Sunday 22 March 2020


Sefer Or Zarua by Rabbi Yitzchak ben Moshe of Vienna 1200-1270.



Rabbi Yitzchak ben Moshe of Vienna lived between 1200 and 1270. He is also known as R. Yitzchak Or Zarua (after his Halachic work entitled Or Zarua) or simply as Riaz. R. Yitzchak Or Zarua was born in Bohemia[1] but served as rabbi for some thirty years in Vienna.

His book, Or Zarua, was very popular amongst the Ashkenazi (German) Jewish community. He loved to travel and as a result of him spending time all over Europe, he came into contact with different customs and Halachic ideas few of his contemporaries were familiar with. He also met the French Tosafists[2].

He was a member of the mystical movement known as Chasidei Ashkenaz, or German Pietists, studying under R. Yehudah heChassid. His student was R. Meir of Rothenburg, the last of the Tosafists.

In this article, we shall investigate how the ‘creeping revolution’ of the French Tosafists was able to slowly infiltrate and eventually corrode the more staid, traditional and customary environment of Germany.

I have drawn from the research of Professor Avraham (Rami) Reiner[3] who specializes in the history of Halachic and Talmudic exegesis in Medieval Europe.


The Tosafist dialectic and disputatious style of study was similar to the disputatio, which was a popular learning technique used in cathedral schools and universities at that time. These cathedral schools broke away from the more mystical monastery schools of previous times.

The Chasidei Ashkenaz identified and sharply objected to this ‘imported’ disputatio methodology of Talmudic study, referring to the Tosafist style of learning as dialectica shel goyim, (dialectics of the non-Jews) and limmud shel nitzachon (study in a style of intellectual argumentation and conflict).

According to Professor Reiner, the Tosafist glosses that appeared in later printings of the Talmud, paralleled:

 “...the glossae that were appended to the collections of Roman, and later Canon law.”

The Tosafist most closely identified by this type of learning, was Rashi’s grandson, R. Yaakov ben Meir, known as Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171).

 In Jewish Germany a religious law was sacrosanct primarily because it had the precedent and backing of generations of tradition. In France, however, a religious law became sacrosanct due to the clever dialectical and argumentative style of Talmudic study - and Halachic derivations there from - as innovated by the Tosafists.


In his Sefer Or Zarua[4], R. Yitzchak discusses the matter of moving a burning candle or lamp on the Sabbath. The issue at stake is the possibility that the flame may become extinguished by the movement, an action therefore forbidden on Shabbat.

R. Yitzchak Or Zarua writes:

“I have seen Rabbenu Tam quoted as permitting the touching of a kindled hanging lamp on the Sabbath...

(But)...we [German Jews][5] take care not to touch a kindled hanging lamp...

However, we recognize the broad spirit of Rabbenu Ram’s way of engaging in pilpul [dialectics, and][6][intellectual play – therefore his ruling is theoretical] and I do not adopt this position.”[7]

R. Yitzchak Or Zarua mentions in the same section, that (for some reason, only) women have accepted upon themselves the custom of fasting in instances where they inadvertently touched such a candle – again indicating how in Germany they refused to rely on any laws or customs derived through the art of dialectics as practised by the Tosafist rabbis of Northern France.  

Instead, the German rabbis relied solely on their regional tradition and did not want to verify their religious behaviour based on the dialectics of intellectual and textual derivation. They certainly did not want to rely on the more recent argumentative and disputatious deductions, possibly influenced by the general French milieu at that time, that was to become typical of Talmudic study.

This distinction between Northern France and Germany is interesting because we usually group the two together under the single rubric of Ashkenaz (or Germany).  Reiner shows that the assumption that the two lands were always together in mind and spirit is not entirely correct.

As Reiner puts it:

“...R. Isaac [Or Zarua][8] could not accept the lenient position of Rabbenu Tam, the greatest halakhic authority in twelfth-century France, even though it was based on close study of the authoritative Talmudic text. Since the position was in stark opposition to the custom he recalled from his youth in Bohemia, he described Rabbenu Tam’s position as ‘theoretical’, mere pilpul, intellectual play.”

R. Yitzchak Or Zarua’s view, in this instance, was the polar opposite to that of the French approach where:
“...the results of textual analysis and interpretation hold true even when they conflict with the accepted custom of the entire community.”

The new French approach to Talmud study and Halachic derivation was considered too revolutionary for the Jews of Germany.

R. Yitzchak Or Zarua’s reliance on his traditional German customs is interesting because he had spent time in France studying under the Tosafist R. Yehuda ben Yitzchak Sir Leon, a student of Rabbeinu Tam. 

What is important to note is that Reiner describes R. Yitzchak Or Zarua as being in a state of ‘tension’ and ‘vacillation’ as a result of his dual loyalties. We will look deeper into this ‘tension’ later.

Europe in 1190.


