Our ShUM Jewish Tour is a fascinating journey through Speyer, Mainz and Worms, the three charming cities along the Rhine River which were the cradle of the European Jewry during the Middle Ages, forming an association that had a profound influence on the architecture, culture, religion, and jurisdiction of the European Jewish Diaspora. But what does ShUM mean? It’s the acronym formed out of the first letters of the medieval Hebrew names for the cities: Shpira, Wermaisa and Magenza. It reflects the intensity of their interrelations, and the intention to be perceived as one unique centre, with an immense significance for Jewish culture worldwide. Schum also means garlic in Hebrew, so it might not come as a surpise that the delicious bulb is a symbol of the Kehillot ShUM (the ShUM communities).
The earliest clear documentary evidence of a Jewish settlement in Mainz dates from 906 CE, while the Jewish presence in Worms can be traced back to 1034. When the Jews of Mainz were expelled in 1084, they were welcomed with open arms in Speyer. It was Rabbi Isaac ben Moses of Vienna, also known as Isaac Or Zarua, after his main work, who attested to the close association between the three neighbouring Jewish communities on the river Rhine, distinguishing between the leading role of the Kehillot Shum and those “in all the land of Ashkenaz.” He explained that “verily our teachers in Mainz, Worms and in Speyer belong to the most learned among the sages.”
The Kalonymos family, Rabbi Yehuda ben Meir and his pupil Rabbi Gershom ben Yehudah (the “Light of the Diaspora”), Isaac Halevi, and Jacob ben Yakar are among the scholars who are to this day associated with Shum, and it is the Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak (1040−1105), whose commentaries on the Torah and Talmud spread from here throughout the Jewish world. In 1146, the rabbis of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz were accorded the highest authority in halachic questions. Their enactments, Takkanot Shum, had an impact on the religious life of European Jewry that lasted centuries.
From the 11th century on, the ShUM communities were the "places to be" in the Jewish world, up until the devastating pogroms of the 1340s. Time and again, periods of prosperity and peaceful coexistence were shattered, first by marauding crusaders, then by the fury of mobs who accused the Jews of poisoning wells and spreading the plague. Expulsion alternated with re-admittance, and in 1471, the Jews were forced to abandon the territory of the archbishops of Mainz for a whole century. The Jewish communities that eventually settled again in the Shum cities were unable to revive the great tradition of the Middle Ages.
In 2012, the unique significance of the Shum communities and the influential role they played, were taken up by the municipalities to apply for inclusion in the list of Unesco World Heritage sites. Indeed, the significance and diversity of the ShUM’s jewish heritage are of universal value: the synagogues and ritual baths (mikvahot) in Speyer and Worms attest to new, trend-setting architectural forms; while the Jewish cemetery in Mainz is home to the oldest known gravestones north of the Alps.
Whether it be the New Synagogue in Mainz, the Jewish Culture Days in Worms or the SchPIRA Museum in Speyer, there are plenty of points of reference for a time-transcending journey of discovery in the structures and monuments, the traditions and narratives of the ShUM-cities, their changing history, their unbroken significance for Jewish remembrance and, last but not least, examining what Jewish life means today.
Delve with us into the unique and outstanding history of ShUM’s Jewish Heritage!
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