Sunday 2 October 2022

401) Classical Sefaradic and Ashkenazic approaches to Talmud


al-Andalus (Muslim Spain)


This article is based extensively on the research by Professor Talya Fishman[1] on the differences between the classical approaches of Sefaradim and Ashkenazim to the Talmud. By ‘classical’ is meant the period prior to the thirteenth century, when there was a very distinct difference between how Sefarad (Spain) and Ashkenaz (Northern France and Germany) approached Talmud study.

Study differences between Ashkenaz and Sefarad

In Ashkenaz, the main focus of Torah study was centred primarily around Talmud study, while in North Africa and al-Andalus (Muslim-ruled Spain) they were more concerned with the study of practical Halacha as found in the locally produced eleventh-century codes of R. Nisim, R. Chananel, and R. Yitzchak Alfasi (1013–1103, ‘Alfasi’ implies ‘from Fez’, Morocco). Later in the twelfth century, the Sefaradim added the code of the Mishneh Torah by Maimonides to their study curriculum which thus continued to remain distinctly Halachic and non-Talmudic.

Bear in mind that this does not suggest a binary approach of black and white with Sefardim never studying Talmud and Ashkenazim never concerning themselves with practical Halacha. Obviously, there were overlaps and we are just looking at general trends.

Another difference that Fishman (2018:123) points out is the role minhag (custom) played in these two cultures. Ashkenazim relied heavily on minhag, while Sefaradim paid less attention to it.

Exploring the early Sefaradic approach to Torah study

The original Sefaradic approach to Torah study, as we shall see, seems to have actively excluded the study of Talmud. Significantly, Alfasi had called his commentary-code on (24 sections of) the Babylonian Talmud, “Sefer haHalachot,” emphasising his preference of Halacha over dialectics and Talmudic debate.

It is fascinating to see that in order to maintain the original Sefaradic approach which very much downplayed the role of Talmud, they had to explain certain references to “talmud” in the Babylonian Talmud, as referring to something other than the Talmud itself. A Tannaic (Mishnaic) source states:

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן אֵין לְמֵדִין הֲלָכָה לֹא מִפִּי תַלְמוּד

 “one does not learn Halacha from Talmud”.[2]

Alfasi’s student, R. Yosef Ibn Migrash (who later became the teacher of Maimonides’s father) would not refer to the Talmud as the written work we understand it today:

“Ibn Migash…explicitly distinguished between talmud and Talmud. Commenting on the tannaitic passage ‘one does not learn halakhah from talmud’, he noted that the sages who had formulated this dictum could not possibly have been referring to the written composition of that name, since it did not yet exist. Thus, he reasoned, talmud for the ancient rabbis evidently denoted something quite different from what he called ‘our Talmud’ (hatalmud shelanu)” (Fishman 2018:125-126).

This is what Ibn Migrash wrote:

[T]his Talmud of ours [hatalmud shelanu] is [a corpus of] applied law [halakhah lema’aseh], for it was not consigned to writing [ki lo nikhtav] until after several generations of investigation and scrutiny, and after several redactions. And it is as if…it is applied law. After all, they wrote it down for the explicit purpose of [guiding] practice [sheharei la’asot bo ma’aseh ketavuhu].[3]

In other words, according to Ibn Migrash, “our Talmud” [Talmud shelanu] - which would have been the Talmud available in his day, during the twelfth century - was the written Talmud (as we have it today). But the “talmud” of earlier times was not written down. According to him, the Talmud was written down with the express intention that practical Halacha be derived from it. This became the Talmud shelanuour Talmud.

Talmud shelanu – Our Talmud

1) As we have seen, in the view of Ibn Migrash, the Tannaic phrase quoted above, that “one does not learn halacha from Talmud,”[4] referred to another category “talmud” – an Oral Talmud. But once that Oral Talmud was finally written down, it became a new category known as “Talmud shelanu,” our Talmud, and we must, and do, learn Halacha from the written Talmud.

