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Yafeh, Mordekhai ben Avraham

(1525 or 1530–1612), rabbi, Talmudist, and kabbalist. Born in Prague, Mordekhai ben Avraham Yafeh (or Jaffe; called Ba‘al ha-Levushim [Author of the Levushim], after the name of his works) moved as a boy to Poland, where he studied under Shelomoh Luria and Mosheh Isserles. It was probably under the latter’s influence that he took up the subjects of astronomy and philosophy. Yafeh also studied Kabbalah under Matityahu Delacrut.

In 1553, Yafeh was appointed head of the Prague yeshiva. When the Jews were expelled from Bohemia in 1561, he moved to Venice and lived there for some 10 years. There he delved more deeply into astronomy and pursued the fields of philosophy and Kabbalah, both of which influenced his later works. He subsequently returned to Poland-Lithuania, where he officiated as a rabbi in Grodno, Lublin, and Krzemieniec.

Yafeh’s contemporary David Gans wrote of him in Tsemaḥ David (1592): “He is the foremost of the great yeshiva heads and judges of the Three Lands.” In that same year, Yafeh replaced Yehudah Leib (Maharal), as rabbi of Prague, and in 1599 he moved to Poznań, again replacing Maharal, serving as rabbi until his death in 1612. Yafeh’s standing made him one of the leading rabbinical figures in the so-called Council of the Four Lands, and he was signatory to various takanot (enactments) and haskamot (approbations of printed works) in the last six years of his life. There is no information available on the nature of the relations between Yafeh and Maharal, except for some acerbic critical comments by Yafeh—in his Levush ha-orah, a supercommentary on Rashi’s Torah commentary—on comments by Maharal in his supercommentary, Gur aryeh (e.g., on Gen. 8:5, Ex. 19:13, and Lev. 19:27).

Yafeh was a highly versatile scholar, productive in a number of disciplines, a factor that distinguishes him from most scholars of his generation. His writings extended to halakhah (which was primary in his eyes), Kabbalah, exegesis, homiletics, philosophy, and even astronomy; collectively they are called Levush malkhut (Royal Attire), after a phrase from the Scroll of Esther (8:15).

Yafeh’s halakhic works are organized along the lines of the Arba‘ah turim and relate to the laws set out therein. He makes extensive use of Yosef Karo’s Shulḥan ‘arukh, and especially of the glosses by Mosheh Isserles. Yafeh stresses that his own book was intended to make it easier for both novices and those familiar with sources to study halakhah. The principal contribution of his halakhic writing lies in his articulation of his final decisions, justified clearly and concisely. In this way, Yafeh creates his version of an ideal halakhic work, a text that does not supply excessive detail and sources as does the Bet Yosef of Yosef Karo, and at the same time is more comprehensive than the Shulḥan ‘arukh.

Yafeh’s halakhic approach was grounded in the Ashkenazic legislative tradition, especially the customs of Yitsḥak Tyrnau (late 14th century). To these he added reasons and thus clarifies, occasionally critically, the customs of Ashkenazic Jews. Unlike other scholars, Yafeh substantially employed Kabbalah, providing explanatory justifications for laws according to its “secrets” and occasionally even ascribing to Kabbalah authoritative status as halakhah le-Mosheh mi-Sinai (as revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai). In his halakhic decisions, Yafeh also engaged philosophical and ethical issues more often than other scholars.

Eliyahu Shapira of Tykocin wrote a commentary on the Levush to Oraḥ ḥayim entitled Eliyahu zuta (1623), while Shemu’el of Łancut wrote one on part of the Levush to Yoreh de‘ah titled Ḥagorat Shemu’el (1772), in which he noted that the Levush had spread to various communities. There were a number of scholars who rejected Yafeh’s halakhic methodology and viewed him as an imitator rather than an innovator: for example, Yehoshu‘a Falk, in Sefer me’irat ‘enayim, introduction to Ḥoshen mishpat; Binyamin Aharon Slonik, in Sefer mas’at Binyamin, no. 32 (1693); and Yehoshu‘a Heshel of Kraków, in She’elot u-teshuvot pene Yehoshu‘a, Oraḥ ḥayim, no. 18 (1715). It should be noted that Yafeh’s halakhic works did not become popular over the years, apparently because they were not appended to editions of the Shulḥan ‘arukh.

Yafeh stresses as a matter of principle that the ultimate secrets of Torah wisdom, unlike the truths of the humanistic sciences of other nations, are unattainable “because [the Torah] is unfathomable” (Levush ha-tekhelet, Oraḥ ḥayim 224:7). He ranks what he calls the “inner sciences” in order and determines the proper sequence for their study: “First [one] should study philosophy and the natural sciences, which include all the wisdom of this lowly world . . . next he should elevate himself and study astronomy . . . the world of the spheres; . . . after that he should go up step by step until he enters the orchard of wisdom (pardes ha-ḥokhmah) . . . this is the science of Kabbalah; then he will be privileged to comprehend the First Cause, may He be blessed” (Introduction to the Levushim). Yafeh’s works were written according to this pattern. Yafeh’s halakhic, exegetical, and philosophical works consisted of his works on halakhah, including Levush ha-tekhelet and Levush ha-ḥur, on the Tur, Oraḥ ḥayim (1590); Levush ‘ateret zahav, on the Tur, Yoreh de‘ah (1594); Levush ‘ir Shushan, on the Tur, Ḥoshen mishpat (1598); and Levush ha-buts veha-argaman, on the Tur, Even ha-‘ezer (1599). He also wrote Levush ha-orah, on Rashi’s Torah commentary (1604).

The following three of Yafeh’s works are collectively known as Levush or yikrat: (1) Levush even ha-yekarah, on Menaḥem Recanati’s kabbalistic Torah commentary (1595); (2) Levush eder ha-yakar, a commentary on Maimonides’ Laws of the Sanctification of the New Moon and explanation of Avraham bar Ḥiya’s Tsurat ha-arets, on astronomy (1595); and (3) Levush pinat yikrat, a conservative commentary in the spirit of Yitsḥak Abravanel, on Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed (1595). He also wrote “Levush ha-simḥah veha-sason,” a book of sermons that, for unknown reasons, was never published. Glosses on the Talmud published in his name as Masorot ḥadashot (1783) were probably not written by Yafeh.

Suggested Reading

Jacob Elbaum, Petiḥut ve-histagrut: Ha-Yetsirah ha ruḥanit-ha-sifrutit be-Polin uve-artsot Ashkenaz be-shilhe ha-me’ah ha-shesh-‘esreh (Jerusalem, 1990); Israel Halpern, ed. Pinkas va‘ad arba‘ aratsot (Jerusalem, 1989/90); Samuel Aba Horodezky, Le-Korot ha-rabanut (Warsaw, 1914); Lawrence Jay Kaplan, “Rationalism and Rabbinic Culture in Sixteenth Century Eastern Europe: Rabbi Mordecai Jaffe’s Levush pinat yikrat” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1975); Lawrence Jay Kaplan, “Rabbi Mordekhai Jaffe and the Evolution of Jewish Culture in Poland in the Sixteenth Century,” in Jewish Thought in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Bernard Dov Cooperman, pp. 266–282 (Cambridge, Mass., 1983); Ya‘akov Shpigel, ‘Amudim be-toldot ha-sefer ha-‘ivri (Ramat-Gan, Isr., 1996); Chaim Tchernowitz, Toldot ha-poskim, vol. 3 (New York, 1947).



Translated from Hebrew by David Louvish and Barry Walfish