Rabbi Isaac Alfasi: Rif

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

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Halakhah and Aggadah

Sefer ha-Halakhot also includes a certain amount of talmudic aggadah. The Talmud contains, in addition to its halakhic material, a great quantity and variety of aggadic matter, including ethical and philosophical reflections and concepts, sometimes interwoven with legal discussion.

Alfasi undertook the arduous and difficult task of distinguishing between aggadah that has only speculative or anecdotal significance and aggadah that serves as a basis for halakhic rules governing practical conduct. His keen discernment and deep insight enabled him to succeed in this undertaking.

For example, the Talmud states:

"If a person prays for divine favor for his fellow when he himself is in need of the same thing, his need will be responded to first. . . . If a person complains to Heaven against his fellow [instead of taking the case to a human tribunal], he himself will be punished first."

Of these two aggadic dicta, Alfasi included only the second, because a rule governing practical conduct may be derived from it, i.e., that a dispute with one's fellow should be brought to a court. Alfasi did not include the first because it does not involve a binding rule of conduct.

The broad inclusion by Alfasi of the main points of the talmudic discussion--both the halakhic and the aggadic portions--earned for Sefer haHalakhot the additional title "The Abridged Talmud" (Talmud Katan); and the author himself apparently intended his work to be just that, in order to make it easier for people to engage in talmudic study.

An Authoritative Code

Alfasi's Sefer ha-Halakhot was the crowning masterpiece of this genre of codificatory literature; and, thanks to its scope and contents as well as to the personality and authority of its author, it became the authoritative code of the halakhic system. Maimonides' Introduction to his Commentary on the Mishnah, after discussing the codificatory literature of the geonim, went on to say:

"The halakhot by the great master Rabbenu Isaac, of blessed memory, succeeded in replacing all of them [i.e., the other codes], since it includes all the decisions and laws that are needed in this era, i.e., the era of exile. In this work, he cleared up all the errors that had crept into the rulings of his predecessors. I have found difficulty in only a few rulings, certainly not amounting to even ten."

The halakhic authorities of France and Provence were also appreciative of the magnitude of Alfasi's achievement. Isaac the Elder, one of the great Tosafists, said of him: "A human being could never compose a work like this without the help of divine inspiration." Rabad, the keen critic of Maimonides and of many other great halakhic authorities, wrote of Alfasi: "I would rely on Alfasi, of blessed memory, even if he were to say that right is left. "

Timeless Influence

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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.