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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Secondary Literature

Within a century, Alfasi's work generated its own body of secondary literature that explained, expanded, attacked, and defended the master's readings and rulings. Several of these supplements were intended to allow Sefer Ha-Halakhot to serve as a reliable substitute for the Talmud but also constituted significant halakhic works in their own right.

Important contributions include Sefer Ha-Maor (Book of the Luminary) by Zerahiah Ha-Levi Gerondi ("Rezah"), Hassagot (Glosses) by Abraham ben David of Posquières ("Rabad"), Milhamot Ha-Shem (Wars of the Lord) by Moses ben Nahman ("Ramban"), and critical notes by Nissim Gerondi ("Ran"). 

Commentaries and responses to Alfasi were written primarily in Spain and Provence, where a number of additional codes in the style of the geonic works and Sefer Ha-Halakhot were drafted as well. Among the compendiums inspired by Alfasi are Halakhot Kelulot (Comprehensive Laws) by Isaac ibn Ghayyat ("Rizag") and Sefer Ha-Ittim (Book of the Seasons) by Judah al-Bargeloni.

Early Medieval Ashkenaz

Despite the popularity of legal codification in Babylonia and Spain, this genre of scholarship was not widely adopted in northern Europe. Ashkenazic authorities were familiar with Alfasi's work and held him in the highest regard, but they were engaged in other forms of halakhic writing, primarily commentaries and novellae to the Talmud.

In the field of exegesis, German and French scholars were the pioneers, developing systematic commentary, in the style of Rabbi Gershom ben Judah Me'or Ha-Golah   (Light of the Exile) and Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac ("Rashi"), as well as the highly innovative Tosafot commentary of later scholars. These commentaries focused on explicating the Talmud, rather than recording practical halakhah, but like the Talmud itself, they often preserved important legal rulings.

Responsa

As in Spain and Provence, German and French scholars devoted much of their legal activity to the writing of responsa. Practical questions on a range of matters in civil and ritual law were submitted to the authorities of each generation by individuals and communities throughout the Diaspora. The receptiveness of legal authorities to these queries became particularly crucial as Jewish settlement spread and local scholars were not always available or capable of rendering legal decisions.

The responses generated established the basis of halakhic observance and set precedent for future generations. Collected correspondence formed an independent body of legal literature that constituted a critical source for all subsequent halakhic rulings and was regularly consulted by local decisors as well as the authors of digests and codes.

Other Legal Works

With the exception of several books of minhagim (religious customs) and a number of short legal monographs, the early scholars of Germany and France did not produce practical halakhic compendia.  Yet in the twelfth century, several works of lasting impact did emerge from the school of Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (hereafter "Rashi"). 

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