Shelomo Alfassa: April 2008 Archives

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 In doing so, his work superseded study of the original Talmud in many locations.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.

Published in The Cutting Edge News - April 14, 2008

An original essay by Shelomo Alfassa

On April 1, 2008, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed a Resolution which grants first-time-ever recognition to Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries. The adoption of House Resolution 185, affirms that all victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict must be treated with equality, and this may be the catalyst for a dramatic shift in United States policy.

Why? Because prior to last week's adoption, all U.S. Resolutions on Middle East refugees referred only to Palestinian Arabs. The new Resolution underscores the fact that Jews living in Arab and Muslim countries suffered human rights violations, were uprooted from their homes, and were made refugees.

Justice for Jews from Arab Countries
(JJAC) is the tip of the spear for the International Rights and Redress Campaign, a global movement backed by a coalition of over 77 Jewish organizations. The Campaign seeks legal rights and redress for the over 850,000 Jews who lost everything from their dignity and property, to their loved ones—many of whom were beaten, tortured and murdered prior to or during their flight from Arab countries. The 77 Jewish organizations which have worked with JJAC, have lent their active support to a human rights issue which has brought the Jewish community together.

The main focus of this global Campaign is to register the narratives of the Jews that were displaced from Arab and Muslim countries. This is a paperwork process, a tedious one. It requires people who were born in, and who fled from, Arab and Muslim countries to document where they came from and what they had to leave behind. Over the course of several years, many thousands of people have been registering with JJAC, providing not only names and addresses, but descriptions and documentation of the loss of their possessions. More than the possessions however are the tragic stories of their experiences:

--An Iraqi Jewish woman called Rachel recounts: "My husband was arrested three times and was tortured in prison. He was almost killed the latest time while I was pregnant. We had to escape from Iraq on foot and had to leave all our property and belongings."

--An Iraqi Jewish woman called Lorraine recollects: "My father was imprisoned twice in 1948 and 1978, for selling one of his carpets because we had no cash. We fled and had to make life for ourselves without the parent's emotional or financial support. We were orphaned for more than 20 years. My parents had to remain in Iraq and from 1964 to 1990, Jews could not sell their property. When my parents were able to escape, they were humiliated, helpless and penniless, leaving behind everything with only the clothing on their backs."

--An Iraqi Jewish woman name Fortune recounted: "My father was arrested at our home and tortured almost half to death. We saw him again after eight months. He was able to obtain a passport and fled to Lebanon where he then managed to flee to Switzerland and eventually Israel. My mother supported us alone as one by one my family fled the country. One relative fled to Turkey then to Israel after learning her entire family was murdered while she was in school. My brother and I fled to Northern Iraq where Kurds were paid to bring us to Tehran and then we went to Israel."

--A Jewish woman, Victoria from Tunisia, told: "On several occasions my father was taken away in the middle of the night by the police without charges. My brother and I were harassed in school and discriminated because we were Jews. I was often humiliated in front of my classmates. We lived in CONSTANT fear."

--A Syrian Jewish woman called Stella remembers: "As all the young people were escaping from Syria, the government was putting their families in jail. The locked up several fathers and mothers. The next day the community decided to stay in the synagogue where a black flag was flown outside the building. After crying and praying all day, we gathered at the government building, like a rally, and demanded they better kill us, as we screamed for our freedom. It was like a civil war. My father had been captured, but eventually came home as a sick man. The next day he had a heart attack and died."

--David, an Egyptian Jew recounts: "The police came into my jewelry store then took me to a police station where we were handcuffed and beaten. The put us on a truck and took us to a prison camp where they hit us with belts and sticks. We were terrorized by the officers all night. I lost everything. A year later I was transferred to another prison, and three years later I was deported."

--Frieda, a Jew from Egypt tells that her father: "Was arrested and taken outside of Cairo to what we call a concentration camp to be interrogated with other ‘Jews' and foreign nationals. My mother was placed on house arrest. When we left we had 48 hours to get ready and we left behind everything."

--Joe, a Jewish man from Egypt recounts: "I remember the darker side: my lost childhood, neighbors and school friends I will never see again, the harassment, the killings of innocent Jewish families, the sudden and unlawful confiscation of Jewish property. Most of all, I can still feel like it was only yesterday the deep and intense fear for our lives as crowds shouted 'edbah el Yahud' [slaughter the Jews]."

