ASHER BEN JEHIEL:
Eminent Talmudist; born in western Germany about 1250; died in Toledo, Spain, 1328. His family was prominent for learning and piety; his father having been a learned Talmudist, and one of his ancestors (not his grandfather) having been
Asher ben Jehiel was the most prominent disciple of Meïr b. Baruch of Rothenburg, and, like his teacher, was in all probability the victim of blackmail by the government, which desired to deprive him of his fortune. His emigration from Germany was probably involuntary; for, according to his own statement, he possessed considerable means while in Germany, but in later years could not assist his son Jacob, whose poverty prevented him from honoring the Sabbath with special garments and meals ("Ṭur OraḦ Ḥayyim," § 242). Moreover, Asher's son Judah testifies to the fact that he died in poverty ("Bet Talmud," pp. 372-375). After leaving Germany he settled first in southern France, then in Toledo, of which latter city he became rabbi on the recommendation of Solomon Adret.His Religious Attitude.
In his religious attitude he resembled his teacher, Meïr of Rothenburg, representing the rigorous school which was averse to lenient decisions in legal matters, even when theoretically justified ("Responsa," xlvi., c. 2). He was also opposed to secular knowledge,especially philosophy; thanking God for having saved him from its influence, and boasting of possessing no knowledge outside the Torah. His position was clearly defined by him when he stated that philosophy is based on critical research, and religion on tradition; the two being incapable of harmonization. Of philosophy, he said, it may be truly stated, "None that go unto her may return" ("Responsa," lv. 9). Asher, however, had the courage of an independent opinion and laid down the principle: "We must not be guided in our decisions by admiration of great men; and in the event of a law not being clearly stated in the Talmud, we are not bound to accept it, even if it be based on the works of the Geonim" (Weiss, "Dor Dor we-Dorshaw," v. 63). His liberalism, however, is sometimes orthodoxy in disguise. He declares, for instance, that the liturgy of the Geonim does not fall under the Talmudic rule forbidding change in the wording of the traditional prayers (Maimonides, "Yad," Berakot, i. 16). Similarly, his decision against praying more than three times a day ("Responsa," iv. 13) is really on the side of rigorous orthodoxy. His assertion that the words ("an oral law revealed to Moses on Sinai") do not always bear a literal meaning, but signify, in general, a universally adopted custom, must not be taken as a liberal interpretation bearing out the theory of oral tradition (so Z. Frankel, in "Darke ha-Mishnah," 20), but as an apologetic attempt to uphold rabbinical authority. The latter view is borne out by the context (Hilkot Miḳwaot 1, in the twelfth volume of the usual Talmud editions).
Asher possessed vast Talmudic knowledge, methodical and systematic, and was distinguished for terseness in summing up long Talmudic discussions, the final results of which he indicated clearly. His attitude, however, toward secular knowledge made his influence on the Spanish Jews a narrowing one. He espoused the cause of the anti-Maimonists—even becoming their leader—and desired the synod to issue a decree against the study of non-Jewish learning. Together with his sons he thus transplanted the strict and narrow Talmudic spirit from Germany to Spain, where it took root and turned the Spanish Jews from scientific research to the study of the Talmud.His Works.
Asher's extant works are: a commentary on Zera'im, the first order of the Mishnah, with the exception of Berakot; a commentary on the sixth order (Ṭoharot); on the treatises Nedarim (third order), and Tamid; glosses like the Tosafot on several Talmudic treatises; a volume of responsa; and an abstract of the Talmudic laws (Halakot). His fame rests on the last-mentioned, constructed on the plan of Alfasi's work. Omitting the haggadic portions of the Talmud, and all the laws not practised outside of Palestine, such as the sacrificial, criminal, and political ones, Asher made an abstract of the practical Halakah, leaving out the discussions, and concisely stating the final decisions. Though in this respect he follows the example of Alfasi, he differs from him in quoting later authorities, notably Alfasi, Maimonides, and the Tosafists. Asher's work superseded Alfasi's within a short time. It became so popular that it has been printed with almost every edition of the Talmud under the title "Rabbenu Asher," abbreviated (Rosh). His son Jacob compiled, under the title "Pisḳe ha-Rosh," a list of the decisions found in the work. Commentaries on Asher's Halakot were written by a number of later Talmudists, among whom were:
- Azulai, Shem ha-Gedolim, s.v.;
- Michael, Or ha-Ḥayyim, No. 543;
- Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. col. 748;
- Grätz, Gesch. der Juden, 3d ed. vii. 233 et seq.;
- Weiss, Dor Dor we-Dorshaw, v. 61-70.