Ashkenazic Rabbinate - Part 1

Many of you might recall that about 6-8 weeks ago, a number of Jewish newspapers across the country carried a piece by Rabbis Avi Weiss and Marc Angel about the conversion controversy.  I don’t want to get into the issues of the article, but one of their assertions is one that I think provides us an interesting entry into a historical issue.  They stated, correctly, that the Ashkenazic tradition provides for the independence of each local community and each local Rav.  I wanted to take the opportunity to discuss why this is the case historically, and also take a look at the origin of the Ashkenazic Semicha that a number of people have asked me about over the past couple of years.  We will take a look at issues of community independence, Rabbinic conflicts and related issues as described in the responsa literature and various ספרי מנהג.

My primary source for information on the Ashkenazic Rabbinate and some of the issues it faced is a book called רבנות אשכנז בימי הביניים by the late Professor Mordecai Breuer.  As a point of information, there were two Mordecai Breuer’s in Israel, I believe 2nd cousins, who both died in the past year.  This one was a Professor I believe at Hebrew U.  The other is the person who was probably the world’s leading authority on the Aleppo Codex and on Biblical text.

Breuer places the origins of the community Rabbinate in the early 11th century.  This should not be understood to mean that in earlier periods sages were not active in communities.  They indeed were; the communities were bound to honor the רבנים and to ease the burden of livelihood from them so that they could dedicate most of their time to learning Torah.  What was lacking was a formal relationship between the Rabbi and the community.  With regard to how רבנים earned a livelihood, we have the following from רבנו גרשם מאור הגולה:

שו"ת רבינו גרשום מאור הגולה סימן סח

וששאלתם ראובן היה לו מערופיא של כומרים הרבה שנים, וראובן זה צורבא דרבנן הוא, ומלמד תורה לרבים בחנם והכירו תלמידיו בריוח שמרויח במערופיא שלו, ונכנסו להפסידו. וקבל עליהם בקהל, והפרישום הקהל בחרם ובגזרה מאותה מערופיא. ונסתפק להם, אם רצו להפריש שאר ישראל, שאינם תלמידיו אי לא.

מתוך שאלתכם, יש ללמוד שאין נוהגים במקומכם דין מערופיא. וכיון שלא נהגתם בכך, אין אדם אחד יכול לכפות הקהל, שינהגו לו מנהג לעצמו. ואף על גב דאמר רב הונא +בבא בתרא דף כ"א, ע"ב וכ"ב, ע"א.+ האי בר מבואה דאוקא ריחיא, ואתא בר מבואה וקא מוקי גבי', דינא הוא דמעכב ליה. דאמר ליה, קא פסקת לחיותאי. לית הלכתא כר' הונא דאותביניה: עושה אדם חנות בצד חנותו של חברו וכו' ואף על גב דאוקמי' כתנאי והוא דאמר כרשב"ג דאמר אף לשכנו כופהו, הלכ' כתנא קמא דאמר לשכנו אינו כופה, והני מילי במקום שלא נהגו, אבל במקום שנהגו הכל כמנהג המדינה, והני מילי בשאר אינשי, אבל בצורבא מרבנן דעסיק באורייתא ובמילי דשמיא מתבעי למיעבד ליה תקנתא, כי היכי דלא נטריד מגירסיה. דאמר ר' נחמן בר יצחק +בבא בתרא דף כ"א, ע"ב וכ"ב, ע"א.+ ומודה ר' הונא בריה דר' יהושע ברוכלין המחזירין בעיירות דלא מעכב, ואפי' בני מתא אחריתא, משום דעזרא תיקן להם לישראל שיהו רוכלין מחזירין בעיירות, והני מילי לאהדורי אבל לאקובעי לא. ואי צורבא מרבנן הוא, אפילו לאקבועי נמי ואמרינן נמי כאן ר' דימי מנהרדעי אייתי גרוגרת בספינה במחוזא א"ל ריש גלותא לרבא צורבא הוא או צורבא מרבנן הוא נקוט ליה שוקא. ואמרינן תו ר' יוחנן רמי ועשית לך ארון עץ וכתיב ועשו ארון עצי שיטים +שמות כ"ה, י'.+ מכאן שבני עירו מצווין לעשות מלאכתו, וא"ר יוחנן איזהו ת"ח שבני עירו מצווין לעשות מלאכתו +יומא ע"ב, ע"ב.+ זה שמניח חפצו, ועוסק בחפצי שמים. מכל טעמים אלו יש ללמוד שצריכין הקהל לעשות תקנה לתלמיד - חכם זה שמלאכתו מלאכת שמים ומלמד תורה לרבים בחינם כדי שלא יטרד מתלמודו, ויגזרו על כל ישראל שיפרשו ממערופיא שלו, ויקבלו שכר על כך, ויאריכו חיים, כדכתיב עץ חיים למחזיקים בה ותומכיה מאושר.

...and you have asked me about Reuven, who had a Marufia with the bishop for many years, and he is from the group of rabbis and he taught Torah in public without charge.  His students recognized the profit that he was earning from this Marufia and sought to compete with him.  The community placed these individuals into cherem and sought to prevent them by decree from interfering with this Marufia.  The community does not know, if they wish to prevent others who are not his students from interfering with this Marufia, whether they have the right to do so.

