Reflections on David of Oxford and Family

Thursday, 16 May, 2013 - 8:47 pm



David of Oxford, formerly known as David of Lincoln, was one of the most prominent English Jews of the 13th century. His father was Asher and it is not clear when he would have moved to Oxford. However, in 1219 he was one of the six representatives of the wealthy class selected from all English Jewry to apportion tallage. He had dealings all over the country, including Warwick, Berkshire, Buckingham and Northampton and his clients included many of the aristocracy. In addition, he frequently transacted business with other prominent Anglo Jewish financiers, like Aaron of York, Hamo of Hereford, one of the wealthiest Jews of the day, Benedict of Crispin of London and his broth Jaqcob, and especially his fellow townsman, Copin of Oxford. He also played an important role in communal life, though not always by choice. The king used David's influence to ensure other Jews were paying the tallages (taxes) that were imposed upon them. He was also one of the commission of eight Anglo-Jewish magnates who were appointed at the request of the communities in 1938 to collaborate with Justices of the Jews in an enquiry ‘touching Jews who are clippers of coin, thieves, and receivers', so as to root out the abuse if it existed, and thus rid the community of this perpetual opportunity for blackmail.


This essay will aim to look into an aspect of David of Oxford's private life that became a major subject of debate and discussion in the Jewish community in 13th century England, and Oxford in particular, involving the king, and leading rabbinic scholars of England and France. David was married to Muriel, who appears to have been also associated with David in his business affairs[1]. In 1242 David chose to issue his wife a divorce. This episode appears in the Close Rolls with the following entry[2]:


Winchester, 27 August, 1242. For David of Oxford: The King to Masters Moses of London, Aaron of Canterbury, and Jacob of Oxon', Jews, greeting. We do hereby forbid you to hold henceforth any plea concerning David Jew of Oxford and Muriel who was wife of the same; nor under any circumstances are you to distrain him either to take or to keep that wife or any other. Know for certainly that if you do otherwise, you will incur grave punishment therefore. 


Simultaneously, the following rescript was issued:


Winchester, 27 August, 1242. For David of Oxford: Whereas by the council of venerable father of Christ W. archbishop of York and others if the King's council, it has been provided that henceforth no chapters shall be held concerning the Jews in England, instructions have been issued to the Justices of the Jews firmly enjoining all the Jews if England on the King's behalf to hold no chapters in England henceforth. Moreover, Peytevin of Lincoln, Muriel who was the wife of David of Oxford, Benedict f. (son of) Peytevin of Lincoln, Vaalyn', and Moses de Barbun', Jews, are to appear before the aforesaid Archbishop and others of the King's council on the octave of St Michael, wheresoever they shall be in England, to shew cause why hey sent to France to the Jews of France to hold a chapter on the Jews of England. And the said justices are enjoined not to permit David of Oxford to be constrained to take or to keep any wife save of his own desire.


Cecil Roth, in his book Jews of Oxford, offers the following background to understand the royal intervention. It is clear that the three Masters (Magistri) to whom the first letter is directed are a Jewish court of law or Beth Din. David and Muriel were apparently childless, and probably it was for this reason that David, desiring to have a son to inherit his enormous fortune, wished to marry again. He, accordingly, gave Muriel a Bill of Divorce. But, by the ordinances issued by Rabbi Gershom of Mainz, known by the appellation 'the Light of the Exile' (circa 1,000) and generally accepted in Northern Europe, it had been declared improper for a man to divorce his wife without her consent, or to remarry if he did so; and a Jewish court had the power to invalidate any divorce not executed in accordance with the rules which it approved. Muriel, therefore, protested and invoked help. Her relatives from Lincoln (where probably David had found his wife before settling in Oxford) rallied to her assistance, headed by her brother Peytevin - presumably Peytevin the Great, who had his own synagogue in that city, and who was one of the victims of the ritual murder allegation of 1255 associated with the name of Hugh of Lincoln.


