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Tosafot Yom Tov

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Tosafot Yom Tov

Yom-Tov Lipmann ben Nathan ha-Levi Heller, (b. Wallerstein, Bavaria, 1578; d. Kraków, August 19, 1654), was a Bohemian rabbi and Talmudist, best known for writing a commentary on the Mishnah called the Tosafot Yom-Tov (1614-7). 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 brought up by his grandfather, Rabbi Moses Wallerstein. As a teenager, Heller was sent to Friedberg, where he studied in the yeshiva of R. 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 19 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 the 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. R' Yehoshua Heschel of Crakow, the author of Maginne Shelomoh, was head of the yeshiva there. Four years later, Heschel died, and R' 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 German baron who appeared before the emperor to plead the rabbi's cause. The Baron 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.

Legend holds that R' Heller's son was studying under a tree in the forest when his thoughts were interrupted by the sound of an animal chasing its prey. He saw a large bull charging toward a young woman wrapped in a red shawl. The woman was so frightened she froze. The young man raced over to the woman and grabbed the shawl and threw it at the bull, thus saving her from the bull's horns.

The woman was hysterical so the young man took her to his home where he learned that she was a Baroness. Her husband offered a reward but he refused to accept any money. The Baron then said, "I am very grateful to you for saving my wife's life. If you ever need a favor, don't hesitate to approach me. I will be happy to help you, just as you were helpful to my wife.

R' Heller's family remembered the Baron's promise. It was through the Baron, who had influence with the emperor, that arrangements were made for the rabbi's release.

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, and bore the brunt of anger against him. Meanwhile, Bassevi, who was an ally of the great general Albrecht von Wallenstein, also had enemies at the Habsburg court, and the arrest of Heller played a part in larger political machinations there.


Heller founded a long line of rabbis. He was the son of R' Nathan, who was the son of Rabbi Moses Franklin. Heller was married to Rachel, the daughter of a wealthy Prague merchant, Aaron Moses Ashkenazi (Munk). Through Rachel, he was related to the Horowitz family. On his mother's side, he was related to the Günzburg family; on his father side, to the Frankel family of Vienna. Yom-Tov and Rachel had four sons and at least six daughters. The sons, whom he mentions in his works, were: Moses of Prague, Samuel of Nemirow, Abraham of Lublin, and Leb of Brest-Litovsk. The daughters of whom we know were: Nechle, Nisel, Doberish, Esther, Rebecca, and Reizel.

Probably his most famous descendants was Aryeh Leib Heller (b.1745), known as the K'tzos (after his greatest work, K'tzos Hachoshen). And his brother Yehuda Heller Kahana (b. 1738), known as the Kuntras Ha'Sfeikos often appearing with the K'tzos Hachoshen.

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 Megillat 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 was published in English by Rabbi C.U.Lipschitz and Dr. Neil Rosenstein under the title, "The Feast and The Fast" by Maznaim 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 the 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.


  • M. Seligsohn
  • Davis, Joseph, Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller (Oxford: Littman Library, 2004)

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