Contact Us

Rabbeinu Gershom Ben Judah

Rabbeinu Gershom Ben Judah

(4720-4800; 960-1040)

 Email

If we were to turn back the pages of our history a thousand years, and go back to the city of Metz, in France, we would find living there the greatest scholar of that generation - Rabbenu Gershom 'Meor Hagolah' -"Light of the Exile."

Rabbenu Gershom's teacher was Rabbi Judah ben Meir Hakohen, known as Sir Leofitin, of France. At the age of 53, Rabbenu Gershom established a great academy in his native town which attracted the greatest scholars of his time. Among his many disciples were some of Rashi's principal teachers, notably Rabbi Jacob ben Yakar.

Rabbi Gershom is well known for his commentaries on the Talmud, which were written down by his disciples. He is famous also for his commentaries on the Bible, and for his responsa. He also composed 'Selihoth', in which he bewails the tragic position of his brethren. But Rabbenu Gershom is best known for his important 'Takkonoth' (laws) dealing with social and family life, which he enacted with the approval of the Rabbinical authorities of his time, and which were accepted by all the Jews of Europe, "as if they were given on Mount Sinai." Among these Takkonoth the most well known are the prohibition of polygamy (taking more than one wife), the decree against opening a letter addressed to others, and so on.

Rabbenu Gershom's early life is shrouded in legend. It takes him across many lands to Babylon, the Land of Israel, and finally Constantinople, and the story is crammed with adventure. We shall tell it to you as briefly as possible.

In Search of Torah

Although still a very young man, Rabbenu Gershom had won great renown for his scholarship and piety. His teacher, Sir Leontin, a very distinguished and learned man, was very fond of his brilliant student. So highly did he esteem him, that when Rabbenu Gershom came of age, he allowed him to marry his lovely daughter Devorah.

Soon after his marriage, one of Rabbi Gershom's long cherished dreams was realized. He and his wife set sail for the distant city of Pompadissa, in Babylon, where Rabbi Shrira Gaon led one of the greatest Torah academies in the world. It was a long and arduous journey, full of perils and hardships. But Rabbenu Gershom was more than compensated for his venture. For in Pompadissa, he spent some of the most tranquil and happy years of his life. Here, all worldly cares were forgotten, and stimulated by the other scholars of the great Yeshiva, he devoted himself completely to the study of the Torah.

The time had come for Rabbenu Gershom to go out into the world. As was customary among the great scholars, he did not wish to derive any profit from his knowledge of the Torah by becoming a Rabbi, but chose to work as a goldsmith instead. Gershom became a highly skilled goldsmith, and settled in Constantinople, which at that time was a great metropolis, and the trading center of the East.

The Fire

One day, a terrible fire broke out in the city of Constantinople. Cruel tongues of flame devoured the city at a furious pace, leaving in their wake utter ruin. No sooner was the fire extinguished, when a vicious plague swept the city. Everywhere its victims lay sick and dying.

Rabbi Gershom could no longer sit by and watch the suffering of his fellow men. As he had studied medicine in his youth, he once again took up this noble profession. With selfless devotion, and untiring solicitude, he tended the sick and the dying. Day and night, he ministered to the unfortunate victims of the plague.

During that period, there ruled over that land a king named Basil. Basil was a just man, but he was weak-willed and often misled by his advisors and ministers. Among them, was a very sly and wicked fellow named John. John, who without just cause hated the Jews bitterly, was constantly seeking an opportunity to transform this hate into actual deeds.

The king had called a conference of all his ministers to decide how to cope with the present emergency. John could not resist this opportunity to malign the Jews. "Your Majesty, the Jews are to blame for the fire. Let us rid the country of them!" On and on the cruel John spoke, until he finally persuaded the king to issue a decree which would confiscate all Jewish property, and exile the Jews.

The Cure

Soon afterwards, the king's daughter fell ill. From near and far, the greatest physicians of the realm flocked to the palace to try to cure the king's daughter, future heiress to the throne. But it was of no avail. None of them could cure her. There the child lay, on her little bed, growing paler and weaker each day and no one could help her.

Rabbi Gershom heard of the sick princess, and set out for the palace. When he told the guards of his intention to cure the king's daughter, he was ushered into the king's presence. "If you succeed to cure the princess I will reward you generously, but if you fail, then you will forfeit your head!"

They quietly filed into the room of the little princess. After Rabbi Gershom had examined the princess, he realized how hopelessly ill she really was. Nothing could save her now save a miracle of G‑d. Rabbi Gershom began to pray to G‑d with all his heart. "Show me the way, dear G‑d, to help this sick girl. Grant me wisdom, O G‑d, for the sake of Your people."

(2)

Rabbenu Gershom proceeded to cure the little girl. Soon, the color came back to her cheeks, her eyes began to show some life in them, and each day she gained new strength.

When the little princess finally stepped out on the terrace for the first time after her long illness, the king and queen were overjoyed. They could scarcely believe their eyes. Full of gratitude to Rabbenu Gershom for all that he had done, the king said: "I will give you an immense fortune. You will be so rich that you will never have to work for your living, and you will be able to spend all the days of your life, in ease and luxury."

