Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

27 Tammuz 5765 - August 3, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Untouched By Human Hand — The Discovery of the Resting Places of Rashi and the Baalei Hatosafos

by Rabbi Y. Friedman

Part Two: Worms and Mayence, Torah Centers of the Rishonim

At the Graveside of the Baal Shem

The morning after our night on German soil we visited the grave of HaRav Yitzchok Aryeh, known as Rav Seckel Loeb the Baal Shem of Michelstadt zt'l, the well-known gaon and tzaddik whose miraculous assistance to those who turned to him was legendary. Both the Chasam Sofer and the Chiddushei HaRim asked that Baal Shem to pray on their behalf. A list of petitioners from a hundred towns all over Europe appears among the notebooks that the Baal Shem left. (Some say the famous picture often identified as the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidus, is really him.)

There were only twenty Jewish families in Michelstadt but scores of bochurim learned in the Baal Shem's yeshiva. The yeshiva's principal means of support were the donations sent by beneficiaries of his prayers, for when "the tzaddik decrees, Hakodosh Boruch Hu fulfills."

"Across from the Schwim-Bad (baths)" were the directions to the Baal Shem's grave that we received from the locals. Unless you know the town well though, it is easy to get lost. There are a few steps, an iron gate, then one turns left and follows the path that runs along the fence. A green tarpaulin acts as a partition separating the site of the grave from the neighboring country club.

The Baal Shem's is the only gravestone that remains intact. A lone candle was already alight, despite the early hour. Someone had been here before us. We spent long minutes in prayer and mentioned the names on the lists that we'd brought from Eretz Yisroel, in hope and prayer that the Baal Shem's merit stand us all in good stead.

Europe's Oldest Jewish Cemetery

After an hour's drive Rav Gabbai stopped the car at the gate of the city of Worms. Time has come to a standstill here too. A massive thousand-year-old fortress stands in the center of the bridge that spans the Rhine. The river's waters are green today. The blood that once tinted them red has long since been washed away. Only the spirits of the Crusaders' Jewish victims still hover.

Two pointed turrets rise on either side of the fortress. An old clock on the facade still ticks, sounding like a beating heart. Just the thought of this being Rashi's hometown is breathtaking. A short distance away is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. Stepping through its iron gate, one encounters another age . . .

The decorative molding on the stone at the entrance was donated by David Oppenheimer in 1625. This cemetery is close to 929 years old — the earliest date on a gravestone is 4837 (1077), the year that Yaakov habochur was buried here. The ravages of nine centuries have not managed to obliterate his gravestone.

Walking along the path, we encounter an unusual commotion. There are cameras, uniformed men and the heads of the Mayence- Magence community which owns the cemetery. A German Cabinet minister is expected shortly for some official ceremony. Despite our curiosity, we hasten our pace and try not to tarry. We still want to visit the graves of the holy souls buried here before its tranquility is shattered by the artificiality of the imminent event.

There are almost no Jews in Worms. For any that remain, their town's glorious Jewish past is of mere historical — if any — interest, holding no relevance for them. By contrast, our interest lies in our nation's heart and soul that has remained bound to this place for centuries.

To the left of the gateway stand two low gravestones that are crammed with engraved inscriptions. Piles of notes lie on the stone, a sure sign that there were many visitors. These are the graves of the Maharam of Rotenburg, Rabbi Meir ben Boruch and Rabbi Alexander Ziskind Wipman of Frankfurt, who redeemed the Maharam's remains after his death in captivity, so that they could be interred here.

The Imprisoned Godol

The Maharam of Rotenburg was a talmid of the Or Zoru'a, the Baal Harokeach and Rabbi Yehuda Hechossid zt'l. He even traveled far afield in order to learn Torah from Rav Yechiel of Paris, who was one of the Baalei Hatosafos. At that time, the king decreed that the Jewish nation's spiritual treasures be burnt. This was a consequence of slander of Nicholas Donin, an apostate who compelled the Jewish sages to engage in an "objective" debate with himself and a group of his colleagues.

