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By the beginning of the 11th century the vast Muslim empire stretched from Kabul in the East (in today’s Afghanistan) to the Spanish peninsula in the West. This meant that it was increasingly easy for Jews to migrate along trade routes and establish or invigorate existing Jewish communities throughout North Africa and Spain. A similar dispersion occurred in Christian Europe after the Frankish kings invited Jewish traders to settle in Provence and the Rhineland (Ashkenaz).
As these Jewish communities grew, they developed their own rabbinic schools and scholars, which came to rival those of Babylonia. This explosive growth resulted in dramatic increases in the number and diversity of local customs (minhagim) and halakhic rulings, gradually causing the religious and national authority of Babylonian Jewry to decline. Thus, the stage was set for the period of the rishonim (the “first” or “early” scholars), which began, roughly, with the death of the final gaon, Hai ben Sherira, in 1038 CE and lasted until the publication of Joseph Caro‘s Shulhan Arukh in the 16th century.
In many ways the rishonim merely continued what the geonim had already developed. But the halakhah was also becoming ever more unwieldy, even for scholars. The pressing need to organize, consolidate, and clarify the growing corpus of halakhah inspired some rishonim to codify Jewish law.
Sefer ha-Halakhot of Yitzhak Alfasi (the “Rif”), written in the late 11th century, was the first such attempt. Although more a summary of the Talmud than a code per se, in this work, Alfasi condensed the talmudic discussions on points of halakhah and recorded his final rulings, even in cases that were still hotly debated.
A century later, Maimonides (12th century Spain/Egypt) composed the first true halakhic code, his monumental Mishneh Torah–also known as Ha-Yad ha-Hazakah. Written in simple Hebrew, and organized topically, the Mishneh Torah was revolutionary in the way it presented the laws in a totally new format and without providing the biblical and rabbinic sources for its decisions.
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