The successors to the Torah tradition of the Gaonim were known as the Rishonim, or early scholars, to distinguish them from the later Torah authorities called Acharonim. Spanning 10 generations over approximately a 500-year period, the Rishonim led the Torah world from 1000-1500 CE, during which time Jewish life underwent enormous changes. Babylonia ceased being the major Torah center, and no other place would ever hold that distinction. Instead, many centers of learning sprung up, with none being the ultimate voice for world Jewry. In addition, the period of the Rishonim saw the rise of Roman Catholic domination of Western Europe, which included the great persecutions of the Jews, culminating in the Spanish Expulsion of 1492.

Accomplishments of the Rishonim

The scholarly and literary output of the Rishonim is staggering, with virtually all current Biblical and Talmudic scholarship based on their work. Hundreds of brilliant scholars wrote vast commentaries on the Bible, Talmud, halacha, and Jewish philosophy. In addition, much of the current liturgy draws from piyutim composed by rabbinic poets clearly imbued with a spirit of holiness. Amazingly, much of this work was accomplished during times of extreme persecution and tragedy, thereby fulfilling G‑d's promise to the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 31:21) that despite all the horrors they will endure, the Torah will never be forgotten. Today, the Rishonim are held in such great esteem that it is unthinkable for any later scholar to dispute their decisions or interpretations. In fact, since their times 500 years of study, and many thousands of books and commentaries, have been devoted to analyzing and interpreting every nuance of a Rishon's words. Indeed, such reverence is accorded to the Rishonim that any serious student knows that one does not say, "Rashi was wrong," or "Rambam made a mistake," but rather, "We must attempt to figure out what they are trying to teach us."

Rishonim Vis-à-vis the Gaonim

Compared to the writings of the Rishonim, the output of the Gaonim is quite scanty — despite their greater Torah scholarship. The relatively few Gaonic publications may be due in part to the loss of much Gaonic material over the centuries. However, a famous Rishon, the Meiri, explains that "They [the Gaonim] were well-versed in the entire Torah and Talmud as one is fluent in reading the Shema; therefore, they saw no need to write lengthy commentaries, for in their few words lay all the intermediate steps." In modern terms, the Gaonim are like a faster computer. Interestingly, a similar phenomenon manifests itself with the Shaalos Uteshuvos of Rishonim and Acharonim. Questions posed to a Rishon such as the Rashba are usually answered in a paragraph or two, while those found in the Igros Moshe of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein often take many pages to answer. A great deal of the latter’s length is devoted to explaining how the decision was reached, which the Rashba simply assumes as a matter of course.