The Maharam was present when twenty-four wagons filled with volumes of the Talmud and other holy seforim were brought to the pyre in the heart of Paris. To commemorate that heartbreaking occasion he wrote the tragic eulogy Sha'ali serufah bo'eish . . . that shocks us every year on Tisha B'Av.

On his return as a leading Torah scholar to Germany, the Maharam served as rov of Rotenburg and swiftly became a widely-acknowledged halachic authority. Life then grew difficult for the Jews of Europe as King Rudolph began to impose burdens on them. First they were required to pay heavy taxes; later he sought to turn all his Jewish subjects into his slaves.

The Jews began to flee the country. The Maharam too, packed his belongings and left for Lombardy but because he was so well known it was difficult for him to avoid detection. On his way he was identified by the apostate Bishop Albert Knieppe and his comrade the Cardinal of Basel. He was caught and brought before the emperor. He was imprisoned in the fortress of Ansheim in Alscace for the crimes of escaping and organizing a mass flight of the Jews. The emperor thought that the Maharam was worth a huge sum in ransom and he began to make exorbitant demands for his release.

The German Jews began to gather the money, but the Maharam himself was adamantly opposed to the idea, citing the halochoh, "It is forbidden to redeem captives for more than their worth" ( Gittin 45). He pointed out that setting a precedent in his case would endanger all Torah sages, who would become instruments of kidnapping and extortion.

His disciples were allowed to see him and he was able to continue disseminating Torah while in captivity. For seven years he led a rich and productive spiritual life while confined to his cell. Deprived of seforim, he found responding to queries difficult and his loneliness weighed heavily on him. He would sign his teshuvos with the words, "the dweller in darkness and death's shadow, the pauper forgotten by everything good and trodden underfoot." After years of suffering the Maharam died in captivity.

Even after his death, the authorities refused to release his body for burial. Rabbi Alexander Ziskind ben Shlomo was unable to bear the famed Torah leader's ignominy and he took matters into his own hands, paying his entire fortune — a fantastic sum — for the Maharam's remains, which were then brought to Worms and buried with great honor.

That night the Maharam appeared to his redeemer in a dream and told him, "You can merit wealth and longevity for yourself and your descendants for all time, or you can choose to die immediately and receive reward in Olom Habo!"

Rav Alexander Ziskind chose the second option and events moved swiftly. He fell ill and died directly. Immediately following his petiroh he appeared to the rov of the town in a dream and requested that he be buried near the Maharam.

On his old, worn gravestone near the Maharam's grave is engraved, "Hashem brought [the opportunity of doing] a great mitzvah to him, redeeming our teacher from the place he was imprisoned for years after his death, until the generous . . . and redeemed him and merited being buried on his right. May he be put at his side in the Garden . . . with the world's righteous souls . . ."

There is a sparkle in Rav Gabbai's eyes as he leans towards the inscription on the stone. He scans the words fondly until his eyes close and he begins singing chapters of Tehillim, the melody echoing among the trees and greenery.

Over a thousand gravestones are preserved here and there is a profusion of growth in the wide spaces between them. The cathedral's steeples mar the view, overlooking the scene like two malevolent watchmen, the windows in their stone walls like a pair of harsh eyes. The marauders might have looked from those windows before they set out on their path of murder and mayhem, laying waste the glorious kehillos of Speyer, Worms and Mayence.

"In his tremendous mercy may [our] merciful Father . . . recall in mercy the holy kehillos that gave up their lives in sanctification of [His] Name . . ." (from the Shabbos prayer Av Horachamim, written in memory of the communities that were wiped out during the Crusades).

A Leader in Troubled Times

Deep in thought, we continue making our way along the path as it winds its way over the hill towards the wall and the Valley of the Rabbonim, passing the newer area of the cemetery. Here the inscriptions on the stones are in German, giving a feel of the community's spiritual disintegration as assimilation eroded a magnificent heritage. There are virtually no Jews here any more and virtually no Yiddishkeit, just an echo, in these graves and gravestones, of a glorious past.

"These gravestones point south, not towards Yerushalayim," Rav Gabbai observes, yet with all his knowledge and expertise he has no explanation as to why this should be.

