Sunday, 20 September 2020


A Guest Post by Rabbi Boruch Clinton:

For the longest time I've struggled to understand the selichos recited in Ashkenaz shuls. I don't mean that I've struggled to translate their difficult words: that's a problem shared universally by everyone I've met and it's hardly unique to me. Rather, I mean that I've never been able to fully understand the role that certain parts of selichos are supposed to play in my teshuva efforts.

Let me be more specific. The extended passages filled with familiar verses from Tanach (like שומע תפלה ) or that closely reflect patterns already suggested by Chazal (like מי שענה, clearly based Taanis 15a) are all straightforward. Likewise, the confession ( אשמנו ). What we're supposed to draw from all those sections is pretty obvious.

The trouble begins in the paragraphs commonly known as " סליחות ." Why were so many of hem written using such obscure and difficult language? I've written a book of essays on the navi Yeshaya and given shiurim on Kinnos, so I'm certainly not unfamiliar with poetic and challenging Hebrew. But the selichos included in the Ashkenaz versions for עשרת ימי תשובה are, as the אבן עזרא famously noted in his commentary to קהלת, in an entirely different league.

Thinking about these things lead me to other questions: Who wrote those selichos? Who was their original intended audience? Who decided to include them in the order of selichos and what did the Jewish community look like at that time?

I'll note that I believe there's essentially no value whatsoever in just reading the words without any understanding. That there might be some magic powers contained in the words that invisibly shift individual and national fortunes at some cosmic level simply by being uttered - and overriding G-d's will in the process - is, in my understanding, so foreign to traditional Jewish thinking that I won't even address it here. If you're not being inspired to change by the content of what you're reading, you're not really participating.

Growing up, as they have, in a generation blessed with easily available translations and commentaries, my kids might find it hard to imagine a time when even a casual understanding of selichos was, for most people, simply impossible. But until thirty years back, that was where we all lived. So what really lies behind this minhag?

Enough generalities. I'll illustrate my point by taking a look at just a few lines from the first selicha ( אין מי יקרא בצדק ) from the first night of selichos:

אין מי יקרא בצדק

איש טוב נמשל כחדק

"There is no one who can justly call You: a good man is compared to 'chedek'."

The word חדק might be referring to a thorn (as used in מיכה ז:ד and משלי טו:יט ), in which case the gemara ( עירובין קא ) referenced by the Artscroll commentary would make some sense...except that ר' הושע בר חנניא who was, in that source, insulted with the expression, responded that it should actually be seen as a great praise. In the context of our selicha, that seems out of place.

But could the word not also be a reference to the river חדקל and, by extension, to one or more ancient Jews of Babylonia or even to אדם וחוה in גן עדן? Suddenly, even a healthy familiarity with relevant sources leads us to ambiguity and confusion. What did the original author mean? Are we supposed to make our own choices from all the possibilities? 

And how are we supposed to even think coherently about it if we're speeding through the text at upwards of 20 syllables per second (don't laugh: I've timed it).

Moving on:

בקש רחמים בעד שחוקי הדק

בשום פנים אין בדק

"Seek mercy for those ground to dust: there is nothing searched"

The word בדק is vowelled to rhyme with צדק and חדק above. But are we to parse the word literally or, as the Artscroll would seem to have it, ignore the vowel and understand it as though it was "נבדק"? Or - as a separate commentary suggests, might it be a reference to בדק הבית, implying that there's no one among us willing to stand up and support G-d's holy work (which is a much better fit with the vowellization)?

In some cases, you might argue that "either way, the general sense is clear." But I don't believe that's quite true in this instance, because neither reading feels like a good match with the actual words in their larger context. After all, it's not clear whether the איש טוב above refers to someone who is genuinely good but misunderstood, or to someone who is revealed to be undeserving. What then, should the subject of אין בדק actually be?

