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Jewish Commentators — Their Lives and Works


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Moses Isserles
Hebrew Name(s): משה איסרלישׂ
Other Names: Rema (רמ''א), Remo, Rama, Moses ben Israel Isserles, Moshe Isserlis
Period: Acharonim — 16th Century
Location: Poland
Dates: c.1525–1572

An halakhic authority and codifier, Isserles studied in Lublin under Shalom Shakhna. Isserles' father built a home for Isserles and his wife in Krakow in which, after the death of his young wife, he established a synagogue for his community in Krakow; (the Rema Synagogue, which still exists in Krakow.) Isserles founded a yeshivah in Krakow and later headed Krakow's rabbinical court. He was recognised as a posek (halakhic authority.) Joseph Karo, author of the Shulḥan Arukh, was a friend.
Isserles' Darkhei Moshe (Ways of Moses) was originally to be a commentary on the Arba'ah Turim of Jacob Ben Asher. However, with the publication of Beit Yosef (Joseph Karo's commentary on the Arba'ah Turim, 1565) Isserles used Darkhei Moshe to counterbalance Karo's Sephardic rulings with the decisions of Ashkenazi codifiers. An abridgment of Darkei Moshe, written by Isserles himself and called Darkei Moshe ha-Katsar, was later published on the Tur.
Isserles wrote detailed glosses on, and annotations to, the Shulḥan Arukh, based on Darkei Moshe, which were published with the title Ha-Mappah (The Tablecloth). Wherever Karo, a Sephardic Jew, failed to take account of Polish customs, or rulings made by Ashkenazi halakhic authorities, Isserles' comments and additions helped to make Karo's code become authoritative for Ashkenazic Jews. By "covering" the Shulḥan Arukh (Prepared Table) with his own Mappah (tablecloth) Isserles made Karo's work acceptable to all Jewish communities. Ashkenazim now understand the term "Shulḥan Arukh" to include Isserles' supplementary notes and, when there is a difference of opinion between the two, they accept Isserles' view as authoritative.
Isserles also wrote other halakhic works, some published posthumously. Among these are a volume of Responsa and glosses to various works by Maimonides, Elijah Mizraḥi, Mordecai ben Hillel, and other scholars.
Isserles had a knowledge of philosophy, kabbalah, history and astronomy.
Isserles is buried in the grounds of the Rema synagogue in Krakow. The epitaph on his tombstone includes the inscription, "From Moses [Maimonides] to Moses [Isserles] there is none like Moses."

Darkei Moshe (Ways of Moses); Darké Mosheh ha-Katsar (Ḳiẓẓur Darke Mosheh); HaMapah (The Table Cloth); Torat ha-Ḥattat; Torat ha-Olah; Meḥir Yayin; Teshuvot Rema; A volume of Responsa; Haggahot

Isserles’ Darkhé Mosheh (Ways of Moses) began as a commentary on the Arba'ah Turim of Jacob Ben Asher. When Karo's Bet Yosef appeared in 1565, he utilized his own work to counterbalance Caro's Sephardic rulings and to uphold the decisions of the Ashkenazic codifiers. An abridgment of Darké Mosheh, written by Isserles himself and called Darké Mosheh ha-Katsar (Ḳiẓẓur Darke Mosheh), was later published on the Tur (Venice, 1593) in which Isserles criticizes Karo’s Bet Yosef. His detailed glosses on and annotations (Haggahot) to the Shulḥan Aruch, based on Darké Mosheh, appeared in 1569-71 under the title of Ha-Mappah (The Tablecloth).
HaMapah (The Tablecloth) is an Ashkenazi gloss on Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Arukh (The Set Table), a Sephardic Work. Isserles’ glosses to the Shulchan Arukh indicate differences in halakhic rulings and customs followed by Ashkenazic Jews. Ashkenazim will generally follow the rules of Moses Isserles. Almost all editions of the Shulchan Arukh contain Isserles' glosses. Karo is referred to as mechaber (author) and Isserles as the Rema. The glosses of Isserles which accompany the Shulchan Arukh and are embedded in the text are often distinguished with a different script.
Torat ha-Ḥattat—on the laws of forbidden and permitted foods (issur ve-hetter). Torat ha-Ḥattat is a treatise on what is lawful and unlawful, arranged according to the Sha’are Dura of Isaac of Düren. Torat ha-Ḥattat was written before HaMappah, which Isserles later revised by adding notes. Commentaries to Torat ha-Ḥattat were written by Eliezer ben Joshua of Shebrszyn (Dammeseḳ Eli’ezer) and Jacob Reischer (Minḥat Ya'aḳob). Torat ha-Ḥattat, together with the Shulchan Aruch, was criticized by Ḥayyim b. Bezalel [Vikku'aḥ Mayim Ḥayyim, Amsterdam, 1712—this work was a general criticism against those who published halakhic codes that purported to be definitive] and Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller in Torat ha-Asham.
Torat ha-Olah—a philosophical work dealing with the symbolic meaning of the Temple, its equipment and its service. In the description of the Temple, Isserles follows Maimonides, even in those cases where Maimonides is in conflict with the Talmud. According to Isserles, the entire Temple and its appurtenances—their forms, dimensions, and the number of their parts—correspond to things either in divine or in human philosophy. In other places Isserles follows others (e.g., Albo) and also voices kabbalistic opinions, refuting kabbalah when it does not agree with philosophy.
Meḥir Yayin is an allegorical, kaballistic and philosophical exposition of the Scroll of Esther in which he treats the Book of Esther as an allegory of human life. In his introduction Isserles wrote that he was forced to leave Krakow on account of the plague (cholera?) in 1556 and to dwell in “a land not ours, in the city of Szydlowiec, a place without fig trees and vines.” Unable to observe Purim with feasting and joy, Isserles undertook as his goal to explain the Megillah, “to remove sorrow and mourning… I said, I will arise and rejoice in my undertaking … I took under my tongue ‘honey and milk’ (Song of Songs 4:11)". Thus the title of the work reflects it’s provenance in a time of longing: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and he who has no money; come, buy, and eat; come, buy wine (meḥir yayin) and milk without money and without” (Isa. 55:1).
Teshuvot Rema is a work of Responsa. This is a collection of 132 Responsa (some of which were addressed to him by other rabbis). In these Responsa Isserles sometimes criticizes Solomon Luria, Shalom Shekna (his own master; see Responsa, No. 30) and Mordecai b. Hillel and others.
Haggahot contains notes to Jacob Weil’s Sheḥiṭot u-Bediḳot (Prague, 1604).


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