On the third day of this month (Adar Sheni) is the Yahrzeit (day of death) of the great Talmudist and Kabbalah scholar, Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe, who died exactly 350 years ago. It is timely that we should learn something about his life and work, which are connected with this month in more than one way. His name was Mordechai, like the name of Mordechai who lived in Shushan and brought about the downfall of Haman, and the festival of Purim. He called his great work, the Levushim ("Robes"), after the description of the royal robes in which Mordechai was clothed by the king, as is written in the Megillah: "And Mordechai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes of blue and white, and with a great crown, of gold, and with a garment of fine linen and purple; and the city of Shushan rejoiced and was glad. The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor" (Esther 8:15-16). Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe wrote ten books which he called by the general name of Levushim, or Levush Malchuth ("Royal Robe"), and he named them individually Levush leT'cheleth ("Robe of Blue"), Levush ha-Shinar ("Robe of White"), Levush Atereth Zahav ("Crown of Gold"), and so on. It is interesting to note that he begins the introduction to each of his works with the words, "Says the Tailor," since he "tailored" his "garments" according to different subjects, hoping that they would "fit" every Jew who wants to learn about all the Jewish laws, and to know the deeper meaning of the ,Jewish festivals and the Jewish way of life in general. But before we tell you more about his work, let us get acquainted with the author.
Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe was born in Prague, in the year 5290 (1530). His father Rabbi Abraham of Bohemia was the head of the community and the Chief Rabbi of the province. The famous Talmudists Rabbi Shlomo Luria (MaHaRShaL) and Rabbi Moshe Isserles (ReMO) were his teachers of the Talmud, while Rabbi Mattithyahu Delacrut was his teacher of the Kabbalah. Rabbi Mordechai was also a scholar of mathematics, astronomy and other sciences. He married and had five children, two sons and three daughters.
Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe became head of the Yeshivah in Prague, a position he held until 5321 (1S61) . In that year King Ferdinand ordered the expulsion of the Jews from Bohemia and from its capital, Prague. Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe went to Venice, Italy, where he lived for about ten years, dedicating himself to the study of the Talmud and. Kabbalah. In 1572 he was called to take the position of Rabbi in the city of Grodno, Poland. Here he founded a Yeshivah, and he held the position of Rabbi and Rosh Yeshivah for about 16 years. In 1588 he was invited to become the Rabbi of Lublin, and later he was the Rabbi of Kremnitz. He took an active part in the Council of the Four Lands, and did a great deal to improve the spiritual as well as economic life of the Jews of Poland. In the meantime, the Jewish community in his native Prague was fluorishing under the leadership of the great MaHaRaL (Rabbi Judah ben Bezalel Lowe), and it was a well deserved honor for Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe to receive the call to succeed the MaHaRaL in 1592, as the Rabbi of Prague. Seven years later he became the Chief Rabbi of Posen, a position lie held to his last day. Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe passed away at the ripe old age of 82. To the end of his life he was busy with the communal affairs of the Council of the Four Lands, of which he was the head. Two days before his death, he wrote a reply to the Rabbinical members of the Council, which he signed with the words: "I am sick in bed (may you be spared), facing the judgment of the King of Kings. I sign with a weak hand, Mordechai, called Jaffe."
Despite his many duties as Chief Rabbi and head of the Council of the Four Lands (the latter supervised Jewish life in Poland, Galicia, Russia and Lithuania), Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe found time to write his ten volumes of the Levushim, most of which were published in his lifetime.
The first five volumes of the Levushim are a compendium of all the Jewish laws, along the lines of the Turim compiled by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (1269-1340). Humbly appologizing for daring to write another similar work, he explains the need for it, because the Turim contain lengthy discussions. He wanted to write a sort of "digest" that would be more practical for general use. He was still a young man at the time, for this was before the expulsion from Prague, when he was 31 years old. When he came to Italy he learned that the great Rabbi Joseph Caro had already compiled a "digest" of the Turim, called the Shulchan Aruch. On examining this great work, Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe found that it had two disadvantages, according to his view. First, the Shulchan Aruch did not give the reasons or the sources from which the decisions were quoted. Secondly, the decisions generally followed the custom of the Sephardic Jews, being based primarily on the Rambam,' while the Ashkenazic Jews of Poland, Lithuania and Russia, and surrounding countries often differed 'in their customs.
He was again prepared to give up the idea of writing his own compendium, when he learned that the great Rabbi Moshe Isserles, his own Rabbi, had written his Mappah ("Table-Cloth") as a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, incorporating the decisions of the Ashkenazic authorities. This took care of the second disadvantage, but the first still remained. So he decided, after all, that there was room for his compendium, which followed a middle course between the Turim and the Shulchan Aruch, being more truly a digest of the Turim, with references to the sources, yet in a shorter and more concise form. Indeed, the Levushim turned out to be a masterly work in style and composition. But the Shulchan Aruch with the Mappah had already been accepted by all Jews, and, together with the Turim, these remained the accepted authorities for Jewish Law to this day, while the Levushim take second place.
From his Rabbis, the MaHaRShaL and the ReMO, Rabbi Mordechai learned to admire and love the Kabbalah, the secret knowledge of the Torah. He often refers to it in his works, not seldom basing his decisions on the Zohar, and devotes his whole tenth volume to this part of the Torah, in the form of a commentary on the commentary of Rabbi Menachem Recanati (The great Italian Kabbalist, Rabbi Menachem Recanati, lived around the year 5060 (1300). His Commentary was first printed in Venice, in the year 1523.) on the Torah.