The Maharal: His Life and Works

On the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Maharal’s death, we present several articles highlighting the enormous intellectual and spiritual contribution Maharal has made to Jewish life.

imageThe 18th of Elul, 5709 (September 7, 2009), marks the 400th yahrtzeit of an extraordinary figure in Jewish history: the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehudah Loew.

Few details are known about Maharal’s personal life. The exact year of his birth is shrouded in doubt; some say it was 1512, others say it was 1525. Born in the city of Posen, Poland, Maharal served at various times in his life as chief rabbi of Moravia, rosh yeshivah of Die Klaus, a yeshivah he established, and chief rabbi of Prague.

Maharal was described by his contemporary, the historian David Gans, as the “wonder of our generations by whose light all the nations traverse. . . .”

He was severely critical of the contemporary educational system for introducing children to subjects beyond their capacity. For example, he disapproved of the fact that children were taught Tosafot at an age he considered much too young.

Well versed in the science of his day, he was friendly with distinguished non-Jewish astronomers such as Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe. He debated Christian scholars and included some of these debates in his sefarim. He was admired by Emperor Rudolph II of Moravia, who invited him to the royal palace—though the subject of their discussion is unknown.

Perhaps Maharal’s greatest contribution was his innovative approach to interpreting the Aggadic portion of the Talmud, as well as his original thinking regarding concepts such as the Churban (Destruction of the Temple), galut (exile) and Torah, especially the Oral Law. Interestingly, nowhere in all of his extensive writings does he quote his teachers. His main disciple was Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller Halevi, who wrote an important commentary on the Mishnah.

Somewhat surprisingly, after the initial printing of Maharal’s many works, none were republished for almost 200 years. In the eighteenth century, the Chassidic masters began publishing them. Recent years have seen a renewed interest in Maharal’s thought. Particular note should be made of the multi-volume edition of Maharal’s writings by Rabbi Yehoshua Hartman, one of the contributors to this issue.

Matis Greenblatt is literary editor of Jewish Action.

This article was featured in the Fall 2009 issue of Jewish Action.
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