The Forgotten Diaspora (2)

February 3, 2023 Category: Uncategorized


THIS thesis—let’s call it the “Kalonymos connection thesis”—is simply that there is a continuous genealogical lineage from the (Sephardic) Kalonymos family to Samuel “ha-[c]Hasid” of Regensburg and/or to his student, Eleazar ben Judah of Mainz (a.k.a. “Rokea[c]h”).

The former is said to have been the son of the (possibly apocryphal) “Kalonymos the Elder” of Speyer. Upon pursuing his storied career in Regensburg, he was said to have performed many miracles, and even seen a vision of the prophet, Elijah.  He was employed as a seer, and claimed to know the exact date of Beth Israel’s day of redemption.  He indulged in (oft zany) mysticism, as attested in his “Sefer ha-Kavod” [Book of Majesty].  So exactly how much about him (in the official record) we should take seriously is up for debate.  (It was his son, Judah, who founded “[c]Hasidei Ashkenaz”.)

The latter pursued his career in Worms.  His father was (purportedly) referred to as Judah ben Kalonymos ben Moses, who hailed from Speyer.  (HIS father, then, was named “Kalonymos ben Moses”, which correlates with two figures in the genealogy outlined in this Appendix: Kalonymos II ben Moses II and Kalonymos IV ben Moses III.  Such striking correlation—an dual coincidence—indicates that some genealogical contrivance may have been afoot.)  As the story goes: Rokea[c]h’s father (Judah) was the student of a man named Shemar-i-Yah ben Mordekai…who was a student of the first Tosafist, Isaac ben Asher of Speyer (“Riba”)…who was, in turn, a student of Rashi.  If we were to assume that all this is accurate, it would entail that Rokea[c]h was Sephardic. 

My contention is that the Kalonymos connection thesis is spurious.  To be clear: The contention is—effectively—that the Kalonymos family went from bieng Sephardic to being Ashkenazi.  In considering this, questions arise: Was this contrived lineage an attempt to establish Sephardic ancestry for Ashkenazim (spec. [c]Hasidei Ashkenaz)?  To link Ashkenazi mysticism c. 1200 to the Talmudic tradition?  To fabricate ethnic continuity throughout Beth Israel?  All three, perhaps?

Let’s start with the limited amount we know about this storied family.  It is documented that Kalonymos III ben Meshullam III was from France.  In the late 11th century, he moved to the Rhineland (Mainz); whereby he became involved in legends of the apocryphal “Amnon”.  As the story goes, he then went to Worms, where he perished during the Rhineland Massacres.  All his ancestors (starting with his father, Meshullam III, going back) hailed from the Italic peninsula—primarily Lucca and Rome. (Hence the Romanized version of the surname: “Kalonymus”.)  The moniker is Greek for “good name”—the equivalent of “Shem-Tov” in Hebrew. (That Hebrew honorific would be used in the 18th-century by the Ashkenazi mystic who founded [c]Hassidism: Yisra-El ben El-i-Ezer [alt. “Israel ben Eleazar”], who claimed direct descent from King David.)

As might be expected, the contention-in-question stems from a fixation on patrilineal bloodlines.  The patriarch of this fabled lineage (the original “Meshullam”) would have lived in the late 8th century.  The name is based on the (Kohathite) Levite figure in the Hebrew Bible who aided the prophet, Ezra.  According to the official narrative, a Roman Jew by that auspicious name sired Ith-i-El [sign of god], who sired Meshullam II, who sired Moses, who sired Jekut[h]-i-El, who sired the first Kalonymos c. 900.  THAT man (Kalonymos) then sired Moses II, who sired Kalonymos II, who sired Meshullam III (a.k.a. “Meshullam the Great”): the father of Kalonymos III (better known to history as “Kalonymos ben Meshullam”).

While in Mainz, Kalonymos III sired Moses III, who sired Kalonymos IV.  So the question becomes: How do we get from Kalonymos IV (who would have lived in the mid-to-late 11th century) to the man known as Kalonymos ben Isaac <A> ben Eleazar ben Isaac <B> (a.k.a. “Kalonymos the Elder”), who is said to have died c. 1126?  That later Kalonymos purportedly lived in Speyer, and—as the story goes—was the father of Samuel “ha-[c]Hasid” [the Pious]…who, in turn, sired Judah: founder of [c]Hasidei Ashkenaz at Regensburg (Bavaria) in the late 12th century. 

To reiterate: Many tall tales surround Samuel “ha-[c]Hasid”.  He was said to have been a miracle-worker and an oracle.  It’s no wonder his acolytes referred to him as “ha-Nabi” [the Prophet] and “ha-Kodesh” [the Holy]; and wove fantastical yarns (e.g. about the mythical golem) around him.  Given the cultic nature of his following, the credence of many accounts of this figure is rather dubious.  Much of it is fantastical hagiography, composed by acolytes.

