Mocking Maharaz

My friend Eliezer Brodt observes:

One last small point of interest to me in about the Oz Ve-Hador [edition of מגילת תענית] was that they seem to have no problem with the Maharatz Chayes as they quote his piece on the MT [Megilas Ta’anis] word for word with proper attribution. It would seem they argue (as do I) with Rebbetzin Bruriah David who concluded that the Maharatz Chayes was a Maskil.

As Eliezer knows, however (he has mentioned to me his intention to expand upon this question), Rebbetzin David was certainly not the first to class the Rav Zvi Hirsch (Maharaz) Hajes as a maskil; here’s Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson’s remarkable excoriation of the man, in which he savagely mocks his glosses to the Talmud:

והנה כעת ראיתי בהגהות שנדפסו בש”ס החדש בווין לאחד מהמשכילים … ותמה אני אם ראוי להעלות כזאת על ספר …
ובאמת כפי הנראה כל הגהותיו עשה אך למען התפאר כי עשה הגהות ולא יחפוץ כסיל בתבונה כי אם בהתגלות לבו כי יש מהם דברים פשוטים ומאסף כל אחרונים הלזה יקרא הגהות על הש”ס ויש מהם דברים מהבילים וכל איש הישר בעיניו יעשה ד’ ירחם עלינו.
וראיתי בבבא מציעא בדף ג’ תמה למה הקדים דברי רבי לדברי רשב”ג אביו ותמה אני על בקיאותו הנפלא על פי תחבולות ולמה לא נזכר בדברי התוספות דף ד’ שהזכירו זאת:1

R. Dr. Meir Hershkowitz has a fascinating, detailed analysis of this comment of R. Nathanson, toward the beginning which he asserts that “The scholars of the generation related very respectfully to the glosses of the Maharaz”, citing as example Rav Yosef Zecharyah Stern:

חכמי הדור התייחסו בכבוד גדול אל הגהות המהר”ץ. [עיין לדוגמא בדברי הגאון הקרוב לדורנו, מרן ר’ יוסף זכריה שטערן משאוועל, שבספרו זכר יהוסף, חלק א’, על הש”ס, הביא את דברי המהר”ץ בהגהותיו פעמים רבות, ובדף מו: אמר עליו: ודברי פי חכם חן. …]2

R. Dr. Hershkowitz’s broader point may very well be correct, but the oeuvre of the omnivorous R. Stern – who also cites Maharaz Hajes heavily in his תהלוכי האגדות – is a singularly bad data point from which to generalize to the “scholars of the generation”: as discussed here, the man read and cited everyone across the gamut of Jewish scholarship, from Azariah dei Rossi to Naftali Hirz (Hartwig) Wessely; I plan to discuss this further in a future post, בג”ה.

R. Dr. Hershkowitz asserts that this attack of R. Nathanson is uncharacteristic of his generally more respectful attitude toward Maharaz Hajes:

כמו כן עלינו לציין שהזעם הזה של השואל ומשיב הוא בבחינת הוראת שעה, ודעת השואל ומשיב על המהר”ץ נשתנתה לטובה. בהרבה מתשובותיו משתקף יחס של כבוד אל המהר”ץ. גם בהספדו עליו הדגיש, ששבע החכמות כולן יכולות להיות יעילות להבנת התורה3

He therefore assumes that “beyond any doubt, some unique event – or events” must have triggered R. Nathanson’s outburst:

אך מה קרה בעת שהביע את בקרתו החריפה על הגהות המהר”ץ? מה חרי האף הגדול הזה? למעלה מכל ספק שאיזה מאורע – או מאורעות – מיוחד במינו גרם לזה!4

And he concludes by proposing that the particular socio-political-religious conditions of R. Nathanson’s Lvov (Lemberg) and the danger that rabbis erudite in both Torah as well as general culture might prove irresistibly seductive to the populace in general (and yeshivah students in particular!) provoked some of the גדולי הדור, and R. Nathanson in particular, to total war against even inherently “kosher” Haskalah. It was necessary to excoriate Maharaz Hajes, lest he inspire attempts at emulation of his successful synthesis of Torah and Mada – which is a viable path for but a tiny minority of the populace …:

