Saturday, 12 March 2022

375) New research on Maharal of Prague


Maharal is buried in the Old Jewish Cemetary in Prague


There has been a recent resurge of interest in R. Yehuda Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal (Moreinu haRav Loew) of Prague (1520/5-1609). His legacy has been largely veiled by legend. However, the study of some hitherto unknown, unpublished or neglected manuscripts in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, by Professor Pawel Sladek[1] upon whose research I have drawn, may shed some light on his “intellectual biography”.

Who were Maharal’s teachers?

Sladek (2017:5) begins by asking:

Who were the Maharal’s teachers and why did he never mention their names, if naming one’s master was de rigueur among the rabbinic scholars?... What was the perception of the Maharal among his contemporaries and what was the source of his authority?

a) R. Shalom Shachna

Sladek suggests that Maharal studied in Lublin in the yeshiva of R. Shalom Shachna (1510-1558) who was also the teacher (and father-in-law) of R. Moshe Isserless, known as Ramah. This yeshiva taught both Talmud as well as Kabbalah, and R. Shalom Schachna gained equal rights to those in Polish universities with the permission of the King. Some have therefore referred to his yeshiva as the “Jewish Oxford”. 

Because of Shalom Shachna’s great modesty, only one of his works has been published[2] as he expressly forbid his son from printing his writings. The identification of Shalom Shachna as Maharal’s teacher is new information because:

[u]p to now, historians could only guess where the Maharal spent his yeshivah years.

And until recently it was suggested that:

the Maharal did not have a specific teacher and was a product of collective study (Sladek 2017:8).

Support for this notion that Shalom Shachna may have taught Maharal can be found in a piece of writing by Maharal’s student, R. Yehuda Leib ben Ovadiah Eilenburg who wrote about his elusive teacher’s teacher in quite a cryptic manner. He simply referred to him as מהר״ש ז״ל:

ומה ששמעתי מפי רבותי ובפרט ממורי מהר״רי בצלאל שקבל מרבו מהר״ש ז״ל

Sladek takes this short text as support for the notion that Maharal’s teacher, מהר״ש, was indeed Moreinu haRav R. S(halom Shachna).

By identifying Maharal’s teacher as Shalom Shachna, who refused to have his teachings committed to writing, we may also perhaps begin to understand why Maharal was reluctant to quote his sources and why he left no significant halachic works. Shalom Shachna subscribed to the view that Halacha (Jewish law) must always follow the most recent halachic opinion (not the oldest opinion which many might think would make it the more authoritative). This is known as Halacha ke’batrai, which means the law follows the latest or most recent opinion. By writing down his rulings, Shalom Shachna was worried that later generations might want to follow his judgements and not the rulings of more contemporary rabbis, so he refused to commit his thoughts to writing.

Shalom Shachna’s son, Yisrael was later to explain his father’s position:

I know that [if I write such a book, future authorities] will rule exclusively as I write, in view of the principle that ‘The Law is decided according to the last authority’, but I do not wish people to rely upon me.[3]

Maharal appears to somewhat reflect this very teaching of Shalom Shachna, when he writes:

Indeed, a scholar has only what his own intellect grasps and understands from the Talmud. Even if his insight and wisdom mislead him, despite all this he is beloved by the Lord because he rules in consonance with what his intellect obliges him, since ‘a judge only has what his eyes can see’.

Although Maharal, by contrast to his teacher Shalom Shachna, wrote prolifically, there is scarce evidence of his writings being widely received by his contemporaries and he was also “extremely reluctant in referencing his sources” (Sladek 2017:6), which makes it difficult to study his influences. Although born around 1525, he only became well-known later in life, when he moved to Prague from Moravia in 1573.[4]

Sladek (2017:24) explains why Maharal is known chiefly for his theological writings and not for his halachic works:

If the Maharal is regarded as a halakhist who fully shared Shalom Shakhnah’s opposition to publishing in print or even writing down halakhic rulings, there is no more need to speculate why this prolific author left no major halakhic work.

b) R. Yitzchak Sefaradi 

Another of these little-known manuscripts may reveal the name of another of Maharal’s teachers - a former teacher - when Maharal was much younger. That early teacher appears to have been R. Yitzchak Sefaradi of Jerusalem, who also taught Maharal’s older brother, Chaim (author of Be’er Mayim Chaim, a supercommentary on Rashi). The identification of both these teachers is relatively new information.

Why did Maharal not openly mention his main teacher?

Having possibly identified two of Maharal’s teachers, particularly his main teacher Shalom Shachna, the question begs; why did Maharal not identify his teacher himself? The answer to this question may lie in the understanding of just who Shalom Shachna was in terms of his approach to Torah study. Shalom Shachna was the student of R. Yakov Pollak (1460/70-1541) who was the founder of the dialectic, extremely argumentative and mental gymnastic style of Talmud study, known as pilpul.

Maharal was theologically very much opposed to the approach of the pilpulists, because he regarded it as intellectually deceitful. Sladek (2017:11) explains:

The Maharal uses different derogative adjectives about pilpul, typically pointing to its de-substantiation: ‘vane’ (pilpul shel hevel), ‘empty’ (pilpul rek).

