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The References to England in the Responsa of Rabbi Meir Ben Baruch of Rothenburg (1215-1293)

Dr. Aron Owen

<plain_text><page sequence="1">The References to England in the Responsa of Rabbi Meir Ben Baruch of Rothenburg, 1215-12931 By Aron Owen, B.A., Ph.D. IT is not surprising that Meir ben Baruch of Rottenburg,2 the outstanding and most influential rabbi of the thirteenth century, should have had some contacts with English Jewry. The fame of this "saint among rabbis and scholar among saints"3 was so widespread?he is one of the few upon whom the coveted tide of Meor ha-Golah, Light of the Exile, was bestowed?that letters were addressed to him from all over Europe and the near East.4 But quite apart from his almost universal renown, another important factor can account for the allusions to England in his Responsa.5 Commerical relations had been established between England and the Continent for some time; English wool and cloth, the staple products of the age, were interchanged for French wines and for other commodities which came overland across Europe from the East; while the Anglo-Jewish 1 Paper read before the Jewish Historical Society of England on 7th March, 1949. 2 He is known in Rabbinic literature as D'-ina and sometimes, in order to distinguish him from other scholars called Meir, as ^na "n D*nna or rroawna D'nna A number of monographs have been published on the life and work of R. Meir, the most recent being Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg by Irving A. Agus (Philadelphia, 1947, 2 vols.) See also Samuel Back, R. Meir ben Baruch aus Rothenburg (Frankfurt A.M., 1895); J. Wellesz, Meir b. Baruch de Rothenburg {Revue des Emdes Juives LVIII-LXI1909-1911) ; H. J. Zimmels Beitr?ge zur Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland in 13 J?hrhundert insbesondere auf Grund der Gutachten des R. Meir Rothenburg (Vienna, 1926). 3 Laurie Magnus, The Jews in the Christian Era3 p. 319. 4 ids? in one Responsum (Berlin ed. p. 199 no. 108) may refer to Acre in Palestine. 5 A Responsum may be defined as the written answer by an outstanding talmudic scholar to a query of a legal or religious nature put to him in writing. Similar in some respects to 'counsel's opinion/ a responsum, however, if emanating from the pen of a famous authority, carries the weight of a judicial decision and the various collections of Responsa literature are, in effect, the case-books and the law reports of Jewish jurisprudence. The importance of the old Responsa is now recognized not only for their legal decisions but because of their incidental references to contemporary life, providing a source of inestimable value for the historian. There are four editions of R. Meir's Responsa : (a) Cremona. A collection of 315 Responsa first printed in Cremona (nraij? la-a^YPir) in 1557. (b) Prague. A collection of 1022 numbered items?but only about 400 of which can be attributed to R. Meir?printed in Prague in 1608 and later in Sdilkow in 1835 and finally edited by Moses Bloch and printed in Budapest in 1895. The Takkanot of R. Gershom and R. Tarn and the Rhine communities are included in this collection, (c) Lemberg. An edition edited by Nathan Rabinowitz and printed in Lemberg in 1860. This contains 507 numbered items but the manuscript used by Rabinowitz was incomplete and the edition begins with number 57 and lacks numbers 88-99 inclusive, (d) Berlin. In 1891-2, Moses Bloch published in Berlin (Mekitze Nirdamim Society), parts of several MSS. from Parma, Amsterdam and Prague not included in the older editions. In addition to the above four collections, many of R. Meir's Responsa are to be found in Mordechai, an encyclopaedic work on the laws of the Talmud written by R. Mordechai b. Hillel, a student of R. Meir; in the Teshuboth Maimunioth and the Hagaoth Maimunioth, collections of Responsa compiled by R. Meir ha-Kohen of Rothenburg, another brilliant student of R. Meir; included among the Responsa of Rashba (R. Solomon b. Ardet); and in the Tashbatz, a work written by R. Samson b. Zadok, yet another pupil of R. Meir. Like Boswell, Samson followed his master and noted down, in minute deta?, R. Meir's comments, sayings and ritual observances. In 1941, Dr. I. Z. Cahana began to publish the Oppenheim manuscript (Ad. Neubauer, Catalogue of Hebrew MSS. in the Bodleian Library no. 844) of the Responsa of R, Issaac Or Zarua and R. Meir of Rothenburg in the monthly Sinai in Jerusalem. 