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The Yeshiva before 1800

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The yeshiva in Eastern Europe in the early modern period trained young men to study formative texts and traditions, especially the Babylonian Talmud, the commentaries on it, and the legal decisions that depended on it. In Eastern Europe in this period, the term yeshiva (Heb., more properly yeshivah, from the root yshb, “to sit”) referred not only to the institution but also to everyone who studied Torah in the community and was thereby dependent, in one way or another, on the head of the yeshiva—including lomdim (adult Torah scholars who received a stipend from the community) as well as students at various levels: ne‘arim (boys) and baḥurim (young men).

The basis for the existence of the yeshiva was the agreement between the community and the rabbi and head of the yeshiva, as formulated in a writ of appointment to the rabbinate, regarding the number of baḥurim from outside the town to whom the community would offer provision—that is to say, a weekly allowance for their maintenance. The receipt of a stipend obliged baḥurim to observe the yeshiva’s schedule and to tutor the ne‘arim. The number of young men receiving stipends varied from place to place and from time to time. There were writs of appointment to the rabbinate that agreed to finance six baḥurim and six ne‘arim from elsewhere, and there were yeshivas with as many as 15 in each group. In addition, the community required its householders to give yeshiva students meals.

The East European Yeshiva

Torah study in Poland in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, along with the literary creativity that grew up around it, constituted an extraordinary phenomenon in Jewish culture, directly connected to the institution of the yeshiva. Unlike the Ashkenazic yeshiva of the Middle Ages, which was the private preserve of the rector (the rosh ha-yeshivah or resh metivta) and was conducted without any direct connection to the community, the yeshiva in Eastern Europe in the early modern period was a decidedly communal institution, financed and managed by the community. Usually, the yeshiva was directed by the rabbi of the community.

The transition from the Ashkenazic type to the East European type of yeshiva was a consequence of changes in both the status of the rabbinate and the structure of East European Jewish communities. These changes led the leadership of the communities to intervene in the management of yeshivas and to take responsibility for maintaining them—a process that was completed toward the middle of the sixteenth century. One must distinguish, however, between the yeshiva as a communal institution and the small number of yeshivas, led by outstanding scholars in major communities, that created a new period in the history of Torah study in Europe. Such yeshivas were active in Poznań, Kraków, Lublin, Ostróg, Lwów, Brisk, and Grodno.

Despite the communal aspect of the East European yeshiva, it was intended mainly for baḥurim who came from distant communities within Poland itself as well as from Ashkenazic centers outside of Poland: the German territories, Bohemia and Moravia, and even Italy. There were, of course, members of the community who studied in their own city, but the status and prestige of a yeshiva and its rector were determined primarily by the presence of outsiders. A yeshiva’s influence likewise transcended the boundaries of the community where it was situated and extended to the areas in which graduates of the yeshiva lived. Moreover, although the yeshiva was mainly a communal institution in the early modern period, it ultimately drew its religious and halakhic authority from the charisma of its head.

The History of Yeshivas in Poland

Little information exists about yeshivas or rabbis in Poland before the Mongolian conquest in 1241. Only sporadic evidence exists about the rabbis who were in contact with the circles of Ḥaside Ashkenaz in the first half of the thirteenth century, and it appears that only one of them, Ya‘akov ha-Kohen Svara of Kraków, attained a degree of recognition in centers of Torah study outside of Poland.

The earliest known yeshivas in Poland were in Poznań and Kraków. Poznań, which was close to the Duchy of Brandenburg, was then situated between the old German centers of Torah study and the new ones arising in Poland. The earliest important scholar associated with Poznań, who likely led a yeshiva there, was Mosheh Mintz, originally from Mainz, who arrived in Poznań around 1450. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, a series of eminent families had settled in Poznań, including former heads of yeshivas from German lands, whose sons were to take a central place in the history of the Polish yeshiva. The most important of these families were the Lurias—including Shelomoh Luria (Maharshal), one of the most important yeshiva heads in Poland in the mid-sixteenth century—and the Betsal’el family, which produced four sons who became heads of yeshivas, the most important one of which was Maharal of Prague, who was rosh ha-yeshivah first in Poznań itself, later in Nikolsburg in Moravia, and finally in Prague. Although concrete evidence is lacking, the yeshiva in Poznań was probably one of the models for the new Polish yeshiva.

