Jewish Review of Books

Lost & Found

Rashi and the Crusader: A Legend


This anecdote is taken from Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah (The Chain of Tradition) by Gedaliah ibn Yahya (1526-1587), who came from an illustrious Sephardic rabbinical family, and lived most of his life in Italy. Ibn Yahya's book was first published in Venice in 1587 (this translation is from an edition printed in Lvov in 1862). It is one of a number of Hebrew chronicles penned by Spanish and Italian Jews after 1492, which the late historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi considered to be indicative of a new interest in the writing of history in the wake of the Spanish Expulsion.

Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah is divided into three parts. The first deals with Jewish history; the second with matters of technology, science, and magic; and the third with world history. The author is particularly interested in the advent of the Messiah and the lives and works of earlier rabbis. While he was a distinguished rabbinic scholar and was no stranger to the Renaissance, the following story suggests that ibn Yahya was not a critical historian in even the early modern sense of the term.

It is doubtful that Godfrey of Bouillon (ca. 1060-1100), a leader of the First Crusade in 1096 and the first Crusader ruler of Jerusalem, ever met the great commentator Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, 1040-1105), though he did travel through the Rhineland on his way to Jerusalem. Rashi lost relatives and friends in the Crusade, but his own community was not attacked and he seems never to have written directly about the events. He certainly did not predict them. This is one version of a legend that prefers to imagine not only that they met but that Rashi was, in a sense, the victor in their confrontation.

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About the Author

Matt Goldish is Samuel M. and Esther Melton Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at The Ohio State University.

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