The gravestones in the rabbinical section are low; some are overgrown. Most of them are arched, like the gate, except for that of the Maharil, whose upper section is broken, either from old age or vandalism. Notes bearing names have been placed on the grave, secured by stones to prevent them from blowing away. The whiteness of the papers contrasts sharply with the green of the undergrowth.

The Maharil's gravestone which, unlike the others in its vicinity, points towards Yerushalayim, describes him as having been, "a limed pit that doesn't lose anything, a tzaddik and chossid, learning and teaching precious words . . . the godol hador, our master and teacher Yaakov ben Morenu Horav Moshe Segal zt'l."

He was born in the neighboring town of Mayence-Magence, where he returned towards the end of his life to serve as rov. His important teshuvos and rulings are among the underpinnings of the rulings of the Shulchan Oruch and the Ramo. He led his brethren during the harsh troubles of the Crusades. In his lifetime the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells, which was ample justification for the gentiles to attack them. Many of his teshuvos deal with questions involving orphans, widows, agunos and mourning — matters that were, sadly, frequently relevant in those times of trouble. The Maharil's broken gravestone stands out among all the other whole ones like a jagged tooth.

Rav Gabbai fervently wishes that he could renovate the Maharil's grave but there is simply no one here with whom to liaise. Worms today is an abandoned stop on the route of a nation that once sojourned there, but has long since moved on.

The grave of Rav Yair Chaim Bachrach zt'l, author of Shut Chavos Yo'ir is close to that of the Maharil. His father was Chief Rabbi of Worms and, after serving as rov in several other towns, the Chavos Yo'ir returned to Worms to live near his father. When the town was overrun he fled to Frankfurt, where he was eventually appointed rov. Nearby is the grave of HaRav Eliyahu Luantz zt'l, the Baal Shem of Worms.

The sun filters through the canopy of leaves overhead, dappling it in light and shade. We also sense the interplay of light and darkness here as we witness the remains of a rich past that has no future and the present that has slipped away from the moorings of the past. Our next stop is Rashi's beis haknesses, which is in the heart of the town.

Remembered to This Day

Towns that have character do not give themselves away easily to the visitor. One has to invest time and effort in order to get to know and understand them. Yet here, at the mere mention of the words "the Rashi Synagogue," every resident of Worms is ready to offer directions.

We received clear instructions as to where to go but the roads and the signposts are confusing. There is evidence of Worms' ancient past in every street. The remnants of ancient city walls run across the streets like veins and sinews. At the entrance to the Jewish area, where we park the car, there is a large gate in the wall.

A sign identifies the site as Rashi Tor. This was where the incident described in the sefer Shalsheles Hakabboloh, written by Gedalyoh Ibn Yichye (who was expelled from Spain and a contemporary of the author of Emek Habochoh) took place. The sefer was published in Venice in 5347 (1587) and was written by R' Gedalyoh as a bar mitzvah present for his son. It was a continuation of the Ravad's historical work Sefer Hakabboloh, which surveys the generations until the time of the RY Migash. R' Gedalyoh's account covers the subsequent generations until his own day, a period of roughly 470 years.

Here is the story as R' Gedalyoh tells it. "The army of the French Crusaders was led by Duke Gottfried Bowen. Before he set out on his journey to recapture Jerusalem, he wanted to hear the opinions of the Jewish scholars. He arrived at Rashi's home and found him sitting in a house filled with seforim. When Rashi heard what the Duke wanted, he refused to answer.

"[The Duke assured him,] `I promise by my own head that you will come to no harm. I have seen [evidence of] your wisdom and want you to advise me as to what great deed I should do.' He described his mighty army, with whose help he wanted to conquer Jerusalem. `Tell me your opinion and don't be afraid.'

"Rashi replied, `You will capture Jerusalem and rule over it for three days. Then the Ishmaelites will drive you out and you will return with just three horses.'