The yeshiva that established the image of Poland as a Torah center, however—along with the character of the Polish yeshiva in the early modern period—was in Kraków from the beginning of the sixteenth century, and was initially headed by Ya‘akov Pollak. Unlike Poznań, Kraków had close historical ties to the community and yeshivas of Prague, where Pollak himself had served as yeshiva head. It must be assumed that from an institutional point of view, the yeshiva in Poland in Pollak’s time was run along medieval lines, as a private yeshiva financed by its head or, in this case, by his wife’s family, the Fiszels. Later Ashkenazic tradition attributed the invention of pilpul and ḥilukim, an innovative and creative method of study, to this yeshiva leader. Pilpul and ḥilukim represented the uniqueness of the scholarship associated with the yeshivas of Poland during the sixteenth century and the changes wrought in the early tradition of Ashkenazic learning. These new forms of study also aroused significant opposition.

Pollak’s path was continued by Shalom Shakhnah (d. 1558), a native of Lublin who established a yeshiva there. Among those who determined the character of the Polish yeshiva, Shakhnah, who had studied in the yeshiva of Poznań before studying with Pollak in Kraków, was the first to have been born in Poland. In the introduction to a text, Ḥayim ben Betsal’el of Friedburg, the brother of Maharal of Prague, tells about the lesson in poskim (halakhic decisors) at the yeshiva, and about the opposition of the head of the yeshiva to having his teachings published, especially those related to prohibitions and permissions. These first heads of yeshivas in Poland did not leave written works; what remains of their teachings are quotations that appear in the writings of their students.

Shakhnah’s yeshiva, like that of his teacher, was known for the extensive use of pilpul, far beyond ordinary practice. His methods drew the criticism of rabbis in succeeding generations, who opposed Shakhnah’s way of enlisting the conclusions of pilpul in arriving at practical halakhic decisions. Nevertheless, contemporaneous observers testify to the paramount status of this yeshiva and to its great popularity among young scholars.

In the middle decades of the sixteenth century, the centrality of the Polish yeshivas and the preeminent status of the key figures active in the environment of that generation came to be recognized in the Ashkenazic region of Europe and even beyond it. At that time, also, Torah study was flourishing in the Sephardic centers of the Ottoman Empire. One must therefore take note of the coming to fruition of innovative cultural trends that influenced Torah study in the modern period, in both the Orient and the Occident.

Two heads of yeshivas made the most significant impression on the Polish yeshiva in this generation: Shelomoh Luria (Maharshal, d. 1573), and Mosheh Isserles (Rema’, d. 1572). Luria was born in Poznań and, after his marriage, settled in Brisk, Lithuania, where he opened a yeshiva. From there he moved to Ostróg, in Volhynia, where he founded another one. His main influence was exerted through these two yeshivas, but at the end of his life he moved to Lublin. His magnum opus, Yam shel Shelomoh, a Talmudic commentary, reflects the exegetical tendency that Luria introduced into the yeshiva—an institution that despite its conservative elements was in tune with the cultural changes of his time, with which he coped with great sophistication. One must also consider Luria’s critical textual emendations of the Talmud printed in Venice in the 1520s in that context. These emendations, collected in Ḥokhmat Shelomoh, were accepted almost verbatim by subsequent scholars. Luria’s critical readings of the texts of Arba‘ah turim, a major halakhic code; Sha‘are Dura, a halakhic work; and Sefer mitsvot gadol, a halakhic code, are likewise almost universally accepted.

Isserles, with whom Luria, an older relative, carried on a stormy but productive dialogue, was a very different figure. Unlike Maharshal, who introduced novel exegetical approaches in his yeshiva, Rema’ introduced innovations in the areas of halakhic instruction and rulings. His works clearly speak to the cultural changes following on the advent of printing, and constitute the beginnings of an alternative to the traditional halakhic library of the Middle Ages, which had been transmitted in manuscript and orally.

