Heller, Yom Tov Lipmann ben Nathan Ha-Levi

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HELLER, YOM TOV LIPMANN BEN NATHAN HA-LEVI (1579–1654), Moravian rabbi, commentator on the Mishnah. Heller was born in Wallerstein, Bavaria. He received his education in the home of his grandfather, Moses Wallerstein, as well as, among others, from *Judah Loew b. Bezalel (the Maharal) of Prague. Besides his great talmudic knowledge, he engaged in the study of Kabbalah, religious philosophy, and Hebrew grammar and also acquired an extensive general knowledge, particularly of mathematics, astronomy, and natural sciences. In 1597, when only 18 years of age, he was appointed dayyan in Prague, and served in this office for 28 years, during which period he acquired renown for his profound knowledge and for his integrity. In 1625 he was appointed rabbi of Nikolsburg (Moravia) but in that same year moved to Vienna where he was elected av bet din. Through his endeavor the suburb of Leopoldstadt (at that time still outside the boundaries of Vienna) was confirmed as a special residential quarter for Jews. Heller saw to its communal organization and orderly administration, until the settlement became "a city filled with the qualities of wisdom, wealth, and honor" (Megillat Eivah). In 1627 he returned to Prague.

When, during the Thirty Years' War (1618–48), it was decreed that the Jews of Bohemia must pay a heavy tax to the government, the leaders of the Prague community, including Heller, imposed taxes upon its members to repay the loan which the community had borrowed to pay the impost. Several of the poor who opposed the assessment accused Heller of favoring the wealthy and, when their plot to remove him from office failed, slandered him to the emperor Ferdinand ii, accusing him of contempt of the state and of insulting Christianity. He was imprisoned on June 25, 1629, and transferred to Vienna. When during the investigation he was asked how he dare defend the Talmud since it had been ordered to be burned by the pope, he replied: "Jews are obliged to obey the Talmud which is the main Oral Law." The sentence of death passed upon him by a court of Catholic priests was, "by grace of the emperor," commuted to a large monetary fine. Through the efforts of the Jews of Prague the other heavy penalties imposed were partly reduced. Instead of his books being banned, only the fragments on which he was condemned were erased, and the prohibition imposed on his serving in the rabbinate throughout the Austrian Empire was limited to the district of Prague. After spending 40 days in prison he returned to Prague in August 1629. He appointed the fifth of Tammuz, the day on which the order for his arrest was issued, as a fast day for all the members of his family. The details were described by Heller in his autobiography, Megillat Eivah.

In 1631 he removed to Poland, living first in Lublin and subsequently in Brest-Litovsk and Nemirov (among other things he composed a eulogy on the destruction of Nemirov in the *Chmielnicki massacres). From 1634 to 1643 he served as rabbi of Vladimir-Volynski. Heller took part in the rabbinical activities of the *Council of Four Lands and was one of the members of the permanent battei-din and one of the chief speakers at the conventions during the fairs in Lublin, Jaroslaw, and other places. He demanded that the *takkanot and bans of 1587 prohibiting the purchase of rabbinic office be renewed and strengthened. This incited against him the anger of "those that hate without cause, and mendacious enemies." As a result of a calumny, a decree of expulsion from Vladimir was issued against him, but this decree too was rescinded through the efforts of his influential friends in Warsaw. In 1643 he was called to serve in the Cracow rabbinate and after the death in 1648 of *Joshua b. Joseph, author of the Meginnei Shelomo, he also headed the Cracow yeshivah. During his residence in Cracow, Heller prepared a second edition of his Tosefot Yom Tov (Prague, 1614–17; Cracow 1643–442). Following the persecutions of 1648–49 he concerned himself with the amelioration of the lot of *agunot. On his death Zelig Margulies testified of him that "he did not leave the wherewithal to purchase shrouds even though he was the av bet din of Cracow… all this, because he never took dishonest money" (Introd. Ḥibburei Likkutim (Amsterdam, 1715)). Contrary to popular belief, Heller was married only once. His wife's name was Rachel. In his commentary Tosefot Yom Tov, Heller mentions in various places his four sons, Moses, Samuel, Abraham, and Levi.

Heller's attitude toward non-Jews was very different from that of his teacher the Maharal of Prague. According to the Maharal, the election of the Jewish people by God reduced the divine image and innate spirituality of non-Jews. Heller disagreed, asserting that everyone, Jew and gentile, is judged by God according to his deeds. In addition, Heller did not believe that the talmudic proscription against "Greek wisdom" included all secular knowledge. He was particularly inclined toward all knowledge that increases the understanding of the world, including natural sciences and astronomy.

