Reprinted with permission from
Introduction to the History and Sources of Jewish Law
(Oxford University Press) .
Somewhere around the year 1000, Rabbi Gershom ben Judah (known as the “Light of the Exile,” Me’or hagolah) wrote the first systematic commentary to the Babylonian Talmud. There can be no comparing this comprehensive work with the fragmentary commentaries written by Rav Sherira and Rav Hai Gaon, who flourished close to R. Gershom’s own time. R. Gershom’s disciples and followers perpetuated his exegetical work in the talmudic academies of Mayence and Worms [in Germany], ultimately spreading into France. This exegesis culminated in Rashi’s classic commentary to the Talmud, which drew directly from the commentaries of the German Sages.
Between the years 1100-1300 a new branch of talmudic exegesis and study took root: the Tosafot. The Tosafists wrote collections of comments on the Talmud arranged according to the order of the talmudic tractates, taking Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud as their starting point, and using it to compare and analyze different talmudic passages, thus seeking to harmonize apparent discrepancies and distinctions. Several elements of this new intellectual current are discernible amongst the scholars of Worms at the close of the eleventh century, but it was only in twelfth-thirteenth century France that they reached their finest flowering.
Combining great erudition with a dialectical analysis of the talmudic text, the crystallization of the Tosafot bears a significant resemblance to the manner in which the Talmud itself was composed. Both reflect the drawn-out debates of rabbinic academies.
Like the Talmud, the various collections of Tosafot intersperse answers to questions with legal decisions. In the words of one eminent scholar: “The Tosafists began where the Talmud left off. Just like [the Talmud] they too absorbed everything that happened within the academy: the give-and-take of study; the deeds and doings of the masters that were transmitted orally; the epistles, rulings and laws that were written down (Urbach, The Tosafists, 525).”
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