The Maharal: His Approach, His Innovations and His Position as a Teacher of Posterity

This article attempts to define the unique approach of Maharal and to explain why he occupies such a central place in Jewish thought.

imageThe Maharal says of himself that his objective, in all of his numerous works, is purely to explain the aggadot of Chazal. This objective, to demonstrate the depth of our Sages’ thinking, underlies all of Maharal’s works.

Thus, Maharal writes:
. . . The truth of the Sages’ words has been clarified for you, and in their words is nothing but Divine wisdom, very elevated . . . for our intention is to show the common people a small portion of the dignity and splendor of the Sages (Be’er
HaGolah, Be’er HaSheni; see comments 262 and 266).

But perhaps the quintessence of this idea is expressed towards the end of Be’er HaShelishi, where, having explained a dictum of the Sages, the Maharal gives ardent expression to his wonder at the Sages’ wisdom:

And now, if you comprehend the words that have been explained here, and you understand for yourself that not everything can be written down, your heart will marvel at this sight, how they interpreted Scripture in such great depth, and did so with truth and extreme precision . . . and every wise and understanding man will wonder at how closely their words embrace the peshat, with such astonishing depth. And a man to whom these words of wisdom are alien will wonder at their distance from the meaning of the text, and their words will not seem fitting to him. . . . Similarly with all the words of derash found in the Talmud and all the rest of the midrashim there is not one of them, great or small, whose words lack the depth of Scripture in accord with its true meaning; when one delves into the meaning of Scripture one finds it. For this is why it is called “derashah,” because it is a process of demanding, with extremely insistent interrogation, until the deep level of Scripture is reached.

Indeed, we find much pain expressed in Maharal’s works over his generation’s failure to show proper respect for the words of our Sages.

An Approach to Studying Maharal
In only one place does Maharal tell us what sources he draws upon for his elucidations of the Sages’ words. At the beginning of Be’er HaChamishi, he writes:

We shall find some points of interest in their words that might seem far-fetched; they are indecipherable in their context, but their secret is clearly revealed elsewhere—for example, the Midrash on Sefer HaZohar, or the Midrash HaBahir by Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah, and other books of wisdom that are kept hidden in the libraries of the wise. And these works reveal concealed aspects of Torah that the Sages spoke of in hints.

Only in one place does he mention his teachers (albeit without naming them), and that is in his sermon for Shabbat HaGadol, where he explains the Blessing of the Kohanim. And finally, in only one place do we find Maharal addressing his reader directly, and instructing him in the proper way of approaching his works (Be’er HaGolah, at the beginning of Be’er HaRevi’i):

I prostrate myself with arms and legs stretched out before the reader, and ask two gracious favors: one, that if he should read these words and find that they do not enter his heart, he should go back, read them again, and contemplate them some more, for these things will only enter the reader’s heart through much study. So it is with all words of truth and rectitude; they seem distant when one first begins to ponder them, but eventually they are revealed, and they shine bright as the noonday sun. My second request is that if, after all this, these words still do not enter his heart, let it be as if they had never been said at all. And although an explanation has been stated and it has not entered the heart of the one who has studied it, let it not be said that there is then no reasonable explanation, and that, God forbid, some lack in the words of the Sages is to blame. For in that case, my purpose would come to ruin, causing the reader to think badly of the Sages’ words . . . and therefore I ask and plead that he grant me this, that if after consideration he still does not accept these ideas, he should let them go, and let them be as if they had not been said at all, and let the Sages’ words be like a sealed book to him, just as they were before these things were said.

A Classic Disagreement
Maharal thus became a “Geviha ben Pesisa,” a spokesman for the Sages, and, as a result, he came to disagree fiercely with one of the great Rishonim who had a different approach, namely, Ibn Ezra. In the introduction to his commentary on the Torah, Ibn Ezra explains that he does not intend to incorporate midrashim of the Sages that are not in line with his way of interpreting Scripture. This led Maharal, in a number of instances, to disagree sharply with Ibn Ezra. One classic example of this:

In Otiot d’Rabbi Akiva, the Sages say that when the Holy One, blessed be He, was about to create the world, the twenty-two letters of the Alef Bet came and stood before Him. Each one requested, “Create the world with me.” Eventually the letter bet came forward and said, “Master of the Universe, is it Your will to create Your world with me? For with me those who come to the world offer praise before You every day, as is said, ‘Baruch Hashem l’olam, amen v’amen’; ‘Barchu Hashem melachav,’ and so forth.” The Holy One, blessed be He, immediately accepted this argument . . . and with her, He created the world, as is said, “Bereishit bara.”