Along with his success as a rabbi, Heller failed at a number of his endeavors, which speak volumes concerning his character. He failed to expand the educational curriculum of Ashkenazi Jewry. He attempted but later abandoned his efforts to block the acceptance of Joseph *Caro's Shulḥan Arukh. His demand to prohibit the purchase of rabbinic office led to his arrest (see above), and he failed to pass on to the next generation his love of philosophy, astronomy, and science.

Of Heller's many works, which testify to his diversified scholarship, his commentary to the Mishnah is the most famous. He named this Tosefot Yom Tov because its purpose was to serve as an addition (tosefet) and exposition, supplement and work of source reference to the Mishnah commentary of Obadiah of *Bertinoro. Heller traced the sources of the Bertinoro commentary, explained obscurities, examined and also criticized its conclusions in the sphere of halakhah, and made linguistic comments. He explained the words grammatically, noted the halakhah on the basis of the Talmud and the *rishonim and *aḥaronim and took care to establish accurate readings, most of which he added to the second edition of his commentary, through clarification and elucidation of the text on the basis of various manuscripts and earlier published works. Heller endeavored to reconcile the contradictions between one Mishnah and another by means of straightforward and logical rationalization. All his comments are formulated with the utmost simplicity – and here he follows in the footsteps of his teacher Judah Loew b. Bezalel, who opposed the method of *pilpul. Despite his positive attitude to Kabbalah, he refrained from relying upon it in deciding the halakhah, since "in explaining the Talmud, we have no dealings at all with esoteric matters" (Ma'adanei Yom Tov; Ber. 1). Heller even tried at one point to prevent the publication of kabbalistic works. When making halakhic decisions, he refrained from relying on kabbalistic leniencies or stringencies that ran counter to the plain sense of the Talmud. In his opinion the Mishnah might be interpreted differently from the explanation given in the Talmud, "providing no decisions which contradict the view of the authors of the Gemara are given" (Tosefot Yom Tov to Naz. 5:5). In his introduction he formulated his attitude to the commentary of Bertinoro: "My task, however, is to examine carefully in the Mishnah in order to see whether anything requires explanation that has not been explained in the commentary of the Rav [Bertinoro], or whether there is a contradiction from some other Mishnah to which he has not drawn attention, and also whether there is anything in his commentary for which an explanation and reason has to be given, as well as if there be any contradiction in the commentary itself, and more so from the Mishnah."

In his interpretation of the Mishnah, Heller endeavored to put into effect what Judah Loew impressed upon him in investigating the halakhah: the deduction of the halakhic ruling in the Mishnah. Through his examination of the text of the Mishnah he arrived at halakhic decisions since he was of the opinion that the Mishnah was to be accepted as the basis of the halakhah, while *Asher b. Jehiel (the Rosh) was to be regarded as a general decisor. He stressed this view in his Ma'adanei Melekh ve-Lehem Hamudot (pts. 1 and 4, Prague, 1628, 1619; pts. 2 and 3 still in Ms., also entitled Ma'adanei Yom Tov). In his introduction to part 4 (entitled Ma'adanei Melekh u-Filpula Harifta) he summarizes the development of the halakhah and deals especially with the importance of Isaac Alfasi, Maimonides, Asher b. Jehiel, and the latter's son Jacob, author of the Turim. After differentiating between the method of those who amplify, like Alfasi, and those who curtail, like Maimonides, he summarizes the contribution of Asher b. Jehiel and Jacob b. Asher and remarks that it is fitting that the work of the Rosh should be a guide for halakhic decision. In his exposition he seeks to supplement Asher b. Jehiel, to explain the contents of his writing, and to add new laws to them so that "all the children of Israel will turn to listen to Rabbenu Asher." A digest of the commentary, entitled Ikkar Tosefot Yom Tov, was published by Meshullam b. Joel Katz (Lemberg, 1790).

Of his other works, all of which are distinguished by their clarity of language and outstanding style, the following of his expository works should be mentioned: (1) a commentary on the Beḥinat Olam of Jedaiah ha-Penini (Prague, 1598); (2) Ẓurat Beit ha-Mikdash (ibid., 1602) on the plan of the Temple according to the prophecy of Ezekiel; (3) glosses to the Givat ha-Moreh of Joseph b. Isaac ha-Levi (ibid., 1611); (4) Malbushei Yom Tov (1895–97), *hassagot and novellae on Mordecai Jaffe's Levush on Oraḥ Ḥayyim in two parts.