Rema’s most influential literary project, closely connected to the ways of teaching in his yeshiva, was his commentary Mapah (tablecloth) on the Shulḥan ‘arukh, which first appeared in the edition of that work printed in Kraków in 1575–1580, only a few years after the first printing of the Shulḥan ‘arukh in Venice. The Kraków edition was used in teaching the lesson on poskim in his yeshiva. It is one of a series of works of similar character connected with the teaching of halakhah there; others were Darkhe Mosheh on the Arba‘ah turim, which was not printed in Isserles’ lifetime, and especially Torat ha-ḥatat (1569). In the introduction to the latter, Rema’ expounds his attitudes toward traditional halakhic literature and his own way of writing about and teaching that literature in the age of printing.

In Rema’s yeshiva, students studied works that had been printed in Italy during the sixteenth century. One could say that these made up a new curriculum, broader than the traditional one, which put students in contact with apparently esoteric material recently brought to light by printing. Thus, for example, Rema’ taught Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed; and the study and teaching of this work, and of other philosophical texts, subsequently penetrated other yeshivas in Poland. It appears that Rema’ also taught the Zohar in his yeshiva. The teaching of these and other recently printed works indicates Isserles’ distinctive awareness of the changes that printing had wrought in Jewish culture, and specifically in the curriculum of the yeshiva.

Five Yeshivas in the Generations after Isserles

To characterize the rise and decline of the Polish yeshiva, we shall trace the history of five yeshivas—and their heads: Kraków, Lublin, Lwów, Ostróg, and Poznań. This survey of the history of the leading yeshivas in Poland shows that their rise depended on a relatively small number of prominent personalities who generally studied in the same places. These yeshiva heads moved frequently from one community to another, an indication of the competition between them and of the connection between the prosperity of these communities and the rise of the prestigious Polish yeshivas. It appears that this connection is also a major reason for the decline of the Polish yeshiva in the second half of the seventeenth century.


The principal figure in the Kraków yeshiva after the death of Isserles seems to have been Meshulam Fayvish (d. 1617), who came there after serving in Minsk and Ludmir. Many of the rabbis of Poland regarded themselves as his disciples. In 1590, Meshulam Fayvish established the regulations for Sabbath observance in agricultural settings operated by Jewish leaseholders.

Natan Note Spira (1585–1633) succeeded Meshulam Fayvish and occupied a central place in the historical memory of the yeshivas of Kraków. He wrote the kabbalistic book Megaleh ‘amukot, along with a commentary on the Torah with the related title Megaleh ‘amukot ‘al ha-Torah. Spira was an important transmitter of the Polish kabbalistic tradition.

The most famous head of the Kraków yeshiva during the seventeenth century was Yo’el Sirkes (d. 1640). Born in Lublin, he was a student of Shelomoh ben Leibush and also of Meshulam Fayvish (in Brisk). Sirkes’s yeshiva in Kraków attracted many students from outside Poland. Yehoshu‘a Heshel (d. 1648), the son of Yosef Ḥarif, was appointed head of the Kraków yeshiva in 1640, after Sirkes’s death. He was famous for his work Megine Shelomoh, in which he sought to solve some of the difficulties raised by the authors of Tosafot and by Rashi, a decidedly scholarly undertaking anchored in typical patterns of yeshiva studies.

During Yehoshu‘a Heshel’s lifetime, Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1578–1654), the author of Tosafot Yom Tov (a commentary on the Mishnah) and many other works, was appointed yeshiva head in Kraków. Heller was one of the most original figures in the European rabbinate in the seventeenth century. He served as rabbi and head of the yeshiva in Kraków from 1644 to 1652 and had a deep influence on religious life there. He fashioned the memorial prayers after the pogroms of gzeyres takh vetat (1648–1649) and brought the educational ideas of his teacher, Maharal, to the Kraków yeshiva.

The last of the prominent yeshiva heads of Kraków was Yehoshu‘a Heshel ben Ya‘akov (d. 1663), who was born in Brisk and, after a period of time in Lublin, served as head of the Kraków yeshiva from 1654 to 1663. He was famous for his sharpness and introduced broad usage of the methods of pilpul into the yeshiva. It appears that his term marked the end of the period of prominence of the Kraków yeshiva, as the institution ceased to attract many students from far away after his death.


