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Rashi By Maurice Liber Characters: 21464

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

Great men - and Rashi, as we shall see, may be counted among their number - arrive at opportune times. Sometimes we congratulate them for having disappeared from history in good season; it would be just as reasonable, or, rather, just as unreasonable, to be grateful to them for having come at exactly the right juncture of affairs. The great man, in fact, is the man of the moment; he comes neither too soon, which spares him from fumbling over beginnings and so clogging his own footsteps, nor too late, which prevents him from imitating a model and so impeding the development of his personality. He is neither a precursor nor an epigone, neither a forerunner nor a late-comer. He neither breaks the ground nor gleans the harvest: he is the sower who casts the seed upon a field ready to receive it and make it grow.

It is, therefore, of some avail for us to devote several pages to the history of the Jews of Northern France in the eleventh century, especially in regard to their intellectual state and more especially in regard to their rabbinical culture. If another reason were needed to justify this preamble, I might invoke a principle long ago formulated and put to the test by criticism, namely, that environment is an essential factor in the make-up of a writer, and an intellectual work is always determined, conditioned by existing circumstances. The principle applies to Rashi, of whom one may say, of whom in fact Zunz has said, he is the representative par excellence of his time and of his circle.

* * * * *

In the great migratory movement beginning at the dawn of the Christian era, which scattered the Jews to the four corners of the globe, and which was accentuated and precipitated by the misfortunes that broke over the population of Palestine, France, or, more exactly, Gaul, was colonized by numbers of Jews. If we believe in the right of the first occupant, we ought to consider the French Jews more French than many Frenchmen. Conversions must at first have been numerous, and the number of apostates kept pace with the progress of Christianity.

In the south of France, there were Jewish communities before the fifth century; in Burgundy and Touraine, in the first half of the sixth century; and in Austrasia, at the end of the same century. From the Provence, they ascended the Rhone and the Saone. Others reached Guienne and Anjou.[2]

Although disturbed at times by the canons of various distrustful Church councils, or by the sermons of a few vehement bishops, the Jews on the whole led a peaceful, though not a very prosperous, existence, which has left scarcely any traces in history and literature. Aside from a few unimportant names and facts, these centuries mark a gap in the history of the Jews of France, as in that of their Christian neighbors; and literature, as it always does, followed the political and economic destinies of the nation. From the fifth to the tenth century, letters fell into utter decay, despite the momentary stimulus given by Charlemagne. The human intellect, to borrow from Guizot, had reached the nadir of its course. This epoch, however, was not entirely lost to civilization. The Jews applied themselves to studies, the taste for which developed more and more strongly. If as yet they could not fly with their own wings, they remained in relation with the centres [centers sic] of rabbinical life, the academies in Babylonia, exchanging the products of the mind at the same time that they bartered merchandise. This slow process of incubation was perforce fruitful of results.


It was in the tenth century, when the political and social troubles that had agitated Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire were calmed, that the Jews came forth from their semi- obscurity, either because their numbers had increased, or because their position had become more stable, or because they were ready, after mature preparation, to play their part in the intellectual world.

At this time, the Jews of Northern France nearly without exception enjoyed happy conditions of existence. From their literature, rather scholarly than popular, we learn chiefly of their schools and their rabbis; yet we also learn from it that their employments were the same as those of the other inhabitants of the country. They were engaged in trade, many attaining wealth; and a number devoted themselves to agriculture. They possessed fields and vineyards, for neither the ownership of land nor residence in the country was forbidden them; and they were also employed in cattle raising. Often they took Christians into their service.

But the Jews, although they attached themselves to the soil and tried to take root there, were essentially an urban population. They owned real estate and devoted themselves to all sorts of industries. They were allowed to be workmen and to practice every handicraft, inasmuch as the guilds, those associations, partly religious in character, which excluded the Jews from their membership rolls, did not begin to be established until the twelfth century. Sometimes a Jew was entrusted with a public office, as a rule that of collector of taxes. Not until later, about the twelfth century, when forced by men and circumstances, did the Jews make a specialty of moneylending.