But Rabbenu Gershom humbly replied, "O king, I have no desire for riches. For me the greatest reward would be the withdrawal of the decree against the Jews."

The king was greatly impressed by Rabbenu Gershom's selflessness, and promised to fulfill his request. A few days later the decree was annulled. Rabbenu Gershom became even more beloved by his people than ever before.

The Silver Throne

Since Rabbenu Gershom cured the princess, he and the king became good friends. The two spent many hours together in pleasant conversation. One day, Rabbenu Gershom happened to tell King Basil of Solomon's wonderful throne of gold. Basil, knowing Rabbenu Gershom to be also a goldsmith of note, asked him to fashion such a throne for him.

Rabbenu Gershom was reluctant to take the responsibility for the construction of the throne. "I cannot vouch for the honesty of the workmen, my king!" he said.

Bur the king waived all his protests aside. "I trust you implicitly and I have no doubt of your ability.

And so, Rabbenu Gershom undertook the construction of the throne. There being not enough gold in the king's treasury the chair was to be fashioned of silver.

You can imagine how involved, and intricate this throne was - for it took as skilled an artisan as Rabbenu Gershom several years to construct it. And when it was finally completed, what a great ado there was! The state-room was rebuilt to house the huge throne; a great festival was arranged to celebrate the presentation of the throne to the king. From near and far, people came to the palace to see the wonderful throne with their own eyes. Exclamations of wonder and admiration could be heard everywhere.

Suddenly the royal trumpets began to blow, heralding the approach of the king. The crowd parted to make way for him. As King Basil began to ascend the throne, he became confused by the movement of the hidden mechanism, and asked Rabbenu Gershom to ascend before him, so that he might see it in motion. Rabbenu Gershom willingly obliged.

An awed silence fell over the assembly. Never before had they seen such a magnificent, and almost incredible spectacle. There were six silver steps that led to the throne. On each step were two different animals cast of siIver. As Rabbenu Gershom ascended each step, the animals would extend a foot to support him. And when he had reached the last step, a huge eagle of silver brought the crown, and held it over his head. When Rabbenu Gershom was thus seated with the crown over his head, courtiers and guests, who, until then had been too overcome with surprise to utter a single syllable, broke out into wild cheers and applause. Everybody praised Rabbenu Gershom's ingenuity and skill.

When Rabbenu Gershom descended, the king thanked him, and proceeded to mount the throne.

John, the king's sly minister was green with envy at Rabbenu Gershom's huge success and growing popularity. Day and night, he pondered a way to defame and ruin the blameless Rabbi. And one day, he finally succeeded in devising a scheme.

Coming before the king he asked, "My king, how do you know that Rabbenu Gershom has not stolen any silver from the state treasury? How can you be certain that all the silver he has taken has gone into the construction of the throne? Let us weigh the throne and ascertain the truth."

John was almost sure that the workmen had stolen silver. But, he would blame Gershom, and have his revenge.

Basil agreed to John's plan. But there was one great obstacle. There was no scale that could weigh the throne. From far and near, the greatest engineers came to weigh the throne, but none of them succeeded. The only way to weigh it, they said was to take it apart, but they would not be responsible for its mechanism.

The Secret Divulged

Although Rabbenu Gershom was a very happy man, his heart was filled with sorrow because he had no children. His wife, Deborah, told him to take a second wife so that he might one day have a child.

This other woman had many close acquaintances in the royal household. She knew, too, that Rabbenu Gershom was the only person in the entire kingdom who knew how to weigh the throne that he himself had built. Using every persuasion and wile, she finally succeeded in coaxing the truth from her husband.

"It is really very simple," said Rabbenu Gershom. "All one has to do is to take a boat, and mark the water-line on the hull. After placing the throne in the boat, you mark the new water-line. When the throne is removed, one has to fill the boat with as many stones as are required to reach the second water-line. All you have to do then is to weigh the stones and you will know how much the throne weighs."

No sooner had she obtained this information, than she hastened to divulge it to one of her acquaintances at the palace.

When the throne was weighed in this fashion, John's accusation proved to be true. The king sent for Rabbenu Gershom, and informed him of the charge against him. "But," Rabbenu Gershom answered, "did I not tell the king that I would not vouch for my workmens' honesty? Surely I am not to blame, if they had stolen some silver." But it was of no avail. The king was completely dominated by John, and condemned Rabbenu Gershom to die, unless he chose to accept Christianity. Naturally, Rabbenu Gershom would not hear of this, and preferred to die. But, because he had once saved the king's daughter, he was given the privilege of being treated as a political prisoner, rather than as a common thief. Instead of being hanged, he would be conveyed to an isolated tower in the desert. There, without any food or drink, he would starve to death.

Escape

The next morning, high in his tower, Rabbenu Gershom heard the sound of a woman's cry. Leaning out through the window he saw his faithful wife, Deborah. In a tearful voice, she said, "I have come to die with you."

