The Rabbis of Coucy and Sens


By Rabbi Dr. Nosson Dovid Rabinowich

         This article was written in honour of my wonderful Kallah, she’tichya.

The last few days I have tried to clarify to my students some of their information about the Rabbis from Sens and Coucy. Coucy and Sens, one northeast of Paris, the other southeast, were major Torah centers in France during the 12th and most of the 13th centuries. There is much confusion regarding three Torah personalities from these cities. I would like to clarify some of the information about them:

A) The Count of Coucy

His name was R’Shimshon ben Shimshon. According to the Chida, his name is an acronym from: “Ha’rash” (= Harav Shimshon) also means: “the poor one”. It was initially changed by his students to be: “Ha’Sar” (=the Count); none of the letters were deleted, just switched. He was probably the brother-in-law of the famous Smag and died in 1221, much earlier than his brother-in-law. He is mentioned together with the Rash of Sens in Tosafos, Berachos 47A: s.v.ein. He is also famous for his lenient permission to wear the “mark of disgrace” instituted by the Pope of France in 1215.

B) Rebbe Moshe of Coucy (Smag)

He is the author of the famous Smag and was one of the four leading French rabbis that defended the Talmud in front of King Louis IX in Paris in 1242. Unfortunately, that ‘defense’ was unacceptable to this tyrant and twenty-four wagonloads of Talmud volumes were collected from all over France and burned! He was the prize pupil of the Ra’avyah (= Rebbe Eliezer ben Yoel Ha’Levi) and was one of the earliest French medievalists to spend an extended period in Spain. In fact, in the Introduction to his classic work, the Smag, he discusses at length his impression from his visit to Spain in 1236. Noteworthy is the fact that he is the first of the French scholars to trace the chain of Halachic transmission in Spain:

  1. Rabbeinu Chananel of Kairouan (Tunisia), considered the first “Spaninsh” Medievialist (= Rishonim), a student of Rav Hai Gaon1
  2. Rabbeinu Yitzchak Alfasi, originally from Fez (Morocco) and then established the first major Yeshivah in Spain: in Lucena (Andalusia).
  3. Rabbeinu Yehosaif Mi’Gash, a great scholar, most of whose writings have been lost. He continued as Rosh Yeshiva in Lucena.
  4. Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (the Rambam), who considered Rabbeinu Yehosaif Mi’Gash his teacher, although if he ever met him, the Rambam could not have been more than six years old. And this calculation assumes that the Rambam was born in 1135 c.e. If we, however, accept the presently scholarly opinion, he was born in 1138 c.e. , making him no older than three years old, if he had ever met Rabbeinu Yehosaif!

We know from manuscripts that his father, Reb Yackov, is famous for his halachic opinion that “Kol Nidrei” should not apply to the vows of the previous year. (We know this was also the opinion of Rabbi Meir ben Shmuel, the father of the Rabbeinu Tam).

The Smag is one of the earliest Medievalists (= Rishonim) to mention the Igerres of Rav Sherira Gaon. He refers to it as the “Ksav”. He is certainly the first French Tosafist to discuss the “Mishneh Torah” of the Rambam, although critical of the actual work. He does offer us an interesting point of information: that the Rambam’s works inspired many since they became widespread in Egypt and Italy.

Earliest French Rabbi to Visit Spain 

In his elaboration of Positive Commandment #3, he seems to be telling us that a certain tragic event occurred in 1236 that called for widespread repentance2

He travelled that year, he tells us, to Spain to chastise its Jews and,

“God strengthened my arms with the dreams of the Jews, the dreams of the Gentiles 3 and the visions of astrologists. And he bent his goodness over me(cf. Genesis 39:21;ndr) and she [Spain] trembled and became a land of great piety [cf. 1Samuel 14:15,ndr ] and they did great repentance and thousands and tens of thousands of Jews accepted upon themselves the commandments of Tefillin, mezuzot and tzitzis. 4

Unfortunately, I have not found any corroborating evidence, secular or Jewish, for his fascinating claim of this widespread repentance and acceptance of mitzvoth. He introduces this narrative by quoting the inspiring Talmudic passage in Menachos 43b that “whoever has Tefillin on his head and arm and fringes on his clothing and a mezuzah on his doorpost is certain not to sin as it says (Ecclasiastices 4:12): “and a threefold cord is not quickly torn.”

