The Roots of German Jewry

“Regarding the popular practice by which people arise early in the morning all week long to daven in shul or learn, but on Shabbos they sleep later in the morning, the reason is as follows: Throughout the week, the Torah says about the morning tamid offering, ‘baboker baboker — in the morning, in the morning,’ but regarding the tamid of Shabbos, it does not say ‘in the morning’ but rather ‘and on the day of Shabbos’… This reason was heard by Rabbeinu Yitzchak the son of Rabbi Yehuda in the city of Rome from Rav Hai” (The Mordechai, Maseches Shabbos sec. 398).

The date on which Rabbeinu Yitzchak, the son of Rabbeinu Yehuda, learned this from Rav Hai Gaon was sometime around the year 4768 (1008), during the era of the Geonim. We know that Rabbeinu Yitzchak ben Rabbeinu Yehuda lived in Mainz, a town in Germany. What, then, was he doing in Rome? The answer to that question will help unveil a too-little-known aspect of medieval Jewish history.

When did Jews first arrive in Germany, and what were the conditions they encountered upon their arrival? Were there any Jewish communities or centers of Torah in that country prior to that time?

Much documentation from that era has survived to this day. We are aware, for example, of the ordinances of the “Shum” communities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, the cherem beis din, the cherem hayishuv, chezkas dirah, and the takanos of Rabbeinu Gershom, among others. It was a common practice at the time to institute legislation that would be binding for individuals as well as for the community at large.

The many records of communal ordinances attest to the existence of vibrant, dynamic communities possessing a powerful, unique style of leadership, the likes of which is difficult to find throughout the annals of Jewish history. What caused these communities to enact these laws? What did the ordinances require, and why were they necessary? And when did the Jewish communities of Germany become a center of Torah leadership known throughout the world?

Rome Falls and Islam Rises

We tend to consider Rashi and the Baalei HaTosafos the beginning of the era of the Rishonim in Germany, but in truth, that period began long before them. A series of unlikely events took place in various states, which, by Divine hashgachah, helped create the optimal geopolitical conditions necessary for Jewish communities to develop. Thus was a solid foundation built for German Jewry before the period of the Geonim ended, about two generations before Rashi’s lifetime.

In order to understand the chain of events that made Germany a center of Torah study, we must first understand the conditions facing Jews throughout the world, their leaders, and their Torah sages during the period before the Jewish community in Germany began to flourish.

During the period of the Savoraim, the Jewish community in Bavel suffered terribly from the wars that raged there, placing the yeshivos in Bavel in danger of closing. This period was followed by the 450-year era of the Geonim, which, in contrast, was a particularly stable period in terms of the Jewish community’s Torah learning, security, economic growth, social standing, and judicial authority. How did such a drastic change from war-torn instability to peace and tranquility take place?

As the Roman Empire began to crumble, many of its constituent nations and tribes converted to Christianity, which only hastened Rome’s demise. Western Europe was plunged into a period of chaos and darkness, as birth rates plummeted, agricultural production slowed to a trickle, and vast ethnic migrations changed the face of the population that remained.

Within a century and a half after the last emperor in Rome was deposed, armies of marauding Arab desert tribes swept like wildfire through former Roman territories in Africa, forcing the inhabitants to convert to Islam, as commanded by their leader and self-styled prophet, Muhammad. These Arab armies enjoyed remarkable success in their jihad, conquering half the Mediterranean, from the Spanish Empire in the west to the Balkan countries (today’s southern Russia) in the east. Their conquests spread to include the Persian Empire, southwestern and central Asia, India, and more — all of which came under rule of the caliph, head of the Islamic Empire. The caliph’s army tried to advance into northwestern Europe, but was repelled, its advance halted in the city of Poitiers in southern France. As a result, the French and German kingdoms were saved from Arab conquest and Arabic influence, if any, was highly limited.

Islam gradually became the official religion in these conquered lands, with some of the inhabitants of those lands converting by choice and others being forced to do so. Ninety percent of the world’s Jewish population at that time lived under Muslim sovereignty, and Muhammad himself had expected that the Jews would be the first to convert to Islam, since they shared some of Islam’s tenets, such as monotheism, the prohibition on consuming pig meat, and so forth.

