The Later Rishonim of Ashkenaz

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A new series by R. Aryeh Leibowitz of Yeshivat Sha’alvim, excerpted from a book available for purchase: here

by R. Aryeh Leibowitz

In the later period of the Rishonim, Jewish scholarship in France and Germany continued to flourish; but so did anti-Jewish persecution. Throughout the period, the Jewish communities in Ashkenaz were bastions of Torah study and piety, but they were also subject to continual and horrific forms of suffering.

Towards the end of the early period of the Rishonim, the Church passed legislation requiring all Jews to wear an identifying and humiliating badge in public. Individual city councils even required Jews to wear a distinct pointed hat. In many regions, the status of the Jews was that of servi camerae regis, servants of the royal chamber. This status gave rulers the right to tax the Jews for the benefit of their treasuries, subjecting the Jewish community to the caprice of their greedy and often merciless monarchs. Often, the levied taxes on the Jewish communities were insurmountable and drove the Jews into abject poverty.[1]Money Lenders: Officially, Christians were forbidden to lend to one another with interest. Hence, the Jews became the moneylenders/bankers. The regular, and usually increasing, financial obligations … Continue reading

Blood libels and false charges of ritual murder were common at this time, and in their wake, entire communities were massacred by ravaging mobs.[2]It is impossible to even begin to list the hundreds upon hundreds of Jewish communities that were annihilated during this period, nor to properly gauge the thousands of Jewish men, women, and … Continue reading The Black Death decimated those who survived the despotic kings and the barbaric mobs. Finally, expulsions – from cities and eventually entire countries[3]Jewish Expulsions in Ashkenaz: France – In 1182, the King of France expelled the Jews from Il-de-France (the royal domain which included Paris) and also took much of their property. In 1198 the … Continue reading – were the unfortunate destiny of many Jews during this period.

Amidst all the suffering, the inextinguishable flame of Torah continued to burn in Ashkenazic lands. France and Germany were witness to several different trends in Torah study and various styles of Torah compositions. Great Talmudists continued the prolific work of the Early French Tosafists and used dialectic analysis of the Talmud as they further developed and expanded upon the principle teachings of the Ri and his students. Part of the work of this period included the editing and redacting of the voluminous Tosafist teachings of the previous generations. Other great scholars composed works that enumerated the six hundred and thirteen mitzvos of the Torah, while others penned important codes and influential works of halachic pesak.

 

France – I

 

R. Yechiel of Paris (ר’ יחיאל מפריס)

R. Yechiel (d. 1268) studied under the Ri’s students and assumed leadership of the Paris community after the death of his teacher, R. Yehuda of Paris. R. Yechiel reportedly wrote a commentary on the entire Talmud, but very few of his writings have survived. Nonetheless, he is quoted a number of times in the printed Tosafos.

R. Yechiel was considered one of the foremost poskim of his generation. A small collection of his rulings has been preserved and printed as Piskei Rabbeinu Yechiel of Paris.

Towards the end of his life, R. Yechiel left France for Israel. He settled in the port city of Akko and established a large yeshiva there known as “The Beis Midrash HaGadol of Paris.” R. Yechiel died a few years after arriving in Israel and was buried at the foot of Mount Carmel. There is a report that upon his death, the Ramban, who had recently arrived in Jerusalem, assumed leadership of the Akko yeshiva.

 

The Paris Disputation and Talmud Burnings

In the year 1240, the Talmud was put on “trial” by the Christian authorities. The case against the Talmud was led by a Jewish apostate named Nicholas Donin. He argued that the Talmud was filled with anti-Christian statements, and that the Jews of France were no longer the “People of the Book” – guardians of the so-called “Old” Testament and deserving of tolerance. Rather they had become the “People of the Talmud,” with all of its anti-Christian and anti-gentile philosophies.[4]Jewish and Christian records of these debates exist, see, for example, Shibbolei HaLeket, Hilchos Ta’anis #263.

Defending the Talmud were four great Jewish scholars, R. Yechiel of Paris, R. Moshe of Coucy, R. Yehuda of Melun, and R. Shimon of Falaise.

