The term Ashkenaz is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 10:3 and 1 Chronicles 1:6 as the dwelling place of a descendant of Noah’s son Japhet, ancestor of later Europeans. In Jeremiah 51:27 it seems to be part of Asia, perhaps Asia Minor, and is located northwest of Palestine. How the place name eventually supplanted earlier descriptive names for German-Jewish lands, such as the Rhineland (Rinus) or the lands of King Lothar (Lotir) is not clear.
Although Ashkenaz referred in the Middle Ages only to German lands, the term eventually included northern France and England as well as northern Italy and parts of Central Europe like Bohemia. As Jews migrated into the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the term broadened to include East European Jews as well. Jews of early Ashkenaz brought their spoken German dialect of Yiddish as well as local customs and practices of Jewish living into Slavic territories.
Localism was close to the heart of northern European Jews who thought of themselves as belonging to a town more than to a region. Among the earliest Jewish residents along the Rhine River were the Jews of Mainz, Worms, and Speyer. They migrated there from northern France or from Italy, where they had lived for centuries, in some cases as the descendants of slaves the Roman conquerors of Jerusalem brought to Italy in 70 CE. Historical memory preserved the path from Italy to German lands in later foundation legends relating how a King Charles had invited Rabbi Mosheh ben Kalonymos from Lucca to Mainz. And indeed there is ample reason to think that that was the case. From the archives of Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious (d. 840), we have three Latin charters of privilege that he issued to Jewish international merchants whom he encouraged to trade in the empire by offering them incentives of toll exemptions. He also promised them protection directly from his own court.
The private charters that Louis issued to individual Jewish merchants became the model for later community charters of protection that began to appear in 1084 for the newly founded Jewish community of Speyer, a spin-off of the earlier ones of Mainz, settled in the late tenth century, and Worms, settled perhaps a few decades later. In his Latin charter, Rüdiger, bishop of Speyer, notes that he was welcoming Jews who might want to settle in his town. A Hebrew account tells us that a fire had broken out in Mainz and Jews there were homeless. Rüdiger offered the Mainz Jewish refugees his personal protection, self-government, and even a strong wall around their area of settlement, so that Christian commercial competitors in town would not be tempted to harm their new Jewish neighbors. Rüdiger invited them to settle in Speyer because he thought the Jews could help him increase the prestige of Speyer by making a village into a town.
Many other rulers invited Jews into northern Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and confirmed their protection and utility to the kingdom, usually as international merchants, with similar community charters. During these times, Jews and Christians generally got along, and the settled life in towns like Mainz in the Rhineland or Troyes in the County of Champagne saw the emergence of an early rabbinic elite that was part of the commercial middle class the Jewish settlers were forming.
Among these merchant rabbis was the first major religious leader in Ashkenaz, Rabenu (our rabbi) Gershom ben Yehudah, later called “Light of the Exile” (d. 1028). Gershom’s fame lies in two decisions he made regarding the protection of married Jewish women. Contradicting both Talmudic precedent and Jewish practice in Muslim lands, Gershom ruled that a Jewish man in Ashkenaz could be married to only one wife at a time, even if he were living abroad for a year or more on business trips and was tempted to start another family there. The commercial reality of Jewish life was the context for Gershom’s ruling, designed to prevent a wife back home from being neglected or even abandoned. His second innovative ruling was that a Jewish husband no longer could divorce his wife without her consent.
In the eleventh and twelfth century, different rabbinic genres emerged in parallel to signs of spiritual renewal in Christian Europe. In the middle of this creativity a traumatic event took place, generating a religious ideology that would shape not just the elite that constructed it but also the entire culture of Ashkenaz for all time.
In small rabbinical circles in northern Europe, Rabbi Shelomoh ben Yitsḥak Troyes (d. 1105), known as Rashi, wrote his running commentary to most of the Hebrew Bible and to the Babylonian Talmud. They are both still widely studied today. Rashi’s grandsons, especially the extraordinary Rabbi Ya‘akov ben Me’ir of Ramerupt, known as Rabenu Tam (d. 1171), built a major intellectual palace of synthesis on the basis of Rashi’s Talmudic commentary by comparing far-flung passages from the Talmud, noting contradictions, and proposing solutions, in scholastic fashion, by making distinctions. The intellectual achievement of these Tosafists (Talmud glossators) resulted in the expansion of new categories of Jewish law and practice, in effect making a formerly Mediterranean and Islamic Jewish culture into the Jewish culture of northern Christian Europe or Ashkenaz.
In the Rhineland town of Speyer, descendants of the founding families of Italian Jews, the Kalonimides of Lucca, took umbrage at the innovative élan of Ya‘akov Tam’s expansion of distinctions and the new practices that followed from them and insisted instead on following a regime of venerable pietistic behavior that hearkened back to ancient Palestine and Italy, the origin of early Ashkenazic religious culture.
The Pietists of Ashkenaz, like Rabbi Shemu’el ben Kalonymos and his son, Rabbi Yehudah ben Shemu’el the Pietist (d. 1217), contributed to Sefer ḥasidim (Book of the Pietists), an anthology of parables, ancient customs, exegetical comments, and homilies, all built around the possibility that some Jews could be religious virtuosos and live ascetic lives, even though married with children, by avoiding the pleasure of their families, atoning for inadvertent pleasure by sitting in icy rivers in the winter or covered with honey on ant hills in the summer, all to focus their devotion to God in a heroic way.
Although we do not have any evidence that groups of such Jews actually practiced Judaism this way in Germany during this period as a religious sect or fellowship, Sefer ḥasidim has survived in dozens of complete and fragmentary manuscripts. This longevity attests to the popularity of the pietistic way of life not only as an ideal but also as religious practice in later East European Judaism, before a more joyful alternative regimen challenged it in the form of “modern” Hasidism.