The strength of the Jews resided in the fact that they were organized in communities, which were marked by intense solidarity, and in which harmony and tranquillity [tranquility sic] were assured by the rabbinical institutions. Failure to respect these institutions was punished by excommunication-a severe penalty, for the excommunicated man encountered the hate of his co-religionists and was driven to baptism.[3]

At the head of the communities were provosts (praepositi), charged with surveillance over their interests, and doubtless their representatives before the civil authority. Many Jews were highly esteemed by the kings or seigneurs, holding positions of honor and bearing honorific titles; but in general the Jews of France, unlike those of Spain, were not permitted to take part in the government, or even have a share in the political life of the nation. They contented themselves with the enjoyment of the fruits of their labor and the peaceful practice of their religion. They were the less disturbed because they lived under a special regime. Being neither French nor Christian, they were therefore not citizens; they formed a state within the state, or rather a colony within the state, and, being neither nobles nor serfs, they did not have to render military service. They administered their internal affairs, and in general were not amenable to civil or ecclesiastical legislation. For the solution of their legal difficulties they applied to the rabbinical tribunals. In all other respects they were dependent upon the lord of the lands upon which they established themselves, provided they were not under the tutelle et mainbournie of the king. In either case they had to pay taxes and constitute themselves a constantly flowing source of revenues for their protectors.

The Jews lived on a basis of good understanding with their neighbors, and came into frequent intercourse with them. Even the clergy maintained relations with Jewish scholars. It was the incessant efforts of the higher ecclesiastics and of the papacy that little by little created animosity against the Jews, which at the epoch of Rashi was still not very apparent. The collections of canonical law by force of tradition renewed the humiliating measures prescribed by the last Roman emperors.

The Jews throughout France spoke French; and they either had French names or gave their Hebrew names a French form. In the rabbinical writings cities are designated by their real names, or by Hebrew names more or less ingeniously adapted from the Latin or Romance. With the secularization of their names, the Jews adopted, at least partially, the customs and, naturally, also the superstitions of their countrymen. The valuable researches of Gudemann and Israel Levi show how much the folklore of the two races have in common. Moreover, when two peoples come in contact, no matter how great the differences distinguishing them, they are bound to exert mutual influence upon each other. No impervious partitions exist in sociology.

It would thus be an anachronism to represent the Jews of the eleventh century as pale and shabby, ever bearing the look of hunted animals, shamefaced, depressed by clerical hate, royal greed, and the brutality of the masses. In the Jewries of France at this time there was nothing sad or sombre, [somber sic] no strait-laced orthodoxy, no jargon, no disgraceful costume, none of that gloomy isolation betokening distrust, scorn, and hate.

The practical activity of the Jews, their business interests, and their consequent wealth did not stifle intellectual ideals. On the contrary, thanks to the security assured them, they could devote themselves to study. Their rich literature proves they could occupy themselves at the same time with mental and material pursuits. "For a people to produce scholars, it is necessary that it be composed of something other than hard-hearted usurers and sordid business men. The literary output is a thorough test of social conditions."[5] Moreover, the intellectual status of a people always bears relation to its material and economic condition, and so, where the Jews enjoyed most liberty and happiness, their literature has been richest and most brilliant.

From an intellectual point of view the Jews resembled the people among whom they lived. Like them, they were pious, even extremely devout; and they counted few unbelievers among their number. Sometimes it happened that a religious person failed to obey precepts, but no one contested the foundations of belief. In the matter of religion, it is true, outward observance was guarded above everything else. The Jews, settled as they were on foreign soil, came to attach themselves to ceremonials as the surest guarantees of their faith. Naturally superstitions prevailed at an epoch marked by a total lack of scientific spirit. People believed in the existence of men without shadows, in evil demons, and so on. The Jews, however, were less inclined to such conceptions than the Christians, who in every district had places of pilgrimage at which they adored spurious bones and relics.

It would be altogether unjust not to recognize the ethical results of the constant practice of the law, which circumscribed the entire life of the Jew. Talmudic legislation must not be regarded, as it sometimes is, as an oppressive yoke, an insufferable fetter. Its exactions do not make it tyrannical, because it

is loyally and freely accepted, accepted even with pleasure. The whole life of the Jew is taken into consideration beforehand, its boundaries are marked, its actions controlled. But this submission entails no self-denial; it is voluntary and the reason is provided with sufficient motives. Indeed, it is remarkable what freedom and breadth thought was able to maintain in the very bosom of orthodoxy.

