Almost 100 people capped off two weeks of government-led festivities in memory of Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague – the 16th-century sage and mystic known as the Maharal who successfully defended his community against a torrent of anti-Semitism – with a gathering at the institute bearing his name.

Sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch of the Czech Republic, the Monday session at the one-year-old Maharal Institute marked the 400th anniversary of Maharal’s passing on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Elul. It followed a two-week street fair near the historic Jewish Quarter organized by municipal officials.

Rabbi Manis Barash, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Prague, and his staff set up several booths at the fair to educate visitors about Jewish customs, offer Jewish men the opportunity to don tefillin, provide kosher food, and sell Judaica Jewish books. The food stand proved popular to people from all backgrounds throughout the two-week event, as guests munched on menu items such as gefilte fish and potato knishes.

But the gathering on the Maharal’s yahrtzeit was clearly the main event for the city’s Jewish community. Jointly celebrating the one-year anniversary of the institute – which Barash founded to bring the sage’s teachings to a wider audience through classes and a publishing effort – the gathering looked at the Maharal’s place in Jewish thought.

“Everyone knows the story of the golem,” said Barash, citing an oft-told story about the Maharal creating a soulless entity to help defend Prague’s Jews, a legend that has served as inspiration for many classic and contemporary works of literature. “Our goal is to get people to go beyond the miracle stories associated with the Maharal, and to become familiar with his way of thinking.”

The author of a Torah commentary known by the name Gur Aryeh, the Maharal influenced the development of Chasidic thought more than a century after his passing. According to Chabad tradition, the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, references the Maharal in the title page to the Tanya, when he writes that he based his work on earlier “books and sages.”

At the Maharal Institute, community members attend regular classes on the Maharal’s teachings and Chasidic thought, while rabbinical students take part in a full-time yeshiva program.

“Our hope is that by the time we celebrate our second anniversary,” stated Barash, “we will have published at least our first two books. One will be a translation into Czech of several of the Maharal’s core teachings, and the other will be a volume in Hebrew which explains how his ideas are expounded in Chasidic thought.”

Community members pray and recite Psalms next to the Maharal’s resting place.
Community members pray and recite Psalms next to the Maharal’s resting place.

Commemoration Continues

On the Shabbat preceding the Maharal’s yahrtzeit last week, Barash presided over a special lecture on the sage’s teachings, followed by a short walk to his resting place in the Jewish Quarter’s ancient cemetery. Approximately 80 people recited chapters of Psalms beside the Maharal’s tombstone.

Three days later, meanwhile, the community celebration drew on themes discussed the previous weekend and also focused on the anniversaries of the births of the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe.

Speaking afterwards, Barash felt that the combination of events had succeeded in giving people a sense of connection to the Maharal, and in generating interest in further study.

“We’re looking forward to a busy year here,” he said. “G‑d willing, all the publicity around his yahrtzeit this year, and the events that we had here, will bring a lot more people to classes and to participate in our one-on-one tutoring and study program.”

Commemorative events associated with the Maharal’s life and teachings continue with an exhibit at the Prague Castle of displays borrowed from the local Jewish museum and other institutions throughout Europe. Organized jointly by the Jewish community and the local government, the exhibit is open through Nov. 8.