73</page><page sequence="2">74 THE REFERENCES TO ENGLAND IN THE RESPONSA OF RABBI MEIR BEN BARUCH community was very closely associated with its sister communities in France and Germany.1 Five distinct references to England are to be found in the collections of R. Meir's Responsa and they deal with questions in commercial, matrimonial, ritual and criminal law. (1) . Prague Edition No. 600 :?The facts of this case were that the plaintiff sent ten marks bound in a purse from England2 through the agency of his messenger, the defendant. The latter lent the money on interest to a Gentile "because of the dangers of the journey." The plaintiff now claimed the profit on the transaction but the defendant argued that his liability was limited to the ten marks entrusted to him for delivery. The decision3 pronounced is that the plaintiff is entitled to the profit also, as no authority to open the purse and deal with the money was given to the defendant. Had the money which was handed over to the defendant been in the nature of a deposit, the decision might have been otherwise. (2) . Cremona Edition No. 117 :?Question : Regarding the three countries into which Palestine is divided with reference to the laws of marriage, to the effect that a husband may not force his wife to move from one country to another, what is considered a country nowadays ? Answer : France, England,4 Germany and Bohemia are to be considered separate countries in reference to the laws of marriage, since a different language is spoken in each of these lands. Jewish matrimonial law provides that a wife cannot be forced by her husband to follow him from one country to another (though an exception was made in the case of emigration to Palestine)^ or from a Jewish neighbourhood to a non-Jewish one, or from decent surroundings to an unpleasant district. Indeed, the wife could even refuse to move to a better district if she felt she would be out of place there. The relevance of this question in the thirteenth century was that Jews were then often on the move from one country to another as and when economic oppression or actual physical violence threatened them. In 1286 R. Meir, his wife and all his family were themselves on their way out of Europe en route for Palestine, when the Rabbi was seized by Count Mainhard of G?rz and flung into prison. Many Jews considered it better to leave voluntarily 1 "For all practical purposes pre-expulsion Anglo-Jewry was but a branch of northern French Jewry with few distinctive or separate characteristics." L. Rabinowitz, The Herem Hayyishub (London, 1945) p. 61. See Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England (Oxford, 1941), pp. 128-9. 2 The term used here (and in Lemberg ed. No. 78) for England is ?&gt;n ?k. It |is now generally accepted that this phrase, 'Isles of the Sea,' in medieval rabbinic texts, refers to England. Ephraim b. Jacob of Bonn (1133-1196) explains it quite clearly (Appendix to Emek ha-Bacha edited by Wiener, Leipsig, 1858, p. 9a). The same interpretation is given by Benedict le Puncteur in the introduction to his Mishle Shu'alim, The Fox Fables (See Neubauer's article in Jewish Quarterly Review, ii, 522), and by Abraham b. Nathan (second half 12th century; see his Sefer ha-Manhig, p. 83). See further references in Jacobs, The Jews of Angevin England, pp. 107, 224, 279; Bacher in J.Q.R. vi, 373; and Naphtali Levi, Sefer Nachlath Naphtaliy p. 15a. It has been suggested that the term has a political significance and refers not exclusively to England but embraces English dependencies as well and would thus include Normandy, Brittany, Maine, Anjou, Poitou, Guienne, Gascony and Toulouse. Cf. Emek ha-Bacha op. cit. p. 183 note 189; and Zimmels, op. cit. p. 137. 8 This Respondum bears the signature of Eliezer b. Joel ha-Levi. It is interesting to note that this decision accords with a similar ruling given by Menachem son of Moses of London, the eminent English Rabbi of the thirteenth century. (See I. Epstein, Pre-Expulsion England in the Responsa, Trans. Jew. Hist. Soc. of Eng., XIV, p. 190). Rabbi Menachem also adjudicated in several cases concerning losses sustained in the course of journeys.