Sunday 24 February 2019


Rabbeinu Gershom's commentary to the Talmudic tractate of Bava Batra.

Rabbeinu Gershom ben Yehudah (960-1040), also known as Me’or haGolah (The Light of the Exile) was born in Metz (France) and later moved to Mainz in Germany where he established his famous teaching academy.

Three of his students were later to become teachers of Rashi[1] - who was born around the time of Rabbeinu Gershom’s passing[2] - and who, at the age of eighteen, travelled to Mainz to study in that very Yeshiva established by Rabbeinu Gershom.

The grave of  R. Yaakov ben Yakar in Mainz, Germany - student of  Rabbeinu Gershom and the teacher of Rashi.

Rabbeinu Gershom was a great scholar and is said to have revised the text of the Mishna and Talmud. Also, a commentary on nine sections of the Talmud is ascribed to him.[3]

Today, one can still see his tombstone in the ancient cemetery in Mainz.

In this article, we will look at some of the innovations he introduced to Judaism around the year 1000, focussing particularly on his stance against polygamy.


Rabbeinu Gershom’s son converted to Christianity. 

This may or may not have been a forced conversion as voluntary conversions were quite common at that time[4]. Later, after the son pre-deceased his father, Rabbeinu Gershom apparently mourned him for fourteen days (seven as per the usual mourning period, and another seven for having converted out of the faith).

This dramatic event, apparently, influenced his decree that someone who had been subjected to baptism could revert back to Judaism without stigma – and would even be permitted to say a blessing over the Torah in a synagogue.

About five hundred years later, this was to become a pressing issue when Conversos and Marranos who had fled the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 began to return to Judaism. Some felt that only a Sanhedrin could absolve them from their apostasy. 

Others would have relied on Rabbeinu Gershom’s more lenient ruling. [For more on the attempt at reestablishing the Sanhedrin see here]


But his takkanah[5] or decree, regarding apostasy, was not his only innovation to Jewish law. He introduced a number of decrees which are regarded as somewhat liberal, modern and moral innovations to Judaism.

For example, he introduced the Cherem haYishuv, where businesses were to be protected from competition within the same area.

He made it illegal to read another’s mail. Typically, mail would contain a seal ‘beChadrag’ (beCherem deRabbeinu Gershom’) warning others, that on the threat of excommunication, this letter was a private communication. This was an insightful innovation, ahead of its time, influencing future privacy laws which we take for granted today.

He made it illegal, under Jewish law, to divorce a woman against her will. Rabbeinu Gershom’s second wife was a widow, and it is said that he had particular empathy for women who had been somewhat neglected and mistreated by society.

In keeping with his empathy for the plight of women, he prohibited polygamy, which until then was still technically permitted under Biblical law. Jacob, for example, had four wives. But Rabbeinu Gershom believed that multiple wives would be unfair on the women and a source of potential strife (as indeed it was in Biblical times).


Let us look at the social milieu during the Talmudic period in the preceding centuries before Rabbeinu Gershom:

According to, during Talmudic times, an interesting dynamic developed: The Halacha followed Rava who ruled that one may take more than one wife on the condition that one is able to support both wives properly.[6] However, the reality was that polygamy was not commonplace during Talmudic times and we rarely find instances of a Talmudic sage taking multiple wives.

A very different view is put forward by Rabbi Professor Yaakov Elman whose research shows that “there is ample evidence that polygamy continued to be practised there [in Talmudic Babylon][7]

There was even the notion of ‘temporary marriages’ which was practised by Rav Nachman and Rav. [See Babylonian Influences on the Babylonian Talmud.]

Interestingly, this was not the case in Eretz Yisrael where polygamy had been virtually eliminated, probably as a result of Jews becoming Roman citizens in 212 CE, and Roman law had outlawed bigamy (- marrying someone while already married to another person).


Clearly, in post-Talmudic times, attitudes towards polygamy began to change:

According to Professor Avraham Grossman of Hebrew University, by the year 1000, polygamy had all but vanished from most Jewish communities. Thus, in effect, Rabbeinu Gershom’s edict was more of rubber-stamping of a newly established social order, rather than an outright innovation.


