Rabbi Isaac Alfasi: Rif

A legal code for the Jews of medieval North Africa and Spain.

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Practical Laws Only

Alfasi's work is confined strictly to that portion of halakhah that retained practical relevance after the destruction of the Temple. The work does not, therefore, encompass the entire Talmud, but only three of the six Orders, i. e., Mo' ed, Nashim, and Nezikin, together with Tractate Berakhot (which covers the laws of blessings and prayers) in the Order of Zera'im, and Tractate Hullin (which deals with dietary laws and ritual slaughter) in the Order of Kodashim. The laws that are scattered through the Orders of Kodashim and Tohorot and still have practical relevance, e.g., the laws of the ritual defilement of priests, and the laws relating to Torah scrolls, mezuzah, phylacteries, and fringes (tzitzit), were codified by Alfasi in a separate work entitled Halakhot Ketannot.

Legislative Principles

Occasionally, when significant for a definitive legal ruling, Alfasi discussed the meaning of the talmudic passage and cited various views, in most instances indicating his own supporting or opposing arguments. In this respect, he undertook an important function, namely, to resolve many halakhic problems that had previously been disputed.

In the face of the vast halakhic material contained in the two Talmuds and the rest of talmudic literature, as well as the extensive halakhic literature from the geonic era, Alfasi, in his Sefer ha-Halakhot, had to decide between conflicting opinions. This task had heavily engaged the halakhic authorities in earlier periods. Rules for such decision making can be found throughout the Talmud and were augmented by the savoraim and geonim; indeed, treatises were written on the subject.

Alfasi applied these rules in determining the law. Not infrequently, he disagreed with the law established by the geonim and with Simeon Kayyara's conclusions in Halakhot Gedolot.

Preference for the Babylonian Talmud

Alfasi frequently cited or quoted the Jerusalem Talmud, "the Talmud of the westerners" as he called it; but when the law in the Babylonian Talmud conflicts with that of the Jerusalem Talmud--even only implicitly--he followed the Babylonian Talmud. He explicitly established this as a rule of decision making, relying on the principle, settled as early as the geonic period, that ever since the time of Abbaye and Rava, "the law is in accordance with the views of the later authorities (hilkheta ke-vatra'ei) ":

"Since our [Babylonian] Talmud adopts the more lenient view, it does not matter to us that in the Talmud of the westerners [the Jerusalem Talmud] the act is forbidden; for we rely upon our Talmud because it is later [i.e., was redacted after the Jerusalem Talmud], and they [the sages of the Babylonian Talmud] were more versed than we are in the westerners' Talmud. If they had not felt certain that this statement of the westerners should not be followed, they would not have ruled it permissible for the thing to be done."

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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.