English Jewry freely acknowledged the intellectual supremacy of their French Co-religionists, and the problem was submitted to certain Rabbis beyond the Channel, who assembled to deliberate the matter. They gave their decision in favour of Muriel, and an ad hoc Beth Din which assembled in Oxford, composed of the three 'Magistri' mentioned in the royal letter, rejected the divorce and instructed David to take Muriel back again. He was not the sort of man to acquiesce in ecclesiastical dictation, Roth continues, and, confidant in the overriding power of the longst purse, appealed to the king. This played in the hands of the clerical party at Court. The Church naturally disliked the idea of the enjoyment by Jews of a species of autonomy, which was restricted in the case of the clergy, and henceforth the Archbishop of York (whether in connection with this episode or not) had obtained a royal decree forbidding 'chapters' or Courts to be held by the Jews in England. The appellants were therefore ordered to appear before him to justify their conduct; moreover, the ruling of the three English Rabbis was quashed by royal order, and the divorce was upheld.


In accordance with Jewish law, provision had to be made for the divorced wife. David's own house was at the top of Great Jewry, currently St Aldate's, near Carfax, comprising today much of the southern part of the area of the present Town Hall. He assigned her for life another house of his round the corner, at the junction of Jury Lane and St Edward's Lane, where she continued to reside long after his death. David chose a new wife Licoricia of Winchester. She was a widow, and mother of two children, Benedict and Cockerel (Isaac). She beared him a son named Asher after his grandfather, but more usually known as Douceman or Sweteman. However, shortly after his second marriage, at the beginning of 1244, David of Oxford died.


Licoricia was given administration of her husband's property after setting relief or death-duty of 5,000 marks that was given to the royal Treasury. £2,591 of the amount was ordered to be paid to the new Exchequer recently established at Westminster in connection with the king's ambitious building projects there, and was used for the construction of Westminster Abbey. David's main residence in the Great Jewry with all the utensils, furniture and clothing, was immediately, after his death, presented to the Home for Converted Jews (Domus Conversorum) that was recently set up by the king in London.


Background to the debate in Jewish law


It is interesting to look at what the debate was regarding the remarriage of David. Why would it have not been permitted to remarry if he so desired and if indeed it was prohibited to divorce, what was the status of his first wife if he went through with a divorce? Was she considered divorced in Jewish law and what is the Jewish perspective towards his second wife and child born from the relationship?




The core of the problem is an intrinsic imbalance between men and women in relationships according to Jewish law: men may divorce their wives against their will, whereas women cannot divorce against the will of the husband. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204), known as Maimonides, writes in his legal work Mishneh Torah in the opening to the laws of divorce: 


"A woman may be divorced only by receiving a bill [of divorce]. This bill is called a get. The Torah establishes ten principles as fundamental [for a divorce to be effective]. They are: a) That a man must voluntarily initiate the divorce; b) That he must effect the divorce by means of a written document and through no other means; c) That this document must communicate that he is divorcing [his wife] and releasing her from his domain; d) That it should utterly sever the connection between the husband and his wife; e) That [the get] should be written for the sake [of the woman being divorced]; f) That once [the get] is written, there should be no action [necessary] except its transfer to the woman; g) That he should actually transfer [the get] to her; h) That he should transfer [the get] to her in the presence of witnesses; i) That he should actually transfer it to her for the sake of divorce; j) That the husband or his agent should be the one who gives it to her. What are the sources that indicate that these ten requirements stem from Scripture itself? [They are derived from Deuteronomy 24:1, which] states: "And if it comes to pass that she does not find favor in his eyes, and he will write a bill of divorce for her, place it in her hand and send her from his home." "If... she does not find favor in his eyes" - this indicates that he divorces her only on his own initiative. If a woman is divorced against her husband's will, the divorce is invalid. A woman may, however, be divorced either voluntarily or against her will."


