21 April 2023

There’s more to the work of
the Maharal of Prague than
the stories about the Golem

The statue of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel by Ladislav Šaloun at the New City Hall in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During our visit to Prague last week, we spent some time in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter, visiting many of the synagogues, the Jewish cemetery, the ceremonial burial hall, shops, restaurants and cafés, and hearing once again stories of the Golem, and hearing once again the story of Rabbi Yehuda ben Betzalel Loew or Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (ca 1512-1609), often known as the Maharal of Prague, the Hebrew acronym of Moreinu HaRav Loew, or ‘Our Teacher, Rabbi Loew.’

The affectionate name ‘Maharal’ is derived from the Hebrew acronym of Moreinu HaRav Loew, or ‘Our Teacher, Rabbi Loew’. The name ‘Löw’ or ‘Loew’ is derived from the German Löwe (‘lion’), similar to the Yiddish Leib. It is a kinnui or substitute name for the Hebrew name Judah or Yehuda, as in the Bible Judah is likened to a lion (see Genesis 49: 9).

Rabbi Loew wrote on Jewish philosophy and Jewish mysticism. His principal work, Gur Aryeh al HaTorah is a super-commentary on the Torah commentary by the French mediaeval rabbi Salomon Isaacides (1040-1105), generally known as Rashi.

Rabbi Loew is also the subject of a later legend that he created the Golem of Prague, an animate being fashioned from clay, and his grave is a place to visit for many pious Jews. He is regarded as one of the foremost Talmudist scholars, Jewish mystics and Jewish philosophers of all time.

A heraldic lion on the grave of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

For most of his life, the Maharal of Prague served as a leading rabbi in the cities of Mikulov in Moravia and Prague in Bohemia.

He was born in Poznań, Poland, during the Passover Seder on the night of the 15th of the month of Nissan, some time between 1512 and 1526. Although the actual year of his birth is unknown, he was born at the height of the era of the blood libels – the anti-Semitic claim that Jews would kidnap and kill young Christian children to use their blood in the baking of the matzahs.

As his mother went into labour during the Seder, the guests ran out to find the midwife. At the same time, a non-Jewish man was walking through the Jewish quarter with a sack containing the dead body of a child, aiming to plant the body and report the ‘crime’ to the authorities.

When the guests rushed out of the house to find the midwife, the perpetrator thought they were trying to catch him, and he tried to flee. A night watchman, seeing someone running while carrying a sack, with people pursuing him, caught the perpetrator and thwarted the attempted blood libel.

According to tradition passed down through the Maharal’s descendants, his wife Perl was an outstanding Talmudic scholar in her own right. She helped her husband write some of his responsum, and to arrange and edit his literary works.

He accepted a rabbinical position in 1553 as Landesrabbiner of Moravia at Mikulov (Nikolsburg), directing community affairs in the province and revising community statutes on election and taxation. Although he retired from Moravia in 1588 at age of 68, the communities continued to regard him an authority.

He moved back to Prague in 1588, where he again accepted a rabbinical position, replacing the retired Isaac Hayoth. On 23 February 1592, he met the Emperor Rudolf II. The conversation seems to have been related to Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism, a subject that fascinated the emperor.

In 1592, Rabbi Loew moved to Poznań, where he had been elected as Chief Rabbi of Poland. He returned to Prague towards the end of his life.

The rear of the Old New Synagogue in Prague, with rungs leading to the attic where the Golem are said to have hidden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Maharal’s approach to Midrash and Aggadah is a key component in his many works. He was adamant that every story told and recorded by the rabbis of the Talmud is true. They are part of the divine wisdom just as much as a verse from Scripture or a halachah kept by all Jews. At the same time, he stressed that these stories are speaking of the ‘essential reality,’ not necessarily the physical reality.

According to the Maharal’s approach, every detail of the Torah and Talmud, even a seemingly random metaphor, is exact.

For example, when the Talmud says that Moses was 10 cubits (approximately 15 ft) tall, he explains that the real Moses was 15 ft tall. Not the Moses that the people saw; they merely saw the physical shell of Moses, as he was invested in a body within our physical world. But Moses was a complete person, and 10 is the number of completeness, so that is how tall he should have been. Certainly, writes the Maharal, whatever could be reflected in the physical world was reflected, and Moses was likely taller than the average human being.

The Maharal devoted much of his writings to the exile and the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people. One of his famous teachings addresses the question of celebrating the Passover during a time of exile and persecution.

How could the Jewish people in the Middle Ages celebrate the Exodus from Egypt when they were plunged back into the bitter darkness of exile and persecution, with massacres, libels, inquisitions and expulsions?

He explains that the Exodus was not merely a socio-political event, in which slaves were allowed to leave a country and forge their own destiny. It was also an existential mutation, in which the gift of freedom was ‘wired’ into the very psyche of a people. With the Divine liberation from bondage in Egypt, a new type of person was created: an individual who would never make peace with oppression and who would forever yearn for liberty. The Exodus implanted within the soul of humanity an inherent quest for liberty and an innate repulsion toward subjugation.

The Old New Synagogue in Prague is Europe’s oldest active synagogue. (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Maharal’s synagogue in Prague, the Altneuschul (Old-New Synagogue), is the oldest active synagogue in Europe. The Nazis planned to use it as part of a museum to an ‘extinct people,’ and so did not destroy the Altneuschul or other synagogues in Prague.

The Maharal introduced many customs that are unique to the synagogue and listed on the wall. One of these customs is the recitation of Psalm 92 twice instead of once on Friday night.

The Maharal is perhaps most famous for the many stories about his creation of the Golem – a humanoid clay figure who was a crossover between the Gingerbread Man and Frankenstein’s monster. The Golem was said to defend the Jews of Prague from antisemitic attacks, particularly the blood libel. He is said to have used mystical powers based on the esoteric knowledge of how God created Adam.

However, the general view of historians and critics is that the legend is a German literary invention of the early 19th century. The earliest known source for the story is the book Der Jüdische Gil Blas by Friedrich Korn, published in 1834. It has been repeated and adapted many times since.

It is said that the body of the Golem was hidden in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue and it is forbidden for anyone to go up to the attic.

The tombstone of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in the Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Maharal of Prague died on 17 September 1609 (18 Elul 5369 in the Jewish calendar). His grave in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is decorated with a heraldic shield with a lion with two intertwined tails, alluding both to his first name and to Bohemia, the arms of which has a two-tailed lion.

Rabbis Loew’s many philosophical works have become cornerstones of Jewish thought, and he was the author of ‘one of the most creative and original systems of thought developed by East European Jewry.’

He employed rationalist terminology and classical philosophical ideas in his writings, and supported scientific research on condition that it did not contradict divine revelation.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Loew’s work was in many ways a reaction to the tradition of mediaeval rationalist Jewish thought, which prioritised a systematic analysis of philosophical concepts, and implicitly downgraded the more colourful and ad hoc imagery of earlier rabbinic commentary.

One of Rabbi Loew’s constant objectives was to demonstrate how such earlier commentary was in fact full of insightful commentary on humanity, nature, holiness, an other topics. According to Loew, the multitude of disconnected opinions and perspectives in classical rabbinic literature do not form a haphazard jumble, but rather exemplify the diversity of meanings that can be extracted from a single idea or concept.

Shabbat Shalom

Souvenir figures of the Golem in a shop near the Old-New Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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