The Smag’s Introduction is a fascinating read and it is very apparent that Rebbe Moshe Coucy had a great appreciation for Jewish history. In this post, I would like to comment upon two important historical points that Rebbe Moshe makes:

He claims that the Yeshiva at Nehardea, on the Euphrates, exists “until this very day”. This is a remarkable claim due to the following reasons:

  1. It is well documented that Nehardea was destroyed in 259 c.e. as Rav Sherira tells us in his Epistle (see Iggeres, page 98).
  2. It is obvious, then, that Rebbe Moshe must be referring to the Pumbedisa Yeshiva which he considers a “continuation” of Nehardea as does Rav Sherira who tells us:

“Our other rabbis went to Pumbedisa, which from the Second Temple Period, was the main Torah center of the Diaspora.”(ibid)

Rav Sherira offers proof to his claim that Pumbedisa, and, of course, Baghdad, to which they transferred in 890 c.e., were the “heirs” to Nehardea from a Gemara in Rosh Hashana 22b

“The chain of beacons continued until he saw the whole of the Diaspora before him like one bonfire. And Abaye explains:“Diaspora” means “Pumbedisa”.

This Gemara, obviously, also understood that the Diaspora Torah center was Pumbedisa, the “continuation” of Nehardea. Nehardea, of course, was the initial stop in the Diaspora when the first exiles arrived in Babylonia, as Rav Sherira tells us earlier on page 84.

When did the Gaonic Era end?

Rebbe Moshe’s claim,however, is still difficult to comprehend since the Academy of Pumbedisa in Baghdad ceased to function by 1040, or latest by 1055, as R’Abraham Ibn David tells us very succinctly:

“After Hezekiah the Exilarch and head of the Academy there were no more Academies or Geonim

That is, at least, 15 years before Reb Moshe’s lifetime.

The Writing of the Talmud: When and by Whom?

He claims that Rav Ashi “stood” three hundred and fifty-eight years after the Temple’s destruction (ie., 427 c.e. He arrives at this date, as he himself writes, by relying on the Iggeres (=Ksav; cf. my Intro to The Iggeres of Rav Sherira Gaon, Jerusalem 1988, where I discuss this unique term, which seems to have been used primarily by the French Medievalists like Rashi [Gittin 60b]) and the Smag.

Rav Sherira Gaon, the Smag and the Rambam

Both Rav Sherira Gaon (986 c.e,) and Rebbe Avraham Ibn Daud in his “Book of Tradition” (=“Sefer Ha’Kabbalah”), one of the most important historical works of the early Medieval era, written in 1180 c.e. in Spain – certainly using Rav Sherira as his source- state clearly that this (427 c.e.) was the year of Rav Ashi’s death. Rebbe Moshe Coucy, however,obviously, understood that Rav Sherira Gaon’s intention was also to the completion of the Babylonian Talmud. In fact, Ibn Daud makes the controversial claim that Rav Ashi “began” to write the Talmud! He is our first historian to make such a claim (cf. Rashi, B.M. 33a s.v. v’eina, who is very ambiguous about an exact date).

I deem it noteworthy that Rebbe Moshe of Coucy does not accept the viewpoint of Maimonides, in his Introduction to Mishneh Torah, that the Babylonian Talmud was completed four hundred years after the Temple’s destruction [70 c.e.], which would make the date: 470 c.e., not 427 c.e. What is strange is the fact that his probable source, Rav Sherira Gaon, does not even explicitly connect Rav Ashi with the Talmud’s completion! He does that only a few paragraphs later (cf. pages 128 and 130 of my Hebrew edition of the Iggeres, Jerusalem, 1999, and the appropriate foot-notes and page 116 in my English edition) in conjunction with Ravina’s death, in 475 c.e., a date that is comparable with the date offered by the Rambam!5

His reliance in his Introduction upon the Iggeres of Rav Sherira Gaon is somewhat surprising since most of his work is based upon the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah!

