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The Light Of The Diaspora

Rabbi Eli Stern

He is referred to by the earliest Rishonim as the “light of the Diaspora” and the “father of the Diaspora.” Most of us are most familiar with him because of his enactments, enforced with a cherem (excommunication). How did Rabbeinu Gershom come to be referred by those titles, and why did he enact his ordinances? Rabbi Eli Stern pieces together sketchy historical records to bring us the life story of Rabbeinu Gershom Meor HaGolah.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Rabbeinu Gershom Meor HaGolah’s life story is inextricably intertwined with the early roots of the Jewish presence in Germany. Along with other gedolim who lived in Germany at the beginning of the tenth century CE, Rabbeinu Gershom helped lay the foundations of the glorious Jewish community in Germany during the period of the Rishonim.

The title “Meor HaGolah” (Light of the Diaspora), by which Rabbeinu Gershom has been known throughout the generations, was well-earned and well-deserved. Rabbeinu Gershom was one of the key figures around whom the Jewish community in Germany was established, and its yeshivos and Torah centers would eventually bring “light” to the Jewish people during the dark days of the European exile.

The historical record is sketchy as to the initial development of Torah centers in Germany, but we will outline the basic facts.


The Birth of the Three Shum Communities

Several sources indicate that the Jewish presence in Germany dates back to ancient times, perhaps even to the Roman era. In fact, the Rosh describes in his Teshuvos (20:20) “the tradition of our ancestors, the chachamim of Germany, to whom the Torah was an inheritance since the days of the Churban.” Nevertheless, Germany did not develop as an important Torah center until centuries later, at the end of the period of the Geonim, with the establishment of the communities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, the three communities in the Rhine district that are often referred to by the acronym “Shum.”

These communities developed when Torah scholars from the flourishing Jewish communities in Italy migrated to Germany, including the offspring of the great Rabbi Kalonymus of Lucca, Italy. This group of immigrants, which arrived in Mainz around the year 4777 (1016 CE), consisted of Rabbi Kalonymus’s then elderly son Rav Moshe, and his grandsons, Rabbi Chananel, Rabbi Kalonymus (the second), Rabbi Isiel, and Rabbi Yekusiel. The Maharshal (responsum 29) relates that the European ruler Charlemagne, founder of the Holy Roman Empire, was responsible for bringing Rav Moshe and his sons from Lucca to Mainz in order to establish a Torah center in Germany.

With the arrival of these Italian sages, the first seeds were planted for the development of a prominent makom Torah in Germany. Mainz was the first kehillah to be established, followed by the communities in Worms and Speyer. While these gedolim’s achievements were vast both in the revealed Torah and in Toras hanistar (the esoteric, “hidden” portions of Torah), almost no record of their scholarship remains, save for a few piyutim and a handful of references in the works of the Rishonim. The Meiri sees the lack of written manuscripts from that era as a sign of their proficiency, not, chas v’shalom, a deficiency. In the introduction to his commentary on Avos, he writes, “You should know that until now, the yeshivos were great and respected and their many students dedicated their lives to Torah, and certainly [so did] the heads of the great and honorable yeshivos ... who never budged from the tent and who knew the entire Talmud, or most of it, by heart — the entire Torah and Talmud were as familiar to them as the parshah of Shema. Therefore, they did not see a necessity to expand on it in writing, because they were so familiar with its meaning that writing the explanation [of the Torah] was akin to writing the translation in a foreign language in our times....”

The developing German communities also attracted a number of Torah sages who emigrated from France. Among the founding rabbanim of the German community was Rabbi Avun the Great, who came from France around the year 4700 (939 CE) along with his sons, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yitzchak, and his grandson Rabbi Shimon ben Yitzchak, who is also known as Rabbi Shimon HaGadol. Rabbi Shimon was a renowned paytan whose compositions appear in our tefillos on Rosh HaShanah and Yamim Tovim. He is also the author of “Baruch Hashem Yom Yom,” a zemer we sing on Shabbos day. The two prestigious families — that of Rabbi Avun and that of Rabbi Moshe from Lucca — were united by marriages between their descendants, forming the roots of the chassidei Ashkenaz, as their descendants were later to become known.

Another Torah sage of note who took up residence in Germany was Rabbi Yehudah ben Rabbi Meir HaKohein, also known as Rabbi Leontin. In France and Germany at that time, there were many chachamim who were known by non-Jewish names. Many rabbanim named Yehudah were known as Leon, which means “lion,” in reference to the verse that states “Yehudah is a lion cub”(Bereishis 49:9). In one of his teshuvos, Rabbeinu Gershom refers to him as “Rabbi Leon who taught me the majority of his learning.”

Rabbi Leontin came to Mainz from France (although some sources indicate that he was originally from Italy) in the year 4749 (989 CE), at which time he founded a prestigious yeshivah. A number of his talmidim followed him from France, including Rabbi Yosef Tuv Elem and his brother, and Rabbeinu Gershom ben Rabbi Yehudah, who would eventually become known as Rabbeinu Gershom Meor HaGolah.

The yeshivah in Mainz grew and eventually became a magnetic force attracting students from all over Europe. In this yeshivah, students were able to plumb the depths of Torah while absorbing the teachings of the greatest Torah sages of that era.

After the death of Rabbi Leontin, his student Rabbeinu Gershom was appointed to lead the yeshivah. An ancient teshuvah recorded in the Ohr Zarua (Hilchos Rosh HaShanah, siman 275) makes reference to all the great sages who led the community during those days of glory: “A milah took place in Mainz on Rosh HaShanah, and they asked the holy ones in the land — Rabbeinu Gershom Meor HaGolah the son of Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbeinu Shimon HaGadol the son of Rabbi Yitzchak, Rabbi Yehudah HaKohein who composed the book of laws, Rabbi Yehudah HaGadol who was the head of the martyrs, and the rest of the holy yeshivah — and they all ruled to circumcise the child after Krias HaTorah and the Haftarah, before they blow the shofar.”

From his position as rosh yeshivah in Mainz, Rabbeinu Gershom served as the leader of the entire Jewish community in Germany, and his renowned students continued his work and disseminated his teachings. Among his students were the aforementioned Rabbi Yehudah, the author of the book of laws, Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol, Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah, and Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevi. The latter three were the rebbeim of Rashi, whom he mentions in many places. Rashi had access to a manuscript that was written by Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar under the auspices of Rabbeinu Gershom himself. Thus, the commentary of Rashi draws directly from the teachings of Rabbeinu Gershom Meor HaGolah.


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