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Ashkenazi, Gershon

(1618–1693), rabbinical scholar and religious authority. Rabbi Gershon (Ulif) Ashkenazi was one of the greatest poskim (religious authorities or legal deciders) of his age. He was born in Ulf, Germany, studied under Rabbi Me’ir Schiff (Maharam Schiff) and subsequently moved to Poland to study with the leading religious scholars of Kraków: Yo’el Sirkes (known as Baḥ), Yehoshu‘a ben Yosef, and probably Yehoshu‘a Heshel as well. He was called “Ashkenazi” (Ashkenaz meaning, in its narrower sense, Germany) because of his place of origin.

Ashkenazi served as a dayan (rabbinical court judge) in Kraków from a very early age. He married Sirkes’s granddaughter, who was the daughter of Yehudah Leib Foss, and was known by this surname, too. Later he moved to Nikolsburg (Mikulov), to study with Menaḥem Mendel ben Avraham Krochmal, whom he very much admired. Ashkenazi became Krochmal’s son-in-law after being widowed at an early age. When his second wife died, he married a third time. In all, he had about 10 children.

Ashkenazi’s first position as a rabbi was in Prossnitz (Prostějov), Moravia, in 1650. As of 1657 he served as rabbi in Hanau, near Frankfurt am Main. When his father-in-law (Krochmal) died in 1661, Ashkenazi succeeded him as chief rabbi of Nikolsburg and the surrounding region. After a short while, he moved to Vienna, Austria, where he served as chief rabbi and studied Kabbalah with Ya‘akov Temerles of Worms. He was forced to leave Vienna during the expulsion of 1670.

In 1671, Ashkenazi became chief rabbi of Metz, in France, with the approval of King Louis XIV and the country’s parliament. This began the best period of his life, during which he raised his community to new spiritual heights. He devoted most of his energy to the yeshiva he founded, which attracted hundreds of students from all over Poland and Europe. He fiercely opposed the Sabbatian messianic movement and maintained regular contact with the anti-Sabbatian activist Ya‘akov Sasportas.

Ashkenazi died in 1693. As he had been regarded as a distinguished scholar and a teacher “of all of Israel,” many communities refrained from listening to music, even at weddings, for an entire year after his death as a sign of respect.

During his lifetime, Ashkenazi had begun to prepare his more than 1,000 responsa for publication, but after his death only about one-tenth (124) of these were published, as ‘Avodat ha-Gershuni in 1699. His rulings addressed central issues in Jewish law, particularly with respect to prohibited foods and the laws of matrimony. He had no misgivings or reservations about disputing or dissenting from even the most important rabbis of the previous generation, and often voiced his opposition in blatant language.

At about the same time, Ashkenazi’s book Tif’eret ha-Gershuni, consisting of discourses on the Torah, was published as well. It contains explanations of midrashim (homiletic interpretations) laced with wit and pilpul (dialectical reasoning) along with allusions to Jewish mysticism. In 1710, his grandson published the book Ḥidushe ha-Gershuni, copied from the original manuscript, and containing commentary on the Shulḥan ‘arukh. His papers on the Talmudic tractate Yevamot, on Yitsḥak Alfasi (also known as Rif) and his interpreters, and on Ya‘akov ben Asher (also known as Tur) were never published.

Under Ashkenazi’s influence his numerous disciples and followers consolidated the trend of reliance on the Shulḥan ‘arukh as the primary source of halakhic rulings. His students included Yitsḥak Aharon of Worms, Yehudah Muller, and Me’ir Eisenstadt-Katzenelenbogen.

Suggested Reading

Abraham Cahan, “Le rabbinat de Metz,” Revue des études juives 8 (1884): 255–258; Binyamin Shelomoh Hamburger, ed., “Mavo” (Preface), in Sefer Tif’eret ha-Gershuni: Derushim neḥmadim u-ve’urim nifl’aim ‘al ha-Torah, pp. 9–30 (Netanya, 1988); Yitsḥak Ze’ev Kahana, “Gershon bar Yitsḥak Ashkenazi,” Entsiklopedyah le-toldot gedole Yisra’el, vol. 1, pp. 315–318 (Tel Aviv, 1946).



Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann