Some five hundred years ago, when the Jews in almost all the countries of Europe suffered persecution, physical attacks and expulsion, there were yet great scholars and Rabbis whose learning and nobility of soul won them places of distinction in the "Gallery of Our Great." One of the outstanding Rabbis of that time was Israel ben Hayyim Brunna. He called Brunna, after the town of Brunn in Moravia where he was born and where he first served as Rabbi.
Rabbi Israel Brunna studied under the great Rabbis of his time, Rabbi Jacob Weil in Ehrfurt and Rabbi Israel Isserlein in Neustadt, near Vienna. He was a brilliant student, who devoted himself, body and soul, to the study of the Talmud. His Rabbis ordained him and praised him highly. Rabbi Israel Brunna was elected Rabbi in his native town.
Few people had a more eventful and niore troublesome life than Rabbi Israel Brunna, especially in the latter part of his long life. When he passed his fiftieth birthday, the Jews of Brunna were expelled, after many years of persecution. Rabbi Israel Brunna wandered forth in' search of a new haven. He passed through Prague, and finally came to the city of Regensburg (Ratisbon). Having already won high repute as a great scholar, he was elected Rabbi in this ancient city in Germany. But the peace and rest that he sought were not to be his. The local Rabbi Anschel Segal, who was conducting a Yeshivah in that town, felt that the position should have been his, and that the newcomer should have settled somewhere else. The community was divided, some following Rabbi Anschel, others recognizing only Rabbi Israel Brunna as their Rabbi. Unfortunately, among Rabbi Anschel's followers there were some unscrupulous men who decided to make life miserable for the refugee Rabbi. They resorted to heartless tricks and abuse to annoy the new Rabbi. Thus they painted the word "heretic" on his seat in the synagogue, and when he preached, they would organize a walkout from the synagogue. Rabbi Israel Brunna, however, bore the attacks and insults with humility. On the death of his rival, he was accepted by the whole conummity. Being one of the greatest Talmudic authorities of his time, Rabbis and scholars from various cities and countries sent him their queries on all matters relating to Jewish law.
Rabbi Israel Brunna might finally have found the peace he longed for, but misfortune was to overcome him again. It was at that time that Emperor Frederick returned from Rome as the head of the Rornan-German empire, and he demanded from the Jews a crown-tax amounting to one third of all their wealth and possessions. Now the Jews of Regensburg were at that time under the protection of the Duke Ludwig of Landsberg. To him the Jews appealed for help. Ludwig thought that the Jews were his property, and he ordered the city-fathers of Regensburg not to allow the emperor to rob "his" Jews. The emperor, however, threatened the Jews with dire consequences unless they paid the crown-taxes which he imposed. Moreover, he had Rabbi Israel Brunna arrested to compel him to use his authority in the emperor's favor. After thirteen days in prison, he managed to regain his freedom, but not for long. A renegade Jew, who became a convert to christianity, accused the old and weak Rabbi of having murdered a Christian child. In those days many Christians, and even clergymen, believed in the horrible "blood libel," thinking that Jews required blood for the Passover Matzoth! Bishop Henry and other church officials declared the old Rabbi guilty, and demanded his death. Fortunately, the city-fathers feared the emperor, who held them responsible for the Rabbi's life, for without the Rabbi's help the emperor could not hope to collect the taxes. But the rabble-rouser had incited the populace, who clamored for the Rabbi's death. So the cityfathers bid him in a cell in the prison.
In the meantime, the Jews appealed to the emperor, Frederick III, as also to King Ladislav of Boheinia, to save the innocent Rabbi. Both the emperor and the king declared the Rabbi innocent, for the blood libel had been found to be false long ago, and they ordered that the Rabbi be released from prison. This, the city-fathers were afraid to do, fearing that he would be attacked and murdered by the populace. Again the emperor ordered the release of the Rabbi, warning the city-fathers that they would be held responsible if anything happened to him.
There was only one thing left for the city-fathers to do to get out of the dilemma: to expose the real villain, Hans Vagol, the convert, and his false accusation. Hans was seized and taken to the stone bridge in the center of the town. Here, the executioner was ready with his sharp axe, while the eldest of the city-fathers spoke sternly to the renegade: "We know you invented the accusation against the innocent old Rabbi, and nearly brought misfortune upon our city. Now you are going to die. This is your only chance to conffess your crime!"
Hans Vagol broke down and confessed that there was no truth in his accusation, and that the old Rabbi was not guilty of any bloodshed; that it was only because of his, Hans', hatred for the Jews and their Rabbi that he fabricated the accusation.
Then the city-fathers condemned the accuser to be burned to death, and the emperor confirmed the verdict.
Rabbi Israel Brunna, then about 74 years old, was finally released, after promising that he would not press a claim for any compensation for the false accusation against him.
Rabbi Israel Brunna passed away at the ripe age of eighty. After his death, many of his responsa were collected and printed, first in Salonika (5558/1798) and later in Stettin (5620/1860). His responsa, which are learned answers to questions of Jewish law connected with-Jewish life at that time, are of much interest to this day.