The Rishonim

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rashi_woodcutThis lecture serves as an introduction to the Rishonim, a body of Rabbinic scholars associated with the 9th through the 15th centuries of the common era. Part of the Essential Lectures in Jewish History series.

About Henry Abramson

Henry Abramson, PhD is Dean of Academic Affairs and Student Services at Touro College South, Miami and is the author of several works in Jewish history and thought. @hmabramson


  1. I wonder about this cut off date for rishonim. When I was in YU and learned by Rav Parnes, the cut off date for rishonim in Ashkenaz was the Mordechai and Rosh, talmidim of the Maharam.
    In spain it was the Ran and Maggid Mishna.
    At the responsa project it is the Mechaber – Shulchan Aruch. The very cut off point is subject to debate.
    So why the 15th century? How is the Maharil like the Ba’alei Tosafot? Even the nimukei yosef rarely says a chiuddush of his own.

    • There are two versions to the question Shlomo is asking: the line between rishonim and acharonim could be asked historically or it could be asked as a halachic authority question.

      In terms of halachic authority, the Rambam, especially as interpreted by the Rav, would imply that an era ends when a code is commonly accepted that defines halachic norm. As the Rav put it, you can disagree with the Shulchan Aruch, but you better be very sure of yourself. And so the SA (with the Rama) became a demarcation line: those after have to prove why this law is not like the normal rule, and those before provide the material for such proofs. Which is (I am guessing) why the Bar Ilan project assumes the line it does.

      Historically, though, we would look for breaks in culture, such as the shift from relying on the geonim, or the flight from Spain in 1492 (much like the 1500 , or… Breaks that also caused a change in what kinds of questions rabbis analyzed.

      The two dividing lines aren’t likely to coincide. (Although I have a feeling that by the time the Shoah and the expulsion from Arab lands are ancient history, those born before the rupture and those born after will be seen as separate groups by both criteria.

      Here, Dr Abrahamson’s line of 15th cent is much like saying the expulsion in 1492.

      The writing of the Shulchan Arukh arguably spans 1522 (when R’ Yosef Caro began his Bet Yosef, of which the SA primarily a list of conclusions) to 1578 (when the Rama spread out his Mapah of Ashkenazic rulings). In 1500, R’ Yosef Caro was 12, and it’s a round number that kind of denotes his generation. So that might be it too.

      • Prof. Shlomo Zalman Havlin has an article in מחקרים בספרות התלמודית (תשמג) :
        הבלין, שלמה זלמן. על “החתימה הספרותית” כיסוד החלוקה לתקופות
        בהלכה. 148-192
        and for years I have disagreed with him concerning the Shulchan Aruch as the cut off book. A period of halacha should defined by the nature of the writing and learning. Did the Maharil disagree with rishonim? Except for maybe the Rivash, does the Rashbetz disagree with earlier authorities. Certainly the cut off point in Ashkenaz is earlier than Sefarad. I mentioned to Prof Havlin that if any book would reflect this it would be the Tur with the Ran just a bit afterwards. 15th century is not halakha but a question of general periodization of history, when the Medieval period ends in Jewish history. It has nothing to do with halakha.

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