Upon scrutiny, we find that the contention-in-question does not hold much water; as the Kalonymos family was primarily dwelling in Occitania (southern France) in the 11th thru 15th centuries—as with, say, the famed Kononymos ben Todros (who lived in Narbonne).  In the late 13th / early 14th century, Kalonymos ben Kalonymos (a denizen of Hachmei Provence) lived in Avignon, then finished his life back in Rome.  In the late 14th / early 15th century, Isaac Nathan ben Kalonymos lived in Avignon as well.

The renowned Meshullam ben Jacob lived in Lunel in the 12th century.  He would be followed by his famous sons: Asher ben Meshullam and Aaron ben Meshullam. (Meanwhile, Samuel ben Judah “Ibn Tibbon” lived in Lunel in the late 12th / early 13th century; and “Abba” Mari ben Moses ben Joseph lived there in the late 13th / early 14th century.)  There was no trend of Occitanian Jews–let alone members of the Kalonymos family–migrating up to Lotharingia.  They’d been Occitanian all along; and all remained Occitanian—in the tradition of the Hachmei Provence.

The idea is to connect the “[c]Hasidei Ashkenaz” movement (that is: the brand of medieval Judaic mysticism that is ipso facto associated with the Ashkenazim) to Sephardim via the (Sephardic) Kalonymos lineage…culminating in the teachings of Judah ben Samuel “ha-[c]Hasid” and/or Eleazar “Rokea[c]h” c. 1200.  But HOW? 

Even if it means grasping at straws, let’s try.  According to the official narrative, Eleazer’s father was named “Judah ben Kalonymos ben Moses”, and was originally from Speyer.  Let’s suppose that THIS Eleazar (who taught in Mainz) may have been conflated with Kalonymos the Elder’s grandfather (who was also named Eleazar and also taught in Mainz); and that the grandfather of THAT (singular) Eleazar was Kalonymos IV (son of Moses III).  Thus “Eleazar Rokea[c]h” (who, according to this hypothesis, must have lived at least a century earlier than reported) is really the same person as “Eleazar ha-Gadol”.  Granted, nobody knows who Kalonymos IV’s son was.  No matter.  We need only suppose that, whoever it was, it was this singular Eleazar’s father.  And that singular Eleazar had a grandson: Kalonymos the Elder (purported father of Samuel “ha-[c]Hasid”). Presto! This completes the proposed lineage. 

There are several problems with this. 

  • Given all the above, it is still possible that “Kalonymos the Elder” is largely apocryphal; so the true father of Samuel “ha-[c]Hasid” was, well, someone else (read: not a Kalonymos).
  • The father of Eleazar “Rokea[c]h” was named JUDAH (note: not Judah ben Samuel “ha-[c]Hasid”); whereas the father of Eleazar “ha-Gadol” was named ISAAC <B>.  They couldn’t both be the designated son of Kalonymos IV. 
  • Eleazar “Rokea[c]h” lived in the late 12th / early 13th century; as he studied under Isaac ben Asher “ha- Levi” (a.k.a. “Riba”), who was himself a student of Rashi.  (Rokea[c]h also studied with Judah ben Samuel “ha-[c]Hasid”.)  Eleazar “ha-Gadol”, on the other hand, purportedly lived in the 11th century; as he was the student of Gershom ben Judah, and was the TEACHER of Rashi…not to mention the purported grandfather of “Kalonymos the Elder” (who was supposed to be the father of the elder mentor of Eleazar “Rokea[c]h”).  It’s a stretch to suppose anyone would have missed such a significant chronological snafu.
  • This genealogy would entail squeezing four generations (from Kalonymos IV to Kalonymos the Elder) into a very short period–enough time for perhaps a single intervening generation.  Ergo there is too little time to account for this hypothetical genealogy.

So that proposed lineage doesn’t work.  But wait.  There’s another possibility.  Assuming Rokea[c]h’s father really was Judah ben Kalonymos ben Moses; HE may have been the son of Kalonymos IV (who—lo and behold—was the son of a man named Moses).  This supposition would require omitting the father of Samuel “ha-[c]Hasid” (Kalonymos the Elder) from the relevant lineage.  (Fine; he may have been largely apocryphal anyway.)  The key connection, then, would be Eleazar “Rokea[c]h” instead of Samual “ha-[c]Hasid”.  But there’s still a problem.  This “Judah” lived until c. 1200; so how could he possibly be the son of a man who lived back in the 11th century?  With this hypothetical genealogy, there is a surfeit of un-accounted-for time from the purported father’s death (in the late 11th century) to the purported son’s birth (which would need to have been at least a couple decades into the 12th century).  And even if we ignore that temporal glitch, it ends up being rather beside the point…if, that is, Eleazar “Rokea[c]h” turns out to have been a Tosofist.  He was, after all, born in Mainz in the late 12th century.  It is, indeed, possible that Eleazar “Rokea[c]h” was Sephardic.  Even so, it doesn’t follow that a movement he supported couldn’t have been an Ashkenazi one.  (And it certainly has no bearing on the thesis of the preceding monograph.) 