גבר תמים ונבר אפס

גמר חסיד וצדיק נרפס

"There is no uncorrupted or pure man: the chasid is completed and the tzadik is 'nirpas'"

It's certainly true that גמר could mean "gone" as the Artscroll has it. But I'm at a loss on נרפס, which Artscroll translates as "trampled." That would be נרמס, not נרפס. One commentary evokes the talmudic expression " מרפסן איגרא " but that would be strange in the context of the Hebrew prefix (the נ in נרפס ) it uses here.

Its use in תהלים סח:לא suggests the word here might mean "muddied" (or, perhaps, "humbled"). But if the person we're talking about is indeed a צדיק, how are we to take his apparent fall? Or could he meaning be that the people we consider צדיקים are all fakes?

At any rate, these are certainly not ideas that should be decided carelessly - and certainly not at breakneck speeds.

Was there ever a generation whose members were so well versed in the full range of Torah literature and Hebrew grammar that they could be reliably expected to come up with cogent and inspiring interpretations on the fly at each time they recited these selichos? Were these poems even intended for use in such a context?

Of course, there's nothing stopping us from properly preparing by investing many hours of serious study of all the text that's read throughout the days of selichos. We could at least work out enough possible interpretations to make a go of it. Well, there's nothing stopping us besides the fact that very few of us have enough time in our busy lives. The two to three weeks of selichos covered each year probably contain thousands of lines and countless unusual word conjugations, many of which leading to deep ambiguities of meaning. Besides, I'd suspect that relatively few individuals have the background and resources to "make a go of it."

And when all that's said and done, do we even know enough about these texts to be sure that their study all qualifies as לימוד תורה?

So who is all this really about?

Your turn, now.

Sunday, 13 September 2020



The great controversy between R. Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) and R. Yonatan Eibeschutz (1690-1764) shook the Jewish community to its core as it involved two well-known and highly respected rabbis.

R. Eibeschuetz started out as the Chief Rabbi of Metz in north-eastern France bordering on Germany, and after 1750 he assumed the position of Chief Rabbi[1] of the triple community of Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbeck. He was, arguably, one of the most powerful rabbis serving in the most prestigious communities at that time. His popularity is evidenced by the great number of his portraits, making his image the most widely disseminated Jewish icon in the eighteenth century.[2] 

The Chassidim have a tradition that seven Rebbes are referred to by the double honorific Rebbe-Reb and R. Eibeschutz was one of them, even though he wasn’t a technically a Rebbe.

This did not prevent R. Yaakov Emden from attacking Chief Rabbi Eibeschutz alleging he was a secret follower of the false Messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676). The vast networks of underground and secret followers of Shabbatai Tzvi were known as Sabbatians - and now a famous rabbi was suspected of being one of them.

At the heart of the controversy was the matter of a number of amulets, particularly for childbirth, written by R. Eibeschutz which were said to contain references to Shabbatai Tzvi and pointed to his associations with members of the Sabbbatian movement.

The stage was now set for the most aggressive and bitter rabbinical conflict to erupt in many centuries.


In this article, based extensively on the research of Professor Pawel Maciejko[3], we will deal with the question of what happened to Wolf Benjamin (1740-1806), the youngest son of R. Yonatan Eibeschutz and see whether it has any bearing on the accusations of Sabbatianism levelled against his illustrious father. 

Many Sabbattians and particularly Frankists[4] were known to have eventually converted to Christianity. Where did Wolf position himself in this regard?


Maciejko begins with an extract from R. Yaakov Emden’s writing, describing the events of one winter’s evening in the late 1750s when Wolf experienced a ‘miracle’:

“At the time of...Hanukkah Wolf pointed to eight lights against the firmament, and when Christmas Eve [leil kuti] arrived, he said: ‘Lo and behold! The entire world, even the great sages tell us to play cards[5] on this night, but we will not do so. We will be destroying his [Jesus’] kelippah[6]!’

And he went and took a violin and started to sing songs and cried a great cry. And the said Wolf told the people who were there with him to look through the window, and they saw a pillar of fire [amuda de-nura] coming from the heavens to the earth.

