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.

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