Thursday, February 01, 2007


Rabbi Yakov Ben Asher (1270 – 1340), was a son of Asher Ben Yehiel (the Rosh, also known as Rabbeinu Asher; 1250 or 1259 - 1328), who was a student of Rabbi Meir Ben Baruch of Rothenburg (1215 - 1293).

Yakov Ben Asher's codification of Halacha (the 'Four Rows' - Arba Turim - ארבעה טורים) was long the standard, and his division of Halacha into four categories is still normative. It is from the name of his work that his appellation is derived: Baal HaTurim = Master Of The Rows.

The four Halacha categories he set out were Orach Chayim (the Path of Life – worship and ritual), Yoreh Deah (Instruction of Knowledge – ritual prohibitions, purity and impurity), Even Ha Ezer (Rock Of The Helper – family law, including divorce), and Choshen Mishpat (the Breastplate of Judgement – administration and adjudication).
[Why only four categories, when the Talmud itself speaks of six? Because two categories are no longer applicable in golus and since the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash.]

The book’s title, ‘four rows’, is in reference to the lines of precious stones on the breastplate (chosen, prounced with a gutteral 'kh')) of the kohein gedol, as described in Sefer Shmos, Parshas Teitzaveh, where Aharon receives a turban, shirt, pants, gartel, eifod (apron), chosen (breastplate), and a tzitz (turban badge). Plus a robe with bells on the hem so that his coming and going will be noticeable – from which we learn, mashma, that a man should cough discretely or otherwise announce his presence, even when entering his own home.

The Arba Turim was of great influence on subsequent Halachic writing, effectively setting standards that later generations of scholars strove to emulate. Rabbi Yosef Karo (also known as the Mechaber – compiler or author) based his own work Beis Yosef on the Arba Turim.

Rabbi Yakov Ben Asher also wrote a Torah commentary, which, in addition to pshat, also veers off into Gematriot (a translation is available from Mesorah Publications).

Yakov Ben Asher, his father, and his brother Yehudah, left Germany in 1303 because of government persecution - Emperor Rudolf I of Habsburg (born 1218, excommunicated by Innocent IV in 1254, crowned emperor in 1273, died 1291, not a moment too soon) had decreed that all Jews in his domains were Servi Camerae (slaves of the treasury), making them subject to greater than usual exploitation and extortion.

Asher and his sons settled in Spain, and are considered intermediates between the Franco-German Tosafists (supplementarian commentators of Torah and Talmud, students and descendants of Rashi) and the Sephardic Talmud-Torah scholars.

Note that Asher Ben Yehiel’s teacher, Meir of Rothenburg, also tried to escape from the greedy clutches of the Habsburgs, but was seized in Lombardy and imprisoned in Alsace, where he died in 1293. The authorities released his body, in return for an enormous ransom, fourteen (!) years after his death. Gentile authorities were nothing if not creative when it came to developing new sources of revenue.



ROSH = Rabbi Asher Ben Yechiel, 1250 - 1328, student of the Maharam (Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, 1215 - 1293). After the rampaging crusaders went nuts in the Rhineland in 1306, Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel fled to Barcelona, then to Toledo, where he was appointed head judge of the Jewish community there. The Rosh represents the transition from the Ashkenazic Tosafists of France and Germany, whose age was ending, to the Torah and Talmud scholars of the Sephardic golden age in Spain.

And speaking of the Rosh, I would like to go off on an interesting tangent here regarding loans, as this expands upon the theme of a recent conversation at the tobacco store.
Rather than engaging in usury (ribis), halacha holds that money advanced be considered an investment, which entitles the investor to a specified share of the profits, and imposes at least part of the risk upon him. This is what is referred to as heter iska (from Aramaic; ‘heter’, meaning allowance for, clause permitting, and ‘iska’ meaning enterprise), which converts a loan into a partnership (shutfus; assigning partners) or agented investment, which grants the one who lends the funds a part in the profits, and implies a stake in the enterprise as a silent partner (the ‘borrower’ is technically the employee or aqent of the ‘partnership’, and must be recompensed – usually this is done with a nominal sum).

Now note that such an arrangement can amount to a fully realized lien on at least part of the corporate assets, which Rabbeinu Asher holds will guarantee payment of debt. The Talmud states that collateral in lieu of a lien under certain circumstances invalidates any claim to a share of proceeds, whereas the Rema (Rav Moshe Isserless) avers that the non-Jewish laws and financial practices of the country are in principle valid and legitimate, even if not expressly supported by Halacha.


Anonymous said...

Ejoyed reading this immensely. Where did you gather your information from? Your style of explanation was refreshing (not dry encyclopaedic).

The back of the hill said...

I am pleased that you enjoyed it.

Most of my sources are on the internet, but I also have a few dozen reference books that tell me bits and pieces. I tend to look stuff up everywhere, and compare data. And at some point, one thing reminds me of other things.

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