The following works have remained in manuscript: (5) Tuv Ta'am, a commentary on the kabbalistic part of Ḥiyya b. Asher's commentary on the Pentateuch; (6) expositions on Abraham ibn Ezra's Pentateuch commentary; (7) Leket Shoshannim on the Arugat ha-Bosem of S. *Archivolti, who sent Heller the book for examination (Tosefot Yom Tov, to Tam. 7, end); (8) Torat ha-Asham on the Torat Ḥattat of Moses *Isserles; (9) Parashat ha-Ḥodesh on the laws of the new moon in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah; (10) haggahot to the Kaftorva-Feraḥ of Estori ha-Farḥi.

Beside his responsa (published in collections: Ge'onei Batra'ei (Turka, 1764), Bayit Ḥadash ha-Ḥadashot (Koretz, 1785), and Ẓemah Ẓedek (Amsterdam, 1675)), a sermon (Prague, 1626), and approbations given in connection with his activities in the Council of Four Lands, Heller compiled various piyyutim and seliḥot, in connection with the massacres of 1618–20 in Prague and of 1648 in the Ukraine, which express with great fidelity the worries and sufferings of the Jews during the persecution in his lifetime. Exceptionally well-known is his autobiography Megillat Eivah (Breslau, 1818) which appeared in many editions (among others, with a German translation by Seligmann Kisch, Prague, 1849, with Yiddish translations, 1864, 1880, and with an English translation, 1991; see bibliography). This work, containing vivid descriptions of events in Heller's life and also of the communities of his time, serves as a valuable source for Jewish history in the first half of the 17th century. Of his Yiddish works intended for "the common people and women," his Berit Melaḥ (Prague, 1552?; Cracow, 1665) on the laws of salting and rinsing meat, and the Yiddish translation of Asher b. Jehiel's Orḥot Ḥayyim (Prague, 1626) should be noted. A letter of 1619 in Yiddish from Heller to a female relative, dealing with family matters, was published in 1911.


Davidson, Oẓar, 4 (1933), 398; Zunz, Gesch, index; Zunz, Lit Poesie, 426f.; Zunz, Poesie, 342, 362; G. Wolf, Ferdinand ii und die Juden (1859), 16f.; idem, Die Juden in der Leopoldstadt (1864), 7, 8, 11, 18; Perles, in: mgwj, 16 (1867), 306f.; D. Kaufmann, ibid., 37 (1893), 380; Graetz-Rabbinowitz, (1899), 46–50, 112–4; Steinschneider, in: mgwj, 47 (1903), 285; 49 (1905), 490; S.M. Chones, Toledot ha-Posekim (1911), 167–72; A. Landau and B. Wachstein (ed.), Juedische Privatbriefe aus dem Jahre 1619 (1911), 49, no. 20a; A.Z. Schwartz, in: Festschrift… D.S. Simonsen (1923), 206–12; G. Kisch, in: jggjČ, 1 (1929), 421–47; I. Halpern, in: ks, 7 (1930/31), 140–8, 482; idem, Pinkas Va'ad Arba Araẓot (1945), index; M. Grunwald, Vienna (1936), 86–87; Zahavi-Goldhammer, in: Arim ve-Immahot be-Yisrael, 1 (1946), 211f.; 4 (1950), 264; Pograbinsky, ibid., 2 (1948), 271, 280–2; H. Tchernowitz, Toledot ha-Posekim, 3 (1947), 127–37; Klemperer, in: hj, 12 (1950), 51–66; I.D. Beth-Halevy, Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (Heb., 1954); J.L. Maimon (ed.), Li-Khevod Yom Tov (1956); B. Katz, Rabbanut, Hasidut, Haskalah, 1 (1956), 91–97; J. Fraenkel, Jewsof Austria (1967), 320–1. add. bibliography: Yom Tov Lippmann Heller, A Chronicle of Hardship and Hope: An Autobiographical Account (1991); J.M. Davis, in: Science in Context, 10:4 (1997); M. Herskovics, Two Guardians of the Faith: The History and Distinguished Lineage of Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller and Rabbi Aryeh Leib Heller (2000); J.M. Davis, Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller: A Portrait of a Seventeenth Century Rabbi (2004); Y. Ben Hayyim, in: Koveẓ Beit Aharon ve-Yisra'el, 10:1 1995), 131–35.

[Josef Horovitz /

David Derovan (2nd ed.)]