The simple explanation of the midrash is that since “baruch” starts with the letter bet, this letter indicates blessing. Ibn Ezra, however, objects to this. Maharal quotes him as follows:

Harav Avraham ben Ezra of blessed memory forcefully questioned this midrash, saying, “How could [Hashem] begin [Creation] with bet because it contains blessing, when ‘bohu,’ ‘buka’ . . . and many other words denoting quite the opposite of blessing also start with bet?”

To this claim, Maharal retorts:
Begging his honor’s pardon, it seems as though he did not understand these words of the Sages, [which mean to say that] bet itself is the blessing, for it is the beginning of increase, which is the essence of blessing. And the most decisive sign . . . [of this] is that its numerical value is two, the first plural number. . . . For the root of the word berachah is berech, all of whose letters represent the concept of two: bet in units, kaf in tens, and reish in hundreds, and thus bet itself is a sign of blessing.

It emerges, therefore, that the word “berachah” is not the reason for the importance of the letter bet, but rather the word indicates the importance of the letter due to the word’s special composition. Maharal’s explanation is an uplifting example of his advocacy for the preciousness of the Sages’ every word.

Four Basic Principles of the Maharal
1. Asking Simple Questions
Maharal poses simple, straightforward questions in his commentaries. Indeed, often when one studies them, one wonders why he didn’t ask them himself.

For example, in Gevurot Hashem (chap. 60), we find:

One must ask the following: we have seen that Hashem, may He be blessed, gave a command concerning the Pesach offering “because He passed over” [the homes of Children of Israel in the plague of the firstborn]. And yet we have seen that none of the plagues struck Israel, so why should this plague have come upon Israel any more than the others? To strengthen our question even more, they [the Sages] said that when a Jew and an Egyptian drank [from the same water source], one would drink blood and the other, water.

Throughout his writings, Maharal poses such questions.

2. Viewing Events from a Divine Standpoint
The Torah tells us, “And a man went forth from the house of Levi, and took a daughter of Levi. And the woman became pregnant, and she bore a son . . .” (Shemot 2:1-2). Why aren’t the names of Moshe Rabbeinu’s parents mentioned?

According to the Gur Aryeh on Shemot 1:19:

One will see that Scripture does not mention Yocheved, Miriam and Aharon by name until after the birth of Moshe, for in the subsequent passage (below, 2:1) it says, “And a man went forth from the house of Levi, and took a daughter of Levi.” [The Torah] did not want to mention the father and mother of Moshe by name until Moshe’s birth, to tell you that Moshe was prepared for the redemption from the Six Days of Creation—ancestry was not the essential thing in his case, and if a name had been given to his father before [mentioning] his birth, it would have implied that his parentage was the essential thing, and that for himself [i.e., Amram] and his unique identity, the Holy One blessed be He gave him Moshe, like any father who, as an individual, is the direct cause of the son. Accordingly, [the Torah] did not mention [Amram’s] name, for in the case of Moshe’s birth, the father was not the particular cause, only in terms of the natural order, whereby any father brings a child into the world, but there was no cause peculiar to him in this case. In the case of all other children, if this man were not the father, this son would not come into the world, but this is not true of Moshe, for although Amram was better prepared for Moshe, in any event it was necessary that Moshe come into the world. . . and if it had not been Amram, it would have been someone else, for Moshe had already been formed during the Six Days of Creation.”

Thus the birth of Moshe Rabbeinu was a Divine event, unlike the birth of other children born of woman, and this is indicated by the omission of his parents’ names.

As a general principle, Maharal held that nature itself is an expression of the Divine will. Consequently, death does not occur because a person’s health gradually deteriorates until he dies. On the contrary, since death has been decreed on man, his powers must deteriorate as he approaches death.

In Be’er HaShishi, he writes:

The Sages did not speak from the point of view of natural cause, for natural cause is a petty thing that is the business of scientists or physicians, not of Sages. Rather, they spoke of the cause that compels nature . . . for everything has a natural cause that compels it, and behind that natural cause is a Divine cause, the cause of the cause, and of this the Sages spoke. There is a natural cause for the form of man and the number of his organs, and without a doubt there is a natural operative behind this. Nonetheless, this natural cause has a Divine cause, of which the Torah says (Bereishit 1:27), “God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him.”

Maharal also explains his understanding of nature in Tiferet Yisrael (8: 133):

