Sunday 10 June 2018


A typical page of Talmud with Rashi toward the centre (in this case on the right) and Tosafot towards the outside (in this case on the left).


We often form various perceptions around the personalities of rabbinic sages and, in a sense, put them into conceptual boxes – as if they are individuals who are easy to define.
Sometimes the personalities are indeed easy to categorise – but that is not always the case.

One fascinating group of prolific rabbinic writers who appear to have been easily categorised as sober and scholarly legal commentators, are the Ba’alei haTosafot, or Tosafists - but, as we shall see, they are more complex than commonly imagined:


The Tosafist period - spawned by Rashi (1040-1105) - lasted about two hundred years, encompassing the 12th and 13th centuries, and ending with R. Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293). The term Tosafists generally refers to the rabbis of the early period of the Rishonim (1038-1500) who lived specifically in Ashkenaz (Northern France and Germany).

The Ba’ale haTosafot are regarded and respected as expert Talmudic commentators and great legal decisors. Anyone who has ever studied Gemara would know that ‘Tosafot’ is more challenging than any other section of the Talmud.

Incidentally, the term ‘Tosafot’ is a misnomer because there was not a person by the name of ‘Tosafot’ – as there was a ‘Rashi’ – rather it refers to the many Franco-German rabbis of that two hundred year period who fell under the umbrella of the ‘Ba’alei haTosafot’.

They are known primarily for their scholarly legal glosses and addenda to Rashi and to general Talmudic teachings – and form the basis of much of the responsa literature which went on to inform the various legal codes.

However as Rabbi Professor Ephraim Kanarfogel explains, we only know part of their story from their published and printed works – yet their unpublished manuscripts reveal so much more about who they actually were, and these unpublished manuscripts - some only recently discovered –reveal a very different side to their authors from the way they are commonly perceived.

Professor Kanarfogel is a specialist in the period of the Tosafists and particularly in their unpublished manuscripts.
This article is an adaptation of one of his lectures[1] in which he shares some hitherto unknown ideas found in some of these unpublished manuscripts.

Before we look at the Tosafist manuscripts, though, we will glimpse at two other writers of the same early Rishonim period, who were Sefaradim (and technically not Tosafists) whose multifaceted works are well-known:


RAMBAM (1135-1204):

Maimonides, born in the south of Spain, is best-known for the legal writings of his Mishneh Torah. But he is also equally known for his philosophical writings such as the Guide for the Perplexed. It was only because both works were published and widely distributed that we know of the duality of his interests - which were so poles apart that some even suggest that the same person could not have written both books.

And those weren’t the only works he authored as we know he also wrote on science, medicine and astronomy.

RAMBAN (1194-1270):

In a similar sense, Ramban, born in the north of Spain, is best-known not only as a legal decisor, but also  as a great expounder of Jewish mysticism, as can be seen from his introduction to his published commentary to the Torah where he says that he writes about the ‘secrets of the Torah’.

In both abovementioned examples, Rambam and Ramban were expert interpreters of Talmud and masters of Halacha - yet each, additionally, pursued profoundly different intellectual interests: Rambam wrote on philosophy and Ramban on Kabbalah. We know this only because their secondary writings were published and thus popularised.

Imagine if all of those non-legal texts had not been published – we would never have been able to fully comprehend the complexity and composite of their personalities.
However, this was not always the case with the Tosafists - the Ashkenazi (or Franco-German) rabbis of that same period - who were not all so fortunate as to have all their non-legal writings published.


Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam stated that while his grandfather, Rashi, was able to comment on both Talmud and Tanach - the Tosafists had to content with just Talmud as they were nowhere near the level of the previous generation.

This was taken at face value until very recently when documents were discovered revealing that Rabbeinu Tam did indeed compose some Biblical commentary, namely to the Book of Iyov and also to the Book of Ester.
Thus, recent evidence shows that Rabbeinu Tam was indeed active in Biblical commentary and not just Talmud[2]

Something else that is not widely known about Rabbeinu Tam is his writing of Piyyutim or liturgical prayers, such as Yetiv Pitgam, which is recited on Shavuot.


Yom Tov ben Yitzchak of Juani, a student of Rabbeinu Tam, also wrote Piyyutim. Additionally, he composed about one hundred interpretations to verses in the Torah. His style, being simple and precise, is similar to that of Rashi. A small number of these commentaries have been published, but Professor Kanarfogel discovered many more in manuscript form - and unpublished - in various libraries in London, Germany and Russia.

