Ashkenazic Poetry

Although nearly not as prolific as their Sephardic counterparts, Ashkenazim nonetheless made very important contributions to piyutim. One of the highlights of the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services is the recital of "Unesaneh Tokef," which describes the process of Heavenly judgment in stark, chilling terms. The prayer was composed by the 10th-century sage, Rabbi Amnon, and has a remarkable story behind it, one which offers a picture of the power of Christianity at that time.

Rabbi Amnon, who lived in Mainz, Germany, was a close confidante of the ruler. After repeated entreaties to adopt the Christian religion, Rabbi Amnon, in order to distance himself from the duke, told him that he would give the duke a reply in three days. Upon leaving the duke, Rabbi Amnon felt extremely distraught that he gave even an impression of renouncing Judaism. Instead of returning to the court, Rabbi Amnon spent three days in fasting and prayer, not appearing at the appointed time. Enraged, the duke ordered that if Rabbi Amnon refused to convert his arms and legs be cut off one by one. Rosh HaShanah was approaching, and the crippled and dying Rabbi Amnon asked to be taken to the synagogue. During the Mussaf service, he asked the chazzan to wait while he composed the Unesaneh Tokef. Upon concluding, he returned his pure soul to his Creator. Shortly afterward, Rabbi Amnon appeared in a dream to one of his disciples, and requested that the prayer be disseminated throughout the Jewish world. Since that time, Unesaneh Tokef has become universally accepted.

Another Ashkenazic poet, Rabbi Shimon HaGadol, also lived in 10th-century Mainz. One of his compositions for the second day of Rosh HaShanah contains the words "Kel Chanan Nachaloso." Legend ascribes a fascinating story behind these words. Rabbi Shimon's young child Elchanan was kidnapped by the Church, and brought up as a Christian. Rising higher and higher in the Church hierarchy, he reached the level of pope. The new pope then enacted a decree of expulsion against the Jews, which Rabbi Shimon, as the leading Jewish spokesman, attempted to forestall. While meeting the pope, the two became involved in a game of chess. When the pope made a move in a certain position, Rabbi Shimon exclaimed that he once taught that move to his long-lost son. As the conversation continued, Rabbi Shimon realized that the pope was his son Elchanan. Father and son were tearfully united, and the pope disappeared and rejoined the Jewish people.

Ashkenazim and Kabbalah

The study of Kabbalah became popular among Ashkenazic scholars of the Middle Ages, particularly in Germany. A well-known Kabbalistic personality was the 12th-century Rabbi Judah HaChasid, whose best-known work, Sefer Chassidim, approaches halacha both from Kabbalastic and non-Kabbalistic sources. The book won popular acclaim, and is revered to this day. Among Rabbi Judah's most famous enactments are that enemies should not be buried in the same row in the cemetery, and that a man should not marry a woman who has the same name as his mother. (Currently, a bride with the same name simply adds a name.)

Jewish Community Life in Germany

During the times of the Rishonim, Jews did not live in officially sanctioned ghettoes, but lived instead primarily in their own quarter of major towns. In Frankfurt, Germany, for example, the Jewish section was known as the Judengasse, while in England there was a Little Jewry Lane in Oxford and a Jewbury district in York. At that time, Jews were in constant, daily contact with their gentile neighbors, interacting with the nobility, burghers, merchants, and peasants. The Jews hired gentiles for all sorts of labor, both skilled and unskilled, and also purchased goods from gentiles that the Jews themselves did not produce, such as wood, bricks, paints, and flour. When fire threatened a town, a frequent occurrence in those days, Jews and non-Jews banded together to extinguish it, even on the Sabbath if necessary. In all, despite the lack of relationships between German Jews and non-Jews on the social and intellectual levels, there was considerable interaction between them economically.

A specially appointed government judge, known as the Judge of the Jews, handled legal disputes between Jews and non-Jews. At times, there was even a mixed court, consisting of two Jews appointed by the community and two non-Jews appointed by the town council. Toward the end of the 15th Century, regular municipal courts assumed this function, as non-Jewish merchants falsely accused the Jews' judge of taking bribes.

