Ḥayyim ben Bezalel

views updated


ḤAYYIM BEN BEZALEL (c. 1520–1588), talmudic scholar. Ḥayyim was born in Posen, and was the eldest of four brothers, all rabbis, the most famous being *Judah Loew b. Bezalel of Prague (the Maharal) who mentions him in his responsa (no. 12). Ḥayyim studied first with Rabbi Isaac Sepharadi in Posen. From him, Ḥayyim acquired his abiding love for Bible study and the in-depth study of Rashi's commentary. As a young man he studied in the yeshivah of *Shalom Shakhna at Lublin where he was a contemporary of Moses *Isserles. His final teacher was Rabbi Solomon Luria, the Maharshal. From him, Ḥayyim acquired a method for studying halakhah as well as a dislike for halakhic codes (see below), Ḥayyim settled in Worms in 1549 where he lived in the home of his uncle, Jacob b. Ḥayyim, the local rabbi, succeeding him in 1563. He subsequently left to become rabbi of Friedberg, remaining there until his death.

When Isserles published his Torat Ḥattat on issur ve-hetter (on the dietary laws), Ḥayyim published a vigorous polemic against it in his Vikku'aḥ Mayim Ḥayyim. The introduction to the work was couched in such strong language both against Isserles and Joseph *Caro that it was omitted from editions after the first (Amsterdam, 1712), but has been reproduced in full by Tchernowitz (see bibl.). Ḥayyim's criticism was a general one against all those who presumed to publish halakhic codes which purported to give the final definitive halakhah, since they lead to neglect of the early authorities and can be used with disastrous results by the unlearned. Of Joseph Caro he comments that after saying "who am I to decide between the opposing views of the great authorities?" he then proceeds to do so. "It is like a man who says, 'I have the greatest respect for what you say, but you are lying'!" The main target of his criticism, however, is Isserles' work. The Torat Ḥattat ("Law of the Sin-Offering") was rightly named, he said, since it, albeit unwillingly, causes people to sin, and it "even borders on ḥillul ha-Shem (Profanation of the Name of God)." In the same way as Moses set up the Copper Serpent with the best of intentions, yet when it became an object of idolatry Hezekiah did not hesitate to destroy it, so would he act with regard to this work of the "later Moses." He felt that Isserles should at least have stated that his work was only to be used by qualified scholars. (He himself had spent 16 years in composing a similar work, but only for his private use, and when one of his students purloined it and copied it, he sternly reproved him and destroyed the copy.) In addition to his general criticism he specified three reasons for his opposition: (1) Isserles had amended the code of Caro which reflected the Sephardi minhag to make it accord with the Polish minhag, but he had completely ignored the differences between the Polish and the German minhag, which was more authoritative and ancient. (2) He had introduced a new element of leniency when "considerable (financial) loss" or "exceptional circumstances" (she'at ha-deḥak) were involved. (3) He abolished the halakhah in favor of unsubstantiated custom.

Ḥayyim wrote a number of other works. His Sefer ha-Ḥayyim, which he wrote in two months while he was confined to his house on account of a plague in 1578, is a moral and ethical dissertation. In style and language it is reminiscent of the pietistic works, and in fact his brother refers to him as "he-Ḥasid." In general, Ḥayyim was not in favor of the study of philosophy. He thought that only advanced students should study philosophy, even Jewish philosophy. As for the study of Kabbalah, Ḥayyim praised the mekubbalim (Kabbalah practitioners) for their ability to enter God's palace, yet he was critical of their abandoning the "small interests of the King," namely the study of Talmud and Halakhah. His Eẓ Ḥayyim on Hebrew grammar (written in 1579) is still in manuscript. He was inspired to write it because of the criticism of Christian Hebrew scholars who accused the Jews not only of neglecting the study of Hebrew in favor of the Talmud, but even of forbidding it. He admits that he used the grammatical works of these detractors as one of his sources. He attributes the neglect of the study of Hebrew grammar to the fact that in the "bitter and long exile … it was impossible to encompass all subjects in the curriculum, for which reason alone the early authorities, especially the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, confined their instruction to the Talmud" (Introduction). He also wrote Be'er Mayim Ḥayyim, a supercommentary on Rashi's Pentateuch commentary in response to the great popularity enjoyed by Rashi's commentary but the lack of true comprehension of Rashi's work. Ḥayyim's work focuses on the correct translation of the Torah text, the grammatical comments made by Rashi, and those aspects of his commentary that are unique. In addition, Ḥayyim wrote Iggeret ha-Tiyyul (Prague, 1605) consisting of explanations of talmudic passages using the methods of *Pardes, (peshat, remez, derash, sod) in alphabetical order.


A. Gottesdiener, in: Azkarah… A.I. Kook, 4 (1937), 265f.; Ḥ. Tchernowitz, Toledot ha-Posekim, 3 (1947), 91–100; A. Siev, Ha-Rema (1957), 47–49; H.H. Ben Sasson, Hagut ve-Hanhagah (1959), 15, 35 n. 3. add. bibliography: E. Zimmer, Rabbi Chaim ben Bezalel of Friedberg (Heb., 1987); websites: http://www.torah.org; http://chareidi.shemayisrael.com.

[Alexander Tobias /

David Derovan (2nd ed.)]

About this article

Ḥayyim ben Bezalel

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article