Therefore, anyone who attributes a reason for mitzvot based on the workings of nature, saying [for instance] that the Torah prohibited pork because it engenders a bad set of conditions in the body (and this is certainly true), or who attributes [a similar reason] to the prohibition of cheilev [forbidden fats], and blood, and all the more so crawling creatures and unclean birds—and reasons based on nature have been attributed to all these mitzvot, as if the Torah were a book of medicine or natural science—God forbid that one should say such a thing. If it were as they say, [then what do we make of] the first chapter of Chullin (17) where it says, “And houses full of all good things . . .” (Devarim 6:11)—Rabbi Yirmiyah said in the name of Rav that he permitted kotlei d’chaziri [desiccated pork] to them [to Bnei Yisrael upon their entry to Eretz Yisrael]. And if the prohibition were based on a bad set of bodily conditions, then where has the prohibition gone? And if cheilev has a bad physical composition, then why is the cheilev of a ben pakua [fetus] permitted? . . . And although it is true that all these things have a bad physical composition, and this will surely give rise to bad effects as well, nevertheless this is not the essential purpose of the mitzvah; it merely shows that these things are not suitable for man according to the order that Hashem arranged, and therefore the Torah banned them in some cases and not in others. . . . This is the meaning of the Sages’ statement (Torat Kohanim Kedoshim) that a person should not say, “I can’t abide pork; I can’t abide such-and-such,” but rather, “I might very well desire it, but what can I do, since my Father in Heaven has decreed upon me [that I may not have it].” With this statement they taught that one should not say the Torah is based on nature, for if it were based on nature, there would be no room in it for Divine reward for something natural; this is why one should say, by nature I might desire this thing, but Hashem in His wisdom decreed that it is not suitable for man with his unique human soul.

3. The Sages’ Words Cannot Be Expressed Differently
In Be’er HaRishon, Maharal writes: When the Sages interpret the Torah, one should not think that their words did not necessarily have to be expressed just so, and that they are subject to alteration. Their words are necessarily as they are, and are not to be budged.

Here is an example of this idea:

The Torah says (Bereishit 8:8-12) [Noah] sent out the dove to see if the waters had receded from the surface of the earth. And the dove did not find a resting spot for her foot, and she returned to him, to the ark, for there was water over all the land, and he stretched out his hand and took her, and brought her to him, to the ark. And he waited another seven days, and again he sent the dove out from the ark. And the dove came to him towards evening, and behold, he had plucked (taraf) an olive leaf in her beak (befihah). . . .

In the passage, the word taraf, “plucked,” is written in the masculine form, while befihah, “in her beak,” is in the feminine form. Commenting on this anomaly, Rashi states, “I say that it was a male, and this is why it is referred to sometimes in the masculine form and sometimes in the feminine, for every dove mentioned in Scripture is written in the feminine gender. . . .” Rashi goes on to quote several pesukim from Tanach where yonim, doves, are linked with feminine verbs.

Ramban disagrees: “And all this is incorrect in my view, for shifting the mention of doves from feminine to masculine in just one place seems pointless; if all doves are spoken of in the feminine form, why is it different here?

In Gur Aryeh, Maharal addresses this difficulty:

“I say it was a male . . .” (Rashi). And if you should say, if so, then it should all be written in the masculine form, or all in the feminine form; what is different here, that all the rest of the passage is in the feminine, and this one word taraf is in the masculine? It would seem to me that Noah sent out a male because the male brings sustenance to the female, and therefore it says, “and behold, he had plucked (taraf) an olive leaf”—and had not eaten it, as it is the way of the male to acquire food and bring it to the female . . . and so it is written, that the male hunts food for the female, as is written (Nachum 2:13), “The lion hunted enough for his cubs and strangled for his lionesses . . .” from which we understand that it is the way of the male to bring food for the female. This is why [Noah] sent a male, and not a female. Likewise with the raven, he sent the male, not the female, for the same reason, and Ramban’s problem is now solved.

4. The Sages’ Words Are Not to Be Interpreted by Umdena
In his introduction to Derech Chaim, Maharal writes:

For there is no doubt that the words of the Sages are very deep, and their words were not said in a process of assumed meaning and deduction, as some people think and interpret their words. Rather, every one of their statements contains very deep wisdom, and, accordingly, interpreting their words also requires understanding and much consideration. . . .

In Gur Aryeh on Bereishit, 28:11, Maharal says:

Furthermore, know that if you seek words of wisdom like a buried treasure, then you will find a store of precious articles that they have hidden away. But the simpleton thinks they are exclusively words of derashah and that they only said what they did as a manner of expounding. And you should not think so; think rather that every one of their words is at the root of the Torah.

This principle of Maharal’s is so fundamental to his whole approach that we ought to examine it at length.

Absence of Umdena: The Most Salient Characteristic of the Maharal’s Approach
What idea did Maharal emphasize repeatedly?

The central point of his approach: interpreting the words of the Sages must be done in a similar manner to the way the Sages themselves formulated their statements. And since their words are very deep, and were not derived through an ordinary process of evaluation, they should be interpreted in a similar manner, with understanding and deep contemplation, and not through axioms. This principle is mentioned many times in Maharal’s works.

In Derech Chaim, he states it even more emphatically than in his other works. In Chapter 1, note 43, he writes: This is the meaning of the Sages’ words, without a doubt, and not the way people interpret [them] through umdena [accepting what seems obvious] and through logical deduction, for the things we have said are words of wisdom.

