Simcha Emanuel, Responsa of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg and his Colleagues: Critical Edition, Introduction and Notes (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 2012)
Review by Pinchas Roth
The thirteenth century has a reputation for being a little boring. Coming after the roaring twelfth century – the era of Maimonides, Rabenu Tam and Ra’abad of Posquières – it may not have been a period of intensely creative Talmudic interpretation. But the second half of the 13th century was certainly a heyday for responsa (she’elot u-teshuvot). Two major rabbinic figures emerged during this period, and between the two of them, they wrote perhaps 4,000 teshuvot. Rabbi Solomon ibn Adret (Rashba) of Barcelona was the preeminent decisor for the Jewish communities of Iberia and Southern France, and he fielded questions from as far afield as Austria and even the Crusader stronghold of Acre. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, better known as Maharam of Rothenburg, was also a prolific respondent who became the ultimate rabbinic authority throughout Germany. He continued to respond to Halakhic questions even after his imprisonment in Ensisheim (Alsace) in 1286.
Simcha Emanuel’s MA thesis from 1987 was devoted to a bibliographic analysis of the four printed collections of Rabbi Meir’s responsa (Cremona 1558; Prague 1608; Lemberg 1860; Berlin 1891, and also Teshuvot Maimoniyot). Of his many publications since then, it is worth mentioning two particularly significant ones. In the index of responsa from France, Germany and Italy, published by the Institute for Jewish Law at the Hebrew University in 1997, Emanuel included a series of lists providing parallels to every published responsum of Maharam. That is, for each of the responsa published in the four aforementioned collections, the list provides parallels throughout the printed literature of medieval Halakhah. In 2000, Emanuel published an article titled ‘Teshuvot of Maharam that are not by Maharam’ – passages in the Prague edition of Teshuvot Maharam that have no real connection to Maharam and were arbitrarily included by the editor.
This is the backdrop against which to appreciate Simcha Emanuel’s new book. First, by the numbers: two volumes, 1251 pages. 501 responsa, published from thirteen manuscripts. As the title implies, not all of the responsa can be attributed to Maharam, and they include new responsa by a number of authors both well-known and otherwise (many responsa are unidentified). In light of Emanuel’s study from 2000, this should come as no surprise, since all the medieval collections of Maharam’s responsa include work by others. For example, number 134 was apparently written by the unfortunate R Yaakov Savra, the first known rabbi in Krakow.
The book consists of three sections. First, each of the thirteen manuscripts is described in loving detail. Every attempt is made to explicate the date and location in which the manuscript was produced, and a great deal of information about the travails that each manuscript experienced is provided. For one poignant example – Emanuel identifies Solomon Hirschell as one of the previous owners of Sefer Sinai, a manuscript now in the Berlin Jewish Museum. He also points to the glosses from this same manuscript copied by Hirschell’s father, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Berlin, into his copy of the Cremona edition.
The second part of the book is the main section, containing the responsa themselves. Emanuel added only minimal footnotes, most of which provide textual information without delving into the Halakhic or historical significance of the new texts. By doing so, he has left ample room for historians and other scholars to pick the fruits of his labour. Historians are already plowing through the edition, finding richly suggestive material.
The third section of the book may seem, to the reader, somewhat redundant. It contains a survey of the complete contents of each of the manuscripts utilized for the edition. The edition includes only new responsa that have not been previously published, but the final section provides details about every responsum in these manuscripts – where else it is found, in print and in manuscripts, and additional information it contains (usually, the poetic beginning or ending of the responsum that was often cropped in printed editions). The significance of this section is in the data it provides for scholars searching for all the textual witnesses of any given responsum. Generations of editors have neglected this kind of labour-intensive cataloguing, preferring to focus their efforts on the new and unfamiliar.
The absence of lists like this is sorely felt by anyone doing textual work on medieval responsa, especially collections that are found in multiple manuscripts like those of Rashba. Rashba’s responsa were recently republished in two separate editions, with dozens of newly published texts. But much of the manuscript work that went into these editions was wasted, since the new editions contain no information about which manuscripts contain the hundreds of responsa that have already been published. For someone interested in textual variants, or in the additional information found in manuscripts such as the addressees of the responsa, these new editions are frustrating and tantalizing rather than helpful. Hopefully, Simcha Emanuel’s work will set a new standard, and editors will begin to provide full documentation about the sources they used. Not only identifying the manuscripts accurately (a point on which editors are beginning to improve), but also providing full information about those manuscripts, and about all the details they contain, even when those details seem trivial.
The scholarly community should be grateful to Simcha Emanuel for providing a flood of new primary sources for the study of medieval Ashkenazic Halakhah, and for placing a high bar for future editors to aspire to.
Pinchas Roth is a graduate student in the Talmud Department at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.