Rabbi Chananel: (10th-11th Centuries, Sephardic)

The son of Rabbi Chushiel, one of the four captives, and a disciple of Rabbi Hai Gaon, Rabbi Chananel is considered the bridge between the Gaonim and the Rishonim. Under his aegis, Kairouan in Tunisia developed into a major Torah center. In recognition of his great stature, his commentary is printed on every Talmud page alongside those of Rashi and Tosafos, an honor accorded to very few scholars. In addition, Rabbi Chananel revived the regular study of the Jerusalem Talmud, which had suffered neglect, and frequently referred to it in his commentary. As a scholar, he influenced disciples both in the Sephardic and Ashkenazic worlds, including Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi of North Africa and Rabbi Nassan of Rome. Exceedingly wealthy, Rabbi Chananel supported Torah scholars both at home and abroad. After his death, nine daughters and no sons survived him, and Kairouan declined as a Torah center, disappearing in the 12th Century during the Arab persecutions.

Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi: (11th Century, Sephardic)

A disciple of Rabbi Chananel, Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi is popularly known by the acronym of his name, the Rif, and Alfasi after the Moroccan city of Fez where he headed a large yeshiva. In contrast to other Sephardic scholars who often devoted attention to secular studies, Rif exclusively focused on Torah study. As a result, he became the greatest sage of his time.

One of the three halachic authorities on whom contemporary Jewish law is based, along with Rambam and Rosh, Rif, with his monumental work Alfasi,made a unique contribution to the study of halacha. Based on the language and style of the Talmud, the Alfasi is an abridgement of all laws currently applicable. While the work retains the frame of a topic as it appears in the Talmud, Alfasi deletes the Talmud’s discussions and digressions. For example, in the Alfasi the 156 pages of Tractate Shabbos are reduced to 67 pages. When a matter is left undecided in the Talmud, as is often the case, the Alfasi decides the halacha, giving the reasoning behind every verdict. Accordingly, the Rif's magnum opus won the acclaim of all Jewry. (In recent times, the Chafetz Chaim published an Alfasi-style commentary, known as Likutei Halachos, on the Talmudic tractates dealing with laws that do not currently apply, such as sacrifices and ritual purity.) Printed in standard editions of the Talmud after the conclusion of each tractate, the Alfasi is surrounded on the page by a number of commentaries, which vary according to the tractate being discussed. At an old age, Rif moved to Spain, where he died. His main disciple was Rabbi Yosef Ibn MiGash, the teacher of Rambam's father.

Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakudah: (11th Century Sephardic)

Author of Chovos HaLevavos, or Duties of the Heart, a work dealing with commandments based on the mind and emotions, such as love of G‑d and trust in G‑d, Rabbi Bachya has had a lasting effect on the Jewish people. Although the first portion of the book, Shaar HaYichud, is not commonly studied today, due to its reliance on unfamiliar forms of philosophy, the rest of the work remains as fresh and relevant as when it was first written. Originally composed in Arabic, and translated into Hebrew in the 12th Century by the famous Ibn Tibbon family of translators, in recent times it has been adapted into an easier Hebrew known as Lev Tov. Regarded as a basic primer of Jewish thought, Chovos HaLevavos’ Shaar HaBitachon is the definitive text on the delicate balance between the belief that one's income is predetermined by G‑d and the obligation to work for a living.

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra: (12th Century, Sephardic)

One of the great Biblical commentators, Ibn Ezra’s life was filled with tragedy, including the fact that most of his sons died, and one converted to Islam but later repented. All his business ventures having ended in abject failure, he once remarked, "If I sold candles, the sun would stop setting, and if I sold burial shrouds, people would stop dying." Ibn Ezra traveled the length and breadth of the Jewish world, from England in the west to Persia in the east, coming in contact with myriad Sephardic and Ashkenazic scholars.

In his commentary, Ibn Ezra tried to adhere to the simple meaning of the text without resorting to complex Midrashic explanation. In particular, he focused on the grammatical structure of the words and verses. He was also very caustic, especially regarding those who distort the meaning of the text, such as the Karaites, sparing no humor in refuting their viewpoint. For example, in Genesis 29:17, the verse states that Leah's eyes were tender or tearful (rakos). Ibn Ezra quotes a Karaite named Ben Ephraim, who explains the word as a contraction of Arukos, meaning long-eyed. On this, Ibn Ezra comments, "Ben Ephraim explains the word rakos as missing the letter aleph, but his name is missing an aleph." Instead of Ben Ephraim, Ibn Ezra renders it Ben Parim, which in Hebrew means son of cows. Ibn Ezra also wrote piyutim, and works on philosophy, grammar, and astronomy.