B’chasdei Shamayim, Islamic leaders did not react violently to the Jews’ refusal to forsake their religion. The Jews were granted complete freedom of religion by their new Islamic masters. The conquering forces viewed Judaism as a rich culture worthy of development, and they considered the opening of yeshivos to be a positive act that would promote such cultural growth. They also gave Jewish leaders complete autonomy regarding any issue addressed by the Shulchan Aruch, including the adjudication of monetary disputes. In short, the Arab rulers enabled the Jewish communities under their control to flourish spiritually.

When they had concluded their wars of conquest, the Arab rulers considered the economic development of the captured lands to be their first priority. They knew that maintaining security and political stability required economy stability as well. They observed that the local Christians were ignorant and, for the most part, illiterate, while the Jews were noted for their knowledge of many fields and their fluency in numerous languages. An Arabic document from the time relates, “This is the way of Jewish merchants … who know how to speak Persian, Roman, Arabic, French, Andalusian, and Slavic.” Thus, the ruling powers viewed the Jews as a valuable asset that would help them boost the economy and foster political stability, loyalty to the empire, and honest compliance with tax collectors.

Indeed, many Jews became wealthy during that time, and many families developed close relationships with the ruling class as a whole and with the king in particular. As a result, the Jews acquired a dominant position in international commerce. The Arabian empire, which now spanned half the Ancient world, was in need of a maritime transportation system. It was considered particularly profitable to conduct business by sea, and the Jews maintained nearly exclusive control over this area.

The Jews’ dominance in the economy of the Islamic Empire, and particularly in its maritime trade, benefited them not only materially but spiritually as well. The development of ocean travel made it possible for the Jews in conquered lands to contact and establish connections with the yeshivos in Bavel. Parents would send their sons to learn in those yeshivos, and some of those students would later be designated by their roshei yeshivah to serve as rabbanim of the communities throughout the conquered lands.

Even Jews from as far away as the Balkan territories would send halachic queries on topics throughout the Shulchan Aruch to the rabbanim in Bavel. These questions dealt with both communal issues — such as appointments to communal positions and the authority of community leaders — and individuals’ problems, such as marriage-related questions and civil cases. The volumes of sheilos u’tshuvos of the Geonim are compilations of teshuvos penned by the roshei yeshivah of Bavel in response to questions that they received from throughout the Arabian empire.

The Jews in the conquered territories accepted the rulings of the roshei yeshivah of Bavel as fully binding. The Jewish communities, whose leaders had generally been educated in the yeshivos of Bavel, viewed these roshei yeshivah as akin to the Sanhedrin that had existed during the era of the Beis HaMikdash. The roshei yeshivah also dictated the rabbinic hierarchy for these communities, which remained in place in later generations as well.

At the conclusion of the era of the Geonim, new centers of Torah learning developed that were, in essence, a natural continuation of the yeshivos of Bavel and were headed by the students of those roshei yeshivah. Among these spiritual leaders were the famous “four captives,” including Rabbeinu Shmaryahu and his son, Rabbeinu Elchanan, in Egypt, and Rabbeinu Chushiel in North Africa. Among the other great Torah sages of the day were Rabbeinu Yaakov, the father of Rabbeinu Nissim, and Rabbeinu Chananel. The era of the Rishonim in Spain began with the students of Rabbeinu Nissim and Rabbeinu Chananel, who fled to Spain from North Africa in order to escape the clutches of Muslim religious zealots.

Charles the Great

The influence of the yeshivos in Bavel had spread throughout the southern half of the Ancient world, where 90 percent of the world’s Jews lived. The remaining Jews lived in France and Germany, which was not under Arabian control. What happened in those communities during that era?

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, complete pandemonium gripped Europe. Nations and tribes rose and fell; wars, conquests, and upheavals caused anarchy and disarray to prevail for a long period of time in many parts of Europe. The Frankish states, however, managed to retain their stability. Their acceptance of Christianity, their political consolidation, and their successful military leadership brought about the creation of a de facto Frankish state, which later gave rise to two kingdoms: France and Germany.

In addition, one specific chain of events in particular greatly strengthened the Franks’ hand. After the Arabs conquered Spain and southern France, they advanced toward what is today northern France and threatened the Frankish state itself. But in the year 732, Charles succeeded in defeating the Arabian army at the city of Poitiers and drove the Arabs south. That victory earned him the nickname “Martel,” Old French for “hammer.” After his military successes, he succeeded in bringing order to his country. His son Pepin (known as Pepin the Short) continued his father’s work, but the individual who was truly responsible for turning the Franks into a world power was, without question, Pepin’s son Charlemagne (Charles the Great), who truly earned his title.

