Meʾir ben Barukh of Rothenburg
MEʾIR BEN BARUKH OF ROTHENBURG
MEʾIR BEN BARUKH OF ROTHENBURG (c. 1220–1293), known by the acronym MaHaRaM (Morenu ha-Rav Meʾir ["our teacher, Rabbi Meʾir"]); German Talmudist, authority on rabbinic law, and communal leader. Meʾir's early years were spent studying under Yitsḥaq ben Mosheh of Vienna and Yeḥiʾel of Paris; he witnessed the famous Paris disputation of 1240 and saw the Talmud burned publicly in 1242. Eventually he settled in Rothenburg and with the passing years was universally recognized by contemporaries as the greatest of Ashkenazic rabbis. With the increasingly precarious situation of German Jewry in the latter decades of the thirteenth century, culminating in Rudolph I's imposition of the status of servi camerae ("servants of the chamber") on all Jews and, in 1286, his confiscation of the properties of Jews who left his domain, many fled. Meʾir himself was apprehended in Lombardy in an attempt to flee Germany and was imprisoned—possibly because of his role as a leader of the mass exodus. He remained in prison for the rest of his life, mostly in Ensisheim Castle in Alsace. Communal efforts to ransom the master never succeeded and, indeed, it was not until 1307 that his body was released for burial in exchange for a huge sum. In the sixteenth century Shelomoh Luria cited a tradition that Meʾir himself forbade payment of the exorbitant price, and Irving Agus has further claimed that the crux of the matter was its nature—was it to be ransom or tax? In these interpretations, Meʾir becomes a martyr for Jewish law and the integrity of the community. Sources contemporary with events more soberly indicate that Meʾir died in the course of protracted negotiations for his release.
Meʾir's preeminence is indicated by the express statements of his contemporaries, the scope and quantity of his responsa, and his impact on subsequent halakhic history. Though it is unlikely that Meʾir was ever officially appointed chief rabbi of Germany, he undoubtedly fulfilled that function. Close to one thousand of his responsa have been preserved, a number far exceeding the combined mass of all other tosafist responsa. On the whole, Meʾir avoids prolix discussions, combining care and decisiveness in his writing. Acknowledging fully the authority of the Talmud, he maintains an independent stance in relation to his contemporaries, even when their rabbinical posture is allied with communal and economic power. About one hundred of his responsa deal with community governance and organization. These texts are of great significance; they provide invaluable data on the social history of the period and offer substantial insight into Meʾir's political ideology. In general, Meʾir walks a thin line between the protection of individual rights and the need to give the community the legal weapons necessary for its survival and well-being.
In addition to his responsa, Meʾir wrote and edited tosafot ("additions") to many tractates of the Talmud; during his latter years in prison he was allowed access to some books and could be visited by students. His habits were noted and recorded by his students, who became the rabbinic leaders of the next generation. Meʾir's magisterial figure is prominent in subsequent Ashkenazic rabbinic development, and many of the decisions and customs recorded in Mosheh Isserles's glosses to the Shulḥan ʿarukh, authoritative for Ashkenazic Jews, derive from his work.
Irving A. Agus's stimulating Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1947), is the most detailed analysis of Meʾir's life and achievement; Agus also provides translations of a large number of Meʾir's responsa. A more sober treatment is E. E. Urbach's Baʿalei ha-tosafot, vol. 2, 4th ed. (Jerusalem, 1980), pp. 521–570. Salo W. Baron's A Social and Religious History of the Jews, vol. 9, 2d ed. (New York, 1965), pp. 135–193, gives historical background.
Gerald J. Blidstein (1987)