Rabbi Judah Halevi: (11th-12th Centuries, Sephardic)

One of the greatest Hebrew poets and philosophers of all time, Rabbi Judah was a disciple of the Rif and excelled in Torah and secular pursuits, specializing in medicine (in accordance with the times). His religious poetry was so renowned that the great Spanish scholar Rabbi Judah al-Charizi wrote: "Rabbi Judah HaLevi is the right hand of poetic song. He entered the gates of poetry, cleaned out its treasures, and locked the door when he left. All subsequent poets did not reach the dust of his feet." Rabbi Judah composed the Sabbath song Yom Shaboson and the well-known kinnah for Tishah B'Av, Zion Halo Tishali (Kinnah 36). In this eloquently moving prayer, the author pours out his love and passion for the Holy Land, writing, "How can food and drink be pleasant for me, when I see that enemies have ravaged you...How can the sun's light be enjoyable in my eyes, while I see ravens consume your flesh."

In addition, Rabbi Judah authored the Kuzari, a classic work on Jewish philosophy. Based on the tale of a Khazar king who has representatives of the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths debate their respective beliefs, the Kuzari demonstrates how, when the Jewish scholar presents his case rationally, the king adopts the Jewish faith. For example, when G‑d teaches the Ten Commandments, He writes: (Exodus 20:2) "I am the Lord your G‑d who took you out of the land of Egypt." Upon being questioned by the king as to why G‑d didn't describe Himself as the Creator of the Universe, the Jewish scholar replied that G‑d referred to an event that the Jewish people personally experienced – therefore making G‑d and His Torah more credible. Also a primary source for an issue of great halachic relevance, the Kuzari discusses the Torah's date line, which affects Sabbath observance. (According to Rabbi Judah, it is 90 degrees east of Jerusalem, or the eastern coast of China.)

Throughout his life, Rabbi Judah dreamed of settling in the Land of Israel. He coined the famous phrase, "My heart is in the East, but I am in the farthest West." At an advanced age, he set out for Eretz Israel.Legend has it that upon reaching Jerusalem and beholding the Temple Mount, he rolled on the ground in ecstasy and composed "Zion Halo Tishali." At that moment, an Arab horseman saw him and trampled him to death.

Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (Rambam): (1135-1204, Sephardic)

Of all the Rishonim, none are as famous in both the Jewish and general worlds as the Rambam. In contrast to other Rishonim, the events of his life are very well known. Born in Cordova, Spain, while yet a youth, the Rambam’s family, along with thousands of other Jews, fled Almohad-controlled Muslim Spain for the relative safety of the Christian part of the country. A few years later, the Maimon family moved again, to Morocco. Fleeing further persecution, they wound up in Eretz Israel and then moved to Egypt, where Rambam finally settled. Thereafter, much misfortune struck the Rambam's family. After his father's death, his younger brother David supported the Rambam’s Torah study by dealing in precious stones. However, David died at sea, taking with him his entire fortune, leaving the Rambam with the burden of supporting both his own and his brother's family. Specializing in medicine, the Rambam became the ruler's personal physician. Although his medical duties took up his time from early morning until past midnight, the Rambam still managed to produce works of unsurpassed brilliance. Among his incredible output, his best-known writings are as follows:

Mishnah Torah. The Rambam's magnum opus, this monumental halachic compendium is unique among all writings of the Rishonim. Generally, halachic works were written regarding laws applicable after the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. Mishnah Torah, however, covers the entire gamut of Torah law, including sacrifices, ritual purity, monarchy, and yovel, even though these precepts had not been performed for more than a thousand years. All this material is covered in a clear, flowing Hebrew, making the book a pleasure to study – even, or especially, for people of limited background.

Unlike other authors of compilations of Jewish law, Rambam gives no sources for his decisions. As such, his intention was for Mishnah Torah, unburdened as it is by lengthy explanations, to become the handbook of every Jew. Ironically, instead of becoming every Jew’s handbook, Mishnah Torah has become the sine qua non of Talmudic scholarship. Hundreds of volumes have been written on it, a process that continues today. Based on a seeming omission or addition of a single word in Mishnah Torah's explanation of a topic, advanced scholars expend great effort in extrapolating myriads of novel insights. In the yeshiva world, the mark of a distinguished scholar is his ability to clarify ah shvere Rambam (a difficult passage in Mishnah Torah.)

Peirush HaMishnayos. This commentary on the Mishnah, a massive work written while the Rambam was fleeing from place to place, was composed in Arabic and subsequently translated into Hebrew by the famous Ibn Tibbon family. An explanation of each Mishnah in the six orders of Mishnayos, the Rambam touches on many indirectly related topics, such as the reason for the sequence of each tractate in its respective order, a record of the transmission of the Oral Law to the leaders of each generation from Moses to Rabbi Ashi, and the 13 basic beliefs of Judaism, the Ani Maamin.

