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Parsha Mitzvot: Ki Tisa: Privileges of a Scholar

Did Betzalel have any special privileges because of his important role in building the Mishkan? Did Moshe? Rabbi Jacob Weill (died in 1456) was the chief pupil of Rabbi Jacob of Moellin known as the Maharil. His chief rabbinate was in Erfurt, and he was one of the leading authorities of his day. All that remains of his literary activity is his volume of response and, appended to it, a small compendium of the laws of ritual slaughter.

The responsum cited here concerns the special status of scholars in the medieval Jewish community. Scholars enjoyed special privileges from Talmudic times. Yet, just as the power of wealthy citizens in the community was carefully watched lest it lead to tyranny, so it became necessary to guard against those scholars who unworthily took advantage of their legal privileges and tyrannized over the community.

Among the ancient privileges of scholars were, first of all, the right to judge a case as a single judge; secondly, to fine anyone who insulted them, “a golden pound,” or to put under ban anyone who insulted them; to be free of community taxation; to claim a lost article merely by declaration that it is theirs, and other such privileges. Some scholars in the city of Nuremberg had abused the privilege of their special status, Rabbi Weill denounces them and declares: that the special status of a scholar no longer exists in our day; that theTalmudic term, “the scholar,” is no longer applicable today as a special status.

The present status of the law with regard to the privileges of the scholar can be noted in Shulchan Aruch, Yorah Deah, number 243. In paragraph 2 there, especially in the note of the Rema, it is indicated that a scholar no longer has the right to find anybody a gold pound if he is insulted. He may still put someone under ban, but should not do so. See also Pitchei Teshuvah, were sources are given for the rule that he should no longer be the sole judge in any litigation. Most of these limitations on the ancient legal privileges of the scholar stem from this responsum of Rabbi Weil which is, therefore, a “leading case” in the law.

The responsum is number 166. Is it is addressed to the leading laymen of the Jewish community of Nuremberg. It opens with flowery language, but soon becomes stern in its denunciation of those who abuse their scholarly status.


Men of truth, seeking peace, who hold fast to the law of God and are eager to fulfill His commandment; lovers of righteous judgment, who despise violence and falsehood, may your peace increase forever, O congregation of Nuremberg and its suburbs:

I, the humble one, who is signed at the end of this parchment, let you know for your good that “the hair of my head stood up and my flesh trembled.” (Job 4:5) At the despoiling and violence and profanation of the Name that is now going on in your province, and the sinfulness that goes forth from the hands of those whose task it is to maintain the Torah, namely, some of the rabbis who have it who have attained that title.

They consider themselves scholars and have taken it into their heads that the old law of the scholar applies to them; that they may, for example, judge cases alone, and that they do not ever need to enter into a case as a defendant against ordinary householders who protest against them. They desire to fine such people a “golden pound” and they work in devious ways to find excuses and libels against those who have money and thus snare them in their nets, to flay their skin from their flesh. Thus the name of heaven is profaned, for the people say scornfully: “This is the Torah and this is its reward!” (Berachot 61b)

And I am zealous for the honor of the Torah and its teachers. I desire to reestablish our world with justice and truth and peace. I “empty out my apron,” (Nehemiah 5:13) meaning: here I will be completely frank, I will not hold any argument in reserve to a annul and to make void their thoughts that they may not carry out their intentions. For if this is not done, you will not leave the chance for a livelihood for all who have any money. So I will say my part as I have received it from my teachers and have understood it from books and have heard it from the strong hearted who are near to righteousness.

‘So make your ears like a grain funnel,’ (Chullin 89a) to hear my words and that it may be well with you and “Sweet in your mouth as honey.” (Ezekiel 3:3)ß May God, Blessed is He, grant me strength that I made do valiantly. May He convert my thought to action. He who knows my thoughts knows that I am not “acting for my own honor or the honor of my father’s,” (Megillah 3a) but my intention is to remove the stumbling block, that the people may not stumble and the Name of Heaven be profaned.

