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Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg


MEIR BEN BARUCH OF ROTHENBURG (c. 1215–1293), teacher, scholar, tosafist, and supreme arbiter in ritual, legal, and community matters in Germany. He was born in Worms into a family of scholars, many members of which were important leaders in the communities of Germany. In his responsa he mentions two uncles and 12 other relatives bearing the title Ha-Rav, a title reserved, in this period, for talmudic scholars of high standing, mainly for heads of yeshivot. Meir often quotes their opinions and legal decisions in order to bolster his own views; hence they must have been well-known and highly esteemed scholars. Meir's father Baruch was an outstanding member of this scholarly family. He was credited with a wide knowledge of talmudic lore, was a member of the bet din of the community of Worms, and was often chosen to act as judge. He also bore the honorific title Ha-Rav; several halakhic decisions were recorded in his name; and his epitaph, preserved to this day, was written in highly laudatory terms. His teaching and guidance contributed greatly to the intellectual growth of his son. At the age of 12 Meir joined the well-known school of R. Isaac b. Moses, the author of the Or Zaru'a, in Wuerzburg, where he studied for about six years. While in that city Meir also studied under R. Samuel b. Menahem, in whose name, in later years, he quoted important decisions in law and ritual. Subsequently Meir moved to Mainz, where he studied under his relative R. Judah b. Moses ha-Kohen. Finally, he went to France and studied under the great tosafists *Samuel b. Solomon of Falaise, also known as Sir Morel of Falaise, and *Jehiel of Paris, known as Sir Vivo. Meir was in France in 1240 when these two teachers took part in the famous disputation with Nicolas *Donin over the Talmud. He was still there two years later, in 1242, when he witnessed the public burning of the Talmud, on which occasion he wrote his famous elegy Sha'ali Serufah ba-Esh, "Inquire, oh thou who art burned by fire, about the welfare of those who mourn for thee…," which is included to this day in the Kinot of the Ninth of *Av according to the Ashkenazi rite.

After this occurrence Meir returned to Germany and within a few years settled in Rothenburg, where he remained for more than 40 years, until 1286. Students flocked to his school from all the communities of Germany and its neighboring countries. Occasionally he would visit other towns for private or community business, but his home and his famous school remained in Rothenburg. His fame as a great talmudic authority spread rapidly even to other countries. In 1249, when a serious dispute arose between the communities of Bohemia and those of Moravia regarding the payment of taxes by these communities, the matter was referred to Meir for final settlement. Apparently at this early period he was already reputed to be the greatest scholar of his generation. For nearly half a century Meir acted as the supreme court of appeals for Germany and its surrounding countries. Rabbis, judges, and members of courts of arbitration sent him their questions regarding law and ritual. Individual complaints that the local courts decided contrary to talmudic law were also sent to him. He was the arbiter between communities and their members, between settlements and new settlers, and between various communities in their mutual relationships. They turned to him during their greatest crises. About a thousand of his responsa have survived, more than the combined number which have been preserved from all the other tosafists. Meir is unique among the tosafists and other great scholars of his time in his preserving a record of his responsa. The careful preservation of legal decisions leaves little room for modification or debate. Meir was motivated in this regard by the tumultuous times he lived in.

Meir sent his responsa to the communities of Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Italy, France, and even to Solomon b. Abraham Adret of Spain. In his lucid style and terse language he gave short, clear, and unequivocal answers to the inquirers. Sometimes he complains of the large number of responsa he is forced to write, apologizes for abbreviating the introductory greetings, is impatient with long and drawn-out questions, occasionally displays genuine anger when a case is repeatedly brought up before him because of persistent litigants, flares up in spirited temper when a litigant threatens to apply to the secular courts, and allows his passion to rise to a crescendo when confronted with serious crime. Sometimes he complained that those who addressed their queries to him overestimated his prerogatives as a talmudic scholar, and asked him to decide matters over which he had no jurisdiction. He was often unwilling to answer queries dealing with taxation, since the laws of taxation depended principally on local custom and procedures. He was very careful not to become involved in disputes and quarrels of the communities. Nevertheless, his opinion was often earnestly sought in matters involving community rights and taxes "in order to avoid the outbreak of a great quarrel."

