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Pollak, Ya‘akov ben Yosef

(ca. 1460–after 1532), regarded as the first rosh yeshivah in Poland and as the inventor of a unique method of Talmud study. Although his name suggests Polish origins, Ya‘akov Pollak was apparently born in Germany, or at least he grew up and was educated there. He was a student of Ya‘akov Margaliot, the outstanding rosh yeshivah in Germany of that time, in Nuremberg or in Regensburg.

In the early part of his career, Pollak served as rosh yeshivah and chief rabbinical judge in Prague. Many of the literary traditions attributed to him originate from that period, when he was perhaps the most prominent rosh yeshivah of his day. His originality and assertiveness helped him rise to the forefront of Jewish life, but also involved him in controversies. One such fierce conflict broke out in 1492, after Pollak had permitted his wife’s sister to annul her marriage without a bill of divorce, in a procedure (mi’un; allowing a woman younger than the age of consent whose marriage had been arranged by her father to reject the marriage even after a period of time) that the rabbis of Germany had forbidden. The German rabbinate was united in its opposition to Pollak and demanded that he reverse his decision; Pollak refused. The conflict apparently led him to join his wife’s relatives, the Fiszel family, in Kraków by 1495.

The Fiszel family was the wealthiest Jewish family of Kraków. Raḥel (Raszka), Pollak’s mother-in-law, was the dominant figure in it; she was the financial agent of the queen mother, Elizabeth of Habsburg, the wife of King Casimir IV. Pollak soon joined the family business and had dealings with the royal court as well as in the city of Kraków. In 1503, he was appointed by King Aleksander as chief rabbi (rav medinah) of Poland or perhaps of Little Poland only; this was the senior administrative position in the Jewish community; he was the first to occupy this station.

In 1509, King Aleksander granted Pollak a letter of protection, apparently to defend him against excommunication. It appears that the divorce controversy had been renewed, probably because of his sister-in-law’s remarriage on the basis of the annulment he had granted her. This time the campaign against Pollak was waged by Yehudah Mintz, a man of distinguished lineage who served as head of the Ashkenazic yeshiva of Padua and was the central Ashkenazic rabbinical figure in northern Italy. In Poland, however, Pollak enjoyed great prestige and was defended by the royal court, and the damage done by the ban that had been imposed upon him was limited. Nevertheless, the annulment episode continued to cast a shadow upon him.

Despite the background of the controversy, Pollak’s move to Kraków must also be understood in the context of the increasing Jewish emigration from German lands to Poland. The arrival of a prominent German rosh yeshivah symbolized the transfer of the ancient German method of study from its old centers to a new one. Hence the notion of Pollak as the “founder” of the yeshiva in Poland.

In 1520, in response to the request of a group of rabbis and rashe yeshivot from Italy (mainly from Venice), Pollak took an active part in a bitter controversy that started as a result of struggle between two rich Italian Jewish families and raged for five years. The appeal from Italy testifies to Pollak’s prominent status among the Jews of Europe. But his personal interest in this matter also derived from the opportunity it presented to retaliate against the Mintz family. In the course of the controversy, Pollak place a ban upon Avraham, the son of Yehudah Mintz who had banned Pollak during the second controversy over the annulment. The writ of excommunication was written by Pollak himself, and it is in fact his only extant text. The wide-ranging correspondence that ensued among rabbis of the communities of Europe with respect to this excommunication reflects Pollack’s exceptional stature among the rabbis of his time. He is spoken of with exaggerated epithets, uncommon even in a rabbinical context, where there was no lack of excessive praise.

Pollak reached the end of his rabbinical career in Kraków in 1522 when he demanded that a leader of the Kraków Jewish community divorce his wife—who, according to Pollak, had had illicit relations with the Jewish physician of the royal court. The married couple and the physician brought suit against Pollak before the king, and Pollak was required to affirm in synagogue that he would not make the love affair public. Pollak was supposed to take that oath in the synagogue on 9 May 1522, but he failed to appear. From that day on, nothing certain is known about his fate. In the book titled Birkat Avraham (Venice, 1552), an approbation appears from March 1532, signed by “Ya‘akov ben Yosef Pollak, man of Jerusalem.” If indeed this was the same man, then Pollak went to Jerusalem after leaving Kraków, and he even managed to subsequently leave the Land of Israel, perhaps as an emissary from Jerusalem.

Beyond the reports of the vicissitudes of Pollak’s career, more significant is his place as the most prominent rosh yeshivah of his time in Germany and the first in a chain of yeshiva heads in Poland (the two most important subsequent links in that chain were Shalom Shakhnah of Lublin and Mosheh Isserles of Kraków). Sixteenth-century authors refer to manuscripts in their possession in which hagahot (annotations) written by Pollak appear; among these were Sefer mitsvot gadol by Mosheh of Coucy and Sefer Mordekhai, two works that served as textbooks in yeshivas of Germany and Poland. It appears that the annotations are from Pollak’s lectures in Prague and Kraków. In addition to these comments, many quotations from his rulings are scattered in the halakhic literature of Germany and Poland, along with his commentaries and references to customs attributed to him. David Gans, in Tsemaḥ David, also attributes to Pollak the invention of pilpul ha-ḥilukim (close, analytical, and logical study), a prestigious method of learning that was common in the yeshivas of Poland.

Suggested Reading

Majer Bałaban, “Jakob Pollack, der Baal Chillukim in Krakau, und seine Zeit,” Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 57 (1913): 59–72, 197–210; N. (Nehemiah) Brüll, “Jakub Pollack,” Jahrbücher für jüdische Geschichte und Literatur 7 (1885): 31–37; Samuel Joseph Fünn, Keneseth Yisrael (Warsaw, 1886), pp. 563–564; Tovia Preschel, “‘Aliyato shel Rabi Ya‘akov Polak li-Yerushalayim,” in Sefer yovel li-khevod Morenu ha-Ga’on Rabi Yosef Dov ha-Levi Solovets´ik, ed. Shaul Yisraeli, Nahum Lamm, and Yitshak Raphael, vol. 2, pp. 1124–1129 (Jerusalem, 1984); Elchanan Reiner, “‘Asher kol gedole ha-arets ha-zot hem talmidav’: R. Ya‘akov Polak, ri’shon ve-rosh le-ḥakhme Krakov,” in Krako-Kaz´imyez´-Krakov: Meḥkarim be-toldot yehude Krakov, pp. 43–68 (Tel Aviv, 2001); Fishel Hirsch Wetstein, “Rabi Ya‘akov Polak ve-limud ha-ḥilukim,” Ha-Shiloaḥ 5 (1899): 536–543; Fishel Hirsch Wetstein, “Le-Toldot Yisra’el ve-ḥakhamav be-Polin,” Ha-Eshkol 6 (1909): 218–222.



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green