I have received it from my teacher, Maharil, of blessed memory, that in these days we no longer may impose a fine of a gold pound upon anyone who insults a scholar. He brought this his proof from Sefer Agudah, a compendium of laws by Alexander Cohen Sueslein of Frankfurt, who writes: “with regard to the statement in the first chapter of Chullin 18a that any slaughter who does not show his knife to a scholar to be examined should be put under the ban,” the author of the Agudah says that the Gaonim have recorded their opinion that scholars should not be too touchy about this but should forgive it.

Furthermore Rabbi Sueslein continues, it seems to me that, for our sins, we do not have scholars who know even the tractate Kallah. The Talmud, (Shabbat 114a) gives as one definition of a scholar: if you ask him a question anywhere in the law, he will answer, even in tractate Kallah.” Is okay yes okay coming

The author of Sefer Agudah  lived before the recent persecutions and he was a great scholar; nevertheless he wrote that in his time the official status of scholars was no longer granted. How much of the more does it apply in these days when, for our many sins, the hearts have shrunk, and many “rabbis” do not even know the shape of the law, and have not in their hands either bread or garment, and their houses is empty okay coming of all good, lacking all knowledge.

Yet some of them are proud enough to act in lordly fashion and to misuse the crown of the Rabbinate. Their whole intention is for their own glory: that they may sit at the head and walk at the head, and there are even some whose intention is to amass money.

They do not have the moral qualities which the rabbis enumerate that a scholar should have. Their whole purpose is to benefit themselves. Some of them are not even careful in their actions. The reputation is bad, (Megillah 25b) and through them the Name of Heaven is profaned.

So it is obvious that the law of the status of the scholar does not apply to them, neither as to judging cases alone, nor as to imposing the gold pound on one who insults them.

For this reason we no longer call any scholar today legally a scholar. “Because of the nettles the cabbage suffers,” (Bava Kammah, 92a) which here means: because of these unworthy men, the status of all members of the rabbinate is now lowered.

Thus did Mahari Katz of Nuremberg, Rabbi Yechiel HaKohen, decide, and thus do I decide. It is law to be carried out. Furthermore, the above-mentioned rabbi brings proof for this decision no longer to consider the present day Rabbi as officially a scholar. It is said Bava Metzia 67b “a scholar should not eat the diminution” that is to say, when a field is given in pledge, it is possible for the lender who holds the pledged to eat the fruit of the land and thus gradually diminish the amount of the debt. The Tosafot add, it is Rabbeinu Tam who is quoted as making the statement, that although Rabina did not eat although rubbing did eat “dimunition,” it was because in his humility he did not count himself as a scholar.

Clearly, then, if Rabina did not consider himself a scholar, how much less may we do so, orphaned children of orphan parents?

We surely should not consider ourselves as scholars.

I can bring a further proof from our teacher Rabbi Menachem of Merzeberg, of blessed memory, who wrote so in his notes in these words: “my teachers have written that the statement in Maimonides, Laws of Injury, chapter 3, that whoever insults a scholar must pay a gold pound, applies only to a scholar who was widely known and is renowned. This derives from the statement in the Yerushalmi that Resh Lakish imposed a fine when someone who insulted Rabbi Yosi bar for Chaniina because the latter was widely known as a scholar.”

Rabbi Weil then continues with other proofs that the special status of the scholar does not apply, and he concludes: the

So we can no longer apply the tome but it laws as to the scholar for the reasons that are clear to us. Nowadays, therefore, no rabbi has the right to judge a case alone. If, then, any rabbi exalts himself to proceed against any man with libelous words in your city or in your neighborhood, and desires to be a law onto himself, do not consent and do not listen to him, and do not fear and let not your heart soften before him. Think of the “eternal paths” (Jeremiah 6:16) and stand firm in opposition, so that this matter shall no longer be to you as a stumbling block.

I will then have done my duty; and, if you do yours, you will justify the righteous and be wise in your actions.

So says the humble one,

Yaakov Weill

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