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The Maharal of Prague

It is always nice to have a proper year and place of birth for a notable person, but with Judah Loew things are not that simple. Judah, also spelled Yehudah, was born either in the German city of Worms or in the Polish Poznan, at some time between 1520 and 1525. He worked as a rabbi in Prague for a while and became the Chief Rabbi there in 1597 and remained so until he died in 1609. He was an outstanding scholar and produced many works on Jewish law, philosophy and morality, as well as mathematics. He also introduced the new and revolutionary concept of teaching little boys according to their maturity, of actually making sure they understood what they learned. He was a respected and beloved man, and people called him the Maharal, which is an acronym for Moraynu HaReav Yehudah Loew ben B'zalel - Our teacher Judah Loew, son of Bezalel.

The Maharal was a friend of the scientist Tycho Brahe and met Emperor Rudolph II at least once. His conversation with the Emperor remains a secret, but is thought to have revolved around mysticism. Some legends say he cleverly convinced the Emperor not to banish the Jews from the city. The more famous legend about the Maharal says that he created the Golem of Prague to defend his people from pogroms.

Rabbi Loew's grave at the famous Jewish graveyard of Prague is even today presented with coins and papernotes of wishes. There is also a statue of him in front of the City Hall, raised in 1917 and hidden from the occupying Germans during the war. It is probably the only statue of a rabbi in any capital in the world.

The Early Years

Maharal was born Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel, as noted above either in Posen in Poland in 1512, or in Worms in what is now eastern France in 1525. What is known is that he was born on the night of the Passover Seder, the traditional family meal. Maharal's family, the family having that meal that night, was a family of Rabbis who, it is said, were able to trace their lineage back to King David. He was the youngest of four brothers, and grew up learning. Finally, at the age of 32, he married, having six girls and one boy. 7 years later, in 1553 he was made Chief Rabbi of Nikolsburg and the Province of Moravia, where he remained for the following 20 years.

It was at this point that he was given the name 'Maharal'. Many famous Rabbi's are given names like this which are made up of the first letters of their name. For example, Rabbi Shimon Itzchaki became known as Rashi, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon became known as Rambam, and, in this case, Our Teacher the Rabbi Loew (pronounced Lerve), or Moreinu Ha Rav Loew, became Maharal.

The Maisels Yeshiva

In 1573, the leadership of the Jewish community in Prague was very corrupt. They were selfish, they took bribes and they generally didn't work to better the lives of the residents of the Jewish ghetto of Prague, which was called Joseph's Town, or Josefov. All except one man. His name was Mordechai Maisels, and he worked tirelessly throughout his life to help the people of Josefov. He was a banker who worked in Prague castle. Over the course of his life (in no particular order), he:

  • Built the High Synagogue
  • Built the Jewish Town Hall (now community centre and Shalom Restaurant)
  • Built a School
  • Built a ritual bath, or Mikveh
  • Built a Poor House
  • Built the Chevra Kedisha building and Tahara house, where the administration of the burial society was housed and where bodies were prepared for burial.
  • Purchased extra land for the Cemetary
  • Paved the streets of Josefov
  • Built the Maisels Synagogue
  • Built the Klausen Synagogue
  • Built the Yeshivah (institute of Jewish learning) in the upper story of the Klausen Synagogue
  • Paid 90% of the town's taxes out of his own pocket

    Having built a Yeshiva, and not being a Rabbi himself, he needed a headmaster, or Rosh Yeshiva. The 'Yeshiva' that Maisels built was essentially a small room behind the womens' gallery in a relatively small synagogue, but even so, Maisels asked the Chief Rabbi of Nikolsburg and the Province of Moravia, Maharal, to be his Rosh Yeshiva (the cheek!). Even more incredibly, Maharal accepted.

    Maharal set up the Maisels Yeshiva to be the most radical Yeshiva in Europe. He decreed that tuition would no longer be for the rich, it would be for everyone, and therefore it would be free of charge. He declared that learning in the Maisels Yeshiva would be purely for the sake of learning, or Torah Lishma, and therefore the ordination of Rabbis, or the giving of Smicha, would not happen in the Maisels Yeshiva. He declared that study should be about learning ethics and meanings, and therefore study by the micro-analysis of grammar, or Pilpul, would not be taught. He changed the order of study from learning just Talmud, to learning the five Books of Moses, or Chumash, then Talmud. He said that people should be taught when they were intellectually ready, and hence young boys would not learn Talmud until they were older, and in the most part, the teaching of very young boys would not happen at all.

