Isserles, Moses ben Israel

views updated May 29 2018


ISSERLES, MOSES BEN ISRAEL (1525 or 1530–1572), Polish rabbi and codifier, one of the great halakhic authorities. His full family name, Isserel-Lazarus was shortened to Isserles, but he is usually referred to as "the Rema" (acronym of Rabbi Moses Isserles). Isserles was born in Cracow. His father was very wealthy and a talmudic scholar. Isserles was a great-grandson of Jehiel *Luria, the first rabbi of Brisk (Brest-Litovsk). He studied first under his father and his uncle, Moses Heigerlich. His father sent him later to Lublin to the yeshivah of Shalom *Shachna where he studied until 1549, purportedly marrying Shachna's daughter. (Current scholarship has raised a doubt as to whether the Rema's first wife was indeed the daughter of Shalom Shachna.) She died in 1552 when only 20 years old, and in her memory her husband in 1553 built a synagogue, first called the Isserles synagogue and later the synagogue of the Rema, which still exists. Isserles' second wife was the sister of *Joseph ben Mordecai Gershon Ha-Kohen of Cracow, author of the responsa She'erit Yosef. Besides Talmud and the codes, Isserles also studied philosophy, astronomy, and history. While still young he was renowned as an outstanding scholar and in 1550 was a member of the Cracow bet din. That year his signature appeared on a ruling along with those of Moses Landau and Joseph Katz in connection with the ban against the sale of Maimonides' works issued by the rival of Meir *Katzenellenbogen. Isserles founded a yeshivah, supporting its students from his private means. He gained a worldwide reputation as an outstanding *posek and all the great scholars of the time addressed their problems to him. Among those who corresponded with him on halakhic matters were Meir Katzenellenbogen and his son *Samuel Judah, Joseph *Caro, Israel son of Shalom Shachna, Solomon *Luria, and his own brother-in-law Joseph Katz. Among his pupils were David *Gans, the author of Ẓemah David, whom Isserles encouraged to study history, Mordecai b. Abraham *Jaffe, Abraham ha-Levi *Horowitz, father of Isaiah Horowitz, the author of Shenei Luḥot ha-Berit, *David b. Manasseh ha-Darshan of Cracow, *Menahem David of Tiktin, his cousin *Joshua Falk b. Alexander ha-Kohen, Aaron b. Abraham Solnik *Ashkenazi, and Ẓevi Hirsch Elzisher (of Alsace?). Isserles had three brothers, Isaac, Eliezer (son-in-law of Solomon Luria), and Joseph, and one sister, Miriam Bella the wife of Phinehas *Horowitz. He had a son Judah Leib, and two daughters. One, Dresel, became the wife of Simhah Bunim Meisels, and the other, whose name is unknown, married Eliezer b. Simeon Ginsburg. His great granddaughter, the daughter of his grandson Simeon Wolf of Vilna, married *Shabbetai b. Meir ha-Kohen.

Isserles was of a humble and friendly disposition. This humility is particularly noticeable in his controversy with his older relative Solomon Luria. The dispute arose originally in connection with the question of the defective lung of an animal, but developed into discussions on philosophical topics, Kabbalah, and grammar. Through it was revealed Isserles' self-confidence, for he held to his opinion where he was convinced he was in the right, admitted to any error, and replied with courtesy and humility. Isserles was also a scribe and allegedly wrote a Sefer Torah in accordance with the rules contained in an old manuscript which Joseph Caro bought for him in Ereẓ Israel and sent to Cracow. (This last tradition has also been questioned. There is no factual basis for this assertion (see Penkower, Textus, 1981)). Isserles died in Cracow and was buried next to his synagogue. Until World War ii thousands of Jews from every part of Poland made a pilgrimage to his grave every year on *Lag ba-Omer, the anniversary of his death.

Isserles' Works

His contemporaries considered Isserles to be the "Maimonides of Polish Jewry" and he can be compared with him in his universal outlook, in his attachment to both Talmud and secular knowledge, in his manner of study, in his methodical approach, in his decisiveness, in his character, and in his humility. His works were in the fields of halakhah, philosophy, Kabbalah, homiletics, and science. They include the following:

(1) Darkhei Moshe, to the Beit Yosef of Joseph Caro, notes and supplementary laws, mostly by Ashkenazi scholars, not given in the Beit Yosef. Isserles had begun to write a commentary to the Turim of *Jacob b. Asher, but while he was engaged in this task the Beit Yosef was published. He then wrote his Darkhei Moshe ha-Arokh to Oraḥ Ḥayyim (Fuerth, 1760) and Yoreh De'ah (Sulzbach, 1692). He later abridged it and it was published on all four parts of the Tur (Berlin, 1702–03) with the title of the Darkhei Moshe ha-Kaẓar. Isserles utilized the Darkhei Moshe as a basis for his glosses on the Shulḥan Arukh, the Haggahot or Ha-Mappah. It contains explanations, supplements, additions, and includes the views of the Ashkenazi scholars ignored by Caro. At times Isserles decided against the view of the Shulḥan Arukh, ruling in conformity with Asher b. Jehiel and his son Jacob, rather than with Isaac Alfasi and Maimonides as does Caro. By spreading his Mappah ("tablecloth"), so to speak, over the Shulḥan Arukh ("Prepared Table") – which had codified Sephardi practice – he in fact made that work acceptable to Ashkenazim as well as Sephardim. The Mappah was first published with the Shulḥan Arukh in the Cracow edition of 1569–71.

