The Rashba's Resounding Ruling

Date: Friday, September 16, 2022

The HUC-JIR libraires are filled with treasures, and as librarians in this great library we see and handle them all the time. Even so, we can be surprised to make discoveries of new treasures in our collection. A few weeks ago, Dr. Jordan Finkin, the rare book and manuscript librarian, texted me a picture of a manuscript, shown below.

Reshba RulingAfter a quick reading, I discovered that this manuscript mentions Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, also known as the Rashba, (1235-1310), one of the great rabbinic leaders of Aragonese Jewry and an important figure in Jewish scholarship. The text of the manuscript refers to him in a way that indicates that he was still living at the time the document was written. It is dated with the Jewish year 5052 (1292). I was surprised to see such a document and I told Jordan that I would like to see the manuscript.

When I came to Cincinnati and saw it, I was shocked – it looked relatively new – not like something that was 730 years old. This manuscript was purchased 20-30 years ago in London from a famous book dealer. My first thought was that it must be a forgery. However, through additional research, I found that this document is authentic and is a real treasure.

The document before us tells a fascinating story. A woman by the name of Bona Dona came to the court in Barcelona with a request. She inherited houses, a vineyard at the edge of town, and a synagogue seat from her father. However, her father had stipulated in his will that if Bona Dona does not have children, the property would be given to the poor (hekdesh). Bona Dona did not have children, but needed money to live on, so she wanted to sell the land. No one wanted to buy it since it was known that these properties were to be given to the poor. She went to the Beit Din of the Rashba and asked him for permission to sell the property. The decision of the Rashba to allow to her to sell her father’s properties is recorded in Shut HaRashba 704, where you can read about his opinion on why the dying father’s conditional statements were clearly invalid. He concludes his explanation with a resounding, “These are simple matters for those who know [Jewish] custom and law.”

Shortly after getting this ruling from the Rashba, Bona Dona sold the land to Friar Estevan, a monk of the St. Anne monastery. They went to the court in Barcelona to record the sale, but the monk refused to pay once he heard about the stipulation in her father’s will that the land in fact belongs to the poor. Bona Dona went to a Jewish court to ask for an official statement confirming the Rashba’s ruling that the vineyard belongs to her. The document before us is the official statement, in Hebrew, written by the Jewish court for the municipal court, to confirm that Bona Dona has the authority to sell the vineyard. This document, called a hadpasa, or translatia in Latin, is discussed by Micha J. Perry in his article “Hatpasah – Jewish translata documents from medieval Catalonia: formulae, law and society”, Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies, 2018. Perry notes that this type of document is unique to the Jews of Catalonia.

This document was attached to the Latin deed of sale in the records of the municipal court of Barcelona. This deed sheds light on our document – it provides the Latin names of the people involved in this case, including Dona Bona’s father, the notary, and others. It is surprising that a document in Hebrew is part of the official record. But as Perry noted, this was not unusual. This document raises many questions: Why didn’t the Jews write in Latin? How is it that the court in Barcelona accepted a document in Hebrew? While I don’t have any clear answers, it appears that Hebrew was not unfamiliar to the Christian elite of Barcelona. It is likely that the Jews chose Hebrew since they were proud of their heritage and did not want to use Latin, the language of the Church. This is just one example of the tremendous HUC-JIR collection. I am looking forward to sharing additional treasures as we continue to uncover the wealth of the collection.

Contributed by Yoram Bitton, Director of HUC-JIR Libraries.


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