In 1567, a royal decree authorized the Jews of Lublin to establish “a yeshiva with a synagogue beside it,” releasing the rector of the yeshiva from the authority of Yisra’el, the son of Shalom Shakhnah. The latter was apparently a rival claimant to the position of yeshiva head. Shelomoh ben Leibush, known as the Second Maharshal (d. 1591), was a student of Shelomoh Luria’s and a prominent head of the Lublin yeshiva at the end of the sixteenth century. Under his leadership, the yeshiva attracted students from all parts of Poland and from outside the country, especially from Bohemia and Moravia.

Me’ir ben Gedalyah (Maharam; d. 1616), a native of Lublin, served as head of the yeshiva for about five years when he was in his twenties (1582–1587); later, after he had served for a short time as head of the Kraków yeshiva and for 20 years in Lwów, he returned to Lublin in 1613 to serve again as head of the yeshiva. Me’ir ben Gedalyah is said to have taught hundreds of students, the most famous of whom were Yesha‘yahu ha-Levi Horowitz and two heads of the yeshiva of Kraków, Natan Note Spira and Yehoshu‘a Heshel Ḥarif. Maharam’s interpretative work on the Talmud, Me’ir ‘ene ḥakhamim, aside from its clarity and incisiveness, reflects the teaching method predominant in the yeshivas of Poland at that time. In the decade before his death, between 1614 and 1625, Maharsha (Shemu’el Edels, later of Poznań) served as head of the yeshiva of Lublin, overlapping, at the beginning of the period, with Maharam. Above all other heads of yeshivas, Maharam and Maharsha influenced the teaching of Talmud in the yeshivas of Poland in their time and in subsequent generations.


The most prominent sixteenth-century yeshiva head in Lwów was Yehoshu‘a Falk ha-Kohen (d. 1614). His Sefer Me’irat ‘enayim, on the Ḥoshen mishpat section of the Shulḥan ‘arukh, and Sefer ha-derishah veha-perishah, on the Arba‘ah turim, achieved canonical status. Falk’s yeshiva was not financed by the community but by his wealthy father-in-law, and he did not serve as communal rabbi. Maharam maintained a yeshiva in Lwów around the years 1593–1613, but was forced to leave for Lublin because of a confrontation with Falk. From 1654 until his death in 1667, David ben Shemu’el ha-Levi (known as Taz, later of Ostróg) served as rabbi and yeshiva head in Lwów.


All that is known of the first yeshiva head in Ostróg is his name, Kalman Haberkshtan. Between 1625 and 1631, Maharsha was head of the yeshiva. Soon afterward, Yesha‘yahu ha-Levi Horowitz served in that position before making his way to Frankfurt. Between 1641 and 1648, the yeshiva was headed by Maharsha’s son, David ha-Levi, the son-in-law of the above-mentioned Yo’el Sirkes of Kraków. During his term, the yeshiva in Ostróg had hundreds of students; it was there that he wrote the main part of Ture zahav on the Shulḥan ‘arukh. His commentary on Ḥoshen mishpat, along with Sifte Kohen, written by his contemporary Shabetai Kohen, came to be printed on the pages of the Shulḥan ‘arukh. Both works reflect the way these subjects were taught in the yeshivas. Ostróg was severely stricken during gzeyres takh vetat; but in the late 1680s, Naftali ben Yitsḥak ha-Kohen (later of Poznań) served there.


The best-known of the heads of the yeshiva in Poznań was Maharal, a native of that city. After about 20 years in Prague, he returned to Poznań and served as head of the yeshiva and communal rabbi from 1592 to 1598. His sermon for Shavu‘ot, one of the central texts of his educational doctrine, was given in Poznań in 1592. After Maharal returned to Prague in 1598, his place was taken by Mordekhai Yafeh (d. 1612), a student of Shelomoh Luria and Mosheh Isserles.

In the years between 1585 and 1605, Maharsha also led a yeshiva in Poznań, financed mainly by his wealthy mother-in-law, a resident of the city. It appears that this was the peak period of Torah study in the city. Maharsha’s Ḥidushe halakhot was, until very recently, one of the most influential works on the study of the Talmud in the yeshivas of Europe over the generations; the order of its printing and dissemination among students was coordinated with the annual order of study in the yeshivas of Poland. Between about 1620 and 1640, David ha-Levi served as head of the yeshiva in Poznań.