Charlemagne was not content with being “merely” the king of the Franks; he aspired to much more. He was a great military leader, administrator , and legislator. Between 768 and 814, he brought sweeping changes to his kingdom. Following a period of long, bitter wars against Germanic tribes, he began promoting the economic and financial development of his country and building an advanced infrastructure, paving roads and constructing bridges.

Charlemagne’s broader vision involved developing culture and education in order to buttress the empire’s power. And despite being a devout Christian king and faithful servant of the pope, he viewed the Jews as having a legitimate culture and religion of their own. He opened a cultural center for various religions, collected the writings of scholars of every kind, and engaged in many discussions with religious authorities, among them Jewish sages. He protected the Jews of his realm with all his might, and it was during his reign that the status of “protected Jew” was invented. When Christian leaders sought to harm his Jewish subjects, Charlemagne issued edicts to protect them.

As has happened throughout history, economic growth came about primarily as a result of the Jews’ efforts. They far surpassed their Christian neighbors in terms of education and knowledge of various fields. Furthermore, Charlemagne cultivated commercial ties with countries in the East, and he often called upon the Jews to travel to those faraway lands and bring back merchandise that was only available there. As a result, extensive sea travel developed between the East and the West. Divine Providence saw to it that, despite the minimal contact between the Jews of northwestern Europe and the sages of Bavel, such connections were established due to Charlemagne’s use of the Jews to promote his kingdom’s business interests in the East.

In any event, the era of the Geonim spanned a period of some 450 years, beginning in the year 4349 (589 CE) and concluding in the year 4800 (1040). The Jewish presence in northwestern Europe — i.e., Germany and the surrounding lands — began to flourish in the year 4650 (890), about 150 years before the end of the age of the Geonim. During those 150 years, the roshei yeshivah of Bavel did not send students to European lands as they did for the Jews who lived in other locales.

How, then, did this Jewish renaissance in Germany begin?

“Cultural Independence”

Jews first took up residence in Western Europe following the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. The first record of this Jewish presence is a description of Rabbeinu Yehuda Leontin “the elder,” the son of Rabbi Meir HaKohein, who lived in Mainz around the year 890. Although Rav Leontin was the acknowledged gadol hador of German Jewry during the era of the Geonim, we know very little about him save for the descriptions that came from his talmidim, among them Rabbeinu Gershom Meor HaGolah and Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol, who extolled their teacher to Rav Hai Gaon.

The credit for transforming these regions into bastions of Torah study goes to Rabbeinu Meshulam HaGadol, the son of Rabbeinu Klonimus of Lucca, Italy, and the author of the liturgical poem Amitz Koach. Tradition has it that after his passing, Rav Amnon, the author of Unesaneh Tokef, appeared in a dream to Rabbeinu Meshulam, who was his close friend, and taught him the text of Unesaneh Tokef, instructing him to disseminate the tefillah throughout the Ashkenazic communities so that it could be recited on the Yamim Noraim before the Kedushah of Musaf.

How and why did Rabbeinu Meshulam come to Mainz from Italy?

Most improbably, the Charlemagne era laid the foundations for the communities and yeshivos where the Baalei HaTosafos and other Rishonim would be active over the coming centuries. Charlemagne valued “cultural independence,” and one of his grandsons, also named Charles, sought to perpetuate his grandfather’s legacy. Once, on a trip to Italy, this grandson met Rav Klonimus. Young Charles saw Rav Klonimus as presenting an opportunity for him to sever the link between the Jews of his land and the sages of Bavel, thereby providing an independent religious leadership for the Jews of his kingdom.

In the year 890, Charles offered Rav Klonimus a position as the leader of the Jews in Mainz, which the latter acceopted. He established a yeshivah that would later produce leading Baalei Tosafos. It was with the same objective — creating spiritual “independence” for the Jews of Germany —  that Charles appointed Rabbi Machir of Baghdad to serve as the leader of the Jewish community in Provence, in southern France.

But the Jewish sages were opposed to the French and German rulers’ plans to sever their connection with the rabbanim of Bavel. They viewed those sages as preeminent authorities worthy of emulation. In order to maintain this connection, around the year 4768 (1008), Rav Hai Gaon, the rosh yeshivah of Pumbedisa, made a number of visits to Europe. On one of his trips, he visited Italy, where he met with Rabbeinu Yitzchak ben Rabbeinu Yehuda, as is indicated by the quote from the Mordechai that appears at this article’s outset. Rav Hai passed away that same year at the age of 99.