"He became hostile and angry. `You might be right, but if I come back with four horses I will feed your flesh to the dogs and kill all the Jews in France!' "

Four years passed and after conquering Jerusalem and ruling it for three days, Gottfried returned with four (!) horses. Exhausted and beaten, aching and bruised, he made his way home in disgrace. As he entered the city gateway a stone from the wall fell, killing one of his horsemen and his mount. He was left with only three horses to accompany him as he dragged himself into the town with his remaining strength. A metal sign affixed to the wall by the municipality identifies the site as Rashi Tor (Rashi's Gate), perpetuating the memory of the incident.

Crossing at the gate to the Judengasse (Street of the Jews), we were catapulted ten centuries back in time. Ancient stones pave the entire area and no cars are allowed to drive there, though it would have been hard for them anyway.

On the left is a narrow alley leading to the city's archives and museum. It is a very narrow passage that could hardly fit a horse and cart, let alone a more luxurious carriage of the type the nobility rode. The wall we walk along is built of small red stones. At one point there is a sudden deep indentation, for no apparent reason. This is the outer wall of the mizrach side of the Rashi Synagogue and as such one would expect to find a protrusion for the aron hakodesh, not an indentation. There is a story behind the strange shape of the wall.

According to tradition, Rashi's parents lived in Worms. His righteous mother would go the beis haknesses every day to pray. This aroused the ire of the local bishop and one day, while she was walking to the beis haknesses he tried to run her over. The child she was expecting at the time would grow up to illumine the eyes of his people with his Torah.

The alley is very narrow and Rashi's mother was a step away from death when the horseman tried to trample her. In her fright she squeezed herself against the wall and a miracle took place — a deep indentation formed in the wall where she could shelter, saving her life and the life of her unborn child. Rashi's parents subsequently left Worms and moved to Troyes, where Rashi was born.

This story is passed down from one generation to the next, from father to son and from rebbe to talmid. Is this the place where it happened?

An Unforgettable Moment

We continue, arriving at the other side of the building and the entrance of the Rashi Synagogue. The arches inside give the beis haknesses grace and beauty. It was built years after Rashi's petiroh, in his name and in his memory. It is an old building, whose stones, in varying shades of brown, convey a sense of history. The roof is triangular and very high, to prevent snow from piling up and endangering its stability.

A small, round chamber adjoins the building of the beis haknesses; its domed roof is also tall and sloping. This is where Rashi sat, learning and writing. The place has many visitors, who look on it as an historical site, divesting it of its ancient and eternal holiness. A chandelier holding oil lamps hangs from the high ceiling. The low arches seem to bear down with a precious load. The windows with their decorative glass filter the daylight through, bathing the interior in warm colors.

A long, very ancient-looking table runs the length of the room. A dignified-looking stone chair, with a step leading up to it, is built into the wall. According to tradition, this is the very seat on which Rashi sat while he taught. There is something very uplifting in the atmosphere. We sat down across from each other, on opposite sides of the table and, opening the gemoras that we've brought, we began to learn gemora and Rashi together. Could it be that the words we're learning were written in this room? Why do my eyes feel moist? Why are there tears running down my cheeks?

Because we have lost track of the time, we have to forgo our visit to Speyer where, save for an ancient mikveh, nothing whatsoever remains. We remain deeply immersed in maseches Shabbos for a long time, as though nothing and nobody existed. Even after we finish, we still feel bound to the wooden seats.

Hesitantly, I bury my face in my hands, immersed in thought. After a few moments a quiet, unobtrusive tune is heard in the room. The singing slowly grows stronger, its delicate strains gather strength. It is not a lusty song of joy but a deeply moving song of the heart like the cooing of a dove that has taken flight, full of yearning and longing. An outsider might find it hard to understand but those moments, when past and present came together, will remain seared into our memories forever. For a short time Rashi's Worms became ours as well.

Before we leave, we descend some steep stairs, with a stone parapet on the right and a profusion of overhanging greenery. This is the old Rashi mikveh. Tens of steep steps lead down to the water. The varying hues of the stones in the wall indicate that the water level changes. We discover that waters fall and rise according to the height of the waters of the Rhine, which supplies the mikveh. Here, far below ground level, the water remains freezing cold even on a hot day.

Much here has been preserved, the streets, the alleyways and the walls. Even what was destroyed has been reconstructed. The backdrop retains its original appearance but the focus is no longer here. Rashi was once here. He passed away in Troyes and can now be found in the pages of the gemora and in our hearts.

