The German rabbi, scholar, and religious poet Gershom ben Judah (ca. 950-1028) exerted a great influence on Jewish social institutions. He is also known as Rabbenu Gershom and Meor Ha-Golah, "Light of the Exile."
The places of the birth and death of Gershom ben Judah are not known with certainty, but he passed most of his adult life at Mainz, Germany. Gershom's importance arose from the fact that his teaching career as a rabbinical authority came just after the extinction of the rabbinical centers in Babylonia. With the consolidation of the Moslem Empire, the Babylonian scholars drifted across to Europe, bringing with them their manuscripts, their scribal tradition, their teaching, and their authority. The Palestinian centers had long ceased. As a result, central Europe and for a time Spain became the heartland of Jewish life and evolution. Later, Spain was to cease and only central European Jewry remained.
Gershom's distinction lay in the fact that he was one of the first and most successful rabbis to transplant and establish the Talmudic learning of Babylonia to Europe. Gershom was an excellent rabbinical scholar, was steeped in all the ancient traditions, and was a natural teacher and organizer of studies. He had, in addition, a consummate judgment in deciding moral and ethical matters concerning the ordinary actions of life. These qualities assured him his success and his popularity.
Gershom's foundational work was his treatment of the Talmud text. He established correct readings, provided illuminating commentaries, drew up exegetical rules, and taught exact methods of interpretation. Gradually, from being merely an academic center of attraction for rabbinical students from all over Europe, he and his school became the guide, mentor, and judge for the autonomous Jewish communities of France, Germany, and the Low Countries. Participating in meetings of community leaders, he helped to shape their social and cooperative institutions, and he defined local laws and customs.
Gershom's influence was profound and felt far beyond his time. It was not merely that he was the educator and molder of the rabbis who then went back to their home communities. It lay much more in the enduring legislation which was enacted under his guidance. The prohibition of polygamy, the limitation of the husband's right to divorce, the treatment of apostates returning to Jewry, the privacy of personal letters, the promulgation of the principle of majority rule in the local communities—these were but a few of his major enactments. Violation of these laws he proposed and had had enacted were punished by excommunication from the community of Israel; this was known in time as the "herem (ban) of Rabbenu Gershom." He was author of many responsa, or answers, to knotty legal questions and problems which arose in the everyday life of the communities and which entailed apparent conflict of law and commandment. The formation of community cohesion and the strengthening of the community's self-awareness were of powerful consequence for the subsequent fate of European Jewry. These communities were able to withstand and survive the 700 years of persecution and ostracism that were in store for them until the Hitlerian terror swept their underpinnings away forever.
Gershom was author also of penitential prayers (selihot), and he prepared a copy of the biblical Masorah, or traditional method of reading and pronouncing, and therefore of interpreting, the Bible.
Background works that discuss Gershom ben Judah are Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (1896; rev. ed. 1932), and Cecil Roth, A Short History of the Jewish People (1936; rev. ed. 1959).