It is just over 600 years since the celebrated Codifier of Jewish Law, Rabbi Jacob ben Moshe Halevi Molin, known as the Maharil, was born.

Rabbi Jacob was born in the city of Mainz (Germany), in the year 5120 (1360). Rabbi Moshe, his father, whose family name was Molin, was Rabbi of the city. Rabbi Moshe also had other sons and daughters, who excelled in Torah knowledge, piety and nobility of character, but Rabbi Jacob outshone them all.

He learned at first under the instruction of his father, and also received instruction from his older brother, Rabbi Jekusiel. But at an early age, he wanted to observe the advice of the Sages: "Go into exile in order to learn Torah." He longed to visit different cities to get to know the various Gaonim of his time, and to study at their feet. So he went to Vienna, where he studied under Rabbi Sholom ben Rabbi Isaac, who befriended the young scholar. He also studied under the guidance of other Rabbis in Vienna, one of whom, Rabbi Moshe Neumark, took him to be his son-in-law. Soon after his wedding, Rabbi Jacob left Vienna to study Torah away from home. He apparently learned for many years in various Yeshivoth, and became famous as a great Gaon (Torah giant).

Finally, he returned to his native Mainz, where he was chosen to fill the position left vacant by his late father. Rabbi Jacob was well loved by the community. When he was once ill in bed, and lay for three days almost lifeless, the entire community proclaimed a fasting period for every Monday and Thursday until Rosh Hashanah, to pray for his speedy recovery. When Rabbi Jacob was already well again, and came to the Synagogue, the community still kept up the fasting as originally decided, although a couple of months still remained to Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Jacob was the spiritual leader in a full measure. He devoted himself to the spreading of Torah learning and piety throughout the community. He headed a great Yeshivah, and he took care of the physical needs of his pupils who came to him from near and far. One of his famous disciples was Rabbi Jacob Weil, who later became known as a great Gaon and Codifier.

The Maharil took a fatherly interest in all the communal affairs, and especially in the conditions of the Yeshivah students. He was well liked as a Baal-Tefillah (Chazzan), and he instituted many nigunim (tunes), especially for the Holy Days' Prayers. He had a beautiful voice, and when he led the Prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he elevated the congregation to a high spiritual plane, and inspired them to repentance.

The Maharil was Rabbi in Mainz, on the River Rhine, for about 40 years. Thanks to him, the community blossomed, and was known for its high level of Torah and good character, which it attained under the influence of their great spiritual leader. In his later years, the community of Worms turned to him to become their Rabbi, to help rebuild their old and famous community, where such great personalities as Rashi, Rabbi Elozor bar Rabbi Judah Rokeach, the Maharam of Ruthenberg, and other great Gaonim had lived and left their mark.

The Maharil acceded to their request, and was Rabbi there for over a year until his death, Motzoei Shabbos (Saturday night), the 22nd of Elul, 5187 (1427).

Many legal questions were directed to the Maharil during his lifetime, as he was considered a great authority, especially in the area of the Prayers and Customs throughout the entire year. The Responsa of the Maharil, comprising 233 sections, were published in Venice in 1549. Many of his legal decisions and customs were publicised by his disciples. His legal decisions were considered binding by the later Rabbinical authorities among the Ashkenazic Jews, especially in Germany and Poland. His work, "Minhagei Maharil" (Customs of the Maharil), printed in Sabunita in 1556, enjoyed tremendous popularity, and it has been reprinted many times. From his Responsa and his Book of Customs, a lot can be learned about the life of the Jews in those times, about the daily life in the ghetto, and the high level of the Shabbos life; how the Jews celebrated the Yomim Tovim (Holidays), and how they celebrated hapy family occasions (Simchos), etc.

Whenever the Maharil used to walk among Jews, he used to carry a small Chumash with him, so that if Jews stood up in his honor, he could feel that the honor was accorded to the holy Chumash that he was carrying, and not to his own person.

He was a very humble man, but was very particular about honor being shown to his students, and used to demand that the members of the community show them their due respect.

The material position of the Jews in Germany, Bohemia, Poland, Austria and other countries at the time of the Maharil, was a very difficult one. It was only a few years after the persecutions suffered on account of the "Black Death," when the Jews were falsely accused of poisoning the wells. That brought about the slaughter of many Jews (in the year 5109/1349). Many of the legal questions in the Responsa of the Maharil and other Gaonim of his time dealt with Orphans and Widows, Agunos (wives who do not know the whereabouts of their husbands and thus cannot remarry), inheritance problems, mourning, forced conversions, etc.

At that time, there broke out in Bohemia the bitter "Holy" War between the followers of the Bishop Ian (John) Huss (the Hussites) and the clergy who remained true to the old way of the Christian Church. Huss, who was born about the year 1369 in Hussinetz in Bohemia, was, at about the age of 30, a professor of philosophy in the Prague University. A few years later, he became Rector (President) of the university, and at the same time, a clergyman. He started to attack the Church for mixing into political and worldly matters, and thereby degrading the church and the faith. The Pope and Cardinals declared Huss to be a heretic, and forbade him to preach his "heretical" ideas. He disregarded these orders and threats, and continued to preach his ideas. The Cardinals then fooled him into accepting an invitation to a debate in Constance. King Sigismund guaranteed him protection. But, when it came to the debate, the Cardinals pronounced the death sentence on him, and he was burned alive (in 1415). That was when his followers started a bitter war against the Pope and King Sigismund. At the beginning they won a series of battles against the armies of the Pope and the King, and they took revenge on the clergy with great cruelty. In many countries, including Holland and Belgium, bands of Christians were organized to fight against the Hussites, and at the same time, they persecuted the Jews. The Jewish communities on the Rhine, such as Cologne, Nurenberg, Erfurt, Neustadt, etc., lived in great terror. In certain places, the Jews were attacked despite the promises of the local rulers to protect them. The Maharil came forth with a letter that he sent from Mainz to all Jews in the various communities. He proclaimed a public fast, ordering all Jews over 20 years of age, except for sick people, to fast for three consecutive days, day and night, starting with the day after Shabbos Bereishis. The fast was to have the same degree of severity as Yom Kippur. Boys over 13 and girls over 12 were also ordered to fast these three days, only they were allowed to break their fast every night. He also announced what special Prayers were to be said, and how the people should act during the fasting period. Filled with compassion for his persecuted brethren, the Maharil strengthened and encouraged the Jews in their hour of need. He exhorted them not to lose their faith in the Almighty, but at the same time, to be prepared to sacrifice their lives, if need be, for Kiddush Hashem. Special messengers delivered the Maharil's letter to the various communities in danger, and everywhere his order was carried out to the greatest detail, and brought courage and inspiration to the Jews.

Many Jews sanctified G‑d's name in those troubled times, which lasted for about 20 years. Many communities saw real miracles take place before their eyes, as the Almighty saved them from destruction.

In such a manner, the Maharil took part in both the troubles and rejoicings of his brethren. His influence during his lifetime was immense, and up to the present day he holds an unforgettable position amongst the Jewish Great, who lastingly enriched the Jewish way of life.