Rabbenu Tam

The grandson of Rashi and leader of medieval French Jewry.

Rabbenu Tam was the name given to Jacob ben Meir (1100-71), the foremost French authority of the Middle Ages. The name is based on Genesis 25: 27: “Jacob was a mild man (ish tam), dwelling in tents,” interpreted in the Rabbinic tradition to mean that Jacob was a “perfect” man, dwelling in the tents of the Torah; hence this famous teacher is known universally as Rabbenu Tam, “Our Teacher the Perfect One.”  A daughter of the great French sage, Rashi, married Rabbi Meir of Ramerupt and Tam was the youngest of their three sons; the other two were Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) and Rabbi Isaac ben Meir (Ribam). Tam studied under his father, his much older brother Rashbam, and Jacob ben Samson, a pupil of Rashi, eventually to become the acknowledged spiritual leader of French Jewry and the most outstanding contributor to the Tosafot glosses to the Talmud.

Relations with Christians

Tam was born in Ramerupt, northern France, and lived there for the greater part of his life. As a financier and wine-merchant, Tam acquired much wealth and had close, often strained relations with the Christian noblemen of his day. During the Second Crusade the mob invaded his home, stabbed him in the head, and would have killed him if not for the intervention of a Christian nobleman who promised the attackers that he would arrange for the Rabbi to be converted to Christianity, a promise he had, of course, no intention of keeping. Tam’s experiences are reflected in his opinions, found in the Tosafot, on the correct attitude Jews ought to adopt with regard to Christianity and Christians. There is no doubt that Tam, like the other French scholars, thought Christianity to be an idolatrous faith, but he tried to promote better relations with Christians, demonstrating, for instance, that some of the Talmudic regulations against social intercourse with pagans did not apply to Christians.

Tam established a Yeshiva in Ramerupt, teaching the Torah to scores of distinguished Talmudists. (The report that each of Tam’s students was a particular expert in a chosen tractate of the Talmud is legendary.)  Tam’s fame spread beyond France. Questions were addressed to him from other parts of the Jewish world and he was known as far as Spain as a great Halakhist, teacher, and liturgical poet, corresponding with Abraham Ibn Ezra, who visited Tam during his stay in France. Tam’s main work is the Sefer Ha-Yashar, an influential compendium of Jewish law and Talmudic notes, often confused with a different Sefer Ha-Yashar, a moralistic work erroneously fathered on him.

Leader of a Generation

There is no doubt that Tam had an autocratic nature, imposing his authority on the communities under his guidance and brooking no opposition. He saw his role as in some ways the leader of his generation and said so, issuing such ordinances as that once a bill of divorce has been given it is forbidden for anyone to cast doubts on its validity. Although he had no use for some popular customs that had crept into Jewish life he defended others with all the force of his powerful personality. The attempt by some nineteenth-century scholars to see Tam as a forerunner of the liberal approach to Rabbinic Judaism is purely apologetic and misguided, as Urbach, in his book on the Tosafot, has demonstrated.

Commenting on the relevant Talmudic passage, Tam took issue with his grandfather, Rashi, on the correct order of the paragraphs in the tefillin. As a result, some Jews today wear two pairs of tefillin, those of Rashi and those of Rabbenu Tam. The Shulhan Arukh rules that only a man renowned for his saintliness is allowed to wear the tefillinof Rabbenu Tam; otherwise it is simply a parade of piety that should be discouraged. Nevertheless, the custom took root and nowadays all Hasidim and many other strictly Orthodox Jews do wear the tefillinof Rabbenu Tam in addition to those of Rashi. That Rabbenu Tam could have disagreed with his grandfather Rashi in this and in other matters shows, as many authorities have noted, that the obligation to honor a parent or a grandparent does not include the duty tobow to their opinions in matters of Torah learning.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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