Between 1691 and 1704, Naftali ben Yitsḥak ha-Kohen was head of the yeshiva in Poznań; he had previously been the rabbi of Ostróg, and from Poznań he moved on to Frankfurt. It appears that the ability of the Poznań community to maintain a yeshiva had begun to diminish in the early seventeenth century, however, and the yeshiva declined from then on.

The Order of Study

The medieval Ashkenazic yeshiva was intended to train students to reach halakhic decisions—that is, to prepare them for the rabbinate—although only a select few of the students actually attained that level. Still, it was with this goal in mind that three traditional areas of teaching in the yeshiva were emphasized. The first comprised command of a page of Gemara and of the tractates of the Talmud. The lesson to attain this goal was called gafat, an acronym for Gemara, Perush Rashi (Rashi’s commentary), and Tosafot. It was also called halakhah. In this area of study, the ne‘arim became familiar with the page of Gemara, while the baḥurim gained familiarity with topical discussions of the Talmud.

The second area was poskim: the head of the yeshiva imparted the principles of decision making according to the halakhic traditions of the surrounding area, together with his own innovations. The texts on the basis of which the head of the yeshiva taught this lesson were chosen from among a rather limited list of canonical halakhic works: Sefer ha-Mordekhai, Sefer mitsvot gadol (abbreviated as Semag), Sha‘are Dura, and mainly Arba‘ah turim, which the head of the yeshiva typically taught and interpreted, adding his own innovations, which were recorded by the students on the margins of the pages and were regarded as glosses on the text. The recording of glosses was the main way by which the teachings of the heads of Ashkenazic yeshivas were transmitted until the age of printing, and to a degree afterward as well.

Finally, the third component of the yeshiva curriculum—the pilpul lesson—was the one that ultimately gave rise to the changes that took place in the order of study in the yeshivas of Eastern Europe and created the image of the Polish yeshiva.

The Polish yeshiva gradually distanced itself from its original purpose as an institution that trained rabbis and imparted the ability to make halakhic decisions. Instead, the institution underwent a process that could be called “academicization.” The curriculum increasingly placed the study of the Talmudic text first in its order of priorities, and the Talmud itself became the main object of its hermeneutic attention and commentary. This process was symbolized more than anything else by the fact that the pilpul lesson became the most important and prestigious one in the yeshiva.

The controversy over pilpul was essentially a struggle against the takeover of the yeshiva by adherents of this method of interpretive analysis and an effort to restore it to its traditional goals. Ultimately, pilpul gave way to textual commentary, an emphasis that reached its peak in another sort of yeshiva: the Lithuanian yeshiva of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Daily Schedule in the Yeshiva

The academic year in the East European yeshiva was divided in two semesters, called zemanim (times). Each zeman lasted three and a half months. The winter semester went from the first day of Ḥeshvan until Tu be-Shevat; the summer semester began on the first of Iyar and lasted until the fifteenth of Av. These were the times when the baḥurim were required to study with the head of the yeshiva. Life in the yeshiva followed a strictly defined course of study, which was obligatory for all the baḥurim—young men who were still unmarried and studied directly with the head of the yeshiva—and the ne‘arim—boys who mainly studied with baḥurim, who served as their tutors, primarily reviewing with them the page of Talmud being studied in the yeshiva.

The most important part of each zeman was the beginning: between the first of Ḥeshvan and Hanukkah (taking up seven weeks in the winter), and between the first of Iyar and Shavu‘ot (five weeks of spring into early summer). The major efforts in studying were made in these periods, on the part of both the students and the head of the yeshiva. In addition to the straightforward study of the page of Talmud, students trained themselves to study using more sophisticated methods—especially pilpul, the analytical manner of learning imparted by the head of the yeshiva alone, in a lesson presented with definite ritual aspects and with attendance mandatory. The lesson began with a dialogue between the head of the yeshiva and the older baḥurim, which was conducted by means of kushiyot (provocative questions), explanations, and the refutation and subsequent modification of those explanations. In the end, the head of the yeshiva presented his own innovations, and the climax of the lesson was the delivery of a ḥiluk (literally, “division”), a comprehensive and coherent explanation of the passage in response to all of the questions and explanations raised and offered during the discussion. In the seventeenth century this pilpul lesson came to define the peak of instruction and study in the yeshivas of Poland, and it was apparently the basis for the prestige of the Polish yeshiva in the Ashkenazic world.

