Early Medieval Halakhic Texts

In the early middle ages, leading scholars across Europe and North Africa produced different genres of legal writings.

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In the centuries following the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, Jewish legal scholarship was primarily recorded in the form of commentaries and responsa, which attempted to explain and apply talmudic law. Yet the early medieval period also witnessed the emergence and development of the legal code, an innovative genre of halakhic writing that came unto its own with the publication of Moses Maimonides' Mishneh Torah in 1180.

Alfasi's Work

Sefer Ha-Halakhot (Book of the Laws) by Rabbi Isaac Alfasi was the most significant halakhic work produced in the period prior to Maimonides. Isaac ben Jacob Ha-Kohen of Fez (1013–1103), best known by his acronym "Rif," was regarded as a successor to the geonim, and his legal erudition was renowned in his native North Africa and his adopted Spain.

Within decades of its publication, Alfasi's masterpiece of talmudic law became the cornerstone of study in Spanish yeshivot, and it wielded extraordinary influence on authorities of subsequent generations. Nonetheless, the northern European communities of Ashkenaz were slow to embrace the new legal genre and persisted in alternative forms of halakhic scholarship.

jewish booksLike the halakhic works of the early geonim, Alfasi's digest is comprehensive in scope and follows the talmudic scheme. It corresponds to three of the six orders of the Talmud: Moed (holiday ritual), Nashim (family law), and Nezikin (property law and damages); and to two additional tractates from other orders, Berakhot (laws of prayer) and Hullin (dietary law).

Practical in orientation, Sefer Ha-Halakhot omits those sections of the Talmud that are focused on Temple worship or the Land of Israel. Alfasi's magnum opus is not actually a legal code in the classic sense, with thematic divisions and sub-divisions, but it was designed to serve as a compendium of applicable law, and as such, it paved the way for later styles of codification.

Alfasi's goal was to distill the halakhic essence of talmudic debates and deliberations and to determine the law in accordance with the interpretations and rulings of the geonim. Yet he retained a fair amount of talmudic material in his composition, citing even some halakhic discussions and narrative passages that do not have direct bearing on the law and earning his composition the appellation "Talmud Katan" (Little Talmud).

Sefer Ha-Halakhot was widely perceived as an abbreviated Talmud, in addition to a halakhic textbook, and it actually supplanted traditional Talmud study in the curriculum of Spanish academies through the thirteenth and even fourteenth centuries.

As a testament to the monumentality of Alfasi's work, Moses Maimonides called him "the great master, Rabbenu Isaac" and Joseph Caro, author of the Shulhan Arukh, referred to him as one of the "three pillars of instruction upon which the House of Israel rests." Indeed, Alfasi's Sefer Ha-Halakhot was one of the primary sources for Caro's own code, which remains the authoritative halakhic compendium to this day. 

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Rachel Furst is a Talmud teacher and a graduate student in medieval Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.