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Judah Loew (Liwa, Loeb) ben Bezalel

JUDAH LOEW (Liwa, Loeb) BEN BEZALEL (known as Der Hohe Rabbi Loew and MaHaRaL mi-Prag; c. 1525–1609), rabbi, talmudist, moralist, and mathematician. Judah Loew was the scion of a noble family which hailed from Worms. His father, Bezalel b. Ḥayyim, was the brother-in-law of R. Isaac Klauber of Posen, the grandfather of Solomon *Luria. Judah Loew's older brother, Ḥayyim b. *Bezalel, and his two younger brothers, Sinai and Samson, were also scholars of repute. (According to one tradition, however, Judah was the youngest son.) His teachers are unknown. From 1553 to 1573 he was Landesrabbiner of Moravia in Mikulov (Nikolsburg) after which he went to Prague. There he founded a yeshivah called Die Klaus, organized circles for the study of the Mishnah, to which he attached great importance, and regulated the statutes of the ḥevra kaddisha, founded in 1564. He remained in Prague until 1584, and from then until 1588 served as rabbi in Moravia (according to others, in Posen), eventually returning to Prague. On the third of Adar 5352 (Feb. 16, 1592) he was granted an interview by Emperor *Rudolph II, but it is not known what its purpose was. There seems little basis for the belief that it was due to their common interest in alchemy. Shortly afterward he left Prague for Posen, where he became chief rabbi; several years later he returned to Prague, becoming its chief rabbi and remaining there until his death.

Judah Loew was revered for his piety and asceticism. He was a great scholar, whose knowledge was not confined to religious subjects, but embraced secular studies as well, particularly mathematics. He was an outstanding personality, held in the highest repute by Jews and non-Jews alike. The astronomer, Tycho Brahe, with whom he enjoyed a social relationship, is said to have arranged his audience with the emperor. Judah preferred recourse to talmudic sources rather than the use of Maimonides' code or the Tur for deciding cases of Jewish law (cf. Netivot Olam, Netiv ha-Torah, 15). He was a great educationalist whose pedagogic views are of contemporary relevance. Dissatisfied with current methods of education, he strongly criticized his contemporaries for not following the manner of education indicated in Mishnah Avot 5:21, which takes into consideration the age of the student and the subjects taught. The "fools nowadays," he said, "teach boys Bible with the commentary of Rashi, which they do not understand, and also Talmud, which they cannot yet grasp" (see the references in Assaf, Mekorot, 1 (1925), 48ff.). Furthermore, he claimed that they neglected the study of the Mishnah. He also strongly opposed pilpul, and although he sharply criticized Azariah de' *Rossi (Be'er ha-Golah, ch. 6), he favored scientific study which did not contradict the principles of Judaism. According to S.J. Rapaport, he did not engage in Kabbalah; G. Scholem, on the other hand, regards him as the forerunner of Hasidism in that he popularized kabbalistic ideas. His language is not kabbalistic, and this fact stands in the way of a full understanding of his teaching to the present day. He stresses that philosophy and esoteric love are diametrically opposed to one another ("two things each of which contradicts and opposes the other" – Derekh Ḥayyim, ch. 5) and unhesitatingly associates himself with the world of Kabbalah.

Judah Loew's works in the fields of ethics, philosophy, and homiletics are all based on the same homiletical system: exegetical and homiletical interpretation of the sayings of the rabbis of the Talmud. His whole life's work may be regarded as a new interpretation of the aggadah. Every chapter (and nearly every paragraph) in his many works opens with a quotation from the traditional sources, which he then goes on to interpret in his unique fashion. His close attachment to the aggadah may be the reason for his strong defense of oral tradition against its Italian critics, which was incorporated in his Be'er ha-Golah. Even his systematic work on ethics, Netivot Olam, which was to become one of the most popular and influential works in the field, is also based on reinterpretation of aggadic passages. Although chapters of his works may be read as a late offspring of the philosophical moralistic literature of the Spanish period, the philosophical terms which he employs do not bear their original meanings but are given new ones geared to the expression of his ideas. Some passages in his writings, as well as some of his basic views regarding the transcendent meaning of the Torah, of prayer, etc., seem to point to familiarity with Kabbalah. He never states kabbalistic ideas as such but seems to have made use of them in his interpretation of talmudic passages. The question has not been sufficiently studied, however, to permit definite conclusions. The most important questions which he tried to solve in his many works were the problem of the relationship between Israel and God, with the Torah serving as mediator between them, and the problem of the galut, the reasons for it, and the manner of its termination. His Tiferet Yisrael and Gevurot ha-Shem are completely devoted to these subjects, and he deals with them in his other works as well.

Judah Loew rejects the Aristotelian view, which is adumbrated mainly by Maimonides, that intellectual perfection is the supreme human goal. In his opinion the study of Torah and observance of its precepts bring man to this goal, and study of the Torah for its own sake has a metaphysical influence and brings about communion with God. The precepts, implemented by means of physical actions, are symbols whereby man comes closer to the Creator and penetrates to the secrets of the Divine; this is the true purpose of the ceremonial precepts.