This disparity is found also in the Talmud[3]. In the case of marriage however the reverse is true. Maimonides writes[4]: "A woman may be consecrated only voluntarily. If one forces a woman to be consecrated, she is not consecrated. When a man, by contrast, is forced to consecrate [a woman], she is consecrated." So essentially, a woman cannot be forced to marry whereas a man can be. These two concepts are consistent. The Talmud[5] states that since it was possible for a man to divorce his wife without her consent in Talmudic times, there was no need for the Sages to abrogate the man's marriage (kiddushin) when done against his will. Even if he was forced into consecrating the woman, he could end their relationship at will. With regard to the woman, by contrast, since she cannot initiate a divorce, the Sages abrogated the marriage bond when she was compelled to establish it against her will. Although the imbalance in the man's rights versus the woman's rights is mitigated by the methods of their marriage, men may be married against their will and women may not, once however they have entered into a relationship, the imbalance is profound: a man must initiate the divorce and he cannot be forced to accept against his will, whereas a woman may be issued a bill of divorce even against her will to accept.



Limited rights


While the above is correct that a husband may divorce against her will in Talmudic times, it is not so clear under what circumstances he may divorce. The Torah writes in Deuteronomy (24:1):  "When he finds evidence of sexual misconduct....". Maimonides articulates this law in Mishneh Torah laws of divorce (ch. 10:21):


"A man should not divorce his first wife unless he discovers an incident of sexual misconduct, as [Deuteronomy 24:1] states: "When he finds evidence of sexual misconduct...." One should not hurry to divorce one's first wife. With regard to a second wife, by contrast, if one hates her, one may send her away."


This ruling that one may only divorce in a case of sexual misconduct is based on the opinion of the School of Shammai in Judaism's first major canonical document in Jewish law, Mishnah (end of tractate Gittin). The School of Hillel differs and maintains that if a woman wrongs her husband, even with regard to as insignificant a matter as burning his meal, he may divorce her. Rabbi Akiva goes even further and maintains that even if a person finds a more attractive woman, he may divorce his wife.


This argument is based on a debate how to interpret the Biblical term "When he finds evidence of sexual misconduct".  The Biblical verse states (Deut. 24:1): "When a man takes a wife and is intimate with her, and it happens that she does not find favour in his eyes because he discovers in her an unseemly [moral] matter, and he writes for her a bill of divorce and places it into her hand, and sends her away from his house". The School of Hillel maintains that the Torah is offering two separate possibilities, moral or any other matter of misconduct, whereas the School of Shammai reads them as one, immoral matter of misconduct. Rabbi Akiva on the other hand reads the opening of the verse as an independent cause for divorce "she does not find favour in his eyes". 


Maimonides is therefore following the opinion of the School of Shammai that one may divorce only in the case of sexual misconduct. The commentaries point out there is somewhat of a difficulty with a version of Maimonides' ruling found in the work of Rabbi Ya'akov ben Asher (1269-1340), Arba Turim laws of divorce. The opinion in his version states, "one should not be hasty to divorce one's first wife. If there is hatred, one may divorce." This appears to follow the School of Hillel's view that there need not be sexual misconduct. 


The Beth Yosef commentary by the great Jewish legalist Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575) on the work of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, author of Arba Turim, clarifies that there is a word missing in his version of Maimonides and there should be the word "second marriage" inserted. This clarifies that the difference of opinion between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel applies only with regard to a second marriage. With regard to a first marriage, by contrast, even the School of Hillel accepts the School of Shammai's stringency (Beit Yosef, Even HaEzer 119) that one may only divorce in a case of sexual misconduct. This is the version that is in fact found in modern printings that one may not divorce one's first wife unless there is sexual misconduct. This view would somewhat mitigate the imbalance against women, as a man cannot just divorce a woman at will, as a woman can't divorce a man at will.


Law or recommendation?


There is a debate however amongst the Halachists whether this is meant to be an ideal or law that cannot be abrogated. If there is no sexual misconduct in the first marriage but the husband issues a divorce, is the divorce valid or would he have to return to the marriage against his will? The unanimous opinion in Jewish law is that if the divorce of the first marriage is issued for reasons other than sexual misconduct, the divorce is upheld and valid and he may also remarry. The rationale for this is found in the Talmud (tractate Gittin 90a):


"Rav Papa said to Rava: According to School of Hillel, if a man found in his wife neither adultery nor an offensive matter but divorced her anyway, what is the law? Do we force the husband to remarry? Rave told him: Since the Merciful One revealed the following law regarding one who rapes a virgin naarah (Deuteronomy 22:28-29): "If a man finds a virgin girl who was not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, the man who lay with her shall give fifty [shekels of] silver to the girl's father, and she shall become his wife, because he violated her. He shall not send her away all the days of his life", which is interpreted to mean that for all his days he remains in the status of 'arise and remarry' her if he divorces here, we may conclude it is there, in the case of the rapist, that the Merciful One revealed an obligation to remarry a wife who was illegally divorced. But here, where the Torah does not mention that a husband is required to remarry his wife after an unauthorised divorce, what he has done he has done; i.e. he has violated the law but need not remarry his wife."


The above Talmudic discussion implies that if a person divorces for an illegitimate reason they cannot be forced to stay married and he needn’t remarry his wife. However, it does not necessarily rule out that it is possible for a divorce to be illegal in the first place. Most Jewish legal opinions would say that the injunction of the School of Shammai that there needs to be sexual misconduct to authorise divorce, which is, as mentioned above, also the view of the School of Hillel in the first marriage, is merely 'best advice' but not a legal injunction. Accordingly, one would not be violating the Torah if one were to divorce for reasons other than sexual misconduct.


This is the view of one of the most prominent Halachic authorities of the 17th century in Turkey Rabbi Chaim Benveniste (1603–1673), author of Kenesset HaGedola, who states (Yoreh Deah ch. 239) that there is no Biblical or Rabbinical warning against divorce and it is only a 'good advice' that the rabbis intended to offer that one should divorce only for moral misconduct. This is also the view in Ashkenazic Jewry, as espoused by one of the greatest Talmudists of his time Rabbi Jacob Joshua Falk (1680 - 1756), who was a Polish and German rabbi and Talmudist, author of commentary and novellae on the Talmud, Pene Yehoshua.


Rabbi Joseph Karo, the author of the code of Jewish law, Shulchan Aruch, is ambiguous and his view is subject to dispute. He writes (Even Haezer 119:3): "One should not divorce one's first wife unless there is moral misconduct. And it is not befitting to be hasty to divorce one's first wife. However, one's second wife, if there is hatred he may divorce her". In the opening it implies one should not divorce for any other reason other than moral misconduct, but then states it is only unbefitting but not prohibited. Polish rabbi and Talmudist of Woydyslaw in the second half of the 17th century, Rabbi Samuel ben Uri Shraga Phoebus, known by his Jewish legal commentary Beit Shmuel, explains that Rabbi Joseph Karo follows School of Hillel that in fact one may divorce for moral matters or other matters. He would read the word or into the statement similar to the Talmudic argument above. There is no prohibition to divorce for reasons other than moral, though it is not befitting with one's first wife to do so. It is indeed best advice than one should not act in haste.


Rabbi Moshe Meisels (1605-1658), known by the name of his Halachic commentary Chelkas Mechokek, takes the view that Rabbi Joseph Karo has the view that it is in fact prohibited to divorce against her will for reasons other than moral matters. However, even if she consents, one must conduct due diligence and not act in haste. The commentary Pitchei Teshuvah, authored by Rabbi Yisroel Yisser Isserlin (1390-1460) qualifies the opinion of the Chelkas Mechokek and says that if the wife requests a divorce for whatever reason, it is certainly permitted to divorce and there would be no prohibition.


The above views of Rabbi Chaim Benveniste and Rabbi Jacob Joshua Falk seem to mediate between the two views of the Chelkas Mechokek and Beis Shmuel. They follow the more stringent opinion of the School of Shammai that one needs moral turpitude to divorce but on the other hand opines that it is only best advice for one to divorce in only such circumstances but not a legal injunction. One may divorce according to Jewish law for reasons of offence.


