Once More Unto the Tower Of Ensisheim

“The problem with quotes on the Internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity.”
Abraham Lincoln

This can be a problem with dead tree media, too. A couple of day ago, on Tisha Be’Av, I read this passage in the Artscroll Kinos:

From the seat of his rabbinate in Rottenburg, Maharam guided German Jewry throughout the second half of the thirteenth century. However, in his final years, he met with tragedy. The terrible burden of persecution was making life intolerable for the Jews of Germany. Taxation, pogroms, blood libels, harsh decrees – all of these spurred Jews to flee from this miserable exile and to make the arduous journey to Eretz Yisrael. Emperor Rudolph I did not wish to lose the Jews from whom he enjoyed extorting so much gold, so, in the year 1286, he declared the Jews to be his personal property – Servi Camerae, serfs of the Emperor’s Treasury. He prohibited Jews from leaving Germany and confiscated the property of those who did.
Maharam vigorously opposed this decree and together with his family attempted to flee Germany. Unfortunately, when he reached the border with Lombardy, he was recognized by a Jewish apostate who reported him to the royal agents. The Emperor imprisoned Maharam in the Castle of Ensisheim. He demanded an exorbitant ransom from the Jewish community if they were to obtain their leader’s release.
German Jewry, led by Maharam’s disciple Rabbeinu Asher (the Rosh), began to amass the enormous sum of 23,000 talents of silver to redeem their Rav. However, Maharam refused to permit them to pay such an exorbitant sum, for the Mishnah (Gittin 45a) teaches; “For the sake of public welfare it is prohibited to redeem Jewish captives for an exorbitant sum” (lest this encourage despots to kidnap other Jews for high ransom in the future).
R’ Asher disagreed with his mentor’s decision. He argued that the Mishnah’s ruling did not apply to the generation’s greatest Torah leader, for whom no amount could be considered exorbitant. Thus, he guaranteed the Emperor that he would personally raise the full sum. However, Maharam died in prison in the year 1293, before R. Asher was able to raise the full amount. Fearing that he would now be held hostage in Maharam’s place, R’ Asher fled to Spain, where he died in 1327.
Maharam died in prison in the year 1293, but his remains were not released for burial until they were ransomed fourteen years later by a wealthy Jew, Alexander Wimpfen, whose sole request was that he be buried near this great leader.
Maharam’s noble act of self-sacrifice achieved its purpose. Never again in Jewish history were great Rabbinic leaders held hostage in order to extort enormous ransom payments from the Jews.1

We have previously discussed Maharam’s putative refusal to allow his ransom for an exorbitant sum, and while this refusal itself is of uncertain historicity, I am certainly baffled by Artscroll’s assertion of Rosh’s “disagree[ment] with his mentor’s decision”:

  1. The sole source for Maharam’s refusal to be ransomed, an oral tradition recorded by Maharshal, mentions nothing of any such disagreement.
  2. While Rosh, in his discussion of the relevant Talmudic discussion, does indeed codify a Tosafist ruling that the Mishnaic rule that “We do not redeem captives for more than their worth” does not apply to a “Torah scholar” (תלמיד חכם) or “great man” (אדם גדול), actual or even potential, he “makes no mention of the heroic gesture ascribed to R. Meir” (as Prof. Irving Agus puts it).
  3. Maharshal actually wonders why Maharam refused ransoming, in light of the aforementioned exception of Tosafos and Rosh for great men, and sees no alternative to the suggestion that Maharam was concerned that this would encourage “all the nobles” to seize for ransom the exceptional figures of the generation, to the extent that the ransoms will be unpayable, “and Torah will be forgotten from Israel”. [This is somewhat difficult to understand, as this is the very rationale behind the Mishnaic rule in the first place, to which the Tosafists nevertheless carved out an exception for exceptional figures. Maharshal apparently means that Maharam felt that while in general, the imperative to ransom exceptional figures outweighs the risk of encouraging further abductions, in his case, for some reason the calculus was reversed, perhaps due to the exceptional rapaciousness or unscrupulousness of the German nobility.] It does not even seem to have occurred to Maharshal that Rosh “disagreed with his mentor’s decision”!

Update: When composing this post, I overlooked the fact that in one of my earlier posts on this topic, I was rather more approving of Maharshal’s resolution of the apparent contradiction between Maharam’s position and the Tosafist-Rosh ruling; הרואה יראה והבוחר יבחר.

  1. Kinos – The Complete Tishah B’Av Service With An Interlinear Translation (The Schottenstein Edition – Nusach Ashkenaz), pp. 482-83. []

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