Past Weekly Shabbat Message
Jewish Heritage
Rabbi Dovid Saks
(Torah Portion Balak) Esteemed Ancestry
A few years ago a lovely couple, Max and Susan Fleischman, began attending a weekly Torah class that I present at Elan Gardens, a wonderful assisted living facility in Clarks Summit, PA.

During one of the classes I asked the participants to share with us their Jewish names. When I came to Max he told me his name was Meir ben Meir – Meir the son of Meir. I immediately realized that he never saw his father. Then with his rich German accent, he related that he was a direct descendant of the great scholar and leader Rebbe Meir of Rothenburg, and also carried his name. I found it fascinating to have a man sitting here who can date his roots back to the Rebbe Meir of Rothenburg who lived in the 1200’s.

I am writing about this because, sadly, this past Monday, Max/Meir Fleischman passed away at the age of 89. I would like to share a bit of a biography of the life of Rebbe Meir of Rothenburg also known as the Maharam of Rothenburg.

Rebbe Meir was born in Worms, and studied in the Yeshivos – schools of the leading Talmudists of those days. While studying in France, Rebbe Meir was an eyewitness to the public burning of twenty-four cartloads of hand written Talmud manuscripts (Friday, June 17, 1244), and bewailed this tragedy in a lamentation that he composed which is still recited on Tisha B'Av.

When Rebbe Meir returned to Germany he became the Rabbi of several large communities. In Rothenburg he opened his own school, which he maintained at his own expense. Among his disciples were many scholars who later became leading Talmudists and Halachic deciders. Rebbe Meir became universally acknowledged as the leading Ashkenazic authority on Talmud and Jewish law, and people frequently turned to him for instruction and guidance in all religious matters and on various points of law.

In 1286, King Rudolph I instituted a new persecution of the Jews and Rebbe Meir left Germany with family and followers to settle in Israel. But in Lombardy he was recognized by an apostate Jew who was accompanying the archbishop of Mainz. The archbishop had Rebbe Meir arrested and taken back to Germany. There, by order of King Rudolph, Rebbe Meir was imprisoned in the fortress of Ensisheim and held for ransom. The king knew that the Jews would give away their last mark to redeem their beloved Rabbi, and indeed the sum of 20,000 marks was raised for Rebbe Meir's freedom.

Rebbe Meir, however, forbade his friends and followers to pay any ransom for him. In his selflessness he knew that once ransom was paid for him, every noted Rabbi in Germany would be liable to be arrested and held for ransom by the greedy and cruel German rulers of those days. Thus Rebbe Meir preferred to remain in prison, and even die there, in order to save many others from a similar fate. During this time his disciples were permitted to meet with him, and he was even able to compose several of his works within the prison walls. It is interesting to note that since this time rarely was a Rabbi kidnapped for ransom.
In the year 1293, after seven years of being incarcerated, Rebbe Meir died in prison. It was only after 14 years following his death that a ransom was paid for his body’s release by Alexander Ziskind Wimpen, whose request was that he be laid to rest beside the Maharam. Today, the ancient cemetery in Worms remains intact.

Around two hundred years after Rebbe Meir’s death the great Halachic codifier, the Bais Yosef, authored the Shulchan Aruch – code of Jewish law. The Bais Yosef was so pious and holy that each night he was visited by an angel, and the two would study together. Bais Yosef wrote a fascinating book, Magid Maisharim, which details the conversations he had with the angel. In it he quotes the angel saying that all of Rebbe Meir’s Halachic rulings are correct and endorsed!

I was thinking… yes, it is most intriguing when we meet someone today who can trace their roots and ancestry some 800 years back. Yet, we as Jews all share the same lineage going back much further; we trace back 3800 years to our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaacov!

It is just that our ancestry is so much part of our lexicon and prayers that we may take it for granted and not reflect fully on it.

In this week’s Parsha, the wicked prophet Bilaam tried desperately to curse the Jews but he was not successful. When he finally took a look at the Jews and saw the modesty of their encampment, he was swept away by their beauty and expressed a beautiful blessing, “Mah Tovu – How goodly are your tents, O Yaacov, your dwelling places, O Israel.” We recite this statement each morning after awakening.

Bilaam was extremely decadent and immoral. He was a real outsider to the sanctified Jewish lifestyle; his praise and admiration of us remind us who we are, and the blessed ancestry we originate from. We recite this at the start of each day, to reflect upon, appreciate it and become inspired!

Wishing you a restful, peaceful
and inspirational Shabbos!
Rabbi Dovid Saks