Another view is taken by R. Simon Eppenstein, who in his century-old article on the topic suggests that although there was no polygamy in Germany in Rabbeinu Gershom’s time, there was nevertheless an influx of Sefardic Jews from Islamic countries who had migrated to Germany. 

According to this, the decree of Rabbeinu Gershom was directed against these immigrants, almost in an attempt to prevent “the daughters of Germany’s monogamous society from becoming second wives to Sefardic Jews.”
Grossman disagrees with Eppenstein and maintains that there was no significant migration to Germany by Sefardic Jews at that time.

To complicate matters, there is a responsum a written by Rambam[9] (1135-1204) more than a century after Rabbeinu Gershom, where he criticises the fact (or impression) that French Jews were of the habit of taking more than one wife. (Northern France and Germany were usually regarded as a single entity).

Either way, the Cairo Geniza documents certainly do show that during the Middle Ages, polygamy was prevalent among the Jews who lived in Islamic countries.


Although the general assumption is that the ban against taking more than one wife is ascribed to Rabbeinu Gershom – there are no records of this ban from any existing French or German sources!

The first written evidence of the ban only appears about a century after Rabbeinu Gershom’s death.

The first person to mention this ban, was R. Eliezer ben Natan who does not even mention Rabbeinu Gershom, but simply refers to it as ‘takanot haKehilot’ or communal bans.


Shulchan Aruch, Even haEzer 1:10 (Large font is R. Yosef Karo who is followed by the Ramo.)

R. YOSEF KARO (1488-1575):

R. Yosef Karo, known as Beit Yosef writes that the decrees of Rabbeinu Gershom expired in the year 1340 (which corresponded to the end of the fifth millennium.)[10] Based on this, he ruled in his Shulchan Aruch that the decrees are no longer in effect.[11]  
He cites the Rashba (1235-1310) that the enactments only applied in specific geographical areas, and the decrees “were not made for all places… The decree did not spread to our borders, and even in Provence and the areas close to France, we have not heard that it has spread. In practice, too, Torah scholars in our vicinity commonly wed more than one wife, and nobody has been concerned for this matter.”

The ban was originally limited only to Germany and the parts of France. However, it soon spread to Poland and European Russia. It was not accepted in Southern France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Africa and Asia.

RAMO (1530-15720:
R. Moshe Isserless, known as Ramo (who wrote notes to the Shulchan Aruch following the Ashkenazi custom) wrote that although technically the decrees may have elapsed, nevertheless, the custom was to still follow them.

MAHARSHAL (1510-1573):

R. Shlomo Luria, known as Maharshal, argues strongly that the decrees are still in effect. This is backed up by the later Pischei Teshuva[12] who writes that this was indeed the consensus of most Rabbis in the period of the Rishonim.


Dr Henry Abramsom suggests that it is possible that since the Church had established monogamy as a societal norm, Rabbeinu Gershom was happy to perpetuate it as well.

This view is borne out by R. Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) who writes that the ban was originally instituted as a result of Christian influence. He writes that the ban was inherently flawed from a Jewish point of view but had Rabbeinu Gershom not made this ban, the Christians may have persecuted the Jews for polygamy:

"In us is fulfilled, due to our many sins, the verse 'and they will be mixed among the nations etc.,' therefore it is proper to eliminate it (the ban on taking more than one wife).

Did they not say that he (Rabbeinu Gershom) only made his ban until the year 5000...

It would have been proper not to have made such a prohibition in the first place because of the prohibition of following in the ways of the nations, but because it didn't require a positive action to comply, and also because of the danger to the Jews who live among the uncircumcised when they marry two wives, Rabbeinu Gershom, light of the exile, needed to make this ban which was not right to make [shelo min hadin]"[13]

VILNA GAON (1720-1797):

Most surprising is the view of the Vilna Gaon who is cited as saying that bringing polygamy back would bring the redemption nearer. He said that removing the ban against polygamy was only one of two things he would interrupt his Torah study for - provided he knew he would be successful in achieving it.[14]

The other matter was to reintroduce the reciting of the Priestly Blessing on a daily basis. As it happened, his students were able to make this part of the custom of Eretz Yisrael.

