Great Leaders of our People
Rabbi Yitzchak Al-fasi
Rabbi Yitzchak was born in 1013 in the City of Kal’a in
Algeria. He learned Torah in the Yeshiva of Kairuwan under the tutelage of
Rabbi Chananel ben Chushiel Gaon. But he was forced by fanatical Muslims to
flee with his family to Fez in Morocco, where he remained for forty years as
head of the community and its Yeshiva, and it was there that he completed
his greatest work, the Sefer HaHalachot, (see below). It was there also that
the name of the city became intertwined with the name of the great Torah
scholar, for “Rif” stands for Rabbi Yitzchak of Fez, or Rabbi Yitzchak al-Fasi.
As a relatively young man, Rabbi Yitzchak had become aware that most people
were unable to deduce the halacha, the actual Jewish Law, from the text of
the Talmud. He conceived the idea of a “commentary” that was essentially an
abridgement of the Talmud, containing only the material that was pertinent
to the determination of the final halachic conclusion. Omitted were all
Aggadic, or legendary material and even the “shakla v’tarya,” the
back-and-forth running dialogue, that scholars see as the “soul” of the
Torah she-B’Al-Peh, the Oral Torah, were omitted for the sake of halachic
clarity. The body of this commentary, that encompassed Moed, Nashim, Nezikin,
Brachot and Chulin, was called the “Sefer HaHalachot,” the Book of Jewish
In Fez, there was an extremely wealthy man who, because of his wealth,
assumed a position of great distinction in the community. Unfortunately for
that individual, Rabbi Yitzchak knew that he had amassed his wealth by
corrupt means and therefore refused to show him deference. That person
informed falsely against the Rif to the government, forcing the great Torah
scholar again to flee, this time from North Africa to Spain.
He was received with great honor by the Jewish Community of Cordova. The
following year, he assumed the position of Head of the Community and Head of
the Yeshiva of Lucena, when those positions became vacant with the death of
Rabbi Yitzchak ibn Gias. It was there that the “best and the brightest” of
his students was Rabbi Yoseph ibn Migash, about whom the Rambam writes that
when he thinks of how much Torah the Ri Migash knew (actually, it was Rabbi
Maimon, father of the Rambam, who was the student of the Ri Migash, but he
passed along the Torah of his great teacher to his son), his head aches.
Thus the Rif succeeded in transmitting the Torah traditions of the Geonim
and the Babylonian Yeshivot to the Rambam and his generation.
When several leaders of the Community of Lucena expressed reservations about
his appointment due to his advanced age, Rabbi Yitzchak of Fez assured them
that he would celebrate his “Bar Mitzvah” in Lucena. And he was true to his
word, passing away there in 1013, after thirteen years of creative and
The above graphic includes photographs that were provided by VERAfilm archives.