By: Louis Ginzberg
Critic of the Mishnah; resided at Safed, Palestine, and died there between 1575 and 1582. Though Ashkenazi came to Palestine from Verona—for which reason he was also called Joseph of Verona—it is by no means impossible that he was born and bred in Germany. This is attested, not by his surname, "Ashkenazi" (this being a family name adopted by many families of German origin), but by the fact that he was the son-in-law of Rabbi Aaron of Posen. Kaufmann surmises that he is referred to in the following couplet of the Judæo-German song, in which as the mostlearned Jew he is mentioned with Mordecai Meisl, a Jew of Prague of princely wealth:
"Ich mucht so wol lernen als Rabbi Josef Ashkenas, Oder mucht also reich sein als Meislein was."
The epithet "Divine Tanna," conferred upon Ashkenazi by his contemporaries and by men of later times, clearly indicates the main point in which his strength lay. Next to Elijah b. Solomon of Wilna, Ashkenazi is probably the most careful student of the Mishnah, itself the spiritual product of the "Divine Tannaim." Even Isaac Luria, the creator of the new Cabala, did not disdain to receive instruction from him upon the Mishnah. When Teblin of Jerusalem, a pupil of Ashkenazi, went to Europe he imparted to the well-known Mishnah commentator Yom-Ṭob Lipman Heller many of his teacher's explanations of the Mishnah.
Some insight into Ashkenazi's mental activity is gained from his brief and fragmentary glosses to the Mishnah, as published in Solomon Adeni's work, "Meleket Shelomoh," in which Ashkenazi's emendations are considered. In these glosses Ashkenazi displays great critical ability. He treats the text in a wholly unprejudiced and purely scientific manner, and, disregarding tradition, deletes unsparingly whenever, in his opinion, such elision is justified by the import of the text, and in similar manner separates compound words into their component parts. In his opinion the vocalization and the accentuation of words are not side issues, but worthy of the special attention that he bestowed upon them. Ashkenazi's observations are of especial value, being based upon a manuscript Mishnah in his possession, dating from about 700. He is said to have written critical comments also on the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds.
- Azulai, Shem ha-Gedolim, ed. Benjacob, i. 39;
- Kaufmann, in Monatsschrift, xlii. 38-46;
- Sambari, in Neubauer's Medieval Jewish Chronicles, i. 151;
- ShibḦe ha-Ari, ed. Leghorn, 44b, from which it appears that Ashkenazi lived and taught in Egypt too.