Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
The 18th of Elul is the yahrzeit of Rabbi Yehuda Loewy, zt’l (1520–1609), renowned as the Maharal of Prague. The Maharal served as the chief rabbi of Prague and presided in the famous Altneuschul there. For the past several years, an extended group of descendants of the Maharal have traveled from the New York area to Prague to commemorate the yahrzeit. This year, the yahrzeit was on Shabbos Ki Savo, September 12–13. The group was led by Rabbi Yosef Schwartz, rosh yeshiva of Ohr Chodosh d’Prague. The yeshiva is unique in that it accepts every applicant with the purpose of preparing the student to enter mainstream yeshivas. Yeshiva Ohr Chodosh is achieving remarkable success in having their students accepted to major yeshivas. As the yahrzeit was on Shabbos, the traditional visit to the Maharal’s gravesite took place early Sunday morning.
The Maharal was a Torah giant, and his many scholarly works are intensively studied to this very day in yeshivas and by Torah scholars. In addition, the legend persists of a Golem created by the Maharal through his kabbalistic powers. During his lifetime, the Maharal was successful in protecting his communities from blood libels, pogroms, etc. He had excellent relationships and audiences with governmental authorities and kings, who respected him greatly and enjoyed meeting with him. Plainly, his great wisdom radiated. His outstanding leadership of the Jewish community in Nikolsburg, Prague, and Poland was incomprehensible to the masses.
To help explain his towering multifaceted achievements, the legend of a Golem, fearless and all-powerful, acting as the Maharal’s protective agent, was accepted as the secret of his commanding success. When the cursed Nazis entered Prague, they feared going to the Altneuschul’s attic because the remains of the Golem are supposedly reposing there. Some stories have Nazi soldiers actually going up into the attic but never coming back down, never to be seen or heard from again.
In 1908, Ladislav Saloun (1870–1946), famous Czech sculptor, created a statue of the Maharal which was prominently placed outside Prague’s new town hall. The tall statue rests on a high pedestal in an alcove of the building’s facade, with the form of a Golem at the Maharal’s feet. The statue still stands.
Elected in 1553, the Maharal first served in the rabbinate as the Nikolsburger Rav. In 1588, he assumed the rabbinate of Prague and was appointed chief rabbi of Poland in 1592. Several years before his passing, the Maharal had returned to Prague.
The Altneuschul (Old New Shul) is the oldest site in Prague’s Jewish section and the oldest active shul in Europe. The shul has served the Prague Jewish community for more than 700 years. Built in the 1270s by stonemasons from the royal workshop, it confirms the important status of the Jewish community of Prague at the time. The shul is known as the Old New Shul because its foundation stones were brought from the destroyed Beis HaMikdash “on condition” (al tenai in Hebrew) that the holy stones will be brought back to Jerusalem when the Beis HaMikdash is rebuilt. In order to instill humility, the first level of the shul is lower than street level.
The main sanctuary is lit by numerous bronze chandeliers and brass reflectors hung on the walls that date from the 1500s and 1600s. The eastern wall of the sanctuary has a high banner, which symbolizes the important status of the Prague Jewish community. In use since the late 1400s, the banner was restored to its present form by Emperor Charles VI (1685–1740) in 1716.
The visiting group from America was joined by hundreds of Jews from many nearby areas who came to experience the special Shabbos. Several speeches were delivered and were immediately translated into the Czech language, as was the teaching of Pirkei Avos. Lodging and meals were enjoyed at the Chabad hotel in Prague.
Early Sunday morning, before dawn, arrangements were in place for the cemetery gates to open much earlier than usual and entry was arranged for all with no entry fee. The entire group, led by Rabbi Schwartz, proceeded to the Old Jewish Cemetery in Josefov, within Prague’s Jewish quarter. Each year, when the group walks through the street, it is invariably joined by many others—men, women, and children, Jews as well as non-Jews. In years past, no minyan assembled at the gravesite because of the resulting crowd. As the group, numbering in the hundreds, and its relatively small after-flow, also numbering in the hundreds, reached the Maharal’s gravesite, men and women were separated.
The assembled were told about the greatness of the Maharal and encouraged to pray, invoking the Maharal’s greatness in asking G‑d to protect Jews throughout the world just as He wondrously protected Jews during the Maharal’s lifetime. As the recital of Tehillim commenced, many were emotionally overwhelmed. Tears flowed copiously. Those who were unable to recite the Tehillim cried aloud, knowing that this was the opportunity to pray for the New Year.
The oldest gravestone in the cemetery is that of Rabbi Avigdor Kara, zt’l (d. 1409), rav of Prague. The cemetery was dedicated, or possibly rededicated, by King Ottokar II of Bohemia (1223–1278). Some claim that the cemetery is more than 1,500 years old. Presently, approximately 12,000 tombstones are visible. They are placed within a hairsbreadth of each other. Supposedly, more than 100,000 souls are buried there. As the cemetery became full centuries ago and no additional land was available, the ground was covered with copious layers of earth and the tombstones were placed at the new higher level. Later burials were added on top of the original graves, and the new headstones were placed immediately next to the old ones. The additional graves in certain areas are 12 layers deep.
The Maharal emphasized the study of Mishnah so that students would achieve a wide range of Torah knowledge. One of his main disciples was Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, zt’l (1579–1654), author of Tosfos Yom Tov on the Mishnah. At the age of 18, Rabbi Heller, under the guidance and direction of the Maharal, was appointed dayan of Prague in 1597.
At 5 p.m. Sunday afternoon, the group convened to study mishnayos. Their study was in the schedule of their annual cycle, which begins on Rosh Hashanah. Two chapters of Mishnah are studied every day, five days a week, Sunday through Thursday. Fridays and Shabbos are reserved for reviewing the week’s studies. The Mishnah study cycle has achieved phenomenal success. Yeshiva Ohr Chodosh, together with many other yeshivas, subscribes to the cycle, and the scholastic achievements of their students are most gratifying. This year’s grand siyum mishnayos will take place iy’H on Sunday, September 21, in the main beis midrash of the yeshiva’s summer camp in Monticello.
For the first time, names of donors who contributed toward the reprinting of the many sefarim authored by the Maharal, as well as those of supporters of the yeshiva, were recited at the gravesite. The yeshiva gladly accepts all applicants and seeks to instill in them a high degree of self-confidence. The yeshiva has a dedicated full staff and provides a dormitory with meals all week, including Shabbos. Not one student has dropped out, and every student ready to move on has been successfully accepted into major yeshivas.
As a result of its impressive success, additional space is needed and the yeshiva has embarked on expanding its facilities. Those who appreciate the yeshiva’s holy work are invited to share in its efforts (please call 917-771-6677). v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.