And he also told them: when I call you, fall on your faces, because the power of destruction is great and you might be destroyed. And there were also sounds and lightning.”[7]

According to the Zohar[8], a pillar of fire is one of the first signs that the Messiah has arrived.
Maciejko writes:

“Wolf Eibeschutz [was][9] trying to establish himself as a Sabbatian leader by demonstrating that the Shekhinah had descended upon him in the form of the pillar of fire....

Wolf Eibeschutz was one of the two most important Sabbatian leaders in mid-eighteenth century East-Central Europe. The other was Jacob Frank, who established himself as a leader of a large group of Sabbatians and convinced a significant number of Jews to convert to Christianity in Lwów in 1759.”


Interestingly, Maciejko is of the opinion that the ‘pillar of fire’ that Wolf saw may have been Halley’s Comet which appeared in 1758 on the 25 of December which also coincided with the first day of Chanukah. In fact, that year was the first time this event had been accurately predicted (by Halley) and many in Europe were filled with messianic expectations. 

The anticipated appearance of the Comet was well-known as it was publicised and written about in the non-Jewish newspapers of the day. It is possible that Wolf used his foreknowledge of this event to mislead those more gullible and less aware of current events within the community.


R. Yaakov Emden continues his account of Wolf who had suddenly become very wealthy:

“[H]e bought a large house and estate, a field and a garden full of exquisite and fine fruit trees. And he hired many painters and artisans and ordered them to rebuild the external wall from the side of the street, which was old, crooked, and crumbling. And he had it built tall and beautiful, with decorations made of precious stones and images of lion and wolf and his name gvul benyamin[10] carved upon the wall. 

Inside the garden he had a wall of glass built; all the trees and plants were eradicated, and parterres made with arrangements of coloured porcelain taken from broken china. He also had a wine cellar carved, inside of which there was a basin of water with engravings representing scales of sea creatures and conches, as it is customary among great lords. In the house he had figures of naked courtesans dancing with lovers and hunting scenes of the priests of the goddess of the ancient Greeks, Venus. 

In his room (where, as he claimed, the Shekhinah had descended on him), he hung a painting of a young man and woman embracing each other. In the garden he also placed costly sculptures of marble and alabaster, statuettes of [the Virgin] feeding the child and of other known [Christian] saints. 

And he had a great chronograph [keli shaot], which is called Wanduhr [wall clock] ... and which was decorated with the images of all the deeds of Jesus [kol ma’ase talui].”[11]

These comments by R. Emden need to be seen against the backdrop of sanctioned and even sanctified promiscuity as practised by the Sabbatians, who used and abused Lurianic Kabbalah to intentionally 'go into the sin' and become more 'elevated' as a result of mystically 'rectifying' it. This prepared the world, they claimed, for the arrival of Mashiach.


In his house, he held lavish parties and according to R. Emden, he even established a study centre headed by the Sabbatian Kabbalist R. Moshe ben David of Podhajce.[12]


Wolf was soon to lose his newly acquired wealth, and his property and possessions were auctioned off. Those who came to observe the auction discovered a Sabbatian manuscript[13] which was a type of manifesto. This seemed to corroborate his possible role as a leader of the movement and caused great embarrassment to Wolf’s father, Chief Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschutz, who had already been accused of Sabbatianism himself some nine years earlier. After being persuaded by R. Landau - the Noda beYehudahn - R. Eibeschutz sent his son away.

In 1762, Wolf left Altona in a gold-leafed carriage to the sounds of trumpets and in front of a large crowd[14].


 After reconnecting with other Sabbatians in Moravia, he ended up in Vienna where he began to associate with high society and royalty including Empress Maria Theresa. He re-established his art collection and assumed the title ‘Baron von Eibeschutz,’ as well as ‘Baron von Aldersthal.’


At around the same time, Jacob Frank - another messianic claimant and the leader of the Frankist movement - also put in a request to become part of the nobility which was made easier due to his conversion to Christianity. Many Frankists were later to convert to Christianity. As soon as they did, they donned the long colourful flowing gowns of the Polish nobility, known as zupans. Polish Jews wore black zupans.

