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The Jewish Kingdom of Rouen

The Rabbinical authorities of the twelfth century

After the persecutions linked to the First Crusade, the first eminent personality living in Rouen who had the academic title of Master, rab, was Rabbi Yossi (also called Rubigotsce) who was so famous he would be remembered simply as Rabbi. Reputed for both his wisdom and wealth, he attracted the attention of King Henry Ist Beauclerc, and his name can be found in documents dating back as far as the years 1130-1131.

The influence of Maimonides was considerable at Rouen. This illuminated manuscript, extracted from a copy of his Mishneh Torah, shows the studious atmosophere that reigned in the medieval rabbinic schools.

When he was at its head, the School of Rouen was for some time the main Academy of both the Norman and English communities. This was before his son Abraham founded the Schola Judaeorum in London around the year 1150, and before his grandson Yossi in 1207 became Presbyter, that is, Grand Rabbi of the Anglo-Jewish community.

It may have been at the time of Rubigotsce, if not earlier, that a very important synod was convened in Rouen with all the Jewish communities of northern France represented. The task of its participants was to find a solution to the problem of absentee husbands.

At the end of the eleventh century, Rouen was the most important trading centre in northwestern France, enjoying a monopoly over trade on the Seine that extended to the borders of Normandy. The issue before the rabbinical authorities concerned Jewish traders who, traveling to distant countries, remained away from their homes for long periods of time, and whose families consequently had to live in very precarious circumstances. The synod decreed that no husband could make plans to leave unless his wife agrees, and he would not be allowed to be absent from his family for more than eighteen months without getting the consent of his wife or the authorization of the nearest Jewish law court. During his absence he had to provide for the needs of his family and honor all the debts incurred in so doing. In case anyone transgressed the ordinance, men should not extend hospitality to him or provide lodging for him. This ordinance, initially designed for the Jewish communities of Normandy alone, was later on extended to all the Jews of royal France by a synod that convened in Paris in the years 1160-1170.

The famous author of inspired commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud, Samuel ben (= son of) Méïr, a learned exegete commonly known as Rashbam, succeeded Rubigotsce as head of the School of Rouen. A grandson of the famous Rashi of Troyes (1040-1105), he served early on as advisor to Jewish communities of the north of France and preached in Paris, London, Caen, and St Lô. Around the year 1135 he was called to head the School of the Jews in Rouen and remained in this capacity until the early 1150s. He had regular and consistent discussions with Christian scholars about contentious issues relative to biblical exegesis. The importance he ascribed to a direct rather than allegorical exegesis of the Scriptures had earned Rashbam great fame even before he started visiting the provinces of northern France.

The itinerary of Samuel b. Meir (Rashbam) in northern France and Normandy, circa 1130.

The itinerary of Samuel b. Meir (Rashbam) in northern France nd Normandy, circa 1130.

Approximately in 1135 the famous scholar and exegete Rashbam suc-ceeded the renowned Rubigotsce (known simply as Rabbi) at the head of the School of Rouen.

The successor of Rashbam at the head of the School, the learned Peretz bar Menahem, represented the communities of Normandy at a synod convened in Paris around 1155-1160 by Rabbenu Tam, one of Rashbam’s brothers, in order to debate the issue of informers. The ordinance adopted by the synod was approved by a great many sages of northern France and even of Lombardy, but in that ordinance, only the dignitaries of Rouen were called our masters.