Monday, January 5, 2015

History of the Masorah: The Early Rishonim of Ashkenaz

Rav Leibowitz

Note: This post has been incorporated into a pamphlet on the Early Rishonim.  It can be purchased on Amazon by clicking here.  

The Origin of the Torah Center in Ashkenaz[1]

Jews lived in Germany for hundreds of years before the period of the Rishonim.  However it is unclear when Germany started to become a Torah center.  It is known that in the middle of the 9th century, members of the illustrious Kolonlymus family left their base in Italy and settled in the Rhineland. This certainly contributed to the upstart Torah center in the region.  However, other sources indicate that some of the most influential Talmudists in the Rhineland came directly from the Bavel Yeshivos.  Be that as it may, by the year 1000, a major Torah center had emerged in Germany.[2]

The Torah center of Germany consisted of three primary cities in the heart of the Rhineland: (1) Worms /ורמיזא (גרמיזא) , (2) Mainz , מיינץ (מגנצא) (3) Speyers /שפירא .  They were known by their roshei teivos: קהילות שו"מ

Rabbenu Gershom (d. 1028 or 1040)

The first major figure from Early Ashkenaz in the period of the Rishonim was Rabbeinu Gershom.  He was known as “The light of the Exile” (Me-Or Hagolah).  He was a Rosh Yeshiva in Mainz and is well known for his communal enactments, which he strengthen via a cherem.   R. Gershom was very prolific and authored works in many areas of Torah study.[3]

The German Yeshivos

Each of the above mentioned cities was home to a significant yeshiva, as Torah scholars and scholarship flourished along the Rhine River.  The Torah scholars in Ashkenaz were known for their deep piety, and are referred to as חסידים.[4]  The early Talmud commentaries that emerged from the German Yeshivos were paraphrases of the Talmud with additional notes and insights, similar in this sense to the early works from North Africa. 
The Yeshivos and communities of Early Ashkenaz were all led by students of R. Gershom and his contemporary, R. Eliezer haGadol.[5]

[1] Defining Ashkenaz - Ashkenaz in our context refers to Germany and France.  The main Jewish center in the period before the Rishonim was based in the Rhineland of Germany.  The “Rhineland” refers to a region in Western Germany situated along the Rhine River.  Once the period of the Rishonim began, Torah centers began to emerge in Eastern Germany and in France.

General Historical Background to the Jews in Germany and France - During the period of the Taanaim, the Roman Empire ruled over France (then known as Gaul), but was unable to subdue the various Germanic tribes that ruled in Germany.  Toward the end of the period of the Amoraim, a confederation of tribes based in the Rhineland united into the Frankish Kingdom.  During the following centuries the Franks were successful in conquering territory that covered much of modern day France and Germany.  At the height of their conquests, under the leadership of Charlemagne, the Franks extended the borders of their empire and ruled over much of Western Europe, including the territories of modern day France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern Italy, and significant parts of Austria and the Czech Republic.

Charlemagne was crowned the first Emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire.”  Upon his death, the empire was split into a number of pieces.  Throughout the period of the Rishonim and beyond both Germany and France were under Christian Rule.  Germany was the central province of the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted for one thousand years. The Jews in Germany suffered greatly during the time of the Rishonim, as they were frequent victims to merciless crusaders and Christian marauders.  The Western region of Charlemagne’s Empire was formed into the Kingdom of France, and throughout the period of the Rishonim, France was ruled by the Kings of France.  Although the Jews in France fared better than their brethren in Germany, the Jews were expelled in 1882 only to be recalled in 1198, expelled again in 1306 and recalled again in 1315, and then expelled for good in 1394.

[2] The early history of the Torah community in Germany is recounted by R. Shlomo Luria (Maharshal) in his Teshuvos Maharshal, # 29.  Note also the following quote from Sefer Or Zarua (Teshuvos I:752), “The Rabbis of Mainz, Worms, and Speyer were great scholars and holy individuals, and from [those cities] Torah went out to all of Israel…”

[3] However, the so called “Perush of R. Gershom” found in the margins of certain tractates was not actually written by him, but is from his academy.

[4] This was a general term for the early scholars of Germany.  Hence we find that the Rabbis in early Ashkenaz are called He-Chasid, like R. Yitzchak He-Chasid or R. Yehoshua He-Chasid.  Similarly we find references to the “Chasidei Mainz” (Sefer Aruch, ערך אב א').  It was later, in the 12th century that a specific movement emerged called the “Chasidei Ashkenaz.”  

[5] R. Yaacov ben Yakar was Rosh Yeshiva in Worms, R. Yitzchak haLevi was the Chief Rabbi of Worms, and R. Yitzchak b. Yehudah was Rosh Yeshiva in Mainz.

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