--An Egyptian Jewish man called Steven recalls: "My mother went to the bank to withdraw the money she had saved which was in the tens of thousands. The bank teller said, ‘We don't give money to Jews.' She went to gain access to her safe deposit box to get her jewelry, diamonds and gold, and was denied. My father died penniless in Israel, he had left everything in Cairo."

Underscoring the importance of this Resolution, Congressman Joseph Crowley (D-NY), one of the bi-partisan co-sponsors, said, "The world needs to understand that it is not just the Arabs and it's not just the Palestinians in the Middle East, but also Jewish people who themselves were dispossessed of their possessions and their homes, and were victims of terrorist acts. These are people who lived in Middle Eastern communities not for decades, but for thousands of years." Rep. Crowley added that the Resolution will, "bring light upon an issue that has been swept under the carpet."

While Palestinians have been left to linger in refugee camps by their fellow Arab cousins, and just because Jews have moved forward over the last decades, that does not negate the fact that Jews were also refugees, and that Jews suffered terribly.

It would constitute an injustice were the United States to recognize rights for one victim population - Palestinian refugees - without recognizing equal rights for former Jewish refugees from Arab countries, as both were victims of the very same Middle East conflict. Because of this, House Resolution 185 also urges that the President and U.S. officials participating in Middle East discussions ensure: "That any explicit reference to Palestinian refugees is matched by a similar explicit reference to Jewish and other refugees, as a matter of law and equity."

At the end of WWII, there were close to one million Jews living in the Middle East and North Africa. They were loyal citizens that contributed to every facet of society. These people watched as their entire civilization, everything they knew, was destroyed because of discrimination, harassment, violence and worse. Thus, it is in the spirit of equality, fairness, and legitimate moral leadership that the United States government passed this important Resolution which recognizes the suffering and hardship these hundreds of thousands of victims experienced.

Shelomo Alfassa is U.S. Director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.

(This Original Essay is Copyrighted by Shelomo Alfassa - All Rights Reserved)

By the first quarter of the 20th century, some 30,000 Sephardic Jews had arrived in New York City, consisting of three independent groups, all three groups which have been often overlooked by most modern historian and authors.

The largest group consisted of the Turkinos (as they called themselves). They were Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) speaking Jews they hailed from Turkey and former Turkish administered cities such as Adrianople, Belgrade, Bucharest, Istanbul, Kastoria, Monastir, Rhodes, Sarajevo, Sofia, Salonika, and others. These Hispanic Jews' ancestors had been made refugees during the 15th century. They had been expelled some 425 years earlier by Spain and Portugal during Iberian Inquisitions. Once welcomed with open arms into cities under the administration of the Turkish Sultan, these Jews had once again become displaced, and would come to find shelter among the crowded streets, stuffy brick walkups and rough cobblestones of the Lower East Side.

The others groups to establish themselves in New York City were the Greek Yanniotes (as they called themselves), and the Jews of Ottoman Syria...


A Personal Note by Shelomo Alfassa

(April 2, 2008) - Today, I came across a report that my friend Judy Frankel had died on March 20, 2008. There is nothing like the shock of learning about the death of a good friend in a newspaper, it's a pain that has no match. Judy was a fabulous soft spoken lady with a selfless and caring heart.

While she could sing songs in twenty languages, Judy will best be remembered for singing traditional songs, which she learned from Sephardic Jews, in the Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) language. Judy was taught the songs, mostly from older woman, who possessed these songs in only as an oral tradition. Although Ashkenazi (of Eastern European Jewish descent), Judy learned the old Spanish songs from Jews which had roots in the Balkans, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Romania and other locations where Sephardim lived. These were families, like my own, who had been exiled from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century, and relocated to the Ottoman Empire where they rebuilt their lives.

Judy was raised in Boston, where she graduated Boston University then moved to the Bay Area in 1969. She first worked as a teacher, then went into singing. One of her first jobs singing was at Mount Zion Hospital, where she sang to patients. Joe Eskenazi, a writer for the J News Weekly recently wrote:

"Frankel's musical talent blossomed early; younger cousin Ellen Geisler remembered seders [holiday dinners] at the family's Boston home in which a pre-teen Frankel sang and played guitar. She was a professional performer by age 13, singing at weddings, bar mitzvahs and on the radio and TV. Originally gravitating toward rock and jazz, her tenor voice was more suited to folk music, and it was in pursuit of club gigs that she moved to the Bay Area from Hawaii with her then-husband in the 1960s."

