Biographical sketches of the prominent early sages and leaders
By Rabbi Hersh Goldwurm
Mesorah Publications (1982) 227 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - May 7, 2010
This volume is part of the ArtScroll History Series. It sketches out some brief facts about Jewish scholars who commented upon the Talmud, men who lived from the tenth to the fifteenth century, mostly in Europe or northern Africa. They include such people as Rashi, Rashbam, Maimonides, and Nachmanides.
The book is introduced by a short history of thirty pages placing the Rishonim in perspective to the rabbis who preceded them and who came afterward. The name Rishonim means "first." It is the title given to the group of rabbis who lived during the end of the Gaonic period, the time when Jewry was under the religious influence of the Gaonim, the heads of the academies in Babylonia, which ended in 1038 with the death of the last influential Gaon. The time of the Rishonim concluded around 1550, and rabbis who lived later are called Achronim, "The Latter Ones."
The book's clear intention is to advocate a right wing view of Jewish history and ideas. The legendary stories about Rashi (traditionally 1040-1105), a great Bible and Talmud commentator, are communicated as fact. Many statements are untrue, such as "he always quotes the opinion of his masters with the utmost respect." True, he was very respectful, but he rarely quotes his sources. Similarly, although nothing is known of Yehudah Halevi's youth, the book quotes some legends as true history. Again, the volume reports the legend that Maimonides descended from Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, even though Maimonides never made this claim. This tendency to incorporate legends as facts appears in virtually all of the biographies.