Sunday 15 March 2020


Kalonymous ben Kalonymous, an important source of Jewish history in Southern France.



As of the time of this writing, a Google search for Rabbi Yitzchak haCohen of Manosque[1] yields no meaningful results. The Jewish Encyclopedia has a few lines basically saying that not much is known about R. Yitzchak haCohen:

In this article, in an attempt to discover more about this man was, I have drawn extensively from the research of Professor Joseph Shatzmiller, who specialises in medieval European-Jewish history.[2]

R. Yitzchak haCohen was active around the early 14th-century, in Manosque, a town in south-eastern France. The actual town of Manosque was nondescript and described by Kalonymous ben Kalonymous[3] as “a dead end and visitors only come by once in a blue moon.”

However, Manosque was valuable historically as it housed some of the most important collections of records in France. These include municipal records and court documents. Although at the time there were only about 200 Jews out of a general population of 3 500, the Jews are referenced frequently. This indicates their degree of prominence in the town. R. Yitzchak haCohen, in particular, is mentioned regularly in these records.

Professor Shatzmiller writes:

“If we add to these records, especially those dealing with cases of litigation against him, the Hebrew material relating to R. Isaac, which is considerable, a rich and colourful picture emerges, which may well afford the best reconstruction of any rabbinic career of this period.”

Thus, despite the scarcity of material on the internet, there is probably more information about the life of R. Yitzchak of Manosque than any other rabbi of that time. This is due not only to his name occurring in various responsa literature and other writings of the rabbis, but also because no other town kept such precise records as those found in the archives of Manosque.

In the municipal documents, R. Yitzchak is referred to as Magister Isaac, indicating he is an important and leading figure.

[It is interesting that the Latin word Magister was sometimes translated in England as Rabbi or Rav. Thus there are records describing Christian clergy as for example Rav Hugh of London, Archdeacon of Colchester.]

R. Yitzchak is sometimes called ‘Erbi’, which may be the way bureaucrats recorded the word ‘rabbi’. One of his son’s names is Amadeus (this may or may not refer to his son Rabbeinu Peretz). The records show that R. Yitzchak mediated in communal matters, adjudicated in arbitration and was sometimes also the target of such activity.


Shatzmiller shows how, according to Kalonymous ben Kalonymous, R. Yitzchak ran a large Talmudic academy in Manosque, one of the few such institutions in Provence (Southern France) at that time. In a responsum (Teshuva)[4] of Rashba (R. Shlomo ben Aderet 1235- 1310) from Barcelona, reference is made to R. Yitzchak standing in front of his Talmudic academy in Manosque with his students ‘twenty-two in number[5] holding a Torah scroll while excommunicating one of his students, apparently for spreading some rumour:

“On behalf of God and on your behalfs I ban, excommunicate and anathematize that man...even though he is one of my pupils...

And they all responded with Amen and said: it is truly so, our Rabbi, we agree with you, and let the man who spread the rumour be anathematized.”


The non-Jewish authorities were not always pleased with Magister Isaac and spoke deridingly about his assumption that he had control of the judicial power of the town. The records also show an abundance of incidents which indicate a breakdown in the relationships between R. Yitzchak and his community.


R. Yitzchak ben Mordechai Kimchi wrote in defence of the honour of R. Yitzchak of Manosque:

“Behold, his fame has been spreading for some years now in most parts of this region and we, all of us, must not detract from the honour due to him even by the breadth of a hair.

Even if he should declare the clean unclean and the unclean clean, it is our duty to be kind to him and to find mitigating circumstances for his actions to the best of our ability.”[6]

Kalonymous ben Kalonymous writes of R. Yitzchak: ‘Tzarfati hu, ve’ish chamudot[7], ‘he is French and charming’ – which could also be read ‘he is French but charming’, considering the general hostility towards the (northern) French, displayed by the inhabitants of Provence (in the south).


Shatzmiller is quick to point out that R. Yitzchak was not admired by all and that, in fact, he was quite a controversial rabbi. There were some who wished him ill. Some of his enemies were even rabbis.