Incidentally, Fishman and other scholars have a later date - centuries after the common date of 500CE - for the final redaction and commitment of the Oral Talmud to writing [See Kotzk Blog: 237) WHEN WAS THE TALMUD WRITTEN DOWN?]. This may further explain the unusual expression “our Talmud,” as it may have much closer Ibn Migrash’s time than to 500 CE.

2) A second reference to “our Talmud” is to be found in the writings of R. Yehuda al-Barceloni,[5] also during the late eleventh or early twelfth century:

“The Talmud transmitted to us, which is Halacha le’ma’aseh (practical Halacha).”

3) A third reference is by R. Meir Halevi Abulafia (1170-1244)

“For this [ancient rabbinic prohibition against deriving applied law from talmud] applies to their talmud, which they recited orally. But our Talmud… was written for purposes of applied law [halakhah lema’aseh] . . . For when it was written, it was written in order that applied law might be derived from it.”[6]

The question begs: Why were the North African and al-Andalus (Muslim controlled southern Spanish) rabbis so concerned with practical Halacha derived from “our Talmud” (the written and therefore practical Talmud) as opposed to their colleagues in Ashkenaz who were happy to dwell, instead, on dialectics and theoretical Talmudic debate?

The answer may lie in the influences of the surrounding cultures, which is a factor that should never be ignored or underestimated.

Cultural influences

a) Rabbi Professor Kanarfogel has shown how cultural trends from Christian France which emphasised dialectical (argumentative) study may have influenced the Tosafists, during this same period; to the extent that contemporaneous rabbinic literature refers to the Tosafist style of argumentative debate as “dialectika shel goyim,” or dialectics of the non-Jews [See Kotzk Blog: 254) TOSAFOT – DIALECTICS OF THE NATIONS?].

b) Rabbi Professor Yaakov Elman and other scholars have shown how cultural influences of Babylonia severely influenced the Babylonian Talmud [See Kotzk Blog: 197) BABYLONIAN INFLUENCES ON THE BABYLONIAN TALMUD: and Kotzk Blog: 376) Babylonian influences behind the Mourner’s Kaddish; and Kotzk Blog: 284) THE BAVLI ON ‘TWO POWERS IN HEAVEN’: and Kotzk Blog: 199) ASTROLOGY – IGNORED BY THE YERUSHALMI, EMBRACED BY THE BAVLI: and Kotzk Blog: 279) A BABYLONIAN CONTEXT TO THE BABYLONIAN TALMUD:]

c) Professor Fishman has pioneered a study into Muslim and Arabic influences that may have affected the ‘written book culture’ of rabbis living in North Africa and Muslim Spain. This has direct bearing on an understanding as to why Sefaradim had a different approach to practical halacha, than their brethren in Tosafist Ashkenaz.

Remember that Ibn Migrash, Yehuda al-Barceloni and Meir Halevi Abulafia - who spoke of the new written Talmud which they called “our Talmud” (as opposed to the old oral talmud) - all maintained that a paradigm shift took place once the oral talmud was committed to writing. This was because the act of writing gave oral traditions and ideologies a hitherto unexpressed stamp of official approval.

Roman and Islamic books

The Sefaradic rabbis of North Africa and Muslim Spain had lived in the heartlands of the former Roman Empire (not its borderlands). In the heartlands, the assumption remained even long after the collapse of the Roman Empire, that once writings were ‘published’ (in manuscript or codex form as printing was only invented in the late fifteenth century), they became syngrama or ‘official.’ Notes for private use, or hypomnema, were not regarded with much esteem. In rabbinic culture, these ‘unofficial’ writings were correspondingly known as megilat setarim:

“As residents of lands in which Roman legal culture persisted long after the empire’s collapse, the Jews of North Africa and al-Andalus would have assumed that the consignment of the Talmud to writing…signalled the transformation of this formerly oral corpus into a text of applied, decided law” (Fishman 2018:127).