</page><page sequence="3">THE REFERENCES TO ENGLAND IN THE RESPONSA OF RABBI MEIR BEN BARUCH 75 than to wait for the official edict of expulsion but one can imagine the reluctance of the women in particular to give up cherished houses and possessions and to start over again in strange surroundings. (3) . Lemberg Edition No. 78 :? And I saw a collection of Responsa emanating from England1 that the sages of Paris enquired of the sages of Rome whether, if a man had been granted temporary rights of residence he could reside permanently, to which they replied that a Herem belongs to the category of vows, and partial annulment of a vow entails complete absolution. This Responsum relates to the Herem Hayyishub, an institution which was, in effect, a means of restricting the rights of Jews' residence. It has been suggested2 that this institution was an elaborate system of trade protection, the Jewish counterpart of the Gild merchant. It is doubtful whether the Herem Hayytshub existed in England.3 The resolution which the Jews of Canterbury adopted in 1266 whereby they "bound themselves by oath that no Jew of any other town than Canterbury shall dwell in the said town, that is to say, any liar, improper person, or slanderer . . ."4 may be an appli? cation of the Herem. On the other hand, the Canterbury prohibition refers only to men of bad character whereas the ordinary Herem Hayyishub made no such distinctions, its purpose, in the main, being an economic one, to prevent outside traders from com? peting with the local merchants. (4) . Lemberg Edition No. 160 :?The question here was whether barnacle geese5 required shechitah, ritual slaughter, since, so it was thought, they were not generated in the normal way like other animals but were a vegetable product. R. Meir's reply was to quote as his authority R. Tarn (1100-1171) who had ruled, in a decision sent to the English communities (KTtPVWK ^2*?), that barnacle geese have to be ritually slaughtered. The barnacle goose, a species of the wild goose but smaller, is a bird of the Arctic regions which migrates to northern Europe in the winter. It was formerly supposed to be produced from the fruit of a tree growing by the sea-shore, or to be developed from the common barnacle, the cirripede. This superstition among medieval Jews was not remarkable, for, as far back as Mishnaic times, it was believed that there was a species of mouse which developed from the earth and was half flesh and half earth.6 The fact that R. Tarn had been asked about barnacle geese by English Jews in the twelfth century might throw some light upon the table fare of that time. (5) . Lemberg Edition No. 2467: Question: The burghers forced some Jews to take an oath on the scroll of the Law that they would not clip the coins. While taking 1 D'n ?k? o*Kan naim This is important as showing that collections of English responsa existed prior to the Expulsion in 1290 but unfortunately they are no longer extant. ? For a full discussion of this subject see L. Rabinowitz, The Herem Hayyishub, London, 1945. Also his Social Life of the Jews of Northern France in the XII-XIV Centuries, London, 1938, p.255. 8 Rabinowitz is of the opinion that it did. Herem Hayyishub op. cit. Chap. IX. 4 Rigg, Select Pleas, p. 35. Michael Adler, Jews of Medieval England, London, 1939, pp. 83-84. 6 trinxi nw? lit. 'birds that grow on trees.' See Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England, Oxford, 1941, p. 121, note 4; Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, London, 1932, p. 391. 6 Mishnah Hullin ix, 6. 7 This responsum is addressed to 'My teacher Rabbi Judah.' It is also to be found in Mordechai Hagadol, p. 337c. The free translation given here is that of Agus op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 243. No. 174.</page><page sequence="4">76 THE REFERENCES TO ENGLAND IN THE RESPONSA OF RABBI MEIR BEN BARUCH the oath the Jews made mental reservations to their verbal statements which, they believed, invalidated the oath. They proceeded, therefore, to clip the coins. Answer : Whether or not one has taken an oath not to clip coins, the doing so is a serious crime, the perpetrators of which deserve severe punishment. Clipping coins is tantamount to stealing and robbing, and robbing Gentiles is a crime. Furthermore, such an act creates a public nuisance as it may result in causing great injury to other Jews innocendy passing these coins. It may even cause widespread disaster, and has already led to a great deal of bloodshed. Thus, clipping coins brought about the