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Rabbi Jacob Pollack

Rabbi Jacob Pollack

(circa 5230-5301; 1470-1541)


Rabbi Jacob, the son of Rabbi Joseph, Pollack was born in Poland, from where he derives his name "Pollack." He was born about the year 5230 (1470), that is nearly 500 years ago, and he died in Lublin (Poland) at about the age of 71.

Rabbi Jacob Pollack was one of the outstanding Torah scholars of his time, when there lived many great scholars. In his youth, he studied at the Yeshiva of the great Rabbi Jacob Margolis in Nuremberg (Germany), where the method of Pilpul (complicated discussion) was instituted. He, in turn, introduced this method of learning into the Yeshivos that he headed, first in Prague and later in Cracow.

Pilpul was designed to sharpen the mind by means of question and answer and involved discussion. The Dean used to deliver a Pilpul on a certain theme in the Talmud, first going deeply into Rashi and Tosefos, then raising a question, giving an answer, nullifying the answer with a different question, offering a different solution, and so on. This method had its merits and its faults. The good side was that the students had to delve deeply into the subject they were studying, thereby "sharpening the intellect"; the Pilpul took possesion of the students, and they were "electrified" by the learning. The fault lay in the fact that much time was spent on questions that in reality were not questions, and on answers that were not answers. One could sametimes make an error; and one could also get a feeling of haughtiness and self-satisfaction. Many Torah scholars were, therefore, opposed to the method of Pilpul. Among the opponents were to be found such giants as the world famous Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Efraim Luntschitz., Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe (Baal HaLevushim), the saintly "Shelo," the "Maharsho" and others. An exeptionally strong opponent was Rabbi Chaim Bezalel, the brother of the Maharal of Prague, who wrote in his book "Derech Chaim" (The Way of Life) that the Pilpul method brings more harm than good, that it is built on false foundations, and that it is a waste of time; studying with depth-yes; but, Pilpul, or "hairsplitting" discussion-no.

Rabbi Jacob Pollack, however, was greatly in favor of this method of learning and sought to gain from its merits, while avoiding its faults. He became very famous, and attracted many pupils, so much so, that he caused a great Torah revival in Poland, where the study of the Torah had not been on too high a level up to his time.

Rabbi Jacob Pollack's first Rabbinical position was in Prague, where he headed a great Yeshiva, together with Rabbi Isaac Margolis, a son of his teacher, Rabbi Jacob. In Prague Rabbi Jacob Pollack married into a fine family who had business dealings with the royal court, and he was blessed with possessing both Torah scholarship and wealth. Rabbi Jacob did not stay long in Prague, however. In the year 5252 (1492, the year of the Spanish Expulsion) he decided a divorce case in such a way as to bring upon himself the opposition of all the other Rabbis of Prague, including his own teacher, Rabbi Jacob Margolis. Also some great Rabbis of other lands opposed his decision. Rabbi Jacob Pollack felt that he was correct, and did not want to give way. He left Prague, and went to Cracow (Poland). There he set up a great Yeshiva, and, as mentioned, brought about a great Torah revival in Poland. In the year 5263 (1503), he was appointed as Chief Rabbi of Cracow. For about 30 years Rabbi Jacob Pollack spread the knowledge of the Torah in Cracow. He had famous disciples, amongst whom was Rabbi Sholom Schachne, who later became the Chief Rabbi of Lublin. Because of a difference with a Jewish doctor who had influence in the royal court, Rabbi Jacob Pollack was forced to leave Cracow. He went to Eretz Yisroel, and lived for ten years in Jerusalem. From there he went to Turkey, and afterwards he returned to Poland, settling in Lublin, where, shortly after, he died.

Although Rabbi Jacob Pollack was one of the outstanding Torah giants of his generation, he did not leave any written compositions. He did not want Rabbis to rely on his decisions, but every Rabbi should carefully judge the case in question, in the light of its specific details, according to the Talmud and earlier codifiers. His disciple, Rabbi Sholom Schachne of Lublin, also did not compile any written works for the same reason. They did not even publish the Responsa to the many questions they were asked from all over the world.

Despite the fact that Rabbi Jacob Pollack did not write any books, he was a celebrity nevertheless. His greatest contribution was his hoving revived the study of the Torah in Poland. Thanks to him, Poland became one of the world Torah centers, that blossomed for hundreds of years, until Hitler (may his name be obbiterated), destroyed the Jewish population of Poland.

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