This way, the act of writing changed the way knowledge was perceived. It was not easy or cheap to produce a written codex and it came with an implied authority. This authority also brought with it a practical component in that if the writing was ‘official’ it had to be acted upon and upheld in reality.

It follows that in the Sefaradic Jewish world, living in such an environment, a similar worldview would have prevailed. This is borne out by the fact that Sefaradic rabbis from this milieu were preoccupied with the practical side of the newer written Talmud, over the older dialectical and theoretical side which a more oral tradition would have maintained.

Thus, we see that Alfasi (Rif) chose to omit from his Sefer haHalachot, the argumentative debates and dialectics which he saw as impractical, as well as the Temple-related material which he saw as no longer practically applicable. He too was following similar approaches of Rabbeinu Nissim, Rabbeinu Chananel and many Gaonim.

Stammaim (editors) and practical Halacha

On a technical note, in keeping with the prevailing written book culture of Sefaradi lands, Alfasi:

“assigned greater weight to the Talmud’s late, anonymous stratum (known to modern scholars as the setam) in drawing legal conclusions. According to Alfasi, the precise manner in which the anonymous stratum framed any legal debate subtly guided the discerning reader to the legal conclusions that were to be drawn” (Fishman 2018: 131-2).

In other words, Alfasi interpreted the final editing style produced in writing by the Talmudic editors known as Stammaim, as being subtle indications of where he believed they were trying to point their readers to – so that they may arrive at practical conclusions and practical codified Halacha.

In a similar vein, according to Leonard Levy, Alfasi saw in the final edited and written Talmud:

“a unitary, consistent editor who deliberately used a number of methods to signal the legal sources that were authoritative, and those that were not.”[7]

It is significant to note that in his Sefer haHalachot, Alfasi used the term “Gemara” to refer to these anonymous Stammaim or editors of the Talmud (Fishman 2018:132, note 51). And in Alfasi’s Arabic writings, he used the term “al-Talmud” to refer to the same editors. He thus seemed very aware that the final written and edited form of the Talmud contained clues to practical, not theoretical, outcomes, which were to be translated as Halacha le’ma’aseh (practical Halacha).

Fishman (2018:132) suggests, that Alfasi’s close attention to the written work of the editor, Gemara or al-Talmud, may have been a parallel to the writing culture of the former Roman Empire with its authority of the written form over oral tradition; as well as a parallel to the Muslim culture that later filled the Roman void with its related concept of the Mudawwin (or purposeful editor or redactor).

The Muslim concept of the Mudawwin or editor was:

“the collecting of traditions in writing in order to derive legal precepts from them and not as a mere memory aid.”[8]

The notion of deriving legal precepts, or in Alfasi’s case practical Halacha, from a purposeful editor is well-founded within that North African and Spanish culture (deriving first from Roman and later from Islamic book influences):

“[Alfasi] would certainly have known that scholars of the majority culture were scrutinizing and shaping their own oral traditions in order to render applied law. Learned Jews in the book-centred Arab world were no less concerned than Muslims to demonstrate that their foundational texts displayed the internal logic, consistency, and elegance that the category ‘book’ demanded…Alfasi relied largely on the Talmudic text itself, and especially its latest stratum, that of the anonymous setam, in establishing applied Jewish law” (Fishman 2018:123-3).

This may explain the interesting if not enigmatic use by Sefaradic rabbis, of the term “Talmud shelanu,” or “Our Talmud,” with its emphasis, not on theoretical debate as in Ashkenaz, but instead on applied and practical Halacha and Halachic codes.

