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Rabbi Judah HaChassid

Rabbi Judah HaChassid

(4910-4977; 1150-1217)

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i.

"Sefer Hachasidim," the Book of the Pious, is undoubtedly a most valuable contribution to Jewish religious literature of all times. It was not only the most popular and widely read book of Mussar (Jewish Ethics) during the Middle Ages, but it is still a highly inspiring collection of thoughts and principles of the orthodox Jewish faith.

The author of this great book was Rabbi Judah Hachasid, whose ancestors, the family of Calonymus, had been contributing to Jewish scholarship for many centuries in Babylon, Italy and later in Germany. From generation to generation they had transmitted their knowledge of the Jewish religion; this treasure of knowledge was handed over by Judah Hachasid to his disciples both in his great book and by word of mouth.

Rabbi Judah's grandfather Calonymus was the leader of the Jewish community of Speyer, a large city on the Rhine river, where he had fled after the crusaders had ravaged their former home in Mayence. His son Samuel, the father of Rabbi Judah, was a man of such extraordinary scholarship and piety that he was known as Rabbi Samuel Hachasid (The Pious), or Hakadosh (The Saint) among his contemporaries. Although a scholar and intellectual of highest rank, and the head of the Beth Hamidrash of Speyer, he always preached the importance of faith, good conduct and of prayer as more vital than study. It is told of him that he often took off his rabbinical garb, dressed himself in the clothes of a beggar or vagabond, and traveled through the country in disguise. He wanted to experience all the humiliations and trials that afflict the life of the poor and homeless. For not in the quiet security of his study, but in the trials of the street has a Jew to prove his character; this he taught his disciples, amongst whom were his two sons Rabbi Abraham and Rabbi Judah Hachasid. Thus Rabbi Samuel once visited the house of Rabbi Jacob Tam, the most famous Tosaphist, dressed as a poor tradesman in need of food and a bed to sleep. He stayed several days with the great scholar, sitting quietly in the corner behind the stove and listening to the learned discussions of Rabbenu Tam and his disciples. Forgetting his disguise for a moment, he corrected some legal opinion of one of the Rabbis present, and only then was he recognized as the saintly Rosh Yeshivah from Speyer.

We are told that in his youth Judah was anything but a scholar. He preferred to wander in the fields and play with bow and arrow. He is said to have captured many prizes in marksmanship in contest with the nobility of the Rhineland. At the age of eighteen some strange accident happened to him which changed his entire view of life and made him the faithful disciple of his great father, both in conduct and scholarship. Whether this story is true or not, Rabbi Judah certainly was able to overcome the handicaps of his youth and scaled the heights as one of the outstanding teachers and living examples of genuine piety and Jewish learning. Unfortunately his father died when he was still a young man. About the year 1195 incessant attacks upon the ghetto of Speyer by bands of Crusaders and violent mobs made it impossible for the Jews of Speyer to carry on their life of peaceful study and business. Rabbi Judah Hachasid was among those who wandered south to escape the cruelties of those hordes. The years of suffering and his experiences in dealing with his non-Jewish neighbors had a great deal to do with the part of the Sefer Hachasidim" which stresses the proper Jewish conduct in relation towards their non-Jewish neighbors. Rabbi Judah migrated up the Rhine valley, through scores of cities whose flourishing Jewish communities had been devastated by the Crusades. Then he traveled along the Danube to look for a new and safe place to settle and rebuild Jewish life. He chose the city of Regensburg, or Ratisbon, which was ruled by understanding and humane princes. They soon realized the greatness of the new Jewish resident and drew him into the circle of the scholars with whom they surrounded themselves. Thus the bishop is said to have spent entire evenings in his company, and the Duke of Regensburg consulted him for his knowledge of astronomy and astrology. Indeed Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai, one of the famous Jewish lexicographers who traveled through the continents in search of Hebrew manuscripts, reports that he had seen an astronomical work of Rabbi Judah Hachasid, called "Gematrioth."

