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Rashi - Rabbi Salomon Ben Isaak (1040 - 1105)

It is above all to him that Worms owed its reputation as a centre of Jewish culture: Rabbi Salomon ben Isaak, called Rashi. This scholar and writer of a commentary on the Talmud is still today highly regarded in the Jewish world. Around 1060 he studied at the Jewish school (yeshiva) in Worms, at that time famous throughout Europe. The Rashi House in Worms, named after him, houses the Jewish Museum and the City Archives. It is located on the site where the school is said to have once stood – in the “Hintere Judengasse” and in the immediate vicinity of the synagogue.

Rashi-statue near Synagoge 
Rashi-statue near Synagoge

Important for Jewish Worms

Rashi’s teachers were Jakob ben Jakar from Mainz and the scholar in Worms Isaak ben Eleasar haLevi. In 1065 Rashi returned to Troyes, where he then founded a school that attracted many pupils.

His commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud show clarity, comprehensibility and vivid use of language. Every edition of the Babylonian Talmud is still today printed with a commentary by Rashi.
The sustained influence of Rashi in Worms has led to the creation of legends. The fame of Worms as a centre of Jewish culture is due largely to him. Rashi died in Troyes on 29th Tammuz (5th August) 1105.
On the occasion of the 900th anniversary of Rashi’s death, in the “Rashi Year” 2005, the cities of Worms and Troyes paid tribute to this great and still highly regarded Talmud scholar with numerous events.

Here is a picture gallery of Jewish Worms


The time of Rashi

"Rashi-Chair",early 17th century, in Worms Synagogue (situation today) 
"Rashi-Chair",early 17th century, in Worms Synagogue (situation today)

Rashi and Worms in the 11th century

When Salomo ben Isaak (Rashi), who grew up in Troyes and was probably born there in 1040, came to Worms via Mainz to continue his studies here, the city’s considerable Jewish community, which probably already numbered several hundred, had a flourishing yeshiva of remarkable size. Just how attractive it had quickly become is impressively demonstrated by the names and places of origin of the scholars working here. Research generally gives the years between 1055 and about 1065 as the time of Rashi’s clearly rather brief stay in the city, which, however, from the point of view of later perception had a momentous impact. Most experts on Jewish studies and historians argue for the period between about 1060 and 1064/65.

We know that Rashi studied under, among others, the prominent rabbis Jakob ben Jakar from Mainz, who also taught in Worms, and under Isaak ben Eleasar ha-Levi, the dean (rosh yeshiva) of the Talmudic school in Worms, who died in 1070. The fact that the latter had received his academic training in Mainz is evidence of the very close personal links between the two communities and their scholars without which a proper understanding of the fact that Rashi spent time in both cities would not be possible. Not much is known about his stay in Mainz either, but we can presume that Rashi was in Mainz before coming to Worms, even though, surprisingly, the time he spent in Mainz did not influence the traditions there as much as in the case of Worms. One important factor here is certainly the unbroken tradition of Jewish community life in Worms in contrast to the violent end of medieval Jewish Mainz in the 15th century. It is as a result of these different circumstances that Rashi’s stay is linked with Worms and not with Mainz.

There can be no doubt about the enormous importance of the community in Mainz at the end of the 11th century for Ashkenazic Jews, a community which stood in the highest esteem and which Jews even equated with Jerusalem as a “daughter of Zion”. Thus, Rashi acquired in the Jewish schools (yeshivas) on the Rhine the training that formed the basis for his groundbreaking interpretation of the Talmud and the Bible, which were to prove so remarkably influential. His responsa and halachic decisions on controversial matters concerning everyday life, business, and living together in and beyond the bounds of a community have considerable value as sources for our understanding of Rashi’s time and of relations between Christians and Jews in social and economic matters. These decisions concern matters such as moneylending, pawnbroking, property deals, dietary laws, slaves and servants, enforced baptisms etc.

There is evidence that Rashi continued to communicate in writing with his teachers and with other scholars after he had left Worms and returned to Troyes, and thus he was certainly informed about important event in the development of the communities and their Talmudic schools. This certainly also applies to the disastrous consequences of the pogroms in 1096.

The career of this scholar, who later became so important, documents the close links between the Ashkenazic communities in the Rhineland and Champagne, a network of interrelationships that spread out from the field of learning to influence trade and communication and be connected with these fields. It is unfortunate that scarcely any definite claims can be made about the circumstances surrounding Rashi’s time on the Rhine. Since Rashi had some knowledge of Christian Bible exegesis and of Latin, it seems likely that there were contacts and ties with the Cathedral School, which was still flourishing at least during the generation after Bishop Burchard, who died in 1025. There was certainly contact between growing Jewish school and the centre for Christian learning associated with the cathedral.

The explanatory additions to Bible and Talmud texts which Rashi wrote down later are, furthermore, the earliest records of Ashkenazic language use, i.e. Yiddish. It seems very likely that Yiddish, first recorded in Rashi’s writings, was spoken as a vernacular by the Jews of Worms and Mainz and even used outside everyday contexts.

