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728 Years After His Death, We Reassess the Ransom of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg

The great German Talmudist and poet was one of the shining lights of 13th-century Ashkenaz before he was kidnapped and held for an exorbitant ransom that he famously directed his community not to pay. Did they disobey him after his death?

Eitam Henkin
May 01, 2020
Rothschild Miscellany, The Israel Museum (MS. 180/51 folio 79)
Rothschild Miscellany, The Israel Museum (MS. 180/51 folio 79)
Rothschild Miscellany, The Israel Museum (MS. 180/51 folio 79)
Rothschild Miscellany, The Israel Museum (MS. 180/51 folio 79)

One of the better-known chapters in the history of the rishonim is the account of the captivity of R. Meir son of R. Barukh of Rothenburg (Maharam), his death in prison, and the ransom of his body to be brought to a Jewish grave. The main details are as follows: Maharam attempted to flee Germany with his family to escape persecution and the harsh edicts against the Jewish people. During his attempted escape, as he neared the German border on the fourth day of Tammuz in the year 1286, he was seized by soldiers of King Rudolf I of Habsburg, who imprisoned him and demanded an enormous ransom for his release. Maharam remained imprisoned for nearly eight years. During that time he continued to learn Torah, to write his novellae and responsa, and even to teach and communicate with students who were regularly permitted to enter his cell. On the 19th day of Iyar of the year 1293, Maharam left this world while in captivity. Even after his death, the ruler refused to release his body for burial. Another 14 years would elapse before his remains would be brought to a Jewish grave on the 4th day of Adar, 1307, following the intervention of a benefactor named Alexander (Susskind), son of R. Shlomo Wimpfen. Wimpfen, who lived in Frankfurt am Main and settled in Worms later in life, paid an enormous sum for this noble cause.

However, the best known fact about the imprisonment of Maharam is his refusal to be ransomed for the exorbitant sum demanded by the authorities, based on the principle that “We do not ransom captives for more than their value, for the sake of public good.” This was noted by Maharshal, in his discussion in Tractate Gittin on ransoming captives:

I heard about our teacher and Rabbi, R. Meir of Rothenburg, may his memory be for a blessing, who was held captive in the fortress at Ensisheim for a certain number of years, and the ruler demanded from the communities an exorbitant ransom, and the communities wished to pay but he [R. Meir] did not allow this. He said that it is not permitted to ransom captives for more than their worth. I am flabbergasted, as he was an exceptionally great Torah scholar, and there was none like him in Torah and piety in his generation, and it is permissible to ransom him for all the money in the world. If due to his humility, he did not consider himself to be an exceptionally great Torah scholar, at any rate he should have considered the amount of Torah learning that would be lost—as he himself wrote, that he sat in darkness without Torah and light; and he lamented his lack of the works of the poskim and Tosafot; and how could he not have considered the sin of loss of Torah, since the public needed him. Clearly, his opinion was that if they ransomed him, one need fear lest all of the rulers take the greatest Torah scholar of the generation into captivity for ransom so great that the means of the diaspora communities would not be sufficient to ransom them, and the Torah would be forgotten from Israel. I also heard that the same evil ruler wanted to seize his student, Rosh [Rabbenu Asher]. He got wind of this and fled to Tulitila and was saved by G-d’s compassion and mercy. Because of this, the pious one [Maharam] said that it is better that a little wisdom be lost from Israel than the total loss of all Torah scholarship. And this is the sign [that he was correct], that at that time they ceased seizing the diaspora sages.

There have been recent attempts to challenge this tradition brought by Maharshal, arguing that this is a later tradition that was unknown to the generations that followed Maharam. Two primary supports have been brought in favor of this argument:

A) The description in the Will of R. Yehuda b. Ha-Rosh. The communities’ attempt to ransom Maharam, and Rosh’s involvement, is related in R. Yehuda ben Ha-Rosh’s will, with no mention of Maharam’s refusal to be ransomed, though a fact of this sort would certainly have been worthy of mention:

And the reason for the departure of my master and father, of blessed memory, was the seizure of R. Meir of Rothenburg, who was imprisoned by the lord of the city, and the congregations of Ashkenaz ransomed him for a great fortune. The ruler refused to accept any guarantor other than my master and father, of blessed memory, who was forced to guarantee a large sum. And before the sum was divided among the communities, R. Meir of Rothenburg died in captivity and the ruler falsely accused my master and father, of blessed memory, saying that since he died in captivity before he could be released from prison, he [my father] was responsible when his death occurred, and that he and the communities must pay the money. And he fled from him and went to a different city, and because of his fear of the authorities fled Ashkenaz.

