Jacob ben Meir Tam, universally known as Rabbenu Tam (c. 1100–c. 1171) (Hebrew: רבינו תם) was one of the Baalei Tosafot whose commentary appears in every edition of Talmud opposite the commentary of Rashi. He was also a renowned Rabbinic authority and communal leader.
Rabbeinu Tam grew up to become one of the most famous of the Tosafists, a foremost halakhic authority of his generation and one of the greatest leaders of his time. He acquired his name, Tam, because his biblical namesake, Jacob, is described as "tam", implying a straightforward and truthful character.
Rabbeinu Tam's reputation as a legal scholar spread far beyond France. Avraham ibn Daud, the Spanish chronicler of the sages, mentioned Rabbeinu Tam in his Sefer haKabbalah, but not Rashi. Rabbeinu Tam's work is also cited by Rabbi Zerachya haLevi, a Provençal critic. He also received questions from students throughout France and from the Italian communities of Bari and Otranto.
Rabbeinu Tam gave his Beth Din the title of "the generation's [most] significant court", and indeed, he is known for communal enactments improving Jewish family life, education, and women's status. At times, he criticised Halachic opponents, notably in his controversies with Meshullam of Melun and Efraim of Regensburg.
Legend has it that when Rashi was holding his infant grandson, the baby touched the tefillin that were on Rashi's head. Rashi predicted that this grandson would later disagree with him about the order of the scripts that are put in the head tefillin. Regardless of the episode's veracity, Rabbeinu Tam did disagree with the opinion of his antecedent. Today, both "Rashitefillin" and "Rabbeinu Tamtefillin" are produced: the Shulchan Aruch requires wearing Rashi's version and recommends that God-fearing Jews wear both in order to satisfy both halakhic opinions. However:
"It is worth noting that the Shulchan Aruch ... rules that Rabbeinu TamTefillin should be worn only by one who is known to be a very pious person; the Mishnah Berurah ... explains that it is a sign of haughtiness for anyone else to do this because the accepted practice is to wear RashiTefillin."
Another halakhic disagreement between Rabbeinu Tam and Rashi concerns the placement of the mezuzah. Rashi rules that it should be mounted on the doorpost in a vertical position; Rabbeinu Tam holds that it should be mounted horizontally. To satisfy both opinions, Ashkenazi Jews place the mezuzah on the door in a slanted position. Sephardi Jews mount the mezuzah vertically, per the opinions of Rashi, Maimonides, and the Shulchan Aruch.
In the field of Hebrew poetry the importance of R. Tam is not slight. He was influenced by the poetry of the Spaniards, and is the chief representative of the transition period, in Christian lands, from the old "payyeṭanic" mode of expression to the more graceful forms of the Spanish school. According to Zunz (Literaturgesch. pp. 265 et seq.) he composed the following pieces for the synagogue: (1) several poems for the evening prayer of Sukkot and of Shemini Atzeret; (2) a hymn for the close of Sabbath on which a wedding is celebrated; (3) a hymn for the replacing of the Torah rolls in the Ark on Simḥat Torah; (4) an "ofan" in four metric strophes (see Luzzatto in Kerem Ḥemed, vii.35); (5) four Aramaicreshut; (6) two seliḥot (the second is reproduced by Zunz in S.P. p. 248, in German verse; see also "Naḥalat SHeDaL" in Berliner's Magazin ["Oẓar Ṭob"], 1880, p. 36). It must, however, be remarked that there was a synagogal poet by the name of Jacob ben Meïr (Levi) who might easily have been confounded with the subject of this article, and therefore Tam's authorship of all of these poems is not above doubt (see Landshuth, "'Ammude ha-'Abodah," p. 106; comp. also Harkavy, "Ḥadashim gam Yeshanim," supplement to the Hebrew edition of Graetz, "Hist." v. 39; Brody, "Ḳunṭras ha-Piyyuṭim," p. 72). The short poems which sometimes precede his responsa also show great poetic talent and a pure Hebrew style (see Bacher in Monatsschrift, xliv.56 et seq.). When Abraham ibn Ezra was traveling through France R. Tam greeted him in verse, whereupon Ibn Ezra exclaimed in astonishment, "Who has admitted the French into the temple of poetry?" (Kerem Ḥemed, vii.35). Another work of his in metric form is his poem on the accents, which contains forty-five strophes riming in; it is found in various libraries (Padua, Hamburg, Parma), and is entitled Maḥberet. Luzzatto has given the first four strophes in Kerem Ḥemed (vii.38), and Halberstam has printed the whole poem in Kobak's "Jeschurun" (v.123).
Rabbeinu Tam and his brothers, the Rashbam and the Rivom, as well as other Tosafists, were buried in Ramerupt. The unmarked, ancient cemetery in which they are buried lies adjacent to a street called Street of the Great Cemetery. In 2005, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Gabbai, a man who renovates and repairs neglected gravesites of Jewish leaders around the world, helped determine the exact boundaries of the cemetery. In addition, a member of the Jewish religious community in Paris bought a house at the site and converted it into a beth midrash.
Rabbeinu Tam's best-known work is Sefer haYashar, which contained both novellae and responsa, its main purpose to resolve Talmudic textual problems without resorting to emendations of the received text. Even the best editions show considerable corruption of the original work, and all present editions of Sefer haYashar are fragments collected from it.