הדרך שאחדים מגדולי הדור בחרו בה, היתה: להלחם בכל האמצעים, על ימין ועל שמאל. כוונתם היתה בהחלט טהורה וזכה, ולפי גודל הסכנה מדדו את דרכי התגובה. יתכן, איפוא, שבכגון זה היתה גם תגובת מרן הגאון בעל השואל ומשיב, בימים האלו. אולי פחד, ששמו של הגאון הצעיר שהצטיין בכל – לפי גילו הצעיר – עלול להשפיע בכוון הפוך על אצילי בני הישיבה בפרט ועל דעת הקהל בכלל. ומכיון שכל נפשו ולבו היו נתונים להתמדה בלימודים ולחשקת התורה, על כן התקיף את המהר”ץ דוקא בשדה התורה, כדי להוקיעו לפני לומדי תורה, שלא יתלהבו ממנו ושלא יחישו ללכת בצעדיו, שרק נועדים למעטים מן המעטים, ורק אחרי ששמע המהר”ץ נתפרסם בעולם יותר ויותר, שנה גם הגאון הזה את יחסו אליו.
בקצור: שיטת הגאון בעל שואל ומשיב היתה בסימן המלחמה של הדור ההוא, כוונתו היתה להצלת האומה, כמו שגם שיטת רבי צבי הירש חיות היתה בסימן המלחמה של הדור ההוא, גם כוונתו היתה להצלת האומה, אלא כל אחד בדרכו ההוא.5

In the second post in this series, we shall, בג”ה, discuss the comments of another fierce reactionary critic of Maharaz Hajes – Rav Akiva Yosef Schlesinger.

  1. שו”ת שואל ומשיב מהדורא חמישאה (דברי שאול ויוסף דעת) סימן כ”ו ד”ה הנה כעת ראיתי – קשר []
  2. אור המזרח, תשרי תשל”א, כרך כ’ חוברת א’ (ס”ט) עמוד 64 []
  3. שם עמוד 67 []
  4. שם עמוד 68 []
  5. שם בסוף המאמר עמוד 73 []

Exploring and Colonizing The Final Frontier

For my friend Dr. Jeremy Schnittman (obviously.)

Is the Torah positive, neutral or negative toward the exploration and colonization of outer space?
R. (Dr.) Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch, in a brief analysis published in 5762 [1962], at the height of the space race and the Cold War, deems such exploration innocent at least when engaged in in the spirit of the Americans, as opposed to that of the Godless Commies (“the Reds”):

ציר בקונגרס שאל מאת רב אחד אם על פי תוה”ק מותר להפליג לירח ולשאר כוכבי לכת ולהושיב שם בני אדם אם אפשר?
אף שהאחראיים לנסויים אלה אינם נשמעים לדעת תורה, מכל מקום אין להושיב פני השואל ריקם. בסנהדרין דף קט.: אמר רבי ירמיה בר אלעזר, נחלקו לג’ כתות אחת אומרת נעלה ונשב שם וכו’ תניא ר’ נתן אומר, כולם לשם עכו”ם נתכוונו. הרי שלולא לשם עכו”ם לא היה בידי כתה זו שום חטא לכאורה. כן משמע גם מן המקרא ישעיה יד:יג-טו, חטאו של נבוכדנאצר שאמר אעלה ממעל לכוכבי קל וכו’ היה משום שנתכוון אדמה לעליון, ועיין פסחים דף צד. ביתר ביאור.
ועיין בחגיגה דף יא:, ולמקצה השמים ועד קצה השמים אתה שואל, ובמהרש”א שם דף י”ג ד”ה במופלא בא”ד “אך במה שהרשית התבונן – אמר התבונן לשון צווי כמ”ש החוקרים דיש לאדם לחקור על מציאותו מתוך הברואים שבעולם”.
לכאורה נראה מכל הנ”ל שאין לחשוב חטא מה שמשתדלים האמריקאים להגיע לירח מאחר שאין מתגאים בזה על ד’ ר”ל כמו שהאדומים באמת עושים.1

