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Weiss, Yitsḥak Hirsh

(1815–1905), scholar of rabbinic literature. Born in Velké Meziříčí (Ger., Gross-Meseritsch) in the Habsburg province of Moravia, Yitsḥak Hirsh Weiss (known also by the German form of his name, Eisik Hirsch Weiss) attended heder in his native town. At the age of eight, he began studying at the local yeshiva, and spent the years 1828–1834 attending various other yeshivas in Moravia and Hungary.


Weiss then spent two years in Třebíč (Ger., Trebitsch) with Rabbi Ḥayim Yosef Pollak, two years in Eisenstadt with Mosheh Perls, and two years in Mikulov (Ger., Nikolsburg) with Neḥemyah Trebitsch. In his memoirs, Zikhronotai (1895), Weiss described his youthful peregrinations as a quest for a yeshiva with a suitable openness to secular learning. After his wanderings, Weiss returned to his parents’ home, where he read the writings of Naḥman Krochmal, Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport, Leopold Zunz, and Samuel David Luzzatto, the leading proponents of the scholarly study of Judaism.


Weiss led a yeshiva in Velké Meziříčí, and in 1846–1847, his first poems and scholarly articles on the Talmud appeared (written in Hebrew) in Kokhave Yitsḥak, a Hebrew periodical published in Vienna. In 1858, after experiencing financial losses, Weiss moved to Vienna, where he was hired as a Hebrew proofreader at the Zamorski and Dittmarsch publishing house. In 1864, he was appointed to be a lecturer at Adolf Jellinek’s newly founded seminary, Bet-ha-Midrash, a position he held for 41 years until his death in 1905.


Weiss’s first book, Oraḥ la-tsadik (1861; a midrash on Leviticus), was a compendium of ritual laws and customs. He followed this with a critical edition of Sifra’ de-ve Rav (1862). In 1864, Weiss became involved in the Kompert Affair, a cause célèbre in which Isaak Noah Mannheimer, a Viennese preacher, and Lazar Horwitz, a Viennese rabbi, were condemned by 70 Orthodox rabbis for allegedly denying the concept of a personal messiah. In a pamphlet titled Netsaḥ Yisra’el (1864), Weiss defended Mannheimer and Horwitz against their detractors. Weiss, in turn, was attacked by Nisan Schidow of Kolín in Neshek bar (1864).


Weiss subsequently edited Mishnah berakhot (1864) and the Mekhilta’ (1865; a midrash on Exodus), and wrote a study of Mishnaic language (Mishpat leshon ha-mishnah; 1867). In his introduction to the Mekhilta’, titled “Midot soferim,” Weiss subjected the text to historical criticism, challenging traditional conceptions of rabbinic history. This work set the stage for his five-volume magnum opus, Dor dor ve-dorshav (1871–1891), a history of the oral law from biblical times until after the Spanish Expulsion. Influenced by the historicism of Krochmal, Zacharias Frankel, and Heinrich Graetz, Weiss marshaled a vast number of rabbinic sources to argue that the hermeneutical principles of biblical exegesis had not been revealed to Moses at Sinai (as rabbinic tradition held), but had actually been derived by the scribes, a class of scholars during the Second Temple Period. At the same time, he ascribed to these hermeneutical principles an inherent rationality, thereby explaining why rabbinic tradition might have traced them back to Sinai in the first place.


Weiss’s impressive scholarship was praised by like-minded scholars and was even translated into Yiddish and English, but it was sharply criticized by traditionalists who considered his rejection of the Sinaitic origins of the oral law to be heretical. His harshest critic was Yitsḥak Halevy (1847–1914), an Orthodox rabbi and historian from Poland, whose six-volume Dorot ha-rishonim (1897–1939) aimed to refute the historical arguments of Weiss and others. Weiss also founded two periodicals for the scholarly study of Talmud, Bet ha-midrash (1865–1866) and, with Me’ir Friedman (1831–1908), Bet Talmud (1881–1886), in which many of his articles and rabbinic biographies appeared. In his eightieth year, Weiss published a memoir, Zikhronotai, an important source for the religious and intellectual history of Moravian Jewry in the first half of the nineteenth century. An abridged German translation was published as Meine Lehrjahre (1936).


One of Weiss’s sons, Nathan (1851–1883), worked with Sigmund Freud at Vienna’s General Hospital and committed suicide in 1883. Freud understood Nathan’s suicide as a reaction to his father’s unrelenting pressure to succeed.

Suggested Reading

Louis Ginzberg, Students, Scholars and Saints (1928; rpt., Lanham, Md., 1985), pp. 217–240; Jay Michael Harris, How Do We Know This?: Midrash and the Fragmentation of Modern Judaism (Albany, N.Y., 1995), pp. 202–206; Peter Landesmann, Rabbiner aus Wien (Vienna, 1997), pp. 111–113.

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