Prohibition to divorce for no good reason


A remaining question is regarding whether the Torah allows for divorce for no suitable reason at all. Would the Torah force with all the power it has for the husband not to go through with the divorce? The Turei Zahav (Eveh Haezer 119:6) argues that the above Talmudic quotation about rape in fact reflects a prohibition to divorce at will, for no suitable reason, and the court would enforce this prohibition and do everything that is within its power to withhold him from issuing a divorce, including perhaps excommunication. This is implied in the statement of the Talmud "But here, where the Torah does not mention that a husband is required to remarry his wife after an unauthorised divorce, what he has done he has done; i.e. he has violated the law but need not remarry his wife." The Torah cannot force a remarriage but does consider the divorce a violation of the law. Thus we see three degrees: moral turpitude are grounds for divorce but needs caution; offence or hate are grounds in second marriage but not sufficient in first marriage, though cannot be enforced to withhold divorce; divorce for no good reason is prohibited but need not remarry if carried out and he may marry another woman.


Based on the above, one can detect a concern within Jewish law that measures need to be put in place to protect the rights of women in marriage. Despite the ability for the man to divorce without her consent, there needs to be valid grounds for divorce. The argument is whether there needs to be moral turpitude, or hatred and offence is sufficient, though this is cautioned against. According to all the above however there is a principle that a man may divorce his wife without her consent, and she does not have within her power to block any divorce, not even an unauthorised one. This is a remaining imbalance in the Jewish divorce law up until 11th century.


Rabbi Gershom, Light of the Exile


Rabbi Gershom ben Judah (circa 960 -1040?), commonly known by the title Rabeinu Gershom Me'Or Hagolah (light of the exile), was a famous Talmudist and Halachist, born in Metz, France. The great Biblical and Talmudic commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi of Troyes (d. 1105), said less than a century after Rabbi Gershom's death, "all members of the Ashkenazi Diaspora are students of his." As early as the 14th century Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel wrote that Rabbi Gershom's writings were "such permanent fixtures that they may well have been handed down on Mount Sinai." He is most famous for the synod he called around 1000 CE, in which he instituted various laws and bans, including the prohibition of polygamy (until the end of fifth millennium (1240 CE) according to some opinions; The prohibition of divorcing a woman against her will; The modification of the rules concerning those who became apostates under compulsion; The prohibition of reading another person's private mail.


The relevant institution to our discussion about David of Oxford is that Rabeinu Gershom, one of the Sages who laid the foundations for Ashkenazi custom and tradition, ordained that, except in several unique instances, a man cannot divorce his wife without her consent. This practice is followed universally within the Ashkenazi community (Ramah, Even HaEzer 119:6) and has been accepted by many Sephardim as well.


I would argue that David of Oxford was not a recalcitrant Jew who preferred not to listen to the sages and asked the king to support him against the rabbis, as Cecil Roth portrays him, but rather entered into a genuine debate between the sages of the time within the framework of Halacha, and the assistance of the king was intrinsic to the debate itself (marking the relevance of England as the place for this discussion), rather than an act of support for a rebellion against the medieval rabbis.


The rationale behind Rabbeinu Gershon's ban


The rationale behind Rabeinu Gershon's ban against divorce without consent of the wife was due to the fact that the Talmudic model, as outlined above, was no longer working. In Talmudic times women were not divorced unless there were valid grounds, most times only for the reasons of sexual misconduct. Indeed it was prohibited or cautioned against to divorce for other reasons.


In the 11th century there seemed to have been a problem that husbands were issuing a divorce for even lesser reasons that sexual misconduct or for no valid reason at all, against the will of the wife, and there was no structures in place to prevent this in protection of the woman (Responsa Rashb'a vol 2 p. 230). Another reason given is that men were throwing their wives divorces against their will and women were being denigrated. To allow for a sense of equality between the woman and the man in marriage, Rabeinu Gershom instituted that just as the man cannot be divorced against his will so too the woman needs to consent before she can be divorced.


The questions that arise about the ban against divorce without consent of the wife are how far geographically did the ban spread, what was its time limit, if any, and whether there were exceptions to the ban allowing certain scenarios for a man to divorce his wife even without her consent? These questions are directly relevant to the story of David of Oxford. He had married Muriel but had no children and desired to divorce her for no other valid reason. She refused to accept the divorce. Would the ban of Rabeinu Gershom made in France in 11th century apply itself to David Oxford in 1240 in England in a case where he desired to have children?  


