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Simeon Bar Isaac


SIMEON BAR ISAAC (b. c. 950), one of the earliest German paytanim. Born in Mainz, where his grandfather *Abun had settled after leaving Le Mans in France, Simeon was a great scholar and the elder colleague of Rabbenu *Gershom b. Judah, "the Light of the Exile"; it is related that "they studied Torah together." His contemporaries and also later scholars claimed that Simeon was descended from the dynasty of King David and "experienced in miracles." In praise of him it was said "that he exerted himself for the communities and brought light to the exiles with his learning," and of his appearance that "he had the countenance of an angel of the Lord of Hosts." Because of his importance, he was called "Rabbana Simeon," and also "Ha-Gadol" ("the Great").

Simeon was an expert on prayers and piyyutim, and on customs in general. It is almost certain that he knew the piyyutim of *Yannai; he was undoubtedly influenced by those of Eleazar *Kallir, Solomon ha-Bavli, and *Moses b. Kalonymus, and it is probable that being a cantor he himself recited his piyyutim. He composed *yoẓerot, *kerovot, seliḥot, hymns, and Rashuyyot le-Ḥatanim (piyyutim sung in honor of bridegrooms before they went up to read the law on the Sabbath preceding their marriage and on that following it). His compositions bear clear traces of the language of the early piyyutim; they are suffused with pain at the persecutions and the tribulations which the Jews suffered during his lifetime. But his words are not specific, and there is no way of telling to which particular persecutions he is referring. Similarly, when he speaks in his seliḥah "Elohim, Kamu Alai Zedim" of those that reject the yoke of the Law, who "desecrate and despise the covenant of the patriarchs," for "the holy Sabbath has been willfully desecrated," it is impossible to know which sect he had in mind.

Simeon's piyyutim are to be found in maḥzorim of the French and German rites, and are recited to this day. Some of them mention the names Isaac and Elhanan; and it has been conjectured that these were his sons, and that their father wished to perpetuate their names in his poems. A legend relates that Elhanan was forcibly baptized, and rose to high office in the Church until he finally became pope. Upon the promulgation of a new anti-Jewish edict, Simeon was sent by the community to Rome in order to plead with the pope on behalf of his people. The pope, his son Elhanan, recognized Simeon; and then Simeon recognized his son. Elḥanan returned to Judaism, and his father perpetuated his name in a kerovah for Rosh Ha-Shanah. There would appear to be a grain of historical truth in the legend of a Jewish pope; and tradition has attached the story to the son of Simeon.


Zunz, Lit Poesie, 111–5, 235–8; Germ Jud, 1 (1963), 189; Davidson, Oẓar, 4 (1933), 487; A.M. Habermann (ed.), Piyyutei Rabbi Shimon bar Yiẓḥak (1938); J. Prinz, Popes from the Ghetto (1966), 17–20.

[Abraham Meir Habermann]

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