Worms—One of Our "Mother Cities"
In Hebrew we have a wonderful name for cities which are of cardinal importance in our long history. We call such a city an "ir va'em be'yisrael," literally, a city and a mother in Israel. Worms was one such city which richly deserved this honorary title. All of us have, at one time or another, had an encounter with the ancient Jewish community of Worms, in the German Rhineland. At most Jewish weddings, the text of the "t'naim" (terms of the financial marriage arrangements) are read wherein we find a reference to "chachmey Shum." Who were they? They were the sages of the early Middle Ages in the cities of Speyer, Worms (called Wermayza or Germayza in Hebrew) and Mainz (called Magentza in Hebrew), abbreviated to Sh.W.M., or Shum. These three cities were settled by Jews at the dawn of history. When the Roman armies under Caesar marched up along the Rhine River, Jewish merchants accompanied them and established trading posts all along their route. These grew into communities, eventually encompassing some thousands of souls. Thus by the year 300 C.E. Jewish communities already were established in the Rhineland. By the 11th century the network of such Jewish communities—all outstanding for the high concentration of piety and scholarship (the famous chasiday Ashkenaz) encompassed not only the above mentioned three cities, but also Cologne, Durren (Dura in Hebrew), Bonn (Buna in Hebrew), Trier, Frankfurt and many more.
The sages of Speyer, Worms and Mainz were unique in that they had a well organized system of mutual cooperation in all communal and legal matters, so that there was great unanimity among them in all decisions concerning the conduct of their congregants.
While Mainz was famous for the great paytanim, composers of liturgical poems, who lived there, like R. Shimon Hagadol and the members of the Kalonymos family, Worms was outstanding for its great Talmudic scholars: Rabbenu Gershom Meor Hagolah, R. Jacob teen Yakar and R. Yitzchak teen Eleazar, their great disciple Rashi, and R. Eliezer teen Yehuda (also known as the Baal Harokeach). The unbelievable tragedy of the First Crusade in 1096 put a temporary end to the Golden Age of Worms, when most of its Jewish inhabitants were brutally massacred by the hordes of murderers unleashed by the Church. Rabbenu Gershom had died shortly before that terrible date, and Rashi, our enduring and beloved teacher, was providentially absent from Worms at the time. He was visiting his mother's vineyards in Troyes, the city of his birth in the Champagne area of today's France.
My own encounter with Worms goes back to 1931, when as a very young child, I accompanied my parents and brothers to Worms. My late father wisely realized that such a visit would make a lasting impression on us. We visited the ancient cemetery outside Worms where we saw the huge tomb of the martyred R. Meir of Rothenburg, called the Maharam. The Maharam was kidnapped by the German ruler around 1235 and held imprisoned, in wait for a heavy ransom from the Jews who considered him the highest leader and authority in all of Germany. The Maharam, however, forbade his followers to ransom him, lest the Christian rulers make it a habit to kidnap for ransom all Jewish leaders! After 14 years in the Sinsheim castle he died, and several more years passed till his body was ransomed by a humble Jew, who was eventually buried right next to the holy martyr as a reward for his great mitzvah.
I still remember clearly the awe we felt when we visited the ancient synagogue of Worms, with "Rashi's seat" where, according to tradition, Rashi had sat while he wrote his monumental commentaries on the whole Tanach and the Talmud. We also saw with our own eyes the vestige of a miracle which took place there: Rashi's mother, shortly before his birth, was walking along the narrow alley behind the synagogue when a farmer with a carriage heavily laden with hay came charging down at top speed. Without doubt she would have been crushed to death by the carriage, but miraculously, the wall gave in and formed a niche, big enough to hold and protect Rashi's mother! The incident has been recorded in many Jewish sources, including an old Yemenite manuscript, written in Judeo-Arabic, which I possess. And there I saw that very niche, the bricks of the synagogue wall having gently bent towards the inside!
Because of this early experience, I have always held the words and works of Rashi to be especially precious; he is somehow a living teacher to me. And recently I became further attached to this "mother city in Israel" by the acquisition of two important manuscripts which I have now published. These manuscripts record the astounding communal and rabbinic structure of the religious life of Worms throughout centuries. Worms was unique in that all customs and rules were carefully recorded from generation to generation. By studying these records we gain a very clear and graphic picture of the life of an unusually pious and peaceful community—disrupted only by the occasional pogroms and expulsions organized by the Church.