Back to the hypothetical Kalonymos connection: Are there any other viable ways to connect the dots here?  Nope.  Every just-so story strains credulity.  Bottom line: No Ashkenazim were descendants of the fabled Kalonymos family. **

To get the desired lineage to work, some genealogical shenanigans are required.  So from whence did the contention-in-question come?  The faux heritage seems to have first been proposed by the Ashkenazi mystic, Solomon ben Ye[c]h-i-El Luria in the 16th century; as he sought to unify the Sephardic and Ashkenazi legacies.  What might his motive have been?  He had moved from Poznan in Poland to Safed in Palestine; and married a Sephardic woman—subsequently siring his famous son, Isaac “ha-Ari”: founder of Lurianic Kabbala.  By then (the 16th century), Ashkenazim were thoroughly immersed in the Talmudic tradition, and were often inter-marrying with Sephardim / Mizra[c]him; so they were likely seeking to nullify the disparate provenances regarding themselves vis a vis the rest of Beth Israel.  This was especially true of those promulgating Jewish mysticism in Palestine.

Isaac ben Solomon Luria’s inspiration was another Jewish figure (from Prague) who had settled in Palestine: Bezalel ben Abraham (who—at the risk of being too on the nose—was known as “Ashkenazi”).  Bear in mind, Bezalel was already known for telling tall tales: He was the source of the beguiling golem legends surrounding the first synagogue in Prague. 

There would have been an allure to playing along with this confabulation—the fabricated genealogy regarding the Kalonymos bloodline.  The notion that Ashkenazi mysticism could be traced back to Sephardim meant that there was a common ETHNIC heritage for the entirety of world Jewry.  That way, Yiddishkeit could be assumed to have been Talmudic ALL ALONG.  (Recall that Luria’s confabulation occurred in the immediate wake of Joseph ben Ephraim Karo’s landmark work, “Beth Yusef” [House of Joseph], which reconciled the Halakah for all Beth Israel.  So this issue was clearly front and center.)  The fact that the founder of [c]Hassidism adopted the hallowed moniker “Shem-Tov” is unsurprising, seeing as how he lived in the modern age (by which time Ashkenazim had incorporated the Talmudic tradition into their doctrinal repertoire).  It further stands to reason considering this panjandrum sought to identify with the vaunted Davidic line.

So it went: The putative “Kalonymos” family line was tailored to fit the desired narrative. But never mind the historiographical glitches.  Credence is beside the point when one is pursuing an idealogical agenda. 

In conclusion: It is far more plausible that the father of Samuel “ha-[c]Hasid” was not a Kalonymos.  Eleazar “Rokea[c]h” was probably not a Kalonymos either (though may have been Sephardic).  Ergo the fabled “[c]Hasidei Ashkenaz” had nothing to do with Sephardim; as least, not by that route.  The majority of participants in this medieval movement were likely as Turkic as the rest of the Ashkenazim at the time.  This is not a bad thing.  A non-Semitic ancestry did not make them any less Jewish.

{*  The name may have alternately been a variant on Kalymnos—an island off the coast of Caria in the Aegean Sea, near Kos.  The island had previously been ethnic Carian.  At the time, though, the island was within the Byzantine realm; and served as a navel outpost for the Republic of Venice.  Why a Jewish family might have named themselves after this island is anyone’s guess.}

{**  One can find a slew of surnames the origins of which are somewhat elided by flawed etymologies.  For example, Meyer[s] is not based on the Hebrew “Meir”; it is an accidental cognate based on an Anglo-Saxon surname…which was, in turn, based on the Germanic “meiger”…itself a cognate of the Latin “maior”, meaning “greater”.  While it is easy to conflate with “Mei[e]r”, “Meyer[s]” was never a Jewish name before the modern era.  Notably, the Jewish mob boss, Meier Suchow-lanski of Grodno rendered his name “Meyer Lansky” to assert a more American identity.  (Also note Meyerson, which was the basis for Golda Meir’s married name.  Hardly Hebraic.)  This is why there are plenty of non-Jewish Anglo-Saxons named “Meyer”.  I explore other Ashkenazi names in Endnote 50.}

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