Yehudah ben Betzalel Loewe (Maharal)

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Tomb of Judah Loew ben Bezalel in Prague

Judah Loew ben Bezalel ("Judah Loew son of Bezalel", also written as Yehudah ben Bezalel Levai [or Loew], 1525 – September 17 1609 or Elul 18, 5369 according to the Hebrew calendar) was an important Talmudic scholar, Jewish mystic and philosopher who served as a leading rabbi in Prague (now in the Czech Republic) for most of his life.

He is widely known to scholars of Judaism as the Maharal of Prague, or simply as the Maharal (מהר"ל - MaHaRaL is the Hebrew acronym of Moreinu ha-Rav Loew, "Our Teacher the Rabbi Loew"). His descendants' surnames include Loewy and Lowy.

Within the world of Torah and Talmudic scholarship, he is known for his works on Jewish philosophy and Jewish mysticism and his supercommentary on Rashi's Torah commentary known as Gur Aryeh al HaTorah.

The Maharal is particularly known for the story about the golem, which he supposedly created using mystical magical powers based on the esoteric knowledge of how God created Adam.

According to the legend, he did this to defend the Jews of the Prague Ghetto from antisemitic attacks against them; particularly false blood libels emanating from certain prejudiced quarters.

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Main article Judaism and Other Religions

Rabbi Yehudah ben Betzalel Loewe (c. 1525-1609) was an eclectic Renaissance Jewish thinker who served as rabbi in Posen and Prague. His system, like many others in the early modern era, Jewish and non-Jewish, worked by creating binary pairs: in this case the redeemed world’s sustaining Jews and their opponents the gentiles. Maharal built his theology more on Midrash with its apocalyptic and typological themes than on Biblical or philosophic universalism. The ancient struggles of Israel with the seven wicked nations and Amalek are ever with us.

Israel and Edom are inverse and opposite–when one is in ascent then the other is in descent (Sanhedrin 21b)
At the beginning, Israel is connected to the nations like a shell around a fruit. At the end, the fruit is separated from the shell completely and Israel is separated from them. (Gevurat Hashem 23)

Maharal embraces separation and particularism. Where Yehudah Halevi used the metaphor of the fruit to refer to the branch religions that sprout with Judaism, Maharal gives the metaphor the opposite valence: Israel is the fruit whose connection with the other nations – the shell – only decreases with time. This opposition between Israel and the world – Edom – is real and absolute, a zero-sum game where cooperation is not conceivable.


View of the synagogue of Rabbi Loew, the Old New Synagogue, Prague from the north-west with Jewish Town Hall to rear.

The Maharal was probably born in Poznań (now in Poland) to Rabbi Bezalel (Loew), whose family originated from the German town of Worms. His uncle Jacob was Reichsrabbiner ("Rabbi of the Reich") of the Holy Roman Empire, his brother Chaim of Friedberg a famous rabbinical scholar. Traditionally it is believed that the Maharal's family descended from the Babylonian Exilarchs (during the era of the geonim) and therefore also from the Davidic dynasty. He received his formal education in various yeshivas (Talmudical schools).

He was independently wealthy, probably as a result of his father's successful business enterprises. He accepted a rabbinical position in 1553 as Landesrabbiner of Moravia at Mikulov (Nikolsburg), directing community affairs but also determining which tractate of the Talmud was to be studied in the communities in that province. He also revised the community statutes on the election and taxation process. Although he retired from Moravia in 1588 at age 60, the communities still considered him an authority long after that.

One of his activities in Moravia was the rallying against slanderous slurs on legitimacy (Nadler) that were spread in the community against certain families and could ruin the finding of a marriage partner (known as shidduchim within Orthodox Judaism) for the children of those families. This phenomenon even affected his own family. He used one of the two yearly grand sermons (between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur 1583) to denounce the phenomenon.

He moved back to Prague in 1588, where he again accepted a rabbinical position, replacing the retired Isaac Hayoth. He immediately reiterated his views on Nadler. On 23 February 1592, he had an audience with Emperor Rudolf II, which he attended together with his brother Sinai and his son-in-law Isaac Cohen; Prince Bertier was present with the emperor. The conversation seems to have been related to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) a subject which held much fascination for the emperor.

In 1592, the Maharal moved to Posen, where he had been elected as Chief Rabbi of Poland. In Posen he composed Netivoth Olam and part of Derech Chaim (see below). Towards the end of his life he moved back to Prague, where he died in 1609. He is buried there; his tomb is a famous tourist attraction.

His name

His second name (possible also his family's second name - depending on varying sources) of "Löw" or "Loew", derived from the German Löwe, "lion" (cf. the Yiddish Leib of the same origin), which is a kinnuy or substitute name for the Hebrew Judah or Yehuda, as this name - originally of the tribe of Judah - is traditionally associated with a lion. In the Book of Genesis, the patriarch Jacob refers to his son Judah as a Gur Aryeh, a "Young Lion" (Genesis 49:9) when blessing him [1]. In Jewish naming tradition the Hebrew name and the substitute name are often combined as a pair, as in this case. The Maharal's classic work on the Rashi commentary of the Pentateuch is called the Gur Aryeh al HaTorah, in Hebrew: "Young Lion [commenting] upon the Torah". The Maharal's tomb in Prague is decorated with a heraldic shield with a lion with two intertwined tails, alluding both to his first name and to Bohemia, the arms of which has a two-tailed lion.



