There is an exhibition in the City Museum of Barcelona about Rabbi Shlomo Ben Adret(started in June 2011)
Salomon Ben Adret (1235 - 1310)
The Triumph of an Orthodoxy
The delegates of the community of Rome made their way over land and sea, until they arrived to the great and distinguished city, perfect in her pure beauty, capital of the Jews, full of knowledge of the Torah, of good deeds, generosity, distinguished families, wealth, goods, the city of crowned splendor, Barcelona, and they went to the house of the eminent wise, leader of our forefathers, rabbi Salomon Adret. ...
Josep ben Isaac ben al-Fawal d’Osca, 13th century.
Barcelona and Salomon Ben Adret
The city of Barcelona counted in the Middle Ages, until the assault of the Jewish district in 1391, which marked the end of the district, with the biggest Jewish community in Catalonia and also in the Crown of Aragon. Among the inhabitants of the Jewish district in Barcelona arose numerous prominent figures in areas like theology, philosophy, poetry including the cabala, but none of them reached the fame of Salomon Ben Adret (1235 - 1310).
Being a leader of Catalan Judaism and a recognized authority as teacher of Talmud and a counselor, Salomon Ben Adret, who died 700 years ago, carried the title of Rabi of Barcelona and as such he served three kings as responsible for Jewish affairs: Pere II, Alfons II and Jaume II.
He was born during the reign of Jaume I and he was contemporary to Ramon Llull and Arnau de Vilanova
. At that time the kingdom of Catalonia-Aragon was expanding to the south via the Mediterranean, and ben Adret was 14 when Barcelona, which grew in inhabitants and activity, was granted autonomy with the establishment of the “Council of the 100”: whose organizational model would serve later as a pattern for the Jewish institutions, who formed a community of Moorish roots and were well connected to the Moorish of other cities.
From Banker to Rabbi.
Son of a wealthy family in the Jewish district, ben Adret handled the family business from his early days on: the loan of money. The Catalan kings, like Jaume I, where his debtors. Later on he would stick out in another area: religious studies. His teachers were two of the great figures of Catalan and European Judaism: Rabbí Mossé ben Nahman of Girona (Nahmànides, 1194-1270) and the Rabbi Jonà ben Abraham Gerondí (1200-1263). Finished his studies as Talmudist he quited banking business.
Described as an entrepreneur person with strong character and power of judgment, he would delve into the area of rabbinic law and the interpretation of the Talmud. He accepted the title Rabbi of Barcelona, a role he would fulfill for more than 40 years, a period in which he also founded his own school of Talmud. He owned copies of the Talmud that came from the academies of Babilonia and Al-Kairawa
, and among his disciples were Jews coming from Catalonia, Aragon, Spain, France and Germany
The Talmud (Hebrew word which means “study” or “education”) is the great compendium of opinions and interpretations, often contradictory, made by famous Jewish Rabbis regarding moral and religious behavior. Written in Hebrew and Aramaic it is a collection of case law and also a collection of legendary traditions, stories and anecdotes which illustrate the theoretic and purely legal part of the religious precepts of Judaism. It consists of two components: the Mishna (compendium of legal traditions of Rabbinic Judaism which interprets and completes the Torah)
and the Guemarà (sample of discussions and interpretations that Rabbis have about the Mishna);
Judaism considers the Torah as “written law” whereas the Talmud forms tho “oral law” which expands, explains and completes the first and that never, per definition, could contradict it. There exist two compilations: the Talmud of Babilonia or Babli (the most extensive and recognized) and the Talmud of Jerusalem (incomplete and result of queries to Middle Age academics starting in the 13th century) . The Talmud is also considered a holy book of Judaism, and for centuries it has been the most important factor for the systemization of Jewish habits and the consistency and unity of the Jewish people around the world.
The Yeshivot or Talmud academies
Studies of the Talmud were carried out in the so called Yeshivot or Talmud academies which existed in a lot of the communities. In medieval Catalonia the most important could be found in Girona and Perpignan. The Talmud academies were established around a Talmudic teacher. The number of pupils normally was around 25 and often they came from other Jewish communities, sometimes from distant countries.