Rashi's Teachers

It is only an hour's drive from Worms to its sister town of Mayence (Mainz). Time is short and we have much to accomplish. We have to enter the teeming city in order to find the cemetery, whose entrance is not easily accessible though its outer walls run along the main thoroughfare. We have to take a very circuitous route, which is a sure recipe for losing our way.

Mainz is a scowling, unlovely city. We find the cemetery gate locked. The key is only available at the kehilloh building which is quite a distance away. A neighbor — by appearances a Turkish immigrant — brings us a low wooden platform that helps us in climbing over the gate.

The cemetery is on a hillside. Its upper level is the more ancient. A wall runs across it, dividing the "ancient" part from the merely "old." On the other side of the wall, Rav Meir Lehmann zt'l is buried. He battled Reform and used his gifted pen to draw the hearts of a generation away from foreign ideas and bind them to their own heritage with his historical novels and other writing.

We are looking for the grave of Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar zt'l, Rashi's principal teacher. Here too, there is a profusion of greenery, a sign of neglect. The ancient, hand- engraved stones are crumbling, due to the ravages of time. Many of them lie buried beneath earth that has shifted down the slope. There are many empty spaces. Who knows who is buried beneath the grass that overgrows them? On three separate occasions in the course of the centuries, the cemetery was ransacked by hostile elements.

As we make our way down the slope, Rav Gabbai stops me. He suddenly bends down to a very low stone, around which the metal containers of candles are scattered. "A hewn stone in memory of Rav Gershon ben Meir," read the ancient letters. With a tender, trembling touch and endless patience he tries to clear out the hollows of the letters. This is the grave of Rabbenu Gershom Meor Hagolah zt'l, who was the teacher of several of Rashi's rebbes, among them Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar who is buried nearby.

Further down the hill, a short distance from the wall, Rav Gabbai points out three old gravestones. Part of the stone is black and looks scorched. Moss grows on the other sides. The stones are square; next to them is a fourth stone that is collapsing. "The grave of Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar who was niftar to Gan Eden in 4824 [1064] . . . May his soul rest in Gan Eden." Fallen leaves cover the immediate area. Underneath them the ground seems to be waterlogged.

"I heard from his holy lips," writes Rashi referring to Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar (in Teshuvos siman 65). In bemoaning not having asked his teacher (who died when Rashi was twenty- four years old) about a certain point, Rashi writes, "I did not merit asking Rabbenu Yaakov about this" (Beitzoh 24). Many of Rabbi Yaakov's teshuvos are brought in Rashi's Sefer Hapardes. "His gravestone was only discovered seventy years ago," Rav Gabbai tells me.

The grave of Rabbenu Meshulam ben Rabbenu Rabbi Klonimus zt'l one of the greatest Torah sages of his generation to whom questions were directed from all over, is very close by. He wrote several of the piyutim that have become part of our prayers on Yom Kippur. After the well-known fearsome incident, Rabbi Amnon of Magence appeared to Rabbi Meshulam's son Rabbi Klonimus in a dream and taught him the prayer Unesaneh tokef . . .

The cemetery is quiet and still as twilight approaches. We set out on our long journey to Paris, from where we plan to leave for Troyes the following morning (as described in the previous article). Rav Gabbai checks the pictures he has taken on his digital camera and makes notes for his future work — what needs doing, who to write to, who to speak to . . .

This trip is one further step in the task to which he has devoted himself. His entire life centers around the renovation of the graves of gedolim of the past. There are few like him who just give of themselves, all the time. The longer one is involved in the activities of someone of this caliber, the more one absorbs of their drive and the light that shines in their souls and the harder it is to evade the unspoken question, "What about me?"

In Conclusion

Nine hundred years have now passed since Rashi's petiroh. "But don't forget," Rav Gabbai reminds me, "it's nine hundred years since he's been there but also nine hundred years that he's been living on here," and he points to his lips, his temple and over his heart. "If you want to write about Rashi write about the gemora scholars, about those who study in the botei medrash and about the yeshivos."

