Great Legalist and Writer of Sefer Ha-Halachot

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Isaac ben Jacob Alfasi, known as the Rif, lived from 1013-1103. He was born in Algeria, but spent his adult life in Fez, Egypt (hence his surname Alfasi and his acronym Rabbi Isaac Fasi). In a sense, Alfasi brought the geonic period to a close. The last of the Babylonian geonim, Hai Gaon, died when Alfasi was 25 years old. Alfasi himself was called "gaon" by several early halachic authorities.

Alfasi lived in Egypt until 1088, when, in his 75th year, he was denounced to the government by enemies and was forced to flee to Spain. After a few months in Cordoba he moved to Lucena, where he remained until his death.

Shortly after his arrival in Lucena, he became head of the yeshivah (1089), following the death of Isaac b. Judah ibn Ghayyat.

The most famous of his many students were Joseph ibn Migash, Judah HaLevi, Ephraim of Kalat Hamad, and Baruch b. Isaac ibn Abalia. Before his death, Alfasi designated Ibn Migash as his successor, even though his own son, Jacob, was a distinguished scholar.

His death was mourned in dirges by various poets, among them Moses ibn Ezra. Another, hitherto regarded as by Judah Halevi is now attributed by Abramson to Joseph ibn Sahl.

In his Shirat Yisrael, Moses ibn Ezra praised Alfasi, describing him as a man unsurpassed in keenness of intellect, whose wisdom was deep beyond compare, whose pen was swift, outdistancing that of any rival and whose equal in intensity of religious feeling could scarcely be found.

Alfasi dedicated his life to the study of the Talmud and its dissemination among the masses. Long before he came to Spain, his intellectual stand was decided and he was not influenced by the cultural life of Spain.

Hundreds of Alfasi's responsa have survived. Many of them were written while he was still in Fez, the majority in Arabic. In character and in style Alfasi's responsa are still close to those of the Babylonian geonim. Alfasi's fame however rests on his great work Sefer ha-Halachot.

In the composition of this work Alfasi had a two-fold purpose:
1. extracting all the halachic material from the Talmud, ascertaining the decision, and providing a comprehensive compendium for ready reference;
2. preparing an epitome of the Talmud, thereby facilitating its study.

Much of the Talmud consists of discussions without definitive conclusions. Alfasi cut through all that material and provided the halachah on each issue.

Concerning the first purpose Alfasi confined himself to those portions of the Talmud which were still operative and practiced, and excluded those of only academic importance. His code, therefore, covers Mo'ed (Holidays), Nashim (Regulations Involving Women), Nezikin (Civil and Criminal Cases), and the individual tractates Berachot (Blessings and Prayer) and Hullin (Edible Foods).

Even here Alfasi omitted entire chapters, such as the laws of the Paschal sacrifice (in the tractate Pesachim) and all that portion of the tractate Yoma which deals with the Temple Service on the Day of Atonement.

Alfasi arranged laws scattered throughout the orders Kodashim and Tohorot which still had relevance such as the laws of the Torah scroll, mezuzah and tefillin, under the special title of Halachot Ketannot, the Small Laws.

Alfasi didn't just provide Talmudic decisons. Sometimes his quotations were used to explain the cited passage. For the most part, his explanations are brief, and in several instances discernible only when compared with the talmudic text. He comments at some length on instances where the geonim differed in their interpretation, discussing the different views and giving his own interpretation.

Jewish scholars of later generations were unstinting in their admiration of Alfasi and his book. Maimonides wrote "The Halachot of the great rabbi, our teacher Isaac, of blessed memory, has superseded all these works (geonic codes)...for it contains all the decisions and laws which we need in our day... and, except for a few halachot, not exceeding ten, his decisions are unassailable." (Nevertheless, in one of his responsa Maimonides wrote that he differed from Alfasi in about 30 instances.)

In a letter to his disciple Joseph b. Judah, he advised him to make Alfasi's Halakhot his major study; and Maimonides himself taught them to his students. Isaac b. Samuel ha-Zaken said of him: "A man will toil in vain to produce such a work, unless the spirit of God rest upon him." Abraham b. David of PosquiIres, who tended to be severely critical of other authors, wrote of him: "I would rely on the words of Alfasi even if he should say that right is left."

Even Alfasi's critics, and those who commented upon or supplemented his writings, never set out to find flaws in his work, but merely to correct whenever they deemed necessary; for they recognized the great usefulness of the book and wanted to see it used more widely. Joseph Karo regarded Alfasi as the first among the three pillars of learning upon whom the house of Israel rests (Alfasi, Maimonides, and Asher ben Yechiel), and upon whose authority he determined the laws in his Shulchan Aruch. Thus Alfasi's influence pervades Jewish code-literature up to modern times.

At the close of the Middle Ages, when the Talmud was banned in Italy, Alfasi's work was expressly exempted, so that between the 16th and 19th centuries it was a principal subject of study among Italian Jews.

Such a tremendous work coming out of Egypt's Jewish academy and not Babylonia's nailed the coffin on the geonim's influence over world Jewry.

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