I had met Judy some 15 years ago in Colorado. We quickly became friends, and it was nice to see her when I visited California or when she played her many concerts in New York and Florida, both places I lived. I have fond memories of after concerts joining friends and taking Judy to dinner. One afternoon in Colorado, Judy and I were going for lunch, and she had her guitar in her car (she always had it with her). She brought the guitar into the restaurant, when I asked her why she brought it in, she responded, "she's my life!"

I bought my first Judy Frankel cassette in Miami, and I listened to it over and over on a three hour drive to Orlando. Her rendition of the Israel national anthem, Hatikva (The Hope), which she optimistically titled, 'Fiestramos' (Let's Celebrate), always moved me. On my first trip to Spain, I listened to nothing but Judy's albums in the rental car as I drove through the flowing hills from Cordoba down to Granada and then back up to Seville; these were cities from which the Sephardim originated from. Judy's sweet Spanish guitar coupled with her exquisite voice was the perfect accompaniment for my visit to my ancestral homeland. I truly loved Judy Frankel's music.

During WWII, the German Army, supported by other anti-Jewish individuals and factions, devastated the communities of Ladino speaking Jews in places such as Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia. So many Sephardim were murdered, that the old Sephardic communities never were able to recover. Judy helped perpetuate Jewish songs from these locations--songs which may have been forgotten about.

Her love of music, specifically, her appreciation of 'songs of old,' have left an enduring mark on the world. Unlike many contemporary "Ladino singers," Judy Frankel never tried to jazz up the old songs or perform them in a way which was not consistent with the traditional arrangement. She never attempted to mold the old Sephardic songs into New Age fluff or cheap sounding pop tunes. Because of Judy's diligence to preserve songs in a most authentic way-the way were originally sung at home, she leaves behind a true oral tradition for future generations to cherish.

Judy and I exchanged correspondence on various topics, and she would often ask me questions on Sephardic traditions and history. She once said that some day she would play music for my family, but that won't happen now. More than 20 years ago Judy was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she recovered from it; now, cancer has returned and taken her from the world.

Judy en ganeden ke repoze. Ha'makom yenahem etkhem betokh she'ar avele Siyon v'Yerushalayim.

Judy lived in San Francisco for many years. She was an only child and she did not have any children. Among the charities her family has asked that donations may be made to in her name are: The Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, P.O. Box 650309, Dallas, Texas 75265 (and/or) The Osher Center for Integrated Medicine at U.C. San Francisco, 513 Parnassus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94143.

Music and Photos at

The Congressional Resolution our organization Justice for Jews from Arab Countries has worked to promote over the last few years has been passed!!  H.Res.185 underscores the fact that Jews living in Arab countries suffered human rights violations, were uprooted from their homes, and were made refugees. 

I was touched when our office received the following note today from a very prominent member of the Jewish community of New York, a man who runs a national Jewish organization: "Congratulations on what must be viewed as one of the most important contributions toward justice for the Jewish people's rights and heritage in recent times. In fact outside of Israel since the end of the Holocaust, the Nuremburg trials and the UN vote in favor of the new State of Israel, it is hard to think of any political body anywhere including the United Nations where the plight, losses and rights of the peace loving Jewish people has been better presented and dealt with than as it just was in the US Congress. A marvelous gift to the close to a million Jews who had to flee from Arab lands leaving everything behind, the Jewish people in general and to improved sanity and truth in support of peace for Israel."

The Resolution urges that the President and U.S. officials participating in Middle East discussions to ensure that any reference to Palestinian refugees must: “also include a similarly explicit reference to the resolution of the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.”

We also got a comment from Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice-President of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He commented, “the failure during all these years to recognize other refugees, compounded the indignation and the suffering and the deprivation of Jews in Arab countries. There was a systematic process of expulsion which the Arab governments engaged in.” He added that the Resolution is not an obstacle to peace. “It is a distortion to talk only of one refugee population, as that would undermine the ultimate outcome of any negotiations. The Congressional action will educate a generation that know too little about the other refugees.”

The press release from the organization is here:


About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by Shelomo Alfassa in April 2008.

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