||Important responsa whose role in the final formulation and fixing of the law and the ritual of Ashkenazi Jewry can hardly be overestimated. Collected, copied, and seriously studied for generations they greatly influenced the work of codifiers of the subsequent centuries and thus helped standardize legal procedure and civil law.
R. Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg (c. 1215–1293), teacher, scholar, tosafist, and supreme arbiter in ritual, legal, and community matters in Germany. He was born in Worms into a family of scholars, many members of which were important leaders in the communities of Germany. R. Meir's father Baruch was an outstanding member of this scholarly family. He was credited with a wide knowledge of talmudic lore, was a member of the bet din of the community of Worms, and was often chosen to act as judge. At the age of 12 R. Meir joined the well-known school of R. Isaac b. Moses, the author of the Or Zaru'a, in Wuerzburg, where he studied for about six years. While in that city R. Meir also studied under R. Samuel b. Menahem, in whose name, in later years, he quoted important decisions in law and ritual. Subsequently he moved to Mainz, where he studied under his relative R. Judah b. Moses ha-Kohen. Finally, he went to France and studied under the great tosafists R. Samuel b. Solomon of Falaise, also known as Sir Morel of Falaise, and R. Jehiel of Paris, known as Sir Vivo. Meir was in France in 1240 when these two teachers took part in the famous disputation with Nicolas Donin over the Talmud. He was still there two years later, in 1242, when he witnessed the public burning of the Talmud, on which occasion he wrote his famous elegy Sha'ali Serufah ba-Esh, "Inquire, oh thou who art burned by fire, about the welfare of those who mourn for thee..., " which is included to this day in the Kinot of the Ninth of Av according to the Ashkenazi rite.
R. Meir returned to Germany and within a few years settled in Rothenburg, where he remained for more than 40 years, until 1286. Students flocked to his school from all the communities of Germany and its neighboring countries. His fame as a great talmudic authority spread rapidly even to other countries. For nearly half a century Meir acted as the supreme court of appeals for Germany and its surrounding countries. Rabbis, judges, and members of courts of arbitration sent him their questions regarding law and ritual. He was the arbiter between communities and their members, between settlements and new settlers, and between various communities in their mutual relationships. They turned to him during their greatest crises. About a thousand of his responsa have survived, more than the combined number which have been preserved from all the other tosafists.
R. Meir sent his responsa to the communities of Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Italy, France, and even to R. Solomon b. Abraham Adret of Spain. In his lucid style and terse language he gave short, clear, and unequivocal answers to the inquirers. Sometimes he complains of the large number of responsa he is forced to write, apologizes for abbreviating the introductory greetings, is impatient with long and drawn-out questions, occasionally displays genuine anger when a case is repeatedly brought up before him because of persistent litigants, flares up in spirited temper when a litigant threatens to apply to the secular courts, and allows his passion to rise to a crescendo when confronted with serious crime. Sometimes he complained that those who addressed their queries to him overestimated his prerogatives as a talmudic scholar, and asked him to decide matters over which he had no jurisdiction. He was often unwilling to answer queries dealing with taxation, since the laws of taxation depended principally on local custom and procedures. He was very careful not to become involved in disputes and quarrels of the communities. Nevertheless, his opinion was often earnestly sought in matters involving community rights and taxes "in order to avoid the outbreak of a great quarrel."
R. Meir held no official position as judge, as head, or as chief rabbi, of German Jewry as a whole. He was neither elected to such a position by the communities, nor was he appointed to it by the emperor. It is true that during the last two decades of his life he often took a somewhat authoritative stand in his relation to the communities. He once convoked a synod of the communities and scholars, and urged them to adopt an ordinance to the effect that a rebellious wife when divorced should forfeit her right to her ketubbah. On one occasion he wrote to the Jews of Wuerzburg that they should change their customary procedure in the sale of real estate, and the change was adopted in spite of the fact that some members of that community were reluctant to abandon their ancient practice. In a responsum R. Meir wrote: "On many occasions have individuals, whose wealth consisted of ready cash, desired to transfer the burden of taxation to real estate owners, but we did not permit them to do so." This seems to imply that in such cases Meir exercised the authority of a chief rabbi, although a thorough study of his responsa proves that he held no such official position.
In order to reestablish the right of the emperor to tax the Jews, which really meant that the Jews were the slaves of the treasury of the empire, that their persons and their possessions were therefore the property of the treasury of the empire, and that the emperor therefore possessed the right to tax the Jews over and above the taxes they paid to the local rulers; and in 1286 Rudolph I did impose such a tax on Jews. As a result thousands of Jews decided to leave Germany. R. Meir, especially outraged at this attempt to enslave the Jews, became the leader of the widespread exodus. In the spring of 1286, he "set out to go across the sea together with his family, his daughters, and his sons-in-law." However, while he was waiting for his followers in Lombardy, he was recognized by an apostate who informed against him, with the result that the ruler of that town, Count Meinhardt of Goerz, arrested Meir and delivered him to Rudolph I. The emperor put him in prison, first in Wasserburg and then in Ensisheim, until the day of his death. The Jews made great efforts to effect the release of their beloved teacher - at one time agreeing to pay 23,000 pounds of silver to the emperor, but stipulating that the money was a payment of ransom and not of taxes - but without success. Rudolph I was determined to use the great devotion of the Jews to their teacher to force them to admit the right of the emperor to tax them. However, since a payment of taxes would be an admission that they were slaves, the Jews found it impossible to agree. R. Meir, therefore, remained in prison, and even after his death in 1293, his perfectly preserved body was not delivered to the Jews until 1307 when it was redeemed by Alexander b. Salomo Wimpfen for a large sum of money and buried in Worms.