In the 11th century, Hai Gaon and Rashi refer to the country and language of “Ashkenaz” (referring to the area around the Rhineland, northern France and Germany). By the 12th and 13th centuries, equating Ashkenaz (and to a lesser extent Gomer) with the Germans/Germany becomes commonplace (eg, by Radak, Raaven, Rashba, Rosh, Tur, Rivash, the Machzor Vitry, etc), and it has remained the dominant term since. I’m interested in references prior to this time period.

What do the Talmudim and other rabbinic writings say about Germans and/or Germany? In antiquity, Germanic populations were known by a variety of names (Goths, Vandals, Germans, Teutons, Getae, Franks, Varangians, barbarians, Cimbri? etc) and migrated through many locations throughout the Roman Empire and the European continent.

There are a few rabbinic references that seem pretty indisputably to refer to Germans:

  • The bodyguard of Roman soldiers provided to Rabbi by Antoninus (Emperor Marcus Aurelius) (b. Avodah Zarah 10a-b). During a debate on the ability of a beit din to bring the Nasi to judgement and punishment, R. Resh Lakish offered an opinion which “Rabbi heard about and was angered, and sent Goths to seize Resh Lakish, who fled” (y. Sanhedrin 19d). The most natural interpretation is that the soldiers were German recruits to the Roman army who operated as the Nasi’s equivalent of the Varangian Guard. This may be related to the stories of Rabbi’s slave: in y. Shabbat 6:9/8c, Rabbi had a courageous slave named “Germania” (possibly from the Latin name Germanicus?) who saved R. Ila from a rabid dog attack. In the parallel passage in y. Yoma 8:5/45b, the slave is called “Germani”, and he is bitten by a rabid dog and Rabbi is unable to heal him.

  • The word Germani also appears in m. Negaim 2:1, which asserts that the laws of negaim apply to people from “Germani” (גרמני) and Cush, as was pointed out in this question. It is highly likely that the text is following the common merism in the Greco-Roman and rabbinic worlds pairing Germans/Scythians with Ethiopians/Barbarians to describe the northern and southern extremes of the world, as described in “Scythian-Barbarian: The Permutations of a Classical Topos in Jewish and Christian Texts of Late Antiquity” by David Goldenberg.

  • In Midrash Tehillim 25:19 it distinguishes the Goths from Edom: “If Esav hated Yacov he had good reason – for Yacov had taken the birthright from him. But as for the barbarian, the Gontim [generally considered to mean “Goths”] and the other nations, what have I even done to them that they should ‘bear a tyrannous hate against me’?” Gontim also appears in a quote of this passage in Yalkut Shimoni 702.

  • Another example that seems clear is from the midrash which describes that “the Holy One, blessed by He, made a (horse-)bit for Esav,” which R. Hama b. Hanina explained as, “The barbarians and the Germans of whom Edomites are afraid” (Bereshit Rabbah 75:9). The natural reading is that the Edomites are the Romans and their ‘bit’ to restrain them are the various Germanic tribes that were fighting them.

On the other end of the spectrum, much less clear are the references to a place/people called “Germamia” (גרממיא).

  • B. Megilla 6b says, “R. Yitzaq says again: What is meant by the verse, ‘Grant not, O Lord, the desires of the wicked man, do not further his plot, lest they exalt themselves, selah [Tehillim 140:9]? Yacov said before the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Master of the Universe, grant not to Esav the wicked the desire of his heart, do not further his plot.’ This refers to Germamia of Edom, for should they but go forth they would destroy the whole world … R. Hama b. Hanina says: There are 300 crowned heads in Germamia of Edom and 365 chiefs in Rome; and every day one set go forth to meet the other and one of them is killed and they have all the trouble of appointing a king again.” Rashi interprets “Germamia of Edom” as the name of a kingdom that descends from Edom (although the Talmudic context seems to indicate that Germamia and Edom are enemies and not related to each other; cf. Bereshit Rabbah 75:9 and Midrash Tehillim 25:19 above). The Yaavetz in his commentary on Rashi suggested that “Germamia” refers to Germania.

  • In b. Yoma 10a, y. Megilla 71b and Bereshit Rabbah 37:1-8, the sons of Yefet are linked to contemporary lands/peoples, with Gomer, Ashkenaz, Riphath and/or Torgamah explained as “Germamia”. R. Berekiah says “Germanicia”. In massechet Yoma, the Vilna Gaon corrected “Germamia” to “Germania” (and in MS Munich 6 the text says “Gothia”).

  • Though Germani, Germamia and Germanicia sound very similar to Germany/Germans, it is not clear on its face that they are actually referring to the same thing. Some argue that Germamia refers to the province of “Kerman” in southern Persia, and Germanicia refers to the city of Germanicia Caesarea (modern Kahramanmaraş in Turkey), and so are not related to Germanic peoples at all.

  • The Yerushalmi also mentions a place called “Gothia” which it associates with Magog (Bereshit 10; Yezeqiel 38-39), which does sound like a Latin word for “Goth-land” (y. Megilla 1:9, 1:11, 3:9, 71b). Though the parallel passage in the Bavli says Magog is “Kandia” (some suggest this is Crete) (Yoma 10a). (It may be relevant that the Church Father Ambrose of Milan [c. 390 CE] identified Gog and Magog with the Goths at around the same time period.) Gothia also appears in Targum Divrei haYamim 1:5 (135), which lists the children of Yefet.

References to Ashkenaz in the Seder of Amram Gaon, Hasdai’s letter to the Khazars, and Saadia Gaon's commentaries are ambiguous, and the dating and authoriship of those portions of the texts are disputed. The Sefer Yosippon (21) in the 10th century seems to be the earliest extant text that explicitly links Ashkenaz with Germanic lands/tribes: describing the Roman general Vespasian’s campaigns, it states “he came to the land of the West and Ashkenaz and Britannia and Saxonia and Iskotia”. The Seder Malkei Romi speaks of when the “Ashkenazim began to rule over the Romans”, apparently referring to the Gothic invasions of the Western Roman Empire, though the date of composition is unknown. And there are the works of Hai Gaon and Rashi which I’ve described above.

Have I missed any references? Are there any texts in the Tanakh or commentaries that are relevant?

So my questions boil down to: what are the meanings of Germamia/Germania/Gothia in the rabbinic texts (and Gomer and Ashkenaz in the pre-10th century texts)? Do they refer to what we would now consider to be Germanic tribes or lands? Have any prominent authorities or scholars examined this issue and come to any conclusions? What is the relationship to Edom?


Some more sources:

The Mishna (Nega'im 2:1) records that "in a German, the Bright Spot appears as dull white, and in an Ethiopian what is dull white appears as bright white." The German Ethopian pair is also recalled in Sifre of this passage and Bereshit Rabba 36:3 and the Midrash fragment Cambridge MS T-S C 1, 61.

Tanhuma-Yelammedenu (Parashat `Eqev) (MS JTS 5029) explains how a merchant who travels to the "sea nation" (מדינת הים = coastal nation?) of גרמימא does not know if he will make profit, while Torah study has guaranteed profit.

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  • 1
    How does this answer the question? The OP wasn't asking for references to Germany in Rabbinic Literature. – ezra Mar 11 '18 at 6:34
  • 1
    @ezra "Have I missed any references?" – Argon Mar 11 '18 at 14:52
  • Then I think this would be better suited as a comment. – ezra Mar 11 '18 at 16:26

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