Jacob Frank, or as he now called himself, ‘Count von Frank,’  was very conscious of his perceived rank and his clothing played a large part in the image he wanted to portray. He also rode in a carriage pulled by six horses, which was an honour reserved only for the Pope and the Emperor. He wore a ceremonial sword and was accompanied by a uniformed guard.

Frank promised his followers he would turn ‘all Israelites into knights’and give them ‘respect in the eyes of all Polish magnates.

Wolf Eybeschutz and Jacob Frank collaborated and had a lot in common. There are also accounts of rivalry between them over the leadership of  Sabbatain/Frankist movement.


Eventually, Wolf returned to Altona and faced a wall of debts from his previous escapades there. But now he claimed he could literally make his own money.

Incredulously, R. Emden describes how:

“[Wolf] tried to ward off creditors by resorting to a ‘supernatural’ means of making money. He took a bag of gold coins and had the coins smelted and the gold refined. Then he began to spread the rumour that he had mastered the science of alchemy and knew how to change copper into gold; the high quality gold in his possession was reported to have been obtained through the alchemical process of sublimation. 

Altona’s moneychangers thought they had got wind of easy money and provided Wolf with funding, hoping to receive pure gold in exchange in the future. Indeed, a few days later they were given bars of ‘gold’, which were actually bars of copper plated with a layer of gold. 

When the moneychangers realised something was wrong, they were told that the alchemical process was slow, the gold was still in almost spiritual state, and for a period of time it should be locked in a chest without being exposed to air until it fully materialised. Meanwhile, Wolf demanded more credit, and it was extended to him.”[15]


Jacob Frank also resorted to Alchemy and he set up a special laboratory at his estate for such purposes. He claimed to have invented  ‘Drops of Gold’, also known as the ‘Elixir of Life’  which he claimed could cure any ailment. 

One account records how one of his followers died from imbibing the drops. He seems to have given these ‘treatments’ to some of his needy and poorer followers.

Frank derided his allies, the Sabbatians for not engaging in the art of Alchemy which was sweeping through Europe at that time.


Maciejko writes:

“In the second half of the eighteenth century, alchemy enjoyed a special vogue and became a favourite pastime of both rich and poor. It was practiced in all European capitals and major cities. It attracted the attention of the crowned heads and the nobility, but it was also widespread among the lower strata of society. According to Georg Forster, around 1785 in Warsaw alone there were 2000 active alchemists, ‘the number simply stunning for one city, even a large one.’”

Stanislaus Augustus, the King of Poland, even wanted to replenish the coffers of his kingdom through the efforts of Alchemists.


Thus we see that Wolf Eibeschutz and Jacob Frank simply reflected the norms of the age and used it to their advantage. They were aided by the perception that they, as Maciejko puts it “were said to have mysterious connections,” or as Stefan Zweig puts it, had “the aroma of mystery.”[16]


Elisheva Carlebach[17] explains that from medieval times, the non-Jewish world had the perception of Jews being involved in secrets and mystery. This accounted for the Christian interest in Kabbalah which became very popular during the eighteenth century. We find people like Count Heinrich Bruhl who was instrumental in the development of early  Frankism, for example, who was known to have had one of the largest Kabbalistic Libraries in Europe.


To say that Sabbatian messianism was rife during that time is an understatement. To illustrate: R. Meir Eisenstadt (1670-1744) was the rabbi of Prosnitz (a town saturated by Sabbatians) and although he was from a well-known rabbinic family and he himself was regarded as a great Halachic authority, at one stage he also called himself the Messiah.

Gravestone of R. Meir  Eisenstadt (1670-1744), the teacher of R. Yonatan Eibeschutz. The headstone reads:  "Head of the Beit Din of the holy community of Ash (Eisenstadt) and surrounding areas." 
R. Eisenstadt, known as the Maharam Ash, wrote responsa literature, such as Or haGanuz on marriage, as well as Panim Meirot. He served as Rosh yeshiva in Worms, and one of his students was Wolf's father, Yonatan Eibeschutz. According to some accounts, R. Eibeschutz became R. Eisenstadt's adopted son.