"I am glad you have come," Rabbenu Gershom replied, "but not to die with me. We will yet live happily, for you will help me escape! Listen carefully. Find a woodworm, and a beetle. Then get some silk thread, cord, and rope. Tie the silk thread about the beetle. Then tie the cord to the silk thread, and tie the rope to the cord. Let the worm crawl up the side of the tower and the beetle will pursue it, bringing the rope up to me."

About a week later, John awoke from a restless sleep one night, thinking of Rabbenu Gershom. "I will steal out into the desert, and since he is surely dead, I will have the great satisfaction of gloating over my enemy's remains," thought John to himself.

Armed with the keys to the tower John climbed up the stairs of the tower and opened the cell. Imagine how astonished he was to find the cell empty, with no sign of Rabbenu Gershom! But in his excitement, John made one great blunder. He closed the door, forgetting he had left the key outside. And when he finally recovered from his shock and disappointment and turned to go, the door was firmly bolted, and no amount of heaving and pushing could force it open. There, in the same prison he had prepared for Rabbenu Gershom, John knew he was held captive, until he would perish of starvation.

While, unbeknown to all, John lay rotting in the tower, Rabbenu Gershom, standing on the deck of a sailing boat, saw the welcome shores of his native land draw nearer and nearer.

He went to Maintz, where he was welcomed with the greatest respect and honor. There he established and directed the first Yeshivah ever to be founded on the Rhine.

"Meor Hagolah" (Light of the Exile) is a truly fitting title for this great man. Rabbenu Gershom, with his wisdom and love of Torah, G‑d and man, was a beacon of light in those dark years of the diaspora, and for all generations thereafter.

 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
8 Comments
1000 characters remaining
Hieronymous Pseudonymous Lakewood November 9, 2014

... Legends, legends, legends...

The reason Google can't find anything about this is because all the sources are in Hebrew, and I doubt any historian would take them seriously (and maybe they'd be right not to).

In Marcus Lehmann's telling of the story, John (Johann in his version) does not die in the tower in this way, but is sentenced to die there after it is discovered that he has been attempting to gain power by methods involving causing serious discord amongst the country's population.

The writer of this piece wrote that the various lengths of fiber were tied to each other and to the beetle. In Lehmann's telling, only the thread is tied to the !worm, then used to pull up etc.

Obviously, Rabbenu Gershom took his second wife before decreeing against it; attributing the decree to his own bad personal experience doesn't sit right with me, though. (He also gave a woman the right to refuse a divorce...)

As for the throne-weighing... Re-read that part of the story, anonymous Australian. Reply

Gershon KS May 11, 2014

To the person from Sydney a. How do you know the cure was not disclosed? There are many medical books from those days--and this may be in one of them.
b. First it carried a thread, which was very light. With the thread, he was able to pull up the heavier item etc.
c. He prohibited polygamy because of his bad experience.
d. It's a matter of physics.
e. Bear in mind that the author states that this is legend. It is not a historical account of his life but a collection from various legends. Reply

Anonymous Sydney NSW April 27, 2014

The cure: If this story were true, why wasn't the mystery "cure" disclosed [or was it faith healing that lead to the miraculous recovery]?

Escape: How did the beetle manage to crawl up the Tower with a silk thread, cord, and rope attached to it?

If Rabbeinu Gershom prohibited Polygamy as a law [as if it were given on Mount Sinai] - why would he have two wives (Deborah and "this other women")?

As for the workmanship of the Silver Throne of King Solomon, how does filling a boat with stones [of different sizes and weights] prove the original weight of the Throne?

If someone could give an insightful answer to explain these apparent contradictions that would be great.


Reply

Anonymous london December 18, 2013

Gershom and the tower door I have never come across a door in medieval times that closed automatically Reply

Anonymous Philadelphia, PA September 25, 2012

Like the story of Queen Ester in the Bible this story of Rabbi Gershom in Babylon has all the characteristics of a fairy tale. Reply

Howard London, UK July 3, 2012

R Gershom What an amazing story, thank you. Reply

Anonymous Jewrusalem, Israel March 13, 2011

Rabbeinu Gershom Meor Hagolah I am curious why outside of this source in English Google, no other source can coroborate this information . Where can source material be obrained for this article on Rabbbeinu Gershom? Reply

Andi Alpert Ziegelman Haifa, IL July 9, 2009

Halpern family descends from teacher of R. Gershom For the information of all your readers, please note that the Heilprin/Halperin/Galperin/Heilbron/Halbronn/Heilprinner family descends from the teacher of Rabbenu Gerson's teacher, Rabbi Judah ben Meir Ha-cohen, Sir Leonin. The source for this information is Meir Wunder in his book, Elef Margaliot. Meir Wunder lives in Jerusalem.
I descend from the Chabad Alperovich family of Kurenets. I believe that this family is a branch of the Heilprin family, and I am seeking the connection. Reply

This page in other languages