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The Maharal
of Prague
(5285-5369)

Rabbi Judah ben Bezalel Lowe was born about the year 5285, probably in Posen. He became famous as a great Talmudic scholar at an early age. In his late twenties, he was invited to become the Rabbi in Nikolsburg, Moravia, a position which he held for about twenty years. His greatest fame, however, came to him as the spiritual head of the Jewish community in- Prague, then the main center of central European Jewry. In Prague, the Maharal established the great Talmudic Academy known as the Klaus. (The ancient building of the Klaus burned down about eighty years after his death and was subsequently rebuilt and named the Klaus Synagogue.) Among his famous disciples were, Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, and Rabbi David Ganz, who were among the most Famous Talmudists of their age. The Maharal won the admiration of his great contemporaries ­Rabbi Solomon Luria (Maharshal), Rabbi Meir (Maharam) of Lublin, and others, who called him affectionately, "The iron pillar supporting Israel"; "Our breath of life"; "The marvel of the age."

The Maharal also became famous among non-Jews for his great secular knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, and other sciences. He was a great friend of the astronomer Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. These in turn introduced him to Emperor Rudolph II. According to many legends, the emperor paid him frequent visits during the night, to discuss with him both politics and science, and Rabbi Judah Lowe made use of these excellent connections to the advantage of his community whenever it was threatened by attacks or oppression.

Rabbi Judah Lowe wrote many works on rabbinic subjects, one of the most important of which is "Guraryeh," a commentary on Rashi on the Chumash. Some of his best works are on the subject of Mussar (ethics). In his writings and teachings, he laid stress on understanding the simple literal meaning of the passages studied, avoiding the complicated form of study known as the Pilpul. He insisted that children should have a thorough knowledge of the Bible and Mishnah before taking up the study of the Talmud. His writings, particularly his commentary on Pirkei Aboth and the collection of his lectures such as "Nezach Israel" (The Eternity of Israel), "Nethivoth Olam" (Ways of the World), reflect the saintly Character of the Maharal of Prague.

The Maharal of Prague must have also been a master of Kabbala, for most of the legends concerning him speak of his knowledge of the Divine Creation and the hidden ways of G-d. The Maharal was credited with being a miracle worker. The most famous story is that of the Golem which he created out of clay and which he brought to life by the use of G-d's holy name. The Maharal averted many calamities and blood-libels through the Golem. Every Friday evening, he would remove the sacred amulet bearing the name of G-d from the Golem, in order that it might not profane the Sabbath. When the Golem had performed his mission, the Maharal laid it away in the attic of the Prague Synagogue. In later years, a statue of  Rabbi Lowe, created by a famous Czech sculptor, was placed before the new city hall of Prague.

 

Few among the great men of Jewish history have been the subject of so many popular legends as Rabbi Judah ben Bezalel of Prague. He was said to possess unlimited powers. One legend tells of the Maharal's having shown the emperor his far-off castle by television. Another one tells of the Maharal having brought down the spirits of the twelve sons of Jacob in the presence of the emperor.

The Maharal has not become so revered a figure in our estimation because of his supernatural powers. To us he is the man who during one of the trying periods of Jewish history has done so much for his Jewish brethren, who was their spiritual leader and their spokesman, and who in his writings has left us a wealth of deep Jewish thought and moral teachings. We do not think of the Maharal as of the creator of the Golem, but rather of the light he has brought to Torah students and of the source of inspiration and faith contained in his ethical writings.

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