By D. Sofer
This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY. and is reprinted here with their permission
Rav Nissim ben Rav Yaakov Gaon and Rav Chananel ben Rav Chushiel Gaon, the two great and venerable chachamim of the Tunisian city of Kairuan, were once discussing the problems of Klal Yisroel.
Sura, the great yeshiva of Bavel, which had functioned for over 700 years, had closed, and the era of the Geonim had come to an end. Rav Nissim was particularly concerned about the future.
"From where will the forthcoming spiritual leader of North Africa's Jews, who will eventually succeed us, come?" he asked.
Rav Chananel, though, was confident that a successor would be found.
FROM THE GEONIM TO THE RISHONIM
In Bavel at that time, the title Gaon was given to the heads of the yeshivos of Sura and Pumbadita. The period of the Geonim began in 4349 (589), after the period of the Sevora'im, and ended in 4798 (1038) with the petira of Rav Hai Gaon.
Rav Nissim's father, the famous Rav Yaakov Gaon, had studied under Rav Hai Gaon. Rav Chananel's father, Rav Chushiel Gaon, had set out from Bavel to collect funds for a needy bride and was seized by pirates. He was sold as a slave in Africa, but was later redeemed by the members of its Jewish communities. From Africa, he headed to Kairuan, where he became a rosh yeshiva. His son, Chananel, was born in Kairuan.
The Geonim played a prominent and decisive role in the transmission and teaching of Torah. They taught Talmud Bavli and decided on issues on which no ruling had been rendered during the period of the Talmud.
Yeshivos began to sprout in the West before the yeshivos in Bavel had closed, and for a while there had been contact between the two Torah centers. During Rav Chananel's time, the period of the Geonim ended, and that of the Rishonim began.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Not long after the above conversation between Rav Nissim and Rav Chananel took place, a young student from the Algerian city of Kal'a asked to be admitted to their yeshiva. His name was Yitzchak Hakohen, and he descended from a prominent rabbinical family. He brought with him a warm recommendation from the head of his community.
The two roshei yeshiva interviewed the new student and immediately discerned his brilliance and vast potential. They regarded his arrival in Kairuan as auspicious, and hoped that he might eventually become the spiritual leader of their community.
The young Yitzchak adapted to the yeshiva immediately, and soon became known as an outstanding scholar who was well versed in all aspects of the Torah. He had a profound impact on the entire yeshiva and, as a result of his presence, its students' hasmada markedly increased. In time, he became very close with the two roshei yeshiva, as well as the pride of the entire city.
Eventually, one of the prominent members of the community took him as a son-in-law. Rav Yitzchak's wedding took place on the same day as that of Rav Nissim's daughter. She married Rav Yehosef, the son of Rav Shmuel Hanagid, a great talmid chacham who served as the viceroy of the King of Spain.
During the week in which the two weddings took place, Kairuan teemed with visitors from Spain and North Africa.
Rav Yitzchak continued to learn in Rav Nissim's yeshiva after his wedding. Rav Yehosef also remained in Kairuan and joined the yeshiva. A deep bond of friendship quickly formed between the two.
At the same time, Rav Yitzchak also studied with his mentor, Rav Chananel. Together they reviewed the halachic responses of the Geonim, which had reached the city of Kairuan by means of emissaries. During these study sessions, Rav Chananel trained Rav Yitzchak to clarify halachos and to deduce them from Talmudic sources.
A DEEP NEED
As Rav Yitzchak advanced in his studies, he became keenly aware of the fact that many people were unable to elucidate the halacha from the Gemara due to the vast amount of material it contains. As a result, he conceived of the idea of compiling a comprehensive and extensive halachic work that would present all of the halachos and the practical conclusions of the Gemara in a clear, definitive manner.
To achieve this goal, he retreated to his father-in-law's attic, where he worked on his sefer for 10 consecutive years.
During this period, however, a fanatic and unbridled Moslem tyrant gained control of Tunisia, and persecuted all those who did not accept his faith, especially the Jews of Kairuan. As a result, all of the city's Jewish residents fled to places controlled by the Elmuhides, who were more tolerant of the Jews. Among the fugitives was Rav Yitzchak who, with his wife and two children, moved to the Moroccan city of Fez.
A short while earlier, his good friend Rav Yehosef left Kairuan and moved to Grenada, where he succeeded his father, Rav Shmuel Hanagid, as viceroy.
Fez's Jews were overjoyed by Rav Yitzchak's arrival and undertook to support him and his family so that he could continue to work on his monumental sefer undisturbed. They also founded a yeshiva in his honor, and many students throughout Morocco came to Fez to study under him.
Rav Yitzchak remained in Fez for 40 years, during which time he completed his Sefer Ha'halachos, which is considered the first fundamental work in halachic literature. Eventually, he became known as Rav Yitzchak Alfasi, or the Rif, due to his connection to the city of Fez.
The style Rav Yitzchak employed in Sefer Ha'halachos is very unique. He transcribed the language of the Mishna and the Gemara's halachic conclusions verbatim, and didn't cite all of the deliberations surrounding them. This sefer covers Moed, Nashim, Nezikin, Brachos and Chulin.
Immediately after the appearance of the sefer, Rav Yitzchak gained wide acclaim throughout the entire Jewish world. Great Torah sages were astounded by the breadth of his work, and by his rare brilliance. Chachamim, rabbanim and dayanim regarded the sefer as a methodical and concentrated halachic source because it presented the halacha clearly and conclusively.
