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Asher ben Jehiel

Rabbenu Asher ben Jehiel (1259-1328), an eminent Talmudist often known by his Hebrew acronym the ROSh (literally "Head"), was born in western Germany and died in Toledo, Spain. His family was prominent for learning and piety, his father having been a learned Talmudist and one of his ancestors having been Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan, known also by his acronym as the RaABaN.

Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel was the most prominent disciple of Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg, and, like his teacher, was in all likelihood 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. Moreover, Rabbenu Asher's son Judah testified to the fact that he died in poverty. After leaving Germany, he settled first in southern France, then in Toledo, of which latter city he became rabbi on the recommendation of Rabbi Solomon ben Aderet (known by the acronym RaShBA).

In his religious attitude he resembled his teacher Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, representing the rigorous school, which was averse to lenient decisions in legal matters, even when theoretically justified. 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 under her may return.'"

Rabbenu Asher, however, had the courage of an independent opinion and laid down the principle: "We must not be guided in our decisions by the 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." His liberalism, however, is sometimes orthodoxy in disguise. He declared, for instance, that the liturgy of the Geonim does not fall under the Talmudic rule forbidding change in the wording of the traditional prayers. Similarly, his decision against praying more than three times a day is really on the side of religious orthodoxy. His assertion that the phrase halacha le-Moshe me-Sinai ("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, but as an apologetic attempt to uphold rabbinic authority.

Rabbenu 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 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 Spanish Jews from scientific research to the study of the Talmud.

Rabbenu Asher's extant works are: a commentary on Zeraim (the first order of the Mishnah), with the exception of Tractate Berachot; a commentary on Toharot (the sixth order of the Mishnah); glosses like the Tosafot on several Talmudic treatises, a volume of responsa, and an abstract of the Talmudic laws. His fame rests on the last, constructed on the plan of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi's work. Omitting the haggadic portions of the Talmud and all the laws not practiced outside of Eretz Yisrael (such as sacrificial, criminal, and political ones), Rabbenu Asher made an abstract of the practical Jewish law, leaving out the discussions and concisely stating the final decisions. Though in this respect he follows the example of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, he differs from him in quoting later authorities, notably Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, Maimonides, and the Tosafists. Rabbenu Asher's work superseded Rabbi Isaac Alfasi's within a short time. It became so poplar that it has been printed with almost every edition of the Talmud. His son Jacob compiled, under the title Piskei Ha-ROSh, a list of the decisions found in the work. Commentaries on his Halachot were written by a number of later Talmudists.

Asher had eight sons, the most prominent of whom were Judah and Jacob.

This article was taken from the Jewish Encyclopedia (1903).