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The Jewish Kingdom of Rouen

The disciples of the masters : the scholars of Rouen during the reign of Henry II Plantagenêt

As is the rule with Andalusian poets, on arriving in Rouen Ibn Ezra had composed a poem glorifying Rashbam, his host, the Master of the rabbinic Academy whose commentary on the Torah means enlightenment to all those who find the Holy Writ obscure and whose eyes contemplate the Secrets of the Lord. But after the enthusiasm of the first meetings had evaporated, a gulf soon divided the two men whose cultures and religious conceptions were miles apart. The criticism made by Ibn Ezra of the exegetical methods used by Rashbam, which relied on the primary outward meaning of the Biblical texts, could not but have affected the latter sage. The publication in 1149 of the Epistle on the Sabbath -in which Ibn Ezra pleaded in favor of the traditional Jewish calendar, contrary to what Rashbam seemed to advocate, accusing him of wanting to invert the way the days and nights of Creation were counted- was to put an end to any friendly relationship between the two scholars.

The journeys of Ibn Ezra in Europe and North Africa.

Nevertheless, with the presence of such remarkable people as Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, Rouen, the main center for Jewish learning during the period of the Plantagenets, attracted many scholars from the north of France who wished to dedicate themselves to the exegesis of the Bible. After the two reputed scholars had departed (circa 1160), Rouen remained an attractive center all the same.

Around Ibn Ezra, disciples gravitated who sometimes were also benefactors such as Moses ben Meïr or Joseph of Morville, who wrote down oral commentaries as they heard them from Ibn Ezra and added them to the manuscripts they helped circulate.

Among the great scholars of Rouen was Joseph Bekhor Shor, one of Tam’s students, a rabbinic figure hailing from Orleans who strongly defended the Jewish faith against those who were attracted to Christianity. He also debated with Christian monks on the most controversial issues in the Bible. Joseph sojourned in Rouen between 1170 and 1182, probably escaping the persecutions that were frequent in Île-de-France.

Master Benjamin, a student of Tam and Rashbam who composed liturgical poetry and interpreted the Bible, perpetuated Rashbam’s teachings after he returned to the Champagne in 1160.

Eliezer of Beaugency, who had personal contacts with Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, was the author of numerous Biblical commentaries in which the influence of his two masters can easily be traced.

A most important scholar was Berakhiah the Punctator, who belonged, like his uncle Master Benjamin and his son Elijah the Scribe, to the Natronai family. Defender of the ideas of Ibn Ezra Hand Eliezer of Beaugency, Berakhiah was the author of numerous learned biblical commentaries -in particular one on the Book of Job (the only one still extant)- that were extensively studied after his demise ; he also wrote innumerable proverbs, (and also a Hebrew version of The Fox Fables, inspired by Aesop), written in elegant Hebrew poetic form and rhymed prose, and endowed with a sparkling style that aimed at a large readership. He also continued Ibn Ezra’s scientific work by writing a treatise on jewels and metals, and he studied the links between faith and morals, deriving inspiration from oriental as well as western wisdom, and from Christians, Jews, Muslims, and pagans alike.