Rabbi Yom Tov of York: A Yom Kippur liturgical poet, legalist and martyr

Tuesday, 19 September, 2017 - 7:34 pm

Rabbi Yom Tov of York is the author of one of the liturgical poems (piyutim) recited during the Yom Kippur evening service – the only High Holiday prayer to have as its author an English medieval rabbi. The Piyut reads as follows:


It is indeed true that passion rules us; So it is for You to justify, O abundantly just and to answer us, ‘I have forgiven!’


Abominate the slanderer (Satan), and invalidate his testimony, O Beloved, Who roars loudly, may He grant us the sound of His word, ‘I have forgiven!’  


Silence the Accuser, and let the Defender replace him, And may G-d be his support, so that He may say, ‘I have forgiven!’


Let the merit of the easterner blossom for rose-like (Israel), Remove sin, and sound powerfully from the heavenly abode, ‘I have forgiven!’


O Good and Forgiving One, pardon and forgive guilty ones, Listen, O G-d, and respond from the heights, ‘I have forgiven!’


Bandage my wound and submerge my iniquity in the depths. Yours is the praise, when You say the word for my sake, ‘I have forgiven!’


Wipe away the rebelliousness and also the wickedness, of the members of the covenant. Employ Your kindness – for such is Your glory to the (Jewish) remnant: ‘I have forgiven!’


Heed my inner prayer and favour my whispered entreaty. O Forgiver of iniquity, act for Your sake and articulate, ‘I have forgiven!’


Note our embarrassment and reckon it as retribution for iniquity, Remove sin’s stench and announce to those who trust in You, ‘I have forgiven!’


Hear my voice and see the tear of my eye, Take up my grievance, attend to my words and answer me, ‘I have forgiven!’


Cleanse filth like a fleeting cloud as it is said, You will wipe way the wilful sin of a delivered people, and You will say, ‘I have forgiven!’

In this essay, I will explore the life and teaching of this illustrious author and rabbi through his contributions to the liturgy of the Hebrew prayer book, and his legal contribution as codified in the code of Jewish law (Shulchan Aruch). Uniquely for England, his contribution in these two areas has relevance until today: a liturgical poem (piyut) recited by Ashkenazim on the eve of Yom Kippur and a subject in Jewish law related to kindling a fire on the Shabbat that is accepted by both Ashkenazic and Sephardic custom. Based on an analysis of the life and teaching of this great rabbi, I will present the case that Tosafists living in England, in addition to being great scholars in their own right, had an additional role, serving as teachers of the Torah to far-flung communities inspiring them in Torah study, faith, as well as caring for their physical well-being during a difficult period in Jewish history.




Yom Tov was originally from Joigny, Southern France and was one of the great French Tosafists.[1] His father Isaac,[2] was also his teacher.[3] Yom Tov had a son called Harav Rabeinu Yehudah ben Rav Rabeinu Yom Tov.[4] Yom Tov was a disciple of Rabbi Jacob Tam (1100-1171) and served as his intermediary with the leaders of the Paris community.[5] He was also a student of Rabbi Isaac ben Abraham, known as the Ritzba (d. 1210), older brother of Rabbi Samson of Sens. Yom Tov’s contribution to the Tosafot commentary on the Talmud is evident from his comments in at least four places in three tractates.[6]


At some point before 1190 Yom Tov moved to York in England,[7] where he served as the rabbi of the community. According to 12th century historian, William of Newbury, Yom Tov was merely visiting the Jewish community of York at that time but did not permanently live in York. In any event, his presence amongst the Jewish community of York at the end of the 12th century is evident from his part in the inspiration of the martyrdom in the massacre of York in 1190. He is mentioned in this context in both Jewish and non Jewish sources,[8] including Ephraim of Bonn’s account of the massacre in his Sefer Hazechira (Book of Remembrance);[9] Joseph ben Asher of Chartres’s elegy about the massacre, recited on the Fast of Av (Tisha B’Av); [10] and in History of English Affairs by William of Newbury, [11] who lived six years after the massacres.[12] The massacre included around 150 Jews, men women and children, who chose to surrender their lives at their own hand rather than fall to the waiting mob to be killed or forced to convert to Christianity. Yom Tov is therefore named in some places ‘Hakadosh’ the holy, a name given to other martyrs during the crusade period.


Jews of York: A brief history


To give a context for the presence of Yom Tov of Joigny in York, either permanent or on an extended visit to this isolated community in the north of England, I will give a brief overview of the early history of the Jews of York. The first Jews to be mentioned in records in relation to York appear in 1168-70 regarding Samson Iudeus owing the crown 5 marks.[13] The significance of the Jewish community of York is connected to Aaron of Lincoln who appears as an important royal creditor from 1166 until his passing in 1186. An economic active Jewry appears to be present in York only in the 1170s.  Around 1175 Jews began to own land.[14] The leader of the Jewish community of York, Josce of York, at the time of the massacre in 1190, is first mentioned in 1176 in a bond of Aaron of Lincoln.[15] In 1176-77 Josce of York is mentioned as a moneylender to the crown, himself, receiving payments from the Sheriffs of Yorkshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.[16] He was a considerably wealthy person as indicated by the description of his house ‘rivalling a noble citadel in the scale and stoutness of its construction, which so caught the attention of his Christian neighbours.’[17] Another leader of the community was Benedict of York, who appears to have been also a money-lender and wealthier than Josce of York. Benedict and Josce worked closely together in their business activities.[18] Benedict and Josce, as well as six other York Jews, are documented as having owed money to Aaron of Lincoln. Dobson points out that their owing money to Aaron of Lincoln should not be viewed as a sign of poverty but was due to their successful business enterprises. Summarising the nature of the Jewish community of York, R. B. Dobson writes that it was ‘a community dominated by a small and closely integrated elite of money lenders and dealers in bonds’ thus explaining for the subject of our essay how it developed into an important centre for Jewish studies[19] headed by some of the greatest Tosafists from France, Rabbi Yom Tov of Joigny and Rabbi Elijah of York, mentioned twice in the Tosafot, [20] both of whom were killed in the massacre of 1190. As a wealthy community it had the ability to invite the leading French Tosafist Yom Tov, who is described by William of Newburgh as the ‘famous doctor of the law who is said to have come from parts beyond the sea to teach the English Jews. This man was held in honour among them all, and was obeyed by all, as if he had been one of the prophets.’[21] Other scholar residents included Moses ben Sarah, and Joseph (Josce) of York and Asher.[22] According to a manuscript at the Bodleian Library discovered by modern Jewish historian Sir Cecil Roth, Elijah of York was the uncle of the great rabbinic figure of 13th century England, Moses of Oxford, a descendant of the great liturgical 11th century poet Shimon ben Isaac.[23]


