Rabbi Jehiel ben Joseph was born in Meaux, France, about 750 years ago, and died at an advanced age in Haifa, in the Land of Israel, in the year 5046. He was a disciple of Rabbi Judah ben Isaac (Sir Leon), and succeeded him as the head of the Yeshivah (Talmudic academy) of Paris in the year 4985.
The Yeshivah of Rabbi Jechiel was one of the greatest of its kind. There were about three hundred students there, and many of them later became known as authors of the "Tosefoth," (commentators on the Talmud). One of his most celebrated students was Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg.
Those were difficult days for the Jewish people, for they suffered severely from the persecutions during the Crusades. Maintaining his great academy was a difficult responsibility for Rabbi Jehiel, for his co-religionists were poor and needy and could hardly support the many students of the Yeshivah. Rabbi Jehiel, therefore, sent a delegate to the Land of Israel and the eastern countries, where the position of the Jews was better, to collect funds for his Yeshivah.
The position of the Yeshivah was particularly difficult because of the frequent attacks against the Talmud by the enemies of the Jews, and by various libels against the Jews themselves.
In the year 5000 (1240) king Ludwig IX of France ordered a religious disputation between representatives of the Christian and Jewish religions on the subject of the Talmud. Rabbi Jehiel headed the Jewish delegation which defended the Talmud against the attacks of the apostate Nicholas Donin who was the chief spokesman for the Christian theologists. Rabbi Jehiel answered every accusation made by the apostate, and proved them to be utterly without foundation Both the king and queen and all the notables who were present at this disputation, were greatly impressed by the wisdom of Rabbi Jehiel. But so intense was the hatred of the Jews in those days, that the decree was passed to burn all available manuscripts of the Talmud publicly, an act of vandalism which was repeated only by the Hitlerites of our time. On Friday, erev-Shabbos Chukkath, in the year 5004 (June 17, 1244), 24 carloads of Talmudic manuscripts were publicly burnt in Paris.
For many years Rabbi Jehiel continued to teach the Talmud at his academy in Paris. He wrote "Tosafoth" and served as the leading authority on the Talmud. His decisions on various points of Jewish law were recorded by his disciple Maharani of Rothenburg, and also by the celebrated codifier, Rabbi Mordecai ben Hillel, and others.
Rabbi Jehiel was regarded as a holy man, and many miraculous acts are said to have been performed by him. (One story tells how one day they ran short of oil at Rabbi Jehiel's Yeshivah. There was only a little oil left in a small pot, and Rabbi Jehiel reserved it for Shabbos. But then a miracle happened, like in the days of the Hasmoneans, for the oil lasted a whole week, until they finally got some more oil for the academy and the students could study the Torah at night, as well as by day!).
When Rabbi Jehiel could no longer stand the continued persecutions in his native land, he emigrated to the Land of Israel, together with many of his disciples. There he died, and he was laid to rest at the foot of Mount Carmel.