The Popularity of the Smag

One of the simplest ways to determine the popularity of a work during the Medieval Era (13th to 16th centuries) is to establish its publication date. Although most Incunabula do not provide dates, the Smag was most probably published in Rome sometime in the years 1473-1475, soon after the first two Hebrew books were published: Rashi and Ramban on Chumash! In fact, although the Smag was written some seventy to eighty years after the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam was written (1170-1180 c.e.), the Mishneh Torah was first published (in Rome) in 1480, after the Smag. This bibliographical oddity speaks volumes. In fact, according to recent scholarship, all the above four books might have been published in the same year: 1469, which is simply amazing! The very popular “Tur” (until this very day, studied intensely in all Chassidic and most Lithuanian Yeshivot), written in the first half of the 14th century by Rabbeinu Yaakov ben Asher (=Rosh), was first published in 1475 in Piove De Sacco, after the Smag’s publication.

Commentaries on the Smag

It seems that the Smag was studied in Italian Yeshivos throughout the late Medieval Era (second half of the 13th, 14th, 15th and most of the 16th centuries) as a primary source for Mitzvah and practical Halacha discussion, no less than the Mishneh Torah! (Only when the Shulchan Aruch was published in Italy, in 1565 did it replace the Smag as the major halachic codification studied in the Yeshivot). To enhance its study, a beautiful edition was published in Venice, 1546, which has been used for centuries by Rabbinic scholars and students alike.

The leading French scholar, Rav Yitzchok Corveille, only a generation after the Smag, quotes him in his popular Smak (=Sefer Mitzvahs Katan), a smaller version of the Smag, hence its name, but with many major differences. Two generations later we find the Smag quoted by two students of Rebbe Meir of Rothenburg: Rebbi Mordechai ben Hillel (the “Mordechai”) and Rebbe Meir Ha’Cohen (=Ha’Gahos Maimuni) in his commentary on the Rambam. In addition to running commentaries on the Smag from lesser know Ashkenazi scholars in the 14th century, we also have two very famous Halachic scholars: Rebbe Shlomo Luria (16th century Poland) and Rebbe Yosef Colon (15th century Italy; considered one of the leading authorities of his generation, he died in approximately 1483), writing commentaries on the Smag. In fact, Rebbe Ovadia of Bartenura, a leading student of Rebbe Yosef Colon, also wrote an unpublished commentary on the Smag.

Best Proof of the Smag’s Popularity

The best proof of the Smag’s popularity is the fact that the Rebbe Yehoshua Boaz Baruch 6, the author of the Ein Mishpat – Ner Mitzvah7, which appears in every page of the Talmud references four halachic works for every Talmudic discussion, one of them being the Smag:

  • Mishneh Torah
  • Smag
  • Tur
  • Shulchan Aruch

His referencing of the Smag proves that it was a very popular halachic codification, in addition to serving as a primary source for the understanding of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvahs9.

An Interesting Bibliographical Observation in the Smag

In the book “Sefer Ha’Terumah” written by Rebbe Baruch of Worms, in section 201, there is an addition which begins: “Rebbe Krashvihu, the scribe10 made this addition in his handwriting in the Smag…” This same scribe in an unpublished manuscript of the Smag wrote the following11:

“Says Krashvihu the scribe…who lived in the days of Rebbe Moshe of Coucy and Rebbeinu Yechiel of Paris. I was in Paris in front of Rebbe Yechiel…and all three did not write the dwelling places of the husband and wife in the Get…And also the author of this work (=Smag) wrote above12 that if they are unsure (about the address) they should not write any address and he brought proof from Rebbe Yechiel13. Therefore, I have written here a Get exemplar of Rebbe Yechiel because it is appropriate to institute a Get that can be used by all, since there are scribes that don’t know…”

This manuscript sheds light on the inclusion of a Get from the Beis Medrash of Rebbeinu Yechiel found in all our Smag editions14. On the top of this Get we have:

“This Get is from Rebbeinu Yechiel of Paris. Even though it does not follow the opinion of the Mechaber (=Smag) himself, since in most places this is the Get that is used, I have decided to include this examplar15.”

This Get introduced by the scribe Krashvihu has a date of 1258 which corresponds with the dates offered by scholars for the writings of the additions of Krashvihu16. We also have reason to speculate that Rebbe Moshe Coucy completed the first edition17 of his work in the year 1247 c.e.18. It would then make sense that the scribal comments of Krashvihu were added soon after the work was completed.