He lived in an era of the revival of the sciences and displayed some familiarity with scientific studies, but the new discoveries did not influence his cosmic outlook. He knew about Copernicus but remained faithful to the rabbinic view of cosmogony, for, he said, it was received by them from Moses at Sinai who received it from God Who alone can possibly know the truth (Netivot Olam, Netiv ha-Torah). An echo of the discovery of America also reached his ears: "They say that recently a certain place has been found, called by them a new world, previously undiscovered" (Neẓaḥ Yisrael, ch. 34); in consequence he expressed the hope that the ten tribes too would one day be discovered in a country still unknown. He drew his scientific explanations, generally speaking, from Aristotle's natural philosophy which was generally accepted in the Middle Ages, and his psychological outlook was chiefly Platonic with the addition of Aristotelian and other elements. He also took from Plato the division of people into three classes: philosophers (= talmudic scholars), watchmen (= those who observe precepts), and breadwinners (= merchants). Although the spirit of the Renaissance and of humanism reached him, he remained fundamentally anchored to the outlooks common in the Middle Ages. A number of his formulations in social problems would appear to be very forward looking, but the subject has still to be investigated.

In fixing the standard for halakhah, he develops the view that the source of dispute in halakhah lies in the diversity of reality and its numerous aspects, which human intelligence cannot fully comprehend, and since human methods of understanding differ – "each one receives one aspect in accordance with his lot" (Be'er ha-Golah, ch. 1).

Fundamental Doctrines


By the terms "nature," "the natural order," "natural reality," and the like, that run like a golden thread throughout all his writings, he refers to the regular physical order of the universe. The various phenomena are connected one with another in a logical connection of cause and effect that can be rationally explained. This order, however, has no validity for the relationship between the Creator and the universe, for two reasons: (a) God created the system of regularity in nature of His own free will; (b) there exist phenomena outside the natural order which are deviations from the fixed order, i.e., the miracles. Since it is inconceivable that God should lay down laws and abrogate them, establish an order and destroy it – he assumes that in principle the natural order is only enduring and valid in this world, while in the upper world, a different order, "the discrete," exists. The miracle has its source in this upper world and occurs when this upper world temporarily penetrates and intrudes into this world. Hence even phenomena that at first sight appear as deviations are ab initio subject to special rules of their own.


Since the time of Judah Halevi no one had stressed the unique nature of the people of Israel, its mission and its destiny, as did Judah Loew. God chose Israel per se and not because of the merits of the patriarchs. Hence it cannot be said that only when Israel fulfills the will of the Omnipresent the choice exists, but when they rebel it is annulled. This being so, the claim of Christians that the exile is proof that God has forsaken His people is similarly nullified. Cancellation of the choice would have involved a change in reality "until the world would have become different from what it was previously," and this is an impossibility. He terms the choice of Israel beḥirah kelalit ("general choice"), and the tie with God which constitutes the nature of the choice devekut kelalit ("general attachment").

Israel constitutes the "form," whereas other nations constitute the "matter." From this stem the differences in their ethical conduct and in their comprehension of divine matters. In Israel the forces of the soul prevail, among the nations – physical forces.


The natural order is not limited to natural phenomena, it also comprehends human relations. He holds that the exile is a "departure" (deviation) from the natural order of the world, a breakdown in the universal system of relations, in the otherwise unchangeable regularity. The exile expresses itself in three ways:

(1) uprooting from the natural locality; every nation has a country specifically its own, and separation from one's country and dwelling beyond it deleteriously affect the natural order;

(2) loss of political independence and subjection to aliens – "for the subjection of one nation to another does not accord with the proper order of reality, for it is the right of each nation to be free";

(3) the dispersion – every nation is a distinct entity and in the absence of a territorial center it loses its unity; it is not "a complete compact nation" (Neẓaḥ Yisrael ch. 1).

However, every departure from the natural order is but a passing phenomenon – hence the conviction of, and faith in, the messianic redemption which will inevitably come about and remedy the anomaly of the exile (see *Galut). Yet despite all his attachment to the messianic faith, he was utterly opposed to "forcing the end" (of the exile) and to the actual messianic speculations of his time. Not only the natural order but its consequences were established by the will of God, and man should not attempt to change them; the decree of God may not be nullified by force. One must pray for the redemption but not "too much," not even in a generation of religious persecution. Even to calculate the time of the redemption is forbidden; it will come in its due time. Shortly before the redemption "the degradation of Israel will be greater than it ever was," and precisely from this "absence" will the redemption emerge. The apocalyptic aggadot are explained allegorically by Judah Loew in such a way that the image of the personal Messiah is blurred. He explains the aggadah about the birth of the Messiah on the day the Temple was destroyed to the effect that "this birth is not an actual physical birth … but it means that the Messiah was born from the point of view of the messianic potentiality existing in the world."

