10 Things You Need to Know About… Moses ben Israel Isserles

Rabbi, Talmudist and Philosopher

1. Moses (Moshe) Isserles was born in February 1520 in Cracow, Poland, the son of a prominent, independently wealthy talmudist and grandson of Jehiel, Luria, the first rabbi of Brisk.

2. In 1550, he established a large yeshiva where the pupils could attend free, supported by his wealth. His teaching stressed simple interpretation of the Talmud, free of pilpul. He served as rabbi of Cracow for 22 years, becoming  known across the Jewish world as an authority on Halachah.

3. He was learned, too, in Kabbala; and, like his intellectual forebear, Moses Maimonides, he studied history, astronomy and philosophy.

4. He is best known today as the author of HaMapah, which means “The Tablecloth” – so called because it’s a commentary on the compilation of Jewish law entitled the Shulchan Aruch, the set table.

5. The Shulchan Aruch was chiefly Sephardic in its orientation, based on Sephardi legal traditions. Isserles provided an Ashkenazic gloss based not only on law, but on customs of the Ashkenazim.  He regarded custom (minhag) as the basis for his work.

6. Since 1578, editions of the Shulchan Aruch have included the HaMapah glosses.

7. Isserles is known, too, for Mechir Yayin, a philosophical treatment of the Book of Esther as an allegory of the struggle between the soul and the body, the spiritual and the sensual.

isserles8. He died on Lag B’Omer in May of 1572, and was buried next to his synagogue. Written on his tombstone: “From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses” – the first Moses being Maimonides, the second Isserles.

9. You might find him referred to as the Rema, an acronym for Rabbi Moses Isserles. His descendants include Felix Mendelssohn, Giacomo Meyerbeer and the statistician Leon Isserlis.

10. To his critics who thought his studies ranged too far afield from Torah and Talmud, he responded, “The aim of man is to search for the cause and meaning of things.”

Tel Aviv’s Isserles Street is found in Ramat Gan .

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