The jewish cemetery "Holy Sands" in Worms is the oldest existing jewish cemetery in Europe 
The jewish cemetery "Holy Sands" in Worms is the oldest existing jewish cemetery in Europe

The date on the earliest record in the Jewish Cemetery in Worms (gravestone of Jakob ha-bachur, 1076/77) is a few years after Rashi’s return to his home in Champagne. This date marks the beginning of the cemetery’s one-thousand-year-long history of Jewish burials on this site outside the city.

One factor that became particularly important for the Jewish community in Worms from the middle of the 11th century was its relationship to the monarchy. The Salian rulers took a great interest in Worms for economic-financial and political-strategic reasons, and the absence of effective rule by a bishop for a period of about 50 years during the so-called investiture dispute between the Pope and the Emperor led to very close ties between these Salian rulers and “their“ Jews in Worms. These close ties are visible in particular in the important document (a so-called “diploma”) that Henry IV issued in 1090. The numerous regulations in this document that applied to the Jews in Worms as his subjects included the right to change money, possession assurance (plots of land, vineyards, gardens and rights over servants are named), confirmation of their ownership of houses by the city wall, a ban on enforced baptisms and an assurance on regulations that reflect the influence of Jewish law.

One thing that unfortunately remains unclear is the very important matter of the structure of the community. It can be assumed that there was a leader of the community, and he is referred to in this document as “their bishop”. The Hebrew sources on persecution as part of the crusade in May 1096 seem to refer to the existence of a body rather like a council that headed the communities, and in the case of Worms there is reference to “heads of the community”. The election of officeholders within the community that is expressly mentioned here corresponds to the traditional custom. Disputes among Jews are to be settled by the Jews themselves according to Jewish law, and thus there is clear evidence that the community as a unit with a religious basis existed from the 11th century.

The situation for the Jews as presented at the time this document was drawn up is theoretically and formally very favourable, but then came the sudden catastrophe of the pogrom in 1096 in connection with the crusade, a pogrom that affected the Jewish community in Worms particularly severely. The community fairly quickly regained economic importance in the course of the early 12th century, but this is overshadowed by the far-reaching consequences of the severe pogroms for the community’s self-image and long-term memory.

Rashi Chapel next to the Synagogue 
Rashi Chapel next to the Synagogue

From the 17th century up to the present

It was around the middle of the 17th century that a link between the synagogue in Worms and Rashi was first postulated. Juspa Shammes (1604–1678), a scribe and synagogue warden (shammes) who was well known for his writings, was the first to establish this connection. In particular, his so-called “Minhag Book” with its descriptions not only of religious rites and their halachic basis but also its additional information in the form of chronicles is a unique source on Jewish life in the 17th century and contains the earliest record of a local tradition concerning Rashi’s time studying and teaching in Worms and his subsequent influence. In particular, the chapel-like annexe to the synagogue that was built in 1623 following a pogrom in 1615 and was big enough for the small yeshiva was given the additional name Rashi Chapel (see picture left). The first evidence of a presumed connection between Rashi as a teacher (the Rashi Chair, see picture above) and the annexe to the synagogue is documented for the year 1760.

A connection between buildings around the synagogue and Rashi became a living and repeatedly enriched tradition, especially after the awakening of historical awareness in the community around the middle of the 19th century. This is demonstrated by the proud inscription that dates from the renovation of the so-called “chapel“ in 1854. An academic dispute about the authenticity of these claims continued into the 1920s. It can be assumed that the place where Rashi studied was located either in the first synagogue, whose site was partially identified by excavations after 1945, or in its southern adjoining annexe, what is today called the Rashi House.

City wall - Rashi Gate (picture: R. Uhrig) 
City wall - Rashi Gate (picture: R. Uhrig)
Rashi House (picture: R. Uhrig) 
Rashi House (picture: R. Uhrig)

The Jewish community, steeped in tradition, took advantage of the occasion of the 800th anniversary of Rashi’s death to organize a competition on “What is the significance of Rashi for his time, what was his subsequent influence, and what do his writings mean for our time?” It was decided to have a document produced that should “represent of the life and work of this outstanding man in a language that ordinary people would understand“. In 1905, Samson ROTHSCHILD, an honoured teacher and scholar in Worms, wrote a lengthy article for the newspaper “Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums”, and this is evidence of the great interest in Worms in the man Rashi and the anniversary of his death.

Around this time, more exactly in 1907, the city gave the newly built gate in the former Jews’ quarter the name Rashi Gate (see picture left), a name that remained even after 1933. Finally, the “Raschi-Lehrhaus-Verein” (the “Rashi Teaching House Society”) was formed in the 1960s with the aim or establishing a place for study and teaching as a reminder of the Jewish tradition, which had been almost completely wiped out during the period of Nazi rule.

A building used by the Jewish community as a teaching, dancing and wedding house, as a hospital, and as an old people’s home was demolished in 1971 and replaced in 1982 by a building to house the city archives and Jewish Museum, and this building was therefore given the name Rashi House. The synagogue was rebuilt in the time up to 1961, and a statue in honour of Rashi was consecrated in front of its portal at the end of 1995 (see picture above left). In 2005 the 900th anniversary of Rashi’s death was celebrated with numerous events in Worms, Troyes and elsewhere.

Here is a picture gallery of the Rashi House

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