The strong sense of German Jews holding on to their regional customs and traditions did not last forever. With time, the influence from the French Tosafists under the banner of ‘reason over custom’ began to spread eastwards to the heart of Germany.

One of the many teachers of R. Yitzchak Or Zarua was R. Eliezer ben Yoel haLevi from Bonn, known by the acronym Raviyah, who (despite his German origins) was largely responsible for bringing the French style of dialectics to Germany.


While there is no doubt that the French approach to Halacha soon spread to Germany, the scholars are divided as to when exactly that change began to take place.

According to Professor Yaakov Sussmann[9], the shift began in the middle of the 13th-century. This was when R. Yitzchak Or Zarua and his student R. Meir of Rothenburg travelled to France to study with the Tosafists.

According to Professor Reiner, however, the shift was more gradual, starting much earlier, from the middle of the 12th-century and reaching its peak with R. Yitzchak Or Zarua’s writings at the beginning of the 13th-century. As we shall see, notwithstanding his comment about not following the French customs derived from dialectics (as in the case of handling a candle on Shabbat as mentioned earlier) it seems he was in a state of ‘tension’ because in other sections of Or Zarua he goes on to quote frequently from Rabbeinu Tam - to the extent that he too (like his teacher Raviyah) is also credited with bringing French change to Germany.
Reiner supports his view by showing that already in the 12th-century, German rabbis had started studying in French Tosafist academies:

The first group of German rabbis, three in all, who journeyed to France to study under the Tosafists were R. Efraim of Regensburg (1110-1175), R. Yitzchak ben Mordechai (Rivam 1090-1130) and R. Moshe ben Yoel (Raviyah), the teacher of R. Yitzchak Or Zarua. Later a group of more than ten German rabbis also spent some time studying in the French Talmudic academy of Rabbenu Tam.

Reiner writes:

“For the first time we find a group of students from the veteran Rhine communities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz turning westwards and thus admitting - at least tacitly – the academic supremacy of France over Ashkenaz.”


What is fascinating, though, is that none of these German ‘pioneers’ returned to their original hometowns in Germany after studying with the Tosafists in France. Instead, they all settled in the eastern section of the German lands such as Regensburg and in Bohemia. Why?

The answer is quite telling. The eastern sections of Germany were spiritual Jewish wastelands with very little Torah content or religious life.

This exact phenomenon had already taken place sometime earlier with the Chasidei Ashkenaz, who also originally hailed from the Rhine valley but chose to move and teach in the east of the German lands.

Reiner explains:

“[B]oth German Pietists [Chasidei Ashkenaz] and the ‘French’ group [of German rabbis] were revolutionary, whether changing religious values [as per the mystical group of Chasidei Ashkenaz] or in settling halakhic norms [as per the new German Tosafists] [10].

Veteran communities such as Speyer, Worms, and Mainz in the Rhine valley possessed a long-standing tradition, and even more important, a deep consciousness of the transmitted customary tradition. Therefore, almost instinctively, they rejected new trends and obviously, revolutionary ones.”

This ‘rejection of new trends’ by the establishment within the Rhine valley can be seen, for example, in how R. Eliezer ben Natan (known as Raavan) from Mainz - in his work Even haEzer – rejects Rabbeinu Tam every time he mentions a comment or innovation made by the French Tosafist.

Under such conditions, the Chasidei Ashkenaz (under R. Yehuda heChasid) and the ‘French’ group of German rabbis would never have gained a foothold within the old school in the Rhine valley, and therefore they had to move eastwards to virgin spiritual territory such as Regensburg.

The German economy, culture and trade were also moving eastwards at that time and this served to assist the ‘revolutionaries’ as well.

By around the middle of the 12th-century, the old school within the Rhine valley must have started feeling trapped by the French Tosafists in the west and the burgeoning German ‘French’ rabbis of Regensburg in the east who were expounding on what they had learned from the French academy of Rabbenu Tam.

Reiner describes the German ‘French’ revolutionary rabbis as follows:

“Though its members were of German origin, their talmudical and halakhic culture was absolutely French.”

To indicate how the French ‘revolution’ began to eventually become mainstream we must remember that, as mentioned above, Raavan[11] of Mainz (who always rejected Rabbeinu Tam’s views) had a grandson Raviyah (who frequently quoted Rabbeinu Tam’s views as authoritative) and the latter lived in the heart of the traditional Rhine valley! 

Thus within two generations the old German school from Mainz had evolved to an acceptance of the French style of dialectics and the French approach to Halacha where reason trumped generational custom. The heartland of traditional Ashkenaz had finally been infiltrated by the French. And it was through Raviyah’s student R. Yitzchak Or Zarua, that that influence reached its peak.

Reiner writes:

“From the generation of R. Isaac’s [i.e., R. Yitzchak Or Zarua’s][12] students onwards the scholars of Ashkenaz were fully exposed to the traditions and innovations of the French Tosafists.”


