlet on the Early Rishonim.  It can be purchased on Amazon by clicking here.  

R. Yitzchak Alfasi (Rif, d. 1102)
The Rif lived much of his life in the city of Fez (in current day Morocco), and for this reason he is called Alfasi.  He was a student of R. Chananel and R. Nisim Gaon.[1]  For the last fifteen years of his life he lived in Spain, where he headed a yeshiva in the city of Lucena.[2] 

The Rif’s major work is called the “Halachos Rabasi,” known simply as the “Halachos.”  In the Halachos, the Rif weaves together select statements of the Gemara discussion, with a marked focus on the final conclusions of the sugyos.  The Rif omitted most of the opinions that were rejected in the Talmudic discussion, but did add short statements of commentary in Aramaic.[3] In short, the Halachos is an elucidated abridegment of the Gemara and a halachik code (sefer pesak).   

The Rif’s rulings and appended commentary were drawn from his teachers, R. Chananel and R. Nisim, and from the classic tradition of the later Geonim, such as Rav Hai Gaon.  Additionally, the Rif drew from the Yerushalmi.  The Rif also included his own chiddushim into his Halachos.

The Rif only wrote his Halachos on tractates that have practical halachik ramifications.  Even within a Mesechta, if a chapter does not have practical halachik ramifications the Rif omitted it from his work.

The Rif’s Halachos became very popular, and even replaced the Talmud in many communities.[4]  Many individuals claimed that there was no longer a point in studying all of the long winded discussion in the Gemara.  For them, the Rif’s Halachos was an excellent way to study Gemara and fulfill the dictate of Chazal לאסוקי שמעתתא אליבא דהילכתא.[5]  It is for this reason the halachos were nicknamed, Talmud Katan.

Even for those who did not see the Rif’s work as a replacement of the Gemara, the Halachos still occupied a central role in study.  In the 12th century, the Rif was considered the main posek of Sefard and Provance, and the Rambam follows him consistently, claiming to argue with him on only a few points. 

Many super-commentries were authored on the Rif.  In fact, many famous “Talmud” commentaries were actually written on the Rif’s Halachos and not on the Gemara.  For example the commentary of the Rosh, the Ran, and the Nimukei Yosef all use the Rif’s Halachos as the springboard for their works. 

It is reported that the Vilna Gaon encouraged his students to “learn the Rif every day and review it well.”[6]  A student writes, “I received my approach to learning from the great Gaon, our teacher Eliyahu of Vilna, who commanded me with his holy mouth to learn the Rif with Rashi and to constantly review it.”[7]

A Concluding Word on North African Perushim

In general the early Talmud commentaries of North Africa were paraphrases or abridgments of the Talmudic discussion.  In a sense, one could read through these commentaries with minimal use of the Talmud itself.[8] We will see soon that in Ashkenaz a very different style was utilized, one that accompanied, not replaced, the text of the Talmud.

The End of the Early Rishonim in North Africa - The Shift to Spain

Toward the end of the Rif’s life, he moved north to southern Spain.   This move reflected a shift in the Torah center.[9] It was also undoubtedly linked to the harsh decrees against the Jews in North Africa towards the end of the 11th century.  Not until the 14th century will we find major Torah personalities returning to North Africa.

[1] Many times when he quotes from R. Chananel he writes איכא מאן דאמר.
[2] Lucena – Lucena is in the region of Cordoba, one of the provinces of Andalusia.  Other important regions in Andalusia are Seville and Grenada.
[3] Occasionally, the Rif included eloquent monologues in Geonic Aramaic, and in three locations he appends long discussions in Arabic to the end of the tractate.
[4] Versions of the Halachos - The Rif finished the Halachos in N. Africa but he continued to make corrections and additions his whole life.  The limitations of printing forced the Rishonim to publicized changes and updates through letters to students.  Because of this and the nature of copying manuscripts, there are many different versions of the Rif, all with different degrees of inclusion of the updates and corrections. 
[5] Rashi’s “Commentary” on the Rif - A testament to the popularity of the Halachos is the fact that Rashi’s commentary was appended to printed editions of the Rif’s work.  Rashi did not write a commentary on the Halachos.  But, due to the overwhelming populariy of the Rif’s work, printers appended relevant passages in Rashi’s commentary to the page of the Halachos to aid in its study.
[6] Sefer Hanhagos Ha-Gra and Maaseh Rav #60 (qtd. In Introduction to Sefer Shvil ha-Zahav)
[7] Sefer Rosh Ha-Givah (qtd. In Introduction to Sefer Shvil ha-Zahav)
[8] R. Chananel often summarized the sugyah, R. Nisim wrote a complete paraphrase, and the Rif abridged and edited the sugyos.
[9] Although Sefer Ha-Kabbalah tells us that after the Rif Torah study leaves N. Africa and moves northward to Spain, we do know some great Talmudists who lived in N. Africa after the Rif.  For example, R. Ephraim was a student of the Rif who wrote a spirited super-commentary on the Halachos.  In many cases he defends R Chananel from the Rif’s attacks.  Some of his comments were erroneously included in the main text of the Rif’s Halachos by later printers.  Another example is R. Zecharia (1120-1195), from the city of Agmat,  Morroco.  R. Zecharia wrote the Sefer HaNer, a super-commentary on the Rif.  This is the first sefer of the Shita Mekubetzes genre that collected various perushim together on a text.  The quotes are all in the original, so many of the sources are in Arabic, as are R. Zechaira’s own comments.  

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