The type of question sent to Meir speaks eloquently of the position he held in the esteem of his contemporaries. The great majority of Meir's responsa deal with business transactions, real estate, inheritance, marriage contracts, partnerships, agents, sureties, trustees, community government, community property, settling rights, and taxation. The preponderance of queries regarding civil cases and their abundance are eloquent proof of his importance as a communal leader of the first rank. Nevertheless, the opinion of many modern historians to the contrary notwithstanding, Meir held no official position as judge, as head, or as chief rabbi, of German Jewry as a whole. He was neither elected to such a position by the communities, nor was he appointed to it by the emperor. It is true that during the last two decades of his life he often took a somewhat authoritative stand in his relation to the communities. He once convoked a synod of the communities and scholars, and urged them to adopt an ordinance to the effect that a rebellious wife when divorced should forfeit her right to her ketubbah. On one occasion he wrote to the Jews of Wuerzburg that they should change their customary procedure in the sale of real estate, and the change was adopted in spite of the fact that some members of that community were reluctant to abandon their ancient practice. In a responsum Meir wrote: "On many occasions have individuals, whose wealth consisted of ready cash, desired to transfer the burden of taxation to real estate owners, but we did not permit them to do so." This seems to imply that in such cases Meir exercised the authority of a chief rabbi, although a thorough study of his responsa proves that he held no such official position.

Meir's responsa reveal a great deal about the various hardships Jews of his time had to endure. One particularly poignant question came from a Jew from Koblenz who admitted to killing his entire family to prevent them from falling into the hands of a Christian mob. Just before taking his own life, he was saved. His question was how he could do penance for his horrendous act. Meir responded that many scholars had acted similarly during the First Crusade. To require special penance would defame them and the permission they granted their students to act in a similar manner.

It is very difficult to determine if Meir was strict or lenient overall in his legal decisions. Whenever possible, he tried to combine the opposing sides of the argument into one harmonious ruling. This did not mean compromise. Rather, both opinions were upheld and merged. For example, there was a controversy surrounding the question as to whether Rosh Ha-Shanah was two separate days or one "long" day. Meir ruled that the sheheḥeyanu blessing should be recited on both nights according to the opinion that each day of Rosh Ha-Shanah is separate and distinct. However, Meir required that a new garment be worn or a new fruit be eaten on the second night, thus providing an alternative reason for reciting the sheheḥeyanu blessing, in accordance with the opinion that both days of Rosh Ha-Shanah are one.

As business became increasingly sophisticated in the Middle Ages, the primary Talmudic precedents became less and less relevant. While Meir and his contemporaries continued to rely on talmudic law and precedent for their rulings, Meir in particular realized that he had to be flexible in his strict application of talmudic law if the Jews were going to survive in the new economic environment. To do otherwise would have forced Jewish business to separate their commercial lives from their religious and communal lives, with potentially disastrous results.

Many of Meir's responsa deal with the relations between Jews and Christians. These rulings deal with a very wide range of subjects, including eating food cooked by a gentile; yayin nesekh, wine produced by gentiles; the halakhic status of the Catholic Church and Christian religious items; charging gentiles interest; relations with Jews who converted to Christianity; and the problems of Jewish life in a Christian society, such as business partnerships with gentiles. A good example of such responsa is the question of a woman whose husband died leaving her in a situation normally requiring the ḥalizah rite necessary for the cancellation of a levirate marriage. The difficulty arose from the fact that her brother-in-law was a devoted convert to Christianity. Meir released her from the obligation of the ḥalizah rite.

Meir was highly honored and in many cases his word was law. He enjoyed this authority, however, on account of his scholarship; because many leaders of the German communities had been his students who owed him respect and even obedience; and because the Talmud was the "constitution" of community government, and Meir, the greatest scholar of the land, was its best and most authoritative interpreter. His authority was based on his knowledge of talmudic law and on his intellectual attainments, both of which enabled him to arrive at a correct decision in questions of law or ritual. Thus he once wrote to the leaders of the Rhine communities in high-spirited defiance: "You, the aforementioned community leaders, probably delude yourselves with the idea that since your permission is required before a person may divorce his wife, no scholar is permitted to render decisions in ritual law unless he receives your authorization. No, this is not true, for the Torah is free to anyone who is capable of arriving at a correct decision" (I.A. Agus (ed.), Teshuvot Ba'alei ha-Tosafot (1954), 143). In the community of Rothenburg, however, Meir probably did hold an official position as judge, cantor, and head of the yeshivah. His house in Rothenburg was probably provided for him by the community since it contained 21 rooms, including a bet midrash and rooms for his students. He did not depend on his salary for a livelihood, engaging in business. The major part of his time, however, was devoted to his studies, his students, and his correspondence with the leaders of the communities.