    The radical nature of the Yeshiva changed the Prague community, and eventually the European Jewish community in its entirety.

    Maharal also spoke out against the corrupt leadership of the town (except for Maisels), and therefore earned himself the status of Peoples' Hero.

    The Stories of the Maharal

    Even though he only spent 30 years in Prague, around a third of his life, it is for this period of his life that he is best known. Many stories are told of the Maharal, the most famous of which is the story of his creation of the Golem of Prague. The Golem is covered in a number of other nodes, so I shall not touch on it here, save to say that it is somewhat ironic that a man who revolutionised Jewish learning, wrote many commentaries on a number of different books, opened up new ways of analysing texts and helped the Prague Jewish community immensely is best known for something which, in all likelihood didn't happen, and which he probably would have disapproved of anyway.

    Many stories of the Maharal revolve around the Maharal's ability to see a person's misdeeds, which is shown in the first two stories

    The Count who Wished to Learn Kabbalah

    There once lived a wealthy Count in Prague who took an interest in the occult, alchemy and the Philosopher's Stone. He learned that Maharal was a learned man who knew a lot about the Kabbalah, and so he invited Maharal to his castle. On his arrival, the Count ordered Maharal to teach him everything that he knew of the Kabbalah, a request which Maharal refused, since the Count was not Jewish. The Count insisted, and threatened to report a blood libel to the Emperor, and so Maharal was forced to begin the Count's studies at once.

    The Count led Maharal to a darkened room in which he conducted his mystical studies. The room was full of foreboding, it was dark, empty and contained only a single lamp. Maharal fell into silence and spent several minutes thinking, and finally asked the count, in a grave voice:

    "Are you free of all guilt? If you are not, the guilt that you carry could lead you into great danger, and most certainly will be your undoing and ruin."

    The count assured Maharal that he was indeed free of all guilt, but then a woman with a young child appeared behind the Count. Immediately the Count became very, very scared. Maharal Asked who they were, and in a quaking voice, the Count replied:

    "It looks like my sister and her child, but it cannot be, for they are both dead."

    Maharal rose to his full height and declared in a great voice that one of the spectral figures was indeed his sister, but the other was not just her child, but also his. The Count gazed at the Maharal with a look of horror, as Maharal pronounced the Count's crimes:

    "You raped your sister, and you killed them both to cover up your sin."

    The Count fainted, but when he came to his senses, he proposed a deal with Maharal: Maharal would keep the Count's secret on pain of a blood libel against the Jews, and the Count would abandon his study of the occult. But every night after that, the Count was haunted by dreams of his sister and their child, and he ended up a broken and ruined man, as Maharal had predicted.

    The Scroll that Fell

    This story took place during the time of the Golem of Prague. On one Yom Kippur day, the Day of Atonement, one of the worshippers who had been called to lift the Torah scroll lost his grip and dropped it. The congregation was deeply unsettled. There followed a period of fasting, and there were many prophesies of untold doom for the community.

    Maharal worried about this incident and prayed for an answer. In his dreams, he was given one, in the form of overhearing an angel saying a cryptic stream of letters and words which Maharal could not recognise. When he awoke, he remembered the words, but had no clue as to what they meant. He decided to write down each letter on a separate piece of paper, and gave the pieces of paper to the Golem, who immediately rearranged them. Maharal looked at the new order of letters, and recognised the initials of the verse of the Torah You shall not lie with your neighbour's wife and defile her. Maharal instantly knew that this was the crime of the man who had dropped the scroll. He confronted the man, who, knowing Maharal's powers of perception and realising that there was no escape, confessed instantly. He and the woman he had sinned with were then punished according to the law.

    The Maharal and the Bridge

    When the Emperor Rudolf II issued a decree banishing all Jews from Prague, the community begged Maharal to intercede with the Emperor. When he was refused an audience by the Emperor he made his way to the Stone Bridge (now the Charles Bridge) at the time when the Emperor's coach was about to cross it. As the coach approached, Maharal walked out of the crowd and stood in the middle of the road. The crowd started shouting obscenities at Maharal, and tried to drive him away. They threw stones, manure and mud at him, but just before they struck him they miraculously turned into fresh flowers. At this moment, the Emperor's coach drove up. The crowd was sure that Maharal would be trampled to death underneath the hooves of the horses, but he held his ground, barring the passage of the horses. The horses rode nearer and nearer, and, at the final moment as the crowd was sure that Maharal was about to be trampled, the horses stopped so suddenly that they appeared statue-like. On observing all this, the Emperor motioned to Maharal, who then approached the coach and handed the Emperor a petition signed by all of the residents of Josefov. The Emperor immediately saw his error and revoked the decree.

