Gershom ben Judah Me'or Ha-Golah

views updated


GERSHOM BEN JUDAH ME'OR HA-GOLAH (c. 960–1028), one of the first great German talmudic scholars and a spiritual molder of German Jewry. Few biographical details are known of Gershom, most of the stories about him being of a legendary nature. He was apparently born in Metz, but his home was in Mainz (Isaac of Vienna, Or Zaru'a (1862), 2, 275), where he conducted a yeshivah, and where he wrote in 1013 the ketubbah for his second wife Bona, who was a widow. A tombstone in Mainz of which the extant words are "… in memoriam: R. Gershom ben R…." is thought to be his. Gershom mentions only one of his teachers, Judah b. Meir ha-Kohen Leontin "from whom I received most of my knowledge" (Responsa Meir of Rothenburg (Prague, 1895), 264). His own best-known pupils are Eliezer the Great (*Eliezer b. Issac of Worms), *Jacob b. Jakar, and *Isaac b. Judah, the last two of whom were the teachers of *Rashi. His brother Machir compiled a lexicon known as Alfa Beta Rabbi Makhir, now lost. An unconfirmed tradition maintains that Gershom had a son Eliezer, who headed a yeshivah. The *rishonim, however, mention a son who was forcibly converted to Christianity and died before he could repent, yet his father fulfilled the laws of mourning for him (Or Zaru'a, ibid., 428). The probable time for this is 1012, when Heinrich ii issued an edict of expulsion against the Jews of Mainz. Gershom succeeded in turning Mainz into a major center for Torah study. This status lasted for a number of generations after his demise.

The reverence in which Rabbenu Gershom was held in subsequent generations was already expressed by Rashi: "Rabbenu Gershom, may the memory of the righteous and holy be for a blessing, who enlightened the eyes of the exile, and upon whom we all depend and of whom all Ashkenazi Jewry are the disciples of his disciple" (J. Mueller (ed.), Teshuvot Ḥakhmei Ẓarefat ve-Lutir (1881), no. 21). This is apparently also the source of the title "Me'or ha-Golah" ("Light of the Exile").

Gershom's name is connected with many takkanot, most famous of which is his ḥerem ("ban") against bigamy. Well known, too, is the ḥerem forbidding the unauthorized reading of private letters. This latter takkanah in particular, and several others ascribed to him, may not really be his. Rashi cites only one takkanah in his name, the prohibition against reminding forcibly converted Jews, who have repented and returned to the fold, of their transgressions. Jacob *Tam mentions his takkanah against emending talmudic texts. The two important takkanot enforcing monogamy and prohibiting the divorce of a wife against her will are attributed to him by *Meir of Rothenburg (loc. cit., nos. 866 and 1121), but Eliezer Nathan, who lived in Mainz a century after Gershom, refers to them as communal takkanot (Sefer Raban (Prague, 1610), 121b). Fifteenth-century scholars attribute to him the ancient takkanah known as the *ḥerem ha-yishuv (Israel of Krems' gloss to Asher b. Jehiel, bb 2:12). It is possible that they were attributed to the great luminary to give these takkanot the weight of his great authority. On the other hand, there is no valid reason that takkanot ascribed to Gershom should not really be his. The reason for this debate is the fact that no original texts of these takkanot have survived. That, coupled with the fact that the scholars of his own generation do not quote Gershom's takkanot, raises the question of his authorship. However, later generations recognized the takkanot as his, including one individual who wrote to Solomon ben Aderet claiming that his community has an oral tradition regarding the takkanot.

Gershom's far-reaching ban on polygamy can be ascribed to the socio-economic situation in Germany of that time. The Jewish community experienced a good deal of economic stability and the rise of a wealthy merchant class. At the same time, the status of women improved. This is evident in the large dowries that were received and in the fact that many women ran their husband's businesses in his absence. An added factor was the increased sensitivity to social injustice. Thus, the time was ripe for a ban on polygamy in the Jewish community.

Rabbenu Gershom's responsa and halakhic decisions are scattered throughout the works of the French and German scholars, and have been collected by S. Eidelberg (1955). Most items deal with civil law. In them he bases himself upon the Bible and Talmud alone, and only seldom refers to the early geonim. In one place he writes that he prefers the opinion of his teacher Leontin, who likewise based himself on Scripture and Talmud (Meir of Rothenburg, loc. cit., no. 264), to that of the famous geonim Yehudai and Sherira, but the sources of Leontin's teaching are obscure. From his works it appears that Gershom was acquainted with the general German law of his time and was even influenced by it. His legal decisions were regarded as authoritative, particularly by French and German scholars throughout the centuries, and influenced the major direction of the halakhah in these countries.

The commentaries attributed to R. Gershom which were published in the Vilna Romm edition of the Talmud to tractates Bava Batra, Ta'anit, and the whole of Seder Kedoshim (except Zevaḥim), are now considered not to be his. He probably laid the foundations for them, but the present work is that of his pupils and their pupils. *Nathan b. Jehiel, in the Arukh, refers to it sometimes as "the commentary of the sages of Mainz," and sometimes as that of Rabbenu Gershom, but mostly quotes it anonymously (over 550 times). It was superseded by Rashi's commentary and remained almost unknown until the time of Bezalel *Ashkenazi, who was also the first to ascribe them to Rabbenu Gershom.

Gershom transcribed the Mishnah and the Masorah Gedolah of the Bible and corrected them. These copies were highly regarded by the rishonim, on account of their accuracy. He was the first Franco-German scholar to compose seliḥot and other piyyutim (collected by A.M. Habermann, 1944). His seliḥot were accepted in all German communities; most popular is the piyyut Zekhor Berit, included in the seliḥot of Rosh Ha-Shanah. They reflect the troubles and tribulations of his generation and are noteworthy for their simplicity and naturalness of expression and the emotion with which they are imbued.


Epstein, in: Festschrift… M. Steinschneider (1896), 115–43; Naphtali b. Shemu'el (J.N. Simḥoni), in: Ha-Shilo'aḥ, 28 (1913), 14–22, 119–28, 201–12; Tykocinski, in: Festschrift… M. Philippson (1916), 1–5; Finkelstein, Middle Ages, index; idem, in: mgwj, 74 (1930), 23–31; Baer, ibid., 71 (1927), 392–7; 74 (1930), 31–34; idem, in: Zion, 15 (1950), 1–41; A. Aptowitzer, Mavo le-Sefer Ravyah (1938), 330–5; Eidelberg, in: Zion, 18 (1953), 83–87; Z.W. Falk, Jewish Matrimonial Law in the Middle Ages (1966), index s.v.Gershom. add. bibliography: S.M. Passamaneck, in: Journal of Jewish Studies, 29:1 (1978), 57–74; A. Pichnuk, in: Shanah be-Shanah (1972), 220–25; A. Grossman, Ḥakhmei Ashkenaz ha-Rishonim (1981), 106–175; idem, in: Jewish History, Essays in Honor of Chimen Abramsky (1988), 3–23; S.Z. Havlin, in: Shenaton ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri, 2 (1974), 200–57; idem, in: ibid., 11–12 (1984–86), 317–35.

[Shlomo Eidelberg /

David Derovan (2nd ed.)]