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Rabbi Meir (MaHaRaM) Schiff

Rabbi Meir (MaHaRaM) Schiff

(circa 5357-5393; 1597-1633)

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The famed Posek and Talmud commentator, Rabbi Meir ben Rabbi Yaakov Schiff, lived only about thirty six years. Yet even during this short lifespan he attained high standing among the great Rabbis and Talmudic scholars of his time.

Rabbi Meir was born in Frankfort on the Abin about the year 5357 (1597). The family Schiff was one of the most prominent families in Frankfort, which had for many generations produced outstanding Rabbis and communal leaders, known both for their learning and wealth, for some of them were also successful financiers and bankers. One of the early ancestors of this family was Rabbi Yaakov Kohen-Tzedek Schiff, who was born about the year 1370, And was a Dayan (member of the Beth-Din) of Frankfort. His son Uri Faivush Schiff died at a ripe old age in 1481, according to his tombstone on the ancient Jewish cemetery in Frankfort. A later descendant, Meir Kohen Tzedek was the Parnas (head) of the community and died in 1626. Rabbi David Tevele HaKohen Schiff, who was elected Chief Rabbi of London in 1765 (d. 1792) was also a descendant of this family.

Rabbi Meir's father, Rabbi Yaakov HaKohen Schiff, was head of the Yeshiva in Frankfort. Under his tutelage, the young Meir acquired a profound knowledge of the Talmud, thanks to his brilliant mind and devoted studies. At the age of seventeen Rabbi Meir was invited to become a Dayan in the community of Fulda, a center of Torah in those days, or, to quote his grandson in the latter's foreword to Rabbi Meir's Chidushei Halachoth, "from olden times a mother city in Israel, full of Torah scholars and scribes." Later he was elected to be the Av Beth Din, the chief rabbi of the community. Here he also taught the Talmud at the Yeshiva. Though barely nineteen years of age, he already exchanged learned Talmudic correspondence with the famed Rabbi Meir (MaHaRaM) of Lublin (d. 1616)

In addition to his extraordinary knowledge, of the Talmud, Rabbi Meir was also a great Kabbalist, and wrote books on Kabbala. He also wrote a commentary on the Torah (the Five Chumashim). He was regarded as a saintly man, and many wonderful things were told about him. It was also said that the Prophet Elijah had appeared to him. His grandson wrote (in his said Foreword) that his grandfather bad foretold that his son, Rabbi Zanvil, would die childless, as also happened, but that his daughter Henela would bear children and continue his line. In his Tzavaah (last will and testament) he requested that all his writings be locked in a box and preserved in the family until a worthy descendant would rise who could be entrusted with his manuscripts.

Rabbi Meir wrote commentaries on the entire Talmud, although only a part was published in two volumes, covering some eleven tractates. The first volume, published by his grandson, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Stern Katz of Frankfort, appeared in Hamburg (1741, and both volumes together, 1747). A considerable part of his writings, however, including also a commentary of the Four Turim. of Rabbeinu Yaakov, were lost, and part of it was destroyed by a fire in Frankfort, in the year 1711.

The method which the MaHaRaM Schiff followed in his commentaries and insights (chidushim) in regard to various sections of the Talmud was that of Peshat. He endeavored to explain the most difficult passages and discussions in the Talmud by giving what he considered the plain meaning of the text, without recourse to pilpul (involved and compli­cated analysis). He opposed pi1pul, and used it only occasionally in his Yeshiva as a means of "sharpening the students' minds." By the same method of Peshat he endeavored to reconcile what sometimes appeared as contradictory statements in the Talmud. He disagreed oc­casionally with some Talmudic commen­taries who found it necessary to amend some passages in the Talmudic text, or in Rashi's commentary, which they sus­pected were printed errors, but which, according to his understanding of these texts, could be explained without such "corrections."

On the other hand, the MaHaRaM Schiff readily admits that he sometimes wrote his own commentaries hurriedly, because of his being overburdened with communal duties. Sometimes he adds, "there is more to be said on this, but I have not the time to elaborate." Furthermore, he wrote his commentaries on separate sheets and pieces of paper, and in an unsystematic way. Finally, as already mentioned, much of his writings were lost, or destroyed by fire. As a result of these circumstances, his commentaries are often difficult to grasp. They offer a wide area for further scholarly work and discussion, an opportunity for scholars who are fond of pilpul.

The MaHaRaM Schiff carried out his Rabbinic and communal responsibilities with a firm hand and with authority. Following strictly the way of the Torah, he never compromised where the truth was concerned, and he could be quite outspoken. When the wealthy members of the community did not support the Yeshiva and Torah scholars generously enough, he rebuked them severely. He also instituted various by-laws in his community with a view to strengthening Torah education and adherence to the way of the Torah in the daily life. He never passed over in silence any flattery and deception, and frequently admonished his flock to follow the path of righteousness.

The great respect which the young Gaon and Rabbi commanded can also be seen from the fact that he was invited to accept the position of Chief Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva in the great community of Prague, famed for the outstanding luminaries. that occupied that position over many generations. The MaHaRaM accepted the call, but soon after taking up his new position he passed away at the young age of thirtysix.

The Chidusbei Halacbotb MaHaRaM Schiff, as his main work is known, is printed with almost all editions of the Talmud, together with the other major commentaries on the Talmud, among which it has an honored place.

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