Sefer HaMitzvos. Also written in Arabic, this work is an enumeration of the 613 mitzvahs of the Torah. In the introduction, Rambam enumerates 14 rules for determining what Divine commands are to be listed. For example, a precept that only applied for a limited time, such as the prohibition of approaching Mount Sinai at the Giving of the Torah (Exodus 19:12), is not counted. Particular laws of a mitzvah are not counted separately, such as fashioning the Holy Ark, the Table, and the Menorah, which are included in the commandment to build the Bais Hamikdash. In several instances, other Rishonim disagree with Rambam's list of mitzvahs. For example, based on the first of the Ten Commandments, "I am the lord thy G‑d" (Exodus 20:2), Rambam states that belief in the existence of G‑d is a positive commandment. Ramban, however, holds that belief in G‑d precedes all mitzvahs and is not to be counted as a mitzvah per se, for belief is the basisof all observance.

Moreh Nevuchim. A treatise on Jewish philosophy written in Arabic, Moreh Nevuchim deals with philosophical concepts that are foreign to the Western mind, although sections do discuss such important topics as the nature of prophecy, clarification of verses that ascribe physical characteristics to G‑d (such as the "hands of G‑d" and "G‑d was angry"), and the significance of the different Divine names found in the Bible. Along with Rambam's other Arabic writings, and a number of books written in that language by other scholars, Moreh Nevuchim was translated into Hebrew by the famous ibn Tibbon family of translators over several generations in the 12th and 13th Centuries.

Iggeres Teiman. A Letter to the Jews of Yemen was written at a time that the Yemenite Jews were under the sway of fanatical Arabs who offered them the choice between conversion to Islam or death. Told by a local rabbi that they must submit to death, many Jews fell into a state of abject despair. In Iggeres Teiman, Rambam emphatically ruled that the Torah did not require martyrdom, because Islam, unlike Christianity, believes in one G‑d. As such, the Jews of Yemen were instructed to adopt Islam outwardly, while remaining loyal Jews in the privacy of their homes. When the pressure abated, Rambam wrote, they should return to open Jewish observance. The Jews followed this ruling and remained faithful. (In the 1800s, the Jews of Mashad, Iran, were faced with the same situation and responded in a similar manner.) Thereby, the Rambam became regarded as the savior of Yemenite Jewry.

A number of the Rambam's writings became very controversial. Unhappy with the Rambam's practice of not adducing sources for his rulings in Mishnah Torah, many scholars felt that no one possessed the authority to issue such decisions. Moreh Nevuchim also came under intense fire, as many great rabbis felt that the Aristotelian philosophy contained within was contrary to Jewish belief. (Indeed, some 600 years later the great Vilna Gaon stated that the study of philosophy caused Rambam to err.) A storm also broke out over Rambam's view that Techiyas HaMeisim, the Resurrection of the Dead, will be an entirely spiritual existence, an idea which many distinguished scholars felt was in flagrant contradiction of the accepted principle that resurrection involves a physical state. Although Rambam subsequently wrote a treatise demonstrating that he believed in a physical resurrection as well, the controversy did not abate. Nevertheless, later generations completely vindicated all of the Rambam's writings.

Aside from his major works, as a highly prolific author many of the Rambam’s other, less-familiar writings exist, although regrettably much has also been lost. Aside from his greatness in Torah scholarship, Rambam was also known as a brilliant physician. As such, perhaps the best known of his medical writings is the diet and lifestyle prescribed in Chapter Four of Hilchos Deos in Mishnah Torah. For example, the Rambam writes, a person should avoid certain foods, not overeat, and get eight hours of sleep at night. Rambam then guarantees that if a person follows his instructions, then he "will not be sick his entire life and will die at a ripe old age, unless he was born with a weak constitution or dies suddenly of an external factor."

Rambam himself died in 1204, greatly mourned by Jews and non-Jews alike. In 1985, in honor of the 750th anniversary of his death, the United Nations Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) held a giant Rambam conference attended by scholars and dignitaries worldwide, including Jews and Arabs. Inscribed on the Rambam's tombstone in Tiberias, Israel, is the fitting statement, "From Moshe to Moshe none has arisen like Moshe."

Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (Ramban): (1194-1270, Sephardic)

Also known as Nachmanides, Ramban was one of the most prolific Rishonim. A few of his better-known writings include:

Commentary on the Torah. This lengthy, classic work plumbs the depths of the Chumash, focusing both on its open, philosophical, and hidden, Kabbalistic lessons. While Ramban’s Commentary is a major source for subsequent works of Kabbalah, two of its most famous non-Kabbalistic statements are that the purpose of all existence is for mankind to recognize G‑d as its creator, and that G‑d does not perform miracles in all generations to satisfy every nonbeliever. After Rashi's commentary on Chumash, Ramban’s is most indispensable.