B) A document found in the year 1616 within the wall of an old synagogue in Worms, describes the captivity of Maharam, his death, and the redemption of his body by the benefactor. This document does not contain any mention of Maharam’s refusal to be redeemed for an exorbitant sum:

Our teacher, R. Meir of Rothenburg ben R. Baruch of blessed memory, set out to cross the sea, he and his wife and his daughters and his son-in-law and all of his belongings. And he arrived at a city situated between the tall mountains that are called “Lombardische Gebirge” in the German language, and he thought to settle there until all of those traveling with him would gather there. And suddenly the thief and evil bishop of Basel, may his name and memory be obliterated, rode down from Rome through that city, accompanied by an apostate Jew named Kneppe, may his name and memory be obliterated. He saw and recognized our teacher and reported to the bishop, and caused Count Meinhard of Görz, lord of that city, to seize him on the 4th day of Tammuz in the year 46 of the sixth millennium and deliver him to King Rudolph.
And because of our many sins, he died in captivity on the 19th day of Iyar in the year 53 of the sixth millennium and did not receive a proper burial until the year 67 of this millennium, on the 4th of Iyar, when a generous spirit entered the heart of one benefactor in the holy community of Frankfurt, home to the benefactor Susskind Wimpfen, who spent an exorbitant sum until he was able to bury Maharam with his forefathers in the holy city of Worms. And the benefactor died afterwards, and secured his resting place at his side. May their souls be bound in the bonds of life with the other righteous men and women in Gan Eden, Amen.

However, in my opinion, this evidence does not suffice to prove that Maharam agreed to be redeemed for an excessive ransom, contrary to the tradition related by Maharshal. First, doubting the credibility of Maharshal’s rendition of the events and describing it as merely a “hearsay” is unjustified, not only because Maharshal was generally known for his very sharp critical thinking and also because he had in his possession of important traditions and rare historical documents regarding the sages of Ashkenaz, but especially because he includes another piece of “hearsay” in the same rendition of how the bishop who seized Maharam attempted to seize his student, Rosh, as well. We now know that this is indeed a fact, as this is precisely how the events were described in the last will and testament of R. Yehuda son of Rosh. Maharshal never actually saw this will, which was printed less than 130 years ago from the single extant manuscript! Therefore, although the source for Maharshal’s information about these events remains unknown, it was undoubtedly a reliable one that even stated correctly that after the Rosh escaped to Spain “there was a cessation of seizing the sages of the Diaspora.”

Regarding the rendition that appears in the will of R. Yehuda ben Ha-Rosh, which would seem to be very strong evidence, note that in this description, there is conspicuous missing information. The will relates that Rosh was forced to flee to Spain immediately following and as a result of the death of Maharam—“And he escaped from him and went to a different city, and left Ashkenaz because of his fear of the authorities.” However it is well established that Maharam died in 1293, as noted, while Rosh left Spain only 10 years later, in 1303! Therefore, since it is clear that when R. Yehuda ben Ha-Rosh drafted his will, he lacked knowledge about the precise circumstances of his father’s escape from Ashkenaz to Spain, we certainly cannot draw decisive conclusions from the absence of other information that would have been less significant to him on this subject.

Regarding the document from Worms, I believe that it was written in order to glorify the benefactor who successfully arranged for Maharam’s remains to receive a proper Jewish burial; for this document does not provide any information whatsoever about Maharam’s long years in prison, and it does not even allude to the attempts made to ransom Maharam during his lifetime. Instead, immediately after recounting the circumstances of his capture, the document proceeds directly to his death, followed by the act of kindness by the benefactor: “When a generous spirit entered the heart of one benefactor in the holy community of Frankfurt, home to the benefactor Susskind Wimpfen, who spent a fortune until he was buried among his forefathers in the holy community of Worms.” The document goes on to provide information related not to Maharam’s imprisonment, but rather to the benefactor: “And the benefactor died shortly afterwards, and earned his place alongside him. May their souls be bound in the bonds of life with the other righteous men and women [in the heavens].”

