Updated: Feb 1, 2021
Whenever we think about the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Loew ben Betzalel, we immediately associate him with the making of the Golem, a clay monster that protected the Jews. However, he was in fact much more than that. There’s a discussion of when exactly he was born, which nobody knows for sure. While young, he was already recognized as a genius by being able to learn on his own. Yet, his first book, a commentary on Rashi’s commentary on the Torah called “Gur Aryeh” was published much later in his life, has become a favorite throughout world Jewry.
The Maharal was one of the most illustrious Rabbis of the 16th Century, acquiring mastery in all fields of Torah. He was beloved by both Jews and non-Jews alike, including Emperor Rudolf II, and a statue of him was made and placed in the city hall of Prague.
With his wife Perl who was also a big scholar, they had six daughters and a son, and he was known to have descended from King David. Surprisingly, he only came to Prague when he was about 50 years old, as he was born in Worms, Germany.
His approach to Torah
Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook spoke about the Maharal in the highest terms, saying that "Maharal was the father of the approach of the Gaon of Vilna on the one hand, and of the father of Chasidut, on the other hand". His approach to Agaddah, the non-legal part of the Talmud, and also Midrashim was unique in that it taught many new levels of understanding them.
While the Maharal was an expert on pre-Lurianic Kabbalah, the Zohar and Sefer Yetzirah (the Book of Formation), he was in fact very modest and shunned all forms of attention.
One of his most characteristic points he emphasized in learning Torah is the defense of the supreme wisdom of the Sages. According to the Maharal, everything the sages taught is true in a literal sense down to the letter. Obviously sometimes we don’t even understand that literal sense, especially when the interpretation happens in the spiritual worlds (as is the case of the story of Adam HaRishon). We cannot know what the Torah meant with “garden”, “snake” or “fruit” because even Adam’s existence was entirely spiritual. Nevertheless, the Maharal was strongly against the extrapolation of the teachings of the Talmud or its dismissal as fantasy as many Rabbis were guilty of.
The Wax Figurine
A famous dramatic story is told when Pope Clement VIII wanted to incite the emperor against the Jews. He was experienced in using shemot hatum’ah (impure names) for his nefarious ends and crafted a figure of wax with the face of the Christians’ savior, which he put in a box. He came to a wealthy Jew in Italy and asked for a loan. The Jew, without knowing the Pope’s plan, took a locked box as security for the loan and kept it hidden in his house. The Pope said the box contained precious jewels, but in fact, had the wax figurine inside. His plan was to imbue the doll with holiness so it would gain life (like the Golem). That night the Jew dreamed of Eliyahu HaNavi, who warned him to get rid of the “tumah” that he was holding. But the Jew didn’t understand it until the Maharal of Prague himself came using Kfitzat HaDerech (cutting the way short, a mystical technique), and commanded the Angel who has authority over the fire to burn the wax figurine, thwarting the Pope’s plan.
The legend of the Golem is subject of much dispute. There are those that say it never really happened. For those that said that it was indeed true, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that the Maharal of Prague used the holy Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation). The entire ritual, involving deep meditative techniques, took over 16 hours, in order to bring the soul of a powerful demon to give life to the Golem and writing one of the Holy names on his tongue.
After the Golem saved the Jewish People from a blood libel by Emperor Rudolf II, the Maharal hid it on the attic of the Old New Synagogue. Legend has it that anyone that tried to go inside it would die on the spot.
His grave and Descendents
The grave of the Maharal is located in the Old Jewish cemetery of Prague and is a pilgrimage site to many people throughout the year. His many illustrious descendants include Rebbeim from Chabad, such as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liyadi (the Ba’al HaTanya), the Tzemach Tzedek, Rabbi Dov Ber Shneuri (the second Chabad Rebbe), Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (the seventh Chabad Rebbe). Rebbe Nachman of Breslov also descents from the Maharal of Prague from his father’s side, Rabbi Nachman Horodenker.
May we derive inspiration from the great Rabbi Yehuda Loew ben Betzalel of Prague.
This article was written and published in the zechut of all Emuna Builder Partners. May they have complete emuna and continue in spreading emuna!