Time and place of the ban


Some argue that the ban not to marry more than one wife was made only until 1240. The Beis Shmuel (115:7) states that this time limit also exists regarding the ban against involuntary divorce. Others argue that only the ban not to marry multiple wives was limited but involuntary divorce was open ended and some say that either the ban was renewed by German rabbis after 1240 or since it was widespread it constitutes a permanent ban.


The ban against forced divorce was generally accepted in France, Germany and Poland but not all the cities and provinces accepted it. According to Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, known by his acronym as the Rashba (Responsa Vol. 3 ch. 486), it did not even spread in Provence that became part of France in 1486. Prior to that date, it was an independent entity and the Jewish population did not uphold the ban of Rabeinu Gershom. Certainly, in Spain and Middle Eastern countries the bans were not accepted - Sephardim did not accept the bans of Rabeinu Gershom - as indicated in the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides that does not mention them.


It is interesting therefore for our discussion to ask whether the ban spread to England in medieval times. While the scholars of England, the Tosafists, were clearly under the influence and in correspondence with the academies in France, it would not necessarily be the case that they had the power to transfer the ban across the English Channel, similar to the fact that the ban did not arrive in Provence on the borders with France. It emerges from the above a number of possibilities relating to the story of David of Oxford. It's possible to suggest that the ban against involuntary divorce, as against polygamy, was only valid until 1240.


It would make sense then why the pursuit for a divorce by David only took place in 1242, as he would have possibly waited until 1240 to initiate the process with the rabbis to divorce Muriel, since it was widely known that the ban would have initially been valid only until that date, allowing him after that date to either marry a second wife, or to force Muriel to accept a divorce, so he can remarry. According to this narrative, the consultation between the rabbis of Oxford and the sages of France would have been to determine whether the ban continued after 1240. It would appear then that they responded to the affirmative and thus limited David to his options to remarry.


Another possible narrative is that this story may have presented a challenge for the first time in England whether the ban was relevant all together in England. Although the sages of France accepted it, it does not necessarily follow that England was subject to the bans of Rabbi Gershom. This possible narrative would make the fact that the king issued a letter prohibiting chapters of justice of the Jews to open in England particularly interesting. This would have effectively withheld any possibility of the rabbis of England to declare legally that the ban that may have been extended in France is to continue to be applied in England or to declare the very fact that the ban is relevant in England in the first place. As this would have been possibly the first time a question on the subject of involuntary divorce was being posed in England in such a context, there was evidently no precedent whereby the ban that had aready be accepted in France was legally valid in England thus influencing a case like that of David of Oxford. Accordingly, David was not rebelling against the rabbis by going to the king but rather by allowing the king to determine this debate about the application of the ban in England in the 13th century he was enabling his actions – divorcing against Murriel’s will - to be within the framework of Halacha.


Exceptions to the ban


A final consideration in support of David of Oxford is the debate that exists in Jewish law concerning exceptions to the ban of Rabeinu Gershom. Does the ban against involuntary divorce apply in a case when the father desires offspring? Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, known as the Rashba, writes in his responsa (vol. 3 ch. 446) to someone who was married for ten years without children, and posed the question whether he may divorce without her consent. He responded that Rabeinu Gershom did not have this in mind when he issued the ban. Rabbi Yehudah Mintz (1408-1508), the most prominent Italian rabbi of his time, known by the name of his responsa Mahari Mintz, however writes in his responsa (ch. 10) that it is expressly prohibited to divorce against her consent even in the case to have children.


To complicate the narrative of Cecil Roth further, in relation to this point, Rabbi Joseph ibn Habib, a Spanish Talmudist who flourished in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, author of "Nimmuke Yosef," published with the text and the commentary of R. Nissim (Constantinople, 1509) covering the entire Halachot (laws) of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (1013 - 1103), writes (Yevamot 64:1) that the Rabbis of France agreed with the opinion of the Rashba that the ban of Rabeinu Gershom was not meant to cover a childless couple.