As the objective of the author of this document was to describe the generosity and good deeds of this benefactor, it is perfectly clear why he chose not to mention Maharam’s refusal to be redeemed for an exorbitant ransom (assuming that this information was available to the author). A refusal of this kind could raise serious questions about the benefactor’s willingness to “spend a fortune” (!) in order to bury Maharam’s remains, and readers may have wondered whether Maharam himself would have objected to the redemption of his remains for an excessive sum, had he been able to do so.

On the left—the gravestone of Maharam. On the right—the gravestone of R. Alexander (Susskind) son of R. Shlomo Wimpfen.
On the left—the gravestone of Maharam. On the right—the gravestone of R. Alexander (Susskind) son of R. Shlomo Wimpfen.Jörg Bürgis/Wikimedia

Now, in the following section of the article, I will attempt to strengthen the conclusion that I presented in the previous section, and to elaborate on the halachic problem encountered by those who sought to ransom Maharam’s remains from the gentiles who held it hostage. The truth is that in the writings of the rishonim, we find a direct and explicit reference to this precise scenario.

One of the leading rishonim tells of “one of the great Torah scholars in his generation” who was seized by the ruler and held in captivity (in prison) until his death. The ruler “kept him in captivity in order to collect great sums of money for him …” This leading rishon stated that it was prohibited to accede to the ruler’s demands, for the sake of the public good, as is written in Gittin that “captives shall not be ransomed for more than their worth.” Thus, we have an explicit ruling that states that even a great Torah scholar shall not be ransomed for an excessive sum, for the sake of public good. Were the source of this ruling not known to us, we would likely have assumed that it referred to the famous incident involving Maharam of Rothenburg. However, this story is brought by R. Yitzhak ben R. Shmuel, i.e., R. Isaac ben Samuel the Elder (Ri Ha-zaken), who died over one hundred years before Maharam!

This ruling by R. Isaac ben Samuel the Elder, which had already been alluded to by Tosafotand copied by the Ra’ah, was well known to all of the rishonim in Ashkenaz and in Spain, and was quoted many times from the generation of Maharam of Rothenburg and onwards: in Spain by the students of Rabbenu Yona, Rashba and Ritba, as well as Rabbenu Yeruham; and in Provence by Meiri and Orhot Hayyim; and by German authorities such as the students of Maharam, Mordekhai, and later by Rosh followed by his son, Tur, and others.

However all of these references bring this incident in context of the laws of mourning, and copied only an abridged version of the story while including only the details necessary for that specific context, without mentioning the importance of the captive who died or the precise reason for being unable to ransom his body. These are precisely the details that are germane in our investigation. In the cases of certain rishonim, and particularly the earliest ones such as Rabbenu Yona and the Mordekhai, it is clear that they had access to the full story. Regarding others, and especially the later rishonim, they apparently had access only to secondhand accounts that did not include most of the circumstances of the incident and in many cases, some of the details were even distorted. The only source to preserve the entire story, accurately copying the response of Ri Ha-zaken word for word, was Ramban, in his work Torat Ha-adam.

Ramban is not only the earliest source among all available rishonim to refer to the responsum by Ri Ha-zaken, but, as we noted above, he is also apparently the first who explicitly wrote that the ruling that “one does not ransom captives for more than their worth” does not apply to great sages who are needed by the public. This ruling was the basis for Maharshal’s challenge and response regarding the tradition that Maharam refused to be redeemed from prison. However, it goes without saying that the rationale of Ramban does not apply after the great sage had died, as at that point he could no longer teach Torah to the public. If we would argue that his body should be redeemed for more than its worth, out of respect for his Torah, and similar considerations, the answer given by Ri Ha-zaken, as cited by Ramban, indicates that there is no such permissibility, and we do not find after him any authorities who disagreed.