Additions to the Rif. Although Rabbi Alfasi wrote a halachic code for virtually all laws that apply today, he left out several topics. By compiling the laws of vows, firstborn humans and animals, and the separation of challah; and by copying the format of the Rif, Ramban completed the Rif's work. As noted, Ramban also wrote Milchamos HaShem, defending the Rif against the attacks of Rabbi Zerachiah HaLevi.

A critique of Rambam's listing of the mitzvahs. In a number of instances, Ramban takes issue with Rambam's list of the 613 mitzvahs and substitutes other commandments. For example, Ramban holds that it is a mitzvah for every Jew to live in Eretz Israel,something that Rambam omits in his mitzvah tabulation.

Novellae on Talmudic tractates. Ramban's commentary exists on a number of Talmudic tractates, his work reflecting the analytical approach of the Ashkenazic Tosafists, whose method of study became popular in Spain. Previously, Sephardic scholars focused on producing purely halachic commentaries. In contrast to other, similar explanations of the Talmud, such as Rashba and Ritva, Ramban's language is terse and requires much effort to understand.

Shaar HaGmul (The Gate of Reward). Shaar HaGmul is a lengthy, brilliant exposition of such difficult topics as good and evil, suffering, the nature of Heavenly reward and punishment both in this world and in the afterlife, and the principles of G‑d's judgment of the world. Study of this trailblazing work is absolutely essential for a Jew to strengthen his faith in G‑d; fortunately, the well-known scholar Rabbi Charles Chavel translated this and many other writings of Ramban into English.

Iggeres HaRamban. An ethical letter Ramban sent to his son, Iggeres HaRamban opens with the sound advice that whatever the situation one should speak calmly to all people at all times. A popular classic, many people have the custom of reciting the Iggeres monthly, weekly (according to Ramban's own instruction to his son), even daily. Ramban told his son that every day he read the letter, his prayer requests would be answered by G‑d.

In 1263, Ramban was forced to debate Christian priests publicly, whom he soundly defeated. Afraid of the inevitable retaliation of the Church, Ramban fled to Jerusalem. In a letter to his family in Spain, he wrote that the holy places are in a state of destruction, with Jerusalem in the worst condition of all. Seeing that the Jewish community there consisted of only two people, Ramban built a synagogue, the famous Ramban Synagogue in the Old City, and convinced a group of Jews to move to Jerusalem. Since then, Jerusalem has had a constant Jewish presence. Ramban died in Eretz Israelin 1270, his burial place unknown.

Rabbi Jonah: (12th-13th Centuries, Sephardic)

The author of Shaarei Teshuvah, one of the most important Mussar (ethics) texts of all time, Rabbi Jonah wrote his magnum opus as penance for attacking some works of Rambam. Divided into four sections, Shaarei Teshuvah discusses the 20 steps required for total repentance, the motivation necessary to repent, a detailed list of the positive and negative commandments in ascending order of severity, and the different levels of Heavenly atonement. A famous ruling in Shaarei Teshuva is that one must forfeit his life rather than embarrass another person publicly, as shaming someone in public is akin to murder. However, other halachic authorities do not hold this opinion.

Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderes (Rashba): (13th-14th Centuries, Sephardic)

A disciple of Rabbi Jonah and Ramban, Rashba became the rabbi of Barcelona. Regarded as the greatest halachic authority in Spain, and one of the greatest of his generation, Rashba received countless questions from all over the Jewish world — and many of his responses have been preserved. All Jews accepted Rashba's decisions, and they play a prominent role in the development of contemporary halacha. In order to counteract the rampant secularism then present in Spain, one of his most famous rulings is a ban on the study of philosophy and science until the age of 25. Only Rambam's writings, and the study of medicine for professional purposes, were exempted from the ban. Rashba also wrote a commentary on many Talmudic tractates that is regarded as essential to serious study.

Rabbi Yom Tov Ibn Ashvili (Ritva): (14th Century, Sephardic)

A disciple of Rashba, Ritva wrote a Talmudic commentary that is required for any aspiring scholar. In his commentary on the Haggadah, he described the question of the wicked son — "What is the purpose of this work for you?" – as saying, "Why must we recite this lengthy Haggadah service? Let's get to the meal already!" There is doubt regarding some of his writings — certain commentaries attributed to Ritva are certainly those of other scholars, while some novellae of other scholars were actually written by Ritva.

Rabbi Nissim (Ran): (13th-14th Centuries, Sephardic)

The author of a commentary on the Rif that is printed alongside the Rif in many tractates, the Ran’s explanation of tractate Nedarim is printed on the Talmudic page in place of Tosafos. The primary source for understanding Nedarim, which lacks the standard commentaries of Rashi and Tosafos, one of Ran’s famous statements is that in the First Temple era, the Jewish people studied the Torah solely for intellectual pleasure and did not treat it with the respect due the word of G‑d. Rabbi Nissimalso wrote Derashos HaRan, a key work on the fundamentals of Jewish belief.