 If this is the case, then either the story of David of Oxford challenges this opinion and indicates that the French Rabbis in fact ruled that he was not allowed to divorce against her will even though they were childless or the case was more complex than what we are aware of. In any event, based on the facts we know and the informed knowledge of Jewish law on the subject, based on all of the above, one can hardly say that David of Oxford acted against Jewish law. According to the above, he was within his right to divorce according to Jewish law for at least two valid reasons, either he established the fact that the ban had not applied to England, or that the ban was not relevant to his case.


If the latter was the main issue of the debate, it is possible that the Rabbis of England merely advised that he should respect the dignity of Muriel not to divorce even though he was technically within his legal rights according to Jewish law to do so. The king’s letter would have then supported the course of action David wanted to follow against the recommendation of the rabbis but this would be a far call from calling him a recalcitrant person when Jewish law indeed supports him in the predicament that he found himself in.


Asher of Winchester


In 1244, David passed away and Licoricia, and their son, Asher, moved back to Winchester, where she become one of the most successful women financiers in England and a regular at the court of Henry III. Tragically, Licoricia was murdered together with her Christian maid in 1277 and a statue of her has been erected in Winchester to commemorate her life. While we know much about the life of David of Oxford, and his second wife, Licoricia of Winchester, little is known about their son, Asher, besides the fact that he appears to have been arrested along with the entire Jewry of England in 1287, to force them to pay a large tallage by Edward I. I would like to present the details of what we know about Asher in the castle in 1287, and suggest that we may derive from this small fragment of knowledge, that Asher was a person of much knowledge and may have been considered a leader in his community in Winchester before the expulsion.


The fragment that exists about Asher is from an etching in the wall of the castle that was extant until 1618. It read: ‘The sixth day of Emor were imprisoned all the Jews of the land of the isle, in the year 47 of the 6th millennium, I Asher inscribed this.’[6]


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The date this corresponds to a Friday, shortly after Passover in the year 1287CE, when the Torah reading of the portion of Emor, from Leviticus 21:1 - 24:23, was read in the synagogue on the Shabbat morning, as well as the first section of which was read during the week, on Monday and Thursday. The reason for engraving this in the wall of the castle may have been for no other reason than to etch into history for posterity the injustice of the mass incarceration of an entire ethnic and faith group in England in 1287 under the rule of Edward I, and the presence of Asher, son of David and Licoricia, amongst them, at Winchester castle. This would have been an act of protest – the least one can do in such a scenario, for a prisoner to engrave a message of protest on the prison wall, which would remain for centuries afterwards.


The subtlety of the protest may also have to do with the context of the reading of the Torah portion of Emor, where it states in Leviticus 24:17-22:


If any party kills any human being, that person shall be put to death. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it: life for life. If any party maims another [person]: what was done shall be done in return—fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury inflicted on a human being shall be inflicted in return. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I am your G-d.


With the vulnerability and torture and massacres of the Jewish community in medieval England, this would have been pertinent. The question we would like to pose it: if Asher’s engraving was just a matter of protest, why in this formulation: day of the week, Torah reading, and year - and not the usual way that a date would have been written, as found on a Ketubah, for example, throughout the ages: day of the week, day of the month and year.


I would like to suggest two further possible motives for this engraving consisting of both, the day of the week and the weekly Torah portion, when the incarceration took place. This may be understood through an interesting subject in Jewish law regarding a person found in a particular place, where confusion may arise as to what day of the week it is, and also what the weekly Torah portion may be. We will explore first the subject regarding losing count of the to give context to what Asher may have intended. There are three scenarios whereby a person may forget time with impact on Jewish practise relating to the Shabbat:


1. Forget day of departure and number of days since departure

2. Forget day of departure but knows number of days since departure

3. Forget which Parsha of the week


Forget day of departure and number of days since departure


In the Talmud, tractate Shabbat (69b), it states: ‘Rav Huna said: One who was walking along the way or in the desert, and he does not know when Shabbat occurs, he counts six days from the day that he realized that he lost track of Shabbat and then observes one day as Shabbat.