One such interpretation which was hitherto unknown is to a verse in Shemot where Moshe asks to see G-d’s glory. The Torah responds, rather abruptly by saying that; “No man can see Me and live.” R. Yom Tov explains this terse verse in a softer manner: G-d is so magnificently lofty that were one to perceive Him, one would no longer want to live down here on this earth. Moshe still had much work to accomplish in the earthly realm, that had he seen ‘G-d’s glory’ he would not have wanted to continue with his worldly mission.

Professor Kanarfogel has found that there were about six Tosafists who offered such interpretations to the verses of the Torah – which shows that a significant component of Torah interpretation would have been lost to us were it not for these hidden manuscripts.


Moshe ben Ya’akov of Coucy (also known as Moshe Mikotzi) was the author of one of the earliest codifications of Halacha, known as Semag or Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (which was largely influenced by Rambam’s rulings).

He was an interesting personality, known as a darshan, because he delivered fiery speeches to wide audiences and particularly encouraged them to observe tefillin, mezuzah and tzitzit. He also strongly advocated that Jews be more ethical to their gentile neighbours both personally and in terms of business. 

He also participated in the Disputation on the Talmud which took place in Paris in 1240.
Although a Halachist, he too wrote a commentary to the Torah which can be found sporadically in some published works. 

One of his less known very pragmatic interpretations is when Leah gives birth to her third son from Ya’akov and she calls him Levi because: ‘Now my husband will accompany (yelaveh) me.’
R. Moshe Mikotzi simply and sensibly explains that Leah happily recorded that now her husband would help with the child rearing as she, the maidservant and her husband would - all three together - be able to take care of all three children. Her husband was thus forced to ‘accompany’ her and to get involved in domestic affairs.


Besides writing liturgical prayers and commentating on the Tanach, what is most surprising is that many Ba’alei haTosafot got involved in a form of mysticism which Professor Kanarfogel refers to as ‘white magic’.

As a stated principal, legal decisors do not normally allow any form of mysticism to influence or have any bearing on legal rulings. The two disciplines are theoretically to be kept distinct from one another.

The Noda biYehuda[3] writes; “We do not rule Halacha from the Zohar[4].” This principle goes right back to Talmudic times where Shmuel states: “We do not learn (Halacha) from Mishna, nor from legends, nor from any additional teachings, but only from Talmud.”[5]

Yet that was not always the case with the Tosafists as we shall see:


Already from around the late 1100’s the Chassidei Ashkenaz or German Pietists were reviving an older form of mysticism known as Heichalot literature[6] which flourished in the post-Talmudic period from about 500 to 1000 CE.[7]

This mystical literature, according to Professor Kanarfogel, preceded the appearance of works like the Zohar and Bahir and was not yet familiar with the system of the Ten Sefirot.

There were a number of Tosafists who got involved with this earlier theurgic system of Kabbalah and used divine and angelic names in an attempt to achieve higher spiritual states and to accomplish certain objectives.

[Theurgy is defined as: ‘the technique of compelling...a supernatural power to do or refrain from doing something.’[8]]

This is interesting because it was commonly believed that these practices were limited to Chassidei Ashkenaz and not generally performed by the Tosafists (although there are scattered references to such activities in some of the published works of the Tosafists).


One example of a known and published reference to this form of Tosafist theurgy is found in the Semak or Sefer Mitzvot Kattan, by Yitzchak ben Yosef of Corbeil[9]. Although somewhat an abridged form of the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol and hence primarily a Halachic work, it includes a section on R. Yehudah HaChassid, the leader of Chassidei Ashkenaz, who describes exactly when divine names can be used for divine protection from highway-men and natural danger.

This mystical reference was commonly regarded as an anomaly of the Halachic Tosafist literature until the recent discovery of other Tosafist manuscripts where this type of practice appears to be more commonplace than previously believed.


A manuscript filled with mystical formulae - found in the National Library in Paris and dating from the mid-1200’s - was written for the Tosafist R. Yitzchak ben Yitzchak who was connected to the study hall of Évreux in Normandy, northern France. This study hall was known to have had an affiliation with the mystics of Chassidei Ashkenaz.

Interestingly, later copyists who were unfamiliar with Yitzchak ben Yitzchak, decided to attribute the work to Rabbeinu Tam. This was a great irony because Rabbeinu Tam was one Tosafist not generally considered to be overtly involved in mysticism at all.


However, Rabbeinu Tam’s student, Eliezer ben Shmuel of Metz (d. 1175) who authored Sefer Yereim, endorsed a mystical practice whereby one person could bind another, while still alive, to appear after death to his companion and answer questions of the afterlife.


