Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg was famous for being in jail. He was the last of the Tosafists and a respected leader of his generation. He was incarcerated for trying to make Aliyah and avoid Servi Camerae under Rudolph I in 1286.
If it wasn’t for the Maharam Rothenburg we might not have a Shulchan Aruch today. He was the teacher of Rabeinu Asher who is the father and teacher of Rabeinu Yaakov baal Haturim upon whose work the Shulchan Aruch is based.
Reb Meir of Rothenburg began his teaching career on Friday, June 17, 1242 at the Place de Grève in Paris.
Today, the place de Grève in Paris is the address of the City Hall and Mayor’s office. In 1242 it was the site of executions and, beginning June 17th, the site of the burning of the Talmud.
Reb Meir wrote a Kina describing his feelings as a twenty-seven year old student in Paris: “My tears formed a river that reached to the Sinai desert and to the graves of Moshe and Aharon. Is there another Torah to replace the Torah which you have taken from us?’”
The printing Press hadn’t been invented yet and the Church had methodically collected and destroyed almost every manuscript in existence. We only have one surviving manuscript from that era. As Reb Meir watched wagonloads of scrolls go up in smoke, he realized just how Oral the Oral Law was. We could not rely on what has already been written and it was up to him to return to Germany and teach the Torah there.
It is the practice of the Norfolk community to bury worn out sefarim (books) with the deceased. Last week, at the funeral of a very special elderly woman, I was shocked to find that some of my Sefarim had gotten mixed up with the Sefarim being buried. These were volumes from a family collection that had belonged to my grandfather and, in some cases, to his father. They aren’t worth very much at an auction, but they are tangible proof that my forbears studied the same subjects I did, grappled with the same questions I do, and had a love for Torah that I can strive to emulate. As everyone else focused on the deceased, I am ashamed to say that I was focusing on the cardboard boxes. I knew that any Sefer that went down into that grave would never come out again. (I also knew that I might be headed in a similar direction if my family ever found out). My sefarim were rescued, but the experience brought the Maharam’s Kina to life.
The Maharam compared the burning of books to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh. Both the Torah and the Beis Hamikdash (temple) unite us and ensure our existence: The Torah guides us and connects us to the generation that received it from Sinai; the Beis Hamikdash allowed us to articulate our shared connection in a physical space.
Beyond the knowledge contained in sefarim, the written word is an assurance that our tradition will be passed to future generations. The 613th Mitzvah is the writing of the Torah. It is as if the writing of the words is the capstone that will ensure the Torah’s survival.
Before Moshe’s death he wrote thirteen Sifrei Torah. Twelve of the Sifrei Torah were distributed amongst the tribes and the thirteenth was placed in the Aron Hakodesh (Ark) in the Mishkan. According to the Pesikta (32) that Thirteenth Torah is now kept in heaven and it is read from three times a week.
When the Maharam was imprisoned in 1286 he was given access to parchment and quills but not to any Sefarim. Although he knew almost everything by heart, his inability to read from the Torah on Monday, Thursday, and Shabbos frustrated him.
According to legend, the angel Gavriel visited the Maharam and presented him with the Thirteenth Torah, on loan from heaven. Generations of Tzadikim would descend from heaven and join him in his cell every Monday, Thursday and Shabbos to hear him read from their Sefer Torah.
Eventually, the Maharam copied the Heavenly Torah onto his own scroll and sealed the copy in a waterproof case which he threw out of his window and into the river Rhine. The Torah floated to the city of Worms where some Jewish fishermen discovered it and placed it prominently in their shul. The Jewish community of Worms suffered terribly during the Chmielniki massacres but the Sefer Torah survived. They read from it every Simchas Torah and Shavuos. Today the Maharam’s Torah is in the Aron Kodesh of the famous Alt-neu shul in Prague.
The facts of the above legend are anybody’s guess, but the appropriateness of the legend to the Maharam is beyond dispute. The Maharam was deeply dedicated to the written word and to the transmission of the Torah. He successfully formed the foundation for Halacha as we know it and he inspired his students to record and codify the words of his teachers. Their works form the canon of Jewish Law as we know it today. If anyone desired and deserved a Heavenly Sefer Torah, it was he. And if anyone was going to write a Torah in the most unlikely place and deliver it via a raging river to a desperate community, it was the Maharam of Rothenburg. He watched the last copies of the Talmud being burned and emerged from the flames by founded a Yeshiva and teaching the Talmud to a new generation.
The Maharam of Rothenburg died in captivity writing that “the sun shines for everyone but not for G-d and myself”. His Kina foretells a happier ending for us:
“… perhaps Hashem will remember how you followed Him into the barren desert,
… For as long as you have suffered – He will console you.
He will bring gather all captives to Jerusalem and lift them up high,
We will wear dance joyously to a beat and join together as one.
My heart will be uplifted when Hashem shines his light for you,
He will light up your night and dispel all of your darkness”
Even in his generation’s darkest moments the Maharam knew that we would survive and that the Torah would survive. He was limited in his movements but he knew that we would go far. New copies of the Talmud are printed every day, and each and every volume contains the indelible words of the Maharam’s teachers and students.
On a slightly different topic, The Zohar writes that when the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed its’ bricks were scattered throughout the Diaspora. Wherever a stone landed, a future shul was built. When Moshiach comes each community will return their stone to Jerusalem and build the third Beis Hamikdash.
The Altneu shul in Prague was built with actual stones from the Beis Hamikdash. Some say that that is the “alt” in Alt-neu. Others say that the shul got its name because it was built on the condition – “al Tnai” – that when Moshiach came the stones would return to their original place in Jerusalem.
All of our shuls are only a stone’s throw from Yerushalayim. There is only one Torah and only one Beis Hamikdash. Our Torah and our tears are our shared legacy that has kept us together for thousands of years. One day we will all return to Yerushalayim and link the stones of our shuls together to form an everlasting testament to our love of Hashem and our nation of One.