Our Kosher River Cruises have touched upon the lives and stories of many ancient groups and individuals, from the collective story of the Crypto-Jews in Iberia to the tales of Jewish figures like Rabbi Akiva. Many of these groups and figures were affected and transformed by events in history, both large-scale and personal. The Crusades of the 12th and 13th century were a terrible period in Jewish history, the drive to retake the Holy Land bringing about a renewed vigor for persecution. In spite of those dark times, there were still efforts to understand and find light and meaning in the world. Such was the goal of Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah of Worms.
The Story of the Perfumer
Born in Mainz circa 1776, Eleazar grew up learning many things from his father, Judah ben Kalonymus, a great scholar in his own right. Judah taught Eleazar both Jewish religious law and more spiritual matters, which would lead his son to study extensively in both topics under other tutors. He married Dulcea of Worms, and had several children with her. Dulcea was a smart and hardworking businesswoman, whose hard work allowed Eleazar to pursue his studies. In 1196, however, two individuals (believed to be crusaders in most texts) broke into their household and killed Dulcea and their children. Historical records suggested that at least one of the criminals was hanged, but still the tragedy occured.
In 1201, a few years after that harrowing ordeal, he became the rabbi of Worms. He devoted a eulogy in memory to his family, and most of time to exegesis and ethical treatises. His most influential work was the Ha-Rokeah (“The Perfumer”, named as such because “perfumer” had the same gematria value as “Eleazar”) which helped the common person understand halakhic law. He wrote many other works on halakhic law, ethics, exegesis and Kabbalistic concepts, insights about the world and divine words. He would continue his explorations of thought until his death in Worms, 1230. Many of his great works were either unpublished or published posthumously.
Ethics and Resolve
On our previous Jewish heritage tours, we sought to explore and uncover how modern-day Jewry was brought about by events in the past. The past was full of difficult events and tragedies, but even if such happenings affected our ancestors and their way of life, they did not define them. The change brought about by such events strengthened their resolve, a will and devotion to find peace and give meaning to life. Eleazar Rokeah was said to be the last of the great scholars of Hasidei Ashenaz, but even then, his influence in his own time and in the centuries that followed helped bring about a deeper understanding of halakhic law and spirituality.