The duration of the studies could vary and were always adapted to the pupil and his capabilities: they could be limited to a year or sometimes a few more. The classes normally took place in the house of the teacher, sometimes the communities offered places dedicated to the study sessions. The academies often were funded by private sponsors and some of the donated funds were used to buy books and copies of manuscripts.
Unfortunate is he who does not know the difference between good and evil. Talmud Bablí, Sanhedrin 17b
Man must always be flexible like a reed and not hard like a cedar. Talmud Bablí, Taanit 16a
The complex argumentations of the Talmud and his numerous interpretations created doubts among the Jewish parishioners. To receive a clear answer on a specific topic or issue, individuals, Rabbis and counsels of the communities contacted a sage teacher on issues they had doubts upon to receive rules of conduct. The rulings of the Rabbis created a topic called “Sheelot u-Teshuvot ” in Hebrew (literally: questions and answers) and “responsa” in latin.
The compilations of the “responsa” contain answers for questions of personal ethics, business, moral and social relations, practical questions of work and profession, of the household and synagogue rituals, about customs and celebrations, about expressions of joy or pain, and finally about games. It also addresses more intellectual issues like philosophy of religion, astronomy, mathematics, history, geography, the functioning of the governing bodies of the Jewish communities, the interpretation of the passages of the bible and the Mishna, discussions of the Talmud and history of Judaism.
The “responsa”, in itself, are a valuable source of historic information about the daily life and social and religious concerns of the Jews living at the time they were written.
Origin of the Consults
The opinions of Salomon Ben Adret regarding religious jurisprudence - about 3000 - were received by the communities who asked for them. His judgments were characterized by a great simplicity in which he interpreted questions surrounding the Torah and the Talmud, and during centuries they were regarded as a guarantee to solve problems according to Jewish Law.
The consults reached him in Barcelona from communities in different places of the crown of Catalonia/Aragon. like Lleida, Perpignan, Tarragona, Castelló, d’Empúries, Girona, Cervera, València, Palma, Saragossa, Osca o Montsó, from villages of Occitània like Montpeller and Narbona, and even from Germany, France Bohèmia, Sicília, Creta, el Marroc, Alger, Palestina, Portugal, Navarra
and Castella. The judgements of Salomon ben Adret were the main source for the book “Shulhan Arukh ” of the toledan Josep ben Efraïm Caro (1499-1575), which later would be the great encoder of the Jewish law.
“Reponsa”(answer) about the law of the king
Question: You wrote to me and asked me for my opinion about the case of a few Jews who live in a neighborhood, at the termination of which there is an entry with a double door and a lock. Near this entry there is passage leading out of the district. There are about then Jewish families who live on both sides of the way. And as the end of the passage is open to the Christian district, the community has agreed upon solemnly to construct a door in the mid of the passage, according to a license they were given by the king. Some of the people who live outside the passage were not present when the agreement about the construction of a door was reached, and now they oppose the decision of the community, saying that within the district there is there is the synagogue for the members of the community and the ritual bath for the purification of the women,and that , if someoneof them wants to enter, they could not do it. Do they have the right to contest the decision?
Answer: I am inclined to believe, that, according to the laws of the Talmud, they can oppose it. [...]
Anyway, it is necessary to say, that this is what states the law or what the law would be in the land of Israel, in which the principle of “the law of the governing is also our law” is not valid, how some of the French teachers with blessed memory say, that the land of Israel is the legacy which we received from our forefathers, equally the common people and the king. But now as we leave under the dominance of the nations, and places and streets are properties of the king, and they can close and construct the streets of the city, that is what we see what they are doing, so, if the king gives permission to that people you are speaking about, to allow them to construct a door, it is necessary to act according to the principle of “the law of the governing is also our law”.
[...] So, if the king disposes that they construct an entrance with a door in the middle of the district, he disposes, using his power. to protect the people. The principle that is valid for the kings of Israel is equally valid for the kings of other nations in this regard, what shows that this is a legitimate principle and not an arbitrary one. Therefore the disposition of the king is valid.
The Regulation of Daily Life
Aside of the compilation of his responsa about concrete questions, Salomon ben Adret was also was author of interpretations of the Talmud and pieces of legal character that tried to establish a systematic body of rules to regulate eating habits, family life, ritual bathing, the celebrations and the functioning of the community:
Hiddushé Aggadot ha-Rashba
(“Talmudic commentaries of Rashba”)
a collection of interpretations of 18 treaties of the Talmud.
