When was the end of the Rishonim time period and the start of the achronim time period? Who, what, why, and how did this come about? What caused this abrupt change in deemed mental and halachot significance/intelligence?

  • Why do you assume anything changed abruptly?
    – Double AA
    Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 23:03
  • Duplicate of (part of) judaism.stackexchange.com/q/31574? (Pinging @DoubleAA just because you're pingable.)
    – msh210
    Commented Nov 3, 2013 at 0:42
  • I've heard two answers but I have never heard any sources for them: The Inquisition and the Shulchan Aruch Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 8:12
  • The European Enlightenment; see also Baruch Spinoza.
    – user18041
    Commented Sep 13, 2019 at 22:08

7 Answers 7



In Seder HaDoros HaKotzair by Rabbi Shlomo Benizri (starting p.135) he dates the period of Rishonim from 1040-1515 and writes as follows:

לאחר שקיעת הגאונים בבבל, גלגלה ההשגחה שגדולי התורה יעברו למקומות נוספים בעולם ששם לא היו גדולי תורה בעלי שעור קומה שיוכלו לפתח את התורה ביתר שאת

הגאונים שחיו אז בבבל סבלו רבות מהפרסים שנטלו את ממונם ובטלום מלימודם. חלק מהם יצאו בספינות אל ארצות שונות לערוך מגביות עבור הכנסת כלה וכדומה

בשנת 4723 (962 לספה"נ) מספר גאונים מבבל, הפליגו להם בספינה אחת למטרת הכנסת כלה כשבראשם היה רבי משה בר חנוך. ספינה זו נפלה בידי שודדים שלקחו את השבויים והציגום בפני קהילות ישראל במקומות שוניםם, במטרה שיפדו אותם

After the fall of the Geonim in Babylon, providence beckoned that the Torah greats would move to other places in the world where there were no Torah greats of equal stature who could develop the Torah even more.

The Geonim who lived then in Babylon suffered a lot from the Persians who took away their money and deprived them of their studies. Some of them went on ships to different countries to make donations for the bridegroom and the like.

In the year 4723 (962 CE), a number of Geonim from Babylon sailed for them in one ship for the purpose of hachnosas kallah, led by Rabbi Moshe bar Chanoch. This ship fell into the hands of bandits who took the captives and presented them to the communities of Israel in various places, with the aim of redeeming them.

He writes the four captives were:

What followed was the proliferation of new Torah centres.

He continues that the Torah centers of the Rishonim were mainly: Spain, Germany, France, Provence and Italy. The period of the Rishonim began after the fall of the Geonim in Babylon (actually with the death of Rav Hai Gaon), and the transfer of Torah centres to the rest of the world and especially to Spain.

The first were scattered in all the lands of the Diaspora. They were called so by the latter to distinguish them from the Geonim. Like their predecessors, they often wrote interpretations/explanation, halachos, responsa, and chiddushim but in greater number than the Geonic period.

The period of the Rishonim, from the spiritual point of view, was one of the periods of great splendour for the Jewish people, during this period great works were composed such as Rashi's Commentary, Ibn Ezra, Rambam, Tosafos, Radak, Ramban, Rashba, Ralbag, Rosh, Ran, Maharil, the Terumas Hadeshen, and many more who in the course of time became fundamental to Jewish learning. But compared to the spiritual aspect, this was one of the most difficult periods in which the Jewish people suffered many losses in atrocities, crusades, and bloodshed, burning the Talmud, expelling them and pogroms etc.


Starting on p.166 Rav Benizri details the period of the Acharonim.

He writes that the Acharonim were scattered throughout the diaspora and unfortunately are still scattered today. They also wrote many books of halacha, mussar and more in great volume. The period of the acharonim began after the expulsion from Spain. Until the time of the expulsion, there lived in Spain a large community numbering hundreds of thousands of Jews, which flourished and prospered both spiritually and physically. The centers of Torah were in this country, but following the Expulsion of Jews from Spain that took place in 1492CE, in which thousands were killed, the majority of the Jews of Spain emigrated to other countries, with 60% of them emigrating to Portugal and the rest scattered around the world.

He writes:

דבר זה הביא לפתיחת מרכזי - תורה חדשים בכל רחבי העולם ולהפצת התורה בכל רחבי תבל. לאחר גירוש ספרד, הסתיימה תקופת הראשונים והחלה תקופת האחרונים.

This led to the opening of new Torah centers all over the world and the spread of the Torah all over the world. After the expulsion from Spain, the period of the Rishonim ended and the period of the Acharonim began.

more to follow...

  • judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/9153/…
    – Double AA
    Commented Jan 28 at 13:07
  • @DoubleAA can you elaborate please
    – Dov
    Commented Jan 28 at 13:11
  • I can't, as I'm not knowledgeable enough, but the Wikipedia page you cite has the same claim that the story of the "four captives" is a fable and didn't really happen
    – Double AA
    Commented Jan 28 at 13:29
  • 1
    I am just quoting from the sefer which has haskomos from Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Reuven Elbaz...
    – Dov
    Commented Jan 28 at 13:31
  • 1
    The (hi)story of the four captives is from R. Abhraham ibn Daud ha-Lewi in his Sefer ha-Qaballah (starting p. 45 in the Cohen edition). Commented Jan 29 at 15:27

Really the distinction is one between the medieval period and the modern period. The Shulchan Aruch was written at the very end of the medieval period and was one of the first Jewish books to be printed during its author's lifetime. The printing aspect is hugely important; before that any Jewish work (any work in general) was competing for scribal time & effort.


The shift happened from the Shulchan aruch.

Before the Shulchan Aruch, halacha was decided by each posek looking towards the Talmud and Geonim, or being influenced by other Rabeim, and coming to their own decision about an issue, based on what made sense to them and their community. (Using many many factors)

The Shulchan Aruch however, decided to take a 2 out of 3 approach (best of Rif, Rosh and Rambam) This was a new method of psak halacha.

I imagine there is also a shift due to the Arizal, but I have no source for that.

  • Re your last few words: do you have a source for the rest of your answer?
    – msh210
    Commented Dec 5, 2013 at 20:09
  • @msh210 did you not look at the link?
    – avi
    Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 14:09
  • Correct, I didn't. Sorry.
    – msh210
    Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 19:03
  • Sorry but this isnt strictly correct. The trend of paskening based on poskim and not based on the gemara directly is discussed by the Ri Migash, was prevalent in the 15th century, before Shulchan Aruch. THe opposite is also true, later writers such as the Gra R. Moshe and the Chazon Ish sometimes brought proof dirctly from Gemara; not poskim.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 0:24
  • @mevaqesh Treating poskim as if they are judges and taking the best 2 out of 3, was discussed by the Ri Migash?
    – avi
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 8:21

The Chida (Eruvin 21b) writes:

אפשר לפרש דהא דכתיב ולהג הרבה חוץ מדרשא דבסמו' הוא טעם שני למה לא נכתבו דעל ידי שהם בע"פ וצריכי רבנן למגריסינהו תדיר ולא פסיק זה גורם להתקדש ולהשתעבד שעבודא דאורייתא כי חיים הם למוצאיהם ומרחקתו מן החטא וז"ש ולהג הרבה שהוגה בהן עי"ז יגיעת בשר על דרך שאמרו שיגיעת שניהם משכחת עון וזה טעם גדול לתורה שבע"פ. והוא טוב טעם לקדושת התנאים והאמוראים מלבד תוקף עילוי נשמתם שעל ידי שהיו מוכרחים תדיר לחזור על לימודם בעל פה היה מזדכך גופם ותורה אגוני מגנא ואצולי מצלא לא כן אחר שנכתבה הגמרא דבטלה הגירסא בהתמדה ושרו חכימי' למהוי כעמא דארעא וזה מפתח גדול להבין האי דאחסור דרי וסדר הבדלות בין חכמי ישראל ודי בזה:

In brief, he says that when the Torah Shebaal Peh was unwritten, the effort needed to memorize it made people holier. Once it was written down (with the closing of the Talmud) and it was no longer necessary to memorize it, "the sages began to become like the amei haaretz."

In his closing words he notes that "this is an important key to understanding the descent of the generations and the distinctions between Torah sages." He may mean that the distinction between the Rishonim and the Acharonim is associated with the codification of the basics of halachah, such that less effort was needed to memorize the basics - which would then point to the publication of the Shulchan Aruch as the dividing line, as pointed out in other answers. Alternatively, he might be alluding to the invention of printing (also as noted in other answers), which put many more sefarim within reach of Torah scholars and sages, but at the same time reduced the amount of effort needed to learn those sefarim.

Mention should also be made of Mattis Kantor's Codex Judaica, where he suggests that in fact there's a transitional period between the Rishonim and the Acharonim. He calls the sages of this period the "Kov'im" (the "fixers" of halachah), and dates that era to 1492-1648 (thus spanning the period in which the Shulchan Aruch and its first major commentaries were written), with the Acharonim proper following that.

  • Is Rabbi Kantor's "Kov'im" period, his own suggestion or are there other scholars that refer to the period as such as well? Commented Jan 29 at 15:41
  • @Deuteronomy I don't have the book with me now, but I think it was his own idea.
    – Meir
    Commented Jan 29 at 16:39
  • thanks, if you end up confirming one way or another, please tag me again :) Commented Jan 29 at 16:41

This is a great question that is hard to answer succinctly; just about every statement below needs to be challenged, circumscribed, and/or clarified more. But I will do my best to cite some of the "theories" explaining what is essentially a sociological observation: by some time in history, rabbinic authors imagined themselves as belonging to a different historical era than that of their predecessors although the nature of this perception is itself complex (see the Havlin article listed below). Your questions asks about the Rishonim/Acharonim divide, but I will just throw out this podcast about the Savoraim/Geonim/Rishonim divide, because a lot of the sources and discussion there is also relevant here: The Rishonim Podcast Episode 2.

