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Introduction: Rabbinic Creativity

Medieval W. Christendom
For medieval Jews, the cornerstone of Jewish communal existence and personal identity was
adherence to the dictates of Jewish law, thus transforming knowledge of the law into the basis for
religious authority and into a central intellectual concern of the community and its members.
Knowledge of Jewish law developed in three major ways—through a lively responsa literature, that
is through engagement with the ever-changing realities of everyday life; through engagement with
the classical text of Jewish law, that is the Babylonian Talmud; and through the compilation of new
codes, which would make expanding Jewish law—developed through the proliferation of responsa
and talmudic commentaries—readily accessible in manual format.

The Jews of medieval Europe created regularly and impressively in all three modes of
Jewish law. Leading figures wrote responsa in reply to question raised to them. The responsa of
such leading figures were carefully preserved and became part of the corpus of Jewish law.
Ongoing study of the Talmud eventuated in the composition of important commentaries. The first
of the great European commentaries was that of the eleventh-century R. Solomon ben Isaac of
Troyes—Rashi—whose commentary became the standard from his days down to the present. From
Rashi’s own family emerged a school of innovative commentary that, using Rashi’s observations as
a base, probed more deeply into the vast “sea of the Talmud.” This new school, called the
Tosafists, produced a set of commentaries that likewise became normative in subsequent Jewish
academic life. The expansion of Jewish law through the responsa and through Talmud study and
commentary generated the need for ongoing compilation of manuals of Jewish law, a need that was
regularly addressed.

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