Customs of Worms, Germany

Worms was one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe, and is best known for being the town where Rashi spent a good part of his life. In the 1600s, a learned individual by the name of Juspa Shammas recorded the ancient customs of Worms. These minhagim provide a fascinating window on life in an ancient Ashkenazic community.

The Shammas (synagogue sexton) was responsible for the arrangement and performance of the davening, (prayers). He woke men for services — at 4:30 a.m. in the summer, and daybreak in the winter (7:00-8:00 a.m.). Using a special gavel, the Shammas knocked on those selected windows and doors in the center of the street so that the sound carried to all the houses. As he knocked, he called out "Schulen, Schulen" (come to the synagogue). This duty was carried out faithfully in all seasons, regardless of weather.

“First,” as it was described in contemporary documents, “he knocks upon his own house, the house of the Shammas. He then approaches the outer building, next to the women's section of the synagogue, and knocks a second time. Next, he enters the synagogue and recites [the introductory prayer] Mah Tovu. He remains in his place while reciting Ashrei. Subsequently, he proceeds to the house of the head of the rabbinical court and knocks. He then walks to the lower gate, on the east side of the street, and opens the large gate and the small doorway within it. He continues until he reaches the upper gate, on the west side of the street, visiting the designated houses and knocking on doors as he walks…He also opens the upper gate." The meticulous attention paid to seemingly minor details of procedure bespeak an ancient ritual that was reverently kept unchanged for centuries.

Another duty of the Shammas was to maintain a communal oven in his house where the townspeople stored their Sabbath cholent pots. On Sabbath morning, the Shammas left services shortly before they concluded in order to assist people in removing their pots from the oven. (Carrying them home was permissible, for medieval communities all constructed an eruv for this purpose.)

Among the rabbi’s duties was to punish or fine recalcitrant members of the community. On occasion, proclamations of bans against individuals were issued in the synagogue. (Most medieval communities had but one synagogue.) As is customary today, the rabbi delivered special sermons on the Sabbaths before Pesach and Yom Kippur. The rabbi was provided with a home, and was exempt from all community and property taxes. He was also given a special seat in the synagogue, facing east on the northern side toward the Bimah, the platform on which the Torah is read. The rabbi's jurisdiction extended to the towns surrounding Worms, and he was expected to visit them periodically.

Community members were selected to become Parnassim and Gabbaim. Parnassim were responsible for the administrative affairs of the community, such as overseeing the assessment of families' income for tax purposes and enforcing community decisions, while Gabbaim collected each family's charity obligation.

A boy who turned 13 on Sabbath was not permitted to read the Torah in the synagogue but was required to wait to the next Sabbath, for the community did not consider him to be Bar Mitzvah until one day had passed following his 13th birthday.

On Purim, before the night and day Megillah readings, young boys paraded around both the men and women's sections, wearing masks and holding torches at night. Young girls donned their holiday attire, dressing one as Queen Esther. They also paraded around the synagogue in a manner similar to the boys.

Juspa’s recording of engagement, marriage, and circumcision ceremonies indicates that despite the everyday struggle for survival, and occasional persecutions, the Jews of Worms had an ample livelihood. A bridegroom sent lavish gifts to his bride, banquets and feasts were abundant, and marriage ceremonies were held in the communal wedding hall. Circumcisions were attended by many of the congregation's members with great rejoicing.

Juspa also records the rare occasions when individuals transgressed the law. For example, a Kohen who was a Sabbath desecrator was ordered to descend from the platform on which the Kohanim bless the congregation on holidays. Juspa also mentions the extraordinary rabbinic ban placed throughout the year on playing cards, dice, or any other type of game, except for chess, and except for Chanukah.

Shedding light on an important issue of his day (and for all time), Juspa exhorted the leaders of the community to ensure that Jewish businessmen be scrupulously honest with gentiles. Jews who peddled their wares in the city were not to act in a way to cause the non-Jews to complain about unfair competition. Men and women were not to dress boastfully or immodestly, so as not to attract the attention of gentiles.

From Juspa's descriptions, it is clear that Worms was a close-knit, peaceful community, maintaining its customs for many hundreds of years. In general, life in Ashkenazic communities was peaceful up until the times of the Crusades, thereby enabling the Jews to develop both in Torah and material wellbeing.