If Rabbi Yom Tov was living in York at the time, rather than merely visiting, we don’t know exactly when he arrived but as the community only appears as active from 1176, it most likely would have been at some point between 1176 and the end of Henry II’s reign in 1189. According to Ephraim of Bonn (1132-1200) at the time of the massacre in 1190, there were 150 members of the community, including men, women and children, representing possibly around 30 households. Tragically, the community came to an end in 1190 with the massacre on Shabbat Hagadol, 16 March.


Yom Kippur Piyut


As Yom Tov dedicated his life to helping the Jewish community of York he also invested much effort in making the prayers more inspiring and compassionate to the plight of the Jewish people of his times by authoring liturgical poems including one for the Yom Kippur evening service. He is particularly known for the piyut found in most Ashkenazic machzorim (prayer books for the High Holidays), known as amnom ken. There are seven piyutim or specially composed prayers in the evening service of Yom Kippur.[24] Out of the seven liturgical pieces four are classical piyutim. It is interesting that out of the four piyutim, only two have known authors, one of which is the piyut by Yom Tov of York.[25]


This piyut by Yom Tov may be found in all modern day Ashkenaz machzorim, though it is not found in some of the older ones. The Ashkenaz machzor of Prague 1613, German machzor of 1730 (ווילהרמרש דארף) and Ashkenaz machzor Mateh Levi Yalkut Zvi of Vilna 1912 all have the piyut in, but the Amsterdam machzor of 1721 according to the German-Polish rite translated into Yiddish[26] does not contain the piyut.[27] In the Bodleian Library there appear to be only two machzorim manuscripts with the piyut, one undated manuscript from the David Oppenheimer collection with the piyut in the main text (MS. Neub. 1026).[28] This manuscript must be earlier than 1736, as it comes from the collection of David Oppenheimer who passed away in that year and whose collection was sold to the Bodleian Library in 1829. Another Ashkenaz manuscript machzor with the piyut is dated around 1626 with it added in the margin (MS. Neub. 1028).[29] This reflects the possibility that the piyut was initially accepted by some communities but not by others. Eventually, however, for a reason that is unknown, the piyut became accepted and integrated into all Ashkenaz machzorim as can be found today.




A brief overview of the history of the piyutim will demonstrate the context of this piyut that has made its way into the modern day Ashkenaz machzor. The date of origin of the development of the piyutim is a matter of dispute. Yitzchak Moshe Elbogen writes[30] that the close of the prayer book as a fixed liturgy took place around 550, following which began the period of the piyut. 19th century German historian of Jewish literature Leopold Zunz maintains the period of the piyut started around 7-8th century during the time of the Gaonim. Some say it dates back earlier and one cannot delineate a period when the prayer book closes and the piyut begins. Some say it goes back as early as the time of the compilation of the Talmud and Midrash. Nevertheless, the process of the piyut may be structured in three stages: liturgical pieces (kerovot and yotzrot) that were added to the prayer book around the 5th-6th century that had similarities to piyutim. One such similarity is the use of the acrostic consisting of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.[31] This was followed by the period of the distinct style of the piyut around the 7th-8th century. A reason why the piyut began to be introduced in the synagogue liturgy is due to a ban on using Hebrew liturgy in the synagogue during the Byzantine period. As a substitute, the piyutim were introduced. When the ban was lifted the piyutim remained and continued to grow.[32]


The period of the piyutim lasted from the 6th-7th century until the 16th century. The first period began in Israel after the destruction of the Temple and lasted until around 750. The great paytanim included Yosi ben Yosi, Yanai, Eliezer Hakalir and Saadia Gaon. The authorship of piyutim then moved to Babylonia and Europe and lasted until 1250, at which time the numerous composers of the piyutim aimed to copy the style of Rabbi Eliezer Hakalir. One of the great paytanim of Mainz of the 11th century is Shimon ben Isaac the Great, ancestor of Moses of Oxford. Other great paytanim during this period in Germany include members of the Kalonimus family of the 11th century: Moses ben Kalonimus and Meshulum ben Kalonimus, some of which were written during the Massacres in Mayence in 1096. Another poet of the Kalonimus family was Elazar ben Judah ben Kalonimus of Worms (b. 1176).[33] Additional famous paytanim of Worms included the Chazan of the synagogue where Rashi prayed, Meir ben Isaac Shliach Tzibbur[34] and student of Rashi, Shamaya ben Elia of the 12th century.


The third category of paytanim are from Spain and as they are influenced by Arab poets have a different style than the Ashkenaz paytanim.[35] Famous Spanish paytanim of the 11th century include Yehuda Halevi and Ibn Gabriol.




