Rabbi Yehuda ben Betzalel Loew (15121–1609), better known as the Maharal of Prague (Moreinu HaRav Loew ["Our Teacher, Rabbi Loew"]) is considered one of the foremost Talmudists, Kabbalists and philosophers of all time. His teachings have had a lasting influence on Jewish scholarship and philosophy, and in fact inspired the Chassidic movement.

1. His Birth Saved the Jews from a Blood Libel

The Maharal was born during the Passover Seder on the night of the 15th of the month of Nissan.2 It was the height of the era of the blood libels (the anti-Semitic claim that Jews would kidnap and kill young Christian children to use their blood in the baking of the matzahs). As his mother went into labor during the Seder, the guests ran out to get the midwife. At the same time, a non-Jewish man was walking through the Jewish quarter with a sack containing the dead body of a child, aiming to plant the body and report the “crime” to the authorities. As the guests came running out of the house to get the midwife, the perpetrator thought they were trying to catch him, and he attempted to flee. A night watchman, seeing someone running while carrying a sack, with people pursuing him, caught the perpetrator and thwarted the attempted blood libel.3

2. His Wife, Perl, Was a Great Scholar

According to tradition passed down through the Maharal’s descendants, Perl, the Maharal’s wife, was a brilliant Talmudic scholar in her own right. She helped her husband write some of his responsum, and arrange and edit his literary works. To quote the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s memoirs:

Now even Perl could feel free to sit and study. Every day she had a lesson with her husband, and not only did they study Talmud and halachah4 together, but also ethics and metaphysics. She used to say about herself that since she was eight years old, not a day went by that she didn’t study for at least five hours. After she married the Maharal and many would send him halachic questions, it was she who would read out the questions to him and then write down his replies. She arranged and edited all of the Maharal’s literary works. It is told that in at least eight places she found errors in her husband’s writings, errors in quotes of the sages or the commentary of Rashi . . .5

3. He Believed a Golem Was Nothing Special

Rear of the Old New Synagogue in Prague, showing rungs leading to the attic where the remains of the Golem are said to have been stored. (Photo: Wikimedia)
Rear of the Old New Synagogue in Prague, showing rungs leading to the attic where the remains of the Golem are said to have been stored. (Photo: Wikimedia)

The Maharal is perhaps most famous for the many stories surrounding his creation of a golem—a humanoid clay figure that was brought to life through Kabbalah and the use of Divine Namesto help protect the Jews who faced constant persecution.

Setting aside the historicity of the golem, it is interesting to note that the Maharal himself felt that the creation of the golem was nothing extraordinary. After all, the Talmud describes how every Friday, Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaya would use the mystical work Sefer Yetzirah to create a calf that they would eat on Shabbat. The Maharal felt that using Sefer Yetzirah, which contains the Divine Names through which G‑d created the world, was as simple as prayer (which also can change the present reality). Although the Maharal acknowledged that this was not “the natural way,” he still felt that it was “within the realm of this world.”6

4. He Inspired His Great-Great-Great-Great Grandson

A Tanya by the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.
A Tanya by the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

The Maharal of Prague passed away on the 18th of Elul in the year 5369 (1609). This is the very same day that seven generation later,7 his direct descendant, the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, was born in the year 5505 (1745). (The founder of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, was born on the same day in the year 5458 [1698].)

In the title page of the Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman writes that his work is based on “books and on authors.” According to Chabad tradition, “books” refers to the works of his ancestor, the Maharal (along with Shnei Luchot Habrit by Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz).

5. He Defended the Truth of Midrash and Aggadah

Throughout the Maharal’s many works, his approach to Midrash and Aggadah stands out. He was adamant that every story told and recorded by the rabbis of the Talmud is true. They are part of the divine wisdom just as much as a verse from Scripture or a halachah kept by all Jews.At the same time, he stressed that these stories are speaking of the “essential reality,” not necessarily the physical reality.

For more on this, see Part 3 of “Is Midrash For Real?”