Another false messiah, R. Leibelle Prossnitz (who claimed to have been instructed by the Ari) was also very close to R. Yonatan Eibeschutz.

This was the world of the eighteenth century; filled with messianism, charlatanry, alchemy, Sabbatianism and mysticism. It was not easy to tell one from the other, particularly when Sabbatians masquerade as Halachists and messiahs as Kabbalists.

If R. Yaakov Emden was right, and it is true that Chief Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschutz was involved in the mystical Sabbatian movement - then his son Wolf Benjamin Eibeschutz was just another example of the fallout that always follows when promised and immanent messianic expectations cannot be met.


[1] In some accounts, he is only considered a Dayan or Judge and not Chief Rabbi because of the cloud of Sabbatianism  hanging over him.
[2] Yivo Encyclopeadia. Eybeschütz Yonatan.
[3] Pawel Maciejko 2010. Sabbatian Charlatans: The First Jewish Cosmopolitans. Department of Jewish Thought, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
[4] Frankism was a more intense form of Sabbatianism involving the followers of another messianic claimant, Jacob Frank (1726-1791) who claimed to be the reincarnation of Shabbatai Tzvi. Frank was born 100 years after Shabbatai Tzi was born and fifty years after he died.
[5] There is a custom to play cards or chess on this evening, rather than study Torah which, it is said, will give spiritual energy to Jesus (Darchei Teshuva 147:7).
[6] Kelippah means shells or husks which represent Kabbalistic negative energies.
[7] Emden, Sefer Hitabkut, 40r-v, see also 48v.
[8] Zohar II. 7b. Sefer ha-Zohar (Zołkiew, 1756)
[9] Parenthesis mine.
[10] Gvul Benyamin was the title of Wolf’s lost book on Kabbalah. See Liebes, Hibbur, 80.
[11] Emden, Sefer Hitabkut, 19v.
[12] Emden, Megilat Sefer, 201.
[13] Sefer Hitabkut, 26r-v, 27v, 33v. See also Yehudah Liebes, Hibbur, pp.77–102.
[14] Emden, Sefer Hitabkut, 21v, 30v-31r.
[15] Emden, Sefer Hitabkut, 20r.
[16] Stefan Zweig, Casanova, pp.31-32.
[17] Elisheva Carlebach, Attributions of Secrecy and Perceptions of Jewry, 128-9.

Sunday, 6 September 2020


The Ri haZaken is well-known for his Tosafist commentary, but he was also a radically independent thinker who believed that in an age of books, the function of the rabbi is diminished. 


Around the thirteenth century, while most of Europe was becoming comfortingly institutionalised in their communal structures, a number of Tosafists were proclaiming the right to remain independent and autonymous both in their institutions and also in their thinking.

In this article, based extensively on the research of Rabbi Professor Ephraim Kanarfogel[1], we will examine the processes involved in establishing an academy in Ashkenaz (northern France and Germany) during the Tosafist period (c. 1100-1300) with an emphasis on how some rabbis were determined to remain unconstrained by the establishment.

Before we examine the protocols of opening up an academy in Tosafist Ashkenaz, let us first turn westwards and look at Spain during that same time period.


In Spain, it was the leading scholars who - in principle - were in charge of granting permission for an academy to open and operate. Once the scholars approved of the candidates to run the yeshivot, it was up to the individual communities to appoint a particular Rosh Yeshiva and pay him. In Spain, the various communities always appointed and paid the approved candidates for their institutions, whether teachers or communal rabbis.[2]

But this was not the case in northern France and Germany.


In Ashkenaz, the Tosafist academies were run independently as small and private institutions. Very often the school was in the actual home of the Rosh Yeshiva who had established it in the first place. 

As a sign of independence, it was named after the Rosh Yeshiva and not after the town or city in which it operated. But this independence came at a price – the teachers were not paid and the students received no stipends.