The distinct style of the Ashkenazic piyut has been identified as including the following features:  strophic form with either a verse repeating itself or a chorus, the use of rhymes, artificially created expressions to fit in with the particular piyut, and a close connection to the Midrash.[36] Other features include alliteration, refrains and acrostics. Acrostics may be single, double or triple as well as inverted, and acrostics spelling the author’s name.


Based on the above survey, the eve of Yom Kippur piyut by Yom Tov of York was part of the second period of paytanim in the Ashkenazic tradition, and structured on the basis of the style of Eliezer Hakalir. It has strophic form with the single word ‘salachti’ repeating itself in each stanza. It is also written as an acrostic in the form of the Hebrew alphabet, and according to some versions also contains the author’s name.



PiyutAmnam kein



The background of the piyut is based on the response of G-d to Moses’ entreaty begging forgiveness for the Jewish people following the sin of the spies, to which G-d responded: ‘And the Lord said, I have forgiven them (salachti) in accordance with your word’.[37]


Six interpretations of sochen


It is uncertain when the piyut was written, whether before or after Yom Tov arrived in England. According to historian Colin Shindler, the words ‘pnei l’elbon mkom avon l’hasim’ (note our embarrassment and reckon it as retribution for iniquity) refers to the deteriorating situation for the Jews in England at the end of the 1180s. I would like to argue that the unique wording in the first stanza may also give an indication to the times Yom Tov lived. The word that commentaries struggle with in this piyut is sochen in the first stanza. The standard translation is: ‘It is indeed true that passion rules (sochen) us; So it is for You to justify, O abundantly just and to answer us, ‘I have forgiven!’’ According to this translation, the word sochen means rules, thus seeking justification and forgiveness from G-d for man’s sin.


To understand accurately what Yom Tov of York had in mind with this piyut I’ll present a survey of how this word is used throughout the Tanach highlighted by its various commentaries. There are a number of possible meanings to the word sochen in Hebrew, many of which may equally be the context to the meaning of this word in the piyut. The following six verses contain the word sochen in various forms:


1. In Exodus it states: ‘So they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens, and they built store cities (miskenut) for Pharaoh, namely Pithom and Raamses.’ Aramaic translator Onkelos and Rashi translate the word miskenut as store cities. The Tosafists however follow the Talmudic interpretation that the root of the word is ‘impoverishment’ (misken) or ‘danger’ (sakana). The meaning of the verse according to the Talmud and Tosafists is that the cities endangered their owners (the Egyptians drowned in the sea) or became impoverished (the Egyptians lost their wealth at the Exodus).[38] 


2. In Deuteronomy it states: ‘A land in which you will eat bread without scarcity (b’miskenut), you will lack nothing in it, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose mountains you will hew copper.’[39]


3. In Kings it states: ‘And his servants said to him, "Let them seek for my lord the king a young girl, a virgin, and she shall stand before the king, and she shall be to him a warmer (sochenet), and she shall lie in your lap, and it shall be warm for my lord the king." And they sought a beautiful young girl throughout the borders of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunemitess and brought her to the king. And the young girl was very beautiful, and she was a warmer (sochenet) to the king, and she ministered to him, but the king did not know her.’[40]


4. In Isaiah it states: ‘So said the Lord God of Hosts: Go, come to this treasurer (sochen), to Shebna, who is appointed over the Temple.’[41] In this verse David Kimchi and Ibn Ezra translates sochen as treasurer, as he was in charge of the royal treasuries under Hezekiah. Rashi follows the Talmudic commentary[42] on this passage that translates sochen in this verse as warmer and pleasure seeker. The verse is therefore suggesting that Shebna was a pleasure seeker.[43] A further interpretation is that Shebna was from a Northern Galilean town called Siknin.[44]


5. In Ecclesiastes it states: ‘One who quarries stones shall be wearied by them; one who hews wood shall be warmed (yisken) by it.’[45]


6. Further in Ecclesiastes it states: ‘Better a poor (misken) and wise child than an old and foolish king, who no longer knows to receive admonition.[46] And there was found therein a poor (misken) wise man, and he extricated the city through his wisdom, but no man remembered that poor man.’[47]


The commentary to the piyut amnam ken in the Ashkenaz machzor of Prague 1613 comments that the meaning of the word sochen in the piyut is that the evil inclination is an officer (p’kod) and treasurer (gizber) inside us. In the Ashkenaz machzor Mateh Levi Yalkut Zvi of Vilna 1912 it translates the word sochen as just treasurer (gizber). This commentary follows David Kimchi and Ibn Ezra that the word sochen means a treasurer similar to Shebna who served as treasurer in charge of the royal treasuries under Hezekiah. In this context the intention of this stanza is to suggest that the evil inclination indeed rules us and therefore we beseech G-d for His forgiveness.[48]


If one would adopt some of the other interpretations of the word sochen, the implication of the piyut would be that the justification for our sins is because a. the evil inclination warms us towards sin, or b. the evil inclination causes us to have a propensity to be pleasure seekers.[49]


I would like to however argue that the choice of the word sochen in the opening stanza of the piyut with its multiple meanings is meant to also give us insight into the period the piyut was written. As mentioned, the Tosafists interpret the use of the word miskenut in the passage in Exodus following the Talmud – impoverishment (misken) and danger (sakana). As a fellow Tosafists Yom Tov of York may have been indicating that the reason for sin during the second half of the 12th century, when many Jews were forced to die as martyrs or convert to Christianity, was the mortal danger of his tie to live as a Jew coupled with destitution due to limitations imposed upon them by their Christian rulers. In this sense, the opening stanza is related to the 9th stanza ‘note our embarrassment and reckon it as retribution for iniquity.’ According to this interpretation, Yom Tov of York is introducing a piyut in the Yom Kippur service, similar to the Kol Nidrei, that is both conscience of and displays compassion towards the plight of the Jewish community of England, France and Germany during the difficult time of the Crusades in the 12th century.


