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Isserles, Mosheh


ISSERLES, MOSHEH (c. 1520c. 1572), known by the acronym RaMa (Rabbi Mosheh), was a Polish rabbi, halakhist, and scholar. Isserles was born in Kraków to one of the most powerful families of the Jewish community of sixteenth-century Poland and rose very rapidly to a position of prominence in the rabbinical world of Ashkenazic Jewry. Isserles's wealth and social status, as well as his ties by marriage to other prominent intellectual and communal figures in Polish Jewry, allowed him to wield substantial authority at a young age, primarily through the important yeshivah that he established in Kraków. His contributions to Jewish law and learning were vastly influential, and he was one of the few eastern European rabbis of his age to be venerated as a saintly leader for centuries after his death.

Isserles was trained in the Talmudic academy of Shalom Shakhna of Lublin, where he imbibed a fundamental commitment to the Ashkenazic traditions brought to Poland from Germany in the fifteenth century. He returned to his native Kraków to take up the position of its chief rabbi and remained in this post in the Polish capital until his death. The Rama synagogue in Kraków, which he built with his own wealth in 1553 as a memorial to his first wife, stands to this day as one of the most significant emblems of Jewish religiosity and learning in eastern Europe.

Isserles's prowess in Jewish law was revealed in his responsa, first published in Kraków in 1640, that displayed a distinctive synthesis of rigor and flexibility. While adhering to the Ashkenazic tradition of conservative interpretation, the Rama's rulings argued for a considerable degree of leniency in situations of severe economic or social stress and emphasized his belief in the importance of local customs in determining law. One responsum also detailed Isserles's controversial dedication to the study of philosophy: Taken to task by his senior colleague Shelomoh Luria for citing Aristotle as an authority of note, Isserles proclaimed his commitment to the Maimonidean view of the relation between philosophy and theology while explaining that he had only read Aristotle through the medium of medieval Hebrew texts. Isserles opposed the contemporary practice of teaching mysticism to the young and untried. However, in a number of quasi-philosophical works, the most important of which was Torat ha-ʿolah (The doctrine of the offering; 1570), a symbolic analysis of the commandments concerning the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, he attempted to demonstrate the confluence of Jewish philosophy and Qabbalah.

Isserles also published a large number of commentaries and glosses on various parts of the Bible, the Talmud, and other rabbinic literature. But his major scholarly accomplishment and claim to fame was his participation in one of the crucial legal enterprises in Jewish history, the creation of the Shulan ʿarukh. As a leading but relatively inexperienced jurist, Isserles recognized the need for a guide to Jewish law that would collate the rulings of recent scholars with classic interpretations and traditions. He had only begun to prepare such a compendium when he learned that the great Sefardic sage Yosef Karo of Safad had just published his Beit Yosef, an exhaustive code of Jewish law. Isserles revised his plan and produced his Darkhei Mosheh, which abridged Karo's work yet differed from it by insisting on the authority of local custom and recent precedents in determining correct rulings. Ten years later, Karo himself issued an abridgement of his original work, now entitled the Shulan ʿarukh the "set table." Isserles responded by writing his Mappah the "tablecloth"which was an extensive commentary on Karo's work that argued for the pertinence of Ashkenazic customs and recent rulings. Immediately accepted as a critical amplification of Karo's work, Isserles's glosses were incorporated into the now collaborative Shulan ʿarukh, which became the authoritative codification of Jewish law and the object of continuous scholarly interest and debate.


There exists no critical scholarly study of Mosheh Isserles or his works. The most successful reverential treatment is Asher Siev's Rabbi Mosheh Isserles (New York, 1972), in Hebrew. A useful summary of Isserles's legal works can be found in the standard, if dated, history of Jewish law, Haim Chernowitz's Toldot ha-posqim, vol. 3 (New York, 1947), pp. 3673. An excellent description of Isserles's role in composing the Shulan ʿarukh is available in Isadore Twersky's elegant essay "The Shulhan ʿAruk: Enduring Code of Jewish Law," reprinted in The Jewish Expression (New Haven, Conn., 1976), edited by Judah Goldin. Chapters 46 of Moses A. Shulvass's Jewish Culture in Eastern Europe: The Classical Period (New York, 1975) may also be consulted.

New Sources

Ben Sason, Yonah. Mishnato ha-iyunit shel ha-Rema. Jerusalem, 1984.

Fishman, David Eliahu. "Rabbi Moshe Isserles and the Study of Science among Polish Rabbis." Science in Context 10 (1997): 571588.

Shulman, Yaacov Dovid. The Rema: The Story of Rabbi Moshe Isserles. New York, 1991.

Michael Stanislawski (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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