The illustrious refugee from Speyer opened a Yeshivah in Regensburg which produced such famous scholars as Rabbi Eleazar of Worms known by the title of his main work, as the "Rokeach." Together with him studied another great disciple of Rabbi Judah Hachasid, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Mosheh, the author of the "Or Zaruah," the man whose religious decisions were considered binding by Austrian, Hungarian, Moravian and Italian Jewish communities throughout the centuries. A third disciple of Rabbi Judah was the Tosaphist and author of the "Sefer Hachachmah", Rabbi Baruch ben Samuel of Mayence. These are only a few of the hundreds of students who sat at the feet of Rabbi Judah Hachasid in his Yeshivah at Regensburg. Amongst them was also the famous world traveller, Rabbi Pethachiah of Regensburg,* whose notes Rabbi Judah Hachasid gathered and edited. He had them published by his students under the title "Sibuv Rabbi Pethachiah," when the author died prematurely from the strains of the journey that took him half way around the world.

ii.

Rabbi Judah Hachasid who is mainly known for his ethical writings, was a man of great Halachic knowledge, even though he condemns the then widespread method of the "Pilpul" as an unfruitful approach to the Talmud whose main purpose is action, good pious conduct, not pure theory, and argument for the sake of argument. Many of his famous contemporaries consulted him and quoted his opinions in the collections of their responsa. The "Tashbaz," contains such halachic decisions of Rabbi Judah Hachsid. Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg quotes him several times. His disciple the "Or Zaruah," mentions his "Great, wise master" as the basis of many of his religious decisions. "Gan Bosem," the Garden of Spice, is the title of Rabbi Judah Hachasid's little known collection of responsa. Other disciples took down notes from the weekly lecture about the Sidrah, which Rabbi Judah Hachasid gave in his Yeshivah every Friday. There is no complete copy of this commentary. But many of the later commentators to the Chumash quote explanations by Rabbi Judah Hachasid.

Better known than the Halachic work of this great man are his contributions to our Siddur which are recited in many congregations. These include the seven Shirei Hayichud and the Shir Hakavod; some Selichoth like "Elokim beyisrael gadol yichudecha," "Ezkerah yom mothi;" the prayer "Yechaheh dimathi," and many others of great depth of feeling and thought, and poetical beauty. Rabbi Judah also wrote several commentaries to the prayers and the Machzor, and the "Sefer Hachachmah" concerning the laws and customs of prayer.

Yet most important of Rabbi Judah's great life work was the above-mentioned "Sefer Chasidim," the Book of the Pious. In it he perpetuated his revered father's teachings and developed them into a complete program of piety and faith. Indeed many of the scholars attributed the first two parts of the "Sefer Hachasidim," the "Sefer Hayirah" and the "Sefer Hateshuvah" to Rabbi Samuel The Pious, rather than to his son. This may be so or not. At any rate, Rabbi Judah the Pious concentrated all his efforts upon teaching the Jewish people the importance of sincere prayer, honesty and sincerity in one's personal relations to G‑d and man which are by far more important than all sciences, scholarship or superficial piety. Prayer should come from the depth of one's heart and not be mere lip-service. "For what good is prayer if the heart does not know what the mouth speaks." Often he uses stories to illustrate what he means, and he records many customs and beliefs. He is very outspoken in his caution for dealing with non-Jews, and his bitter experiences at the hands of the Crusaders are the cause of his exhortations not to save one's life by simulating or accepting another religion. "It is forbidden to save oneself at the approach of hordes (of Crusaders) by putting up crosses or other symbols of their faith, or to visit their churches." There is hardly any phase of the Jewish faith or proper conduct, on which Rabbi Judah Hachasid does not touch in his great ethical work on Piety. His disciples Rabbi Eliezer, author of the "Rokeach," revised the "Sefer Hachasidim" after his master's death and added some sections. It was one of the first and most printed of all works of Jewish literature, and its popularity has not diminished in our very day.

iii.

Many legends are told about the saintly life of Rabbi Judah Hachasid. In the city of Worms, before Hitler destroyed all remnants of Jewish history, one could find a niche which legend has it, was made when a carriage passed through the narrow street of the ghetto and pressed Rabbi Judah Hachasid against the wall of the synagogue. Another time he miraculously saved a kidnapped child from being forcibly baptised. Elijah the Prophet was said to have been his guest at the Seder table, and was seen by him at the synagogue of Regensburg.

These and similar stories prove the great reverence which the Jewish people had for the man to whom they owed so much.

Rabbi Judah Hachasid had one son, by the name of Moses, who is known as the author of the commentary on the Bible.

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Ruth Housman Newton, MA March 2, 2009

This is fascinating. I have been reading a book called Journeys and it begins with Rabbi Judah of Regensburg so I thought to look him up, since I am teaching a course on Jewish mysticism/spirituality.

With thanks Reply

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