This is the ‘tension’ and the ‘vacillation’ exhibited by R. Yitzchak Or Zarua which Reiner was referring to. He was torn between the traditional customs he remembered from his youth (such as the example of the Sabbath lamp mentioned earlier, where he rejected Rabbeinu Tam’s view) and his later influences by the Tosafists. Thus, in his same book where he rejects Rabbeinu Tam he was also comfortable to quote extensively from the Responsa of Rabbeinu Tam.[13]


Eventually, Ashkenazi rabbis rarely had to travel to France to study as they had done in the past, because by now they had already adopted the French style of dialectical Halachic decision making from within their own German lands to the east.

Reiner concludes:

“The French cultural ‘conquest’ of German territory was so complete and ingrained, that the German scholars perceived the results as their own and there was no more reason to set their eyes westward to France.”


Notwithstanding the debate one could have over whether the Tosafist system was superior to that of traditional Ashkenaz or vice versa, what is fascinating here is the notion of what Professor Reiner calls the ‘hegemony’ of the Tosafists

Hegemony is defined as: "a group or regime which exerts undue influence within a society".

Understanding just how quickly a mind shift was able to affect the very heart of a deeply traditional and territorial German community, shows how important the study of Hashkafic (religious worldview) history is.

The Germans blinked and the French won.

To a person living in the German heartland at the end of the 13th-century, it would have seemed as though the revolutionary French approach had always been the traditional German way...going back antiquity...

But we know that that was not the case, as the French approach had been only recently adopted by the German rabbis  - some of whom had been connected to Chassidei Ashkenaz who actually questioned the Jewish provenance of such an approach in the first instance!

Either way, Northern France and Germany were then heaped together under the broad category of the ‘monolithic’ community of if they were always so united in Tosafist methodology and ideology. We even refer to the ‘Tosafists of Northern France and Germany’!

The French revolution by the Tosafists was now complete - and few, it seems, were any the wiser that it had even occurred.

One wonders how often similar examples of such hegemony or ‘hostile takeovers’ have occurred throughout the ages, up to and including some ‘traditional’ methodologies of present times?

[See also Avraham Grossman, Ashkenazim to 1300.]

[1] Bohemia is the westernmost and largest historical region of the Czech lands in the present-day Czech Republic.
[2] 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).
[3] Avraham Reiner, From Rabbenu Tam to R. Isaac of Vienna: The Hegemony of the French Talmudic School in the Twelfth Century.
[4] Sefer Or Zarua II (1862) no. 33.
[5] Parenthesis mine.
[6] Parenthesis mine.
[7] Translation by Reiner.
[8] Parenthesis mine.
[9] Yaakov Sussmann, The Scholarly Oeuvre (1993) pp. 48-50.
[10] Parentheses mine.
[11] R. Eliezer ben Natan.
[12] Parenthesis mine.
[13] If I understand this correctly, then parts of the Or Zarua may have been authored at different stages of his life – before he travelled to France and after. He journeyed to France whilst in his fifties. Sussmann says he went to France in the mid-13th-century. He was born around 1200 and died in 1270, which makes this premise feasible.  This would account for his being ‘torn’ between two traditions which are therefore reflected differently in his book. -Unless, of course, R. Yitzchak Or Zarua simply remained in tension and conflicted.


  1. "Under such conditions, the Chasidei Ashkenaz and the ‘French’ group of German rabbis would never have gained a foothold within the old school in the Rhine valley, and therefore they had to move eastwards to virgin spiritual territory such as Regensburg."

    Chasidei Ashkenaz were within the Rhine. The Rokeach was in Worms and R. Shmuel Hasid, Rabbi Yehuda Hasid's father, was in Shpeira, and before Rabbi Yehuda Hasid was old enough, he taught his secrets to R. Elazar Chazan in Shpeira. The fact that Rabbi Yehuda Hasid was in Regensburg, is not evidentiary that Hasidei Ashkenaz did were not accepted and needed virgin spriritual territory. They lived and acted within the old SHUM communities. It is part of the reason the liturgy and minhagim of Rhinous Ashkenazim are very close to what Hasidei Ashkenaz practiced.

  2. "Thank you EA.

    To your point, this is exactly as Reiner records it:

    "The pioneers of this movement [Chasidei Ashkenaz] had, again, come from the Rhine valley. However, the early efforts of R. Judah ha-Hasid, together with those of his disciples, took place in Regensburg towards the end of the twelfth century."

    In fairness to you, EA, Reiner does continue to say;

    "A possible explanation that resolves these problems..." and goes on to point out the 'revolutionary' nature of the 'French' group of German rabbis and Chasidei Ashkenaz and that they they therefore had to seek a new haven in the east.

    Your point, however, is well taken and I will amend my text to read "Chasidei Ashkenaz under R. Yehuda heChasid..." in the interests of greater accuracy.