Legal contribution


As found with Yom Tov’s contribution to the liturgy, his contribution to Jewish law is also unique among the English Tosafists in that it is both relevant until today, as well as demonstrating his compassion for the well-being of the Jewish community of his day. I will present a ruling of his that is not only part of the discussions and variety of opinions that shape Jewish law, as with the rulings of Moses of London, Elijah of London and Berachia of Lincoln,[50] but accepted and integrated as standard Jewish law today. This is pertaining to the area of a non-Jew lighting a fire for a Jew on the Shabbat in freezing cold weather. His responsa on this subject has two parts: one is a straightforward ruling, expressing the view that a Jewish person may benefit from a fire lit by a non-Jew on the Shabbat in very cold weather even when there are no young children present. The second part is an aspirational law, suggesting that a Jew may even explicitly instruct a non-Jew to light such a fire. While the first is controversial in the context of Jewish law of his day, the second appears not to have been accepted. Nevertheless, in modern Jewish law of the 16th century both views are incorporated in Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law) without any of the reservations of the original author. To understand the context and novelty of this law by Yom Tov of York, I will present a brief outline of the development of this law from the first work in Jewish law of the 2nd century, Mishna, until today.



Talmud – Amira l’Akum



The premise of this discussion is that a Jew is not only forbidden to light a fire on the Shabbat[51] but cannot even ask a non-Jew to do something that is in violation of the Shabbat on his behalf. This is stated in the Mishna:[52]


If a gentile comes to extinguish a Jew’s fire on Shabbat, one may not say to him: Extinguish, and: Do not extinguish, because responsibility for his rest is not incumbent upon the Jew. However, if a Jewish child comes to extinguish a fire on Shabbat, they do not listen to him and allow him to extinguish it, even though he is not yet obligated in mitzva observance, because responsibility for his rest is incumbent upon the Jew.


Furthermore, a Jew may also not have benefit from work done by a non-Jew in violation of the Shabbat if done for the benefit of the Jew:[53]


If a gentile kindled a lamp on Shabbat for his own purposes, a Jew also uses its light; and if the gentile kindled it for a Jew, the Sages prohibited to utilize its light. Similarly, if a gentile drew water from a well in the public domain to give his animal to drink, a Jew gives his own animal to drink after him from the same water; and if he drew the water initially for the benefit of a Jew, it is prohibited for a Jew to give his animal to drink from that water. Similarly, if a gentile made a ramp on Shabbat to disembark from a ship, a Jew disembarks after him; and if he made the ramp for a Jew, it is prohibited. There was an incident in which Rabban Gamliel and the Elders were traveling on a ship and a gentile made a ramp on Shabbat in order to disembark from the ship on it; and Rabban Gamliel and the Elders disembarked on it as well.


Sick person


If a person is unwell, however, even in a non life-threatening situation, the Talmud states that a non-Jew may perform a work in violation of the Shabbat for a sick person. The Talmud states:[54]


Rav Ulla son of Rav Illai says: all things necessary to provide for the needs of a sick person may be done through a gentile on the Shabbat. Similarly, Rav Huna says: In the case of something needed by a sick person, but which does not entail a threat to life if withheld from him one may say to a gentile that he should do it for him on the Shabbat.


Lighting a fire for a woman who has given birth


The Talmud goes further and quotes the following teaching from Shmuel that even a Jew may light a fire for a woman who has just given birth or is sick:[55]


Rav Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel: We may make a large fire to warm a woman who has given birth. They understood from this ruling that for a woman who gave birth, yes, but for a sick person, no; during the winter, yes, but during the summer, no. But it is not so, there is no difference between a woman who has given birth and a sick person, and there is no difference whether it is during the winter or summer, as can be seen from that which was stated: Rav Chiya bar Avin said in the name of Shmuel: If one let blood and became chilled we make for him a large fire even on the Shabbat, even at the time of the Tammuz solstice, when the weather is hot.[56]


From the above reading of the Talmud a fire may be kindled even by a Jew for warming purposes, whether for a woman who gave birth or is sick. Maimonides however appears to have had only a partial reading of the above Talmudic text and rules that only a woman who just gave birth may have a fire lit for them, while a regular sick person may not:[57]


A fire may be kindled for a woman after she has given birtheven in the summer, since cold is very difficult for a woman to bear after childbirth in the cold regions. In contrast, a fire should not be kindled for other sick people to warm themselves. Nevertheless, if a person let blood and became chilled, a fire may be kindled for him even in the summer.


The law seems to follow Maimonides. Great Ashkenazic legalist Rabbi Solomon Luria (1510 – 1573) rules that a sick person who is cold must put on more clothes on the Shabbat rather than have a fire lit even by a non-Jew. If the person does not have more clothes then a non-Jew may light a fire.[58] This follows Maimonides that only a non-Jew may light a fire for a sick person. To summarise the development of the law so far, this law allowing a non-Jew to light a fire for a Jewish person is only for a person who is sick but not for any other reason.


Cold weather


In further development of this law, the following dispensation is given. If a person is healthy but just cold due to the weather, the legalists are in agreement that a non-Jew may light a fire for a Jewish household if it is for the benefit of young children or the elderly who are susceptible to become sick in the cold.[59] There is dispute amongst the legalists whether a healthy adult may benefit from such a fire. Rabbi Jacob ben Asher rules one may not have benefit from such a fire, while others disagree and permit.[60]


Freezing cold weather


In the above discussion, amongst the early legalists, it does not address a case when an otherwise healthy adult is feeling extremely cold on a very cold winter day without a lit fire and without children present. Maimonides does not mention such a scenario, and neither does Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (1269-1343), author of the Tur, considered one of the most important works of Jewish law before Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch of the 16th century. They both only address cases, similar to the Talmud, dealing with a woman after childbirth, a person who is sick or for a minor who is cold.