At the end of each zeman, the burden of study in the yeshiva was lightened. Those who remained there studied poskim, the component of the curriculum that had been central in the past but was now somewhat diminished in importance because of the prestige of pilpul. During these periods, the head of the yeshiva allowed the lomdim of the community to present their innovations and summaries before him and before the members of the yeshiva for discussion.

Many yeshiva heads would use these periods of time to travel to the great fairs of Poland—in Lublin, Jarosław, Zasław, and Lwów—to teach Torah in public. The yeshiva students who gathered at these fairs would circulate among the lessons given by the yeshiva heads and plan their next steps as young scholars. At this time of the year the yeshiva students were also permitted to visit other yeshivas. A decision enacted by the Council of the Four Lands, with the concurrence of the heads of the yeshivas of Poland, also stated that the same tractate would be studied in a given “time,” allowing the yeshivas of Poland to create a comprehensive system that maintained connections among its components.

Decline of the Yeshiva

Although there were exceptions—in eighteenth-century Prague, for example, there were a number of yeshivas, at least one funded by the community, and others financed by their rectors such as Avraham Broda, Yonatan Eybeschütz, and Me’ir Bumsla—the East European yeshiva declined during the eighteenth century. It appears that the main cause was the economic difficulties experienced by large communities; but the decline of the yeshiva was also connected to the diminishment of Torah study as a factor determining a man’s social status, both because of the rise of Hasidism and because of incipient processes of secularization. The place of the yeshiva was increasingly taken by another institution, more open and less authoritarian, which was not dependent on the personal charisma of a great scholar. This was the bet ha-midrash (house of study), which gradually became a center of Torah study in the community and its surroundings.

Suggested Reading

Simḥah Assaf, “Ha-Ḥayim ha-penimiyim shel yehude Polin (lifne tekufat ha-haskalah),” in Be-Ohale Ya‘akov: Perakim me-ḥaye ha-tarbut shel ha-yehudim bi-yeme ha-benayim, pp. 66–72 (1943; rpt., Jerusalem, 1965/66); Mordecai Breuer, “Ha-Yeshivah ha-ashkenazit be-shilhe yeme-ha-benayim” (Ph.D., diss., Hebrew University, 1967); Mordecai Breuer, Ohale Torah: Ha-Yeshivah tavnitah ve-toldoteha (Jerusalem, 2003), pp. 40–44; Ḥayim Zelig Dimitrowsky, “‘Al derekh ha-pilpul,” in Salo Wittmayer Baron Jubilee Volume, ed. Saul Lieberman and Arthur Hyman, pp. 111–181 [Hebrew section] (Jerusalem, 1975); Elḥanan Reiner, “Temurot bi-yeshivot Polin ve-Ashkenaz be-me’ot ha-tet-zayin–yod-zayin veha-vikuaḥ ‘al ha-pilpul,” in Ke-minhag Ashkenaz u-Polin, ed. Yisra’el Bartal, Ḥavah Turnyanski, and ‘Ezra Mendelson, pp. 9–80 (Jerusalem, 1993); Chone Shmeruk, “Baḥurim mi-Ashkenaz bi-yeshivot Polin,” in Ha-Keri’ah le-navi: Meḥkere historyah ve-sifrut, ed. Yisra’el Bartal, pp. 3–17 (Jerusalem, 1999), also in Sefer yovel le-Yitsḥak Ber bi-mel’ot lo shiv‘im shanah, ed. Shmuel Ettinger et al., pp. 304–315 (Jerusalem, 1960); Moses A. Shulvas, Jewish Culture in Eastern Europe: The Classical Period (New York, 1975); Israel M. Ta-Shema, “On the History of the Jews in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Poland,” Polin 10 (1997): 287–317.



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green