R. Jacob ben Meir (Rabbeinu Tam), EJ 15:779-781.


TAM, JACOB BEN MEIR (Rabbenu; c. 1100–1171), tosafist and leading French scholar of the 12 th century. Rabbenu Tam was the grandson of Rashi and the son of Meir b. Samuel, Rashi’s son-in-law. His teachers were his father, his brother Samuel, and Jacob. Samson, a pupil of Rashi. Little is known of the members of his family, save that his wife Miriam was the sister of R. Samson b. Joseph of Falaise and that four of his sons were named Joseph, Moses, Solomon, and Isaac, about whom nothing is known. R. Tam lived in Ramerupt where he engaged in moneylending and viticulture, typical occupations of the Jews there at that time, and became well-to-do. His business affairs brought him into contact with the nobility and the authorities, who occasioned him much trouble. To a great extent his attitude toward non-Jews in various halakhic questions was conditioned by his direct contact with them and his knowledge of their character. During the Second Crusade he was attacked by Crusaders who were passing through, and was miraculously saved from death (1146). After this experience R. Tam left Ramerupt.

Tam was recognized by all contemporary scholars, even by those in remote places, as the greatest scholar of the generation.Abraham ibn Daud of Spain, and Abraham b. Isaac and Zerahiah ha-Levi of Provence, refer to him with great esteem, while the scholars of southern Italy, some his senior in years, submitted their halakhic problems to him. Pupils came to his bet midrash from as far away as Bohemia and Russia, and took Tam’s teachings back with them on their return to these lands. He won this great renown although he never moved or traveled far from his place of residence in northern France. Nor was he unaware of his outstanding reputation as a scholar, for on it he based the claim that his bet din had the authority to issue decisive pronouncements. He even “wrote a prosbul declaring that it had to be done by the foremost bet dinof the generation” (Tos. to Git. 36b, S.V. de-allimei). Tam violently attacked scholars, even in distant places, who refused to accept his decisions and pronouncements, revealing a desire to impose his halakhic authority also on Provence and Germany, a tendency which R. Abraham b. David of Posquières vehemently opposed.

His attitude on this is reflected in the correspondence between him and Meshullam b. Nathan of Melun. The original subject at issue was not of the greatest halakhic and practical importance, but it gradually developed into a controversy about several customs followed and instituted by Meshullam in his community, that differed from those of Tam. Writing in an extremely aggressive style, Tam threatened to excommunicate anyone who adopted the customs of Meshullam, and severely rebuked the latter for the lack of respect he had shown toward the French scholars including Rashi, and for what Tam regarded as his irresponsible attitude in emending talmudic texts. The extant correspondence is fragmentary and its chronological order cannot be established, but from it as a whole there emerges a clear picture of Tam’s bitter fight against Meshullam and his aggressive attempt to impose his own views and decisions on him. Of a similar nature was the correspondence between Tam and Ephraim b. Isaac of Regensburg.

R. Tam proved to be a high-handed leader of his generation who did not refrain either from abolishing several customs which did not appeal to him or from introducing important ordinances and legal permissions dictated by the times. Despite this, he was in principle extremely conservative on questions of custom as is clearly evident from his correspondence with Meshullam. Among later scholars these decisions of Tam at times occasioned great surprise, while some of the earlier authorities contended that they had merely a theoretical character, and that he himself never applied them in practice. On the basis of these lenient pronouncements by him, some scholars of the Haskalah even sought to make him a “reform” rabbi in the spirit of the later Haskalah, but in doing so they completely ignored the sources which indicate that he adopted a strict approach especially as regards unimportant customs observed by ignorant people or women, and that there are no grounds for maintaining he adopted a systematically lenient or a strict attitude. The leader of his generation, he was permeated with the consciousness of this leadership and animated by a desire to maintain communal unity and peace through a life based on the teachings of the Torah and on faith. R. Tam had many pupils and some of his contemporaries, among them also those older than he, regarded themselves as his disciples although never taught by him. Among his best known pupils were Hayyim b. Hananel ha-Kohen, Moses b. Abraham of Pontoise, Joseph Bekhor Shor of Orleans, Yom Tov b. Isaac of Joigny, and Eliezer b. Samuel of Metz.

The tosafot of the Babylonian Talmud are based on Tam’s explanations, glosses, and decisions, and are pervaded throughout by his statements. In addition to this, his literary production was large and ramified. His principal work is Sefer ha-Yashar (Vienna, 1811) which consists of two parts, the one, responsa (issued in a scholarly edition by S.P. Rosenthal, Berlin, 1898), and the other, novellae on the Talmud (a scholarly edition was published by S. Schlesinger, Jerusalem, 1959). But this work contains only a small part of his responsa, others being scattered throughout the entire literature of the earlier halakhic authorities and in various manuscripts. There is still no complete edition of his responsa.

The main trend of his novellae is to corroborate the talmudic texts and to prove that nothing is to be emended, either by deletions or by addenda, whether on the basis of logical argument or on that of other works or parallel sources. Preserved in an extremely corrupt state,Sefer ha-Yashar, even after the great labor expended on editing it, still contains many obscure and inexplicable passages. In its present form it comprises excerpts collected in the days of the earlier halakhic authorities and represents the work of many hands, including that of Tam himself, who repeatedly emended and improved much of it. The earlier authorities also refer to Tam’s Sefer ha-Pesakim, which is no longer extant. It is doubtful whether he wrote a special commentary on the Pentateuch, although biblical comments of his are quoted by the earlier tosafists. It is, however, clear that he composed a commentary on the Book of Job. His Hilkhot Sefer Torah are printed in Mahzor Vitry (1923), 651–73.

Tam was also the first French scholar to compose rhymed poetry, in which he was undoubtedly influenced by the Spanish and southern French scholars with whom he came into contact. He exchanged poems with Abraham ibn Ezra. His piyyutim were written largely in the Franco-German style.

Tam also devoted himself to Hebrew grammar. His Sefer ha-Hakhra’ot(1855), the purpose of which was to decide the points of dispute in grammar between Menahem ibn Saruk and Dunash b. Labrat, is particularly well known. Tam defended Menahem against the 160 criticisms of Dunash and mostly decided in his favor. Tam’s knowledge of grammar was far from perfect, and it is difficult to assume that he discovered the triliteral nature of the Hebrew root himself, independently of Judah b. David Hayyuj, as suggested by some scholars. Joseph b. Isaac Kimhi wrote his Sefer ha-Galui in answer to the Sefer ha-Hakhra’ot justifying the criticisms of Dunash. Tam also wrote a didactic poem on the cantillation of the Torah. Sefer ha-Yashar ha-Katan, which deals with ethics, was wrongly ascribed to Tam.

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