View of the castle and church, which were connected by an underground passageway to the Maharsha synagogue at the other end of town, Ostrog, ca. 1920s. The synagogue was built in the mid-seventeenth century and named for Shemu’el Eli‘ezer ben Yehudah ha-Levi Edels (known as Maharsha). The tunnel was part of the city’s defensive system, built when Ostrog was one of the strategic bulwarks against Tatar raids in Volhynia. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (Forward Association/YIVO)

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Shemu’el Eli‘ezer ben Yehudah ha-Levi Edels

(1555–1631), rabbinical scholar and interpreter of the Talmud. Known as Maharsha—an acronym for “Our teacher, (the) Rabbi Shemu’el Edels (Adels)”—Edels was born in Kraków. He was a descendant of Yehudah Ḥasid on his father’s side, and was a member of the family of Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el (Maharal of Prague) on his mother’s. He studied Torah in Poznań, where he married the daughter of his uncle, Mosheh Ashkenazi-Halperin (Lifshits), the rabbi of Brisk (Brest Litovsk). His wealthy mother-in-law, Edel, supported his yeshiva for 20 years, in recognition of which he adopted the name Edels.

Following his mother-in-law’s death in 1605, Edels served as rabbi in several important communities: first in Chełm (according to some sources, he served in Tiktin [Tykocin] as well), then in Lublin (as of 1614); and finally, as of 1625, as rabbi and head of the yeshiva in Ostróg. He died in 1631, and a magnificent headstone was built on his grave.

The teaching method Edels employed consisted of an in-depth deliberation on the literal meaning (peshat) of the Talmudic text; he was opposed to acute pilpul (ḥiluk). In his lessons, he strove to explain and clarify the interpretations of Rashi and Tosafot, but his written conclusions were very brief, and his students had to work hard to fully understand his intent. His books Ḥidushe halakhot (Legal Novellae) and Ḥidushe agadot (Novellae on Nonlegal Portions of the Talmud) were published separately beginning in 1602. Both were subsequently added to all printed editions of the Talmud, at the end of each tractate; for generations, his interpretations have been used as a basis for understanding the Talmud.

With respect to aggadic material, Edels interpreted puzzling and unexplained matters logically or explained that the matters in question were only analogies—allegories with a moral. In his interpretations, he drew on kabbalistic and philosophical literature as sources, and often wrote literary critiques and remarks. Numerous books of explanations and clarifications of, and further deliberations on, Edel’s work were subsequently written. No edition of his responsa was ever published. He was opposed to ruling according to the Shulḥan ‘arukh without first studying the halakhic sources in depth.

Edels was among the leading rabbis of Polish Jewry in his day. He admonished his generation for lawlessness and immorality, and criticized wealthy individuals for purchasing rabbinical positions, rabbis for lording over the public for other than altruistic purposes, and ordinary Jews for getting drunk during the melaveh malkah (post-Sabbath) meal and consequently being late for morning prayers the following day. He composed seliḥot (penitential prayers) to commemorate unfortunate events that occurred in his time.

Edels was survived by several children, the most prominent of whom was his son-in-law, Mosheh Bunims, chief rabbi of Lublin. The latter wrote a commentary entitled Mahadurah batra’ (1670) on his father-in-law’s legal work.

Suggested Reading

Samuel Aba Horodetzki, Shem mi-Shemu’el: Toldot Shemu’el Eli‘ezer (ben) Yehudah Edels ha-mekhuneh Maharsha: Shitato helekh nafsho ve-darko ba-kodesh (Drohobycz, 1895); Reuben Margaliot, Toldot Adam: Shemu’el Eli‘ezer Edels (ha-nod‘a be-shem Maharsha): Me’ore ḥayav, pe‘ulotav ha-sifrutim (Lemberg, 1912); Me’ir Wunder, Elef Margaliyot: Sefer ‘ezer le-ḥeker yuḥasin (Jerusalem, 1993), pp. 99–108.



Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann