Annual prayer service at grave of Yehudah Löw. Prague Burial Society. Oil on canvas, ca. 1830. (Jewish Museum in Prague)

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Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el

(d. 1609), rabbi and scholar, known as Maharal of Prague. Yehudah Leib (or Löw [Heb., Liva’]; Maharal is an acronym based on the honorific Morenu ha-Rav Liva’, “our teacher, the Rabbi Löw”) was respected as an important halakhist—he was cited as authoritative, for example, by Yo’el Sirkes in Bayit ḥadash—but his fame was the result of his theological works: he brought the medieval genre of exposition of agadah (nonlegal Talmudic literature) to its peak in early modern times. Maharal’s extensive output took different forms—straightforward commentaries on Talmudic legends; commentaries on specific religious literature (the Talmudic tractate Avot, the Passover Haggadah, the legends in Rashi’s commentary on the Torah); and other works organized by subjects, historical and ethical—yet he was always true to his own method of detailed analysis and exposition of the sayings of ancient sages. Working within this traditional model, which he perfected, he presented a unique worldview, one of the most creative and original systems of thought developed by East European Jewry.

The date of Maharal’s birth is unknown. It is said that he was born in Poznań in 1512; if that is correct, he lived nearly 100 years. Atypically with respect to Jewish scholars and leaders, we do not know who his teachers were; this is unusual because the prestige and authority of one’s teachings usually derive from the fame and authority of one’s masters. Instead, Maharal presented himself as an autodidact. He married the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Prague, and thus was able to devote himself to his scholarly work.

Maharal was one of the most prominent leaders of European Jewry in the sixteenth century. He served as rabbi in Nikolsburg (he had moved there in 1553) and then returned to Prague in 1573; he was a rabbi in Poznań from 1584 to 1588, and then lived the rest of his life in Prague. His polemical nature led to many disputes with his contemporaries.

Rabbi Löw and the Golem. Mikoláš Aleš, 1899. Ink on paper. National Gallery in Prague. (Photograph © 2006 National Gallery in Prague)

Maharal’s discourse employs the terminology of medieval Jewish rationalistic thinkers and derives many ideas from classical philosophy, yet his system and worldview are not rationalistic. He does not use kabbalistic terminology, though he was familiar with it, and he rejects most basic kabbalistic ideas. Attempts to connect him with Jewish mystical traditions have failed. For instance, the theurgic aspect of kabbalistic thought—bearing on the influence of human behavior on the nature of God—is not central in his system. Rather, Maharal presented a system of natural order, devised by God, that regulates all aspects of world and human behavior.

At the center of the system is the distinction between matter and form, the physical and the spiritual. The people of Israel represent the spiritual, and they are essentially different from all other creatures; the existence and welfare of Israel constitutes the purpose of creation. Like Yehudah ha-Levi in the High Middle Ages, Maharal postulated that non-Jews represented the material aspect of existence, which should be subservient to the spiritual. Israel’s existence in exile is an aberration of the natural, divine order, and therefore its situation cannot endure; it must be rectified. Thus Maharal’s thought is messianic in nature, even though he did not preach, or believe in, imminent messianic redemption.

Maharal opposed the halakhic discourse (pilpul) of his time as pointless and wasteful, and as primarily serving the ambitious and arrogant; he accordingly devised a program of reform of Jewish education that emphasized the progressive study of classic Jewish texts. Some scholars have compared him to Comenius (the seventeenth-century educational theorist), though no evidence of specific contact between them has been found. Maharal was aware of the great discoveries of his time—the Copernican revolution as well as the discovery of America—but they had no impact on his thought. He also categorically opposed the new, critical approach to Jewish history expressed in ‘Azaryah dei Rossi’s Me’or ‘enayim (1573–1575) and dedicated a polemical chapter in his Be’er ha-golah (1598) to criticizing it. He saw in dei Rossi’s historical-critical approach a threat to the unquestioned authority of the sacred texts and the veracity of tradition. On the other hand, he had no objection to the study of scientific subjects such as mathematics and astronomy.

Maharal’s most influential work was the comprehensive ethical treatise Netivot ‘olam (1596); each chapter analyzes one major Jewish ethical-spiritual norm. His first printed work was Gur aryeh (1578), a metacommentary on Rashi’s commentary on the Torah (actually, a commentary on the aggadic sayings that Rashi chose for his commentary). Be’er ha-golah (1598) offers commentaries on difficult and obscure Talmudic sayings and polemical discussions; Netsaḥ Yisra’el (1599) addresses Israel’s position in the world; Tif’eret Yisra’el (1599) discusses the Torah and the commandments. These and other monographs were reprinted often, but Maharal’s main work—his commentary on the Talmudic legends (agadah)—was only published in the twentieth century, in a series of volumes in Jerusalem (1958–1961) and London (1960).

Legends that took shape many generations after his death connected Maharal with alchemical knowledge and witchcraft. Scholars have also tried to connect him with the cultural renaissance in Bohemia in the sixteenth century and the atmosphere of religious tolerance that prevailed there for a short time. There is no definite evidence of any such connection, however. Maharal became famous in the twentieth century because of the legend of the creation of a golem, but there is no basis for the historical association of Maharal with these legends, which contradict his intellectual position and are late, arbitrary inventions.

Maharal’s influence in modern times was enhanced when he was adopted by some Hasidic circles as a spiritual authority and his books were published by them—most importantly, by Tsadok ha-Kohen of Lublin. Early in the twentieth century, Yehudah Yudl Rosenberg published a forged commentary on the Passover Haggadah, presenting it as being Maharal’s, along with the collection of legends Nifle’ot Maharal (1909), which spread the legend of the golem. Avraham Yitsḥak Kook, one of the great original thinkers of the twentieth century, praised the teachings of Maharal and viewed him as one of his major sources.

Suggested Reading

Joseph Dan, Sifrut ha-musar veha-derush (Jerusalem, 1975), pp. 242–264; Jacob Elbaum, “Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague and his Attitude to the Aggadah,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 22 (1971): 28–47; Avraham Gitesdiner (Avraham Hakohen ‘Ovadyah), Ha-Maharal mi-Prag: Ḥayav, tekufato ve-torato (Jerusalem, 1975/76); Benjamin Gross, “Les empires et Israël dans la vision messianique du Maharal de Prague,” Pardès 36 (2004): 215–224; Aharon Fritz Kleinberger, Ha-Maḥashavah ha-pedagogit shel ha-Maharal mi-Pra’g (Jerusalem, 1961/62); Otto Dov Kulka, “Comenius and Maharal: The Historical Background of the Parallels in Their Teachings,” Judaica bohemiae 27.1–2 (1991): 17–30; Sid Z. Leiman, “The Adventure of the Maharal of Prague in London: R. Yudl Rosenberg and the Golem of Prague,” Tradition 36.1 (2002): 26–58; André Neher, Le puits de l’exil: La théologie dialectique du Maharal de Prague, 1512–1609 (Paris, 1966); Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer, “Maharal’s Conception of Law: Antithesis to Natural Law Theory,” Jewish Law Annual 6 (1987): 109–125.