He discusses the cosmopolitan basis of the exile. Though indeed it is fitting that the Israelite nation, which is the essence of the world, should have for its dwelling place Ereẓ Israel, which is the essence of the geographical world, nevertheless, when they were exiled from the land the whole world became their locality. In accordance with the midrashic saying "wherever Israel went into exile the Divine Presence accompanied them," he stresses that it is fitting that the Divine Presence should be with Israel in exile more than in Ereẓ Israel. In consequence he emphasizes the need for the Jewish people to work for their survival in exile by separating themselves from the nations and by observing the precepts, such as congregational prayer, practice of charity, and study of Torah.

Judah Loew was a prolific writer. His works include:

(1) Derekh Ḥayyim, commentary on Avot (Cracow, 1589);

(2) Netivot Olam, on ethics, the second part of Derekh Ḥayyim (Prague, 1596);

(3) Tiferet Yisrael, on the excellence of the Torah and the commandments (Prague, 1593);

(4) Be'er ha-Golah, on difficult talmudic passages, and, at the same time, a defense of the Talmud, the second part of Tiferet Yisrael (Prague, 1598);

(5) Neẓaḥ Yisrael, on exile, messianic redemption, and repentance (Prague, 1599);

(6) Or Ḥadash on Megillat Esther and Purim, and

(7) Ner Mitzvah on Ḥanukkah (Prague, 1600);

(8) Gur Aryeh, commentary on Rashi, including comments on Bible, Targum, and Midrash (Prague, 1578);

(9) Gevurot ha-Shem, on the Exodus from Egypt, the Haggadah, and the laws of Pesaḥ (Cracow, 1582);

(10) Gur Aryeh, novellae on tractates Shabbat, Eruvin, and Pesaḥim (Lvov, 1863);

(11) Haggadah shel Pesaḥ, with a discourse on Shabbat ha-Gadol (1589);

(12) Ḥiddushei Yoreh De'ah, novellae on Tur Yoreh De'ah (Amsterdam, 1775);

(13) Sefer Perushei Maharal mi-Prag le-Aggadot ha-Shas (1959–60);

(14) sermons, novellae, and responsa, some published and others still in manuscript. Most of the above-mentioned works have appeared in several editions.

He is unique in the history of Hebrew literature by virtue of his not having belonged to any defined school, or having been followed by disciples who subscribed to his ideas. He was a lone thinker, who developed his own philosophy as well as its method of presentation. It is ironic that he is better known to later generations for the unfounded and atypical legend that he was the creator of the famous Prague golem (he seems not to have dealt with magic) than for his original and profound ideas (see *Golem). Rabbi A.I. Kook used his sayings and methods extensively in his works, and a considerable revival of his ideas has taken place among 20th-century Jewish thinkers. Of his pupils, particular mention should be made of Yom Tov *Heller, Elijah *Loans, and David *Gans (the author of Ẓemaḥ David).


M. Perels, Megillat Yuḥasin (19022); C. Bloch, The Golem; legends of the ghetto of Prague (1925); A. Gottesdiener, in: Azkarah… Kook, 4 (1937), 253–443; M. Buber, Bein Am le-Arẓo (1945), 78–91; Y. Hertzberg, Yosele ha-Golem ve-Yoẓero Maharal mi-Prag (1947); A. Mauskopf, Religious Philosophy of the Maharal of Prague (1949); B.Z. Bokser, From the World of the Cabbalahthe Philosophy of Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (1954); F. Thieberger, The Great Rabbi Loew of Prague (1954); Scholem, Shabbetai Ẓevi, 1 (1957), 51–52, 173; idem, Zur Kabbala und ihrer Symbolik (1960), 209–59; M.S. Kasher and J.J. Blacherowitz (eds.), Sefer Perushei Maharal mi-Prag, 1 (1958), 7–40 (introd.); A. Kariv (ed.), Kitvei Maharal mi-PragMivḥar (1960), introd.; A.F. Kleinberger, Ha-Maḥashavah ha-Pedagogit shel ha-Maharal mi-Prag (1962); G. Vajda, in: REJ, 123 (1964), 225–33; O. Muneles (ed.), Prague Ghetto in the Renaissance Period (1965), 75–84; idem, in: Judaica Bohemiae, 5 (1969), 103–7, 117–22; A. Neher, Le Puits de l'Exil; la théologie dialectique du Maharal de Prague (1966); idem, in: M. Zahari and A. Tartakover (eds.), Hagut Ivrit be-Europah (1969), 107–17; Y. Kohen-Yashar, Bibliografyah Shimmushit shel Kitvei ha-Maharal mi-Prag (1967); B. Gross, L'éternité d'Israël, 2 vols. (1968); idem, Le messianisme juif (1969); T. Dreyfus, Dieu parle aux hommes; la révélation selon le Maharal de Prague (1969).