The merit of past gedolim never fades. Very few of the people who lived in past generations have left behind any lasting impression. Jewish spiritual giants are different. Water flowing in a stream smooths the banks and makes them steadier and more permanent. In nine hundred years Rashi's teachings have been studied, scrutinized and pored over by all, from the greatest of the great to the most ordinary and unassuming and in the process they have become elucidated and disseminated to an incredible and unparalleled extent.

"[Even] in their deaths, tzaddikim are [still] called living." Truly, Rashi lives on, in our own and in every single generation that has passed since he lived.

Klal Yisroel's Teacher — Nine Hundred Years Since Rashi's Petiroh

by B. Re'em

Rashi was born in 4800 (1040), the year that Rabbenu Gershom Meor Hagolah was niftar (ShuT Maharshal, siman 29) and he lived for sixty-five years. His mother was from a distinguished family of noble lineage. In maseches Shabbos (85) Rashi mentions, "I found support for my opinion in the writings of Rabbenu Shimon the elder, my mother's brother, in the name of Rabbenu Gershom Meor Hagolah."

Some say that this was Rabbi Shimon the paytan, father of "Elchonon the Pope," who is the subject of the piyut "Keil chanan nachaloso" for the second day of Rash Hashonoh. Rashi had a brother who is mentioned by the Or Zorua (cheilek I, siman 692): "and we released the wife of the brother of Rabbenu Shlomo z'l."

Rashi spent his childhood in Troyes. His first teacher was his father Rabbi Yitzchok and he also learned with his uncle, the aforementioned Rabbi Shimon. He also studied in Germany, where he learned from the "Scholars of Lothar": "And I heard from my teachers and have labored since my youth to reconcile it with all aspects of the Talmud's approach according to their view and I have been unsuccessful" (Succah 40, beg. Hachi garsinan).

He had three daughters, about two of whom we possess information. One married Rabbi Meir ben Shmuel, father of the RaShBaM, Rabbenu Tam and the RYVaM and father-in-law of Rabbi Shmuel ben Simchah, author of Machzor Vitry. Rashi's second daughter married the RYVaN, who was Rashi's principal disciple.

In Magence, Rashi learned from Rabbi Yaakov bar Yakar and later in Worms from R"Y Halevi. After spending ten years away learning, he returned to Troyes but maintained close connections with his teachers, as he writes, "This is how I understood it on my own and it appears correct but I have not heard it explained thus. Later I found an old manuscript that had been corrected, where it was written this way and I let my teachers know and they approved (Arachin 12, beg. Tzei).

He established his yeshiva, Yeshivas Gaon Yaakov, in Troyes and thousands of talmidim flocked to study under him. The Crusades began during his lifetime, in 4856 (1096), and he bitterly lamented the tragedies that they brought. He wrote several piyutim, some of which are said in the selichos for erev Rosh Hashonoh, for example, Hashem . . . noro bo'elyonim.

He grew weaker in his last years and wrote his commentary to Makkos with his remaining strength. On reaching the word tahor on daf 19, his soul departed his body, on Yom Chamishi, the twenty-ninth of Tammuz 4865 (1105). On Makkos 19 we find, "Rashi's body was pure and his soul departed in purity. From here onwards is the commentary of his disciple R"Y bar Nosson," who, as mentioned, was his son-in-law.

In a manuscript of Rashi's commentary to the Chumash the following is written. "Here was interred the Aron Hakodesh, the holy of holies, the great teacher Rabbi Shlomo zt'l, son of the holy Rabbi Yitzchok, of France, who was taken from us on the twenty-ninth of Tammuz [4]865. He was sixty- five years old when he was summoned to the Heavenly Academy, leaving behind his spiritual heritage and his talmidim.

Rashi had many talmidim. Among them were his son-in- law RYVaN, Rabbi Yosef Tov-Ellem, Rabbi Yosef Kara, RYVA, Rabbi Moshe ben Mochir, RaShBaM, Rabbi Simchah of Vitry and others.

To this day, nine centuries later, Rashi remains the Teacher of Klal Yisroel in the fullest sense of the term.


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