ALFASI, ISAAC BEN JACOB
Eminent Talmudist; born in 1013 at Kala't ibn Ḥamad, a village near Fez, in North Africa (whence his surname, which is sometimes attached also to Judah Ḥayyug, the grammarian); died at Lucena, 1103. Five scholars named Isaac, all distinguished Talmudists, flourished about the same time; viz., Isaac ben Baruch Albalia of Seville, Isaac ben Judah ibn Giat of Lucena, Isaac ben Reuben of Barcelona, Isaac ben Moses ibn Sakni of Pumbedita, and Isaac ben Jacob Alfasi. Of these the last-named was the most prominent. He seems to have devoted himself exclusively to the study of the Talmud, under Rabbis Hananeel and Nissim, both in Kairwan, the recognized rabbinical authorities of the age. After their death, Alfasi took their place in the estimation of his contemporaries, and was regarded as the chief expounder of the Talmud. Whatever his official position may have been, he had to abandon it in his old age (1088); for two informers, Ḥalfah, son of Alagab, and his son Ḥayyim, according to Abraham ibn Daud, denounced him to the government upon some unknown charge. He left his home and fled to Spain, whither his fame as the author of the "Halakot" ('Er. viii.) had preceded him. He went to Cordova, where he found support and protection in the house of Joseph b. Meir b. Muheyir ibn Shartamikosh. From Cordova he went to Granada, and thence to Lucena. Here he probably acted as the official rabbi of the congregation after the death of Isaac ibn Giat (1089), with whom he had some angry discussions. There was also some ill-feeling between Alfasi and Isaac Albalia. The latter, when on his death-bed, asked his son to go to Alfasi and tell him that he pardoned all his offenses against him, and begged Alfasi to do the same on his part and to be a friend to his opponent's son. Isaac Albalia's wish was fulfilled, and his son found in Alfasi a true friend and a second father.
Isaac Alfasi.(From a traditional portrait.)
In his capacity as rabbi, Alfasi was both judge and teacher. As a judge he enjoyed the confidence of litigants, and his decisions were carefully studied by other rabbis as guides in similar cases. As a teacher, his great learning attracted a large number of students, eager to listen to his exposition of the Talmud; among them was Joseph ibn Migash, the teacher of Maimonides. Before his death Alfasi designated this Joseph ibn Migash as his successor, passing over his own son, though he likewise was an excellent Talmudic scholar.
Alfasi died aged ninety years, at Lucena, on Tuesday, the tenth of Siwan (May 19), 1103 (the date given in the epitaph is impossible); and a monument was erected to his memory, whereon were inscribed the following somewhat hyperbolic lines (given at the end of Alfasi, vol. iii.; by Luzzatto in "AbneZikkaron" and in "Kerem Ḥemed," iv. 93, vii. 255; also by Geiger in "Divan des . . . Judah ha-Levi"):
"It was for thee that the mountains shook on the day of Sinai; For the angels of God approached thee And wrote the Torah on the tablets of thy heart: They set the finest of its crowns upon thy head."
The chief work of Alfasi is his "Halakot," often referred to as the "Rif" (R. Isaac Fasi) from the initials of Alfasi's name. Rabad described it as "the little Talmud," because it contains the essence of the Talmud in an abridged form. In the first place, Alfasi eliminated from the Talmud all haggadic comments; that is, the second of its two constituent elements (Halakah and Haggadah, or Law and Homily); in accordance with the title of the book, he retains only the Halakah. He gives the halakic discussions of the Gemara in a condensed form, adding occasionally criticisms on the interpretations and decisions given by post-Talmudic authorities. A further reduction in the bulk of the Talmud was effected in the following way: Alfasi contented himself with collecting practical Halakot only, omitting all treatises that are principally devoted to laws which are only practical in Palestine. The treatises included in Alfasi's work are therefore the following: 1, Berakot; 2, Small Halakot; 3, Shabbat; 4, 'Erubin; 5, Pesaḥim (omitting ch. v.-ix.); 6, Ta'anit; 7, Beẓah; 8, Rosh ha-Shanah (omitting ch. iii.); 9, Yoma (omitting ch. i.-vii.); 10, Sukkah (omitting ch. v.); 11, Megillah; 12, Mo'ed ḳaṭan; 13, Yebamot; 14, Ketubot; 15, Giṭṭin; 16, ḳiddushin; 17, Nedarim (only found in recent editions); 18, Ḥullin; 19, Baba ḳamma; 20, Baba Meẓi'a; 21, Baba Batra; 22, Sanhedrin; 23, Makkot; 24, Shebu'ot (included in ch. ii. hilkot Niddah); 25, 'Abodah Zarah.
Maimonides' Praise of the "Halakot."
Ever since the completion of the Babylonian Talmud, attempts had been made to collect the Halakot it contained, and to elucidate, in each case, the final decision of the halakic discussion of the Gemara. The results of these attempts were such works as the "Halakot Gedolot" of the gaon Simon Kahira, "Halakot PesuḲot" of the gaon Yehudai, and the "Sheiltot" of the gaon Aḥai of Shabḥa. These collections all proved insufficient; Alfasi's work was intended to be comprehensive and thorough. The merits of the "Halakot" are described by Maimonides in the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah as follows: "The 'Halakot' of our great teacher, Rabbenu Isaac, of blessed memory, have superseded all their predecessors, because there is included therein everything useful for the understanding of the decisions and laws at present in force; that is, in the time of the Exile. The author clearly demonstrates the errors of those before him when his opinion deviates from theirs, and with the exception of a few Halakot whose number at the very utmost does not amount to ten, his decisions are unassailable." Alfasi based his "Halakot" on the Babylonian Talmud, without, however, neglecting the Palestinian Talmud, which is frequently quoted, and the dicta of which are accepted, provided they are not contradicted by the former. In case of difference between the two Gemaras Alfasi follows the Babylonian, arguing thus: "The Babylonian is younger than the Palestinian, and its authors knew the contents of the Palestinian Gemara even better than we do. Had they not been convinced that the passage from the Palestinian Gemara, cited in opposition to their opinion, was untrustworthy, they would never have deviated from it" ('Er., at end). Critics, however, attacked many of Alfasi's Halakot as contrary to the decisions of the Babylonian Talmud. In all such cases it will be found that the critic and the author differ in reality as to the right interpretation of the Talmudic passage, for in truth Alfasi never deviates from what he recognizes as the final decision of the Babylonian Talmud.
Alfasi is exceedingly self-conscious, decided, and firm in asserting the correctness of his decisions, and in rejecting the opinions of those who differ from him (Ket. x. 115, ed. Sulzbach, 1720; Ber. vii. 39b). He rarely wavers or doubts. Of previous authorities he mentions by name Gaon Hai, Gaon Judah, and Gaon Moses (Ket. iv. 84b); others he cites by the general term "Some of the rabbis." In three places (ib. x. 116b, 119; viii. 106) he refers to a lengthy explanation in Arabic, which he originally gave as an appendix to the treatise Ketubot, convinced "that he who will read these explanations will arrive at the true sense of the text of the Talmud." These explanations have been detached from their original place, and are at present known only by two Hebrew translations, the one being included in a collection of responsa by Menahem Azariah di Fano (Nos. 127-129), the other in "Temim De'im" (Nos. 218-220, the third part of "Tummat Yesharim"). The latter work contains also a few responsa of Alfasi, translated from the original Arabic by Abraham ha-Levi (Nos. 221-223).
The "Halakot" of Alfasi became famous both on account of the reputation of the author and of their intrinsic value. The work was studied like the Talmud, and soon had its commentators and its critics. The principal commentators are the following: Jonah, on Berakot; Nissim, on Seder Mo'ed, Makkot, Shebu'ot, 'Abodah Zarah, Seder Nashim (except Yebamot), and Ḥullin; Joseph Ḥabiba, on the smaller Halakot, Seder NeziḲin (except Makkot, Shebu'ot, and 'Abodah Zarah), and Yebamot; Joshua Boaz in his commentary "Shilṭe ha-Gibborim" includes notes of various scholars, both for and against Alfasi. The so-called commentary of Rashi, found in some editions, consists merely of extracts from Rashi's general commentary on the Talmud. Alfasi's chief critic is Zerahiah ha-Levi of Lunel, whose work "Ha-Maor" (The Luminary) consists of two parts, entitled respectively, "The Great Luminary" (Zerahiah, the sun) and "The Small Luminary" (Lunel, the moon), the former on Berakot and Seder Mo'ed, the other on Seder Nashim and Seder NeziḲin. Naḥmanides in "Milḥamot Adonai" (The Wars of the Lord) defended Alfasi. Rabad attacked Zerahiah's criticisms in defense of Alfasi, but at the same time wrote Hassagot (criticisms) of his own on the "Halakot" (see "Temim De'im"). Even a disciple of Alfasi, Ephraim, is found among his critics ("Temim De'im," No. 68). A long list of emendations is given by Joseph Shalom in "Derek Tamim." In addition to these commentaries and criticisms, there are to be mentioned the "Kelale ha-Rif," contained in "Yad Malachi" (pp. 123a, 124b). These rules show how to detect the different degrees of decisiveness which Alfasi desired to indicate in the "Halakot," when quoting the opinion of other authorities. Alfasi's "Halakot" appeared without commentaries (Cracow, 1597, 8vo; Basel, 1602, 8vo); the above-mentioned commentaries, and further notes and emendations, were added in subsequent editions (among others, Talmud and Alfasi, Warsaw, 1859, fol.). Besides the "Halakot," there is a collection of Alfasi's "Responsa," ed. Judah Aryeh Loeb Ashkenazi (Leghorn, 1821, 4to). The collection contains 320 questions, mostly referring to civil law cases; only a fewhave reference to religious rites. Some Arabic responsa of Alfasi are to be found in Harkavy, "Studien und Mitteilungen," vols. iv., xxv., and in S. A. Wertheimer, "ḳohelet Shelomoh," Jerusalem, 1899; compare "Monatsschrift," xliv. 144.
R. Abraham ibn Daud (Rabad), Sefer haḳabbalah;
Azulai, Shem ha-Gedolim, s.v.;
Grätz, Gesch. d. Juden, vi. 76 et seq.;
Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. col. 1087;
Weiss, Dor, iv. 281 et seq.;
Cazès, Notes Bibliographiques sur la Littérature Juive Tunisienne, Tunis, 1893.