Just what is Maharal excluding when he states so emphatically that the Sages’ words are not to be interpreted by way of umdena and deductive reasoning?

It seems that in every instance where Maharal repudiated reliance on an umdena, he was contrasting the concept of umdena with the concept of chachmah (translated here as wisdom). Although umdena is close to a certainty, it is not within the scope of compelling chachmah, for it does not apprehend the meaning in a manner that is intrinsic and unalterable, but in a manner that is external and negotiable. Only chachmah apprehends the meaning through the Sages’ esoteric understanding, in such a way that no other interpretation can be applied. As Maharal writes in Derech Chaim (3:18):

“A matter [of doubt] like this is not called intelligence and wisdom . . . and properly, every wisdom should be certain, but that which is in doubt does not enter the category of wisdom. And it is fitting to speak only of things that are necessarily [true], not of things that are [merely] possible, which do not enter the category of wisdom.” Therefore, one should not interpret the words of the Sages through assessment and reasoning, for with this approach one does not fathom the inner kernel of their words, even though the umdena is close to a certainty.

Here is the core of the matter: the difference between chachmah and umdena is that even though both are respectable applications of the human intellect, chachmah is built on roots that preceded it; chachmah is a stem rising directly from the root. Umdena, on the other hand (as well as sevarah, deductive reasoning), belongs to the realm of here and now; it does not stem from an esoteric body of ancient wisdom. It emerges that Maharal’s approach is drawn from esoteric wisdom, unlike the approach of other commentaries.

Maharal expresses these ideas in several places. He contrasts umdena not only with chachmah, but with chachmah eliyonah, “sublime wisdom,” specifically. As he writes in Netzach Yisrael, at the end of chapter 7:

In these words you will find testimony concerning divrei chachamim, that all their words are words of wisdom . . . and if you contemplate very deeply, you will find that all these words are truth, and they emerge from esoteric wisdom.

Now, we have already determined that in Maharal’s approach, the method of interpreting the Sages’ words must be suited to the nature of the words themselves, and therefore, if the Sages’ words emerge from sublime esoteric wisdom, then his commentary on their words also stems from this hidden inner core.

An example of this is found in Derech Chaim (chap. 2). Mishnah 8 quotes the statements of five disciples of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai in answer to the question, “What is the good path that a person should choose?” Then, in mishnah 9, they speak of bad ways that a person should avoid. In this mishnah, four of the five Sages say just the opposite of what they had said in mishnah 8 (a “bad eye” as opposed to a “good eye,” a bad friend as opposed to a good friend, and so on). The exception is Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel, who uses the phrase in mishnah 8 “one who foresees the consequences,” and in mishnah 9 says, “one who borrows and does not repay.” There is no obvious parallel between Rabbi Shimon’s two answers; one would have expected him to say, “one who fails to foresee the consequences” in reply to the second question. Here, in one of the few instances in which Maharal briefly mentions Rambam, he writes:

And Rambam of blessed memory explains Rabbi Shimon’s answer, “one who borrows and does not repay,” as an example of not foreseeing the consequences, for [the lender] will bar his door to [the borrower], and refuse to give him any more loans. But how far-fetched this interpretation is, for it only strengthens the supposition that [Rabbi Shimon] should have said “one who does not foresee the consequences,” and this would have included all cases of failure to foresee the consequences of anything one does, parallel to the important trait of foreseeing the consequences that he mentioned before.

Maharal goes on to explain why Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel specifically names the trait of borrowing and not repaying, and hints that one who delves deeply into this matter “will find a secret of holy ones.” While Rambam’s explanation does not make it clear why the Tanna chose this illustration of a delinquent borrower rather than simply saying “one who fails to foresee the consequences,” according to Maharal’s explanation, Rabbi Shimon’s answer absolutely must be what it is, and he could not possibly have offered any other illustration.

We have merely touched upon the holy fundamentals that were bequeathed to us by the giant of the generations, our teacher, the Maharal of Prague. Not for nothing was his name sanctified in Israel and all who mention him do so with holy trepidation. One who plummets his holy works and who meditates on them constantly will find himself saying “Blessed is He who selected them and their Mishnah.” Today, just 400 years since Maharal’s departure from this world do we see how his Torah quenches the thirst of those who yearn to penetrate the depths of the words of the Sages, and through the Torah of the Maharal is fulfilled the blessing of “the great voice (of Sinai) that never ceases.”

Rabbi Yehoshua Hartman is currently head of the beit midrash program at Hasmonean High School in London. He has been a teacher in many institutions throughout his career. A student of Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, he is in the process of editing the complete works of the Maharal of Prague. He has already completed twenty-six volumes and will publish approximately ten more.

This article was featured in the Fall 2009 issue of Jewish Action.
We'd like to hear what you think about this article. Post a comment or email us at