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Sirkes, Yo’el

(1561–1640), one of the foremost Talmudic scholars and halakhists of Poland, better known by the acronym Baḥ, after the abbreviation of his Bayit ḥadash commentary. Sirkes was born in Lublin to a distinguished rabbinic family and served as rabbi in the prominent communities of Brest Litovsk and Kraków, where he also headed a yeshiva. He was an active participant in the Council of Four Lands and attended numerous fairs where he was involved in halakhic deliberations.

Sirkes taught a number of prominent students, including Menaḥem Mendel Krochmal (author of Tsemaḥ tsedek) and Menaḥem Mendel Auerbach (author of ‘Ateret zekenim). However, his most renowned disciple was his son-in-law, David ben Shemu’el ha-Levi (Taz), author of the authoritative commentary to the Shulḥan ‘arukh entitled Ture zahav.

Sirkes’s literary contributions include a commentary to the Book of Ruth entitled Meshiv nefesh and a commentary to Mosheh Cordovero’s Pardes rimonim. His acumen in analyzing texts is most evident in the numerous hagahot (critical glosses and notes) that he appended to the Talmud, Rashi, Tosafot, and Asheri. He also wrote more than 250 responsa.

Sirkes’s Bayit ḥadash (published in four parts, 1631–1640) on the Arba‘ah turim of Ya‘akov ben Asher is an extensive work in which he frequently responds to Yosef Karo’s commentary Bet Yosef, which had been published in 1555. For all its thoroughness, the Bet Yosef is not a full commentary on the Turim, and Sirkes criticizes Karo for having neglected many specific rulings. Sirkes was likewise ambivalent toward the publication of Karo’s Shulḥan ‘arukh; he worried that Karo’s writing would detract readers from the study of Talmud. Sirkes also fiercely defended the sanctity of Kabbalah: he referred to it as the “very source and essence of Torah” and was antagonistic to all philosophical study, equating it with heresy.

Sirkes’s responsa collection provides a rich source of illumination on the social and economic conditions of the Polish–Lithuanian world that he served, as well as on the nature of Jewish–gentile relations. One of his responsa, later censored by the Christian authorities, deals with the case of a Jew who was martyred for allegedly stealing a small statue of Jesus (or possibly the Host); the gentile authorities accordingly demanded the surrender of another Jew accused of receiving the stolen item from the martyr. The entire Jewish communal leadership of Kalish (Kalisz) was threatened with extermination if they refused to surrender the individual. Sirkes held that the community was permitted to surrender the individual if it was indeed verified that he had run off with the martyr’s purse. Sirkes also dealt with cases of apostasy from Judaism, accusing converts of material motives. He wrote, “It is common knowledge at present that the majority of apostates have converted solely out of their lust for robbery, promiscuity, and consuming forbidden foods in public.”

Both Sirkes’s responsa collection and his Bayit ḥadash testify to his opposition to undue religious stringencies, a view expressed in his statement, “He who wishes to be stringent, let him be stringent for himself only.” Indeed, he admitted that in his younger years he had been more severe in his judgments, but with the passage of time had become increasingly sensitive to the admonition that “the Torah is most concerned over the financial needs of Israel” and he therefore strove to be more permissive.

Some of Sirkes’s noteworthy leniencies permitted the reading of secular books during the Sabbath, including books not written in Hebrew, and allowing Jewish physicians to violate the Sabbath when treating non-Jewish patients, notably those of high station, even when the illnesses were not severe. Broadly interpreting the statement of the Mishnah that “there is no difference between festivals and Sabbath save only in the matter of [preparing] food,” he relaxed some of the prohibitions against cooking on festival days. In addition, he excused people sensitive to colds or those lacking warm clothing from the obligation to dwell in booths during Sukkot, and permitted women to dress in men’s clothing during extreme weather conditions when this type of attire was more comfortable. Finally, Sirkes was lenient in approving the use of secular melodies for synagogue chants, and even permitted church melodies to be used, provided they were not indigenous to the church service.

Suggested Reading

Mordecai Kossover, “Rabbi Joel Sirkes,” Bitzaron 14 (1946): 23–31; Samuel Mirsky, “Rab Joel Sirkes Baal HaBaH,” Horeb 6 (1942): 41–75; Elijah Judah Schochet, Bach B Rabbi Joel Sirkes: His Life, Works, and Times (Jerusalem and New York, 1971).