Rabbeinu Gershom was one of the first great leaders of the Jews of France and
Germany. It is believed that he was born in Metz, Lorraine (now in northeastern
France). However, he lived in Mainz, Germany. It is not clear precisely when or
why he moved to Mainz. However, according to what appears to be a reliable
tradition, he may have gone to Mainz to join his friend Rabbi Shimon b.
Yitzchak (Simeon son of Isaac), who is also known as Rabbi Shimon HaGadol
(Simeon the Great). In Mainz, Rabbi Gershom studied under Rabbi Yehudah (Judah)
b. Meir Leontin.|
After the death of Rabbi Leontin, Rabbi Gershom became the head of the yeshiva
(Talmudic academy) of Mainz. His fame grew and he attracted students from
throughout Europe. At this time the Jewish communities of Western Europe,
outside of Spain, were still fairly young.
Rabbi Gershom and his students formed the beginning of what would be a great
flowering of Torah study in the regions of France and Germany.The great French
sage Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (c. 1040-1105), who is better know by the acronym
RaSh'I, the author of the most important commentaries on both the entire Bible
and the Talmud, was the student of Rabbi Gershom's students. In his writings
Rash'i described Rabbeinu Gershom as "Rabbeinu (Our Teacher) Gershom, may the
memory of the righteous and the holy be a blessing, who enlightened the eyes of
the exiled, and from whose mouth we all live. All the exiles of Europe are the
students of his students." In many ways Rabbeinu Gershom may be viewed as the
founder of Ashkenazic scholarship. It is for this reason that he is called
Me'or HaGolah - Light of the Exile.
Rabbeinu Gershom became the leading Jewish authority of his time in France and
Germany. He authored many responsa (authoritative answers to question of
halacha - Jewish law), and he assembled a corrected edition of the Talmud. He
also authored an extensive commentary on the Talmud. Sadly, most of this
commentary has been lost, though extensive portions of it were incorporated
into a commentary compiled by his yeshiva in Mainz. This commentary is today
printed in most standard prints of the Talmud and is referred to as the
Commentary of Rabbeinu Gershom.
Perhaps most significantly, Rabbeinu Gershom was responsible for the
institution of several major takanos - ordinances - which were accepted as
binding by the entire Ashkenazi community. The best known of these takanos is
the takana forbidding polygyny - marriage with more than one woman. While this
practice was already unusual throughout the Jewish world, and especially in
Ashkenaz, Rabbeinu Gershom apparently felt it was necessary to make a formal
ban. Some other significant decrees credited to Rabbeinu Gershom are:
Eliminating the husband's right to divorce without the wife's consent.
Prohibiting the reading another person's mail or personal papers without his
Forbidding reminding Jews who had been forcibly converted to another religion
and had then returned to Judaism of their past failure.
In addition to these well know decrees, Rabbeinu Gershom is credited with many
additional takanos, more than can be conveniently listed here.
Rabbi Gershom lived during a difficult period for the Jews. There were many
Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity during this time, including
Rabbeinu Gershom's only son, who passed away before he had the opportunity to
return to Judaism. Some sources mention that Rabbeinu Gershom's wife was also
converted to Christianity. In the year 1012, the king Heinrich II issued an
edict of expulsion against the Jews of Spain. Yet, despite these difficult
circumstances, Rabbeinu Gershom raised a generation of dynamic Torah scholars
who were to lead Ashkenazic Jewry to great achievements.
Rabbeinu Gershom also authored piyutim, liturgical poems. Some of these piyutim
are part of the standard Selichos recited by Jews during the season of Rosh
HaShana and Yom Kippur. In one of these beautiful, though heart-breaking, poems
(Selicha 42 - Zchor Bris Avraham),Rabbeinu Gershom expresses a sentiment which
was clearly a guiding principle in his life and which he conveyed to his