In my humble opinion, it is possible to find somewhat of a hint of this Halacha in the description of Maharam’s imprisonment, in the will of R. Yehuda b. Ha-Rosh. He relates that when Maharam died in prison, it was following an agreement that was reached for his release (in exchange for an unknown sum), and after his death, the lord of the city demanded that his father, Rosh (the guarantor), and the communities pay the sum as agreed; and therefore Rosh “fled from him and went to a different city.” Why didn’t Rosh continue to collect funds from the communities for the exalted purpose of redeeming the body of Maharam? This proves that an exorbitant sum may not be paid for a body, even that of a great sage, even in a case where paying such a sum for a living person would be permissible. And, at the very least, there would be no obligation to pay such a sum, and therefore it is not possible to compel such payment by the communities.

Thus when the benefactor from Frankfurt, R. Alexander Wimpfen, sought to redeem the body of Maharam for “a fortune” that was greater than the body’s worth, approximately a dozen years after Maharam died in prison, this was more than 130 years after Ri Ha-zaken wrote his responsum. Copies of this responsum were shared over the course of the years and even reached Spain in the southwest, where Ramban copied it into his work more than a full generation before Maharam was buried. It is even likely that Maharam himself was familiar with this ruling by Ri Ha-zaken. Does this mean that if the benefactor had consulted with the great halachic authorities of his generation from his own area, such as Mordekhai who was a student of Maharam—and had asked whether to redeem Maharam’s body for the fortune that was demanded by the authorities, that he would have been instructed not to do so but rather to “pray for G-d’s salvation so that he puts into the mind of the ruler to release the body for burial for a smaller fee”?

I have no intention, Heaven forbid, to judge the actions of that benefactor, of blessed memory, who was praised by the people of his generation for his noble act, as is written on his tombstone, “… who had the heart and opportunity to do a great mitzvah and to redeem our teacher and our leader, R. Meir ben R. Baruch, from the prison where he was held following his death for several years.” It is also possible when he ransomed the body of Maharam of Rothenburg, there no longer existed the concern that caused Maharam to refuse to be redeemed for an exorbitant price, namely the concern that this would encourage further attempts to seize great Torah scholars, which indeed happened to his student, Rosh.

This is important to note, considering how during these devastating times in the history of Germany, the land was gradually becoming emptied of its great Torah scholars. Maharam died in prison in the year 1293. Five years later, two of his great disciples, R. Mordechai ben R. Hillel, and his brother-in-law R. Meir Ha-kohen, author of Hagahot Maimoniyot, died as martyrs in the Rindfleisch massacres of 1298. Five years later, in 1303, his greatest disciple, Rosh, left for Spain as described above. Although some other disciples of Maharam remained in Ashkenaz, nevertheless, as most of the saintly people left the city, its “glory and radiance” left with them. This was the situation in 1307 when R. Alexander Wimpfen ransomed the body of Maharam. At this time, sadly enough, there was no need for concern that the ruler would seize another Torah scholar of a stature equal to him.

Within a period of only 15 years, the first and greatest golden age of our rabbis, the sages of Ashkenaz came to an end, after nearly 300 years, from the days of Rabbenu Gershom Me’or Ha-golah and his peers of the generation preceding the year 1040. Following this, two to three generations were to pass before the glory of Ashkenaz Judaism would be revived by Maharil, his teachers and his disciples, members of his generation and the generation that followed, as recounted in the “books of chronicles.”

The source of this article is Eitam Henkin, “A New Reading on the Captivity of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg and His Redemption and Burial,” Yerushateinu, vol. 5 (2011): 311-318. Translated from the original Hebrew by Rena Bar-David.

By the time of his death at age 31, Rabbi Eitam Henkin had authored over 50 articles and three books. A graduate student at Tel Aviv University, he was renowned both for his halachic writings and for his mastery of the byways of the rabbinic world of the 19th and 20th centuries. He was murdered by a Hamas terrorist cell together with his wife, Na’ama, a graphic designer, in front of their four young children on Ḥol Ha-Moed Sukkot, 2015. Their deaths were a great loss to both the Torah and academic communities.