C) The Rash or The Count of Sens

The last of the rabbis I wanted to discuss is Rebbe Shimshon ben Avraham of Sens, known as the Rash or the Count of Sens 19. He was a brother-in-law of the Rabbeinu Tam and studied with Rebbe Chaim ha-Kohen20 but his main teacher was Rebbe Yitzchok of Dampierre (=the Elder Ri), the great-grandson of Rashi , 21 the leading Tosafist in the last quarter of the 12th century. Although he composed “Tosafot” on most of the Talmud22, his commentaries to the orders of Zeraim and Taharot are the most popular and printed in the standard editions of the Talmud.

In a recently published 15th century manuscript23 we learn that the Rash of Sens made Aliya to Eretz Yisroel in 1212 with two other Tosafists. This is remarkable since his teacher was Rebbe Chaim ha-Kohen who was opposed to living in Eretz Yisroel during that period24. This manuscript also informs us that the Count of Coucy, discussed in section A of this article, died in 1221. And, finally, I should mention that the famous Tosafist, Ritzba (=R’Yitzchak ben Avraham) was the brother of the Rash of Sens.


  1. The Sefer Hakabbalah tells us that Rav Shmuel Ha’Nagid of Granada, Spain drank of the waters of Rav Hai via Rav Nissim Gaon of Tunisia (noteworthy: Rav Shmuel Ha’nagid’s son, Rav Yoseph, married Rav Nissim’s “learned and pious” daughter but “she did not appeal to him, inasmuch as she was a dwarf!). He also states clearly that Rav Nissim Gaon (contemporary of Rabbeinu Chananel; they both were ordained after the death of their Rebbe, Rav Chushiel, father of Rabbeinu Chananel; noteworthy: I never understood why Rav Nissim was given the title: Gaon and not Rav Chananel) received much from Rav Hai Gaon who loved him very much and sent him “letters in response to all of his problems without exception”. So, it is not a stretch to say that like Rav Shmuel Ha’Nagid, Rav Chananel probably also learned much from Rav Hai via Rav Nissim. However, I am still trying to find a direct connection between Rav Chananel and Rav Hai. There is no doubt that complete blocks of Rav Chananel’s Talmudic commentary come from Rav Hai’s Talmudic Commentary; cf. Shabbos 12a where Rav Nissim quotes Peirushei Rav Hai and this is mentioned anonymously by Rabbeinu Chananel in Tractate Shabbos at the end of 95b [really belongs to 94b], but I am still seeking a direct connection between the two. A similar difficulty is with the “source” quoted by Rebbe Shlomo Luria (=Maharshal) in his controversial responsum 29:“And Rabbeinu Gershom received from Rav Hai…”Here, too, we have no documentation of any direct contact between the two. In fact, this “connection” is even more incomprehensible since Rebbeinu Gershom thrived in Mayence, Germany, quite a distance from Baghdad. Any suggestion that they might have had contact in Rabbeinu Gershon’s younger years is also improbable since he was originally, either from Metz (France) or Ancona (Italy)! More probable is the theory of the “Sefer Ha’ Yuchasin” and “Shalsheles Ha’Kabbalah” that he was also born and spent his younger years in Mayence.
  2. His actual term is: “a cause from Heaven”. He uses this very same term again in his Introduction when he explains the events leading up to his composition of the Smag. Perhaps he is not referring to any specific, tragic event. We do know that King Ferdinand III, king of Castille and Leon, reconquered Cordova in 1236, but that should have brought joy to the Jewish people, after all their suffering under the Almohades. We also know that in 1236 the Jewish community in Cordova was labeled a ‘scandal against Christianity!”
  3. The Smag, in his Introduction, consistently mentions “dreams” as the catalyst for the writing of his magnum opus, the Smag. His reliance on dreams as guidance for major decisions in his life must be further explored. His specific mention here of “dreams of Jews and Gentiles” is incomprehensible to me at the present time.
  4. The Talmud in Shabbos 30a mentions a laxity in the observance of Tefillin; cf. ibid, 49a , Tosafos  s.v. K’Elisha who remarks that the observance of donning Tefillin was weak in the 12th and 13th centuries in France! Rav Sherira Gaon, also, in a famous responsum (cf. my “The Responsa and Talmudic Novellae of Rav Sherira ben Rav Chanina Gaon, Jerusalem, 2012, vol. I, pg. 5), discusses the laxity re: the commandment of wearing Tefillin, even in his day: second half of the 10th century.
  5. In our Hebrew edition of the Iggeres, we have accepted the emendation of Ha’Gaon Rebbe Yitzchok Isaac Halevi Rabinovich, Doros Harishonim, Berlin, 1920, vol. 6, page 16. Both versions of the Iggeres, however offer 811 [of the Seleucid Era] for the death of Ravina, which would give us the year 500 c.e. exactly as the completion year of the Talmud, a date also given by Rabbeinu Ha’Meiri of Perpignan, in Provence, a contemporary of the Rambam (the Me’iri completed his magnum opus in 1200 c.e.).
  6. Many bibliographers omit his family name: Baruch; cf. for example, the title page of the Vilna Shas. He is also the popular author of the “Shiltei Gibborim,” a commentary on the Halachic compendium of Rav Yitzchok Alfasi and other commentaries on Rebbe Mordechai ben Hillel’s work. Originally from Spain, he probably fled to Italy after the expulsion and died in 1557.
  7.  He also authored the “Mesoret Ha’Shas”, an index of the parallel passages of the Gemara and Halachic Midrashim and “Torah Or ”, an index of the Biblical passages mentioned in the Talmud. All three works were first published, together with the Talmud, in Venice, during the years 1546-1551.
  8. Surprisingly the Jewish Encyclopedia entry for Rebbe Yehoshua Boaz, written by the eminent Professors Levy Ginzberg and Isaac Broyde, omitted the Smag as one of the referenced works!
  9.  It is noteworthy that Rebbe Yehoshua Boaz Baruch was one of the first Halachic authorities permitting women to wear wigs, arguing that hairs not attached to the head are not subject to the hair-modesty restriction.
  10. The Sefer Ha’Terumah is one of the primary sources of Rebbe Moshe Coucy. Recent scholarship has suggested that he might have made aliyah to Eretz Yisroel before he died in 1211. Cf. E.E. Urbach, Ba’alei Tosafos, Jerusalem, 1980, Vol. II, pg. 352.
  11. In those days, the scribe was also a very learned man, see below, note 25.
  12. R’Elyakim Shlezinger, Ed., Smag, Jerusalem, 1995, Commandment 50, page 227.
  13. Who issued the same ruling.
  14. Ibid, page 238.
  15. It should be mentioned that in his addition, the scribe Krashvihu also brought an exemplar of a Get that did “follow the opinion of the author (=Smag).”
  16. It is noteworthy that Rebbe Azarya of Fano also mentions this sofer who made additions to the Smag and considers him “wise and an expert.”
  17. This fact that Rebbe Moshe Coucy added, subtracted and amended his first edition and, thereby, created a second edition is now accepted by scholars and students of the Smag. Cf. “Smag HaShalem”, Jerusalem, 2003, Introduction, pp. 17, ff.
  18. This is based upon a colophon in a 14th century manuscript of the Smag which states that the work was completed on Rosh Chodesh Adar in 1247, “in the year when the holy communities of France were in a state of anguish and turmoil.” It is highly probable that Rebbe Moshe, himself, was the author of this colophon. Further research is required to comprehend this colophon.
  19. We quoted earlier the theory quoted by the Chida to explain the title “Count of Sens” given to him. I should mention that the Childa’s theory extends also to Rashi; his name is Shlomo but so that he not be called “Rash” (Rebbe Shlomo), they added the “yud” which stands for his father: Yitzchok, hence: Rashi.
  20. Rebbe Chaim ha-Kohen is most famous for his ruling concerning Aliyah to Eretz Yisroel in the second half of the 12th century. Cf. Tosafos, Kesubos 110b s.v. Hu.
  21. His father married the daughter of Yocheved the Pious, Rashi’s daughter.
  22. For example, the Tosafot to Tractate Rosh Hashanah are from his Beis Medrash.
  23. Moscow manuscript #109, page 528B; it was written by a Menachem Vldendorf, an Italian-Ashkenazi personality who lived approximately between 1449-1530. This manuscript was first published by Ephrais Kupfer in 1967 and then discussed at length by Y. Ta-Shma in Shalem, 1981(10),pgs. 219-225.
  24. See above note 20.

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