Maharal held the view that Torah study had cosmic significance. But that Torah had to be pure, untainted by pilpul. Maharal writes:

The principle of the Torah is when man derives a practical ruling. And such thing must emerge from the Torah because the Torah is rational – and this is the Talmud, which is rational and from thence the practical rulings must be derived. And this is indeed the sustenance of the world, which rests on the Torah.[5]

Maharal’s theology can be described as comprising two poles; the study of Talmud and deriving Halacha le’ma’aseh or practical law from it. Pilpul would interfere with and contaminate that direct transition from Talmud to Halacha.

It is for this reason, Sladek suggests, that Maharal never mentions the name of his teacher, Shalom Shachna, who was known to have been one of the foremost students of Yakov Pollak, the founder of the school of pilpul.

This is a fascinating theory concerning the theological tension involving a student and a teacher in conflict and deserves further attention.

Maharal’s acquaintance with non-Rabbinic literature

Sladek (2017:7) suggests that Maharal was acquainted with non-Rabbinic literature as well. These included philosophical texts that Maharal references, such as haShamayim ve’haOlam (a Hebrew translation of Themistius’ paraphrase of Aristotle’s De caelo) in his Beer haGolah. Similarly, in his Derech haChaim, Maharal references Neveh Shalom, written by R. Avraham ben Yitzchak Shalom (d.1492). Neveh Shalom consists of “Averroes’s commentaries on Aristotle and upon medieval Jewish philosophical writings”.[6] Sladek (2017:7) suggests:

The Maharal’s deep interest in texts that were not part of the Ashkenazic library might have been incited by his early encounter with a scholar who most likely was one of the exiles from the Iberian Peninsula, and who as a teacher probably carried with him a little library containing texts of Sephardic origin and used them in his classes.

This is interesting in light of the fact that many Ashkenazi rabbis were opposed to the literature that was coming into central Europe from Spanish and Portuguese refugees from the Expulsions of 1492 and 1497.[7] Yet Maharal appeared to go against the grain and was open to their ideology.

Maharal only becomes well-known in the twentieth century

Sladek (2017:12) describes Maharal as “an isolated figure” whose work was only really appreciated in the twentieth century. His voluminous works were hardly cited (aside from his Gur Aryeh) during his own time.

Maharal and his ban on rabbinic ordination from Moravia[8]

Maharal protested very strongly against those in Moravia who apparently frequently ignored the ban on consuming non-Jewish wine:

We ban under threat of excommunication anyone in the Land of Moravia from obtaining rabbinic ordination. Not even if it were known that he himself observes the prohibition of non-Jewish wine. It is impossible to believe him! He can still today deviate from the prohibition, derived from our Torah and tomorrow he can do wrong in compliance with the majority… No approbation will be issued either in the [Moravian] land proper or outside the [Moravian] land to anyone who resides in the Moravian land unless it is well-known that he observed the aforementioned prohibition for many preceding years of his life. Then we can say about him: Since many years of his life passed and he did not overstep this prohibition, he will not commit this sin in the future and it is permitted to give him the approbation… The disruption is far-reaching and so this ban and the threat of excommunication shall not be lifted until people correct their behaviour and observe this prohibition.[9]

Sladek (2017:13) suggests that Maharal felt so strongly about the Moravians who had apparently no regard for upholding this prohibition, that he relocated from Moravia to Prague in 1573. Sladek (2017:14), however, points out that:

The Maharal demonstrated here his readiness to enforce religious observance even at the risk of violating the cohesion of the communities over which he exercised his authority. If our interpretation of the document is correct, it might insinuate that the Maharal’s departure from Moravia was not voluntary. It might also explain why it took some ten years before he could again aspire to official rabbinic function… it must have generated strong reluctance to hire the Maharal as a communal rabbi again.

Removing a scholar from Prague

Another manuscript reveals that Maharal could be quite ruthless when it came to his “intellectual rivals”. Meir ben Eleazar Perels (1666-1739) documents a case where Maharal expelled a scholar, Yitzchak ben Yekutiel Katz-Kuskes who had encroached on his scholarly space by commenting on Maimonides’ Eight Chapters (Shemoneh Perakim, which is Rambam’s introduction to Mishnah Pirkei Avot). Until Maharal’s time, the study of Mishna had been neglected and he strove to have it reinstated as an important part of the study curriculum.[10] Apparently, Maharal got upset when another scholar entered his territory.


It is always interesting to see how much information is still waiting to be discovered about great rabbinic sages, and often in the most unlikely places. This is particularly so for rabbis like Maharal whose legacy is mostly known through hagiographical accounts. The mention of Maharal is almost always related to the story of the Golem, but as we have seen, he had another side as well. (Incidentally, the earliest known source for the story of the Golem only surfaces from as late as 1834).

Sladek (2017:23) writes:

The sources discussed above demonstrate that although the Maharal’s biography will almost certainly remain fragmentary, much can be inferred from disparate bits of information scattered sometimes in seemingly unrelated material.