Kanarfogel writes:

“Unlike Spanish Jewish society, Ashkenazic Jewry believed, as a matter of religious principle, that it was inappropriate to offer any direct financial support to its scholars.”[3]

He points out that, in northern France, this was not a uniquely Jewish state of affairs  as similar practices were found in the Cathedral schools, which were also named after their teachers and not the towns. 

In both Jewish and Christian communities, the institution had no real energy of its own  - as modern universities like Harvard and Oxford, for example, do -  but the personality of the individual teacher was the only determining factor to draw the student. 

In both Jewish and Christian circles, the student referred to the teacher under whom he studied, and not the place where he studied. This is evidenced by the fact that when the teacher died or moved on, the academies simply closed down.

Then things began to change as a more top-heavy and bureaucratic system developed.

From around 1200,  Christian schools required accreditation through a licentia docendi in order to operate and some of the earlier autonomy was lost due to the institutionalisation of teaching. 

Similarly in Jewish communities, the semicha or ordination compliance was required before a school could open. Slowly the teachers lost their independence and certainly by the fifteenth century, Ashkenaz had a well established and an institutionalised structure in their Torah academies.

There is some debate as to exactly when the shift from independence to the institutionalisation of schools began in Ashkenaz, but clearly, some Tosafists were intent on perpetuating their autonomy for as long as possible.

What follows are three examples of Tosafists who held out for as long as they could, in an attempt at maintaining their independence:


In a text ascribed to the thirteenth century Tosafist brothers R. Shmuel and R. Moshe of Evreux[4], in Normandy - northern France - it is evident that academies in that region opened without permission and the teachers sometimes openly went against the rulings of their rabbis.


The Tosafist brothers of Evreux wrote that it was no longer necessary for students to uphold the views of their teachers. This was because teachers were no longer the only source of the law. They now lived in an era where books and texts abounded and were thus not beholden to their rabbis as the sole purveyors of Torah knowledge:

“For the Talmudic texts, the commentaries, the novellae, the [halakhic] compositions, they are the teachers of men. And all [is determined] by one’s perspicacity [discernment].

Thus, it was usual in their locale (be-‘iram) that a student opened his own study hall...without concern for [the Talmudic dictum that] ‘one who decides a matter of law in his teacher’s presence is punishable by death’.

Similarly, the student, by means of superior reasoning, could contradict his teacher[‘s ruling].”[5]

Kanarfogel explains this interesting Tosafist text as follows:

“The brothers maintained that due to the vicissitudes of time, written sources had replaced human instructors as the most effective teachers. As such, there was no longer a concept of rabbo muvhhaq (one’s major teacher) for whom deep respect or honour had to be shown....

A student was no longer required to seek his teacher’s approval in order to decide matters of law in his presence or to open an academy in his town.”

This position, taken by the brothers of Evreux, must have been regarded as a revolutionary stance against the establishment who wanted a more streamlined and hierarchical institutionalised pedagogic structure.

It appears as if other students in the region of Evreux also freely opened up academies without going through the ‘correct’ channels and some had been doing so in other locations for some time as well.


This sense of freedom that was in the air during the early Tosafist period may have been the backdrop to the incident relating to R. Meshullam of Melun (b.c. 1120). He got embroiled in an argument with Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171) the most renowned of the Tosafists, who accused him of slighting his grandfather, of leniency in the halacha and even of tampering with Talmudic texts![6]

Kanarfogel suggests that R. Meshulam and his colleagues: “had set out on their own without formal recognition,” and opened up their own academies.

Rabbeinu Tam’s response to R. Meshullam and his colleagues was:

“I have also told the rabbis face to face, that there are those among them about whom it would be proper to decree that they should not be able to maintain an academy.”[7]

Thus, Rabbeinu Tam, representing the ‘official’ Tosafist stance, censures R. Meshullam of Melun for not respecting the office of authority and he is not happy with those of R. Meshullam’s ilk operating independent yeshivot in the region.

But Rabbeinu Tam had met his match. R. Meshullam responded in kind (although more gently) accusing Rabbeinu Tam of similar things. He also had access to other texts which may not have been known to Rabbeinu Tam.

