We step away now from Ashkenazic poskim of recent centuries to take a look at one of the best-known halakhists of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, Rabbi Yitzhak ben Sheshet Perfet, best known as Rivash.
Rivash lived most of his life in Christian Spain before fleeing religious persecution and settling in Algiers for his last years. Although he does not date any of his responsa, and very few have information that can help us pin down dates, he almost always records where he sent each responsum (though often the place name appears only in the first of a series of responsa to a particular correspondent). So we can get a pretty good map.
Rivash wrote over 500 responsa. About 50 have no indication of the place of address, and there are still five places that we have not identified. (For those playing at home, they are: אופטי, אל פראנו, נאקה, פינה, קמראשה; if any of our readers have any idea about what these places might be, we would be grateful for the assistance.) In total, then, we have mapped 458 of his responsa.
There are two main clusters, corresponding to the two places where Rivash lived: the Kingdom of Aragon in Iberia (including the Balearic Islands and Sardinia) and the Zayyanid Kingdom of Tlemcen in North Africa. These two clusters account for c. 75% of his responsa. Note also that the two clusters are not distributed in the same way; he wrote to many more communities in Aragon than in North Africa, though the three cities that received the most responsa from him are all on the North African coast. We have not yet embedded borders from the year 1400 in the map, but compare the clusters in the map above to the borders in the map below:
Of the remaining responsa, most were sent to other Iberian kingdoms: Mostly to Castile, a handful to Granada and Navarre, and none to Portugal. (Within Castile, not even one was sent to the other Galicia.)
Other than that, there’s one to Fano, Italy, two to Perpignan, Provence, and three to “Ashkenaz”. These latter responsa were mainly about major halakhic controversies.
Having done this survey, I (Elli) also want to draw attention to one teshuvah in particular, which shows how our insights about metadata can converge with analysis of legal and rhetorical argumentation to yield new and surprising insights.
Teshuvot Ha-Rivash #394 was sent unsolicited to Rabbi Hayim Galipapa, after Rabbi Hasdai [ben] Shlomo shared a notebook containing several controversial rulings of R. Galipapa with Rivash. R. Galipapa had permitted some things that had traditionally been forbidden: combing one’s hair on Shabbat and eating certain types of cheese produced by gentiles. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the editors of the masterful Jewish Encyclopedia saw him as a proto-reformer of sorts, writing about him: “Galipapa belonged to the liberal school, setting aside the strictly orthodox rabbinical authorities, and following even in advanced years those that inclined to a more lax discipline.” The evidence of his “liberalism” comes only from this responsum, which is why it is surprising to see the editors write that Rivash “seriously but gently reproved him”, as there was nothing gentle about Rivash’s reproof.
Rivash opens his responsum with a broader offensive. We will quote the opening lines in full, including translation and reference to the Biblical verses that Rivash invokes:
|I have seen you, a butting ram
ראיתיך איל מנגח
|And your horns come out from your hand
וקרנים מידך לך
|Micah 4:13, 1 Kings 22:11
|Horns of iron
|With the fury of your power you charge
בחמת כחך תרוץ
|Against the mighty bulls of Bashan
אל אבירי בשן
|To hurl them to Azazel
לשלח אותם לעזאזל
|You march forth
|To shatter age-old mountains, to bring low the primeval hills
לפוצץ הררי עד לשוח גבעות עולם
Rivash’s intro consists entirely of a string of direct quotes and paraphrases of Biblical verses, each of which describes a raging, charging, butting, trampling, goring beasts – specifically rams, goats, and bulls. He then goes on to accuse R. Galipapa of being overly dismissive of greater, earlier authorities like Rashi and Rabbenu Tam. The meaning of his metaphor, and his primary criticism of R. Galipapa, is clear: You, Rabbi Galipapa, are like a raging beast, completely out of control, taking on sages who are way above your pay grade. Indeed, Rivash goes on to explicitly assail R. Galipapa for his lack of deference to earlier sages and for the arrogance and hubris he displays by dismissing earlier opinions. One can imagine these criticisms and the “raging bull” metaphor being applied to rabbis in any age, if they are deemed overly dismissive of inherited tradition and canonic precedent, or who have no qualms openly and defiantly taking on venerated practices and accepted authorities, past and present alike.
There is a subtler point here as well. Rivash goes on to engage the substance of R. Galipapa’s positions and even accepts one of them (on the correct text of Kol Nidre). The introduction to the responsum is a rhetorical tour de force, filled with allusions and bitingly critical (not “gently reproving” at all), but devoid of prooftexts. Indeed, there could have been no text that required one to consult the views of the Tosafists before rendering a decision. Rivash is making a claim – a novel claim – about the canon that must be mastered in order to become a halakhic authority, and he backs it up with pure rhetoric. He clearly felt that simply refuting R. Galipapa’s arguments on halakhic grounds would have been insufficient. Rather, he felt it was necessary to directly confront a rabbi (several years senior to Rivash, it is worth noting) who was directly challenging the mode of study and decision-making that had developed in Christian Spain ever since Ramban, more than a century earlier, expanded the local rabbinic curriculum to include the teachings of the French sages.
Perhaps Rivash thought he could persuade Rabbi Galipapa. Alternatively, he was almost certainly aware that his responsa, like those of earlier sages, were read and passed around among disciples and in centers of Jewish learning. In that case, his introduction was more for the broader audiences that for an audience of one. Regardless of his intention, and regardless, even, of which of them was correct with respect to the points of law under debate, the effect was that Rivash, more than 600 years later, still has an audience and remains an integral part of the study of halakhah, whereas R. Galipapa is barely remembered. Halakhic history has accorded Rivash and R. Galipapa the same respect that they accorded the Tosafists. The one who showed them honor is shown honor; the one who ignored them is ignored. This, I think, tells us a great deal about how halakhah functions and adapts within traditional Jewish societies.
What does this have to do with place names, though?
Around Yom Kippur time, I went to look up what Rivash wrote about Kol Nidre in responsum #394. After a few lines I burst out laughing. My family was surprised; hysterical laughter is not the sort of reaction one expects from someone studying a a book of she’elot u-teshuvot.
I had read the first few lines, the address and Rivash’s “raging bull” metaphor, and something clicked, something that makes this metaphor more than perfect, something that made me laugh out loud at a joke cracked by a major halakhist over 600 years ago. It was not until after Shabbat that I could confirm my theory, but I already knew that this was no coincidence. The very first word of this responsum is the name of the city where R. Galipapa was rabbi: