Hagaon Harav Yom-Tov Lipmann ben Nathan ha-Levi Heller (born Wallerstein, Bavaria, c. 1579; died Kraków, 19 August 1654), was a Bohemian rabbi and Talmudist, best known for writing a commentary on the Mishnah called the Tosafot Yom-Tov (1614-1617). Heller was one of the major Talmudic scholars in Prague and in Poland during the "Golden Age" before 1648.
Education and rabbinic career
Heller was born and brought up by his grandfather, Rabbi Moses Ha-Levi Heller in Wallerstein, now in Germany. As a teenager, Heller was sent to Friedberg, near Wallerstein, where he studied in the yeshiva of Rabbi Jacob Günzburg. From there, he moved to Prague, where he became a disciple of the Maharal, head of the yeshiva of Prague. In 1597, when Heller was scarcely 18 years old, he received a semicha (appointment) as a dayan in that city.
In October 1624, Heller was called to the rabbinate of Mikulov, Moravia, and in March 1625, became rabbi of Vienna. Leopoldstadt was then a suburb of Vienna. At his arrival the Jews of Vienna were scattered throughout the city, not having a central community. Heller obtained for the Jews the rights to establish a central Jewish community in Leopoldstadt where he was instrumental in reorganizing the community and drew up its constitution.
From 1627 until 1629, he was chief rabbi of Prague.
In 1631, he moved to the Ukraine, where he served as rabbi of Nemirov for three years. In 1634, he moved to the larger city of Ludmir (Volodymyr) in Volhynia. During his years in Volhynia and Poland, Heller was among the rabbinic leaders of the Council of Four Lands. In 1640, he worked to obtain the renewal of the synod’s decrees against simony in the rabbinate.
Finally, in 1643, he was elected head of the rabbinical court of Kraków, one of the two chief rabbis of that community. Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel of Crakow, the author of Maginne Shelomoh, was head of the yeshiva there. Four years later, Heschel died, and Heller succeeded him in the direction of the yeshiva as well. Heller was chief rabbi of Kraków during the Chmielnicki uprising of 1648, and until his death in 1654.
In the summer of 1629, Heller was arrested at the order of the imperial court of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II. Heller was put in prison in Vienna, and accused of insulting Christianity.
A commission was quickly appointed to inquire into Heller's guilt. Heller defended himself adroitly, but the commission's verdict was that Heller be sentenced to hard labor in prison. It was an influential Court Jew, Jacob Bassevi von Treuenberg, who appeared before the emperor to plead the rabbi's cause. He paid 12,000 thalers for his release on the condition that R' Heller resign the post of Chief Rabbi of Prague and leave the country.
After spending more than a month in prison, Heller was released. He then spent two years paying off the fine. In 1631, Heller left Prague, and spent the second part of his career in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Several factors account for Heller's imprisonment. His arrest marked the beginning of a brief Habsburg anti-Jewish campaign, encouraged by the Papacy. Heller also had enemies within the Prague Jewish community. On account of the Thirty Years' War, the government had imposed heavy taxes on the Jewish communities of Bohemia, including that of Prague, which had to pay a yearly tax of 40,000 thalers. A commission headed by Chief Rabbi Heller unanimously voted to tax each Jewish family in Prague. The richer the family, the higher the tax. The burden fell mostly upon the rich merchants who could well afford to pay their assessments. However, they complained and demanded a reexamination of the decision. R' Heller and his committee reviewed the problem and concluded that this approach was fair. The committee met with representatives of the merchants' association to explain the sensitive situation facing the Jewish community of Prague. The irate merchants refused to deal with the Kahal which was responsible for delivering the money to the government. Instead, they decided to appeal to the government. In their petition they charged the Chief Rabbi with being an enemy of Christianity. Their proof: "His writings are filled with allegations against the religion of the country." R' Heller was associated with the wealthy leader of the Prague community at that time, Jacob Bassevi, who was an ally of the great general Albrecht von Wallenstein, who also had enemies at the Habsburg court. Heller's relationship with Bassevi and the arrest of Heller played a part in larger political machinations there.
Yom Tov Heller founded a long line of rabbis. His father, Nathan, who died days before he was born, was the son of Rabbi Moses. Heller was married to a daughter of a wealthy Prague merchant, Aaron Moses Ashkenazi (Munk). Through his wife, Rachel, he was related to the Horowitz family. On his mother's side, he was related to the Günzburg family; on his father's side, to the Frankel family of Vienna.
