The Tree of Wisdom: Rabbi Isak Alfassi

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For the 905th Memorial of the Passing of the Rabbi [on May 4, 2008 / 10 Iyar 5769]

© Shelomo Alfassa

The crusades which started in the beginning of the last millennium virtually destroyed Jewish intellectual life. It suppressed and almost brought an end to the Jewish creative process in the middle European countries and the holy land. It was during this period, that further development of the Talmud passed to Jews living in Iberia and North Africa. Remembered nearly one thousand years later, Rabbi Isak Alfassi (RIF) is still today considered one of the most influential Talmudists of all time, a man who brought a close to the Geonic Period (c. 589 CE - 1030 CE).

Born in the Spring of 4773 (1013 CE) in Qal'at Hammad, Algeria was Isak ibn Yossef, known to history as Rabbi Isak Alfassi. He was one of the greatest codifier of Jewish law of his time, writing the most important Jewish code, prior to Maimonides Mishna Tora. Alfassi bridged a major link between the tradition of the gaonim (rabbinical leaders) who headed the ancient Talmudic yeshivot (rabbinical colleges) of Babylonia, and the burgeoning aljamas (Jewish communities) in Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain.

After studying in Kairuan, a scholarly Jewish community and main intellectual center on the east coast of Tunisia, he settled in Fez, Morocco. Alfassi is best known for his brilliant legal code, Sefer ha-Halakhot (Book of Laws). His work was extremely popular, and was revered by the Iberian and French scholars of his day. In his Book of Laws he summarized the discussions of the Talmud; he preserved the order in which they were written; he formulated his own decisions; and he did it all to make the Talmud more digestible for the community. This work, and hundreds of his written opinions (responsa), earned him a reputation as the first of the great codifiers after the finalization and closing of the Talmud.

Rabbi Alfassi's writings allowed a wider audience to have access to understanding the Talmud and thus to interpret Jewish law. In doing so, his work superseded study of the original Talmud in many locations. This smaller, more comprehensive, easier to understand version became the standard of the Jewish world, being known as the Talmud Kattan or "miniature Talmud." Many decades later, Maimonides called it, "the flower of all post-Talmudic rabbinic literature." As an independent thinker, Alfassi dared to differ from the gaonim, all the while respecting them. He established a great number of methodical rules for the interpretation of the Talmud. Not only did he give the law in accordance with his own judgment, but he also cited the relevant passage in the Talmud dealing directly or indirectly with the subject at hand. By removing the material not affecting contemporary life outside of ancient Jerusalem (i.e. animal sacrifices and ritual purity), he was able to concentrate on expanding upon items related to everyday life. In doing so, Alfassi brought a better understanding of the Talmud, and thus Judaism, to the lives of ordinary Jews.

During his lifetime, Alfassi was considered one of the foremost and final authorities on the Talmud, and in time, many commentaries were written in regard to his work. Years later, his work itself had become the center and subject of a vast literature. Alfassi influenced several great Jewish scholars over succeeding centuries. Maimonides, who studied under Rabbi Joseph ibn Migash [a prodigy of Alfassi] wrote that Alfassi's work: "has superseded all the gaonic codes…for it contains all the decisions and laws which we need in our day…" Obviously, Maimonides had great praise for Alfassi, this is demonstrated in his Mishnah Tora where he seems to strategically omit any reference to the gaonim, while continuing to praise Alfassi.

Diversity of rabbinical opinion existed back then, as it does today. Maimonides, himself, would come to note places in Alfassi's Code where there were items bearing a non-mutual opinion. However, Maimonides did defend Alfassi on occasions, even declaring, "one would be hard put to find as many as ten errors in his monumental work." In 1089 CE when Alfassi was about 75 year old, a fellow Jew slandered him to the Islamic authorities, and this sent him fleeing to Spain. Alfassi brought with him there, the seeds of wisdom, which contributed to the tree of future Jewish sages.

Soon after settling in Cordoba in 1088 CE, he relocated to the city of Lucena (a few miles southeast) after hearing of the death of Yitshak ibn Gayyat, head rabbi of the Lucena yeshiva (rabbinical college). Lucena was a grand center for Jewish learning, and was written about in contemporary accounts as the "city of the Jews." At the time when Ashkenazi Jewry was still in its infancy and Sephardi Jewry was yet to mature, Lucena had become a center for rabbinical opinions and rulings in Western Europe, and correspondence was known to be exchanged with communities in both the holy land and Babylonia. Rabbi Alfassi became both the head of the yeshiva (rosh) and the judge (dayan) of the city; he remained there for the next fourteen years. Before his death, Alfassi turned the Lucena yeshiva over to Rabbi Yossef ibn Migash, future teacher of Maimonides.

Jewish codes were initially created to answer specific internal needs of Jews law, and to respond to several external threats to its existence and authority. However, they were quite complicated, and what Alfassi did was to clarify and enhance them so that the average person could comprehend and appreciate them. His writings not only influenced Maimonides, but many subsequent sages such as Mordehi ben Hillel, Yossef Karo, and Yishak Luria. Rabbi Karo, a Spanish expulsion victim who settled in Ottoman Safed, later wrote: "Rabbi Alfassi, Maimonides, and Rabbi Asher [the Tur of Spain], are the pillars of Jewish Law, which all of Israel bases itself on."

During his long lifetime, Rabbi Alfassi influenced and taught many future scholars. This included his students Moshe ibn Esra, and Yossef HaLevi, both who would later become widely regarded poets. Rabbi Isak Alfassi died 10 Iyar, 4863 (1103 CE) at the ripe age of ninety. Though his burial location in Spain has been lost to history, the epitaphs from his tombstone have been recorded for time immemorial. Ibn Esra wrote a brief poem, one line reads, "in this grave the fount of wisdom is buried, and the world has come into blindness." HaLevy wrote, "…upon the tablets of thy heart they wrote the Law, upon thy head they placed the crown of glory, even sages cannot learn to stand upright, unless they have sought wisdom from the tree." Nine centuries later, Rabbi Alfassi's decisions still effect the life of religiously observant Jews everyday.


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This page contains a single entry by Shelomo Alfassa published on April 27, 2008 9:10 PM.

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