Several years later, R. Menachem Kasher, inspired by the small step for [a] man (“a great and historic event in our world”),2 composed his classic האדם על הירח, in which he discusses our question. He is somewhat more ambivalent, arguing that space travel may be prohibited due to the danger involved, and that colonization may be additionally prohibited due to an inference from the Biblical text that G-d has limited man’s habitation to the terrestrial region, and implicitly forbidden him to settle elsewhere. He suggests, however, that this in turn may be determined by the congeniality or hostility of extraterrestrial regions for human habitation: “humans are prohibited from residing anywhere other than the earth, until such time arrives – if we believe that a time may eventually arrive – that the matter will no longer be dangerous”:

אמנם מצינו קטע בהגניזה מדרש חז”ל או פירוש רב סעדיה גאון .. וז”ל:

פרו ורבו ומלאו את הארץ. ללמדך שבני אדם אסור לשכון אלא בארץ ע”כ,

בגנז”ש ח”א (דף 10) משער שזה מפירוש רס”ג. והוא מפרש שהכוונה בדרש הזה בהדגשה “הארץ” דווקא ולא המים, …
ולפי זה יש לומר שיש איסור לעלות על הלבנה משום שאסור לאדם לסכן נפשו, אבל מקרא ומלאו את הארץ אין ראיה, כי יש לומר שרק “לשכון”, היינו לדור במקום כזה, אבל לעלות ולחזור אין ראיה.
ואין זה דומה לאלו שנסעו לחפש מדינות ארצות הברית שאז היתה גם כן בגדר סכנה. משום שזה הי’ נכלל בצווי השם מלאו את הארץ וכבשוה, והרבה אלפים שנה עברו עד שבני אדם גילו החלק השני של הארץ.
ורעיון זה בפסוק ומלאו את הארץ מבואר בבראשית זוטא, לרבי שמואל בר’ נסים מסנות (בראשית ט:א):

ומלאו את הארץ שיהפרו (נראה שצ”ל “שייפרו”) בארץ ושישרצו וירבו בה, עד שתמצא כל הארץ מלאה מהם מפה ומפה. לפיכך כעס הב”ה כשבנו המגדל, שלא היה בדעתם לעמוד אלא במקום אחד כדכתיב (בראשית יא:ד) פן נפוץ, והב”ה גזר עליהם, שימלאו את הארץ וייקבעו יישובם בכל העולם, לפיכך לא נתקיימה עצתם דכתיב (שם ח): ויפץ ד’ אותם, ע”כ.

אבל על הלבנה שאין באופן טבעי אויר לנשימה בשביל חיי האדם זה מראה שאין זה מקום בשביל האדם לשכון שם, והוא בכלל הנ”ל שבני אדם אסור לשכון אלא בארץ, עד שיגיע זמן אם נאמין שיגיע פעם זמן שהדבר יצא מכלל סכנה.
וכל זה אנו דנים מצד עצם העלאת אדם על הירח, אבל כמובן יש לדון גם מבחינה אחרת, שכן, על ידי העלאה זו האדם מבטל מעצמו קיום דיני התורה, שאי אפשר לקיימם על הירח במצבנו היום.3

R. Nosson Slifkin (as he was known at the time he published this essay) also emphasizes the invidious distinction between the attitudes of the Americans and the Soviets with regard to space exploration:

Another ancient need that will perhaps be assisted by the ISS is the need to obey the instruction “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the land and conquer it” (Genesis 1:28). Man is supposed to break new frontiers and expand ever further in God’s universe. After all, “He did not create it for nothing; He formed it to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18). Nor should voyaging into the heavens be seen as treading on God’s turf. There are heavens and there are Heavens. God does not reside in outer space (at least, no more and no less than He resides here on earth).

Outer space is a wonderful place for man to explore. And who knows, we may even meet some interesting people there. Or other beings. Rabbi Yehudah ben Barzilei of Barcelona, a twelfth century authority on Jewish law and kabbalah, discussed the possibility of intelligent life on other planets in the universe. Encountering aliens would, of course, make for thrilling philosophical discussions.