6. The Maharal’s Merit Saved a Hostage in 1970

The airliners held hostage by the PFLP in Sept. 1970. (Photo:Wikimedia)
The airliners held hostage by the PFLP in Sept. 1970. (Photo:Wikimedia)

Many have written works based on the teachings of the Maharal. One relatively recent work was Pachad Yitzchak, written by Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (1906–1980). On September 6, 1970, Rabbi Hutner and some family members were on TWA Flight 741 when it was hijacked by PFLP terrorists. He, together with many other Jews, was held captive by the terrorists (and for some of the time he was isolated from the rest of the captives).

During that time, in a gathering held on the 18th of Elul, the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke at length about the hostage situation, stating that the hours that Rabbi Hutner toiled over the teachings of the Maharal (whose yahrtzeit was that day) should stand him in good stead. And it should be like it was for the Maharal when he brought salvation to the Jews of his time, said the Rebbe. If salvation could come naturally, then that would be fine, but if a miracle would be needed, then that too would be fine . . .8 After Rabbi Hutner was miraculously released, he paid a special visit to the Rebbe to thank him for his prayers.

7. He Saw Exile as Unnatural

A commentary of the Ethics of Our Fathers by the Maharal. (Photo: Wikimedia)
A commentary of the Ethics of Our Fathers by the Maharal. (Photo: Wikimedia)

The Maharal devoted a remarkable portion of his writings to the exile and ultimate redemption of the Jewish people in the messianic era. As he put it, exile is unnatural:

The exile itself is proof and clear imperative for redemption. This is because there is no doubt that exile is an alteration and departure from the normal order. The Blessed Holy One arranged each nation in the place that is appropriate for it, so he arranged the People of Israel into the place that is appropriate for it, namely the Land of Israel. Exile from their place is a complete alteration and departure [from that order]. Anything that departs from its natural place, that is outside its place, is unable to stay in the place that is not natural for it. Rather, they need to return to their natural place. Because if they remain in a place that is unnatural for them, then the unnatural would become natural. And it is impossible for the unnatural to become natural. A metaphor: it is like trying to force fire to stay down, when it's natural state is to rise—or like trying to hold up solid matter, when its natural state is to fall to the earth. If you could achieve that, then you would be making the unnatural natural.9

8. He Saw the Exodus as a Cosmic Paradigm Shift

A famous teaching from the Maharal addresses the question of celebrating Passover during a time of exile and persecution.

How could the Jewish people in the Middle Ages celebrate the Exodus from Egypt when they were plunged back into the bitter darkness of exile and persecution, with massacres, libels, inquisitions and expulsions?

He explains that the Exodus was not merely a sociopolitical event, in which slave laborers were allowed to leave a country and forge their own destiny. It was also an existential mutation, in which the gift of freedom was "wired" into the very psyche of a people. With the Divine liberation from Egyptian bondage, a new type of person was created: an individual who would never make peace with oppression and who would forever yearn for liberty. The Exodus implanted within the soul of humanity an inherent quest for liberty and an innate repulsion toward subjugation.10

For more on this, see On the Essence of Freedom.

9. He Was the Rabbi of the Altneuschul

The Old New Synagogue in Prague is Europe's oldest active synagogue. (Photo: Wikimedia)
The Old New Synagogue in Prague is Europe's oldest active synagogue. (Photo: Wikimedia)

The Maharal’s synagogue in Prague, known as the Altneuschul (Old-New Synagogue), is the oldest active synagogue in Europe. (The Nazis, wanting to use it as a museum, did not destroy the Altneuschul or other synagogues in Prague.) It is said that the body of the golem was hidden in the attic of the synagogue and it is forbidden for anyone to go up to the attic.

There are many customs unique to the synagogue, instituted by the Maharal and listed on the wall. One such custom is the recitation of Psalm 92 twice (instead of once) on Friday night.

10. He Taught That There Are Multiple Layers of Truth

According to the Maharal’s approach, every detail of the Torah and Talmud, even a seemingly random metaphor, is exact.

For example, when the Talmud tells us that Moses was 10 cubits (approximately 15 feet) tall, he explains that the real Moses was fifteen feet tall. Not the Moses that the people saw; they merely saw the physical shell of Moses, as he was invested in a body within our physical world. But Moses was a complete person, and ten is the number of completeness, so that is how tall he should have been. Certainly, writes the Maharal, whatever could be reflected in the physical world was reflected, and Moses was likely taller than the average human being.11

For more on this see My Kid Thinks Moses Was Ten Feet Tall!