Eastern Europe’s First Great Rabbi

Dec. 16 2022

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the center of gravity of Ashkenazi intellectual life was in northeastern France and the Rhineland, although it would gradually move eastward over the course of the subsequent centuries. But Rabbi Isaac ben Moses, who became one of the great medieval experts on Jewish law, was born around 1180 in the German frontier province of Bohemia, and later settled in Vienna—a city almost as distant from the Ashkenazi heartland. He is better known by the name of his major work Or Zaru’a, taken from the verse from the book of Psalms, “Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart.” Tamar Marvin tells his story:

To its Jewish denizens, Bohemia was known by the unflattering moniker “the land of Canaan,” and so the Or Zaru’a terms his Slavic glosses l’shon Canaan, “the Canaanite language.” Bohemia was indeed something of a hinterland in the 12th century, with its best and brightest finding their way to Regensburg and Prague. It seems that Rabbi Isaac suffered from economic straits and possibly other misfortunates in his younger years; in any case, he was impelled to travel widely, his peregrinations taking him to a wide swathe of the medieval Ashkenazi world.

And it’s this that makes Rabbi Isaac such an important tradent of Ashkenazi traditions, [i.e.], one who is responsible for preserving and handing on the oral tradition. Isaac Or Zaru’a went everywhere, talked to everyone, and wrote it all down. Isaac sought his first teachers in Prague, [the Bohemian capital], and Regensburg [in nearby Bavaria], . . . and from there to Speyer, possibly Cologne, and Würzburg, followed by Paris and Coucy in France, acquiring teachers in each locale.

This unusually large and broad set of mentors gave Rabbi Isaac grounding in the full array of Ashkenazi learning. From the margins he burst onto the very center of cultural life. The fruit of these many wanderings and years of learning coalesced in Isaac’s magnum opus, the Or Zaru’a. It wasn’t just a belletristic (and comforting) name; Isaac had in him the touch of a poet.

Isaac’s most famous student, Meir of Rothenberg, is perhaps the premier figure in medieval Jewish jurisprudence, whose rulings have an enduring influence on contemporary practice.

Read more at Stories from Jewish History

More about: Halakhah, Jewish history, Middle Ages, Rabbis

Israel Is Courting Saudi Arabia by Confronting Iran

Most likely, it was the Israeli Air Force that attacked eastern Syria Monday night, apparently destroying a convoy carrying Iranian weapons. Yoav Limor comments:

Israel reportedly carried out 32 attacks in Syria in 2022, and since early 2023 it has already struck 25 times in the country—at the very least. . . . The Iranian-Israeli clash stands out in the wake of the dramatic events in the region, chiefly among them is the effort to strike a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and later on with various other Muslim-Sunni states. Iran is trying to torpedo this process and has even publicly warned Saudi Arabia not to “gamble on a losing horse” because Israel’s demise is near. Riyadh is unlikely to heed that demand, for its own reasons.

Despite the thaw in relations between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic—including the exchange of ambassadors—the Saudis remain very suspicious of the Iranians. A strategic manifestation of that is that Riyadh is trying to forge a defense pact with the U.S.; a tactical manifestation took place this week when Saudi soccer players refused to play a match in Iran because of a bust of the former Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Suleimani, [a master terrorist whose militias have wreaked havoc throughout the Middle East, including within Saudi borders].

Of course, Israel is trying to bring Saudi Arabia into its orbit and to create a strong common front against Iran. The attack in Syria is ostensibly unrelated to the normalization process and is meant to prevent the terrorists on Israel’s northern border from laying their hands on sophisticated arms, but it nevertheless serves as a clear reminder for Riyadh that it must not scale back its fight against the constant danger posed by Iran.

Read more at Israel Hayom

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Saudi Arabia, Syria