R. OVADYA YOSEF (1920-2013):

In more recent times, R. Ovadya Yosef writes that Sefaradim follow the abovementioned ruling of R. Yosef Karo - who wrote expressly for Sefaradim in his Shulchan Aruch - and that they consider the decree to be no longer applicable. In his book, Yabia Omer, R. Yosef writes that it is a mistake for non-Ashkenazim to follow Rabbeinu Gershom’s ‘stringency’ which prevents a man to marry more than one wife. 

The law of the State of Israel, however, does not permit polygamy.

R. Yosef cautions that the marriage document must include an explicit stipulation that it is forbidden for the husband to take a second wife. He further mentions that under certain conditions - such as in a case where a Sefardic couple had been married for more than ten years without producing children - then the Israeli Chief Rabbinate should issue a permit to make an exception to Israeli law, and allow the man to take a second wife.[15]


The ban against polygamy was not absolute because there were escape clauses – such as in a case where a wife refuses to accept a divorce for an unreasonably extended period of time. In such a case one may rely upon a Heter Meah Rabbanim, or Permission of a Hundred Rabbis, who agree with a ruling of a Beit Din that such a case merits the expediency of annulling the ban.[16]


In a recent Jerusalem Post article, the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court ruled that a particular husband who could not locate his wife may marry a second wife. This was pursuant to a request by the husband who was unable to obtain a divorce from his first wife who had emigrated and gone into hiding with her children.

“In light of the fact that the two parties have been separated for six years and the location of the woman is not known and she is hiding from the law enforcement authorities, the rabbinical court believes that she is obligated to accept the divorce,” the court ruled.
“Since there is no possibility at this stage of arranging a divorce, the husband must be allowed to remarry and be given dispensation from the decree of Rabbeinu Gershom.”[17]

[1] Rashi had three teachers, all of whom were students of Rabbeinu Gershom): R. Yaakov ben Yakar whom he referred to as mori haZaken, R. Yitzchak haLevi, referred to as mori haRav haLevi, and R. Yitzchak ben Yehudah, referred to by Rashi as mori Tzedek.
[2] Rabbeinu Gershom passed away at the end of the period of the Gaonim - 1038/40 - and Rashi was born at the beginning of the period of the Rishonim.
[3] For an academic discussion on this issue, see here.
The printers of the Vilna Talmud printed several newly discovered commentaries in the outer margins of their edition. These included some of the most important of the early medieval works. Scholars were sent to European libraries (including that of the Vatican in Rome) in order to copy out these lost treasures of Jewish religious literature. Since none of these commentaries covered the full text of the Talmud, different ones were printed with the individual tractates. The additional commentaries include the following: Rabbeinu Gershom, Rabbeinu Chananel, Shitah Mekubetzet, Tosefot Rid, Tosafot Yeshanim.
[4] According to Dr Henry Abramson, while this may have been a forced conversion, it is not unlikely that it was voluntary as most of the forced conversions began sometime later, well within the 11th century. On the other hand, Jews were expelled from Mainz in 1012, and this might support the notion of a forced conversion.
[5] Known as Cherem deRabbeinu Gershom.
[6] Yevamot 65b.
[7] Babylonian Echoes in a Late Rabbinic Legend, p. 15.
[8] Takanot Rabbenu Gershom - Ban on Polygamy, by Benji Hopper as part of his research for his Masters Course.
[9] Grossman questions the authenticity of this responsum from Rambam and says that even were it to have been authentic, this was only referring to the Jews of France and not to those of Germany. [On the other hand, Northern France and Germany are usually linked together in reference to the Tosafists who were active in the two centuries after Rashi (1038-1105).]
[10] Even haEzer 1.                                                                                                                                                   
[11] Even haEzer 1:10.
[12] Pischei Teshuva 1:19. This Halachik work was written by Tzvi Hirsh Eisenstadt (1815 - 1868).
[13] Shut Sh'ilas Yaavetz vol 2, Siman 15.
[14] Ma’aseh Rav haShalem, p. 276.
[15] Yabia Omer 7:2
[16] The get is deposited with the court and the wife remains married until she takes possession of it.              
[17] Jerusalem Post, 8 Jan 2019.

