Weiss, Isaac Hirsch

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WEISS, ISAAC HIRSCH (1815–1905), scholar and writer on the history of the Oral Law. Weiss, who was born in Gross-Meseritsch (Velke Mezirici), Moravia, studied in the yeshivot of Trebitsch and Eisenstadt. He subsequently engaged in business, corresponded on halakhic topics with leading rabbis, and for a short time headed a yeshivah in his native town. In 1846 he began publishing Hebrew poems and studies on the Talmud. After losing his wealth, he migrated to Vienna and became a proofreader in a printing press. In 1864 he was appointed lecturer in talmudic literature in the Vienna Bet ha-Midrash founded by A. *Jellinek. Weiss was opposed both to the conservative spirit prevailing in the Hungarian yeshivot and to extreme Reform. His aim was to blend fundamental talmudic condition with secular culture and the critical scientific method. His moderate position aroused against him not only the anger of the rabbis of the older generation and the Orthodox, but also the criticism of the Reformers. He was opposed to the Ḥibbat Zion movement and to the idea of settling Ereẓ Israel, regarding them as dangerous since they accorded with the view of the antisemites that there was no place for Jews in Europe. In his opinion the nationhood of Jews consisted of their Torah and religion, and they must await in exile the redemption of Heaven. On the other hand he understood the importance of the Hebrew language and wrote his compositions in it.

Weiss' scholarly work was wholly devoted to the study of the Oral Law. He published two *midreshei-halakhah with introductions and notes: the *Sifra (1862) and the Mekhilta (1865), and wrote a grammar book, Mishpat Leshon ha-Mishnah (1867). He published many articles, some of which appeared in periodicals which he founded and edited (both Beit ha-Midrash (1865–66) and Beit Talmud (1881–86; founded jointly with M. *Friedmann)).

Weiss' largest and most important work is the five-volume Dor Dor ve-Dorshav (1871–91). This work, in which he described the history of the Oral Law from its beginning (before the Written Law) until after the expulsion from Spain, deals not only with the sequence of the halakhah, but also with the development of the aggadah, with the history of talmudic and rabbinic literature and with the character traits of important sages. From his critical approach to the sources, Weiss understood the development of the halakhah and its historical background. Into this vast amount of material Weiss brought system and order without multiplying small details. The work is distinguished by its picturesque and fluent language and by its vivid descriptions. At times, however, there are errors in his conclusions and it is also tendentious. Weiss, who belonged to the *Haskalah generation, frequently imposed his own view upon the sources and described the characters of scholars and works in accordance with his own views. Sometimes he drew general conclusions from particular points or concepts without properly examining the material. N. *Krochmal's Moreh Nevukhei ha-Zeman gave Weiss the impetus to write this work. He also transferred from the domain of history to that of rabbinic literature, though without justification, the view of Krochmal that a period of decline in Jewish history began from the 13th century. In its time Dor Dor ve-Dorshav, which was published a number of times and had a large circulation, particularly in eastern Europe, exercised great influence. However, there were also among the scholars of the older generation radical opponents who wrote works critical of it, some of them attacking Weiss personally. (The most important of his critics was Isaac *Halevy in his Dorot ha-Rishonim.) Despite all its faults – or perhaps just because of them – its contribution to the study of the Talmud was great. Its very composition was audacious, and nothing similar has subsequently been written. "There are things which Weiss completely demolished; and there are also things which he built permanently" (L. Ginzberg). Weiss also composed an autobiography with the title Zikhronotai (1895); it appeared in serial form in Genazim (1, 15–53 (1961)) with an introduction and notes by G. Kressel.


S. Schechter, Studies in Judaism, 1 (1896), 182–212; J. Klausner, Yoẓerim u-Vonim, 1 (1925), 1–17; L. Ginzberg, Students, Scholars, and Saints (1928), 217–40; F. Lachower, Rishonim ve-Aḥaronim, 1 (1934), 56–60.

[Moshe David Herr]