His known ancestry runs as follows: 1. Abraham Ha-Levi b. c. 1320? Oettingen, Schwaben (now Oettingen in Bayern, Germany) married unknown wife. 2. Their son R'Samuel Ha-Levi b. c. 1360?, d. Mayence (now Mainz, Germany) married unknown wife. 3. Their son Eliezer Ha-Levi b. c. 1400? married unknown wife. 4 Their son Israel Ha-Levi Oettingen b. 1450 married unknown wife. 5. Their son R'Nathan Heller Wallerstein b. c. 1470? married unknown wife. 6. Their son Abraham Ha-Levi Heller Wallerstein b. 1500 married unknown wife. 7. Their son Moshe Ha-Levi Heller Wallerstein b. 1520 Wallerstein, d. 1580 Wallerstein (now in Germany) married Rachel unknown maiden name. 8. Their son Nathan Ha-Levi Heller Wallerstein (three brothers: Yakov, Aron, Avraham, and one sister, Shprintza) b. 1561 Wallerstein, d. c. 1579 Wallerstein married unknown wife (maiden name Ginzberg?). 9. Their son Yom Tov Lipmann Heller married Rachel Ashkenazi (see their details below).
Yom Tov is believed to have had 3 siblings: brother Joseph d. 1659, sister Perel and another unknown sister, despite his father dying at age 18. It is possible but unclear whether the addition of Oettingen and Wallerstein to their names means his ancestors had connections by marriage with the noble families of the House of Oettingen-Wallerstein. [No, it is neither unclear nor possible that the addition of Oettingen and Wallerstein to their names means his ancestors had connections by marriage with the noble families of the House of Oettingen-Wallerstein. Instead, in those days which precede the existence of official permanent surnames for Jewish families by over one hundred years, in lieu of a surname, it was common for Jews to be referred to (and to refer to themselves) by the name of the building (house), town, city, region or country from which they came.]
Yom-Tov and Rachel probably had 16 children, at least six sons and at least eight daughters. Sons whom he mentions in his works, were: Moses of Prague, Samuel of Nemirow (now Nemirov, Ukraine), Abraham of Lublin (now in Poland), and Leb of Brest-Litovsk (now Brest, Belarus). The daughters of whom we definitely know were: Nechle, Nisel, Doberish, Esther, Rebecca, and Reizel.
Probably his most famous descendant was Aryeh Leib Heller (b. 1745), known as the K'tzos (after his greatest work, K'tzos Hachoshen). His brother Yehuda Heller Kahana (b. 1738), known as the Kuntras Ha'Sfeikos, often appeared with the K'tzos Hachoshen. Other noted relatives are Solomon Judah Loeb Rapoport (b. 1790), religious scholar, poet, writer whose grandson, Arnold Edler von Porada Rapoport (b. 1840) was a lawyer, parliamentarian, coal mining entrepreneur, and philanthropist.
Their connections (sometimes incorrectly assumed to be patrimonial from Yom Tov to Aryeh Leib) run as follows: 1. Yom Tov Lipmann Heller b. c. 1579 Wallerstein, d. 1654 Kraków married Rachel Ashkenazi b. Vienna, d. 1655 Prague. 2. Their daughter, Reizel b. c. 1600 Prague, d. 1639 married Yakov Yosef Kahana Hacohen b. Brest Litovsk. 3. Their son Yachiel Michel Kahana Heller b. 1630 Kalisz (now in Poland), d. 1685 married Sara unknown maiden name. 4. Their son Chaim Aryeh Hacohen Heller Kahana, b. c. 1680, d. 1740 in what is now Israel married unknown wife. 5. Their son Yosef Heller Kahana b. 1720 Kalush (now in Ukraine), d. 1778 Kalush married Nissel unknown maiden name, then Raizel unknown maiden name. 6. The former's son Aryeh Leib Heller b. 1745 Kalusz, d. 1812 Stryi (now in Ukraine) married unknown wife. 7. Their daughter, Franziska Freide b. 1788, d. 1842 Prague, in 1810 married Solomon Judah Loeb Rapoport b. 1786 Lemberg (now Lviv, Ukraine), d. 1867 Prague. 8. Their son Edmund Dawid b. 1818, d. 1870 Kraków married Scheindel unknown maiden name b. c. 1817, d. 1843 Tarnow (now in Poland), then Kaila Hertz b. 1827 Starowies Wegry (now in Poland), d. 1906 Kraków. 9. The former's son Arnold (later Edler von Porada) b. 1840 Tarnow, d. 1907 Vienna married Laura Eibenschutz b. c. 1849, d. 1904 Badgastein (now in Austria).
In commemoration of his imprisonment and his release from prison, Heller established two special days of remembrance for his family and descendants. He established the 5th of Tammuz, the day on which his troubles began, as an annual fast-day, and the 1st of Adar as a day of celebration on the anniversary of his nomination to the rabbinate of Kraków. The reading of the Megillah that Heller wrote, called Megilat Eivah (Scroll of Hostility), that tells the story of his imprisonment and release, became a tradition for the descendants of Rabbi Heller. To this day, they celebrate the story of his life in a special Purim celebration.
In 1984 on the 330th anniversary "Yahrzeit" of Rabbi Heller death the story of rabbi Heller Megillat Eivah and a detailed family tree were published in English by Rabbi C.U.Lipschitz and Dr. Neil Rosenstein under the title, "The Feast and The Fast" by Moznaim Publishing Corporation New York and Jerusalem. The book contains 40 pages of charts detailing the family tree and the hundreds of families descended from Rabbi Heller.
Works and opinions
Between 1614 and 1617, R' Heller published a Mishnah commentary, Tosafot Yom Tov, in three volumes. The commentary quickly became established as one of the standard commentaries to the Mishnah, and is studied to this day. His commentary in an important complement to the commentary of Bartenura (Tosafot to Bartenura’s Rashi, as it were – hence the title.)
Heller’s major halakhic work was Ma`adanei Yom Tov, a commentary to the summary of the Babylonian Talmud by Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel. Rabbi Asher’s summary was often taken by German Jews of Heller’s day to be the most authoritative statement of Jewish law, even in preference to the Shulhan Arukh. Heller’s introduction to the work endorses that view. Heller’s halakhic views, mainly on matters of ritual, are quoted by many later rabbis, especially the later rabbis of Prague.
Heller also authored a memoir called Megilat Eivah, as we have mentioned.
Among Heller’s many minor works are sermons and responsa. He also wrote two sets of piyyutim. The first set, from 1621, commemorates the Defenestration of Prague and the beginning of the Thirty Years' War; and the escape of the Prague Jews from the sack of Prague by Habsburg troops after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. The second set of poems, written in 1650, commemorate the Cossack massacres of 1648-1649.
Heller was a kabbalist, and even authored himself a Kabbalistic work, a commentary on Rabenu Bahya ben Asher, based on the kabbalistic views of Moses Cordovero. But throughout most of his life, Heller was opposed to the popularization of kabbalah, and the use of kabbalistic reasoning in matters of Jewish law.
Among rabbis of his generation, Heller was exceptionally well versed in the secular sciences. His Talmudic works and his sermons show that he was interested in questions of arithmetic, astronomy, and natural science. His notes on the Giv'at ha Moreh of Joseph ben Isaac ha-Levi prove that he occupied himself with philosophy. He praised the Me'or 'Enayim of Azariah dei Rossi in spite of the anathema that his master, Judah ben Bezalel, whom he held in great esteem, had launched against the book and its author. His statement on the universal dignity of humanity is also notable, as is his openness to study of works by non-Jews. One of his sermons alludes to the “new astronomy” of Copernicus and Tycho Brahe.
Folktales and fictions
Since 1881, Heller’s Megilat Eivah has typically been published with a second section that is attributed to his son Samuel. Samuel relates the story of Heller’s imprisonment and trial from his own point of view. In his version, the Rabbi was helped by the French general Turenne, ambassador of the court of King Louis XIV of France, after Samuel's dramatic life-saving of Turenne's wife and daughter at a park in Vienna, when they were attacked by a raging bull. The anecdote is based on a story by Ludwig Philippson.
Benish Ashkenazi, one of the major characters in the novel Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer, is a fictionalized version of R' Heller.
Heller is also the subject of a number of folktales and legends. One well-known story about R' Heller concerns Yossele the Holy Miser, who died in Kraków. R' Heller was asked where to bury him. The town leaders were disgusted by this man's lack of charity, and directed that his body be buried in a far corner of the cemetery. A few days after the miser's death, a great cry was heard in the town, for the poor and hungry were bereft of the miser's secret generosity. The "miser" had been giving charity in the most noble fashion – secretly giving money to the local merchants, who in turn had given food, clothing and money to the poor. When this came to R' Heller's attention, he was visibly shaken. He instructed the town to bury him next to Yossele upon his own death. This explains why R' Heller, one of the greatest of Talmudic scholars, is buried in such an undistinguished section of the cemetery.