However, amidst the marvel of the achievements of NASA and the ISS, a word of caution is in order. The episode of the Tower of Babel, when people said, “Come, let us build a city, and a tower, with its head in the heavens, and we shall make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4) warns of the arrogance that can come together with rising into the heavens. The prophet Obadiah likewise warned of nations growing too arrogant. “Though you soar aloft like the eagle, and you set your nest among the stars, from there will I bring you down, says the Lord” (Obadiah 1:4).

On August 7, 1961, Major Gherman Titov became the second Soviet cosmonaut to orbit the Earth. Upon returning, he triumphantly announced that he hadn’t seen God in the heavens. At the time, someone quipped, “Had he stepped out of his space-suit, he would have!” But pride comes before a fall, and Russia lost the space race.

The United States was simultaneously boasting of its own plans to beat the Russians and assert the pre-eminence of America. But in January 1967 it, too, was humbled, when Apollo 1 tragically caught fire on the launch pad, causing the death of three astronauts. Still, when the Apollo 8 spacecraft was sent for the first orbit of the moon, a different approach was presented. The astronauts, upon being the first people in history to see the earth from the heavens, did not mock that they could not see God. Instead, they delivered an altogether more humble message: “We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you: In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” They continued to recite several verses from Genesis. Astronaut Gene Kranz related that he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the experience.

It is a remarkable example of poetic justice that the Russians, who scorned God, did not make it to the moon, while the Americans, who humbly recited the verses attesting to God’s creation of heaven and earth, landed safely on the moon in 1969. Yet that extraordinary accomplishment became in itself a potentially dangerous cause for undue pride. “Though you soar aloft like the eagle, and you set your nest among the stars…” prophesies Obadiah; when the Eagle landing craft touched down upon the moon, many people felt that man had truly become the master of the stars. But even from there, God brought man’s pride crashing down with the terrible Challenger disaster of 1986.

The International Space Station is a fabulous achievement of which we can justifiable feel proud. But that pride must always be accompanied by an appropriate sense of humility. “When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have established; What is man, that You are mindful of him?” (Psalms 8:4-5). The ISS is a giant leap for mankind, but only a small step in the greater scale of things.

David Golinkin:

Two rabbis have discussed the theological aspects of space travel. Rabbi Freehof said that in Judaism, God is the God of the entire universe, and not just of “little earth and its people”. In the Birkhot Hashahar (early morning blessings) recited daily, we speak of God as Ribon Ha’olamim, master of worlds, in the plural.

We also recite Psalm 147:4 every day in the Pesukey D’zimra: “He numbers the stars and calls them each by name”. And in the Shabbat Torah service, we recite I Chronicles 29:11, which says that “all that is in Heaven and on Earth” belongs to God.

In 1962, Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz was asked by a Congressman4 if, according to the Torah, it is permissible to travel to the moon and the stars and to colonize them. Rabbi Rabinowitz referred to Sanhedrin 109a, where R. Yirmiyahu ben Elazar discusses the generation of the Tower of Babel:

They split up into three parties. One said: Let us ascend and dwell there. The second said: Let us ascend and worship idols. And the third said: Let us ascend and wage war [with God]. Whereupon R. Nathan said: They were all bent on idolatry .

In other words, that generation was punished because their motive was to challenge God, which is a form of idol worship.

Similar reasoning is implied in Isaiah’s rebuke to “the king of Babylon” (Isaiah 14: 13-14): “And you said in your heart: I will ascend into Heaven; above the stars of God will I exalt my throne… I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High”. In other words, it is a sin to ascend to the heavens only if your motive is to “be like the Most High”.

Finally, Ben Sira said (3:22) “the things that have been permitted you, think thereupon”. The Maharsha, R. Shemuel Edeles, commented in the sixteenth century (Hagigah 13a, catchword B’mufla): “this is stated as an imperative as the researchers and philosophers have written, that a person should investigate his existence through studying whatever has been created in the Universe”.

