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The Maharam MiRottenberg Print E-mail

Maharam MiRottenbergThe 19th of Iyar is the Yahrtzeit of Rav Meir ben Baruch, the Maharam MiRottenberg, teacher of the Rosh, (1215-1293). In 1286, Rudolf of Germany wanted to institute a new tax on the Jews of Germany. The Jews objected to this tax. The Maharam decided to leave Germany, but on the 4th of Tamuz, he was kidnapped by the Bishop of Bazil and handed over to the Emperor, who held Rav Meir captive in the Tower of Enzisheim in Alsace. Rav Meir composed “Shaali S'-rufa B'esh,” which is included in the kinot of Tisha B'Av. He was niftar in the prison and wasn’t properly buried until 4 Adar in 1307. He is buried next to the man who sold everything he owned to ransom the corpse.

In his most poignant responsum (Part II #59) the Maharam discusses a case arising out of the tragic events which occurred in the city of Koblenz, where on April 2, 1265, some twenty Jews were slaughtered. At that time a man killed his ife and four children by his own hand in order to save them from torture and forcible conversion. He had intended to kill himself, but was saved by Gentiles before he could commit suicide.

The Maharam was asked whether the unfortunate man was obliged to do penance for the murder of his family.

The Maharam first observes that he has no doubt at all that suicide is permitted if the aim is to avoid forcible conversion to another faith. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 34:19) explicitly exempts from the sin of suicide instances such as that of King Saul who killed himself in order  to avoid being tortured by the Philistines. (Samuel I 31:3-5) And the Talmud (Gittin 57b) quotes with approval the tale of the young men and women being taken to Rome for immoral purposes, who threw themselves into the sea.

All this, however, applies only to suicide. The Maharam is not at all sure that it is permitted to murder others for the sake of the “Sanctification of God’s Name,” in order to prevent them being forcibly converted.

The Maharam, nevertheless, concludes that this, too, must be permitted, since we know that many of the righteous did kill themselves and their families when threatened with forced conversion.

Consequently, no penance is required because no sin was committed. On the contrary, the man must not be allowed to undergo any penance, for if he did penance it would imply that he was wrong, and that the righteous of old were wrong.
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