What also emerges from this study is that if it is correct that Maharal, following in the footsteps of his teacher Shalom Shachna, was reluctant to publicise his writings, then:

The renown and respect that the Maharal enjoyed from contemporary scholars does not seem to be the result of the reception of his voluminous writings but rather of his radical views of rabbinic authority and the ruthlessness with which he was ready to carry his ideas through.

Again, if this is correct, the way Maharal is viewed today may be different from the way he was viewed during his lifetime, and it may also account for why he only really began to emerge in the limelight and be appreciated from as late as the twentieth century.

[1] Sladek, P., 2017, ‘Admiration and Fear: New Perspectives on the Personality of the Maharal’, in Judaica Bohemiae, vol. 52, no. 2, 5-31.

[2] Pesakim beInyan Kiddushin.

[3] Moses Isserles, Responsa, Kraków 1640, fol. 63v.

[4] David Gans, Tzemah David, Prague: Solomon Kohen – Moses Kohen (Katz), 1592, Part 1, fol. 64v.

[5] Maharal, Netivot Olam, vol. 1, 69.

[6] Zonta, M., Hebrew Scholasticism in the Fifteenth Century: A History and Source Book, Amsterdam Studies in Jewish Thought, 165.

[7] Reiner, E., 1997, ‘The Attitude of Ashkenazi Society to the New Science in the Sixteenth Century’, Science in Context, 10, no. 4, 589–603.

[8] Moravia is a historical region in the east of the Czech Republic and one of three historical Czech lands, with Bohemia and Czech Silesia.

[9] Derush al haTorah (ed. Honig), London, n. d., 63.

[10] See Faleck, D., 2008, The Revival of Mishnah Study in the Early Modern Period David Faleck, College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal, University of Pennsylvania, 35, 51.

1 comment:

  1. "Another manuscript reveals that Maharal could be quite ruthless when it came to his “intellectual rivals”. Meir ben Eleazar Perels (1666-1739) documents a case where Maharal expelled a scholar, Yitzchak ben Yekutiel Katz-Kuskes who had encroached on his scholarly space by commenting on Maimonides’ Eight Chapters (Shemoneh Perakim, which is Rambam’s introduction to Mishnah Pirkei Avot). Until Maharal’s time, the study of Mishna had been neglected and he strove to have it reinstated as an important part of the study curriculum.[10] Apparently, Maharal got upset when another scholar entered his territory."

    What an uncharitable interpretation! Here is Sladek's translation of the original source:

    And from here he went to the community of Poznañ, which was a consequence of the argument which he had in the religious and scholarly matters with the luminary mhr”r Leva, of blessed memory. And later the saying ‘They fought over a book but finally love prevailed between them’ proved to be valid about them and the scholars negotiated peace between them and he could return to Pragueץ

    Here is the original:

    ובא לק' פוזנן מכאן ע"י מחלוקת שהי' לו לשם שמי' ובדברי תורה עם הגאון מהר"ר ליווא ז"ל. ואח"כ נתקיים את והב בסופה ופייסו רבנן אהדדי וחזר לפראג

    Here is how he should have translated (changes in bold):

    And from here he went to the community of Poznañ, which was a consequence of the argument which he had for the sake of heaven in matters of Torah study with the luminary mhr”r Leva, of blessed memory. And later the saying ‘But finally love prevailed between them’ proved to be valid about them and the scholars appeased each other and he returned to Prague.

    The document was heavily distorted. Each of these four incorrect or questionable translations are intended to make the Maharal look bad.

    1. לשם שמים does not mean "religious matters." It means "for the sake of heaven." The translator chose to hide the fact that the source quoted believes that the dispute was for the sake of heaven.
    2. "They fought over a book" translates בספר מלחמות ה' - which does not appear in the original text; he only supposes that the author meant to hint at the unquoted part of the verse. But the source is only emphasizing את והב בסופה - that they made peace at the end of a dispute.
    3. "The scholars negotiated peace between them" is wrong. The source says they "appeased each other," apparently implying that both sides admitted some fault.
    4. "And he could return" is small but egregious. Sladek calls this section in the article "Expelling a Scholar from Prague." But there is no indication that he was expelled at all. All we know from the source is that he left and came back after making peace with the Maharal, not that the Maharal or anyone else expelled him.

    Finally, the conclusions from the distorted reading are no less problematic. Sladek thinks the so-called "fight over a book" just so happens to be related to the manuscript that contains this piece of biographical information (he actually appears to have authored at least two other books in manuscript listed on by כץ, יצחק בן יקותיאל). Because historians associate the Maharal with a revival of interest in the Mishnah (not untrue), he thinks that when someone comes along writing a commentary based on (not on) the Rambam's introduction to one tractate of the Mishnah - which the Maharal certainly seldom if ever refers to - then because there is a weak link to something that made some use of a Mishnah-related text then he must have "entered the proximity of the Maharal’s own mental space"?! The Maharal's mental space is not as tiny as he thinks.