Gershom ben Yehudah

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GERSHOM BEN YEHUDAH (c. 9651028), German halakhist and Jewish communal leader. Despite the many uncertainties surrounding Gershom's life and historical role, it is clear that he was the central figure in the crystallization of Ashkenazic learning and communal organization in pre-Crusade Europe. A generation or two after his death Gershom was already termed Maʾor ha-Golah ("light of the exile"), a title reflecting the perception of both his spiritual stature and his historical impact.

Gershom's origins are not known, but it is likely that his immediate ancestry was French. He spent his adult life in Mainz, where in addition to writing commentaries on the Talmud and some liturgical poetry, he trained the men who were to be the mentors of Rashi. Gershom's personal life reflected the most painful experiences of medieval Jewish life: his son (and, according to one report, his wife as well) converted to Christianity. His poetry expresses the reality of persecution and the yearning for redemption.

Gershom's major contribution is revealed in his responsa and in the enactments (taqqanot ) attributed to him. The responsa on questions of Jewish law are of course rooted in Talmudic literature, but they expose an original, decisive legal mind grappling with the central problems of his day. Some of his responsa dealt with Jews who converted to Christianity under duress, encouraging their return to Judaism by smoothing their path back to the community; others relaxed prohibitive regulations on Jewish-gentile commerce and empowered the community to govern more effectively by transferring to local communal leadership powers of compulsion that in Talmudic law are granted to central rabbinical courts. Matters of communal governance as well as issues of general social import were at the heart of the enactments attributed to Gershom.

The actual relationship between Gershom and the communities in whose name the enactments are also recorded is shrouded in obscurity, but present scholarly consensus sees Gershom as the central, driving figure behind this legislation. The enactments provide, inter alia, that the minority in a community must accept the authority of the majority, that taxes in dispute are to be paid before they are litigated, and that a defendant in a civil suit may be brought before a court in any community. These taqqanot were of great historical significance in legitimating community governance. Other enactments, such as those that prohibit marriage with more than one wife at the same time (permitted by both biblical and Talmudic law) and that forbid a husband to divorce his wife against her will, remain decisive for modern Jewish law and society. Both enactments reflect the status achieved by women in Gershom's society. While originally designed for the German communities of the Rhineland, they were gradually accepted by world Jewry.


The most comprehensive discussion of Gershom's life and achievement is in Abraham Grossman's akhmei Ashkenaz hariʾshonim (Jerusalem, 1981), pp. 106174. Louis Finkelstein, in Jewish Self-Government in the Middle Ages (1924; reprint, Westport, Conn., 1972), pp. 2036, 111139, presents the enactments attributed to Gershom in both the original Hebrew and in translation and discusses questions of authorship, provenance, and impact. Zeʾev W. Falk, in Jewish Matrimonial Law in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1966), discusses the relationship between Gershom's enactments on monogamy and divorce and similar norms in Christian Europe.

Gerald J. Blidstein (1987)