R. Yitzchak got embroiled in a conflict with the famous rabbi, philosopher and astronomer Gersonides (R. Levi ben Gershom 1288-1342). This incident was recorded, once more, by R. Yitzchak ben Mordechai Kimchi.

The case involved a woman who had received a questionable get (bill of divorce) and wanted to marry again. Gersonides came head to head with R. Yitzchak as to the ruling in this case, and didn’t mince his words in insulting him. R. Kimchi again comes to the defence of R. Yitzchak and writes to Gersonides:

“You have gone too far...with your insinuations against the great Rabbi...we must treat his respectfully.”


Shatzmiller explains that not only did R. Yitzchak excommunicate his student, but there are references to many other of his bans of excommunication as well. One such case concerned a certain Manosque Jew by the name of Leonetus, who had also been excommunicated by R. Yitzchak. 

It seems that members of the congregation would not attend the circumcision of Leonetus’ son, under the impression that R. Yitzchak had forbidden them from so doing. When challenged on this issue, R. Yitzchak clarified his position that people should attend the ceremony. But the story doesn’t end there.

Both Leonetus and his brother (from a different father) Jacob had, for reasons that we do not know, been placed under a ban. Jacob then took R. Yitzchak to the court of the Bishop of the nearby town of Sisteron[8].

The court case was very serious. It involved a charge of culpability against R. Yitzchak regarding the circumcision of the baby of Jacob’s brother, Leonetus, who had died as a result of the procedure. This, despite the fact that R. Yitzchak had apparently not even attended the ceremony, which was performed by one Mosse Anglicus, whose lack of expertise resulted in a fatal haemorrhage.

The non-Jewish authorities back at Manosque felt aggrieved that Jacob had overridden their jurisdiction (which was guarded very dearly) by going out of town, and they, in turn, brought Jacob to court back in Manosque.

But the case gets even more complicated because in Manosque the practice was that the doctor of the town, Dr Banafos - who happened to be Leonetus’ father - usually performed all the circumcisions.

However, on this occasion, Dr Bonafos refused to perform the circumcision on his own grandson because of the conflict between R. Yitzchak and his son, Leonetus! (Probably out of loyalty to the rabbi.)

And Vitalis, the tailor, testified that R. Yitzchak refused to attend the ceremony until and unless:

“...the Magister [R. Yitzchak][9] is first treated with the respect which is due to him.”

Then later, when Jacob was excommunicated apparently for the second time, he declared:

“ would have been more correct to excommunicate the Magister for having caused the death of the child.”

A further complication ensued after R. Yitzchak excommunicated Jacob - because in Southern France at that time, the local laws prohibited any rabbi from imposing a ban of excommunication on any individual unless the authorities were first consulted.

There was a French ordinance in place which instructed that:

“No sage should use the power of excommunication to protect his own honour.”

R. Yitzchak did not consult the authorities in the case of Jacob. When taken to task, he simply denied that it was he who had imposed the ban but claimed it was another Magister entirely, who had been confused with him. The court accepted his defence.


Shatzmiller points out that another recorded conflict concerns a certain rabbi about whom not much is known other than that his name is R. Baruch from nearby Digne[10].  And clearly this R. Baruch was highly respected because according to the sages of Avignon:

“His wisdom and piety were widely known, and the greatness of our teacher, Rabbi Baruch, was apparent to all and celebrated even in the most remote regions.”

It appears that at some stage R. Baruch may even have been R. Yitzchak’s teacher. Nevertheless, R. Yitzchak refers to R. Baruch as being aggressive and insulting, claiming R. Baruch had called him:

“...a fool, a wicked man, an ignoramus and an obdurate sinner.”

R. Yitzchak responded:

“...if I am obdurate, you are obdurate as well”

R. Baruch looked towards the rabbis of (northern) France to support him in the ensuing conflict and they obliged by placing R. Yitzchak under excommunication!

R. Yitzchak then writes a public apology to R. Baruch but he doesn’t spare the rabbis who excommunicated him:

“I would declare now that I cannot believe any of the sages in France to have accused or censured me...However, if any one of them should have done so in error...if he has made improper remarks about me...or if he has censured, accused or pronounced the ban against me, I hereby refute him and moreover declare that his censure, accusation or ban apply to none other than himself...”

