Asher ben Jehiel

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ASHER BEN JEHIEL

ASHER BEN JEHIEL (also known as Asheri and Rosh; c. 1250–1327), talmudist. His first teachers were his father, one of the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, who was a follower of *Judah b. Samuel he-Ḥasid, and his elder brother. He spent some time in France, apparently in Troyes, and then lived in Cologne and Coblenz. From there he moved to Worms, where his teacher *Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg had been appointed rabbi in 1281. Meir esteemed his pupil, and appointed him a member of the local bet-din. After the imprisonment of Meir, Asher became the acknowledged leader of German Jewry and headed the unsuccessful efforts to obtain his master's release, toward which he was prepared to contribute a considerable portion of his assets. He distinguished himself for his activities during the period of the Rindfleisch massacres (1298) and for his decisions on matters arising from the resulting disruption of family and communal life. Fearing a similar fate to that of Meir of Rothenburg, Asher left Germany in 1303. The following year, he reached Barcelona, via north Italy and Provence, where he was welcomed with great honor by Solomon b. Abraham *Adret. In 1305 he accepted the position of rabbi in Toledo. His son, Judah, relates that shortly thereafter, Asher turned down a request of the German authorities that he return to his native country, for which they were prepared to provide an imperial letter of safe-conduct and an escort of 50 soldiers.

Asher was drawn into the contemporary conflict concerning the study of philosophy. In Provence he had found only "isolated individuals" engaged in exclusive study of the Torah, which fact he attributed to the widespread study of philosophy. From Barcelona he sent a letter of encouragement to Abba Mari *Astruc, a leader of the opponents of philosophy. Alive to the danger of discord, he proposed an intercommunal conference to reconcile the opposing views (Minḥat Kena'ot, 51). When Solomon Adret proposed a ban on the study of philosophy by anyone under the age of 25, Asher, already in Toledo, influenced the local leaders to support this ban. He criticized those who used positions of influence at court for their own advantage. He similarly opposed customs which had been influenced by the Christian environment, such as, granting equal rights of inheritance to husband and wife and bequeathing the whole estate to the oldest son, as was the custom among the nobility; chaining of debtors; and compelling a husband to grant his wife a divorce on her declaration of her unwillingness to live with him. His vast influence and moral stature enabled him to overcome the difficulties which he encountered in those activities, and his spiritual influence was acknowledged even by the Castilian queen, Maria de Molina.

His responsa sometimes reflect the modesty and humility that typified the German school, and at others, the firmness and authority of one speaking in the name of the supreme political and judicial body of Spanish Jewry. When the rabbi of Valencia insisted on his view in defiance of accepted practice and the opinion of Asher, the latter threatened him with capital punishment, if all the other deterrents enumerated in a letter to one of the scholars of the community should prove of no avail (Responsa, 107, 6). Despite his reservations and doubts as to the right of the rabbis to impose capital punishment, he nonetheless permitted them to act according to the custom prevalent in Spain, and consented to sentences of mutilation, particularly in the case of informers. Asher introduced into Spain the system of study of the *tosafists and tried to establish a German minhag. He is regarded as one of the outstanding halakhic authorities who put the final seal to the work of the German and French codifiers, joining to it the Spanish halakhah. True to the methods of the tosafists, he subjected the statements of the rishonim and geonim to a critical examination and did not hesitate to disagree with them whenever talmudic sources did not support their view and conclusions. Virtually all the communities of Spain referred their problems to him and students flocked to his yeshivah from all Europe, including Russia. When he encountered matters not specifically prohibited in the Torah, Asher was prepared to abandon his own opinion in the face of strong opposition, particularly for the sake of peace, but he never hesitated from taking a strong stand against undesirable developments in the communal life. In answer to a complaint that members of distinguished families had not been appointed as cantors, he stated forcibly that neither distinguished descent, nor the possession of a pleasant voice should be the criterion, but only moral standing (ibid., 4:22).

