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The Music of Halacha: The Tragic Purim Play

The Jewish community of Provence (Southern France) had, up to the middle of the thirteenth century, enjoyed comparative peace and prosperity. Jews were deeply involved in the cultural currents that permeated the general community of Southern France and maintained social and cultural contacts with their non-Jewish neighbors. The general friendship that prevailed in this tolerant society, nevertheless, did not prevent anti-Jewish feelings from manifesting themselves, especially on the part of the Christian clergy, who were to a great degree themselves subjected to attacks on the part of various schismatics and sectarians.


Actually Christianity was battling for its existence during this period due to the rise of the Albigensian and Waldensian heresies. Its security was achieved only as a result of the Albigensian Crusade. It appears that after the victory achieved in Southern France in the early decades of the thirteenth century, under the leadership of the fanatical Pope Innocent III, the relationship between Jews and Christians in Southern France deteriorated.

The case which was brought to the great Spanish rabbi, Solomon ben Adreth (1235-1310), illustrates some of the vicissitudes Jewish communities had to undergo.

The problem revolved around the around a home which was in close proximity to the palace of the bishop. The latter was very unhappy about the presence of Jewish neighbors in his vicinity, and he did everything within his power to make life uncomfortable for them, but failed to dispossess them. He nevertheless constantly sought some pretext to carry out his evil design.

The opportunity presented itself one Purim. It was customary among Jews to present a play on Purim (known among German Jews as the “Purim-shpiel”) which usually was a burlesque or parody of the Purim story in which Haman and his followers of subsequent eras were the butts of rough humor. One Purim two members of the Jewish community came to the house of Reuben and Simeon (the fictitious names of the neighbors of the bishop) and there presented their Purim parody. The house, we might conjecture, was rather spacious and it was possible for a large group of people to attend the spectacle.

Gentile neighbors, it seems, were apprised of what was going to take place and the word spread rapidly that the Christian faith was being mocked. The bishop spurred on the hoodlums of the Christian community to enter the home of his neighbors and wreak havoc on it. From the windows of the house they poured a shower of stones and missiles on the passersby, some being injured and others killed.

Moreover, the bishop held the Jewish community responsible for the damage caused to the victims since Jews were responsible for permitting the “mockery” of the Christian faith to take place.

In the Jewish community itself there was a difference of opinion. Some maintained that Reuben and Simeon who lived in the house close to the bishop’s palace were responsible for all the trouble since they insisted on remaining in the house contrary to the wishes of the bishop.

The rabbi of Marseilles, Rabbi Jonathan (not to be identified with the famous R. Jonathan of Lunel) maintained that Reuben and Simeon could not be blamed, since the trouble did not result from the fact that they lived in the house, but rather because of the parody put on by Levi and Judah (the fictitious names of the participants in the Purim play). The question was sent to Rabbi Solomon ben Adreth in Barcelona for a solution.

Rabbi Solomon answered that it is self-evident that Reuben and Simeon were in no way to be regarded as blameworthy. A person is accountable when his property causes damage (such as his livestock, implements placed in a way as obstacles, etc.). Here the house of Reuben and Simeon had not caused any damage and could not be held liable.

The wealth of learning displayed by Rabbi Jonathan to prove that Reuben and Simeon are not liable is totally superfluous. In all the instances he cites from the Talmudic sources the defendant obviously did something which rendered him culpable (such as sending live coals or stones with an imbecile or minor or inciting a dog to do damage). In the case at hand we cannot even begin to think of such liability. One has no right, of course, to cause damage even indirectly, but in this case the house of Reuben and Simeon are not cannot be implicated in the violence which resulted from vandals entering the house and throwing rocks at passersby.

Moreover, Rabbi Solomon maintains, even the actors who are more directly involved cannot be held responsible. Firstly, they did nothing reprehensible according to the law. The charges of the bishop do not make them guilty. Being subjected to his accusations is to be regarded as an unavoidable accident for which they cannot be held responsible.

Moreover, even had they done something reprehensible for which they could be held answerable, once the community was penalized and made restitution, the actors would not be required to pay anything back to the community. Even a robber who appropriated real estate that was subsequently confiscated by the government is held liable only if he informed government officials about it, not otherwise (Bava Kamma 116b), and according to the Jerusalem Talmud, this is an extraordinary punishment meted out to the robber. According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Bava Kamma X, 6), one is not liable if he is indirectly responsible for someone undergoing a loss because of him, except in the case taxes, e.g., if one laid out taxes for someone else (who may be indigent; see Shittah Mekubetzeth to Bava Kamma 133b), one the year has passed, and the tax-farmer has turned in the sum to the government, he is not held liable for his neighbor.

There was also an additional problem in Marseilles. Some individuals refused to participate in the public payment of damages, claiming that the decision of the community to pay the indemnity was made without their consent. Rabbi Jonathan thought they should be compelled to pay because members of a community are equal partners in all expenses.

Rabbi Solomon, however, rejects this argument. He maintains that as long as there was no official assent on the part of the community, mediated by the authority of its recognized leaders, on a basis of equality, the community cannot claim a share from every individual. Tribute imposed by an unauthorized person in an emergency does not obligate the entire community.

If the bill has already been footed, no individual can be forced to participate, unless the leaders were empowered by the community to tax all citizens alike whenever an emergency arises. Had the bishop imposed the indemnity on Reuben and Simeon they would have had to pay it. They could not have expected others to share it with them even where there was a prior agreement that obligations be shared, because of their specific responsibility in this instance. Likewise when the community has made restitution, individuals may not be taxed for contributions. Only duly authorized representatives of the community or any legally authorized person, such as a king or a Resh-Galutah (Exilarch), have the legal right to levy tribute on all members of a community.

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