The first to address a scenario of freezing cold weather as a legal criterion is Yom Tov of York, understandably when one considers that he moved from sunny southern France to colder Yorkshire. His view is quoted in the Mordechai, Hagahot Maimoniyut and Beit Yosef commentary on the Tur. Yom Tov addresses a situation whereby a room was warmed on a very cold day by a non-Jew for the benefit of a Jew, who is not sick other than the fact that he or she feels very cold. He ruled that one may benefit from such a fire. He further argues that he would ideally like to rule, if not for anticipated opposition, that one may even explicitly instruct a non-Jew to light such a fire for the person who is extremely cold on a very cold day. His responsa is as follows:


From my youth I have been astonished by those who forbid warming up by an oven of a non-Jew heated for a Jew, for I have seen my father and teacher and Rabbi Meshulam of blessed memory who were perushim (ascetics) and they would warm up, and so would do the world’s great sages. The reason is, it seems to me, like we say by circumcision (Pesachim 69a) all are considered sick in regard to circumcision, that a sick person who is not in life danger may instruct a non-Jew. Similarly all are considered sick in regard to the cold. Even if they are not literally sick, they are at least in pain. (Ketubot 60a) if someone is in pain, one may drink goat’s milk directly from the animal. This is the case even though it is violating the law of mefarek on the Shabbat when done in an unusual manner. In a case of pain of a person not in a life danger, the rabbis did not decree against this. We decide there that such is in fact the Halacha.


His main argument is that intense cold weather is considered for the purpose of Jewish law as for a sick person.[61] This view is quoted in his name in a number of medieval legal works and integrated in the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) by Rabbi Joseph Karo in the 16th century:


In the cold countries it is permitted to light a fire for young children and it is permitted for adults to warm up by it. And even for adults it is permitted if the cold is great because all are considered sick before the cold. And not like those who have the custom to permit even though the cold is not great on that particular day.


Interestingly, however, Rabbi Joseph Karo formulates the law in a way that recognizes the premise of Yom Tov that all are considered sick from a legal point of view in very cold weather, but is ambiguous whether he accepts the aspirational view of Yom Tov that one may even instruct a non-Jew to kindle a fire when no children are present. The commentaries on Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch[62] and later works of Jewish are unanimous that this is in fact the intention of Rabbi Joseph Karo that one may instruct a non-Jew to kindle a fire in very cold weather. This is the view of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1740-1813) in his Code of Jewish law Shulchan Aruch Harav (pub. 1816).[63] Leading 20th century Halachist Rabbi Moses Feinstein (1895-1986) takes this ruling a step further[64] that in today’s times if one had air conditioning running on a very hot Shabbat day and it suddenly turned very cold, one may ask a non-Jew to turn off the air conditioning even if children are not present, based on the reasoning of Yom Tov that all are sick before the cold. This unique contribution of Yom Tov to Jewish law pertaining to very cold weather on the Shabbat displays a level of compassion and concern for the well-being of the Jewish community, whether this law was considered once he had moved to Northern England or while still living in France.




The end of Yom Tov’s life occurs during the tragic massacre of the Jews of York in 1190. In this tragedy, Yom Tov’s enormity of spirit inspired his community to remain strong in their faith and not submit to apostasy - the ultimate sin in Jewish tradition. According to the account of William of Newbury, when Yom Tov realised the fate of the Jews besieged in Clifford’s Tower was sealed, facing either death at the hands of the mob or baptism, he gave the following speech:


“G-d to whom none shall say: ‘Why dost Thou so? (Ecclesiastes Viii, Daniel Iv. 35) orders us to die now for the Law. And behold our death is at the door. Unless, perchance, which G-d forbid, you think of deserting the sacred Law for this brief space of life, and choose fate harder than any death to honest and manly minds, namely, to live as apostates at the mercy of impious enemies in the deepest dishonor. Since then we ought to prefer a most glorious death to a very dishonest life, we ought to select the easiest and most honourable form of death. For if we fall into the hands of the enemy we shall die at their will and amidst their jeers. And so since the life which the Creator gave us, He now demands back from us, let us willingly and devoutly render it up to Him with our own hands and let us not await the help of hostile cruelty by giving up what He demands. For many of our people in different times of tribulation are known to have done the same, preferring a form of choice most honourable for us.”


Following this speech, sixty individuals took their own lives and the remainder either died in the fire that broke out at the castle or were killed by the waiting mob deceitfully after they were promised protection once they agreed to convert. The circumstance of the massacre was a combination of facts that allowed such a terrible tragedy to occur. The underlying motive was, as testified by William of Newbury, the release of debt, particularly of the ringleader, Richard Malebisse, to Aaron of Lincoln. This, combined with intense anti-Jewish sentiments after the coronation of Richard I, and the departure of Richard I on the third Crusade provided a sense of insecurity for the Jews of England, following years of stability that existed during Henry II’s reign. The deterioration began when Richard I (b. Oxford 1157) became king on 6 July 1189 and at his coronation in September representatives of the Jews, who travelled to London with gifts for the king, were not allowed to enter the king’s hall. Anti-Jewish violence broke out outside the hall, spread to the city, during which the Jewry of London was burnt, thirty Jews were killed, including the Tosafist, Rabbi Jacob of Orleans and Benedict of York, who had travelled especially to represent the Jews of York. In order to survive, Benedict converted to Christianity by his fellow townsman Prior William of St Mary’s Abbey, only to subsequently recant, and died shortly afterwards. Josce of York who was also present managed to return to York unharmed.


