Later Rishonim I

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by R. Aryeh Leibowitz

Students of Gemara merit to spend hours analyzing the works of the great medieval commentators – the Rishonim.  But who were the Rishonim?  When did they live?  Who were their teachers?  What seforim did they write? Did they have a unique approach to Talmud study (derech ha-limud)?

In regard to the period of the early Rishonim (11th – early 13th century), I have already had the opportunity to address these questions in a short pamphlet titled, “The Early Rishonim: A Gemara Student’s Guide.” The current online series will continue that discussion and focus on the later Rishonim (mid 13th – 14th century).

It is important to stress that this is not a history series. Our goal is to present the major streams of transmission of the mesorah in the period following the early Rishonim. Therefore, we will not dwell on dates or the fine details of a Rishon’s life.  For this series, it is more important to know who a Rishon studied under and what influences can be found in his writings than to know what year he was born or how many times he moved. Additionally, we will mention broader historical events only to the degree that they are necessary for understanding the mesorah.

Lastly, it should be noted that our focus in this series is parshanut ha-Talmud, and therefore we will not address the major contributions of many great Rishonim in other fields, such as philosophy or parshanut ha-Tanach.

The Later Rishonim of Spain

From Al-Andalus to the ReConquista: The Re-emergence of Torah in Spain

During the period of the early Rishonim, the Sephardic Torah center of North Africa and Southern Spain came to a tragic end when Muslim tribes overran North Africa and eventually extended their rule into Central Spain. In response to this newly formed Muslim territory (Al-Andalus), many Spanish Jews fled northward toward northern Spain and southern France.  Hence, little known Torah learning existed in Spain during the latter period of the early Rishonim.

However, during the period of the later Rishonim, the Christians of northern Spain began to retake control of Central and Southern Spain through a series of military campaigns known as the Reconquista.  With the successful conquest of Spain by Christian forces, Torah returned to the Iberian Peninsula.

From this point forward, Torah flourished in Spain for many generations.  However, unlike the Spanish Talmudists in the period of the early Rishonim who lived under Muslim rule, the Spanish Talmudists during the period of the later Rishonim lived under Christian rule in the various Kingdoms – such as León, Castile, Navarre, Aragon – that flourished in that region.  For this reason, the Spanish Talmudists during the period of the later Rishonim enjoyed a connection to the Ashkenazic communities of Christian France and Germany.  Something that the earlier Spanish Talmudists who flourished under Muslim rule never merited.  Nonetheless, they still saw themselves as the heirs to the rich Sephardic masters – the Rif, Ri Migash, Rambam, etc. – and their tradition.  Yet at the same time, many of the later Rishonim in Spain also looked to the Ashkenazic masters, and their style of learning, for direction and inspiration.  This was especially true of the Rishonim who operated in the Catalonian region of north-eastern Spain, abutting southern France and Provance.

Next Installment: R. Meir Abulafia (The Yad Ramah)

About Aryeh Leibowitz

Rabbi Leibowitz is a Ram at Yeshivat Sha'alvim and serves as the Assistant Dean of the Overseas Program.

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