Rivash Part II: Squeezing Out More Data

When looking at Rivash, it is quite apparent that there are series of responsa, sometimes quite lengthy, that appear to be part of a single correspondence. Take, for example, responsum #254: It is addressed to Rabbi Pinhas ben Shalamya in Xativa, and the next eight responsa all begin with the words “עוד שאלת”, “you also asked”. In fact, well over half of the teshuvot in the collection begin with such formulations.

Sometimes the series are numbered. Responsum #400 was addressed to Rabbi Moshe Maskaran in Huesca. It begins: “The first question…” The next three responsa, begin, respectively, “The second question”, “The third question”, and “The fourth question”. The first three responsa in this series of four questions relate to the laws of Pesah; was he cracking wise about the “four questions”? Perhaps. Either way, it is apparent that these four responsa were part of a single correspondence. It stands to reason that formulations like “you further asked” indeed preserve the original order of the responsa, at least within each series. Our inclination was therefore to conclude that all nine of the responsa from 254 to 262 were to Xativa, and plot the map accordingly. Likewise for all series.  

On the other hand, we saw with respect to R. Moshe Feinstein that one correspondence could be chopped in two and published in different places, even different volumes. The responsa of the Rishonim, moreover, are sometimes chopped up and scrambled into all different orders. These texts circulated in manuscripts whose orders were not uniform. In his work on on the various responsa collections of Rashba and Maharam Mi-Rothenberg, Prof. Simcha Emanuel takes on the massive project of cross-references the numbering schemes of the various collections and citations. Moreover, we noticed relatively early that Rivash’s responsa to North Africa appear at the beginning of the collection of responsa, even though he lived there only at the end of his life. The responsa seemed to be in reverse chronological order. This indicated that the order had been tampered with, and that we could not therefore trust that what seemed like series of responsa to one individual were in fact so.

There are no accessible digitized versions of any complete Rivash manuscript (at least not on KTIV – yet), so that was no help.

The first bits of resolution came from the introduction to the Machon Yerushalayim edition of Teshuvot Ha-Rivash, which records that R. Yosef Karo was working from a manuscript at one point, and only later obtained the print version of Teshuvot Ha-Rivash. Moreover, his manuscript was incomplete and contained only about one-third of the responsa in the collection.

We also discussed the question with Prof. Emanuel, who graciously provided us with several sources that discuss the issue. The most extensive and important one appears in Abraham Hershman’s work on Rivash. Hershman provides a full account of the manuscript and print history of Rivash’s responsa. He cites evidence of some mistakes in attribution (which we fixed in the latest update to the map), but confirms that, all in all, series of responsa are reliably preserved intact. Here’s the English version of Hershman’s book. The relevant discussion begins on p. 5:

Hershman gives an important accounting of the transition from manuscript to print. Rivash “published” his responsa in three different volumes, which circulated separately in manuscript prior to the first printed edition. These three volumes were from different periods of his life: One from the beginning of his career, mainly in Barcelona and Zaragoza (Vol I); one from the second part of his career, when he was in Zaragoza and later Valencia (Vol II); and one from the third part of his career, in North Africa (Vol III).

These three volumes were printed in reverse chronological order. Volume III corresponds to responsa 1-186; Volume II to responsa 187-359; and Vol I to responsa 360-518. Hershman and the Machon Yerushalayim intro both show places where a manuscript responsum of the Rivash is cited, but its number does not match the numbering in the printed editions – but does correspond to the numbering within the particular volume. For instance, Responsa Mabit #32 refers to Responsa Rivash #12. It’s not #12 in the printed editions – it’s #198, which is Vol II, #12 (198-186=12). This threefold partition seems to have originated with Rivash himself. He seems to have ordered each one, albeit not necessarily chronologically, but he keeps series intact. In fact, he did not necessarily think of them as separate responsa; it was later readers and copyists who presumably broke up these lengthy responsa for easier reference. Moreover, the three volumes, if they are not ordered internally by chronology, are from different periods of his career.

This gives us a pretty good picture of the multi-stage process by which Rivash’s correspondence was transformed from individual letters, into collections (by the author himself), to authoritative sources (by Beit Yosef, Mabit, and others who cite him, as reflected in the numbering of manuscript responsa), to a single printed volume.

Though we have a few quibbles with Hershman (תנס is Tenes, Algeria, not Tunis, Tunisia, for example), in all, his work is an unparalleled resource on Rivash, and through it we were able to refine and confirm many of the data points on the Rivash map. It has reinforced for us that much have our path has been paved by scholars who accomplished incredible research with a fraction of the tools and none of the computing power we have today.

We have updated the Rivash map accordingly, including a color-coding of the original three volumes. It bears out what we have seen in the past. Vol I, representing the early part of Rivash’s career, covers mainly just Aragon and Navarre. In Vol II, written during the peak of his career in Iberia, there are many more responsa to Castille in addition to Aragon and Navarre. Almost all of Vol III is to communities in North Africa, and the few exceptions are mainly to relatives who were still in Aragon. We suggest opening it in its own tab.

It is worth asking why he did not write any more than a handful of responsa to Iberian communities after his move to Algiers. It’s worth noting: volumes I and II are about as geographically similar to each other as two poskim from the same tradition tend to be. This isn’t necessarily so surprising, since the geographical spread of a posek isn’t much more predictive than the spread of his area (for example: an earlier volume of Hatam Sofer will be only somewhat more similar to a later volume than Ktav Sofer might be). However, volume III is as different from I and II as anything we’ve seen — it’s truly apples to oranges. We’d see similar numbers comparing German poskim to Galitzianers, and it suggests that to a substantial degree, Rivash “changed jobs” with his move to North Africa.

Rivash and the Raging Bull

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:

Daniel 8:4 I have seen you, a butting ram

ראיתיך איל מנגח

Habakkuk 3:4 And your horns come out from your hand

וקרנים מידך לך

Micah 4:13, 1 Kings 22:11 Horns of iron

קרני ברזל

Daniel 8:6 With the fury of your power you charge

בחמת כחך תרוץ

Daniel 8:7 You rage


Psalms 22:13 Against the mighty bulls of Bashan

אל אבירי בשן

Leviticus 16:10 To hurl them to Azazel

לשלח אותם לעזאזל

Proverbs 30:27 You march forth

ותצא חוצץ

Habakkuk 3:6 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:


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