This lack of sense of protection of the Jews, combined with intense Christian Jew-hatred, stirred by financial motives, provided the context for the massacre at York.[65]


On the other hand, the context for Yom Tov’s speech that inspired the martyrdom would have also been a combination of episodes: the martyrs of Blois, France, of 1171, as well as the massacre at London that took the life of the leader of the Jewish community of York, Benedict of York, together with the great French Tosafist Jacob of Orleans, and, as pointed out by William of Newbury, the mass suicide over a thousand years earlier at Masada.


Martyrs of Blois


The martyrs of Blois evidently moved Yom Tov greatly. In 1171, after the unexplained disappearance of a Christian child,[66] the Jews of Blois were collectively accused of the ritual killing of the child for Passover. Attempts to bribe Count Theobald failed and after the accuser survived trial by water, the community, headed by Rabbis Yechiel ben David and Yekutiel ben Yehudah, both of whom were students of Rabbi Jacob Tam (1100-1171) and colleagues of Yom Tov, were condemned. After refusing conversion, the community, consisting of thirty-one individuals, were tied to stakes in a wooden tower and burned to death. This occurred on Wednesday, 26 May 1171 (20th of Sivan, 4931). [67] Due to the enormity of the tragedy, Rabbi Jacob Tam instructed that Jews of France, England and Germany should mark the date as an annual fast day. The Aleynu prayer was also added to the Yom Kippur musaf prayer to commemorate it. The personal connection of Yom Tov to the Blois massacre is further indicated by a liturgical poem Kah Tishpoch he composed in their memory to be recited as part of Kinot (elegies) on the Fast of Av.


Surrendering one to save many


Joseph ben Asher adds a piece of information: the Warden of the Castle who was shut out of the castle by the Jews on suspicion of betrayal was oppressive and when the Jews conceded: ‘plunder our property’, the mob replied: ‘No, we have come for Yom Tov!’ According to this narrative, the options given to the Jews in the castle during the assault was as follows: to convert, be killed by the mob, surrender their own lives or hand over Rabbi Yom Tov. If this is the case, the collective suicide of the community was based on the Halachic dictum that if an enemy says, hand over one innocent individual otherwise we will kill the whole community, the whole community should rather be killed than hand over an innocent individual. Maimonides codifies this:[68]


If gentiles tell [a group of] women: "Give us one of you to defile, if not, we will defile all of you," they should allow themselves all to be defiled rather than give over a single Jewish soul. Similarly, if gentiles told [a group of Jews]: "Give us one of you to kill, if not, we will kill all of you," they should allow themselves all to be killed rather than give over a single soul to [the gentiles]. However, if [the gentiles] single out [a specific individual] and say: "Give us so and so or we will kill all of you," [different rules apply]: If the person is obligated to die like Sheva ben Bichri, they may give him over to them. Initially, however, this instruction is not conveyed to them. If he is not obligated to die, they should allow themselves all to be killed rather than give over a single soul to [the gentiles].




I have aimed to present in this essay a new angle to the Tosafists of France who came to live in England. Yom Tov of York was foremost a scholarly Tosafist in the elite class of French Tosafists but his life sheds light on an important angle of the roles of the Tosafists: their service as teachers of the Torah to the wider community and shouldering a distinct responsibility to either move to places that required such teachers of the Torah and rabbinic leaders of the community or as William Newbury suggests visit communities in far flung places to inspire them as necessary in a very difficult period in Jewish history. When the need was for a scholar in residence, they would fill that role, when the need required a scholar martyr to inspire the people to remain strong in their faith and prepare to surrender their life rather than submit to apostasy they would fulfill that need also, living, and when necessary, dying, by example.


In this context one can see the piyut that Yom Tov authored as a further medium to inspire communities he had interaction with through his teaching and writings. As Yitzchak Moshe Elbogen argues,[69] the piyutim in many cases served as a part of the prayers but also a source of additional inspiration, similar to a homily. Finally, the law of the cold weather on the Shabbat presents Yom Tov as a rabbi who cared not only for the spiritual wellbeing of the Jewish community but also for the physical health of people, searching for ways for Jewish law to permit them to live in comfort while being faithful to the principles of the law.



[1] Balei Tosafot, p. 222 (443).

[2] Tosfot, Yevamot 44a.

[3] Mordechai, Shabbat, 6, in his response.

[4] Tosafot Menachot 88a. Yom Tov appears to have had a colleague called Rabbi Menachem of Joigny, whose mentioned in Tosafot, Pesachim 116a. In this text Menachem and Yom Tov are quoted next to each other.

[5] The Palgrave Dictionary of Medieval Anglo-Jewish History, p. 196.

[6] Yevamot 44a, alamah; Yevamot 57b, Rav amar yesh chupah l’psulot; Pesachim 116a, mah darko shel ani b’prusa; Menachot 88a, Revi’it mayim l’metzorah. He is also quoted in Mordechai commentary on the Talmud Kesubot 199.

[7] According to J. A. Watt, Yom Tov was visiting the Jewish community of York at the time. The Medieval World, edited by Peter Linehan, Janet L Nelson, p. 156.

[8] Book of Remembrance (Sefer Zekhrirah) (Habermann [1945], 127, trans. Roth [1964], 272, Chazan [1980], 161)

[9] The massacre is also memorialised in an elegy by Paytan Rabbi Menachem of Worms (c. 1120 - 1203), together with the martyrs of Boppard of 1179: Alelai Li Ki Va'u Rega Almon ve-Shakhol.