His negative attitude toward philosophy did not extend to science generally, and he encouraged Isaac b. Joseph Israeli to write his Yesod Olam. He was familiar with German law and Spanish common law but his knowledge of Arabic was limited to the spoken language. Having lost all his property in Germany, he lived under conditions of financial stress, and his son notes that his father's assets at the time of his death were insufficient for the execution of his will. Asher nevertheless continued in Spain his ancestral custom of tithing all his income. His halakhic works are (1) Piskei ha-Rosh (also called Hilkhot ha-Rosh, Sefer ha-Asheri), modeled on that of *Alfasi. In it he sums up the decisions of the earlier codifiers and commentators. It covers most of the talmudic tractates to which are added the Halakhot Ketannot, such as Seder Avodah, Tumah, Ẓiẓit, Tefillin, Mezuzah, Ḥaliẓah, and Milah. Contrary to Alfasi, who primarily quotes the talmudic text, Asher discusses the halakhic issues raised by the Talmud and the earlier commentators, especially the tosafists. Rabbi Joseph *Caro considered Piskei ha-Rosh to be one of the three pillars (along with Alfasi and Maimonides) that form the foundation for his *Shulḥan Arukh. (2) Responsa (Constantinople, 1517). The extant collection numbers over 1,000 responsa, arranged in 108 chapters, subdivided into sections. They are of the utmost significance in the study of halakhic development and give an insight into the cultural life of Spanish and German Jewry. The collection of responsa, Besamin Rosh, has been forged under his name (see *Berlin, Saul b. Ẓevi Hirsch). In 1965 the Institute for Research in Jewish Law of the Hebrew University published a comprehensive index to Asher's responsa. The index includes lists of all biblical, talmudic, and post-talmudic sources quoted in the responsa. (3) Commentary on the Mishnayot to the orders of Zera'im (Altona, 1735; new edition, according to Ms., Jerusalem 1965/6) and Tohorot (also printed in the Vilna Talmud) being mainly an abridgment of the commentary of *Samson b. Abraham of Sens to these orders. Asher also made use of Maimonides' Mishnah commentary, translated for him by Israel b. Joseph. He also wrote commentaries on the tractates Sotah (in part), Middot, Tamid (Prague, 1725), and Kinnim. The full commentary to Sotah was published in Jerusalem, 1968. (4) Tosafot. The abridgment of the tosafot of Sens with the addition of Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg's novellae and the opinions of Spanish scholars, was apparently the fruit of his instruction at the yeshivah and covered virtually all the tractates of the Babylonian Talmud (Ber. (Warsaw, 1863); Shek. (Jerusalem, 1943); Meg. (Leghorn, 1785); M.K. (Jerusalem, 1931); Yoma (n.y., 1965); Suk. (Jerusalem, 1903); Yev. (Leghorn, 1776); Ket. (ibid.); Git. (Warsaw, 1927); Kid. (Pisa, 1806); Ned. (Vilna, Romm ed.); Naz. (ibid.); bm (Jerusalem, 1959); Sot. (see above); Shevu. (Leghorn, 1785); Hor. (Vilna, Romm ed.); Nid. (ibid.)). Many fragments to other tractates have been published. Only a part of his commentaries and tosafot have been published; the remainder is still in manuscript. His commentaries and tosafot were mainly studied in Spain where they were used almost exclusively, and were practically unknown in other countries. Asher apparently also wrote a commentary on the Pentateuch but the commentary printed in Hadar Zekenim (1840) was written by one of his German pupils, prior to 1327. Asher's piety and exemplary conduct are reflected in his celebrated work, known variously as Hanhagot ha-Rosh, Orḥot Ḥayyim, and Ẓavva'at ha-Rosh (Venice, 1579). It includes 131 ethical sayings grouped for each of the six weekdays, in which he details rules of conduct for a Jew in his private, family, and public life, and in relation to Jews and Gentiles. He demands integrity, courtesy, and sincerity in dealings with Gentiles. Orḥot Ḥayyim, a popular work throughout the centuries, was extensively studied in the Lithuanian musar yeshivot in the first half of the 20th century.

bibliography:

Freimann, in: jjlg, 12 (1918), 237–317; 13 (1919), 142–254; Baer, Spain, 1 (1961), 297–301, 316–25; Faur, in: paarj, 33 (1965), 41–65 (Heb. part); Urbach, Tosafot, index; Epstein, in: Tarbiz, 12 (1940/41), 190–204; M. Elon (ed.), Mafte'aḥ ha-She'elot ve-ha-Teshuvot… ha-Rosh (1965). add. bibliography: J. Weisberg, "On the Political Thought of Rabbi Asher bar Yechiel," diss., Touro College (1998).

[Encyclopaedia Hebraica /

David Derovan (2nd ed.)]