Let me share with you some of the insights which my manuscripts allow us to glean. Reb Yehuda Leib Kirchheim, born in the mid-17th century, wrote a voluminous book on the minhagim of Worms. He displayed an unusual ability to grasp and encompass events covering several centuries: the earliest entry I found records an event in the year 960 C.E., and the last, in the year 1631 C.E. During the intervening years Worms had the distinction that the Christian authorities, out of respect for the superior Jewish community in their midst, awarded the Jews the right to have an "Epicopus Judaeorum" or "Judenbischof" (Jew-bishop), who represented the community to the Christian authorities. Amongst themselves, however, the Jews of Worms gave their communal leaders unique titles, such as "Katzin," "Aluf," "Ha'eshel Hagadol," and "Gaon." Rabbis had the usual rabbinic titles.
For the customs he recorded, Kirchheim also included the reasons in most cases: e.g. at a circumcision, the "aleynu" prayer is only recited after the circumcision is over, because they did not want to insult the baby with the reference to the uncircumcised in that prayer, and therefore only recited it once the baby had entered the fold of the Jewish people. Incidentally, the sandek given higher honors than the mohel during the services.
The Jews of Worms continued for centuries to elaborate their memorial prayers for their martyrs, killed in the massacres of the Crusaders in the beginning of the month of Sivan. Special prayers were recited in which the names of the martyrs were enumerated. In our own service, the "Av Harachamim" prayer has remained from that period. Significantly we do not say this prayer on a Sabbath when the new moon is announced, except in the case of the month of Sivan, when that rule is broken and Av Harachamim is said in solidarity with the Jews of Worms and neighboring communities, victims of the First Crusade.
The Kirchheim Manuscript is also rich in historical accounts. It contains a long poem or lamentation written by R. Eliezer of Worms (1140-1225), in which he describes the slaughter, before his own eyes, of his wife and two daughters. He also describes for us the virtues of each one of them: About his wife he wrote a paraphrase of the "Eshet Chayil" by King Solomon, adding that his wife spun wool for the making of tzitzit; she stitched together the parchment sections of the Torah Scrolls, and helped make tefillin; she was a member of the Chevra Kadisha and washed the bodies of the dead; she helped outfit young brides, and sewed suits for yeshiva students; she recited Tehillim and sang Zemirot and prayers, said a daily vidduy, and taught women in various towns prayers and songs; she prayed morning and night, and she was first in the synagogue; she stood on her feet all Yom Kippur, and she could decide legal questions of kashrut. All that besides the obvious mitzvot of visiting the sick and feeding the hungry. Then R. Eliezer sang the praises of his daughter Blatt, aged 13. She had learned all prayers and Zemirot from her mother, and attended to all her father's needs. She was chaste, and truthful in all her words. She knitted and cooked and helped her mother in all household chores.
R. Eliezer's youngest daughter Channah is described as follows: She recited the first portion of the "Shema" every day, at the age of 6. She too knitted and sewed and helped in the kitchen. Her songs were a delight for her parents.
The rest of the poem, full of anguish and sorrow, is truly heartrending and moving. It is a jewel of Jewish poetry, of great historic importance and a surprising find in the midst of a book of minhagim.
The Kirchheim account describes the ordinances of the various rabbis. At one time, the rabbis tried to forbid playing with cards and dice on Chanukah. On Purim one girl was crowned Queen Esther; she would march into the men's shut accompanied by another girl carrying a torch, followed by young men wearing masks. On Sukkot, the shamash was responsible for having three sets of lulavim and etrogim ready, to be sold daily to members of the community. When a man purchased his set he would also send it to his wife in the women's shut, where she and her lady friends would make the blessing over the Four Species.
Another important manuscript from Worms is that of the fabled Yushpe Shames, who was not only the sexton of the community but also a great scholar in his own right. He lived a generation before Kirchheim, and died in 1649. His document is not so much concerned with history as with painstakingly recording each and every prayer and liturgical poem recited on different occasions in Worms, along with all the customs and laws observed.
These two manuscripts have now been published, along with my introduction in Hebrew, at Machon Yerushalayim, in Jerusalem. My wife and I have dedicated these important works, as we have done with all other manuscripts and works published by us, to the memory of our beloved son Jamie z"l, who was so interested in piyyut, liturgical poetry, that we recently endowed the Jamie Lehmann Chair in Piyyut at Bar Ilan University.
I am sure my readers will enjoy being transported into the mostly idyllic but often dramatic atmosphere of the outstanding and exemplary community of ancient Worms, by studying these newly published volumes.
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