Rabbenu Tam

The grandson of Rashi and leader of medieval French Jewry.

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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.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.