R. Yechiel of Paris, who attempted to defended the Talmud during the Disputation of the Talmud in Paris in 1240 which sadly resulted in many Talmudic and other manuscripts being burned (see The Dangers of Translating Hebrew Texts) apparently received a visitation by an aggrieved soul who claimed he was thrown upwards by the angels but not caught on the way down – as punishment because he spoke during a section of the Friday evening prayers[10].

This ruling was later incorporated in the Tur with a similar explanation, except it is attributed to R. Yehudah haChassid. The Tur[11] was the son of the Rosh[12] who was a pupil of R. Meir of Rothenburg who was clearly known to be involved in mystical teachings.

R Yechiel also commented and elaborated in a very mystical manner on the Keil Adon hymn which is included in the Shabbat morning prayers, which itself is already taken from the Heichalot literature.


Yeshaya ben Mali de’Trani (1180-1250) known as Rid, was an Italian Tosafist who permitted the recitation of various mystical formulae to locate lost objects and to find a thief – provided one only made use of divine names and not those of demons.

This was later incorporated in the Tur who quoted his father the Rosh, who permitted locating lost objects even by using the names of demons.


R. Yitzchak ben Eliyahu permitted the use of names of demons not only for finding lost objects but even to ‘know the future’.


One of the last of the Tosafists was R. Meir of Rothenburg (1215-1293). In one published responsum, he writes that once a person has decided to die a martyr’s death, he will not feel any pain regardless of the means of execution. He bases this thesis, partially, on a section taken from the Heichalot literature. 

R. Meir of Rothenburg also offered formulae for protection, participated in Dream Questions and practices which bring about a state of Petichat haLev (Opening of the Heart) which is said to aid in the retention of one’s studies.


Professor Kanarfogel concludes by saying: “Manuscript research reveals dimensions of Tosafist thought and interest...that would have remained relatively unknown if we were to rely only on printed texts and books...Overall these findings suggest that the Tosafists were not simply excellent and committed Talmudic scholars who had little interest in other disciplines or areas of study – rather the Tosafists emerged from the manuscripts as rabbinic scholars who participated in quite a range of additional intellectual...fields which they took quite seriously. These include independent Biblical interpretation, the writing of liturgical poems...magical and mystical teachings and practices...


To what extent the Tosafists actually ruled Halachically after being influenced by mystical experiences and practices would be a fascinating study. It would be enlightening to quantify the percentage of rulings which were based on mystical methodologies.  (See Dreams as a basis for Halacha? for examples where rulings were actually instituted based on such non-legal activities).

While reverting to Kabbalah may have been more widespread than generally imagined, it certainly does not appear to have been an absolute norm.

Perhaps some purists would argue that the influence from theurgic Kabbalah was nevertheless too strong and impacted too much on the Halachic process.

On the other hand, it does seem that for the most part, the Tosafists exercised great restraint - in that although expressing interest in mystical practices, they still did not allow those activities to impact in an overwhelming manner on their legal decisions.

[1] Hidden Treasure: The Intellectual Life of Medieval Ashkenazi Jews.
[2] Rabbeinu Tam’s published version suggesting he had no involvement in Tanach commentary may have been made out of humility. Or perhaps it was made when he was younger and circumstances changed as he got older.
 [3] R. Yechezkiel Landau (1713-1793). See Noda biYehudah, vol. 1.
[4] Although he mentions the Zohar specifically (which only started appearing in Spain in the late 13th century) the reference would most likely include all forms of mysticism.
[5] yHag 1:8
[6] Sifrut haHeichalot.
[7] Not to be confused with Merkava literature which is mysticism dating from a much earlier period.
[8] Merriam-Webster dictionary.
[9] He was a son-in-law of R. Yechiel of Paris.
[10] During the Bracha Me’ein Sheva.
[11] R. Ya’akov ben Asher (1270-1340)
[12] R. Asher ben Yechiel (1250-1327)


  1. Would you be able to provide sources for any of these below.?

    thank you



    He also strongly advocated that Jews be more ethical to their gentile neighbours both personally and in terms of business.

    endorsed a mystical practice whereby one person could bind another, while still alive, to appear after death to his companion and answer questions of the afterlife.

    This was later incorporated in the Tur who quoted his father the Rosh, who permitted locating lost objects even by using the names of demons.

  2. Some of these are from unpublished manuscripts which are housed in various libraries throughout the world and only recently discovered by Rabbi Kanarfogel who unearthed and studied them from microfilm copies.
    As for the last one, I will try because I'd love to locate that Tur myself (without the aid of names of demons).

  3. the semag about moshiach/yeshuah is in hashovas aveidah. last part of linked page

  4. Here is the source you requested: Tur, Yoreh Deah, end of 179 : Begining with Katav name of Rosh.

  5. Thanks for that quite fascinating. link for any one who wants to see it.