des? truction of our brethren in France and England.1 In addition to committing a basic crime, these Jews broke their solemn oath to the burghers. Mental reservations do not invalidate an oath occasioned by legal circumstances. The Talmudic ruling (Nedarim 28a) that a person may invalidate his oath to extortionists and murderers by mental reservations, does not apply in this case; for, while extortionists and murderers, by administering an oath, strive to bolster their criminal purposes, it is legal and proper for a king or civil authority to forbid the clipping of coins. Therefore, their oath to the burghers was valid despite their mental reservations. Moreover, when the Gentiles will learn that the Jews clipped coins despite their oath?and they are bound to discover it sooner or later?they will suspect the Jews of wilfully breaking their oath. Should the latter inform the Gentiles that they disregarded their oath because of mental reserva? tions, the consequences might be still more serious; for Gentiles will never again believe a Jew under oath. Therefore, if your authority and my authority carry enough weight, these Jews should be properly flogged. By the Statutum de Judeismo of Edward I issued in 1275, the practice of usury was forbidden. Nevertheless some Jews continued to carry on their old profession clandestinely. "Many, on the other hand, forbidden to make any profitable use of their capital in a legal fashion, endeavoured to eke a living out of it illegally by 'clipping' the coinage : that is, filing the edges and putting it back into circulation while melting the clippings into bullion."2 Mass arrests of Jews accused of this crime took place in November, 1278, and nearly 300 were hanged; Christians apprehended at the same time and indicted for the same offence seem to have escaped with lighter sentences and many were set free. It may be that, in his Responsum, R. Meir was referring to this particular incident, accounts of which he had learned from Jews who had left England when their only means of livelihood had come to an end. More probably his allusion is to the greater 1 The Hebrew passage is worded in strong language and expresses R. Meir's intense indignation. "Concerning coin-clippers ... cut their hands right off when you punish them. How much blood has been spilled on account of these debasers of the currency and their like ! It is because of them that our brethren in France and England have been destroyed, and it is to such as them that Scripture refers (Proverbs xxviii, 20), He that maketh haste to be rich shall not be unpunished." 2 Roth, op. cit.y p. 74. See also his article, The Jews in the Middle Ages in Cambridge Medieval History, vii, p. 656, and his A Short History of the Jewish People, London 1936, p. 222. See also Caro, Social-und Wirtschaftsgeschichte der Juden im Mittelalter, i, p. 51. R. Meir applies to coin clipping a technical Talmudic expression, nnntpn in mV&gt;a, which is used in connection with shaving the beard (Maccoth 21a). A Jew is permitted to shave only when a razor is not used and the roots of the hair are not destroyed. The forbidden process of shaving is derived from Leviticus xix, 27 and xxi, 5. R. Meir thus included coin clipping in the legal category of'shaving which results in destruction/ i.e. the whole system of coinage is destroyed, which description is, of course, most apt. Anticipating Sir Thomas Gresham by three centuries, R. Meir realized that coin clipping would have the effect of a destruction or a driving out of the good money by the bad.</page><page sequence="5">THE REFERENCES TO ENGLAND IN THE RESPONSA OF RABBI MEIR BEN BARUCH 77 calamity, the final expulsion which took place twelve years later. Similarly, according to Hemingford, an historian who wrote in the reign of Edward III, the banishment of the Jews in 1290 was occasioned by a complaint from the Lords in Parliament to the King, of the malice and perfidy of that people, their usury and forgeries and their corrupting of money throughout the kingdom.1 In R. Meir's view, the fitting punish? ment for the offence was a thorough flogging. The other punishment he mentions? cutting off the hand2?can hardly be taken literally as mutilation was contrary to Jewish penal practice. It is interesting to note, however, that by Anglo-Saxon laws he who counterfeited coins was to lose the hand by which the crime was committed; and later, to