"Prisoner Exchange in Jewish Law" – Part 2 of 4

2. The Maharam of Rothenburg

The Maharam of Rothenburg

Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (1215-1293 c.e.), known as the Maharam, was
one of the greatest of the early Jewish codifiers. At the age of
seventy he was taken captive and placed in the Ensisheim prison in
Alsace, France. Emperor Rudolf I proceeded to demand an exorbitant sum
for his release. In order to understand the full significance of this
act it is important to realize that almost all of the rabbis and
leaders of the Jewish communities in that generation were the
Maharam’s students. Even the great rabbis of the generation that
followed were greatly influenced by the teachings of the Maharam. The
most famous of his students was Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, known as the
Rosh, whose rulings are cited extensively in Rabbi Yosef Karo’s
Shulchan Arukh. Because the Maharam was so important a figure, Emperor
Rudolf I hoped to extort a huge ransom from the Jewish community.
Indeed, the emperor’s evil scheme nearly succeeded. The Maharam’s
students and admirers were prepared to raise the sum necessary to free
their master. They felt that though the law forbids paying more for a
captive than the accustomed amount, when the captive at hand is the
leading Torah scholar of the generation, and the entire community is
in need of him and his Torah wisdom, it is permissible to pay any fee.
But the renowned Maharam would not permit it to be paid, for he
understood that such an act would only encourage the enemies of Israel
to imprison other rabbis in the future and demand huge sums for their
release. As a result, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg spent the final seven
years of his life in the Ensisheim prison – and it was there that he
died.

By virtue of his greatness of spirit and his self-sacrifice for the
sake of the general good, the Maharam succeeded in preventing a dam
from breaking open: He saved the Torah leaders of future generations
from captivity, and the Jewish community from gigantic expenses which
may well have caused their complete financial ruin.

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