So first, here are two rabbinic theories I've sees as to how/why this split occurred:

  1. R. Elchanan Wasserman quotes his teacher R. Yisrael ha-Kohen (the "Chofetz Chaim"), who says that even though every generation decreases in greatness, sometimes there is a discontinuity in the flow of generational decline. He adds that this would be something evident to all the living rabbis of the time, when a particular person passes away who towers over his contemporaries so completely that all who remain recognize that an epoch has passed. He says that this occurred with the death of R. Hai Gaon to end the time of the Geonim, and "Rabbi Akiva Eiger said about the Vilna Gaon".

  2. R. Yaakov Kamanetsky (Emes L'Yaakov Bamidbar Ch 9, cf also Shemos Ch 24 and Emes L'Yaakov Avos 1:1) writes sort of similarly, saying that the last member of the "era" is the greatest, but puts the emphasis on codification, saying that the end of an era comes when this great rabbi will compile all the teachings of the previous generations into a code of some kind to signify the era's conclusion. Both of these sources are available on the above-linked podcast sourcesheet, here.

Among academics, I believe that the predominant historical theory for this phenomenon (detailed in an article available here) is that 'periodization' occurs due to some crisis within a society that creates the perception that the post-crisis society cannot recreate the conditions that existed previously. It has been variously proposed that this could be applied to the "end of the Rishonim" due to either (1) the Rindtfliesh massacres (around 1300AD) and other associated persecutions up to and including those in the wake of the Black Death (a few decades later) in Central Europe, (2) the century of Spanish persecution leading up to the Inquisition (1391-1492), or (3) the social upheaval precipitated by the rise of printing (or some combination thereof). This complicated theory would mean that the "end of the Rishonim" did not occur all at once and likely occurred in different places at different times (i.e., there were still "Rishonim" living in Spain in the 15th century, while the rabbis of Poland thought that the last Rishonim were the Rosh and his sons). In fact, the 1972 Encyclopedia Judaica article on "halakha" by Louis Jacobs states that the Rishonim ended in the 16th century with the printing of the Shulhan Aruch, while the article on "Rishonim" by Yisrael Ta-Shema says that it ended a century earlier with the deaths of the Maharil and Terumas haDeshen.

There is so so much nuance here (like, did you know the Ramban thought of the Rif as the last Rishon and himself/the Rambam as "Acharonim," and R. Saadiah ibn Danan thinks that the Rambam is the last "Rishon," and the Hagahos Maimonios implies that his teacher Maharam of Rothenburg is the "last of the great ones", etc. etc.) and so I encourage you to keep poking at it. Here are some articles related directly or indirectly to the topic with lots of interesting sources to consider:

  • Havlin, S.Z. (1983)."Al ha-Hatimah ha-Sifrutit ki-Yesod ha-Haluqah li-Tequfot ha-Halakah," Mehqarim be-Sifrut ha-Talmudit. The Israel Academies of Sciences and Humanities, Jerusalem.
  • Dimitrovsky, H.Z. (1984) "ha-Yesh Yemei Beinaim Yehudiim?", in M. Bar-Asher ed., Mehkarim be-Madaei ha-Yahadut. Jerusalem
  • Soloveitchik, H. (1987). Religious Law and Change: The Medieval Ashkenazic Example. AJS Review, 12(2)
  • Yuval, I. (1992). Rishonim and Aharonim, Antiqui et Moderni Periodization and Self-Awareness in Ashkenaz). Zion, 47.
  • This online article (associated with the Rishonim podcast): The Heavy Weight of the Jewish Bookshelf
  • Re: generational decline, interesting to note this Hayom Yom.
    – shmosel
    Commented Feb 2 at 3:32

rishonim were the leading rabbis before the shulchan aruch and achronim after shulchan aruch (5323-5324)

  • 3
    A source would be helpful. Commented Nov 3, 2013 at 5:33

The time of the shulchan aruch is about right; there is also a shift in rabbinical names about the same time.

many(but not all) rishonim went by acronyms...rashi, rashbam, rambam, ramban, or by their own names .... ibn ezra,sforno, abarbanel

acharonim often wrote their comments under a pen name....chafetz chaim, gur aryeh, etc.

  • 2
    Exactly: like the or zarua, kol bo, ittur, eshkol, maharsham, maharsha, r akiva eiger and the gra.
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 3:45
  • 3
    Also, the examples of acharonim are not pen names, these are the names of their books which they became known for.
    – wfb
    Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 5:07
  • 1
    +1 for time of Shulchan Aruch (though no source), -1 for second half, so 0 Commented Dec 5, 2013 at 2:49
  • 1
    ראי"ה, גרי"ז, רידב"ז, רמח"ל, רמ"ז, אדר"ת, חיד"א, מהר"ם שיק, מהרש"ם, מלבי"ם
    – Ephraim
    Commented Apr 28, 2015 at 20:17

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