Sunday 17 February 2019


The mid-1500s rogue (and cheaper) edition of Mishneh Torah by the Giustiniani Printing House.



The printing press had just been invented. In Italy, newly established printing houses were vying with each other for a share in a very lucrative market. The printing of Hebrew books was no exception. 

In this article, we will look at the inside story behind what appeared to be the innocent printing of an early edition the of 12th- century Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, by Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen, known as the Maharam of Padua in the mid-16th-century.

I have drawn from the research of Professor Neil Weinstock Netanel[1] and also refer the Reader to a previous article Daniel Bomberg – The Story behind the Tzuras haDaf.

Additionally, I shall suggest a possible context to show how this story played out against the classical backdrop of tension between the rationalist followers of Maimonides (known as Rambam 1135-1204) and the mystics who followed the Kabbalah.


In 1550, the Maharam of Padua (1482-1564) invests his own money and effort in preparing the text of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah – and writes a commentary on it together with his son. He then has it printed by a Christian printing house in Italy, known as the Bragadini Press. He does this because Italian Jews are not allowed to own printing presses.

Meanwhile, the Bragadini Press discovers that a rival company, the Giustiniani Press had copied the Maharam’s commentary without permission, undercut the price, and - for the cheaper price - even offered a criticism of his commentary!

The Maharam of Padua, understandably upset and faced with a financial loss from his investment (and after getting no support from the Italian Rabbinate) writes to a relative in Poland, the famous R. Moshe Isserless (known as Ramo[2]) in an early attempt at creating some form of copyright protection.[3]

R. Isserless, in response, forbids the purchase of the rival Giustiniani’s publication - on pain of excommunication - until Bragadini’s stocks had been sold out.


That is the quintessence of the story. 

However, lurking behind the scenes, there may have been another factor at play here which appears to have been ignored by many historians:

Both Maharam and R. Moshe Isserless were rationalists and loyal to Rambam.

Professor Netanel makes this point:

“The Maimonidean controversy continued to reverberate in the sixteenth century, with Katzenellenbogen and Isserles serving as leading proponents of Maimonides’ rationalism.

Katzenellenbogen virulently opposed the propagation of the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah.

And due to his intellectual prowess and commitment to the study of science, Isserles came to be known as the ‘Maimonides of Polish Jewry.’ ”
In 1558, the Maharam signed two bans against the study of Kabbalah[4]. He also opposed the printing of the Zohar[5].

As for R. Moshe Isserles, although he was well versed in Kabbalah, he also studied history and Aristotle (which he said he learned from Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed). When another relative of his, Maharshal rebuked him for basing some of his rulings on Aristotle, he replied that ‘it is better to occupy oneself with philosophy than to err through Kabbalah.’[6]

On R. Isserless’ tombstone is written the epithet: “From Moses [Maimonides] to Moses [Isserless] there was none like Moses.” This was a not so subtle crib on the same epithet found on Rambam’s tomb.

Clearly, the Maharam and R. Isserless were supporters of Rambam’s philosophy.


Having given some context to the rivalry, it would be interesting to explore just who was financing the cheaper edition of the fourteen volumes of Mishneh Torah by the Giustiniani Press which contained the additional bonus of a criticism of the Maharam, and whose commentary had now been moved to the back of the publication[7].

The reason why the Maharam chose Bragadini over Giustiniani in the first place is generally described as ‘unknown’.[8]

I would suggest a possible reason as to why the Maharam may have chosen Bragadini over Giustiniani:[9]


Could this saga have been part of the ongoing feud between the Kabbalists and the Rambamists, with the Kabbalists financing or at least encouraging the rival Giustiniani Press? Had Giustiniani just printed a cheaper edition, one could put it down to competition as he was known to have adopted cutthroat tactics in his business affairs. At one stage he put both the Bragadini and even the Bomberg printing houses out of business.

Giustiniani’s printers-mark had an image of a depiction of the Temple in Jerusalem over which in an unrolled scroll, appeared the words, “The glory of this latter House will be greater than that of the first,”[10] alluding to his vision of his Printing House overshadowing the other Printing Houses.
However, the addition of the criticism of the Maharam, the relegation of his commentary to the back of the work, and the fact that many Italian rabbis did not support the Maharam - may imply some further ideological agenda in addition to commercial ‘sour grapes’.