The appearance of this monumental work also resulted in a profound change in the study practices of the Jewish public. Since this sefer was written prior to the times of Rashi, Rashbam and the Tosfos, many found it difficult to probe the depths of Gemara on their own. This sefer soon became known as the Talmud Katan, and it opened the glorious world of the Gemara to the public at large.
While Rav Yehosef Hanagid advocated the study of Sefer Ha'halachos, there were a number of Spanish chachamim who opposed the sefer, most notably Rav Yitzchak ben Baruch Albailiya, author of Kupas Harochlim.
This great talmid chacham, who was also a friend of Rav Yehosef Hanagid, felt that Sefer Ha'halachos might cause people to stop studying Gemara. He, however, still held Rav Yitzchak in high esteem.
Others who opposed it were Rav Yitzchak Ibn Gey'at, who was a student of the Ibn Ezra and rav of the city of Lusina, as well as the author of Meah Shearim.
Despite this opposition, all of which was leshem Shamayim, the sefer gained wide acclaim and was highly praised. Eventually, Jews from all over the continent began to address halachic questions to Rav Yitzchak and to regard him as the region's primary halachic authority.
A short while after Rav Yitzchak published Sefer Ha'halachos, a special courier from Grenada arrived with bad tidings: Rav Yehosef Hanagid had been murdered in his palace on Shabbos. The assassins, who came from the lower class, had been incited by Rav Yehosef's enemies, who were jealous of his success.
Rav Yehosef's wife, Rachel, and her son hid in a cellar and were saved. Rav Yitzchak Ibn Gey'at was also saved, and undertook to support Rav Yehosef's widow and her son.
Rav Yitzchak was very pained by this news. However, he derived comfort from his many activities on behalf of Fez's Jews.
A WILY ENEMY
In his capacity as spiritual leader of Fez, Rav Yitzchak expanded its yeshiva and made various amendments that benefited his community.
As the city's dayan, he was known for his integrity and impartiality. However, it was precisely this impartiality and unwillingness to kowtow to the wealthy or to divert justice in their favor, which aroused the animosity of one of Fez' wealthy Jewish residents, Chalif ben Elgav, who was close to the ruler.
Chalif had once been a secretary in the beis din of Rav Nissim and Rav Chananel in Kairuan. During the riots in Kairuan in which the Jews were persecuted, Chalif acquired vast wealth at the expense of his fellow Jews, and moved with his family to Fez. In Fez, the Jews, who didn't know how he had become wealthy, accorded him much honor, and appointed him and his son heads of the community.
Rav Yitzchak, however, was aware of Chalif's corrupt character, and kept a distance from him.
Chalif was offended by Rav Yitzchak's behavior and began to hound him and search for a pretext to inform on him to the ruling authorities. Once, when a dispute erupted between the Arab tribes and the Barbarians, Chalif told the ruler that Rav Yitzchak supported the enemy tribe and was inciting the masses to depose him.
One of the ruler's closest confidantes warned Rav Yitzchak of the situation and of the danger that loomed over his head. Rav Yitzchak, who was fully aware of the punishment a rebel would incur, packed his manuscripts and a few of his belongings, and quickly left for Spain with his family.
Rav Yitzchak was 70 at the time of his flight, and the journey to Spain was difficult for him. He was also anxious about making such a move, since some of Spain's chachamim opposed his Sefer Ha'halachos.
But when he arrived in Spain, all of the city's chachamim, headed by their Nasi, came out to greet him and accorded him a royal welcome. They promised him that they would grant him asylum in their city, and establish a yeshiva for him.
A few months later, however, the ideological struggle between Rav Yitzchak and the opponents of his Sefer Ha'halachos, Rav Albailiya and Rav Ibn Gey' at, once more erupted. The struggle, though, did not extend to their personal lives. When Rav Ibn Gey'at passed away, Rav Yitzchak was chosen to succeed him as the rav of Lusina.
Before Rav Albailiya was niftar, he summoned his only son, 17-year-old Baruch, and asked him to impart the following message to Rav Yitzchak: "Prior to my father's petira he asked me to tell you that he forgives you for criticizing him in writing and orally. He also begs you to for ive him for criticizing you, and entreats you to be my guide and instructor.
After the week of shiva, Baruch Albailiya visited Rav Yitzchak and gave him his father's message. Rav Yitzchak burst into bitter tears, and comforted the orphan. He then promised that he would attend to all his needs. Baruch lived in Rav Yitzchak's home and eventually became a gadol b'Yisroel.
In time, the turmoil in Rav Yitzchak's life subsided, and he began to concentrate on expanding his yeshiva. Among his students were Rav Yehuda Halevi; Rav Yosef ben Meir Ibn mi'Gaash, otherwise known as the Ri mi'Gaash; Rav Yitzchak's adopted son, Baruch Albailiya; and Rav Yitzchak's own son, Rav Yaakov.
In addition to Sefer Ha'halachos, Rav Yitzchak also composed a commentary on the laws of kesubos and shevu'os, and published much responsa literature.
IN HIS PRAISE
Rav Yitzchak was niftar at the age of 90 on 10 Iyar 4863. He was succeeded by the Ri mi'Gaash.
Rav Yitzchak was held in high regard not just by the sages of his generation, but also by many who lived in later times.
The Raavad writes that there was none as wise as him. The Rambam obligated his students to study the works of the Rif. The third Raavad, Baal Ha' hasagos, wrote, "I rely on the Rif implicitly."
The Meiri called him the greatest of the poskim. And the Ibn Ezra said of him, "His mind was very clear and lucid, and he was unequaled in his brilliance."
In Yosef Ometz it is written, "By maintaining a daily shiur in the Rif's work, one fulfills his obligation to study halacha."