It is unknown how many Talmudic rabbinical scholars the Maharal taught in Moravia, but the main disciples from the Prague period include Rabbis Yom Tov Lipmann Heller and David Ganz. The former promoted his teacher's program of regular Mishnah study by the masses, and composed his Tosefoth Yom Tov (a Mishnah commentary incorporated into almost all published editions of the Mishnah over the past few hundred years) with this goal in mind. David Ganz died young, but produced the work Tzemach David, a work of Jewish and general history, as well as writing on astronomy; both the MaHaRal and Ganz were in contact with Tycho Brahe, the famous astronomer.

Jewish philosophy

In the words of a modern writer, the Maharal "prevented the Balkanization of Jewish thought" (Adlerstein 2000, citing Rabbi Nachman Bulman). His systematic and analytical approach to Jewish philosophy has made his works to Jewish philosophy what the Shulkhan Arukh is for halakha (practical Jewish law).

His works inspired the Polish branch of Hasidism, as well as a more recent wave of Torah scholars originating from Lithuania, most markedly Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953) as well as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1864-1935). A recent authority who had roots in both traditions was Rabbi Isaac Hutner (1906-1980). Rabbi Hutner succinctly defined the ethos of the Maharal's teachings as being Nistar BeLashon Nigleh, meaning (in Hebrew): "The Hidden in the language of the Revealed". As a mark of his devotion to the ways of the Maharal, Rabbi Hutner bestowed the name of the Maharal's key work the Gur Aryeh upon a branch of the yeshiva he headed when he established its kollel (a yeshiva for post-graduate Talmud scholars) which then became a division of the Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in New York during the 1950s, known as Kollel Gur Aryeh. Both of these institutions, and the graduates they produce, continue to emphasize the serious teachings of the Maharal. Rabbi Hutner in turn also maintained that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) (Germany, 19th century) must also have been influenced by the Maharal's ideas basing his seemingly rationalistic Weltanschauung on the more abstract and abstruse teachings of the hard-to-understand Jewish Kabbalah.

Rabbi Judah Loew was not a champion of the open study of Kabbalah as such, and none of his works are in any way openly devoted to it. According to him, only the greatest of Torah scholars are able to discern his true original inspirations and the intellectual framework for his ideas in their complex entirety. Nevertheless, Kabbalistic ideas permeate his writings in a rational and philosophic tone. His main Kabbalistic influences appear to have been the Zohar and Sefer Yetzirah, as Lurianic Kabbalah had not by that time reached Europe.

Although he could not reconcile himself to the investigations of Azariah di Rossi, he diffused the tension between the Aggada (narrative, non-legal parts of the Talmud) and rationalism by his allegorical interpretations of difficult passages. He was entirely in favor of scientific research in so far as the latter did not contradict divine revelation, all the while insisting on finding deep meaning in all the contributions of Talmudic teachers.


Main article: Golem

The legend of his creation of a golem inspired Gustav Meyrink's 1915 novel Der Golem. Various other books have been inspired by this legend, the authenticity of which has been doubted; although the Golem motif is old, the connection between the Golem on the one hand and the Maharal and Prague on the other is known only from ca. 1840. Maharal is featured in He, She and It) and the Dutch work De Procedure ("The Procedure", Harry Mulisch, 1999), both retelling the Golem legend. A poem by Jorge Luis Borges, entitled El Golem also tells the story of Judah Loew (Judá León) and his giving birth to the Golem. In that poem, Borges quotes the works of German Jewish philosopher Gershom Scholem. "The Maharal" by Yaakov Dovid Shulman (in English) questions if the stories about the golem are true.


It is claimed in some circles of Orthodox Judaism, and in the book "The Lubavitcher Rebbe's Memoirs" that the Maharal's lineage is from the Davidic line running all the way back to the original Judah. The Maharal's synagogue in Prague, the Altneushul, is still in use.


  • Gur Aryeh ("Young Lion", see above), a supercommentary on Rashi's Pentateuch commentary
  • Netivoth Olam ("Pathways of the World"), a work of ethics
  • Tif'ereth Yisrael ("The Glory of Israel"), philosophical exposition on the Torah, intended for the holiday of Shavuoth
  • Gevuroth Hashem ("God's Might[y Acts]"), for the holiday of Passover
  • Netzach Yisrael ("The Eternity of Israel"; Netzach "eternity", has the same root as the word for victory), on Tisha B'Av (an annual day of mourning about the destruction of the Temple) and the deliverance
  • Ner Mitzvah ("The Candle of the Commandment"), on Hanukkah
  • Or Chadash ("A New Light"), on Purim
  • Derech Chaim ("Way of Life"), a commentary on the Mishnah tractate Avoth
  • Be'er ha-Golah ("The Well of the Diaspora"), an apologetic work on the Talmud, mainly responding to interpretations by the Italian scholar Azariah di Rossi (min ha-Adumim)
  • Chiddushei Aggadot ("Novellae on the Aggada", the narrative portions of the Talmud), discovered in the 20th century
  • Derashot (collected "Sermons")
  • Divrei Negidim ("Words of Rectors"), a commentary on the Seder of Pesach, published by a descendant
  • Various other works, such as his responsa and works on the Jewish Sabbath and the holidays of Sukkot, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, have not been preserved.

His works on the holidays bear titles that were inspired by the Biblical verse in I Chronicles 29:11: "Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, and the might, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and on the earth [is Yours]; Yours is the kingdom and [You are He] Who is exalted over everything as the Leader." The book of "greatness" (gedula) on the Sabbath was not preserved, but the book of "power" (gevurah) is Gevurath Hashem, the book of glory is Tif'ereth Yisrael, and the book of "eternity" or "victory" (netzach) is Netzach Yisrael.


  • Adlerstein Y. Be'er Hagolah: The Classic Defense of Rabbinic Judaism Through the Profundity of the Aggadah. New York, NY: Mesorah Publications, 2000. ISBN 1-57819-463-6.

See also

External links