[10] Tisha B’Av Compendium Tephilot and Kinot, Translated and annotated by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld (The Judaica Press, Inc.), p. 168.

[11] Historia Rerum Anglicanarum. Romain, Jonathan A., The Jews of England: A Portrait of Anglo Jewry through Original Sources and Illustrations, p. 41-44.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Dobson, R.B., The Jews of Medieval York and the Massacre of March 1190, p. 10.

[14] Ibid. p. 11.

[15] Ibid. p. 12.

[16] Ibid. p. 12.

[17] Ibid. p. 12-13.

[18] Ibid. p. 13.

[19] Ibid. p. 14.

[20] Yoma 27a and Zevachim 14b.

[21] Dobson, R.B., The Jews of Medieval York and the Massacre of March 1190, p. 14-15. The Palgrave Dictionary of Medieval Anglo-Jewish History, p. 196. See (accessed 19 Sep, 2017).

[22] Dobson, R.B., The Jews of Medieval York and the Massacre of March 1190, p. 15. These residents are mentioned as martyrs in the elegy by Joseph ben Asher.

[23] Roth found this in Bodleain MS. Michael 502.

[24] The piyutim include: 1. The introduction to Kol Nidrei, ‘By the authorities of the heavenly court,’ introduced by 13th century Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, 2. ‘Kol Nidrei’, author unknown, but found in its earliest form in the 9th century in Amram Gaon’s Siddur,[24] 3. “O let our prayers ascend at eventide’ (Ya’aleh tachnuneinu) by an anonymous author, 4. ‘Our G-d, thou dost defer thy anger’ (Darkecha elokeinu) by 7th century liturgical poet, Jose ben Jose, 5. ‘Forgive the errors and transgressions of our people’ (Slach na ashamot) by Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, 6. ‘Yes, it is true, an evil impulse controls us’ (Amnon Kein) by Rabbi Yom Yov of York, and 7. ‘As clay in the hand of the potter’ (Ki hinei kachomer) by an anonymous author.

[25] There are nine piyutim by Rabbi Shimon ben Isaac, known as Shimon the Great of Mains (Rashi’s mother’s brother), great, great grandfather of Moses of Oxford, recited in the Ashkenaz machzor in the repetition of the Amida in the morning service on the second day of Rosh Hashana. 

[26] By Asher Anshel ben Joseph Mordecai.

[27] It also does not contain Ki hinei kachomer but does include ya’alh.

[28] The manuscript is part of the Oppenheimer collection. The owner was Asher ben Dan. It was pointed by Ya’akov ben Gershom for R. Ya’akov ben Shabathai.

[29] At the end of the manuscript Eli’ezer Halperin states that on the 3rd of January 5386 = 1626, he had circumcised the boy called Mordek’hai the son of Kalonimus (נזויירה) and his wife Rivka the daughter of Y’hiel (וירלינגה). He mentions also the birth of the daughter of his broth Sh’lomoh, in the year 5388.

[30] Hatefillah b'Yisrael b'Hitpatchutah Hahistorit (Hebrew), p. 210.

[31] Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:7; Kehelet Rabba 1:13.

[32] Rabbi Yehudah Barzilai. Hatefillah b'Yisrael b'Hitpatchutah Hahistorit (Hebrew), p. 213.

[33] Disciple of Yehuda Hachasid. Before he became Rabbi of Worms, he was Chazan in Erfurt.

[34] He is known as the author of the Akdamot recited on Shavuot.

[35] See Hatefillah b'Yisrael b'Hitpatchutah Hahistorit (Hebrew), Tekufat Hapiyut for the research mentioned in this essay.

[36] Hatefillah b'Yisrael b'Hitpatchutah Hahistorit (Hebrew), p. 212.

[37] Numbers 14:20.

[38] Hadar Zekeinim, p. 132. Talmud Sotah 11a.

[39] Deuteronomy 8:9.

[40] I Kings 1:2-4. Rashi.

[41] Isaiah 22:15.

[42] Sanhedrin 26a.

[43] Similar to the translation of the similar word sochenet in I Kings 1:2-4 and yisken in Ecclesiastes 10:9.

[44] Leviticus Rabba 5:5.

[45] Ecclesiastes 10:9.

[46] Ecclesiastes 4:13.

[47] Ecclesiastes 9:15.

[48] This is based on the Midrashic teaching (Genesis Rabba 34:10): The wicked stand in subjection to their heart (i.e. passion), but the righteous have their hearts under their control. A similar statement is found in Talmud Berachot 61b, ‘the righteous are judged (motivated) by their good inclination and the wicked by their evil inclination.’ See Tanya, Sefer Shel Benuni, ch. 1 and 17, where it differentiates between the righteous, who has subdued one’s evil inclination, the intermediate who has not subdued but is also not subjected to his evil inclination and the wicked who is subjected to the control of the evil inclination. According to this delineation, the word sochen as treasurer who has control over the treasury in the piyut is referring to the level of the wicked who are ruled by their passion. The other translations of sochen as warmer or pleasure seeker are more subtle.

[49] The Talmud (Sanhedrin 26a) uses the term Ba’al Hana’a. Rashi suggests it may also refer to sodomy.

[50] See essays on the life and teachings of these figures in Oxford Jewish Thought by Rabbi Eli Brackman

[51] Exodus 35:3.

[52] Shabbat 121a.

[53] Shabbat 122a.

[54] Shabbat 129a.

[55] Shabbat 129a. There’s a dispute whether this applies to 30 days after child birth or only 3 or 7 days.

