Page 266 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 50

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258
JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
R. Meir was held in at least two locales, in prisons (fortresses)
described only by the term
migdal.
The severity of his impris­
onment varied. He had limited or even moderate access to rab­
binic texts at different times, and he was visited by students
who were able to discuss legal and ritual matters with him at
length.
Haggahot Maimuniyyot
refers to
hiddushim
that R. Meir
began to compose while in prison.37 These novellae have not
survived as a separate entity but were perhaps incorporated into
collections o f his responsa and the works o f his students.
M A R T YR ’S QUERY
One of the most poignant questions found within the respon­
sa literature of the medieval period was addressed to R. Meir,
prior to his arrest, by a Jew from Koblenz. The man had slaugh­
tered his family while a pogrom was in progress, in order to
prevent them from falling into Christian hands. He was saved
from his own suicide attempt, or just prior to it. He asked R.
Meir what penance he might do for the killing of his family.
R. Meir had difficulty in justifying the act along technical, le­
galistic lines. Suicide in order to escape torture and possible
forced conversion was halakhically justifiable. Killing others was
another matter. Nonetheless, R. Meir concluded that the man’s
act was justified: “
mihu davar zeh pashat hetero
(permission for
this act, and its actual occurrence, was widespread).”38 Many
great Ashkenazic scholars had done precisely this in the face
of their tormentors during the First Crusade and in its after-
math. To require penance of this well-intentioned individual
would be to denigrate and defame the pious scholars o f earlier
days who had performed this deed themselves and who had
thereby permitted it to their followers.39
In another formulation, Maharam asserted that once some­
one had made the decision to undertake martyrdom, he felt
none of the pain of his death, regardless of the means of ex­
37. Agus, 151-53.
38. For the range o f Ashkenazic attitudes concerning the permissibility o f su­
icide and homicide in times of religious persecution, see the sources cited in
Haym Soloveitchik, “Religious Law and Change: The Medieval Ashkenazic E x ­
ample,”
AJS Review
12 (1987 ): 210 -11 , n. 8.
39.
Teshuvot, Pesaqim u-Minhagim,
ed. I.Z. Kahana, v. 2 (Jerusalem, 1960), 54
(#59 ) .