Commentaries on Alfasi

Alfasi's groundbreaking legal code invited criticism, defense, and supplementation.

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Reprinted with the author's permission from Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles (Jewish Publication Society).

An extensive literature developed around Sefer ha-Halakhot. Some was critical, some defended it against the critics, and some explained and supplemented it. Thereafter, such works in the nature of commentaries or glosses (called in Hebrew nos'ei kelim, lit. "armor bearers") were written on the main Jewish codes. Those on Alfasi are by some of the greatest halakhic authorities. A few of the important commentators on Alfasi are next discussed.

Zerahiah Ha-Levi Gerondi (Rezah)

Rezah lived in the twelfth century in the town of Lunel in Provence, and was one of the outstanding halakhic authorities of his day. At the age of nineteen, he wrote Sefer ha-Ma'or [Book of the Luminary], consisting of critical glosses and supplementations to Alfasi's Sefer ha-Halakhot. Sefer ha-Ma'or is in two parts: Ha-Ma'or ha-Gadol [The Great Luminary] on the Orders of Nashim and Nezikin, and Ha-Ma'or ha-Katan [The Lesser Luminary] on the Order of Mo'ed.

Rezah apologized profusely for questioning Alfasi's work, "for there has not been written as fine a work on the Talmud since it was finally redacted." Yet he felt bound to seek out the truth; "as the Philosopher [Aristotle], refuting his master, said, 'Truth and Plato are at odds and both are beloved, but Truth is the more beloved.''' Consequently, he explained, his criticisms only added honor and glory to Alfasi's work.

Abraham b. David (Rabad) of Posquieres

Rabad, a contemporary of Rezah, wrote critical glosses (hassagot) on Alfasi, albeit very apologetically:

"Truly, I ought to have closed my eyes and sealed my lips and followed him unswervingly to the right and to the left; but this is a task for the sake of Heaven . . . So I did not refrain from critically reviewing [his work] as far as I was able, whether [that review] refuted or was supportive. . . ; for the Almighty desired, for the sake of His righteousness, to magnify and glorify His Torah."

Rabad sharply attacked Rezah for his criticisms of Alfasi, and frequently defended Alfasi against them, sometimes criticizing Rezah with extreme asperity.

Nahmanides (Ramban)

Nahmanides viewed Alfasi as the leading authority for determining the law, and wrote two books defending Alfasi against both Rezah and Rabad:

Milhamot ha-Shem [The Wars of the Lord] took issue with Rezah's critiques:

"I was moved by intense zeal for our great master, R. Isaac Alfasi, of blessed memory, for I have seen among those who dispute him that their challenge is so broad that they did not concede to him the merit of having made even a single correct statement, worthwhile comment, or sound ruling."

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Menachem Elon

Justice Menachem Elon has had a long and distinguished career as a legal scholar. He is a retired professor of Jewish Law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a prolific author on Jewish Law. In 1977 Justice Elon was appointed to the Supreme Court of Israel and served as its Deputy President from 1988 until 1993. He lives in Jerusalem.