Page 71 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 14

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them, for what they did was because of the threat of the sword.”
Also, “An Israelite, even though he has sinned, remains an Isra-
elite; and this applies even more to forced converts whose hearts
turn heavenward.”
Except for a few utterances on the subject of forced converts
by Rabenu Gershom, Rashi is the first to treat the problem from
the point of view of
, declaring that converts must never
be reproached when they return to their Jewish faith. Indeed, a
who returned to Judaism was to be granted the
privilege he enjoyed before conversion — to be called first to the
This dictum is in consonance with his view “ I t is better to
hearken to one who is lenient, and sanctions, than to one who
prohibits . . . anyone can be strict and interdict . . . since I began
to understand the words of the Talmud, my heart leans toward
those who permit.”
In keeping with this principle, Rashi allows creditors to levy
interest on loans through the legal fiction of charging it to a third
party who is a non-Jew. He is also quoted by the Rashbam as
interpreting the prohibition against doing business with gentiles
on their holiday to be limited to specific Christian festivals, and
even on such occasions one need not be too strict. The reason
given for this leniency is that Christians are not idolators and that
“we are in exile and cannot afford to refrain from dealing with
people among whom we live and from whom we derive our
There is also the implied reason that since Jews disregard these
prohibitions and restrictions, there is no sense in worsening
matters by branding those who violate them as transgressors.
This is based on the rabbinic principle, “ I t is better that they
(the Jews) err unknowingly than deliberately.”
I t is new practices like these, resulting from specific conditions
in European countries, which led to the trend of according
, local customs and procedures, a validity equal to, and at
times even surpassing, that of established law. Says Rashi, “ If
they (the Jews) are not prophets, they are the sons of prophets;
customs must therefore not be changed . . . the customs of later
generations are like Torah.” Rabenu Tam, Rashi’s grandson and
guiding spirit of the school of Tosafists maintains that “ custom
is the equivalent of law . . . he who alters it has no case.” This
holds true particularly for local customs, since “our custom is
Torah and constitutes a good tradition.” (This appreciation of the
validity of custom did not prevent some rabbis in Franco-Germany
from branding practices which violated the spirit of Judaism as
rninhag shtut
, foolish custom).