As expected, the result of the trial was already a forgone conclusion before it began. The Talmud was found “guilty,” and in the aftermath of the disputation, copies of the Talmud and other important Jewish texts were confiscated and burned. Estimates suggest that twenty-four cartloads of seforim – thousands of texts – were burned. This was before the invention of the printing press; each text had been laboriously copied by hand. The loss of so many texts – including many Tosafist texts that did not have other copies – was a catastrophic event in Jewish history.[5]The lack of available Jewish texts in the wake of the burnings is attested to by a responsum from that period (Shu”t Maharam, Prague Edition, 4:250) that starts by stating: “My spirit has … Continue reading R. Meir of Rothenburg (Maharam) was in France at the time and composed a kinah to commemorate the tragic event. This passionate kinah is included in today’s Tisha BeAv liturgy and is titled Shaali Serufa BaEsh (שאלי שרופה באש).

 

The Evreux Yeshiva (אייברא/אוורא)

A leading Tosafist academy during the period of the later Rishonim was centered in Evreux, France. It was led by three brothers, known as the “Great Men of Evreux (גדולי אייברא).” The more well-known brothers – R. Moshe and R. Shmuel – were students of the Ri’s most illustrious students, including R. Shimshon of Shantz, Ritzvah, and R. Yehuda of Paris. R. Moshe and R. Shmuel are quoted a handful of times in the printed Tosafos.

Many of the great Talmudists of the following generations learned in the Evreux yeshiva; even Rabbeinu Yonah undertook the arduous journey from Catalonia to Northern France to study in Evreux. Through R. Yonah, the Ramban maintained some form of communication with the Rabbis of Evreux.[6]A short essay attributed to R. Moshe of Evreux appears in the Sefer KolBo and is called, “Things That Bring a Person to Fear of Sin (דברים המביאים לידי יראת החטא).” … Continue reading

The Tosafos written in Evreux, sometimes referred to as the “Shita of Evreux,” are the printed Tosafos in standard editions of tractate Kiddushin and perhaps Chagiga. The Tosafos Evreux also appear in the margin of standard editions of tractate Sotah under the incorrect title Tosafos Shantz.

 

Further Reading:

  • Azulai, Hayyim Joseph David. Shem ha-Gedolim ha-Shalem. New York: 1958.
  • Ta-Shma, Israel. Ha-Sifrut ha-Parshanit la-Talmud. 2 Vol. Jerusalem: Magnus Press, 1999, 2000.
  • Urbach, Ephraim. Ba’alei ha-Tosafot. 5th Ed. Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1986. Reprinted Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik

Endnotes

Endnotes
1Money Lenders: Officially, Christians were forbidden to lend to one another with interest. Hence, the Jews became the moneylenders/bankers. The regular, and usually increasing, financial obligations of the Christian to their despised local Jews did not help Christian-Jewish relations to say the least.
2It is impossible to even begin to list the hundreds upon hundreds of Jewish communities that were annihilated during this period, nor to properly gauge the thousands of Jewish men, women, and children that were brutally massacred. It was not uncommon for entire cities to be wiped out.
3Jewish Expulsions in Ashkenaz: France – In 1182, the King of France expelled the Jews from Il-de-France (the royal domain which included Paris) and also took much of their property. In 1198 the Jews were allowed to return, but in 1306 they were expelled from all of France, including Provence, and all their property was taken again. The Jews were let back in nine years later, only to be expelled again in 1394. England – In 1290, King Edward expelled the Jews from England. They were not allowed back in until 1656. Germany – Throughout the 15th century, the Jews were expelled from many different German cities.
4Jewish and Christian records of these debates exist, see, for example, Shibbolei HaLeket, Hilchos Ta’anis #263.
5The lack of available Jewish texts in the wake of the burnings is attested to by a responsum from that period (Shu”t Maharam, Prague Edition, 4:250) that starts by stating: “My spirit has departed me…We have no books with which to study, God should avenge the disgrace of His nation, and bring an end to our suffering (אזל רוחי ותש כוחי ואור עיני אין אתי מחמת המציק אשר גברה ידו עלינו במאד ונפש ומחמד עינינו לקח ואין בידינו ספר להשכיל ולהבין שדי יקנא לעמו ויאמר לצרתינו די וכו’ )”
6A short essay attributed to R. Moshe of Evreux appears in the Sefer KolBo and is called, “Things That Bring a Person to Fear of Sin (דברים המביאים לידי יראת החטא).” Interestingly, this essay bears extreme resemblance to the Ramban’s famous Iggeres HaRamban.

About Aryeh Leibowitz

Rabbi Leibowitz is a Ram at Yeshivat Sha'alvim and serves as the Assistant Dean of the Overseas Program.

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