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Yitsḥak ben Shimshon ha-Kohen

(ca. 1560–1624), son-in-law of Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el (Maharal of Prague); scholar of midrash. Yitsḥak ben Shimshon ha-Kohen was born and died in Prague. According to family tradition, he served as rabbi in Nikolsburg and Vienna and was also a member of Prague’s rabbinic court. He was one of the circle of scholars in Prague who were colleagues and disciples of his father-in-law, Maharal of Prague. The group shared wide-ranging intellectual interests: halakhah and agadah, Kabbalah and Jewish philosophy, Bible and Hebrew poetry.


Yitsḥak’s major work was his 1613 commentary on a group of three midrashim: the Midrash on Psalms, the Midrash on Proverbs, and the Midrash on Samuel. He was talented in clarifying the interpretive connections between midrashic comments and the biblical verses that they explicate. As was true of his father-in-law, Yitsḥak ben Shimshon did not accept the literal accuracy of all midrashic claims—but he did insist on their profound religious meaning.


Yitsḥak also composed a Yiddish summary of midrashim that appeared in the Prague edition of the Pentateuch in Yiddish (1610). The version includes three texts: Yitsḥak’s summary of midrashim, a Yiddish translation of Rashi (which Yitsḥak may also have written), and a sixteenth-century literal Yiddish translation of the Pentateuch. Yitsḥak’s summary of midrashim awaits scholarly study; it was eclipsed in fame and influence by the similar Tsene-rene, which had been published a few years earlier.


A description of a purported 1592 interview between Maharal and Emperor Rudolph II is attributed to Yitsḥak and is said to have been found inscribed in a copy of the Bible belonging to him. It was published in the Hebrew weekly Ha-Magid in 1872, but is probably a forgery.


Yitsḥak edited a number of works for publication, including Maharal’s sermons and the responsa of Rabbi Me’ir of Rothenburg. To some of these he added an introduction or an introductory Hebrew poem. Some of his original comments on scripture are found in his 1607 edition of Pa‘neaḥ raza (Revealer of Secrets) by Yitsḥak ben Yehudah ha-Levi.


According to family tradition, Yitsḥak first married Maharal’s daughter Leah, and after her death married her sister Feigele. Yitsḥak and Feigele’s sons Ḥayim and Naftali both had distinguished careers in the rabbinate. Their daughter Ḥavah, who married Shemu’el Bacharach, the rabbi in Worms, was noted for her extraordinary piety and Torah learning. They had a third son, Shim‘on, and probably other daughters as well.

Suggested Reading

Otto Muneles, Ketovot mi-bet ha-‘almin ha-yehudi ha-‘atik bi-Prag (Jerusalem, 1988), pp. 286–288; Moses Meïr Perles, Megilat yuḥasin (Warsaw, 1863/64).

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