The Tower of Ensisheim Revisited

I recently discussed the reliability of the legend that Maharam forbade the payment of the ransom demanded for his release from captivity. Rabbi Dr. J. J. Schacter kindly directed me to, and provided me with a copy of, Dr. Irving A. Agus’ comprehensive discussion of the entire tragic affair of Maharam’s attempted emigration and subsequent imprisonment, which includes a detailed analysis the failure of the Jews to obtain his release via the payment of a ransom:

Moreover, the detention of R. Meir in prison presents another perplexing problem: Why was he not released from custody? Both Jewish and non-Jewish sources tell us that the Jews made strenuous efforts to ransom their Rabbi. The Chronicon Colmariense, for the year 1288, records the fact that the Jews promised the emperor Rudolph twenty thousand marks to bring to justice the murderers of the Jews of Boppard and Oberwessel, and release their learned and highly honored Rabbi. This Rabbi. whom the Chronicon describes as the head of the Jewish school and as being divinely honored by his fellow Jews, could be none other then Rabbi Meir. At the same time, Rabbi Hayyim b. Yehiel of Cologne tells us in one of his responsa that in 1287 twelve communities promised to give to King Rudolph twenty-three thousand pounds, if he would grant their request. The two sources speaking of promises made to the emperor of twenty thousand marks and twenty-three thousand pounds respectively, probably refer to the same request made to him, viz: justice and protection for the Jews of Boppard and Oberwessel, and the release of R. Meir. Thus we see that the Jews were prepared to expend an enormous sum of money in order to ransom their beloved teacher; why, then, was he not released?

Graetz and Back believe that R. Meir did not allow the communities to ransom him at such a high price, so that the Gentile should not resort to the capture of great rabbis as a means of extorting large sums of money from the Jews. This assumption is based on the statement of R. Solomon Luria …

This report heard by R. Solomon, however, cannot be entirely true. R. Asher, commenting on the Talmudic statement אין פודין את השבויים יותר מכדי דמיהם, explicitly decides that talmudic scholars should be ransomed at any price, and makes no mention of the heroic gesture ascribed to R. Meir. Further in a responsum written in prison R. Meir says:

ופי’ זרעים וטהרות שלי לכשאצא בשלום אטרח ברצון שיהיו מועתקים לך. ובתפיסתי את בוראי לא שכחתי ובתורתו וביראתו דבקתי. והמתנדבים יחזו את ה’ בנועם. וכתם זהב לא יועם.

This shows he expected to be released soon. On other occasions he also wrote that a Jew cannot expect to be released from the clutches of his captors unless he pays a heavy ransom. He must have expected to be released through the payment of a ransom. Furthermore, the clause והמתנבים יחזו את ה’ בנועם must be interpreted as an expression of thanks to those princes in Israel, the leaders of the various communities, who volunteered to raise the ransom money; while the words וכתם זהב לא יועם express a prayer and a wish that the payment of such money be effective in obtaining his release. Again, in the responsum of R. Hayyim b. Yehiel cited above, the author asserts that at first Rudolph promised to grant the request of the communities, but subsequently refused to live up to his promise; that nevertheless he enforced collection of the sum promised by the communities. Thus we learn from this source that the ransom money was paid, but that Rudolph still refused to release R. Meir.

R. Meir, therefore, remained in custody not because he forbade the communities to ransom him, but because of the treachery and double dealing of the emperor.1

In a footnote, Agus elaborates on the unreliability of Maharshal’s account:

We must draw a clear distinction between R. Solomon’s Responsum 29, where he inserts a copy of an historical document that was written by a contemporary of R. Meir, and this statement in the ים של שלמה, which was based on an oral report, notoriously subject to error. An oral statement made almost three hundred years after the event is usually devoid of historical truth.2

Baruch She’kivanti.

Agus’ marshalling of the ruling of Rosh that “talmudic scholars should be ransomed at any price” as evidence against the veracity of Maharshal’s account is rather careless; he neglects to mention that Maharshal himself already raises this question:

מתניתין אין פודין את השבויים יתר על כדי דמיהם שראוים למכור בשוק בתורת עבדות מפני תיקון העולם … [וכתבו] התוספות והרא”ש אחריהם … וכן תלמיד חכם שנשבה בהא לא תקון רבנן כדאמרינן פרק הניזקין דר’ יהושע פדה תינוק שבוי בדמים מרובים לפי שראוהו חריף ומפולפל ואפשר שיהא אדם גדול וכל שכן מי שהוא כבר אדם גדול. ע”כ.

שמעתי על מהר”ם מרוטנבר”ק … ותמה אני מאחר שהיה תלמיד חכם מופלג ולא היה כמותו בדורו בתורה ובחסידות, ושרי לפדותו בכל ממון שבעולם, ואם מרוב ענותנותו לא רצה להחזיק עצמו בתלמיד חכם מופלג, מכל מקום היה לו לחוש על ביטול תורה, כאשר כתב בעצמו, שהוא היה יושב בחושך וצלמות, בלי תורה ואורה, והיה מקונן שלא היו אצלו ספרי הפוסקים והתוספות, ואיך לא היה חש לעון ביטול תורה, מאחר שרבים צריכים לו.

ובודאי דעתו היה, שאם יפדו אותו, אם כן יש למיחש שלא יעשו כן כל השרים לתלמיד חכם המופלג שבדור, בעבור רוב הממון, עד שלא יספיק ממון הגולה לפדותם, ותשתכח התורה מישראל.

כי גם שמעתי שהיה בדעת אותו הצורר לתפוס גם הרא”ש תלמידו, ונודע לו, וברח לטוליטילא, ונצול ברחמיו וברב חסדיו.

ומשום הכי אמר החסיד, מוטב שתאבד מעט חכמה היתרת מישראל, ממה שתאבד חכמת התורה עיקר, וזה האות שאז פסקה אותו הדבר והשמד לתפוס חכמי הגולה3

Perhaps Agus feels that Maharshal’s resolution is unpersuasive, but it seems quite plausible to me. Maharshal is suggesting that although Tosafos and Rosh rule that the injunction of the Mishneh, which is possibly motivated by the concern of דלא לגרבו ולייתו טפי4, does not in general apply to the redemption of potential, and certainly actual, Talmidei Hachamim, nevertheless, when we judge that in a particular situation the payment of an exorbitant ransom may have dire long term consequences, it is wrong to pay it.

Alternatively, perhaps Agus’ primary argument is from Rosh’s failure to “[make any] mention of the heroic gesture ascribed to R. Meir”, since even if Maharshal is correct, Rosh should still have noted Maharam’s position as a counterpoint. I’m not completely persuaded by this argument either, since Rosh’s ruling, following Tosafos, permitting the redemption of Talmidei Hachamim, is a classic Tosafist resolution to a contradiction between two different Sugyos of the Gemara, and those familiar with the Piskei Ha’Rosh will recognize that in the vast majority of cases, Rosh merely records conclusions reached by him or his predecessors, derived from the Sugyos under discussion, without necessarily setting forth a systematic presentation of the Halachah.

Nevertheless, I do concede that Rosh’s omission of Maharam’s purported stand is at least something of an argument against the story’s veracity.

  1. Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg (Second Edition), Ktav, New York 1970, pp. 129-132 []
  2. p. 130 n. 20 []
  3. ים של שלמה, גיטין, פרק ד’ סימן ס”ו []
  4. See Gittin 45a []

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