Meir's role in the final formulation and fixing of the law and the ritual of Ashkenazi Jewry can hardly be overestimated. His numerous responsa – collected, copied, and seriously studied for generations – greatly influenced the work of codifiers of the subsequent centuries and thus helped standardize legal procedure and civil law. He introduced certain modifications in the ritual of prayer and religious *minhag in the synagogue and at home, and instituted many customs which later became standard practice throughout Germany and Eastern Europe. His impact on the life, the organization, and the behavior of subsequent generations was exercised mainly through the work of his students, who followed him everywhere – at home, in school, in the synagogue, and even in prison. They studied his behavior, customs, and ceremonies, and later recorded their observations in their halakhic works together with Meir's decisions on law and ritual. One student in particular, R. Samson b. Zadok, was a veritable Boswell. In his Tashbeẓ, he described in great detail Meir's customs and practices from the moment he rose in the morning until he went to bed at night, on weekdays, Sabbaths, and festivals. This book became popular in Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and Poland, and its details were eventually incorporated in the codes.

Meir's influence, therefore, was exerted along three main channels:

(1) His students became the leaders of a number of communities in Germany, Austria, and Bohemia, and imprinted his views upon the life of the members of these communities and the surrounding territories;

(2) He had a profound influence on his most eminent student, Asher b. Jehiel, and on the latter's son Jacob, the author of the Arba'ah Turim, and thus directly affected the final halakhah incorporated in the Shulḥan Arukh;

(3) The Mordekhai, Agudah, Haggahot Maimuniyyot, Sha'arei Dura, and Tashbeẓ, classical works compiled by his students mainly on the basis of his decisions, responsa, and customs, were thoroughly studied by the scholars of succeeding generations and thus became the foundation for the work of R. Moses *Isserles, who incorporated the Ashkenazi usage in the Shulḥan Arukh. By far the greatest number of the views and decisions of Isserles incorporated in the above-named code stem directly or indirectly from the work and practices of Meir.

In the more than 80 of his responsa dealing with public law and community government, Meir gave the clearest and most incisive expression and explanation of the ideas of human freedom, government by consent, limitation of the power of the majority, and group responsibility – that formed part of Jewish law on the highest level of comprehension – of any other Jewish scholar before him or since. The principles of Jewish public law that man is absolutely free, that the legitimacy of government is derived solely from the free and uncoerced consent of the governed, and that the legislative power of the majority is limited to certain areas only and cannot encroach upon the private and inalienable rights of the individual were most forcefully and most clearly explained in his responsa. He thus greatly strengthened the democratic form of government of the communities – a form they derived traditionally from the forefathers of Franco-German Jewry – and it was eventually copied by the municipal governments and the guilds of the burgher class that arose in close contiguity with these Jewish communities. Thus in the 15th century, in the legislation intended for the benefit of the whole group the principle "majority rules" was applied, while particular legislative acts that encroached upon the rights and the immunities of the individual, such as taxes, did not become law unless unanimous agreement by the membership of the group was achieved (Otto v. Gierke, Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht, vol. 2, pp. 230–2, and 478–9). This division of legislation into two categories and the requirement of unanimity in the second category, which paralleled in practically every detail the form of community legislation, so clearly described by Rabbi Meir, could only have been the result of direct copying by the burghers and town communes of the community system of government that antedated their own by several centuries. Meir's peaceful life as a scholar and teacher was rudely interrupted by the turbulent political events that followed the termination of the interregnum and the election of Rudolph i of Hapsburg as emperor of Germany. In order to reestablish the right of the emperor to tax the Jews, which during the interregnum of 1254–73 had been claimed by the local dukes, Rudolph i began to press the claim that the term servi camerae ("serfs of the treasury") – which in the 13th century began to gain ascendancy as the legal description of the political status of the Jews – really meant that the Jews were the slaves of the treasury of the empire, that their persons and their possessions were therefore the property of the treasury of the empire, and that the emperor therefore possessed the right to tax the Jews over and above the taxes they paid to the local rulers; and in 1286 he did impose such a tax on them. As a result thousands of Jews decided to leave Germany. Meir, especially outraged at this attempt to enslave the Jews, became the leader of the widespread exodus. In the spring of 1286, he "set out to go across the sea together with his family, his daughters, and his sons-in-law." However, while he was waiting for his followers in Lombardy, he was recognized by an apostate who informed against him, with the result that the ruler of that town, Count Meinhardt of Goerz, arrested Meir and delivered him to Rudolph i. The emperor put him in prison, first in Wasserburg and then in Ensisheim, until the day of his death. His imprisonment was actually a singular form of house arrest. In jail, Meir had access to his books and his students were frequent visitors. Indeed, he continued to issue responsa while imprisoned, although he complained that he often did not have the requisite texts at hand to fully research a particular issue. The Jews made great efforts to effect the release of their beloved teacher – at one time agreeing to pay 23,000 pounds of silver to the emperor, but stipulating that the money was a payment of ransom and not of taxes – but without success. Rudolph i was determined to use the great devotion of the Jews to their teacher to force them to admit the right of the emperor to tax them. However, since a payment of taxes would be an admission that they were slaves, the Jews found it impossible to agree. Meir, therefore, remained in prison, and even after his death in 1293, his body was not delivered to the Jews until 1307 when it was redeemed by Alexander b. Salomo Wimpfen for a large sum of money and buried in Worms.

