The story of this great man takes us back almost seven hundred years. He is so well known among all students of the Talmud that he is called The Mordecai. "The Mordecai" is the name of his great work, about which we will tell you a little later.
The story of Rabbi Mordecai ben Hillel takes us to a period in our history which was full of persecutions and pogroms; and to a land which shed more blood than any other land on earth Germany; and to a city which became more infamous than any other city on earth-Nuremberg. For this great man died a martyr with his wife and five children in this city, which in our time became the cradle of the Nazis, As you see, there were Nazis even in those days, though not quite as bad as the "modern" ones. But let us go on with our story, sad though it be.
Rabbi Mordecai ben Hillel was born into a family of famous scholars. (He was related to the famous Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan, who was the ancestor of many well known Rabbis, such as Rabbi Eliezer ben Joel Halevi, Rabbi Jehiel, the father of Rabbi Asher (ROSH), and others).
He witnessed many cruel pogrom that destroyed whole communities and centers of learning. Perhaps because of his tragic experiences he devoted his entire life to gather, record, and analyze much of the Talmudic literature which had been created in the course of several centuries before him. In this way he rendered an everlasting service to our people, for wen it not for him, most of this learning would have been lost 'in those troublesome times.
Like his famous relative Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel (ROSH), Rabbi Mordecai was a disciple of the great Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg. Rabbi Mordecai had the honor of giving his decisions in the presence of his master, a privilege given to only a few distinguished students.
Before Rabbi Mordecai joined the circle of famous scholars whose master Rabbi Meir was, he had travelled about Germany and France to gather knowledge from the greatest scholars of his day. (Among his other teachers were Rabbi Abraham ben Baruch, the brother of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, and Rabbi Jehiel of Paris. Other great scholars, such as Rabbi Peretz ben Eliyahu of Corbeille, Rabbi Ephraim ben Nathan, Rabbi Jacob Halevi of Speyer, and Rabbi Dan Ashkenazi helped to enrich Rabbi Mordecai's knowledge.)
After Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg was imprisoned and held for ransom, and since nothing could be done to help him at his own expressed wish, Rabbi Motdecal moved to Goslar, a city in central Germany. The brilliant young scholar won many friends them, with the exception of a certain Rabbi Moses Tako who was very jealous of the new arrival, this Moses Tako stopped at nothing to drive Rabbi Mordecai out of town. Rabbi Mordecai was called before the city magistrates to prove his residence in the city. Although the decision of the court was favorable, Rabbi Mordecai decided he had enough of the petty jealousy of Moses Tako, and moved to Nuremberg.
Soon disciples from all over Europe began to flock to Nuremberg to study under Rabbi Mordecai's guidance. They came from France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Bohemia, and Hungary. To them Rabbi Mordecai handed down his great accumulation of knowledge.
For seven years Rabbi Mordecai conducted his great academy. Then a terrible catastrophe broke loose, in the wake of civil war.
It happened after the death of Emperor Rudolf of Hapsburg, when his son Albrecht had to fight against another pretender to the throne, Prince Adolf of Nassau. Lawlessness and disorder ruled the day. As usual, the defenseless Jews were the first victims. Incited mobs robbed, killed, and pillaged whole Jewish communities. The cruel 'blood libel' was always a useful excuse to start a pogrom, if other excuses wen lacking. Thus, 72 Jews of the town of Sinzig were locked in a small synagogue and burned alive by a cruel mob. Rabbi Mordecai wrote Lamentations which were included in the Selichoth (Prayers said on Fast Days) to mourn the death of the martyrs.
Tragedy befell the Jews of Germany at the hands of the notorious Rindfleisch. He was a most fanatical Jew-baiter who lived in Franconia, Germany, Though a member of an aristocratic family, he became the head of a mob of ruffianis who left a trail of blood through the southern part of Germany in which over 100,000 Jews lost their lives.
This Rindfleisch first appeared in the town of Roettingen, in Franconia, when a rumor was spread that the Jews had desecrated a church. He gathered a mob around him and declared that he bad received a "mission from heaven" to kill all the Jews in order to avenge the "deserration." They attacked and killed the entire Jewish community of Roatingen, and they swept through the southern pan of Germany, going from town to town, murdering and robbing all the defenseless Jewish communities.
The spring and summer of that year (1298) witnessed one of the most harrowing events in Jewish history. Rindfleisch's mob grew rapidly and it attacked large and small communities alike, since the authorities offend the Jews no protection. The Jews fought for their lives but were easily overwhelmed.
When Rindfleisch reached Nuremberg, the Jews put up a heroic defense and they were aided by some decent citizens. They could have won a reprieve if they had accepted the religion of their attackers. But the Jews fought heroically for their faith. When the battle was over, six hundred and twenty eight martyrs died, among them Rabbi Mordecai ben Hillel, his wife Zelda, and their five children.
Rabbi Mordecai was in his prime years when he died a martyr's death; he was not quite fifty years old. But his life's work was immortal.
His work, Sefer Hamordecai (Book of The Mordecai), was published after his death by his disciples. Two groups were formed which published the work of their master in two different editions, known as the Rhenish and Austrian versions respectively. The Rhenish is the shorter one of the two. Together with extracts from the Austrian Mordecai (edited by Rabbi Samuel ben Aaron of Schleastailt) it was eventually included in the first printed Talmud (Soncino, 1482). Leading Talmudists and codifiers, including Rabbi Joseph Caro and Rabbi Moses Isserless (the ReMO), drew heavily upon it in their decisions and interpretations of the law. Many commentaries were written on The Mordecai, of which the most famous is Gedulath Mordecai (the Greatness of Mordecai) by Rabbi Baruch ben David.
To this very day, The Mordecai is an inexhaustible source of knowledge to all Talmud scholars.