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Jacob ben Asher

(c. 1270—1340)


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German Halakhist (d. 1340), son of Asher ben Jehiel, the outstanding authority in German and later Spanish Jewry, known as the Rosh (after the initial letters of his name, Rabbi Asher). Under threat of persecution, Jacob with his father left Germany for Spain in 1303. The Rosh became Rabbi of Toledo but Jacob refused to take up a Rabbinic appointment and lived a life of poverty, only partly relieved by money he received from time to time from patrons of learning.

Jacob is chiefly renowned for his great Code of Jewish law (first published in Piove di Sacco in 1475 and thus one of the very earliest Jewish works to be printed), known as Arbaah Turim (‘Four Rows’). The name is based on the four rows of precious stones in the breastplate of the High Priest (Exodus 28: 17), usually abbreviated to Tur, so that in Halakhic literature both Jacob himself and his Code are called ‘the Tur’. The work consists of four sections, hence the ‘four rows’. These are: 1. Orah Hayyim, ‘Path of Life’ (after Psalms 16: 11), dealing with prayer, the Sabbath, and festivals, and with general religious duties; 2. Yoreh Deah, ‘Teaching Knowledge’ (after Isaiah 28: 9), dealing with the dietary laws and other topics required chiefly for Rabbinic decisions on more complex matters; 3. Even Ha-Ezer, ‘Stone of Help’ (after 1 Samuel 5: 1 and Genesis 2: 20, where woman is the ‘help’ meet for man), dealing with the laws of marriage and divorce; 4. Hoshen Mishpat, ‘Breastplate of Judgement’ (after Exodus 28: 15), dealing with civil law and jurisprudence in general.

Jacob also compiled a commentary to the Torah in which, as in his Code, he draws on earlier teachers to give what he calls ‘the plain meaning’ of the text. In the introductions to each section of the Torah, Jacob playfully adds, partly for the reader's amusement, ingenious asides in which gematria and other plays on words are utilized in an admittedly fanciful manner. It is ironical that while the commentary itself was largely ignored (it was not published until the nineteenth century) these playful comments were printed together with the text in many editions of the Torah, under the title Baal Ha-Turim (Author of the Turim). These became exceedingly popular among students who resorted to them for intellectual relaxation from their more arduous studies.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.


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