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Isserles, Mosheh ben Yisra’el

(1520?–1572), rabbi and yeshiva head in Kraków, considered one of the greatest Ashkenazic legalists; known by the acronym Rema’. Mosheh Isserles studied with his father, a leader of the Kraków community, but his principal teacher was Shalom Shakhnah, the head of the Lublin yeshiva, who was the official chief rabbi of the district. Shakhnah was regarded as a rigorous legalist, and was given to using the convoluted method of argumentation known as pilpul in his teaching. According to a somewhat dubious tradition, Isserles’ first wife was Shakhnah’s daughter.

Isserles gained renown as a young legalist when in 1550 he issued a ḥerem (ban) against one of the parties involved in a dispute over the printing of Maimonides’ writings in Italy (Responsa, 10). In 1558 he was a member of the Kraków religious court, with his brother-in-law Yosef Kats and Mosheh Landau. As his reputation grew, Isserles answered a range of legal questions from the Jewish world, including Bohemia, Italy, and Turkey. He engaged in discussions with contemporary scholars, among them Me’ir Katzenellenbogen of Padua and his son Shemu’el Yehudah (126), and, most especially, his relative Shelomoh Luria (13, 60, and many other responsa). He disagreed most strenuously with Luria (known as Maharshal) on a number of legal issues (Yam shel Shelomoh, Ḥulin, chapter 1, 29, and elsewhere) and on the role of philosophy in Jewish thought (Responsa, 6, 7). Ultimately, the two men became completely estranged, apparently through the actions of some of their students (Responsa, 126.3; Yam shel Shelomoh).

Some scholars of Isserles’ generation—who emphasized in their writings that they were his pupils—molded halakhic literature in Poland, and their teachings helped Isserles’ rulings to be accepted throughout the Ashkenazic world. Soon after his death, thinkers noted that Ashkenazic Jewry recognized Isserles’ authority. A responsum of Binyamin Aharon Slonik, for example, declares that “We follow him in every respect” (35) and Yesha‘yahu Horowitz wrote in his Shene luḥot ha-berit that “It has become widespread in the Jewish Diaspora . . . Poland and Germany (Ashkenaz) to rule in accordance with the brilliant R. Mosheh Isserles” (vol. 1 [Jerusalem, 1970], p. 100). Isserles’ students included Mordekhai Yafeh (Jaffe), Avraham ha-Levi Horowitz, Yehoshu‘a Falk, Binyamin Aharon Slonik, the historian David Gans, and David Darshan.

The varied halakhic texts written by Isserles include his Darkhe Mosheh, which contains additions to Ya‘akov ben Asher’s Arba‘ah turim and to Yosef Karo’s Bet Yosef. Whereas Karo’s rulings are based on the Sephardic legal tradition, Isserles based his contribution on Ashkenazic precedents and stressed the importance of customs. In his introduction, Isserles explains the principles behind his determinations: in the case of an ongoing, unresolved debate, the rulings of later authorities were to be preferred; leniency should be the rule in certain circumstances (as in cases of stress or serious financial loss); and central Ashkenazic customs were to be included. Darkhe Mosheh appeared in two editions, an abridged version that seems to have been reworked by the publisher, and the original “long” version issued for the Oraḥ ḥayim (1692) and Yoreh de‘ah (1760) sections of the Shulḥan ‘arukh.

Isserles’ best-known halakhic work is his Mapah (Tablecloth) to Yosef Karo’s Shulḥan ‘arukh (Set Table), a complete set of glosses based on the rulings and customs recorded in Darkhe Mosheh. It is not clear whether the author’s primary goal in these glosses was to lay down actual rulings or, rather, to supply a précis of Ashkenazic law and custom as a supplement to Karo’s discussion. Whatever Isserles’ purpose may have been, every subsequent generation of legalists has regarded the Mapah as a practical halakhic authority. The first printing (of Oraḥ ḥayim) appeared in Kraków in 1570 and the entire work was issued there from 1578 to 1580. It has been reprinted many times. What is today known as the Shulḥan ‘arukh is in fact Karo’s text accompanied by the glosses of Isserles.

Although Rema’s responsa total 132, fewer than 100 were actually written by Isserles himself between 1550 and 1571. The rest tend to be responsa sent to him by colleagues and students. Isserles did not personally edit these, and they were only printed for the first time in 1640, in Kraków. A critical edition was published by Asher Ziv (Jerusalem, 1971); Ziv’s introduction provides historical contexts to the responsa and the sages they mention. Two of Isserles’ responsa were especially controversial: first, he ruled in apparent contradiction to halakhah that one could hold a marriage ceremony on Friday night under highly exceptional circumstances; and second, he gave an admittedly apologetic self-justification for the widespread custom of drinking wine that had been handled by gentiles (121).

Isserles’ Torat ha-ḥatat elaborates on Yitsḥak ben Me’ir of Düren’s popular halakhic work Sha‘are Dura, on matters of kashrut. Through his commentary, Isserles sought to establish the primacy of the Ashkenazic tradition in the face of the growing influence of Karo’s writings. After its first printing in Kraków in 1569, the work was reissued many times.

Isserles produced other halakhic texts, as well as a biblical commentary and writings on such subjects as agadah and the Zohar. His Meḥir yayin (1559) is a philosophical–mystical interpretation of the Book of Esther and served as the basis for his Torat ha-‘olah (1570). The latter contains philosophical principles derived from Maimonides and kabbalistic theological concepts and explanations, while asserting the supremacy of halakhah. His grave in the cemetery behind the synagogue that bears his name was a destination for pilgrims on Lag b’Omer.

Suggested Reading

Yonah Ben Sasson, Mishnato ha-‘iyunit shel ha-Rema’ (Jerusalem, 1984); Menachem Elon, Ha-Mishpat ha-‘ivri: Toldotav, mekorotav, ‘ekronotav, pt. 3 (Jerusalem, 1988); Me’ir Raffeld, “Ha-Zikah she-ven ha-Rema’ le-Rabi Shalom Shakhnah,” Sinai 107 (1991): 239–241; Me’ir Raffeld, “‘Hilkhata’ ke-batra’i etsel ḥakhme Ashkenaz u-Polin ba-me’ot ha-15–16: Mekorot u-Sefiḥin,” Sidra’ 8 (1996): 119–40; Eliav Shochetman, “‘Al ha-setirot ba-‘Shulḥan ‘arukh’ ve-‘al mahuto shel ha-ḥibur u-materotav,” Asufot 3 (1989): 323–29; Chaim Tchernowitz, Toldot ha-poskim, vol. 3 (New York, 1946–1947); Isadore Twersky, “The Shulhan ‘Aruk: Enduring Code of Jewish Law,” Judaism 16 (1967): 141–158; Asher Ziv, Rabenu Mosheh Iserlis (Rema’): Ḥayav, yetsirotav ve-de‘otav, ḥaverav, talmidav ve-tse’etsa’av (New York, 1972); Asher Ziv, ed., She’elot u-teshvot ha-Rema’, pp. 15–71 (Jerusalem, 1971).



Translated from Hebrew by Anna Barber