Answer: From your question, it is apparent that the  concept of Marufia is not an accepted practice in your community.  Since it is not the communal custom, no one may coerce the community to provide him with a personal benefit...
what follows is a discussion of Talmudic sources, not relevant to our topic...for all of these reasons we can derive that the communtiy needs to make an accommodation for the Talmid Chacham, whose labor is the work of the heavens and who teaches Torah to the public without charge, so that he should not be disturbed from his teaching, and decree on the entire community that they not interfere with his Marufia.  They will be rewarded for this, and enjoy extended life, as it says, "it is a tree of life for them that hold fast to it."

A Marufia is more or less a monopoly to engage in commerce with specific non-Jews.  The origin of the term is unknown, as is its exact definition.  Therefore, I have not translated the term.

In Israel and Bavel the term “Rabbi” and “Rav” indicated the status of the sage in the Beit Midrash; those people who were appointed to provide communal leadership were called פרנסים or דיינים.  While there is mention of sages who had been appointed as a פרנס for the community, in general sages distanced themselves from working in communal leadership and those who did committed themselves primarily to the fulfillment of Mitzvot such as charity for the poor, concern for orphans and redeeming captives.  They fled, however, from the  רבנות, in accordance with the dictates of Pirkei Avot.

The basic structure of the community was brought to Europe by the several families who migrated from Italy, as we have discussed at another time, and who brought with them the traditions of ארץ ישראל as to the organization of community.  In בבל, there was a centralization of authority in the ריש גלותא and in the Gaonim at the head of the 2 yeshivot .  The organization of the Israeli community was very different; each town maintained its own independence and maintained autonomy and something of a democratic process.  We’ve seen an example of this in the discussion last year of שמחת תורה  we saw that they divided the Torah reading into different numbers of portions and that even those communities who might have divided up the Torah into the same number of portions would not necessarily be reading the same portions in the same week, so that each community would have a “שמחת תורה“ at a different time!

With the transfer of the  ארץ ישראלpractice to Europe, the new and growing communities in the region of the Rhine guarded their independence and did not establish any umbrella national organization.  They did not place significant reliance on the Yeshivot of בבל, not only because of the vast distances involved, but also because it was precisely at the time of the rise of the European communities that the esteem in which the Babylonian institutions was held started to wane.

Each community then established for itself a בית דין גדול that established Takanot for the local community.  Communities generally did not interfere in the affairs of other communities, even when the external community had greater רבנים.

Not only was the community independent and have its own institutions, but regardless of the quality of the leadership, the בית דין of the community had the Halachic status of a בית דין גדול, meaning that a litigant was not allowed to complain that he did not like the local court, but wanted to have his case heard in a greater court.

ספר אור זרוע ח"ג פסקי בבא קמא סימן תלו

האידנא ... הגדול שבעיר חשוב בית דין הגדול כדפי' רבינו שמשון זצ"ל דמאחר שאנו רחוקים יותר מדאי סברא הוא דגדול חשוב בית דין הגדול וכגון שהוא מומחה ויודע להוציא דין תורה לאורה דאיכא למיחש לרמאין שלא ידחו עצמם כל שעה מן הדין באומרם לב"ד הגדול קאזילנא.

and now...the Gadol in the city is considered to be a Bais Din Gadol, as explained by Rabbeinu Shamshon, that since we are all too far apart, it is logical that the Gadol would be considered as a Bais Din Gadol.  This assumes that he is qualified and able to decide a Din Torah.  We are worried about liars who will constantly defer judicial matters by claiming that they must go to a greater Bais Din.

Communal organization changed somewhat with the rise of the European city – the community was no longer run by all of the טובי העיר , but we see the beginnings of elections to a legislative body.  This body also included some of the local sages, with the implicit assumption that they would respect his religious rulings.  So the beginnings of the formal Rabbinate are grounded in the development of the city, and the communities would either elect or appoint a Rav, or establish a rabbinic authority through some informal means.

Among the evidence for the existence of an appointed רב העיר is the following comment of the Trumat HaDeshen:

תרומת הדשן סימן א

גם שמעתי בישיבה, מפי אחד מהגדולים, ששמע וקבל, כי בימי הקדמונים בקרימ"ש, התפללו ערבית וקראו את שמע, בע"ש בעוד היום גדול, כל כך, שהיה רב העיר שהיה מהגדולים הקדמונים הוא, וכל טובי הקהל עמו, הלכו לטייל אחר אכילה של סעודת שבת, על שפת הנהר דונא"י; והיו חוזרין לבתיהם קודם הלילה.

...I also heard in the yeshiva, from one of the outstanding people there, that in the old days in Krems, they would say the evening prayer and say Shema on Friday when it was still daytime to such an extent that the Rav of the city, who was one of the greats of old, along with the leaders of the community, would take a walk on the banks of the Danube after eating their Shabbos meal and would return to their homes before nightfall.

In many communities, the רב העיר was not the only religious authority, particularly in those places where there was a Beit Midrash or similar institution – in those places the sages of the town joined the Rav in the Beit Din, including even the פרנסים or דיינים.  In these places the Rav served as the Av Beit Din. 

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Last Revised February 16, 2011
Copyright © 2011
by Adam M. Charney
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