11th Elul – Yossele the miser and Yomtov Lipman Heller

Elul 11 19th August 2021

On 19th August 1654 the Yom Tov Lipman Heller, a student of the Maharal of Prague and the author of a commentary on the Mishnah (Tosefot Yom Tov) died.  He was a deep scholar of Talmud, but also a keen student of bible, Hebrew grammar, philosophy, geometry, natural science mathematics and astronomy.  He was also known for his integrity and became a communal leader at a very early age.

Besides his great talmudic knowledge, he engaged in the study of Kabbalah, religious philosophy, and Hebrew grammar and also acquired an extensive general knowledge, particularly of mathematics, astronomy, and natural sciences. In 1597, when only 18 years of age, he was appointed dayyan in Prague, and served in this office for 28 years, during which period he became renowned for his knowledge and for his integrity. As well as Talmudic commentary, he wrote commentary to that of Asher ben Yechiel, (The Rosh) focussing on prayer and on kashrut and developing the local Prague halachic traditions. He also translated the Rosh’s ethical work “Orchot Chayim” written originally for the author’s sons and embodying teachings to live an ethical Jewish life. Heller introduced the reading of parts of this work into the liturgy of his community and the work is an important part of mussar literature to this day.

His life was not easy – his integrity and his straightforwardness meant that he was not a successful political being nor always a revered community leader, but his character shines through his work and through stories that are told about him. So, for example, we see his response to the persecutions of 1648 being to try to help agunot lose that awful status. And we have the testimony on his death that “he did not leave the wherewithal to purchase shrouds, even though he was the Av Beit Din of Cracow… all this because he never took dishonest money” (testimony of Z Margulies, intro Hibburei likkutim 1715)

The story I find most fascinating is that of Yossele, the Miser of Cracow.  When Yossele, a wealthy man but one who was never seen to give tzedakah or to help the community died, YomTov Heller was asked where to bury him. He decreed that as this man had not supported the community in any way, he should be buried in a far corner of the cemetery away from the places where the most honoured people would be buried. Shortly after the burial however it became apparent that far from being a miser Yossele had practised the highest level of tzedakah – he had given anonymously via third parties so that no-one knew the level of his charitable giving, nor did he know to whom this support were going.  Far from being a miser, he was now understood to be a lamed vavnik. Yom Tov Heller repented his harsh decision and left instruction that he be buried in the same section as Yossele as an act of teshuvah.

His grave is indeed in a remote part of the cemetery in Cracow.

Image of grave by Talmidavi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48824514