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Premise - the Semag was one of the popular/accepted works by a Rishon, and thus was chosen to be placed in the Ein Mishpat/Ner Mitzvah with Rambam and Tur. The Semak was written based off of it, as well as a number of commentaries.
Now, however, it is entirely unpopular (I don't think I have ever seen anyone learning Semag), but Rambam and Tur are still as popular as ever.

Question - At what time did it lose popularity, and what would the explanation for this be?

  • Sefarim gain and lose popularity, usually losing. Semak was also popular enough to have rishonim writing commentaries on it. And who has even heard of the once popular ohel moed. I think a much better question is why tur and rambam lasted. The vast majority of halakhic rishonin aren't learned so frequently. – mevaqesh Dec 21 '17 at 23:11
  • Note that the Mizrahi authored awesome commentary on semag. It was probably at least somewhat popular in the 15th century. – mevaqesh Dec 21 '17 at 23:12
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    Basically all halakhic Rishonim lost popularity. Yeshivot focus on the daf and commentaries there. Poskim largely focus on ShA and commentaries. The only exception is Tur, obviously given its connection to ShA, and commentaries to it, and mishne torah. The latter obviously occupies a unique position in the history of Jewish literature, and always has so it serves as a poor example. – mevaqesh Dec 21 '17 at 23:23
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    @Yaakov Deane because Semag is simply not learned by almost anyone nowadays. As an example, searching for the term 'semag' on YUTorah returns 4 results (3 of which are history shiurim), 'rambam returns thousands, including 12 given this week, 'tur' returns over 100, and 'shulchan aruch' just below 500. And based on the number of Gedolim who wrote commentaries or works based on the Semag, as well as the fact that the Masores Hashas included Semag along with Tur/SA and Rambam indicates that Semag had a major loss of popularity at some later time. I'm trying to figure out when and why. – רבות מחשבות Dec 22 '17 at 17:54
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    By way of a parallel, the Levush was once more popular than the SA, and today nobody reads it at all; Sifra was once the most popular midrash, and today isn't even in print. These things happen. – Shimon bM Apr 22 '18 at 9:47
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+50

First: Based on the Hebrew entry for the סמ"ג (quoted in the 2nd sub-bullet):

  • The Sm"g quotes heavily from the רמב"ם

    • So maybe in our Rambam-oriented society (with 1 or 3 chapters Yomi of Rambam popularised by Chabad) it may seem like duplication to learn the Sm"g.
    • דברי הרמב"ם מצוטטים כמעט בכל עמוד מעמודי הספר אם כי לאו דווקא באזכור שמו של הרמב"ם לצדם
  • The Sm"g was one of the 8 authors most revered by R' Yosef Cairo

    • So maybe people assume that anything of value in the Sm"g is in the Tur and/or Shulchan Aruch.
    • סמ"ג נחשב כספר פסיקה מרכזי עד לפרסומו של השולחן ערוך. ואף היה משמונת הרבנים המוערכים ביותר על ידי רבי יוסף קארו ע"פ הקדמתו לסיפרו בית יוסף

Second: I remember reading (where, oh where?) that the text we have of the Sm"g was improved. Specifically, all the quoted Talmud was added in later.

That would eventually reduce its value since it is now only partially written by a Rishon.

That said, the סמ"ג is an amazing Sefer and I try to learn at least a few lines from it every day. It would serve as an amazing introduction to any sugya, providing all the building blocks needed for the various concepts found in any particular sugya. I highly recommend adding it to your learning program.

As to when it happened (and possibly another reason why it happened) - based on the discussion here:

There's a book called קיצור סמ"ג that was authored by Sebastian Münster (1488 – 1552) a Christian Hebraist scholar.

Possibly once the Christians showed an interest in the Sefer (and possibly used it to showcase anti-Christian teachings of the Talmud), the Yidden decided it was safer to ignore the Sefer, and demote its significance.