On each and every day he makes enough food to sustain himself for that day, including on that day that he designated as Shabbat. And how is that day which he designated as Shabbat distinguishable from the rest? It is distinguishable by means of the kiddush and the havdala that he recites on that day.


Forget day of departure but knows number of days since departure


The Talmud discusses a case whereby a person may have forgotten the day of departure but knows number of days since departure. The Talmud states:


Rava said: If he had partial knowledge of the day on which he left, i.e., he does not recall what day of the week it was but he does recall the number of days that passed since he left, every week he can perform labor throughout the day of his departure, since he certainly did not leave his house on Shabbat.


The Talmud asks: That is obvious, and what novel element was introduced here? The Talmud answers: Lest you say, since he did not leave on Shabbat, he also did not leave on Friday, and this person, even if he left on Thursday, should be permitted to perform labor for two days, the eighth day and the ninth day from his departure, the same day of the week that he left and the following day. Therefore, Rava teaches us that at times one finds a convoy and happens to leave on a journey even on Friday. Therefore, he is not permitted to perform labor on the day of the week following the day of his departure.


Winchester castle - knows day of departure and count of days


Accordingly, it’s possible that by the Jews of Winchester recording the name of the week they arrived in the castle, they were able to count and record the number of days they were held in the castle and were able to track by themselves when Shabbat is. As known from incarcerations of individuals and entire communities, this may have been for weeks, months or years at a time.


Not knowing the Parsha of the week


Judah ben Barzillai (b. 1070) in his legal work, Sefer ha—Itim[7] cites the opinion of Rav Sa-adiah Gaon (882-942) that in such a case one should read the portion about the Manna in the Book of Exodus.[8]


A reason for the reading about the Manna is because the blessing for the Manna happened on Shabbat. It states in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12): ‘For in six days, G-d made heaven and earth and sea—and all that is in them—and then rested on the seventh day; therefore G-d blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.’ The Midrash Mechilta deRabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Exodus (20:11) states: ‘G-d blessed and sanctified the sabbath day through the manna.’ The blessing consists onf the fact that each day of the week an omer measure of the manna was provided for a person (Exodus 16:16), while ‘on the sixth day (Friday) they gathered double the amount of food, two omers for each’ (Exodus 16:22), since ‘tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy sabbath of G-d.’


The connection with Shabbat is that the essential feature of the manna that ‘fell from heaven’ is the absence of the involvement of man. On Shabbat, this precludes even going out to gather the manna, reflecting the manna is its most transcendent form. Shabbat is similarly described in the Midrash Mechilta deRabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Exodus (20:9) as a day, whereby all one’s work has been completed.[9]


For the above reasons, which Asher would have been aware of, he made sure to record in the castle the day of arrival and the weekly Torah portion, when they arrived. With such a record, all they had to do was to keep count of the number of the days they resided in the castle and they could know without outside assistance when Shabbat occurs and the particular Torah reading. If this was indeed the considerations, whether primary or secondary, this implies, firstly, the devotion of the Jewish community in Winchester to make sure they knew when Shabbat occurs, so that they would not violate the Shabbat, and to know the Torah reading of the week, so that they may follow the custom to read the Torah portion of the week, despite very difficult and impoverished conditions. Finally, it indicates the role of Asher, as a leader of the Jewish community, being the one to make this record available.



[1] Jews of Oxford, Cecil Roth, 1941.

[2] C.R. 1242 p. 464.

[3] Yevamot 112a; Gittin 49a.

[4] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Marriage 4:1.

[5] Bava Batra 48b.

[6] Hillaby and Sermon 2007: 105.

[7] Sefer Ha-Itim, hilchot birchat ve-oneg Shabbat end of ch. 184. See Likkutei Sichot 16:173.

[8] An interesting connection with the Torah reading of Emor is that the laws of Shabbat the festivals are mentioned, including the verses (Leviticus 23:1-3): ‘On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion. You shall do no work; it shall be a sabbath of G-d throughout your settlements.’

[9] Likkutei Sichot 16:173-182.



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