Toraht ha-Bait («The law of the house»),
A manual about Jewish diet rules and other religious rules that have to be followed at home.
Mishméret ha-Bait («Defense of the house»),
a invective against the book of Rabbi Aharon ben Jucef ha-Leví de Na Clara of Barcelon
a, who in the book “Bédeq ha-Bait
” (Crack of the house”) criticized the “Torat ha-Bait” of Salomon ben Adret.
Shaar ha-Maim («Door of the waters»),
A book focused on the laws regarding the miqve or the ritual Jewish bath..
Avodat ha-Qodesh («Worship the holy god»),
A manual which makes reference to the laws of sabbat and the religious holidays of the Jewish calender.
Piské Hal·là («Decisions on the bread offering»),
A work about the laws regarding the ritual bread of sabbat.
Like his “responsa” these works of ben Adret had a great impact and since then were object of multiple editions.
The guardian of orthodoxy
- The Maimonidean Controversy
As Rabbi of Barcelona, Salomon ben Adret made a fierce defense of of the orthodox positions of the Jewish religion and he was rejecting the excesses, to which the rationalist followers of the studies of Maimonides had arrived, and he also rejected the studies that allegorically interpreted most of the writings. With ben Adret Barcelona turned to be a point of reference for orthodox Judaism.
In the so called Maimonidean Controversy between rationalists and traditionalists ben Adret was on the side of the later, opposing with firmness the rationalism with Aristotelian roots that was proposed by the followers of Maimonides. Ben Adret was taking sides for a Judasim based solely on studies of the Bible and the Talmud, up to the point to put an anathema to those who studied the “Greek books” - in other words: philosophy - before reaching the age of 25.
The sentence outraged the rationalist and progressive Rabbis, like Menahem ben Salomó ha-Meïrí
of Perpignan (1249-1316) and the poet and Rabbi Jedaia ha-Peniní (ca. 1275-ca. 1340) who, despite they had a great respect for ben Adret, showed their disgust and they were decidedly opposing the prohibition dictated from Barcelona. An external factor was conditioning the discussion to the detriment of the innovators, who had a notable implantation in Occitania: 1306 happened the first plunder and expulsion of Jews living under the control of French monarchy, who tried to resolve its financial problems selling the goods of the Jews. Survival of the community became, with increasing intensity, the fundamental question.
Origins of the Controversy
The translator Samuel ibn Tibon (1150-1230) finished 1204 the translation to Hebrew of the piece “La guia dels perplexos” (The guide of the perplexed) by Maimonides , in the city of Lunel, near Montpellier. The new theology that gave off from the work of Maimònides -who tried to harmonize the postulates of Jewish belief with the reason and patterns of Aristotelean philosophy - provoked the outbreak of an intellectual confrontation between his followers and his critics: the Maimonidean Controversy. This theological debate achieved a great virulence in catalan occitania, and inside the communities it took the form of a social conflict: the higher class Jews, rich, educated and dedicated to the studies of profane sciences and philosophy enthusiastically took side for the rationalistic philosophy of Maimònides, whereas the other classes defended a traditionalism attached to the classic studies of Judaism, based exclusively on the Bible and the Talmud.
Anathema of Barcelona of 1305
[It is injurious to prefer the study of the sciences to the study of the Torah]
Oh those who insult the Torah and would like to go away from her!
They take away the crown, they remove the tiara,
and to Greeks and Arabs they burn Incense time and time again.
[They have let them been seduced by the moral of pleasure]
Like Zimri before the community
they do a lot of obscenity,
within the Jewish people
[They have become strangers to their own religious tradition]
Impenitents, they behave like strangers
and they dance like satyrs in the streets
what they have done they are not so pleased of
to show it their sons hastily.
[Its necessary to stop them from removing the Torah where it belongs to]
Seeing therefore the trap of the Fowler
shortcuts to earth, and before nothing
the pigeon will make the nest
away from the ravine, on a rough place
[The case has gone to far and therefore they decided to act]
we said, all trembling:
the eruption has gone to far.
and we close a pact with god
and with the Torah, his great gift,
which our fathers received on Sinai
with the intention to forbid
to those who have become strangers
to take part in our affairs
and to growing thorns and thistles on our castles.