[56] Shabbat 129a. Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (1215-1293), known as the Maharam of Rothenburg, writes that one needs to object one’s non-Jewish servant or maid when lighting a candle for the benefit of a Jew. If they light it, it is forbidden to have benefit from it.[56] The Jerusalemite Talmud writes that one does not need to leave one’s house if a non-Jew lights a candle on his own for the benefit of a Jew.[56] This view is also brought in Orchot Chaim by French Rabbi Aaron ben Jacob ha-Kohen and the anonymous work Kol Bo.

[57] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat 2:14.

[58] The Shulchan Aruch Harav mentions also however the opinion of the Talmud that a fire may be lit for any sick person whose life is in danger even by a Jew (Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 328: 14).

[59] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 285:5.

[60] Sefer Hateruma 252; Mordechai, end of first chapter tractate Shabbat; Hagahot Maimoniyut , laws of Shabbat 6:5. Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 276:13.

[61] See Biurei Hagra on the law in the Shulchan Aruch for the various Talmudic sources for the law.

[62] Ateret Zekeinim commentary to the law in the Shulchan Aruch writes that one may not instruct a non Jews to light a fire on a very cold day in the synagogue a second time in the afternoon after the fire that was lit in the morning had gone out, implying that the first time it is permitted to instruct.

[63] This is also the view of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1838-1933) in his Mishnah Berurah (pub. 1904).

[64] Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, 3:41.

[65] The (redacted) account of William of Newbury is as follows: One stormy night, no small part of the city became on fire and an armed band of the conspirators, with great violence and tools prepared for the purpose, burst into the house of Benedict, who had miserably died at London. There his widow and children with many others dwelt; all of those who were in it were slain and the roof put on fire. And while the fire gloomily increased in strength, the robbers seized their booty and left the burning house, and by help of the darkness retired unobserved and heavy laden. The Jews, and especially their leader Joce, in consternation at this misdeed, having begged the assistance of the Warden of the royal castle, carried into it huge weights of their monies equal to royal treasures, and took more vigilant guard of the rest at their houses. But after a few days these nocturnal thieves returned with greater confidence and boldness and many joined them; they boldly besieged Joce's house. At length they captured and pillaged it, and then set it on fire after having removed by sword or fire all those whom an unlucky chance had kept in it. For Joce a little before had wisely anticipated this mischance and had removed with his wife and children into the castle, and the rest of the Jews did the same, only a few remaining outside as victims. No longer content with their substance, they gave to all found outside the castle the option of sacred baptism or the extreme penalty. Thereupon some were baptized and feignedly joined Christianity to escape death. But those who refused to accept the sacrament of life, even as a matter of pretense, were butchered without mercy. While all this was happening the multitude who had escaped into the castle seemed to be in safety. But the Warden of the castle, having gone out on some business, when he wished to return was not readmitted by the trembling multitude, uncertain in whom to trust and fearing that perchance his fidelity to them was tottering, and that being bribed he was about to give up to their enemies those whom he should protect. But he immediately went to the sheriff of the county who happened to be at York with a large body of the county soldiers, and complained to him that the Jews had cheated him out of the castle entrusted to him. The sheriff became indignant and ordered the people to be summoned and the castle to be besieged. The irrevocable word went forth, the zeal of the Christian folk was inflamed, immense masses of armed men both from the town and the country were clustered round the citadel. Then the sheriff, struck with regret at his order, tried in vain to recall it and wished to prohibit the siege of the castle. But he could by no influence of reason or authority keep back their inflamed minds from carrying out what they had begun. And there were not lacking many clergymen, among whom a certain hermit seemed more vehement than the rest. . . . When the machines were thus moved into position, the taking of the tower became certain, and it was no longer doubtful that the fatal hour was nearing for the besieged. Rabbi Yomtob of Joigny declared: “G-d to whom none shall say ‘Why dost Thou so? (Eccles. Viii, Dan. Iv. 35), orders us to die now for the Law. And behold our death is at the door. Unless, perchance, which G-d forbid, you think of deserting the sacred Law for this brief space of life, and choose fate harder than any death to honest and manly minds, namely, to live as apostates at the mercy of impious enemies in the deepest dishonor. Since then we ought to prefer a most glorious death to a very dishonest life, we ought to select the easiest and most honourable form of death. For if we fall into the hands of the enemy we shall die at their will and amidst their jeers. And so since the life which the Creator gave us, he now demands back from us, let us willingly and devoutly render it up to Him with our own hands and let us not wait the help of hostile cruelty by giving up what He demands. For many of our people in different times of tribulation are known to have done the same, preferring a form of choice most honourable for us.” When he had said this very many of them embraced his fatal advice. At the order that those men whose courage was most steady should take the life of their wives and pledges, the famous Josce cuts the throat of Anna, his dear wife, with a sharp knife, and did not spare his own sons. And when this had been done by the other men, the fire which had been lighted by them before the death began to burst out in the interior of the tower. But when the slaughter was over, the conspirators immediately went to the Cathedral and caused the terrified guardians, with violent threats, to hand over the records of the debts placed there by which the Christians were oppressed by the royal Jewish usurers. Thereupon they destroyed these records of profane avarice in the middle of the church with the sacred fires to release both themselves and many others. Which being done, those of the conspirators who had taken the cross went on their proposed journey before any inquest; but the rest remained in the country in fear of an inquiry. Such were the things that happened at York at the time of the Lord's Passion, that is, the day before Palm Sunday. . . . [Palm Sunday was March 18, 1190].

[66] Tosafot, Pesachim 116a, they are quoted next to each other.

[67] The Palgrave Dictionary of Medieval Anglo-Jewish History, p. 196.

[68] Mishneh Torah, Yesodei Hatorah 5:5.

[69] Hatefillah b'Yisrael b'Hitpatchutah Hahistorit (Hebrew), p. 217.


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