English, Guest Posts, Reviews

Simcha Emanuel’s “Responsa of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg and his Colleagues”- Review by Pinchas Roth

Simcha Emanuel, Responsa of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg and his Colleagues: Critical Edition, Introduction and Notes (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 2012)

Review by Pinchas Roth

The thirteenth century has a reputation for being a little boring. Coming after the roaring twelfth century –  the era of Maimonides, Rabenu Tam and Ra’abad of Posquières – it may not have been a period of intensely creative Talmudic interpretation. But the second half of the 13th century was certainly a heyday for responsa (she’elot u-teshuvot). Two major rabbinic figures emerged during this period, and between the two of them, they wrote perhaps 4,000 teshuvot. Rabbi Solomon ibn Adret (Rashba) of Barcelona was the preeminent decisor for the Jewish communities of Iberia and Southern France, and he fielded questions from as far afield as Austria and even the Crusader stronghold of Acre. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, better known as Maharam of Rothenburg, was also a prolific respondent who became the ultimate rabbinic authority throughout Germany. He continued to respond to Halakhic questions even after his imprisonment in Ensisheim (Alsace) in 1286.

Simcha Emanuel’s MA thesis from 1987 was devoted to a bibliographic analysis of the four printed collections of Rabbi Meir’s responsa (Cremona 1558; Prague 1608; Lemberg 1860; Berlin 1891, and also Teshuvot Maimoniyot). Of his many publications since then, it is worth mentioning two particularly significant ones. In the index of responsa from France, Germany and Italy, published by the Institute for Jewish Law at the Hebrew University in 1997, Emanuel included a series of lists providing parallels to every published responsum of Maharam. That is, for each of the responsa published in the four aforementioned collections, the list provides parallels throughout the printed literature of medieval Halakhah. In 2000, Emanuel published an article titled ‘Teshuvot of Maharam that are not by Maharam’ – passages in the Prague edition of Teshuvot Maharam that have no real connection to Maharam and were arbitrarily included by the editor.

This is the backdrop against which to appreciate Simcha Emanuel’s new book. First, by the numbers: two volumes, 1251 pages. 501 responsa, published from thirteen manuscripts. As the title implies, not all of the responsa can be attributed to Maharam, and they include new responsa by a number of authors both well-known and otherwise (many responsa are unidentified). In light of Emanuel’s study from 2000, this should come as no surprise, since all the medieval collections of Maharam’s responsa include work by others. For example, number 134 was apparently written by the unfortunate R Yaakov Savra, the first known rabbi in Krakow.

The book consists of three sections. First, each of the thirteen manuscripts is described in loving detail. Every attempt is made to explicate the date and location in which the manuscript was produced, and a great deal of information about the travails that each manuscript experienced is provided. For one poignant example – Emanuel identifies Solomon Hirschell as one of the previous owners of Sefer Sinai, a manuscript now in the Berlin Jewish Museum. He also points to the glosses from this same manuscript copied by Hirschell’s father, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Berlin, into his copy of the Cremona edition.

The second part of the book is the main section, containing the responsa themselves. Emanuel added only minimal footnotes, most of which provide textual information without delving into the Halakhic or historical significance of the new texts. By doing so, he has left ample room for historians and other scholars to pick the fruits of his labour. Historians are already plowing through the edition, finding richly suggestive material.

The third section of the book may seem, to the reader, somewhat redundant. It contains a survey of the complete contents of each of the manuscripts utilized for the edition. The edition includes only new responsa that have not been previously published, but the final section provides details about every responsum in these manuscripts – where else it is found, in print and in manuscripts, and additional information it contains (usually, the poetic beginning or ending of the responsum that was often cropped in printed editions). The significance of this section is in the data it provides for scholars searching for all the textual witnesses of any given responsum. Generations of editors have neglected this kind of labour-intensive cataloguing, preferring to focus their efforts on the new and unfamiliar.

The absence of lists like this is sorely felt by anyone doing textual work on medieval responsa, especially collections that are found in multiple manuscripts like those of Rashba. Rashba’s responsa were recently republished in two separate editions, with dozens of newly published texts. But much of the manuscript work that went into these editions was wasted, since the new editions contain no information about which manuscripts contain the hundreds of responsa that have already been published. For someone interested in textual variants, or in the additional information found in manuscripts such as the addressees of the responsa, these new editions are frustrating and tantalizing rather than helpful. Hopefully, Simcha Emanuel’s work will set a new standard, and editors will begin to provide full documentation about the sources they used. Not only identifying the manuscripts accurately (a point on which editors are beginning to improve), but also providing full information about those manuscripts, and about all the details they contain, even when those details seem trivial.

