Rabbi Isaac Alfasi: Rif

A legal code for the Jews of medieval North Africa and Spain.

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

As the geonic period came to an end, the need arose once again for a code that covered the entire halakhic system yet was succinct and definitive. Several factors were at work. The increased volume of responsa and legislative enactments in various fields of the law necessarily involved the continuing expansion and development of the law. Moreover, for a considerable time, such activity had been going on not only in Babylonia, but also in North Africa and Europe. The fact that the number of Jewish centers had increased also led inevitably to marked differences in laws and customs.

 

While such differences had existed in the geonic period, and even earlier--between the Land of Israel and Babylonia, and between different yeshivot and localities within each of these centers--the differences became much more prominent as the centers in the diaspora increased in number and spread over a broader area.

These factors, and others discussed below, led to the composition of one of the greatest and most important works in the halakhic system--a work that left its mark on the study and determination of halakhah in every subsequent generation. This work is Sefer ha-Halakhot [Book of the Laws] by Isaac b. Jacob ha-Kohen Alfasi, known in Hebrew by his acronym, "Rif" [Rabbi Isaac of Fez].

Biography

Alfasi was born in 1013 in the town of Qal'at Hammad in North Africa, which is why he is sometimes called ha-Kala'i (the Qala'ean). He studied in Kairouan and in the yeshivot of Nissim b. Jacob (Nissim Gaon) and Rabbenu Hananel b. Hushiel, and eventually settled in Fez, North Africa (hence his appellation Alfasi), where he taught Torah to many students.

At the age of seventy-five, he was forced to flee Fez after being denounced to the government; he moved to Spain, where, after a few months, he settled in Lucena, which was then a spiritual center of Spanish Jewry. After a short time, upon the death of Isaac b. Judah ibn Ghayyat, Alfasi headed the famous yeshivah in Lucena, where he attracted many students, including Joseph ibn Migash (Ri Migash) and Judah Halevi. Alfasi died in 1103, having designated Ri Migash to succeed him.

Alfasi's Legacy

Alfasi was regarded in his generation as the leading talmudic authority in Spain, and he left a legacy of hundreds of responsa to queries addressed to him from all the communities of Spain and North Africa.

His major work, however, is Sefer ha-Halakhot, which generally follows the pattern of organization of Halakhot Gedolot of Simeon Kayyara, although with some significant differences. Like Halakhot Gedolot, Alfasi's work is arranged in the order of the tractates of the Talmud, and presents the talmudic sources before stating a conclusion as to the governing law. The sources, moreover, are not merely cited but are summarized and discussed.

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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.