Gershom ben-Judah

(c. 960–1028)
   German Talmud scholar. Rabbi Gershom’s reputation was so high that he was known as Meor ha-Golah, ‘The Light of the Exile’. He seems to have been born in Metz, in Lorraine, but he lived in Mainz, where he had his academy. According to one tradition, he had a son who was baptized and died a Christian. The fact that Gershom is said to have observed full mourning for this son suggests that he may have been a forced convert. Indeed, Gershom counselled gentleness towards forced converts, and the only ruling of his quoted by RASHI laid down that those who returned to Judaism should not be harassed by constant reminders of their error. So far did Gershom’s reputation for scholarship spread that enquiries were addressed to him from all over the world. Due to his learning, the Rhineland became the new spiritual centre for European Jewry, and Gershom its most influential authority. This position he owed only to his erudition and strength of character, for he was neither wealthy nor influential. Very little of his actual work has survived, but the breadth of his scholarship is attested in the words of his pupils, most famous of whom were Isaac ben-Judah and Jacob ben-Yakar, later teachers of Rashi.
   Gershom is traditionally supposed to have revised the text of the entire Talmud in his own hand. His most important task was his attempt to create a central rabbinical authority that would legislate for the scattered Jewish communities of Europe on the basis of the Talmud. He tried to assemble representatives from all the communities into synods and to have these meet regularly to discuss fit solutions for the problems which arose in different places under different rulers.
   His group of civil ordinances - known as the Takkanot Rabbi Gershom - may have been designed as a basis for such an organization. It is difficult to know which of the many rulings ascribed to him later out of respect for his authority were actually his. He was probably the author of the following five:
   1) Local Jewish courts were to have authority as far as Jewish affairs were concerned not only over the members of that Jewish community but over any Jew who came within the city. This ruling was meant to prevent a stranger breaking local custom and claiming it was not observed in his community. Such a provision was important in regulating trade, on which most of the Jews depended for their livelihood.
   2) A plaintiff could interrupt prayers to ask that his case be heard. This would ensure that all the members of the community knew of his request.
   3) If a member of the community owned the synagogue building, he could not, for personal reasons, debar any individual from public worship. To close the door to one was to close it to all.
   4) Someone who lost an object could compel any person to inform against the finder by declaring a ban (herem) in the synagogue. This was to ensure the observance of the law that a man who found something had to declare his find.
   5) The minority had to accept the ordinances of the majority, in order to maintain the corporate strength of the community. Gershom is also believed to have formulated the ruling forbidding a Jew to rent a house from a gentile landlord who had unjustly evicted a former Jewish tenant.
   15th-century writers considered that he was the source of the cherem hayishuv, the ruling that gave a community the right to regulate who settled in it. This was not aimed at exclusion, but was an attempt to preserve the balance between rich and poor, so that the charity funds would not be overstrained. It also ensured that the community would not acquire more tradesmen and shopkeepers of a particular kind than could earn a living.
   It is clear that Gershom ben-Judah’s ordinances were directed at preserving the stability of daily life within the community as a whole. Perhaps the most famous of the rulings with which his name is connected was intended to keep the peace in the family. This was the ban on polygamy, attributed to him by the 14th- century Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg. He credited Gershom as well with the ruling that a wife could not be divorced against her will. Although the Jewish world has since then spoken of Gershom as the author of the polygamy ban, there is some historical doubt about it. It is difficult to reconcile with an opinion expressed by Gershom in answer to a query concerning one Reuben, who took a second wife against the wishes of his first. ‘It would seem that the law is on the husband’s side,’ ruled Gershom, ‘for Raba said that a man may marry several wives, provided that he is able to maintain them.’ It may well be, as later writers maintained, that this defence of polygamy, based on the words of a talmudic sage, was written at an earlier date than his ban. According to another account, the ban on having more than one wife was pronounced by an assembly of rabbis who met in the 12th century at one of the seasonal trade fairs in the Rhineland. These fairs, in a number of French and German towns, were meeting places for Jewish merchants, communal leaders and scholars, and an opportunity to resolve questions of common interest to the scattered communities. Be that as it may, by the 12th century monogamy was the accepted practice among German Jewry, though polygamy was never abolished among the Jews in Arab countries. Gershom’s authority was so unquestioned that breaking any of his rulings was punishable by the cherem. Such an excommunication meant that the offender was expelled from the community, was then unable to earn his living, and was socially ostracized. No other rabbi’s authority was ever accepted to this degree for all the communities of Western Europe.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

Look at other dictionaries:

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