(2) Torat ha-Ḥattat (Cracow, 1569), laws of *issur ve-hetter in accordance with the Sha'arei Dura of *Isaac b. Meir of Dueren. This work was criticized by *Ḥayyim b. Bezalel (see below), and Yom Tov Lipman *Heller wrote criticisms (*hassagot) to it called Torat ha-Asham. Isserles was defended by Joseph Saul *Nathanson of Lemberg in his glosses Torat Moshe. Isserles himself abridged the book calling it Torat Ḥattat ha-Kaẓar, and Eliezer b. Joshua Shevrashin wrote a commentary to it, Dammesek Eli'ezer (Wilmersdorf, 1718).

(3) The Responsa of the Rema (Cracow, 1640) consists of 132 responsa written between 1550 and 1571, 91 by Isserles and the rest by colleagues and pupils.

(4) Halakhic glosses, to Bava Meẓia (published in the Amsterdam Talmud 1644–48), to Niddah (Ms. Oppenheim), and to the Mordekhai of *Mordecai b. Hillel, in which he established the correct readings. These glosses were noted down during the course of teaching and are incorporated in the Romm edition of the Mordekhai. He wrote comments on the Rosh of *Asher b. Jehiel and on the Issur ve-Hetter, under the title Yad Ramah (Lemberg, 1866), and on the Sheḥitah u-Vedikah (Cracow, 1557) of Jacob *Weil. Karnei Re'em, his glosses to the supercommentary (Venice edition) of Elijah *Mizraḥi to the Pentateuch was published by Solomon Zalman Ḥayyim Halberstamm in the Meged Yeraḥim (Lemberg, 1856) of Joseph Kohen Zedek and later in an edition of the Pentateuch (Jerusalem, 1959) together with the commentary Ha'amek Davar of Naphtali Ẓevi Judah *Berlin.

(5) His philosophical and kabbalistic works include Meḥir Yayin (Cremona, 1559), a homiletical and philosophical commentary to the Book of Esther; Torat ha-Olah (Prague, 1570), a philosophic conception of Judaism. In his work he endeavors to give Jewish philosophy and thought a kabbalistic basis and to establish their inner identity, maintaining that they merely used different terminology. He also explains the meaning of sacrifices and the measurements of the Temple and their symbolism. To'afot Re'em contains glosses to Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed and the commentaries to it of *Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov and Isaac Profiat *Duran (published by Sirkin in Oẓar Ḥokhmah 2–3, 1861–65). In Darkhei Moshe, Isserles also mentions his Yesodei Sifrei ha-Kabbalah. This work and his commentaries to the Zohar and to the aggadot of the Talmud have apparently been lost. He also engaged in the study of general sciences. His glosses on Chapter 18 of the fourth ma'amar ("discourse") of the Yesod Olam of Isaac *Israeli were published in the Yuḥasin (Cracow, 1580–81) of Abraham *Zacuto. He also wrote a commentary on Mehallekh ha-Kokhavim ("The Course of the Stars"), a translation by Ephraim Mizraḥi of the Theorica Planetaram of Georg Peuerbach.

His Opinions

In philosophy Isserles followed the teachings of Aristotle as he had learned them from the works of Maimonides. He also advanced reasons for the precepts and pointed out benefits accruing from their observance. He dealt with anthropomorphism, maintaining that the phrase "the hand of God" referred to an angel. He accepted the three principles of Judaism propounded by Joseph *Albo in his Ikkarim. Although he regarded philosophy and Kabbalah as identical, he preferred philosophy because of its logic. In his halakhah, at times, he based himself both on philosophy and on Kabbalah and statements in the Zohar, but where the Kabbalah conflicted with the halakhah, he did not accept it. He also endeavored to give a rational explanation of strange aggadot. In one of his responsa to Solomon Luria, he admitted that he did not possess an intensive knowledge of grammar, but he had a great love of the Hebrew language and permitted the reading of the secular books of *Immanuel of Rome, military chronicles, etc., on the Sabbath if they were written in Hebrew. His regard for Ereẓ Israel is reflected in a beautiful statement based on the talmudic saying (Kidd. 49b): "ten measures of wisdom descended to the world of which Ereẓ Israel took nine" – "It was for that land that the Torah was primarily given, its natural habitat is there where the very air makes one wise." In halakhah, Isserles strove to give to minhag (custom) the force of halakhah even where it had no halakhic source, and at times accepted a custom as binding even where it conflicted with the halakhah. There are also cases where he states that "the custom is a wrong one" or "if I had the power I would abrogate the custom. For it is based on an error and there is no reason to rely on it." The vast majority of the customs he followed were those which developed among Ashkenazi Jewry. Isserles was very frequently lenient "in cases of stress and where considerable financial loss is involved," a leniency seldom shown by previous posekim.

