The Shoulders of Giants

Imagining A Jew

The Shoulders of Giants

The Talmudic innovators were giants of a different place. The Tana’im are in Israel. Some of the Amora’im are, but most are in Bavel. They are giants but they are not our giants, who live everywhere else in the known world.

The Rishonim

Yaqov Ben-Asher (Tur)

is author of Arba Turim “ and the foremost halakhic authority of 14th century Spain. Tur follows Rambam in using a topical arrangement but covers only practical halakha; it ignores criminal law. Tur also compares various opinions on any disputed point. Tur’s starting point is Alfasi’s views; these were compared with Rambam as well as to the French and German traditions. The comparison of the northern European and Spanish legal traditions had been pioneered by Rosh, R Yaqov’s father. Tur’s organisation was later adopted by SA. Tur itself is still consulted to obtain the iqar of the halakha.

Asher Ben-Yehiel (Rosh)

A 13th century authority from Germany, he was a leading figure in the nascent Ashkenazi ccommunity – previously, all leading scholars had been either from Sefarad (Spain), from Israel, or from Arabia/North Africa. He was compelled to make novel halakhic decisions due to the tremendous dislocation caused by the massacre of German Jews in 1298. Rosh left Germany after years of effort failed to obtain the release of his master, Meir of Rothenberg. He settled in Barcelona and became its supreme dayan. He was opposed to philosophy and supported a ban on its study. He militated against adopting halakha on inheritance, debt, and divorce which were derived from Christian custom. While personally opposed to capital punishment he permitted his judges to impose it because it was based on long-standing custom in Spain.


The foremost Spanish authority of the 13th century, Ramban was a philosopher, commentator, mequbal, poet, and physician. He was directly involved in repudiating the ban proclaimed against Rambam’s works in the early 13th century by the rabbis of France. He generally supported Rambam but disputed him frequently and rejected Rambam’s synthesis of mysticism and rationality. He reluctantly but forcefully disputed Christianity at the command his King, Jaime I of Aragon, against the converted Jew Pablo Christiani. Ramban’s halakha, chiddushim, responsa and hassagot are classical Jewish writings which continue to influence how such works are written. He composed novel interpretations of Talmud based on the earlier works of Ibn Magish, Rif, and others. His halakha is among the five secondary sources of the SA as method to decide halakhic disputes when only two primary sources address a question and are in dispute.

Abraham b David of Posqières (Rabad)

A highly respected 12th century authority in Provence, what is now the various regions of France between Italy and the Mediterranean Sea, Rabad is best known for his incisive and scathing criticism of the Mishneh Torah. He was the principal of a leading European yeshiva which attracted students from the entire continent. His scholarship was known and respected also in Spain, Italy, the Slavic countries, Israel, and North Africa. His commenatry on the Mishna was unique for its time because Mishna study had been subverted to study of the Talmud. Rabad did not write mystical works but instructed his children in qabbala. Later generations of mequbalim regarded him as a progenitor of Jewish mysticism.

Alfasi (Rif)

Author of Sefer Ha’Halakhot, Rif was a leading 11th century authority from Algeria. Some regarded him as the last of the geonim because he was already 25 when Hai Gaon died. For our purpose he is the first of the Rishonim because his code was the earliest useful Talmudic digest. Rif gathers the Talmudic discussion from wherever it occurs before he renders a decision on the halakha. He also includes the relevant agada, and for this reason his code is called also Talmud Qatan, literally The Talmud’s Child. A hallmark of Talmudic halakha is that it is decided in many tractates which have no bearing on the subject matter. Rambam valued the Rif highly, as did Rabad. Rif wrote hundreds of responsa, all of them in Arabic.

Ibn Migash

A superlative 11th century Spanish Talmudic authority, Rif was his teacher for 14 years. Miamon, Rambam’s father, was a student of Ibn Magish; Rambam collected these traditions from his father and used them in compiling is own halakhic decisions. Ibn Magish was the subject of poetic praises in his honour published by Yehuda Halévi. Ibn Magish sought to learn the method of the yeshivot in Provence and became highly regarded there. He is known to have published commenatries on the Talmud; these were quoted in responsa, especially his research on Bava Batra. He published a commenatry on Rif and influenced future generations through the efforts of Ramban and other Spanish authorities.

There’s a generation of scholarship before this; in the next unit we will first learn something of Jewish mysticism (qabala). We’ll then meet the primordials.

Reb Arie

A chaplain, spiritual director, and educator, Arié Chark (“Reb Arie”) is Rector at The Metivta of Ottawa. A strong sense of personal mission has led Reb Arie to convene various civil society projects under the auspices of The Metivta of Ottawa, including the Ottawa Roundtable and the Abrahamic Chaplaincy Board.