"The observance of the Law and, consequently, the study of the Law formed the basis of this religion. With the fall of the Temple the one place disappeared in which the Divine cult could legitimately be performed; as a result the Jews turned for the expression of their religious sentiment with all the more ardor toward the Law, now become the real sanctuary of Judaism torn from its native soil, the safeguard of the wandering race, the one heritage of a glorious and precious past. The recitation and study of the Law took the place of religious ceremonies-hence the name "school" (Schul) for houses of worship in France and in Germany. The endeavor was made to give the Law definite form, to develop it, not only in its provisions remaining in practical use, such as the civil and penal code, regulations in regard to the festivals, and private observances, but also in its provisions relating to the Temple cult which had historical interest only. This occupation, pursued with warmth and depth of feeling for a number of centuries, appealed at once to the intellect and the heart. It may be said that the entire Jewish race shared in the work, the scholar being removed from the general mass only in degree, not in kind."[6]

The high level of general instruction among the Jews was all the more remarkable since only a small number of literary works were known. Though copies were made of those which enjoyed the greatest reputation, the number of manuscripts was limited. Nevertheless, soon after their appearance, important productions in one country came into the hands of scholars of other countries. Just as Christendom by force of its spiritual bond formed a single realm, so two strong chains bound together Jews of widely separated regions: these were their religion and their language. Communication was difficult, roads were few in number and dangerous; yet, countervailing distance and danger was devotion to religion and to learning.

But religion and learning were one and the same thing. As was the case in Christianity, and for the same reasons, religion filled the whole of life and engrossed all branches of knowledge. There was no such thing as secular science; religion placed its stamp on everything, and turned the currents of thought into its own channels. One must not hope therefore to find, among the Jews of Northern France, those literary species which blossomed and flourished in Spain; philosophy did not exist among them, and poetry was confined to a few dry liturgic poems. Their intellectual activity was concentrated in the study of the Bible and the Talmud; but in this domain they acquired all the greater depth and penetration. Less varied as were the objects of their pursuits, they excelled in what they undertook, and inferior though they were in the fields of philosophy and poetry, they were superior in Biblical exegesis, and still more so, possibly, in Talmudic jurisprudence.


The history of the beginnings of rabbinical learning in France is wrapped in obscurity. Tradition has it that Charlemagne caused the scholar Kalonymos to come from Lucca to Mayence. With his sons he is said to have opened a school there, which became the centre [center sic] of Talmudic studies in Lorraine. Legends, however slight their semblance to truth, are never purely fictitious in character; they contain an element of truth, or, at least, symbolize the truth; and this tradition, which cannot be accepted in the shape in which it has been handed down, seeing that Kalonymos lived in the tenth century, is nevertheless a fairly exact representation of the continuity of the intellectual movement. If the fact is not established that Charlemagne accomplished for the Jews what he did for the Christians, that is, revived their schools and promoted their prosperity, it seems more certain that rabbinical learning penetrated into the northwest of Europe through the intermediation of Italy, which bridged the gap between the Orient and the Rhine lands.

As is well known, Christian Italy during the early middle ages, despite the successive invasions of the barbarians, remained the centre [center sic] of civilization and the store-house of Occidental learning. It is in Italy, without doubt, that the Romanesque style of architecture had its origin, and in Italy that the study of the Roman law was vigorously resumed. It is to Italy also that Charlemagne turned when he sought for scholars to place at the head of his schools. Moreover, it was on Italian soil, in the fifteenth century, that the magnificent blossom meriting its name, the Renaissance, was destined to open and unfold its literary and artistic beauties.

Italy owes its glorious part in the world's history both to its geographical position and its commercial importance. So likewise with the Jews of Italy, their commercial activities contributed to their intellectual prosperity. In the ninth century they possessed rabbinical authorities, and in the tenth century, centres [centers sic] of Talmudic study. At this period, the celebrated family of the Kalonymides went to Lorraine to establish itself there. For some time Mayence was the metropolis of Judaism in the Rhine countries; and by its community the first academies were established, the first Talmudic commentaries were composed, and decisions were made which were accepted by all the Jews of Christian Europe. Soon this intellectual activity extended to Worms, to Speyer, and a little later to the western part of Germany and the northern part of France.[7] A veritable renaissance took place, parallel with the movement of ideas which went on in the schools and convents of the eleventh and fourteenth centuries;[8] for Jewish culture is often bound up with the intellectual destinies of the neighboring peoples.

For some time the schools of Lorraine stood at the head of the Talmudic movement, and it was to them that Rashi came a little later to derive instruction.

One of the most celebrated offspring of the family of the Kalonymides is Meshullam ben Kalonymos, who lived at Mayence in the second half of the tenth century. He was a Talmudist held in high regard and the composer of liturgic poetry. He devoted himself to the regulation of the material and spiritual affairs of his brethren. Although he stood in correspondence with the Babylonian masters, he was in a position to pass judgment independently of them. Communication with the East was frequent. The communities of France and Germany sent disciples to the Babylonians and submitted difficulties to them. Tradition relates that the Gaon Natronai (about 865) even visited France. However that may be, the Jews of France at an early period were acquainted with Babylonian works, both the chronicles and the legal codes.

Other Talmudists of the tenth century are known, but rabbinical literature may be said to have commenced only with Gershom ben Judah (about 960-1028). According to tradition his master was his contemporary Hai Gaon; in reality he was the disciple of Judah ben Meir ha-Cohen, surnamed Leontin (about 975). Originally from Metz, Gershom established himself at Mayence, to which a large number of pupils from neighboring countries soon flocked in order to attend his school. Thus he was the legatee of the Babylonian academies, the decay of which became daily more marked. In his capacity as head of a school as in many other respects, he was the true forerunner of Rashi, who carried on his work with greater command of the subject and with more success.

Rabbenu Gershom not only gave Talmudic learning a fresh impetus and removed its centre [center sic] to the banks of the Rhine, but he also exerted the greatest and most salutary influence upon the social life of his co-religionists, through his "Decrees," religious and moral, which, partly renewing older institutions, were accepted by all the Jews of Christian countries. Among other things, he forbade polygamy. He merits consideration in two aspects, as a Gaon and as one to whom his disciples gave the surname which still attaches to him, "the Light of the Exile," Meor ha-Golah. Rashi said of him: "Rabbenu Gershom has enlightened the eyes of the Captivity; for we all live by his instruction; all the Jews of these countries call themselves the disciples of his disciples."

Gershom seems to have been the first Rhenish scholar who resorted to the written word for the spread of his teachings. He devoted himself to the establishment of a correct text of the Bible and the Talmud, and his chief work is a Talmudical commentary.

Since his time the continuity of learning has been uninterrupted.

The seed sown by Rabbenu Gershom was not long in germinating.

Schools began to multiply and develop in Lorraine. The one at

Mayence prospered for a long time, and was eclipsed only by the

schools of Champagne.

A rabbi, Machir, the brother of Gershom, by his Talmudic lexicon contributed likewise to the development of rabbinical knowledge. His four sons were renowned scholars, contemporaries and doubtless fellow-students of Rashi.

The disciples of Gershom, who continued the work of their master, are of especial interest to us, because one of them, Simon the Elder, was the maternal uncle of Rashi, and three others were his masters. These were Jacob ben Yakar, Isaac ha-Levi, and Isaac ben Judah. The latter two were disciples also of Eliezer ben Isaac the Great, of Mayence. Jacob ben Yakar and Isaac ha-Levi went to Worms, where they became rabbis, while Isaac ben Judah remained at Mayence, and directed the Talmudic school there.

About the middle of the eleventh century, then, an intellectual ferment took place in France and Lorraine, earnest literary and scientific activity manifested itself, and above all elements of profound rabbinical culture became visible. But one who should regulate these forces was lacking, a guide to direct these activities and to serve as a model to others. In order that the movement might not come to a premature end, a master was needed who would give it impetus and define its course, who would strike the decisive blow. Such a man there was, a man who impressed his contemporaries as a scholar of high degree and noble character, and whose memory as such is still cherished by posterity. This man was Rashi.

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