Bypassing the Babylonian Talmud

Ibn Migrash, who spoke of the Talmud shelanu (our Talmud) tradition, actually exhorted judges to bypass the Babylonian Talmud and only rely on legal codes. He records a question which he had received, and his answer to it, in the following responsum:

“[Question:] What would our master say about this man, who never in his life read a halakhah with a master, who knows neither the way of halakhah nor its interpretation, nor even how to read it—though he has seen many of the geonic responsa and books of dinim [regulations] …

[Answer:] One who instructs on the basis of geonic responsa and relies upon them—even if he cannot understand Talmud—is more proper and praiseworthy than a man who thinks that he knows Talmud and relies upon himself . . . It is better to permit him to give instruction than many other people who have established themselves as teachers in our time.”[9]

Proficiency in practical Halacha is thus deemed more important than proficiency in Babylonian Talmud. Furthermore, a six-volume Arabic Halachic work written for Dayanim (Judges) in Spain during the eleventh century, similarly did not require proficiency in Talmud.[10]

Merging of study cultures from the thirteenth-century

However, from around the beginning of the thirteenth century, the cultural divide (certainly with regard to study preferences) began to wane as the two cultures merged somewhat. This was due, in some measure, to the influence of the Catalan or north-eastern Spanish scholar, Nachmanides (1194–1270) who:

“encountered the talmudic glosses composed by north European Tosafists and introduced changes in the region’s approach to halakhic study” (Fishman 2018:125).

Nachmanides thus changed the original Sefaradic study culture as he introduced a more Talmud-centric approach to his students, many of whom became the foremost rabbis of the next generation of Sefaradim. Now Spanish rabbis began to follow Nachmanides and they too turned to theoretical dialectics and even to composing commentaries and chiddishim (novellae) on the Talmud.

The cultural divide was further diminished, this time from the Ashkenazi side, after the 1240s when the Talmud was burned in France, and the central European Jews had to rely on the commentary-code of R. Isaac Alfasi (Rif), which they referred to as the Talmud Kattan, or lesser Talmud (Fishman 2018:125). The two learning cultures of Sefarad and Ashkenaz slowly began to merge from the thirteenth century onwards.

Closing observation

Finally, in keeping with this theme of classical Sefaradic approaches to Talmud, and considering that today the Babylonian Talmud is the staple of Torah study for both Sefaradim and Ashkenazim, it is important to remember that this was not always the case:

“When considering the Sephardi preference for abridgements of applied law, it is worth remembering that, because of the ‘our Talmud’ tradition, Jews of al-Andalus did not share the assumption (so foundational in Ashkenazi culture) that the commandment of talmud torah was best fulfilled through primary, and even exclusive, engagement with the Babylonian Talmud and its commentaries” (Fishman 2018:138).

Astoundingly, there was a time when some Sefaradic rabbis questioned whether the study of the Babylonian Talmud was indeed the fulfilment of the mitzva of Talmud Torah.[11]


[1] Fishman, T., 2018, ‘The “Our Talmud” Tradition and the Predilection for Works of Applied Law in Early Sephardi Rabbinic Culture’, in Regional Identities and Cultures of Medieval Jews, Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation, 123-145. 

[2] b. Bava Batra 130.

[3] Ibn Migash, Chidushin on Bava Batra 130b. From a manuscript cited in Danzig, Introduction to Sefer halakhot pesukot (Heb.), 134; 138–9.

[4] b. Bava Batra 130b.

[5] Perush Sefer Yetzira, 186-8.

[6] Abulafia, Sefer Yad Ramah on b. Bava Batra 130.

[7] Levy, Leonard, ‘Rabbi Yitzhaq Alfasi’s Application of Principles of Adjudication’, 178–9.

[8] Levy, Leonard, ‘The Decisive Shift: From the Geonim to Rabbi Yizhaq Alfasi’, in Tiferet LeYisrael: Jubilee Volume in Honor of Israel Francus (New York, 2010), 93–130; 117.

[9] Ibn Migrash, responsum no. 114.

[10] Sklare, David, ‘R. David ben Sa’adyah al-Ger and His Work Kitab al-Hawi’ (Heb.), Te’udah, 14 (1998), 103–23; 104.

[11] See Friedman, Shamma, ‘Maimonides and the Talmud’ (Heb.), Diné Israel, 26–7 (2009), 221–39; 222.

No comments:

Post a Comment