The scholarly community should be grateful to Simcha Emanuel for providing a flood of new primary sources for the study of medieval Ashkenazic Halakhah, and for placing a high bar for future editors to aspire to.

Pinchas Roth is a graduate student in the Talmud Department at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

English, Piyut, Readings

Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 3)


Ner Israel (The candle of Israel) - Selected texts of Rav Hai Gaon by the 19th century Hamagid of Koznitz

The third and last (albeit slightly belated) installment of the series on Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 1, Part 2).

In the days of the Geonim (i.e., the Babylonian sages that followed the rabbis of the Talmud), individuals and communities sent to these rabbinic authorities halakhic queries and other questions concerning Jewish life. The replies of the Geonim were preserved in what is known as the Responsa literature. One of the most prominent sages of that period was Rav Hai Gaon, who headed the Pumbedita Yeshiva during the early 11th century. In one of his replies we read:

And concerning your question about the Hanukkot (Heb. inaugurations); we have heard about them in the Haggadah and the payytanim enumerated seven of them: the inauguration of heaven and earth after the six days of creation, and the inauguration of the alter in the days of Moses, and the inauguration by David… and the inauguration in the days of Solomon, and the inauguration in the days of Ezra, and the inauguration in the days of Matityahu son of Yohanan – these are six, and the seventh will take place in the future (i.e., with the coming of the Messiah)”. But those who count the one who built a new house, how can they know how many there were? But it must be said that the inauguration of a new house is called like a Mitzvah (= a religious law), and its name is celebration of the house, and it is not one of the public Hanukkot. And the inauguration of the idol, how come [one associates the inauguration] of Avodah Zara (=idol worship) with that of the house of the Lord that hopefully will be built in our days, amen.

There are several intriguing elements in this reply; first, it is curious that someone addressed Rav Hai with a question concerning the proper count of the Hanukkot. Usually, the Geonim received questions concerning laws and related religious practices. We learn then, that for some, the proper count of the seven inaugurations was meaningful. In fact, from the reply by Rav Hai we learn that it was a matter of dispute, a point to which I shall come back to shortly. Second, we should pay attention to the list itself; it consists of several “historical” Hanukkot: that of the Tabernacle (the altar in the days of Moses), of Solomon’s (first) temple, of the second temple in the days of Ezra, and finally the one in the days of the Maccabees. To this list of four Hanukkot Rav Hai adds one by David, based on Psalms 30:1 “A Psalm of David, A Song at the dedication of the Temple,” and a metaphorical one – the creation of the universe. Finally, Rav Hai mentions the seventh Hanukkah of the future (third) temple. After Rav Hai concludes the list we encounter the third intriguing fact. It turns out that Rav Hai is familiar with an alternative count that adds ‘the building of a new house’; truly, it is not quite clear what Rav Hai means here, and his explanation is even vaguer. At any rate, we realize now that the question concerning the proper count was in place. The last sentence of the response probably contains the most intriguing detail; it seems that Hai Gaon had heard of a custom to count among the seven Hanukkot an inauguration of some sort of a idol-worshiping place. Who might be the person or community that would do that? Some sort of a Christian sect? Karaites? Other non-rabbinic Jews? Muslims? I must admit that in this regard we are in the dark.

At this point, I’m sure many of you may be asking- “but what does Piyyut have to do with all of this?!” Well, as far as we know, the tradition of the seven Hanukkot emerged from the poetry of our beloved Elazar Birabi Qilir of seventh century Palestine! In several of his piyyutim for Hanukka the Qiliri elaborates quite lavishly on the seven Hanukkot. The typology of the seven inauguration makes perfect sense; it brings together six occurrences in the past, in which a sacred place was either created or rebuilt and it connects the past with the messianic hope for the completion of the series in the world to come. The inclusion of the Hanukkah of the Maccabees among these Hanukkot fits perfectly into the liturgy of the feast of Hanukkah. It is worthwhile mentioning that the list of seven Hanukkot appears also in the ninth century Pesiqta Rabbati. Interestingly enough, the list in this Midrash differs from the list known from the piyyutim of the Qiliri. Perhaps even more revealing is the fact that the list brought by Rav Hai is similar to that of the Qiliri. It would seem then, that the case of the seven Hanukkot is yet another example of the rich and complex relationships within the polysystem of Hebrew literature in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.