R. Meshullam was one the Tosafists who held on to the notion of absolute independence in Torah thought without interference by the establishment[8].


Kanarfogel explains that:

“[T]he practice of allowing students to open academies without authorization was indeed prevalent in northern France well before the brothers of Evreux.”

His support for this notion comes from the fourteenth century Semak miZurich[9], who quotes R. Yitzchak ben Shmuel of Dampierre, known as  Ri haZaken (d. c. 1185), as saying something very similar to the brothers of Evreux.
[Note: R. Yitzchak ben Shmuel of Dampierre,  was called Ri (RYitzchak) haZaken (the Elder) to differentiate between him and RYitzchak ben Avrahan haBachur (the Younger), also known as Riba or Ritzba.]

According to the Ri haZaken:

“[The Talmudic teaching that a student may not decide matters of law within three parsangs of his teacher, only applies] in the period of the Tannaim and Amoraim who derived...their rulings from a depth of analysis and from [great] knowledge....

However, now[10] that the legal rulings and decisions...are in written form, and everyone can look into legal rulings [and books] and render a decision, a rabbi does not retain as much honour as in those days. [Therefore a student may rule] if he is not right in front of him.”

This is an astounding text, especially from someone like the Ri haZaken, who was so intrinsically connected to the Tosafist establishment. He was the nephew and student of Rabbeinu Tam, his father was the son of R. Simcha ben Shmuel, a student of Rashi and the author of Machzor Vitry, and his wife was the daughter of a great-grandson of Rashi. And Ri haZaken is mentioned on almost every printed page of Tosafist commentary on the Talmud.

Thus already as early as the twelfth century, there were Tosafists who held fast to what must have been considered a radical departure, not just from Tosafist norms, but even from some Talmudic standards.


According to these radically independent Tosafists, the notion of being a talmid muvhak or having a Rav muvhak (consulting only with one’s primary teacher and not relying on other rabbis, never mind books) was now being challenged because the teacher could be replaced by books and self-learning. 

These Tosafists’ views were never to become mainstream as even to this day the notion of one’s authoritative rabbi remains very strong.

However, one cannot begin to imagine what R. Shmuel and his brother R. Moshe of Evreux, R. Meshullam of Melun and his colleagues, and R. Yitzchak of Dampierre, would have said had they lived - not just in an age of books – but today, in the age of the internet where we now have access to texts that people living in those times would never have even seen or known about.

[For more on the radical and independent stance of Ri haZaken, see The Changing Status of the Convert in Tosafist Literature.]

[1] Kanarfogel, E. Rabbinic Authority and the Right to Open an Academy in Medieval Ashkenaz. Kanarfogel’s emphasis is primarily on the mechanisms by which the new academies were opened during the Tosafist period. I have extracted, and focused on, the common trend of independence found within some of these Tosafists who went against the establishment because they were now in an age of many books, which had replaced the teacher and which had become the new ‘teachers of men’.
[2] Neuman, A.A 1942. The Jews in Spain. Philadelphia 2,  86-91.
[3] Kanarfogel, E. Compensation for the Study of Torah in Medieval Rabbinic Thought.
[5] Elon, M 1987. The Law, Books, and Libraries, National Jewish Law Review 2, 16-18.
[6] Sefer ha-Yashar le-Rabbenu Tam, Responsa vol. ed. by F. Rosenthal (1898), nos. 43–50.
[7] Ibid. p. 105.
[8] R. Meshullam’ son, Natan and their descendants - known by their family name ‘Official’ - are also referred to as the zealots, or mekanne’im as they were experts at polemics, or religious debates,  with church leaders. See Israel Moses Ta-Shema, Encyclopaedia Judaica.
[9] Not to be confused with R. Yitzchak of Corbeil (d. 1280), author of Sefer Mitzvot Katan.
[10] This may have some bearing on the notion of when the Talmud was written down in its final form. See Everyone Knows When the Talmud was Written Down.