this punishment already sufficiently severe, loss of sight and emasculation were added.3 The tragic story of R. Meir's latter years is well known : how he was imprisoned for nearly seven years in the fortress of Ensisheim and how he died there rather than yield to the rapacious demands of his captors for a ransom which R. Meir's friends would willingly have paid. What is not so well known is the amazing similarity between R. Meir's capture and that of the English King, Richard Coeur de Lion, a century earlier. The two reasons usually given for R. Meir's imprisonment are (a) that he was the leader of a mass exodus of Jews out of Europe to Palestine and that he was imprisoned by the Government in order to put a stop to this movement which, if continued, would have materially injured the Imperial treasury; and (b) that he was seized as a hostage for a large sum of money which the Emperor Rudolph demanded from the Jewish community. But another explanation is that trespass into a foreign province was as dangerous an exploit in medieval Europe as it is to-day. The noble who captured R. Meir bears the same name and tide, and was undoubtedly a descendant of Count Mainhard of G?rz into whose hands another distinguished prisoner fell. It is related that King Richard Coeur de Lion, on his way home from his Crusade in 1192, had to make a forced landing near Zara on the coast of Dalmatia. Richard learned from the inhabitants that the most important noble in the district was a certain Count Mainhard of G?rz, a nephew of Conrad of Montferrat. Since Conrad's murder had been ascribed to Richard, the King felt he could expect no mercy if his identity were discovered. He sent a messenger to ask for safe-conduct for a party of pilgrims returning from Jerusalem. * The disguise was easily penetrated, Mainhard answering that he had 'sworn to seize all pilgrims coming from those parts and to accept no gift from them.5 This, unrelenting hostility towards pilgrims either coming from Palestine, as Richard was, or going to the Holy Land, as R. Meir intended, was the regular domestic policy of the ruling house of G?rz.4 King Richard was ransomed. Rabbi Meir 1 See Rev. Rogers Ruding, Annals of the Coinage of Great Britain and its Dependencies, 3rd edition, London, 1840, vol. i, p. 197. 2 See page 76, n. 2. 3 Ruding, op. ciu, vol. i, p. 77. 4 Many crusading pilgrims behaved criminally in the lands they passed through on their journeys to and from Palestine, e.g., Count Emico in the First Crusade; the Crusade of the Pastoureaux in 1248, etc. Mainhard and his successors, therefore, when they imprisoned those travelling through their country, were taking what they considered proper precautions. In any case, a Jewish emigrant was considered 'fair game' at all times.</page><page sequence="6">78 THE REFERENCES TO ENGLAND IN THE RESPONSA OF RABBI MEIR BEN BARUCH preferred to remain in prison rather than create a dangerous precedent by making the imprisonment of Jews an easy and lucrative source of income.1 R. Meir's death in the fortress of Ensisheim occurred three years after the expulsion of the Jews from England, but there is little doubt that he was aware of the sufferings of his English co-religionists. The following verses,2 taken from the famous dirge composed by him on an earlier tragic occasion when Hebrew books were publicly burned in Paris in 1244, must surely have comforted the unhappy refugees from the Isles of the Sea : E'en as thy Rock hath sore afflicted thee, He will assuage thy woe, Will turn again the tribes' captivity, And raise the low. 1 R. Meir's martyrdom was the literal fulfilment of the Mishnaic injunction (Gittin iv, 6). 'Captives should not be ransomed for more than their value, as a precaution for the general good.' But his captors, who could make no profit on R. Meir whilst the Rabbi was alive, did succeed in extorting money over his dead body. They were prepared to allow the body to be removed for burial by the Jewish community only on payment of a huge sum. After fourteen years, Alexander ben Solomon Wimpfen of Frankfort gave a large part of his fortune to King Albert for the body and thus at last secured decent burial for it in Worms on the 4th Adar 1307. Alexander's only stipulation was that his bones should be laid to rest near those of R. Meir. ? Translated by Nina Davis in Songs of Exile, Philadelphia, 1901, pp. 82-91.</page></plain_text>