At the same time that Rashi was writing his commentaries on the Bible and Talmud in northern France, Christian knights and mobs brutally attacked the earliest settlements of Ashkenazic Jewry, especially Mainz, Worms, Speyer, and Cologne. Pope Urban II’s speech in November 1095, launching the armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem that became known as the First Crusade, provoked anti-Jewish riots in the spring of 1096 in German towns. Some Jews died in the streets or in their houses; others acted to prevent the Christians from even coming near them and killed their own families and then committed suicide as acts of religious heroism.
Through the stories and prayers that some survivors wrote right after the riots, a martyr culture was constructed as an ideal for later emulation. Jews in Ashkenaz should be ready to take their own lives rather than live under the Cross. In addition to memorializing the stories of Jewish martyrdom in Mainz, Worms, and Speyer, other Jews compiled lists of the martyrs’ names and read them out loud in the synagogue on the anniversary of the original massacre in each town.
The result of the events of 1096 and of their preservation in a cult of the martyred dead was that later generations considered being a martyr a religious ideal. From the cult of the martyrs of 1096 developed a broader set of practices designed to remember one’s own family dead, even if they were not descended from the communities that experienced the riots in 1096. These two sets of practices in Judaism are parallel to the customs of All Saints and All Souls in the Catholic church. For example, Jews began to light candles in connection with marking the anniversary of the dead, as Christian monks did when they marked the anniversary of a departed abbot or monk. In Ashkenazic piety, more than in Sephardic custom, Jews recited memorial prayers for the dead four times a year, not just on the Day of Atonement, as before, but also on the festivals. They also began to recite the Kaddish prayer for the dead on the anniversary of one’s parents’ deaths in a custom called yortsayt, and developed other memorial practices such as visiting cemeteries to commune with the dead at different times of the year.
Despite the impact the events of 1096 had on the collective memory of early Ashkenaz, for the next 200 years Jews lived relatively peacefully with their Christian neighbors. There was no “age of the Crusades” of constant persecution in Ashkenaz. Even when a Christian cleric in Norwich, England, in the mid-twelfth century invented the lie that Norwich Jews had ritually crucified a Christian boy in order to create a local Christian saint, no anti-Jewish riots accompanied the accusation.
It was only in the late thirteenth century that some Christian kings tightened their control over Jewish life in Europe. The king of England expelled his Jews, perhaps 2,000 people, in 1290, and the king of France expelled his, possibly 80,000, in 1306. There probably were as many French Jews forced into exile in 1306 as there were Iberian Jews expelled from Castile and Aragon in 1492.
Major episodes of violence became common in Ashkenaz in the late thirteenth century, peaking in the middle of the fourteenth century when Jews were accused of poisoning wells to bring about the Black Death pandemic that wiped out as much as 50 percent of the population in parts of northern Europe.
But between 1096 and the late thirteenth century, most Jews seemed to have lived side by side with their Christian neighbors. If they did not respect one another, each understood how the other lived. They shopped in the same markets, lived on the same streets, and were even aware of the other’s religious holidays and customs, since we are talking about settlements of at most a few thousand people and more frequently tiny towns of a few hundred.
Jews who tried to preserve their cultural identity did so not by self-segregating from their Christian neighbors but by figuring out how to observe Judaism in ways that transformed elements from their environment into Jewish practice. They did this through language (Yiddish), through memorialization customs (yortsayt, Yizkor lamps), and even by creating customs that mimicked the sacred moments of the Church liturgy but transformed them into Jewish rites of passage. Thus a Jewish boy was initiated into Hebrew literacy in a custom that developed in the twelfth century in northern France and Ashkenaz. He was brought to the teacher, where he was told to lick honey that had been spread on an alphabet tablet, and to eat honey cakes on which biblical verses had been written as well as similarly inscribed hard-boiled eggs. In descriptions of the new custom, the round honey cakes are held aloft in an almost exact imitation of how the Christian priest held up the consecrated host during the celebration of the mass, after which the faithful took communion by ingesting sweet wafers. When a Jewish boy of Ashkenaz ate the honey cakes on which Torah verses had been written, he was internalizing and incorporating Judaism—but in a form that was a polemical reply to the surrounding Christian culture in which he would have to live as a Jew.
From the sixteenth century, certain differences in the approach to Talmudic study, as well as liturgical and linguistic distinctions, arose within Ashkenazic Jewry. At least by the seventeenth century, if not earlier, one might speak of a “Polak” in contradistinction to an “Ashkenazic” Jew. The latter term, in other words, reverted in some measure to its earlier denotation of a Jew in German lands. Nevertheless, Ashkenazic Jewry by the seventeenth century was coterminous with those who spoke Yiddish in its various dialects and followed Mosheh Isserles’ glosses to the Halakhic code, Shulḥan ‘arukh. Moreover, for Sephardic and Oriental Jews, all European Jews were Ashkenazic.
Elisheva Baumgarten, Mothers and Children: The Medieval Jewish Experience (Princeton, 2004); Robert Chazan, Medieval Jewry in Northern France: A Political and Social History (Baltimore, 1986); Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (Berkeley, 1999); Mark R. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (Princeton, 1994); William Chester Jordan, The French Monarchy and the Jews (Philadelphia, 1989); Ephraim Kanarfogel, “Peering Through the Lattices”: Mystical, Magical, and Pietistic Dimensions in the Tosafist Period (Detroit, 2000); Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Studies in Jewish-Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times (Westport, Conn., 1980); Ivan G. Marcus, Piety and Society: The Jewish Pietists of Medieval Germany (Leiden, 1981); Ivan G. Marcus, Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe (New Haven, 1996).