Rabbi Meir, the last of the tosafists, wrote tosafot and novellae to 18 tractates of the Talmud – the tosafot to Yoma, in the printed text of the Talmud, are from his pen; commentaries to the two orders of the Mishnah Zera'im and Tohorot; compendia of laws for special purposes, such as Hilkhot Eruvin, Halakhot Pesukot, Hilkhot Berakhot, Hilkhot Semaḥot, Hilkhot Sheḥitah, Hilkhot Hatmanah; a collection of customs connected with the marriage ceremony and with the wording of the ketubbah; and, most important, nearly 1,000 responsa found in the following collections which differ to a great extent in content: Cremona, 1557; Prague, 1608 (reprinted in Sudilkov, 1835, and in Budapest, 1895); Lemberg, 1860; and Berlin, 1891–92; aside from those incorporated in the works of his students. Some of his responsa were published from manuscripts by I.Z. Kahana (Jerusalem, 1943) and by I.A. Agus (see bibl.). Meir also composed liturgical poems (in addition to the above-mentioned "Inquire thou who art burnt by fire…") and a collection of masoretic explanations (in I.Z. Kahana's Teshuvot, Pesakim u-Minhagim, 1 (1957), 3–41).


I.A. Agus, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, 2 vols. (1947); S. Back, Rabbi Meir b. Baruch aus Rothenburg (1895); H.J. Zimmels, Beitraege zur Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland im 13. Jahrhundert (1926); J. Wellescz, in: rej, 58 (1909), 226–40; 59 (1910), 42–58; 60 (1910), 53–72; 61 (1911), 44–59; Urbach, Tosafot, 405–46. add. bibliography: E. Kanerfogel, in: Jewish Book Annual, 50 (1992), 249–59; R. Schwartz, in: Jewish Affairs, 49:3 (1994), 13–24; Y.N. Epstein, in: Sinai, 94:3–4 (1986), 123–36; Y. Hurvitz, in: ibid., 112 (1993), 25–34; Y. Emanuel, in: Ha-Maayan (1993), 1–9; S. Emanual, in: ibid., 11–20; idem, in: Tarbiz, 57:4 (1988), 559–97; idem, in: Shenaton ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri, 21 (2000), 149–205; idem, in: The Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages (Tenth to Fifteenth Centuries) (2004), 283–93; A. Grossman, in: Cathedra, 84 (1997), 63–84; A.Y. Havazelet, in: Moriah, 17:9–10 (1991), 105–8; S.Y. Spitzer, in: Asufot, 2 (1988), 83–90; Y.M. Peles, in: Zefunot, 1:1 (1989), 22–25.

[Irving A. Agus]

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