In fact, when Giustiniani published his rival edition, he wrote that certain unnamed ‘leading scholars’ had convinced him to hurriedly put out a better edition of the Mishneh Torah as opposed to the ‘second-grade’ Bragadini edition by ‘one rabbi from Padua[11] who longed to stand among the greats.’

Also (perhaps coincidence or perhaps relevant), in 1545 the very first work to be printed by Giustiniani was Nachmanides’ commentary on the Torah which has been described as “...basically a mystical work against Maimonides...[whose writings] he and his colleagues believe to be sheer heresy.”[12]

By contrast, Bragadini’s first printed work was Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, and more tellingly, in 1551 he even printed Rambam’s controversial rationalist writings of The Guide for the Perplexed.[13] This, again, may show the general persuasion of those behind the publishing house. 


One must also consider the historical reality at that time:

The Spanish Inquisition resulted in the expulsion of Jews from Spain, just decades earlier, in 1492. This triggered a mass exodus of Jews from Western and Central Europe and by 1550, the central and northern Italian peninsula had become home to tens of thousands of Jewish refugees, and was virtually the only part of Western Europe where Jews remained.

Many of the Jews would have brought with them their mystical bias and strong Kabbalistic traditions from Spain. It is obvious that these tensions would have played out in Italy when they confronted people like the Maharam, who had banned the mystical Zohar.


Furthermore, Christians were showing interest in Jewish mysticism [See Kotzk Blog 221 for how Elihayu Bachur began teaching Kabbalah to Cardinals.] and, as we saw during the earlier Maimonidean controversies, Jews and Christians sometimes formed expedient alliances against the Jewish rationalists who followed Rambam. [For more see: The Maimonidean Controversies.]

This too may have had some bearing on why the issue of the rival printing presses eventually found its way to the Pope.

One account says Giustiniani told the Pope that Rambam’s book was “a blasphemous work that should be banned for its defamations of the true Christian religion.”[14] It is highly probable that Rambam’s rationalism (which included a non-literal way of understanding angels, and which had no room for the notion of evil spirits and demons etc.) may have been considered blasphemous even by the Church.


After R. Isserless had issued his verdict which effectively banned Giustinani’s publication of Mishneh Torah, the latter retaliated by going to the Pope for support. Giustiniani countered R. Isserless’ edict by encouraging apostate Jews to denounce the Maharam’s commentary as “objectionable to the Church.[15] The Pope appointed six cardinals to oversee the investigation.

Both Bragadini and Giustiniani were represented by Jews who had converted to Christianity, and unfortunately, the tribunal soon ‘deteriorated to a general attack on the Talmud’.[16]


The ruling of the panel was to burn all copies of the Bavli and Yerushalmi Talmud! All copies of the Talmud had to be surrendered within eight days. And for the next ten years, no Hebrew books were to be permitted to be printed in Venice.

On Rosh Hashana 1553, the edict was carried out and all copies of the Talmud were burned in Rome, and later elsewhere as well.


Of course, historically, this was not the only example of the Church burning Jewish books. If ever there was a case of history repeating itself, this must be it:

Three hundred years earlier, the Talmud was also burned, although not in Italy but in France. After Rambam’s death in the early 1200s, “the ‘Guide for Perplexed’ was...burned publicly by Jews and non-Jews. There were Jews in France who informed against the book to the Catholic Church, saying that it made slights against Christianity.”[17]

At first, the Jews themselves burned Rambam’s books and just ten years later, in 1242, the Church burned all available copies of the Talmud. This incident was sparked by Rambam's work, the Guide for the Perplexed, which had been translated into French. [See The Dangers of Translating Hebrew Texts.]

This is an earlier example of how anti-Maimonidean Jews had denounced the writings of Rambam to the Christians in France which resulted in Jews burning manuscripts of Maimonides on the same square as, a decade later, the Talmud was then burned by the Dominican Christians.

Clearly, this was a ‘tried and tested’precedent for Jews to convince the Church that Rambam’s writings were too rational and too heretical even for the Church.