We are servants to our lord, its He
who has made us and not you.
Therefore we decree, and we accept for ourselves, for our sons and for those who have themselves united with us, that nobody from our community, from today on and for the next 50 years, does not dare to study, under punishment of excommunication, the books which the Greeks have written on physics and metaphysics, be it in their language or be it translated to other languages, prior to complete 25 years, we prohibit also that nobody from our community teaches former sciences to other members before they reach the age of 25, so that these sciences do not distract them and also do not decant them from the law of Israel, which is above everything.
How does it come that you do not fear to judge between a human science - which treats upon similarities, demonstrations and concepts - and the science of the Highest as between Him and ourselves there is not any proportion nor similarity? It is, that man lives in houses of clay, can judge God that he created, saying to himself -God may guard us- what he could or could not do. This would really lead to a total disbelief, against which it is necessary to protect with firmness those who study the Torah.
However, we exclude from our decree the medical science, although it belongs to physics, given that the Torah allows the doctor to cure. We have agreed this excommunication on the book of the Torah and in presence of all of the community , on Saturday ... [July 31st 1305].
Answer from Jedaia ha-Peniní
The “Lletra Apologètica” (apologetic mail) is a long mail in which the Rabbi Jedaia ha-Peniní
refutes in a systematic manner the regulations of the anathema proclaimed by Salomon ben Adret. Rabbi Jedaia complains the decisions imposed by the Rabbis from Barcelona and, decided to stand up for freedom of thought and opinion, he writes to the famous Rabbi of Barcelona and expresses the discomfort caused by the declarations that included in the text of the anathema against the Provence and his wise Jews. This forceful answer by Rabbi Jedaia forms a genuine declaration of the principles shared by those, who, like him, do not see danger for the base of Judaism in the philosophic and scientific studies, but a necessary complement and beneficial enriching to those who do it.
Apologetic letter, 1305
You, of such bright mind and of such clear thinking, what did you do to slander us in this manner, condemning written the whole country and making it arrive also to those who are furthermore far away and who have seen nothing and who form ourselves have only heard saying excellences about the generation of that country regarding the studies of the Torah and the sciences, like also in the fear of god, as well you as neighbors and good knowledgeable of ourselves already knew.
What we are really concerned about and what we all find terrifying is that you have sent your writings to the regions of the Sefarad. Reading it we see tht you treat us like negligible and mocking in front of our brothers in the four points of earth;bWe are told that similar letters have been sent to Germany and France, and in those countries there they have decided to vote about the your extermination and the deletion of your name, given that, while these opinions are hold as valid amongst ourselves, the Lord does not live with us and does not have a throne among us. What do the wise do now when they hear that blame? They will only believe it in a first step and they they will listen only because they know that it comes from your lips and because your name is known in far away countries, and nobody replicates even the most insignificant of your orders even in the far away regions? Or will they all like one man raise in anger against the fact of making the Provence a scapegoat?
The Admonition to Cabalists
Rabbi Salomon ben Adret reprimanded the positions of some of the cabalists, like Abraham Abulàfia and Nissim ben Abraham, who brought their mystic thoughts to the extreme to declare themselves prophets and Messiah; and who based the practice of their cabala in magic, superstition and numerology.
The legacy of Salomon ben Adret of Barcelona
Ben Adret reaffirmed the position of Barcelona in the European and Mediterranean scene of the great philosophical, theological and political disputes of the Jewish communities, and he took the side of the orthodox against the rationalist tendencies of the followers of Maimònides and philosophical studies.
He also influenced the arguments of the defense of Judaism in the disputes held with a Christianity converted in a weapon of religious, social and political confrontation, following the combative sermons of the new urban orders, especially the Dominicans.
The normalizing conservatism of ben Adret, materialized in a brilliant production of jurisprudence about the application of the holy texts to practical life, could not be seen without the historical context, but he transcendend. His judgments have been object of study in the Talmud academies during centuries and continue to be consulted today by religious Jews around the world.
For the lasting mark that he left as a moral, religious and juristic authority within Judaism, Rabbi Salomon ben Adret, better known with the acronym of his name in Hebrew, RaShBA, was a crucial figure in the Medieval history of Catalonia and he was on of the most influent people of Barcelona of all the times.