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August 5: The Plague and the Laws of Inheritance

Lawrence Bush
August 4, 2016

170px-GermanJews1In the wake of the Bubonic Plague, which peaked in the mid-14th century and killed tens of millions of Europeans, a rabbinical synod in Mainz, Germany on this date in 1381 revised the Takkanot Shum, laws of marriage and inheritance developed over the course of centuries by rabbis from Speyer, Worms and Mainz. The change they instituted permitted a childless widow to inherit a portion of her husband's estate if she or her brother-in-law refused to engage in a levirate marriage (that is, to follow a Biblical law mandating marriage between a widow and her brother-in-law). Prior to this ruling, Jewish inheritance law had not permitted a wife to inherit from her husband, not even the value of her own dowry.

"Illustrative of the dangers under which synods . . . convened is the synod of 1386 held in Weissefels, Saxony, consisting of both rabbis and laymen who were to deliberate on religious matters. The travelers had obtained safe-conduct passes from the Saxon princes. Nevertheless a party of German robber-nobles plundered them of their possessions, and held them until a substantial ransom was paid. A complaint to the princes who had issued the safe-conduct brought no redress since all agreed that 'the enemies of Christ' deserved no better treatment." --Jewish Virtual Library

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.