At that time, R. Yona Gerondi (1180-1263), the teacher of Rashba and a cousin to the father of modern Kabbalah Nachmanides, went to the Christians - the Franciscans and then the Dominicans - pleading:
“Look, most of our people are heretics and unbelievers, because they were duped by R. Moses of Egypt [Maimonides] who wrote heretical books. 

You exterminate heretics, exterminate ours too.”[18]


Back to Italy in the mid-1500s: The devastation was such that after the Italian burning of the Talmud, the Maharam of Padua wrote that people should not rely on his opinion anymore because there were no copies of Talmud left for him to reference.[19]

In Italy, as a consequence of the burning of the Talmud, the emphasis of Torah study now changed to other areas where books were available and still permitted to be printed. These included Halachik works and, of relevance to our discussion: “The period also saw a rise in the study of Kabbalah, the first editions of its main sefarim appearing at that time, although the question of its study was a matter of fierce controversy among the Rabbanim of Italy.”[20]


Whether by design or accident, the long term effects of the Bragadini-Giustiani controversy resulted in a victory for the mystics, with Kabbalah rising to a position of pre-eminence.

Taking all this into consideration, it is difficult to accept that the Bragadini-Giustiani conflict - usually just described as a business deal gone wrong - was disconnected from the deeper and latent conflict between the mystics and the rationalists. 

[1] See: Maharam of Padua v. Giustiniani; the Sixteenth-Century Origins of the Jewish Law of Copyright
[2] Ramo wrote the notes (haMapah) to the Shulchan Aruch of R. Yosef Karo.
[3] According to some opinions, rivalry over the Mishneh Torah was not the cause of the conflict, since three years had passed since its printing. Instead, it was over the rival editions of the Talmud from these two printers.
According to another opinion, the dispute was over ‘anticipated rival editions of the Talmud by these printers.” (Edict Ordering the Confiscation and Burning of the Talmud, Library of JTS.)
[4] Shlomo Tal, Meir ben Isaac Katzenellenbogen, in Encyclopedia Judaica.
[5] In Defence of Preachers by David Darshan, p. 17.
[6] Responsa No. 7. However, more recently, another aspect of R. Isserles’ complex personality has surfaced with the publication from a manuscript of his commentary to Zohar. Also, he often quoted Kabbalistic sources for his Halacha and wrote that the “words of the Zohar... were given at Sinai” (Mishor 2010 p. 50.)
[7] Further studies in the Making of the Early Hebrew Book, by Marvin J. Heller, p. 308.
[8] See The Printers Feud and the Burning of the Talmud, by R. Akiva Aaronson. Or according to Netanel: “When Katzenellenbogen decided to publish a new annotated edition of the Mishneh Torah, he approached Giustiniani to handle the printing, but, for whatever reason, the two did not come to terms.” [Emphasis mine.]
See also The Makers of Hebrew Books in Italy, by David Werner Amram, p.255: “For reasons unknown to us Giustiniani did not satisfy the rabbi...” [Emphasis mine.]
[9] This is pure speculation as I have not seen this recorded anywhere. However, most of the writers (excluding Netanel), have been historians and obviously not interested in the hashkafic relevance of connecting this story to the ongoing Maimonidean conflict - which was so fundamental in influencing the future of Judaism, up to this very day.
[10] Chaggai 2:9.
[11] The Ramo had referred to the Maharam as the ‘Rabbi of Padua’.
[12] Jewish Virtual Library: Maimonidean Controversy.
[13]Titolo: Tracing the Hebrew Book Collection of the Venice Ghetto, p.31.

[14] Stop the Presses, by Eliezer Segal. See also: The Venetian Ghetto: The History of a Persecuted Community, by Riccardo Calimani, Chapter 7.

[15] Gardens and Ghettos, Jewish Museum, p. 250.  The ‘deterioration’ from antagonism towards Mishneh Torah to the Talmud may be explained by the fact the Mishneh Torah was effectively a summary of the Talmud – and the two might have become regarded as two sides of the same coin.
[16] Further studies... Ibid.
[17] Jewish History, Maimonides, by R. Berel Wein.
[18]  Iggerot Kena’ot III, 4c. (Leipzig 1859).
[19] She’erit Yosef 1.
[20] The Printers Feud...ibid.