In other words, space travel is permitted as long as the motive is research and investigation and not to challenge God’s authority in the universe.5

But while Rabbis Rabinovitch, Kasher and Slifkin all invoke the episode of the Tower of Babel and some of its Medrashic interpretation as a potentially cautionary consideration against space exploration, the story can also serve as a powerful argument in favor of such exploration and colonization! Ralbag rejects the standard interpretation of this narrative as a classic tale of sin and punishment. After all, the Torah makes no mention of any sin, and indeed G-d does not even seem angry with the builders of the Tower, but merely intent on foiling their design, which is not at all His typical reaction to sin, intended or committed. Ralbag concludes that there was indeed no sin here at all, and that G-d’s motivation was actually to ensure the dispersal of humanity in order to guarantee its survival in the event of a major catastrophe. [This explanation is superficially similar to that of the בראשית זוטא cited in האדם על הירח, but fundamentally different; the latter focuses on the flouting of G-d’s imperative and asserts His consequent anger, whereas Ralbag’s interpretation is entirely concerned with expedience, and makes no mention or assumption of Divine anger:

ואמרו איש אל רעהו שיעשו בנין גבוה מאד מלבנים וחומר בדרך שיהיה ארוך הקיום לפי שהלבנים לא ישחיתם האש ולא המים ויגיע להם בזה שתי תועלות לפי מחשבתם, האחד לעשות להם שם, ר”ל שיקרא שמם על המגדל ההוא כשיאמר זה המגדל בנו אותו הראשונים המסתעפים מנח באופן הסתעפותם ממנו, ובזה ישאר זכר לראשונים, והשני שזה ישמרם שלא יפוצו על פני כל הארץ בבקשם מקומות נאותים לשכון בו ולהיות הות הצמחים ההכרחיים שהם באדם כי הם יראו זה הבניין מרחוק לגבהו וישמרו שלא יתרחקו ממנו מרחק רב ובזה ישלם להן שיהיו כלם מקובצים במקום אחד מהארץ וזה יהיה גם כן בהוסיפם בבניין ההוא תמיד כל אשר יתוסף מספרם,
ולפי שכבר ראה הש”י שהקבוץ לאדם במקום אחד מהארץ הוא בלתי נאות לקיום המין האנושי לפי שכבר אפשר שיקרה במקום מה מהארץ הפסד אם מצד הרעש וההפכה בהתהוות הרוח בבטן הארץ אם מצד הרוח החזק יפרק הרים וישבר סלעים אם מצד אבני אלגביש אם מצד שטף מים ומה שידמה לאלו הסבות המפסידות ואם היה המין האנושי כלו במקום אחד מהארץ היה אפשר בו שיפסד עם הפסד החלק ההוא מהארץ, ולזה היה מן ההכרחי לאדם שיהיה מפוזר בכל חלקי הישוב כדי שיתקיים מינו וכאשר יגיע ההפסד במקום אחד יתקיים המין בנשאר, ולזה כבר השם יתעלה השתדל להפר עצתם ושם להם למשפחותיהם על דרך המופת תשוקה לחדש לשון ידברו בו המשפחה ההיא וכאשר נמשך העניין נשארו האחרונים בלתי מכירים בלשון זולת לשון משפחתם, וזה היה סבה שתסור ההסכמה מהמשפחות ההם ויפרדו מעל פני הארץ וחדלו להמשיך בניין העיר באופן אשר הסכימו בו, והנה עשה זה הש”י להשגיח במין האנושי שישלם לו הקיום והוא מבואר שלזה התכלית נעשה ואם לא נזכר לפי שהוא ממה שאין בו ספק שהש”י לא השתדל לבלבל הלשונות ללא תועלת6

