Commentaries on Alfasi

Alfasi's groundbreaking legal code invited criticism, defense, and supplementation.

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Reprinted with the author's permission from Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles (Jewish Publication Society).

An extensive literature developed around Sefer ha-Halakhot. Some was critical, some defended it against the critics, and some explained and supplemented it. Thereafter, such works in the nature of commentaries or glosses (called in Hebrew nos'ei kelim, lit. "armor bearers") were written on the main Jewish codes. Those on Alfasi are by some of the greatest halakhic authorities. A few of the important commentators on Alfasi are next discussed.

Zerahiah Ha-Levi Gerondi (Rezah)

Rezah lived in the twelfth century in the town of Lunel in Provence, and was one of the outstanding halakhic authorities of his day. At the age of nineteen, he wrote Sefer ha-Ma'or [Book of the Luminary], consisting of critical glosses and supplementations to Alfasi's Sefer ha-Halakhot. Sefer ha-Ma'or is in two parts: Ha-Ma'or ha-Gadol [The Great Luminary] on the Orders of Nashim and Nezikin, and Ha-Ma'or ha-Katan [The Lesser Luminary] on the Order of Mo'ed.

Rezah apologized profusely for questioning Alfasi's work, "for there has not been written as fine a work on the Talmud since it was finally redacted." Yet he felt bound to seek out the truth; "as the Philosopher [Aristotle], refuting his master, said, 'Truth and Plato are at odds and both are beloved, but Truth is the more beloved.''' Consequently, he explained, his criticisms only added honor and glory to Alfasi's work.

Abraham b. David (Rabad) of Posquieres

Rabad, a contemporary of Rezah, wrote critical glosses (hassagot) on Alfasi, albeit very apologetically:

"Truly, I ought to have closed my eyes and sealed my lips and followed him unswervingly to the right and to the left; but this is a task for the sake of Heaven . . . So I did not refrain from critically reviewing [his work] as far as I was able, whether [that review] refuted or was supportive. . . ; for the Almighty desired, for the sake of His righteousness, to magnify and glorify His Torah."

Rabad sharply attacked Rezah for his criticisms of Alfasi, and frequently defended Alfasi against them, sometimes criticizing Rezah with extreme asperity.

Nahmanides (Ramban)

Nahmanides viewed Alfasi as the leading authority for determining the law, and wrote two books defending Alfasi against both Rezah and Rabad:

Milhamot ha-Shem [The Wars of the Lord] took issue with Rezah's critiques:

"I was moved by intense zeal for our great master, R. Isaac Alfasi, of blessed memory, for I have seen among those who dispute him that their challenge is so broad that they did not concede to him the merit of having made even a single correct statement, worthwhile comment, or sound ruling."

Nahmanides went on to state that although it is not always possible to demonstrate the correctness of a halakhic opinion with the compelling force of a mathematical proof, nevertheless the proper approach is to accept the reasoning that conforms most closely to the plain meaning of the laws and the talmudic passages.

Sefer ha-Zekhut [The Book of Merit] answers Rabad's critiques on Alfasi. Nahmanides was very temperate in his expressions about Rabad and accorded him great respect.

Rezah, Rabad, and Nahmanides essentially were critics or defenders of Alfasi and only incidentally his explicators. The main purpose of the commentators next discussed was to explain Alfasi and, incidentally, also to supplement him.

Jonathan of Lunel

Jonathan of Lunel, who lived in the second half of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth centuries, was a disciple of Rabad and the foremost halakhic authority of Lunel in his generation. He wrote a commentary on Alfasi's Sefer ha-Halakhot, of which only the part on Tractate Eruvin is included in the printed editions of the Talmud; but his commentaries on additional tractates have recently been published separately. He carried on a correspondence with Maimonides, who held him in the highest regard. Toward the end of his life (1210), he was one of the "three hundred rabbis of England and France" who settled in the Land of Israel, where he lived until his death.

Nissim Gerondi (Ran)

Ran, a judge and head of the yeshivah in Barcelona, was one of the leading Spanish halakhic authorities of the fourteenth century. He wrote a commentary on Alfasi covering fourteen tractates, but it is possible that a few of these have been erroneously attributed to him. Today, Ran's is the most widely accepted commentary on Alfasi.

Joseph Habiba

Joseph Habiba, a disciple of Ran, lived in Spain at the beginning of the fifteenth century. His work Nimmukei Yosef [The Argumentations of Joseph--a play on the author's name] is a commentary on the entire Sefer ha-Halakhot of Alfasi; but the printed editions of the Talmud contain his commentary only on the seven tractates on which there is no commentary by Ran. The bulk of Habiba's published commentary is on Nezikin; his commentary on additional tractates has only recently been published. In terms of acceptance, Nimmukei Yosef ranks a close second to Ran's commentary on Alfasi.

Joshua Boaz b. Simon Baruch

Joshua Boaz was among the Jews exiled from Spain. He immigrated to Italy, where he lived during the first half of the sixteenth century. His book Shiltei Gibborim contains supplementation to Alfasi as well as critiques and divergent views of leading authorities, including Isaiah of Trani (Riaz; known also as Isaiah the Latter), who lived in Italy at the end of the thirteenth century.

Other Commentators

There were many other commentators on Alfasi's work, and an extensive halakhic literature developed around his Sefer ha-Halakhot, which to this day remains the first of the "three pillars" of the edifice of Jewish law.

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Menachem Elon

Justice Menachem Elon has had a long and distinguished career as a legal scholar. He is a retired professor of Jewish Law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a prolific author on Jewish Law. In 1977 Justice Elon was appointed to the Supreme Court of Israel and served as its Deputy President from 1988 until 1993. He lives in Jerusalem.