These two traits, his attitude to minhag and leniency in case of loss, as well as the codification itself in his glosses on the Shulḥan Arukh, gave rise to powerful opposition from great contemporary scholars, particularly from Ḥayyim b. Bezalel who had studied with him under Shalom Shachna.

In the introduction to his Vikku'aḥ Mayim Ḥayyim, Ḥayyim enumerates the reasons for his opposition: (1) Codification obliges the rabbi giving a decision to decide the halakhah according to the view of the majority; (2) Isserles adopts the lenient view of the rishonim against the stringent view adopted by aḥaronim; (3) he cites customs of Polish Jewry but pays no attention to those of Germany; (4) the codes cause neglect of the study of the primary sources in the Talmud and rishonim, and lead to ignorance; (5) the rabbis will not be listened to because people will rely on published books; (6) just as Isserles disagrees with the rulings and customs of Caro so it is permitted to disagree with him; (7) why should German Jewry abrogate its customs in favor of those of Poland? (8) he did not associate any other scholars in his rulings but decided on his own; (9) if leniency is permitted in cases of considerable loss it will be applied in cases of small loss also; (10) Isserles had been lenient where in accordance with strict law one should be stringent; and (11) once something was forbidden it acquired the force of a custom and could not be abrogated.

Even though Ḥayyim's Vikku'aḥ Mayim Ḥayyim was not actually published until long after his death and that of Isserles, their debate reflects a major shift within Ashkenazi Jewry. This period of time witnessed a shift of the center of European Jewry from Germany to Poland. The growing Polish communities were very different from the German ones. In Germany, the Jewish communities were relatively small while enjoying a great deal of autonomy within the larger German cities and towns. This led to numerous, well-defined, local minhagim (customs). In Poland, the Jewish communities were larger, more amorphous, because of the constant influx of immigrants, and less autonomous. Thus, they did not develop individual town customs, but broader, district and country-wide minhagim. In abandoning the numerous, Ashkenazi local customs while adopting the Polish ones, Isserles was speaking to a much larger, growing audience. By spreading his Mappah, glosses and notes, over Caro's Shulḥan Arukh, he was actually binding together all of Ashkenazi (read: Polish) Jewry and enabling their continued halakhic observance. Despite the arguments of Ḥayyim and other contemporary scholars, the rulings and customs of Isserles were accepted as binding on Ashkenazi Jewry and continue to form the basis of Ashkenazi Halakhah to this day.


A. Siev, Ha-Rema (1957); idem, in: Talpioth, 4 (1949), 743–58; 5 (1950–52), 244–87 (bibl. of Isserles' works), 649–68; 6 (1953–55), 321–35, 723–9; 9 (1964), 314–42 (bibl. of writings of Isserles); idem, in: Hadorom, 21 (1965), 100–21; 25 (1967), 211–9; C. Tchernowitz, Toledot ha-Posekim, 3 (1947), index; Nissim, in: Sinai Sefer Yovel (1958), 29–39; O. Feuchtwanger, Righteous Lives (1965), 79–81. add. bibliography: Y. Ben Sasson, Mishnato ha-Iyyunit shel ha-Rema (1984); A. Strikovsky (ed.), Ha-Shulḥan ve-ha-Mappah (1988); Y. Hurvitz, Rabbi Moshe IsserlesHa-Rema (1974); Y.T. Langermann, in: Physics, Cosmology and Astronomy 13001700 (1991), 83–98; E. Reiner, in: Kwartalnik Historii Zydow 207 (2003), 363–72; J.S. Penkower, in: Textus, 9 (1981), 39–128; Y.M. Peles, in: Zekhor le-Avraham (1993), 39–41; A. Berger, in: ibid. (1991), 71–77; M. Rafler, in: Sinai, 107 (1991), 239–41; Y.M. Peles, in: Yeshurun, 9 (2001), 756–67; A. Ziv, in: Sefer Zikaron le-Shemuel Belkin (1981), 148–54; Z.A. Sloshatz, in: Niv ha-Midrashi'ah, 18–19 (1985), 69–80; G. Goldberger, in: Sefunot, 2:4 (1990), 84–89; N. Greenfeld, in: Moreshet Ya'akov, 3 (1989), 33–39.

[Shlomo Tal /

David Derovan (2nd ed.)]

Isserles, Moses ben Israel

views updated May 18 2018

Isserles, Moses ben Israel or Rema (c.1530–72). Jewish legal authority. Isserles was one of the great halakhic authorities of the time. He founded a yeshivah and gained a worldwide reputation for his responsa, being known as ‘the Maimonides of Polish Jewry’. Although he aroused opposition for his emphasis on custom (minhag) and his leniency (particularly when financial loss was involved), his rulings have become accepted as binding on Ashkenazi Jews.

About this article

Moses ben Israel Isserles

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic