The foremost Talmudic authority of Germany in the first half of the fifteenth century; born in the last decade of the fourteenth century, probably at Ratisbon; died at Neustadt, near Vienna, 1460. Isserlein belonged to an old family of scholars: his great-grandfather on his father's side was Israel of Krems, author of the "Haggahot Asheri"; and his maternal uncle was the martyr Aaron Blumlein. The latter was Isserlein's principal teacher, Isserlein, after his father's death at Ratisbon, having accompanied his mother to Neustadt, where Aaron Blumlein conducted a yeshibah. Isserlein also studied with a certain Nathan, who is likewise known as an eminent Talmudist. In consequence of the persecution of the Jews at Neustadt, of which his mother and uncle were victims (March 12, 1421), Isserlein seems to have left Austria and gone to Italy; later he settled at Marburg, Styria, wherefore he is often called "Israel of Marburg." After a lengthy sojourn in that city he returned (before 1445) to Neustadt, where he remained until his death.

His Activity at Neustadt.

Neustadt owed its reputation of being the foremost seat of Jewish scholarship in Austria in no small degree to Isserlein's activity. Hundreds of eager students went there in order to sit at the feet of the great rabbi; and his opinions on difficult or doubtful questions of religious or civil law were sought far and wide. His chief service as a teacher of the Talmud and of rabbinical literature was his endeavor to revive the study of the original sources. In the century preceding him Talmudic lore in Germany had declined to such an extent that even the socalled scholars gave their attention almost exclusively to the codices of the Law, neglecting the study of the Talmud and of the old authorities. Isserlein's efforts brought him into frequent conflict with the older rabbis. Thus he took the part of two young Talmudists who desired to open a school in Neustadt but were opposed by Meisterlein the representative of the old school, because he did not favor the study of the Rishonim, whose teachings, he said, had only a theoretic value.

Isserlein cared little for the opinions of the later codifiers, or even for the authority of the Ṭurim, as against the decisions of the Geonim. He was exceedingly modest, however, and, although recognized as a great Talmudist, would not allow himself to be addressed as "Morenu" when called to the reading of the Torah. He was also remarkably obliging: although subject to the gout and troubled with an affection of the eyes, he insisted, even when sick, on dictating responsa to the many questions addressed to him.

His Works.

The following two works by Isserlein have been printed: (1) "Terumat ha-Deshen" (Venice, 1519), consisting of 354 (a number corresponding to the numerical value of and to the days of the lunar year) decisions in the form of responsa on synagogal, ritual, and legal subjects; and (2) "Pesaḳim u-Ketabim," containing 267 responsa, of which nearly one-third deal with the various rules regarding the marriage laws. The first work was edited by Isserlein himself; the material for the second was collected and edited after his death by one of his pupils. Many of his responsa are found also in the responsa collections of MaHaRiSh, Israel Bruna, and Jacob Weil; and others are still in manuscript. The manuscriptof his supercommentary to Rashi's commentary on the Pentateuch is still extant, while his "She'arim," on things permitted and those prohibited, which Moses Isserles used, has been preserved in fragments only; extracts from it are included in the Basel edition of the "Sha'are Dura" (1547). A "Seder ha-Geṭ" by Isserlein, which is mentioned by some authorities, is perhaps the basis of the form of divorce given in Moses Minz's responsum No. 123. Three of Isserlein's liturgic pieces show him to have been a man of much talent, but not a poet.

Isserlein's responsa were highly important for the religious life of the German-Polish Jews. What Joseph Caro neglected in the Shulḥan 'Aruk, Moses Isserles supplied in his notes; and Isserles often cites opinions of Isserlein's to which Caro had paid little attention. Even Solomon Luria, who as a rule was very independent in his views, considered Isserlein's opinions as authoritative. He said: "Do not deviate from his words; for he was great and eminent" ("Yamshel Shelomoh" to Giṭ. iv. 24).

As a Legal Authority.

It is difficult to characterize Isserlein's standpoint in his many decisions, which cover almost the entire religious and social life. He was, on the whole, inclined to a rigorous interpretation of the Law, excepting in the case of an 'Agunah; he always endeavored to facilitate the woman's remarriage. His severe views were due chiefly to his own asceticism; for, being himself accustomed to self-denial, he saw no special hardship in a decision that curtailed any of the joys of life. He spoke very bitterly, however, against those who out of mere professional envy, and in order that the views of others might not prevail, placed a stricter interpretation on the laws. Isserlein was opposed to severe punishments, and decided that the way ought to be made easy for the return of a penitent to Judaism, and that he should not be discouraged by the necessity of a too rigorous atonement; for he maintained that a return to Judaism involved a denial of three kinds of pleasure, and entailed a large amount of suffering which should be counted to the credit of the penitent.

In many cases Isserlein's decisions are true reflections of German Talmudism in the fifteenth century, with all its strong and its weak points. Thus he could hardly make up his mind to observe the comet in 1456, because, according to the opinion of an old codifier, star-gazing was one of the practises of magic forbidden in the Bible. Nevertheless he permitted a sick person to consult a magician, if the latter did not belong in the category of the magicians forbidden in the Pentateuch.

Isserlein's works are most valuable for the study of Jewish history in the Middle Ages on account of the rich material they contain regarding the civilization of that period.

Isserlein is a pet name for Israel.

  • Berliner, in Monatsschrift, xviii. 130-135, 177-181, 224-235, 269-277, 315-323;
  • Grätz, Gesch. 3d ed., viii. 188, 196, 211, 264;
  • Güdemann, Gesch. iii. 14, 18, 23, 29, 85, 87, 93;
  • Fuenn, Keneset Yisrael, pp. 679-681.
S. S. L. G.
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