And men said to one another that they would construct a very tall building of bricks and mortar, in such manner as to be long lasting, for bricks are not destroyed by either fire or water. And they would thereby accomplish two benefits according to their thought: First, to make for themselves a ‘name’, i.e. that their name would be ascribed to that tower, so that it would be said that “this tower was built by the first men who branched out from Noah in the manner of their branching out from him, and there would thus remain a remembrance of the original ones. Second, this would guard them from dispersing across the face of the whole land, in the course of seeking desirable places to reside, for the production of the flora which are necessary for man, for they would see the building from afar, due to its height, and they would take care not to distance themselves from it a great distance, and they would thus accomplish that they would all be gathered in one place of the land, and this would also be attained through their constantly adding to the building of that city, as their numbers increased.
And because G-d, may He be elevated, saw that the gathering of man in a single place of the land is undesirable for the survival of the human species, for it is possible that destruction may befall a particular portion of the land, either from earthquake and overturning, from the formation of gas in the belly of the land, or from a strong wind which dismantles mountains and breaks boulders, or from hailstones, or from a flood of water, and that which resembles these destructive causes, and if the entire human species would be in one place of the land, it would be possible for it to be destroyed with the destruction of that portion of the land, and it was therefore necessary for man that he should be dispersed throughout all habitable areas, so that his species should survive, and when destruction befalls one place, the species will survive in the remainder.
And G-d, may He be elevated, attempted to foil their plan, and He gave them, to each family, by miraculous means, a desire to innovate a language that that family would speak, and as this situation continued, the later [descendants] remained unable to understand any language except the language of their family, and this was a cause for the unraveling of the agreement from those families, and they separated [from each other] across the face of the whole land, and they ceased to continue the building of the city in the manner upon which they had agreed.
And G-d, may He be elevated, did this from Providence upon the human species, to secure its survival, and it is clear that it was done for this purpose, even if it is not mentioned, for it is undoubtedly the case that G-d, may He be elevated, would not attempt to confuse the languages without purpose.7

Ralbag is, of course, asserting the imperative of terrestrial habitat diversification, but his worry about a catastrophe causing the extinction of humanity is actually a powerful argument for extraterrestrial diversification, given the very real possibility of a potential extinction event caused by things like pandemics, asteroid collisions, severe climate change (anthropogenic or otherwise) and thermonuclear war, where the low or incalculable probability of these events must be weighed against the magnitude of the disasters they can potentially cause! As Prof. Stephen Hawking puts it:

THE human race is likely to be wiped out by a doomsday virus before the Millennium is out, unless we set up colonies in space, Prof Stephen Hawking warns today.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Prof Hawking, the world’s best known cosmologist, says that biology, rather than physics, presents the biggest challenge to human survival.
“Although September 11 was horrible, it didn’t threaten the survival of the human race, like nuclear weapons do,” said the Cambridge University scientist.
“In the long term, I am more worried about biology. Nuclear weapons need large facilities, but genetic engineering can be done in a small lab. You can’t regulate every lab in the world. The danger is that either by accident or design, we create a virus that destroys us.
“I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I’m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars.”

[Carl Sagan, too, was a passionate and eloquent exponent of this idea.]
Some will argue that a catastrophe of such magnitude, or human extinction in general, is theologically impossible, and indeed, there was some recent interesting discussion of this topic at Cross-Currents (Avi Shafran, Avi Shafran, Yaakov Menken) and Rationalist Judaism. But as we have seen, Ralbag considered catastrophic human extinction a very real possibility, and in any event, the theological arguments against its possibility are clearly equivocal, and מידי ספיקא לא נפקא, so it is surely unacceptable to bet the survival of humanity upon them!

  1. הדרום, חוברת ט”ו, ניסן תשס”ב עמוד 121 – קשר []
  2. קשרהאדם על הירח []
  3. האדם על הירח, סוף פרק ו’, עמודים 59-60 – קשר []
  4. This is a misreading of R. Dr. Rabinowitz’s words, which merely note that “A Member of Congress asked a certain Rav …”. []
  5. Prof. David Golinkin, “A RESPONSUM REGARDING SPACE TRAVEL” – link. []
  6. פירוש רלב”ג על התורה (ניו יארק תשי”ח) פרשת נח “ויהי כל הארץ שפה אחת” (ביאור דברי הספור) עמוד כב. – קשר []
  7. My translation, of the ברכת משה / מעלה אדומים edition. []

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. []