Ritba (Rabbi Yom Tov Ishbili)

Ritba's chief fame rests on his commentaries to the Talmud.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Yom Tov Ishbili, Spanish Talmudist and Halakhic authority (d. 1330), was known as the Ritba, after the initial letters of his name, Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Ishbili.

The Ritba's teachers were Solomon Ibn Adret and, especially, Aaron HaLevi of Barcelona. After Ibn Adret's death, the Ritba was acknowledged as the most prominent spiritual guide by the Jews of Spain and other lands.

Ritba was a student of philosophy. His Sefer Ha-Zikkaron ('Book of Remembrance') defends Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed against the strictures of Nahmanides in the latter's Commentary to the Torah, although Ritba believed that Maimonides' approach was only valid from the philosophical point of view, while Nahmanides was also right from the Kabbalistic point of view; the conflict between philosophy and the Kabbalah in the time of Ritba finds echoes in his works.

A Semi-Kabbalist?

Ritba left no works on the Kabbalah and it is doubtful whether he can actually be classed as a Kabbalist merely on the strength of the stray and veiled references to the Kabbalah in his works.

For instance, on the Talmudic statement (Eruvin 13b) about the controversies between the houses of Hillel and Shammai that 'both these and these are the words of the living God,' Ritba observes that the French scholars take the statement literally to mean that God delivered the two sets of opinions to Moses at Sinai, leaving it to the two houses to choose which set to follow.

'From their point of view,' Ritba writes, 'the understanding of the French scholars is correct. But according to the way of truth (the Kabbalah) there is a reason and a mystery in this matter'; meaning presumably that, according to the Kabbalah, the House of Shammai was governed in its decisions by the principle of Gevurah ('Power' and 'Judgement'), hence its strictness, while the House of Hillel was governed by the principle of Hesed ('Lovingkindness'), hence its leniencies.

Talmud Commentary

Questions in Jewish law were addressed to Ritba from a number of communities but his Responsa were not published until the twentieth century.

Ritba's chief fame rests, however, on his great commentaries to the Talmud. It has to be noted that modern scholarship has detected that some works attributed to Ritba are not his while some works attributed to other authors are really his. In recent years, many of Ritba's commentaries to the Talmud have been published by Mossad Harav Kook in Jerusalem in sumptuous, scholarly editions.

Ritba's commentaries to the Talmud display his keen logical method in analyzing legal concepts as well as his familiarity with the Tosafot and other earlier commentaries, enabling the student easily to survey all the different opinions.

In this respect Ritba resembles Menahem Meiri, whose works have similarly been republished to become extremely popular as guides to the intricacies of the Talmudic debates.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.