Stein, Isaac

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STEIN, ISAAC (d. 1495), rabbi, rosh yeshivah, and halakhic authority. Stein probably came from the village of that name near Nuremberg, a district in Bavaria (i.e., Stein bei Nuernberg). He studied under Israel *Isserlein, to whom he invariably refers as "the Gaon," basing himself upon the halakhic rulings he heard from him, as well as upon the customs he saw practiced in his home in Wiener Neustadt. He resided in Regensburg and often refers to rulings he gave in that city. Stein was regarded in his day as one of the greatest halakhic authorities, Joseph *Colon referring to him and his brother, Aaron Pappenheim, during their lifetime, as "two distinguished scholars" (lit. "golden pipes") and numbering them among "the four leaders" who were the outstanding scholars of the time. While in Nuremberg he debated with "the lomedim" (the local scholars) on the question of the date of the compilation of the Talmud and when it was committed to writing, and at their request wrote a comprehensive essay on the subject, revealing an original approach and a power of critical analysis.

Stein's main reputation, however, rests upon his commentary and novellae to the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol ("Semag") of *Moses b. Jacob of Coucy. He mentions many halakhot and emendations of the "Semag" which he received from Tevele of Nuremberg and suggestions given him by a certain Rabbi Samuel. The "Semag" was highly regarded both as a popular, practical, and readily accessible reference work of halakhah and as an authoritative source. As a result, many copies of the work were in circulation. Two editions published in Rome (1480) and Soncino (1488) are included in the list of Hebrew *incunabula. Many manuscripts of the work came into Stein's possession, but he found in them "obscure matters and passages that seemed labored." As a result he came to the conclusion that it was necessary to compose a new edition, including his own explanations as well as giving emendations, noting sources, and adding complementary material. To ensure that the work would be of practical use in his time, he added some of the customs and traditions of the Jews of Germany. While in Regensburg he assembled a considerable amount of material, noting variant readings. According to his son, he collected the material for his book over a period of many years, noting down customs of which he had heard or had actually seen, copying glosses from the margins of the books of early scholars, collecting anonymous responsa, and investigating and comparing different versions, both from the Talmud and the works of the posekim, to determine the correct reading.

He adopted a method original for his time. He wrote down his notes on hundreds of separate pieces of paper, like index cards, and then placed each piece in its relevant place between the pages of the "Semag." Since he "did not hide his copy of the Semag from the eyes of men," some people secretly copied these pieces of paper before the author had examined and emended any mistakes which crept into them. When the author became aware of this, "he was displeased and in order to prevent any harm arising," assembled a number of authoritative scholars in halakhah in the city of Gunzenhausen, and together with them, worked on the "Semag" for a number of years until the expulsion of the Jews from the city in 1495. Each note was subjected to a thorough discussion until the final version was decided upon by majority vote. He put his pen through the pieces of paper that were rejected, but preserved them inside the "Semag" "like the broken tablets which were preserved in the Ark." He began to write his book from the corrected notes shortly before his death, but only reached the middle of precept 65 (on the laws of the Sabbath).

He died in Regensburg. He bequeathed the copy of the "Semag" upon which he was working, together with the portion arranged in his own handwriting, and the corrected and rejected pieces of paper, to his son, Aviezri. At first the son hesitated to undertake the completion of the work and only ten years later (in 1506), began sorting the material and methodically arranging it. In his introduction, the son warns against "those who possess unamended copies." Fifty-two years after the author's death, the work, sometimes called "the Nimmukim ["reasons"] of Isaac Stein" appeared as an appendix of the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (Venice, 1547), without mentioning that it was only an uncorrected part of the whole work. Nimmukim contains valuable material for the study of the folklore of German Jewry and the linguistic usages of those days. Interesting too are the author's observations on Jewish social life, such as the attitude to Hebrew as a spoken language, neighborly relations with gentiles, divination, the flogging of transgressors, and public confession. It serves as a source of great value because of its halakhic summaries and because of its fund of quotations from the works of early scholars. Many incomplete copies of Stein's work are extant. One in Oxford is said to be in the handwriting of the author's son, but this claim has still to be confirmed.


Resp Maharik, nos. 169–70; Mirsky, in: Talpioth, 7 (1957), 33–71, 317–59; 8 (1961), 3–37, 420–50; Y.L. Bialer, Min ha-Genazim (1967), 9–29.

[Yehuda Leib Bialer]