The First Pillar of Jewish Law: The Rif
Students with even a cursory familiarity with Halacha, Jewish law, are aware of the importance of the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Karo’s comprehensive 15th century magnum opus that informs, directs, and inspires the daily behavior of observant Jews worldwide. Fewer people know, however, of the scholar that Rabbi Karo termed “the first pillar” of Jewish Law: the Algerian-born Rabbi Yitzchak al-Fasi, whose yahrtzeit is observed on the 10th of Iyar. Together with the rulings of Maimonides and R. Asher (“the Rosh”), Rabbi al-Fasi’s work formed the basis of all the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch.
The Old City of Fez
The Rif, as he has been known to generations of Yeshiva students, spent the majority of his life in Fez, Morocco (hence his surname, which means “of Fez”). At the age of 75 he was forced to flee persecution and settled in the Iberian Peninsula, where a more tolerant environment contributed to the famed Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. He established a Yeshiva in Lucena, and rapidly attracted a number of brilliant students, including Rabbi Yosef ibn Migash and the poet-philosopher Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi, author of The Kuzari. Among his students was Rabbi Baruch Albalia, the orphaned son of one of the Rif’s most vocal opponents. Despite a long-standing and public dispute, moments before he succumbed to an untimely illness the child’s father directed his son to turn to Rabbi Alfasi for support. Moved to tears by his rival’s words of forgiveness, the Rif compassionately took the young boy into his household and raised him to greatness.
The Rif composed hundreds of Rabbinic responsa in Arabic, but his greatest contribution to Torah literature is certainly his Sefer Halakhot, a brilliantly innovative work that revolutionized the study of The Talmud. Indeed, in regions like Italy where the study of Talmud was banned by Church authorities, the Sefer Halakhot served as its substitute for 300 years.
The genius behind Sefer Halakhot is not so much the information it contains as the information it omits. The Talmud is a massive, fantastically complex series of associations connected by a fine, delicate thread of argument. It is utterly unique, completely distinct from the Greco-Roman models of jurisprudence that dominate western culture. A tractate may be dedicated to a single subject – Shabbat, for example – but the content of that volume will draw from discussions in the entire corpus of Rabbinic literature. Absolutely nothing is tangential because every apparent distraction is followed to its logical conclusion before returning to the main line of discussion. Thus, while Tractate Shabbat is the locus classicus for a discussion of the seventh day, it also contains key discussions of a thousand topics, and other tractates also contain key information on Shabbat in turn.
The Rif radically simplified the study of Jewish law by creating a carefully edited version of the most widely researched tractates of the Talmud (especially those that dealt with contemporary practice). Sefer Halakhot, sometimes simply called “the Rif,” is thus a condensed, to-the-point version of the Talmudic back-and-forth, with occasional artful notes and clarifications by al-Fasi.
Of course, Rabbi al-Fasi’s surgical method sacrificed much fascinating material. Talmudic aggadah – meaning the cryptic legends, biographies, and other teachings of the Sages – was generally omitted, although the Rif includedaggadah that had halachic implications. His editorial choice simplified halachic study at the expense of inspirational text, was later addressed by Rabbi Yaakov ibn Habib in his Ein Yaakov, essentially a mirror edition of the Rif that passed over most Halacha and preserved aggadah instead.
The Rif was a transitional, pivotal figure in the history of Torah scholarship. He was 25 when the last of the Babylonian Rabbis known as Geonim passed away, and thus he was among the first generation of scholars called Rishonim. His work earned prime Rabbinic real estate when it was included in the standard edition of the Vilna Talmud in the 1860s, printed as a primary reference for serious students. His scholarship has been praised by the greatest Rabbis over the last millennium, including a member of the school of Tosafot, Rabbi Yaakov of Marvege, who once went to sleep troubled by a controversy that questioned a halachic ruling of the Rif. In his dreams he was visited by a heavenly voice that quoted Genesis 17:21: I shall establish my covenant with Yitzchak. Indeed, as the First Pillar of the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yitzchak al-Fasi’s covenant has been firmly established as definitive Jewish law.
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