The first instance of the name Gershom in the Chumash is where Moshe Rabbeinu called one of his sons Gershom, because the name meant to Moshe that he had been a “stranger in a strange land” during his sojourn in Midian. Rabbeinu Gershom was also a “stranger in a strange land” in the Christian Exile of France and Germany. However, his mission and his destiny was to light up the Exile with the light of Torah, and for that reason he is referred to as Rabbeinu Gershom “Me’or HaGolah,” the “Light of the Exile.”
Rabbeinu Gershom was born in the year 960 in Metz, in northeastern France, but he moved to Maintz, in Germany. There he became a devoted student of Rav Yehudah Leontin. Rabbeinu Gershom would succeed Rabbi Leontin upon the latter’s death as the head of the great Yeshivah of Maintz, the flower of the Torah citadel of Maintz. That holy community was already being shown a most unholy and brutal side of Christendom, and it would be completely destroyed later, during the Crusades.
Around the year 1000, Rabbeinu Gershom instituted various “takkanot,” institutional reforms, in Jewish life. The most famous of these are the following:
1. A man is forbidden to marry more than one woman, a practice that is permitted by the Torah. (Incidentally, this “takkanah” was not accepted by Sephardic Jewry until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, in a move towards the unification of the Jewish People.)
2. A man could not obtain a divorce without his wife’s consent.
3. It is forbidden for one to read the mail or personal messages of one’s neighbor without the latter’s permission. This “takkanah” extended the right of privacy outside the home into the world of commerce. It thus also had the effect of allowing the commercial network of Jewish merchants that conducted most of the business in Christian Europe to function.
A typical piece of mail would contain the seal, “B’Chadrag,” standing for “B’Cherem d’Rabbeinu Gershom;” meaning that the reader of the document without permission was in violation of the excommunication-edict of Rabbeinu Gershom. (Some ninety “takkanot” were enforced with this “Cherem.”
4. A Jewish community must accept with compassion a Jew returning to the faith after being forcibly converted to another religion.
This last “takkanah” reflected one of the great tragedies of Rabbeinu Gershom’s life, in that one of his sons was forcibly converted to Christianity, and died before returning to Judaism. At his death, Rabbeinu Gershom sat “Shivah” for fourteen days, seven for the physical demise, and another seven for the spiritual demise of his son.
Among his accomplishments, Rabbeinu Gershom wrote a complete commentary to the Talmud, instituted many “takkanot” that were cited in many cases in the Responsa of other great Ashkenazic Torah scholars, such as Rabbi Meir (the Maharam) of Rutenberg. He also wrote many Responsa, and composed moving “piyutim,” religious poems that were incorporated into the Selichot, including “Zechor Brit Avraham,” Remember the Covenant of Avraham, in commemoration of the martyred Jewish community of Mainz, that included the lines:
“The Holy City and its regions
Are turned to shame and to spoils;
And all its desirable things are buried and hidden,
And nothing is left except this Torah.”
Rabbi Gershom died in 1040 in Metz. His main disciples included Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol and the teachers of Rashi: Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar (referred to by Rashi as “Mori HaZaken,” my elder master), Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevi (referred to by Rashi as “Mori HaRav HaLevi,” my master, Rav HaLevi), and Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah (referred to by Rashi as “Mori Tzedek,” my righteous teacher).
They with their saintly teacher greatly enhanced and developed the Torah of Ashkenazic Jewry, and they laid the foundation for Rashi and the Ba’alei Tosafot, who hold honored places on the “Tzurat HaDaf,” the layout of nearly every page of the Talmud Bavli, the Babylonian Talmud, that is the treasure-house of Jewish learning.