Thus R. Yitzchak effectively placed those rabbis who had excommunicated him, under ex-communication.

Then R. Baruch placed an additional ban of excommunication on R. Yitzchak because he:

“...repudiated the authority of the sages.”

And, of course, R. Yitzchak reacted in kind against R. Baruch by placing him in under ban of ex-communication!

Shatzmiller describes the chaotic situation as follows:

“Isaac, who knew that he could not expect sympathy from the rabbis of [northern][11] France, now turned to his colleagues in southern France, and they - judging by the records in our possession today – did not hesitate to side with him.”

This again attests to the great divide between the north and the south of France. [See previous post.]


After 1316, R. Yitzchak of Manosque disappears from his frequent mentions in the public records of the town and is never mentioned again. It seems that he must have left Manosque at around that time. During the following two decades the local synagogue has some mentions of various scandals - such as the quarrel which broke out on Yom Kippur of 1338, regarding the correct manner in which to conduct the service. At that stage a certain Magister Vitalis was at the reigns of the community.[12]

Professor Joseph Shatzmiller leaves us with a tantalizing piece of information: There is so much more knowledge and information like this still waiting to be discovered in the local archives of these regions...


Fascinatingly, Shatzmiller shows that during that same period, and also in Provence in southern France, a register of Christian excommunications has survived from the diocese of Riez.[13] It too contains references to parallel and repetitive bans and counter-bans. This seems to have been par for the course in those times.


What is immediately apparent is that the issuing of multiple bans and counter-bans within the Jewish community was out of control. In most of these instances, it appears that the bans were initiated because of personal attacks on the dignity, prestige and honour of the individual rabbis. One would have imagined that resorting to the severity of bans of excommunication would have been applied to far more fundamental issues that threatened the integrity of the tradition rather than to such relatively petty matters.

Was France different, or should one wonder about the motivation for similar bans which have taken place throughout our history, and continue to some extent to the present day?

[For more on the allied concept of the censoring and banning of books see Hey Teacher Leave the Text Alone.]

[See The Heresy of Nosson Slifkin.]

[See a counter-ban by Chassidim against the Mitnagdim according to the Cherson Letters.]

[1] Pronounced ‘Manask’.
[2] Joseph Shatzmiller, Rabbi Isaac Ha-Cohen of Manosque and His Son Rabbi Peretz: The Rabbinate and its Professionalization in the Fourteenth Century.
[3] Kalonymous ben Kalonymous, also known as Maestro Calo (1286- after 1328), was a French writer, philosopher and translator. He was a student of Abba Mari.
[4] Rashba Responsum no. 460.
[5] Apparently, this was considered by Kalonymous ben Kalonymous to be a ‘large’ number of students for a Talmudic academy.
[6] S. Schwartzfuchs, ‘An Ordinance from 1313’ (Hebrew), in Bar Ilan vols. 4-5 (1967) pp. 209-10. Translation Shatzmiller.
[7]See The Scroll of the Minor Apology.
[8] Pronounced like this.
[9] Parenthesis mine. Translation Shatzmiller.
[10] Pronounce ‘Dinye
[11] Parenthesis mine.
[12] R. Yitzchak left a son, Rabbeinu Peretz, probably one of the first recorded professional rabbis (i.e., a rabbi to be paid for his professional services). This information is preserved in letters from the Ran (R. Nissim of Gerona, 1320-1376) who urged the communities of Catalonia and Aragon to combine with Barcelona to pay the salary of Rabbeinu Peretz. This allowed Rabbeinu Peretz to serve the Barcelona community with a five-year contract with an annual salary of one thousand ‘silver’ (croats). After the first year, Rabbeinu Peretz realized that his salary was insufficient, and he considered moving to Toledo where he would be better paid. The Ran intervened again, and tied to rally support from other communities to get Rabbeinu Peretz to stay on in Barcelona with an increased salary.
[13] Pronounced ‘Reez.

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