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21.03.23. Barzen, Taqqanot Qehillot Šum

The Medieval Review

21.03.23. Barzen, Taqqanot Qehillot Šum


This impressive two-volume work covers a tremendous amount of ground, engaging a range of versions of important ordinances from the medieval Jewish communities of the Middle Rhine, known as takkanot ShUM (the acronym referring to the communities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz). In addition to the actual ordinances, which are presented in Hebrew and German translation (which seems quite accurate and thoughtfully contextualized), the volumes include impressive and extremely erudite supporting materials, notes, indices (of biblical and halakhic literature, people, and regions), and a thorough bibliography (of manuscripts, printed sources, and scholarship) on related topics.

The work presents these ordinances in a rich textual history that continues, expands, and refines the work of several scholars who assembled modern editions of these materials over the course of the past century. The texts themselves (volume 2) are largely from the 13th century (especially the assembly of 1220), though the study includes later materials and additions into the 15th century, including occasional paraphrases from French ordinances of Rabbenu Tam. Barzen asserts that the corpus of ordinances from the ShUM communities lost their regional character and became a model for community ordinances (if not a unified legal code) more generally by the 15th century, along the way helping to connect smaller Jewish communities to these larger urban centers and communities.

The first volume provides a nearly 300-page introduction and it begins with an historical orientation in which Barzen discusses the early settlements and Jewish life in the cathedral cities of the Middle Rhine, noting the primacy of the Jewish community of Mainz at least until the First Crusade, which paralleled the Christian ecclesiastical organization. The introduction also traces key settlement areas, which reflected the connection of the Jews with civic authorities. Barzen places the development of the Jewish communities into a broader political context, including the increasing privileges secured by the Jewish community in Worms. He notes that the historical development, interconnection, and leadership of the ShUM communities parallel that of the broader region and the Christian cities as well. Internally. Barzen traces the consolidation of the religious life of these communities, as part of their overall supra-regional position, with Mainz asserting a leadership role at the end of the 14th and into the 15th century. Part of the introduction is devoted to biographical orientation for Jewish scholars and elites, particularly from a narrow network of families that formed an oligarchy in the three communities.

In the first volume, Barzen offers an overview of the taqqanot (ordinances), including their legal foundations, the key rabbis involved in compiling and transmitting them, as well as some key issues that surface in and in relation to them, such as excommunication (and its various forms and functions). This historical overview reveals cooperation between the communities before 1096, but also sheds light on the context and work of the major synods in the 12th century and into the 13th, as well as some important developments after the Black Death. Along the way, Barzen discusses the relationships of the ShUM communities with the broader region (Jewish and Christian), highlighting the intersection and representation with non-Jewish authorities as well as the centralization that the communities helped to forge, not only through religious and legal leadership, but also through the functioning of central institutions and spaces across the region, such as cemeteries.

The ordinances did not survive as copies of official documents, but rather as unofficial private collections, eventually finding their way into the responsa edited by Moses Minz in the 15th century. Barzen points out that the early Rhineland communities had four categories of ordinances--those authorized by the communities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz; those attributed to Rabbenu Gershom; an ordinance of David Münzenberg (related to Levirate marriage); and ordinances of Rabbenu Tam--that is, the corpus included both ordinances authorized by a group of scholars from the three communities as well as an ordinance from an individual scholar and ordinances from a French Jewish authority. One of the really interesting insights in this work is that the ordinances developed in parallel contexts with the municipal associations of the Christian communities within those same cities.

While I will not summarize the content and scope of the various ordinances, it is worth pointing to a few key areas that clearly signaled, and at times directed, later developments and concerns and that may be helpful to scholars exploring a range of topics. The ordinances point to the real possibility of internal Jewish communal conflict. Sometimes this could take the form of actual physical violence, and so some ordinances legislated against threats between neighbors and physical violence against other Jews (including inside and outside the synagogue) or the injuring of women or slaves. The ordinances also reveal the occurrence of legal suits, especially civil cases, brought against the community by individual Jews; the presence of and response to informers against the community; as well as general tensions within the communities that might result in name-calling and insults and even taking other Jews to non-Jewish courts (often to apply pressure for or seek a more favorable Jewish court ruling). Other ordinances dealt with more internal familial issues, ranging from Levirate marriage to dowries, divorces, and the ban on polygamy.

As the Jewish community was a corporate body that functioned as a legal entity, at least when it came to religious and some basic civic functions, some ordinances address witnesses to oaths and the composition and function of special courts. Aspects of Jewish communal life were covered in ordinances that treated communal institutions, including the communal cemetery and funding of teachers and assistance to the poor. The synagogue received the most attention, with ordinances discussing behavior in the synagogue generally; the disruption of prayers in the synagogue as a form of seeking justice or rendering of a legal decision; the prayer service and synagogue space, including the use of candles in the synagogue. In regard to the latter categories, the relationship of Jews from smaller communities and villages outside the larger city communities was presented and related to their financial obligations to the larger community as well as participation in prayer quorums at various times. Some aspects of Jewish daily life surface in the ordinances. These include kashrut more generally, especially issues surrounding meat and the transport and handling of it. The ordinances also addressed the obligations of study (including Bible with Midrash and Talmud).

The ordinances addressed a number of halakhic issues, including laws related to hair and beards, as well as various moral or ethical concerns, such as the prohibition against reading a sealed letter. Not surprisingly, the ordinances discussed moneylending--a theme that continued to be discussed into the early 14th-century and beyond--and stressed the need for honesty in dealing with coinage.

Relations with non-Jews also garnered a good deal of attention--from discussions about wine to the status of food cooked by non-Jews. Considerations of house rental from a non-Jew are presented, as well as prohibitions on accepting stolen goods, especially Christian images and statues, ritual objects, or prayer books.

Throughout, the ordinances addressed taxation and regularly detailed various forms of excommunication in response to transgression of the legal ordinances. Here and elsewhere Barzen offers valuable context and discussion, highlighting continuities in legal thinking as well as communal developments throughout the Middle Ages--engaging the sources with close and comparative reading and leveraging an impressive range of scholarly studies.

This outstanding publication--with the extensive context and historical framing and valuable comparative presentation of versions of these important legal documents--is a wonderful and much needed addition to the field of medieval Jewish history, which will be valuable to scholars of Jewish law and Jewish history.