איני יודע מה היה חשוב כ"כ לסבסטיאן להודיע לכל שהספר נכתב ע"י היהודי בספרד. (אם כי שבלבי ישנה השערה שלא נותנת לי מנוח, שהרי הכל מודים שבהקדמתו בלטינית כתב סבסטיאן שמטרתו בתרגומו "להראות איך טחו עיני בני ישראל מראות ומהשכיל ליבותם לילך בעקבות תושבע"פ". עפ"ל. והנה ר"ר אליצור הצביע על כמה דברים בספר מהם נובעת אנטישמיות סמויה, כגון ההדגשה שהאיסור לגנוב נפש הוא רק מישראל וכו'. והנני הקטן להוסיף, שכמדומה בכל מקום השתדל בעיקר להדגיש את רוח ה'גזענות' ח"ו הנושבת כאילו מתוך גזירות חז"ל, כפי המצטייר לעיניו של גוי, כגון כל האריכות בלאו מ"ה הכולל גם איסור לבת ישראל לילד את הנכרית אבל נכרית מילדת את בת ישראל, וכן האיסור לבת ישראל להניק בן גויה אבל הנכרית מניקת בת ישראל וכו' וכו'. וא"כ יתכן שבגלל כל אלו הדברים היה חשוב לו להדגיש שכתבו היהודי בספרד, כאילו יש כאן רמיזה סמויה שלאחר כאלו דברים אל להתפלאות על גזירות הגירוש התכופות שהנחיתו מלכי ספרד ופורטוגל על ראשי היהודים...)‏

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I apologize for ignoring your request for "credible and/or official sources", but I don't think there will be many of those on this topic.

I think the answer is based on three premises, with the logical conclusion of the premises being that the Semag is not really studied.

  1. People have limited time/energy to expend on Torah study, and the amount of Torah out there is virtually endless. No one can learn everything. (See e.g. Igros Moshe Y.D. 3:115 second to last paragraph)

  2. People prioritize learning sefarim with more importance/value.

  3. The Semag has comparatively low value. With no disrespect meant to the sefer or its author, it is outmatched in every area. As a work of halacha, it is pretty much only useful to someone who is going through every shitah of rishonim. For most people, studying the Shulchan Aruch with commentaries gets them the halacha they need to know. For those a step higher, the Beis Yosef already collects and discusses many of the views of rishonim. If instead of halacha one's focus is on explanations of the Talmud, there are more than enough works of rishonim that were written as commentaries to the Talmud, that someone would not feel the need to turn to the Semag to try to extract a Talmudic explanation. As a "Sefer Hamitzvos" it lacks the succinctness of Rambam's Sefer Hamitzvos, and it lacks the "reasons" of the Sefer Hachinuch that contribute to the latter's popularity, and it lacks a "lomdus commentary" like the Minchas Chinuch.

In short (and this is in no way meant as anything negative towards one of the great rishonim) the question should perhaps even be reversed. Why would someone nowadays study the Semag, except as a mere historical curiosity? Unless there is a specific reference that he needs, or a famous Semag shitah in a particular case, the sefer is not very useful to the average Torah-studier. (Of course there are exceptions, and the exceptions probably do study the Semag.)

A final point is that a lot of times it only takes one generation for something to lose popularity. This is because as soon as one generation abandons an area of study, there is no one teaching it to the next generation. The next generation in turn will teach what they have studied and it becomes an ongoing cycle. (I believe this explanation has been advanced for why yeshivos primarily study the same handful of masechtot over and over.)

That it was at one point popular is probably due to the less competition in previous centuries.

  • All of this logic could be applied equally to the Rambam's Yad Hachazaka/Mishna Torah, yet... – רבות מחשבות Apr 18 '18 at 17:51
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    @רבותמחשבות The Rambam has two primary advantages. 1. As a work of halacha it is simply unparalleled in scope and format. 2. It is the linchpin of the entire Brisker derech. – Alex Apr 18 '18 at 17:58
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    @רבותמחשבות And perhaps more importantly, the Rambam is cited by every subsequent work of halacha. – Alex Apr 18 '18 at 18:04
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    1. If we learned the Semag (which is similar in scope), we would say the same thing. And in fact, early on in it's history, people did say that. As I noted in the question, Semak was written based off of it, the Maharshal and Mizrachi wrote commentaries to it, and it was chosen to be put in the Ein Mishpat with the Tur/Sh"A and Rambam. 2. Again, that seems to be a much later development. Clearly at some earlier point the Semag went out of style (likely 1500/1600s or so). – רבות מחשבות Apr 18 '18 at 18:12
  • (BTW, most likely, the reason why is that the Shulchan Aruch pushed it out in a sense. I think it was learned just as much, if not more than many of the other major Rishonim, but when Shulchan Aruch/Rema codified Halacha, it became nothing special, and slowly lost popularity.) – רבות מחשבות Apr 18 '18 at 18:16

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