The development of trade and commerce led many people to opt for city dwelling over living in small villages. At the same time, small towns that had contributed only minimally to the economy now grew and flourished. The combination of population growth and the development of work and trade turned a number of these towns into leaders in their respective fields. Thus in the 11th century towns such as Speyer, Worms, and Mainz (the “Shum” communities, so named for the roshei teivos of the city names) became leading economic forces. And, of course, the Jewish communities and yeshivos in those towns shared in the bounty of their growth and expansion.

These cities were important for another reason, as well: The bishops who ruled them appreciated the important role that Jews could play in developing their cities. Consequently, they granted the Jews special rights and guaranteed their personal safety, so that they could continue their roles in the economic development of these cities. For example, Emperor Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son, promulgated a decree stating the following: “It shall be known about the Hebrews … and we therefore decree and ordain … you shall not deliberately anger the aforementioned Hebrews with deeds or matters that are opposed to their laws … or diminish their holdings.… You shall not demand from the Hebrews to pay customs, traveling fare, or the price of drink. Anyone who kills one of them shall have to pay ten litras of gold to our treasury.… The Hebrews shall not be put to the test … not by fire, boiling water, or whip.” Such proclamations were rarely made anywhere else in Europe — if ever.

The Light of the Diaspora

Over time, the growth of the Jewish community created a need to establish a spiritual infrastructure that would serve Jews through every stage of life and provide a framework to prevent the erosion of religious observance. Jews also needed organized leadership that would represent them before the ruling class and address the government’s expectations of its Jewish citizens.

All of these factors contributed to the establishment of a single, unified communal body. Jewish communities in Arab lands already enjoyed such a spiritual foundation, with the roshei yeshivah of Bavel guiding them, and they also possessed a clearly defined tradition that could be traced back to the yeshivos of Sura and Pumbedisa. The Jewish communities of northwestern Europe, in contrast, were only at the initial stages of their development, and thus their spiritual infrastructure had to be built from scratch.

Against this backdrop, German Jews formed the Vaad Kehillos Shum, whose main purpose was to enforce the communal bylaws and see to it that all of the regulations were properly carried out.

Rabbeinu Gershom Meor HaGolah was the first to take responsibility for promulgating community-wide laws; in fact, he was known as Meor HaGolah, “the light of the Diaspora,” because his position was meant to correspond to that of the Reish Galusa, or Exilarch, the title given to the leading communal authority in Bavel. The work that Rabbeinu Gershom began would continue for about 200 years, until the era of Rabbeinu Tam, who formulated additional laws. From this point on, the leaders of each generation established new takanos, sometimes even enforcing them with a cherem or nidui imposed on violators. These ordinances governed communal affairs, family life, commerce, interpersonal dealings, and other areas, with the objective of preserving the religious standards of the developing Jewish community.

Some of Rabbeinu Gershon’s takanos bear his name, while others are known by the particular ordinance’s subject matter. The most well-known of these laws include the prohibition on polygamy, the prohibition on divorcing one’s wife against her will, the prohibition on reading another person’s mail without his permission, the institution of cherem beis din (which endowed a municipal beis din with certain authority), the institution of cherem hayishuv and chezkas hayishuv (which forbade a new resident to settle in a city without the community’s permission), the right for a person subject to an injustice to hold up the progress of tefillos until a solution is found, the prohibition on luring Gentile customers away from a Jewish competitor, and the prohibition on seizing the dwelling of a Jewish person who was forced to flee.

The era of the Rishonim of Germany — among them Rav Yehuda Leontin; Rabbeinu Meshulam HaGadol, the son of Rabbi Klonimus of Lucca; Rabbeinu Eliezer HaGadol; and Rabbeinu Meshulam, the son of Rabbeinu Moshe — was followed by the period of Rashi and his students, Rabbeinu Tam and the Baalei HaTosafos, who revolutionized Torah study in their day. Within a very short time, their teachings were met with the universal acclaim of Torah scholars throughout the Jewish world and indeed, the transmission of Torah throughout the generations without this crucial link in the chain is simply unthinkable.

(Originally Featured in Kolmus 26 Chanukah 5773) 

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