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Jaffe, Mordecai ben Abraham

JAFFE, MORDECAI BEN ABRAHAM (c. 1535–1612), talmudist, kabbalist, and communal leader. Born in Prague, Jaffe was sent as a boy to Poland to study under Solomon *Luria and Moses *Isserles. There he devoted himself also to the study of astronomy and philosophy (apparently at the instance of Isserles). At the same time he studied Kabbalah under Mattathias b. Solomon Delacrut. After a few years he returned to Prague, where in 1553 he was appointed head of the yeshivah. Very soon he discovered that the students were not interested in mere understanding of the Talmud but preferred "pilpul" and "were turning the word of the living God into false, corrupt, and evil words" (Preface to his Levush Malkhut). Jaffe chose therefore "to minimize the time spent with these students" and applied himself to writing constructive books.

At that time Joseph *Caro's Beit Yosef appeared "and it was a cause for rejoicing by all who pursue the study of Torah," but Jaffe found it overly long and so began to write his Levush Malkhut. In this he presented the laws in abbreviated form, taking as a basis the principle followed in the Beit Yosef of reliance on the three "pillars of authority" (*Alfasi, *Maimonides, and *Asher b. Jehiel). While he was engaged in this work, the Jews were expelled from Bohemia in 1561. Jaffe left Prague for Italy, settling in Venice, where he resumed his writing. The appearance of Caro's Shulhan Arukh, a digest of his Beit Yosef, led Jaffe to consider whether he should continue writing his own work. On reflection, he concluded that there was room for it since it would contain "those laws observed by the Ashkenazi Jews of Bohemia." But word reached him that Moses Isserles "had been spurred in the same direction," and consequently he put aside his work. "Alone in a strange land without any of the friends or pupils I had in my homeland," he decided to set down in writing interpretations that he had acquired in his youth of the Guide of the Perplexed and the "Treatise on the Laws of the Jewish Calendar" by Maimonides and the kabbalistic Bible commentary of Menahem *Recanati.

After a stay of over ten years, Jaffe left Italy for Poland – at that time the center of Jewish learning in the Diaspora. There he was appointed av bet din and head of the yeshivah of Grodno in Lithuania. Later he was appointed to a similar position in Lublin, and subsequently moved to Kremeniec. In Poland, Jaffe was very active in the Council of the Four Lands, being one of the chief signatories of some of its most important takkanot. It seems that his many activities were motivated by his high sense of responsibility. In 1592 he returned to his birthplace, Prague, and became av bet din in succession to *Judah Loew b. Bezalel (the Maharal) when the latter was appointed to Posen. In 1599 Jaffe switched posts with Loew, who returned to Prague. Jaffe then remained in Posen until his death.

When the critical and supplementary notes of Isserles to the Shulḥan Arukh (called Mappah) appeared in Cracow in 1578, Jaffe felt that Isserles had been too brief as had Caro in the Shulḥan Arukh, and decided to resume his original work, "that will be midway between the two extremes: the lengthy Beit Yosef of Caro on the one hand, and on the other Caro's Shulḥan Arukh together with the Mappah of Isserles, which is too brief." In all, Jaffe worked on this book almost 50 years. It contains ten "attires" (levushim). The first five are devoted to the laws expounded in the Beit Yosef; the sixth, Ha-Orah is an elucidation of Rashi's biblical commentary; the seventh, Simḥah ve-Sason, contains sermons for holidays and weddings; the eighth, Pinnat Yikrat, is a commentary on the Guide of the Perplexed; the ninth, Eder Yakar, is a commentary on the laws of the Jewish calendar according to Maimonides and an additional commentary on Abraham b. Ḥiyya's geographical-astronomical Ẓurat ha-Areẓ; the last, Even Yikrat, is on Menahem Recanati's commentary on the Pentateuch. The last three "attires" Jaffe also termed collectively "rabbinic robes," considering that these should be learned by "every student in that order – philosophy, astronomy, and Kabbalah." Coming from a leader of 16th-century Polish and Lithuanian Jewry, these words attest to the influence of the Renaissance on Jewish scholars of that time. Jaffe regarded Kabbalah as the "crowning jewel of spirituality"; he also introduced it into the halakhic parts of the "attires" (e.g., Levush Ḥur., 651:11). He was at pains, however, to point out that such confirmation of the halakhah from Kabbalah was not authoritative (ibid., 668:1).

The Levushim were published between 1590 and 1604 at various presses in Lublin, Prague, and Cracow. On their appearance, they drew criticism from almost every rabbinic authority. On the other hand, Elijah Shapiro, the author of Eliyahu Zuta (the commentary on the first Levush, Prague, end of 17th century, Preface), speaks of it in the most glowing terms and testifies to its widespread acceptance.


M. Amsel, "Mi-Toledotav shel Rabbenu ha-Levush" in: Mordecai Jaffe, Levush Malkhut, 2 (Levush ha-Hur; 1964); Graetz-Rabbinowitz, 7 (1899), 350–5, 429–34; S.A. Horodezky, Le-Korot ha-Rabbanut (1911), 145–74; S.M. Chones, Toledot ha-Posekim (1910), 314–8; S.B. Nissenbaum, Le-Korot ha-Yehudim be-Lublin (1900), 25–27; Waxman, Literature, 2 (1960), 150–2.