    The Falling Ceiling

    The emperor Rudolf II and his courtiers were having dinner one night, and, in a state of inebriation, desired entertainment. The best magicians, clowns and musicians were brought from all over Prague, but none were able to amuse the assembled guests. Eventually, the Emperor decided to summon Maharal in order that, through his magic art, he might evoke and humanise the great figures of Jewish patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons. Maharal agreed to the request on one condition: G-d's power was not be used lightly, and the figures about to be viewed were no unimportant, therefore at no point were the assembled audience to laugh at or ridicule any of the figures, a request to which the Emperor acquiesced.

    The figures of forefathers gradually appeared before all those present, including the emperor. First came the majestic figure of Avram (Abraham), then the tenacious Yitzchak (Isaac), then the wise Yaakov (Jacob), and each of his sons in turn. Everyone gazed in wonderment at the dignified forefathers of the Jewish nation until Jacob's son, Naphtali appeared among them. Contrary to the others he was small, red haired and freckled. The Emperor and his courtiers, feeling that Naphtali's appearance was comical, could not refrain from laughing when they set eyes on him. Maharal was enraged by the breaking of the Emperor's promise, and caused the ceiling of the room began to droop lower and lower. Not one of those present was capable of moving and everyone sat as though frozen. Finally the Emperor apologised and begged, and so Maharal stopped the ceiling from dropping further through the strength of his will. However, it never returned to its original height. The lowered ceiling still exists in one of the state rooms in Prague Castle

    The Emperor's Dream

    Some time later, the Emperor Rudolph II issued another decree to expel the Jews of Prague. Aware of this, the Maharal caused the Emperor to have a dream in which he imagined himself swimming in a lake in the forest after a long hunting expedition. The story taking place before the days of swimming costumes, the Emperor swam naked, and when he got out of the lake, he realised that his clothes had been stolen! Humiliated and bereft of the symbols of his finery, he wandered through the forest to every house he could find in search of shelter and clothes. All who saw him did not believe he was the Emperor and shunned him. Only one old man agreed to take him in, fed and clothed him (albeit in peasants rags, for that was all that the man could afford) and even cut his hair and fingernails. Grateful for the man's kindness, but puzzled because he felt that he recognised the man but could not place him, the Emperor agreed to grant the man any favour, to which the man asked that the expulsion order against the Jews be rescinded. The Emperor then awoke from his dream and reassured himself that it had all just been a dream and thought nothing more of it. He went back to sleep and awoke in the morning to find the rags which had been given to him and the cuttings from his hair and fingernails on a silver plate next to his bed! Somewhat startled, the Emperor thought long and hard about his dream, and finally realised who the man who had fed and clothed him had been: it had been the Maharal! He called for Maharal, who was brought to the Castle immediately. On seeing Maharal, the Emperor once again realised the error of his ways and agreed not to expel the Jews.

    The Later Years

    After 19 years as Rosh Yeshiva of the Maisels Yeshiva, in 1592, Maharal moved to Posen, the town which some say he was born in, where he was made Chief Rabbi. Six years later, in 1598, Maharal came back to Prague, this time as Chief Rabbi of that city. He died there in 1609, at the age of either 97 or 84 (depending on which story of his birth is correct). At certain points in history, Jewish communities can be said to have had a 'Golden Age'. This happens when there is an outpouring of Rabbinic and religious innovation, a healthy relationship with the local community and a secure financial situation. Due to Maharal's relationship with the Emperor Rudolph the Second, and his innovations in the Klausen Yeshivah, he can be said to have been on of the key driving forces in the Golden Age of Jewish Prague.

    Sources

  • Gabriel's Palace by Howard Schwartz.
  • Jewish Europe touring notes by Richard Goldstein and Jeremy Leigh
  • http://sigloxxi.il.tripod.com.mx/mitorah/id71.html
  • http://www.loebtree.com/
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