A message for Purim from the Rema
By Rav Hillel Van-Leeuwen
The Mizrachi World Movement
Rabbi Moshe Isserlis was an eminent Polish Ashkenazi rabbi, Rosh Yeshiva, philosopher, Talmudist and posek. The Rema was ordained Rabbi at the tender age of 13, and got married a few years later. He was appointed Chief Rabbi of the important city of Krakow shortly after his 20th birthday. Rema was learned in Kabbalah, and studied history, astronomy and philosophy as well. Until this day he is considered the primary halachic authority for the communities which descended from Ashkenazi European Jewry.
The Rema worked tirelessly for many years, painstakingly compiling a complete Halacha book that will provide the Jewish world with the practical, bottom-line law for all aspects of daily customs and practices, for weekdays, Shabbatot and holidays, and for all issues pertaining to the Jewish life cycle [as my Rebbe in Yeshiva used to say: a Halacha reference book to guide you from the womb to the tomb; or in Hebrew – מהלכות בית הכסא עד הלכות בית הבחירה…].
However, before completing his monumental book, a contemporary of his, the Sephardi Rabbi Yosef Karo of Tzefat, Israel, beat him to it, and had just published his own similar book, which he named Shulchan Aruch – the Set Table.
The Rema, deeply worried by the prospect of two major books of law “competing” with each other and thus formally separating between Sephardi & Ashkenazi communities, displayed tremendous vision, humility and leadership, and set his own manuscript on fire instead of printing it. In doing so, the Rema allowed the Shulchan Aruch to establish itself as the foremost Halacha authority, to be followed by Ashkenazi Jews as well.
The Rema then wrote his comments on it, but only where the Ashkenazi minhag differed from the Sephardi practice. And he humbly called his commentary ha-Mapah(lit., “the tablecloth”), as it merely “decorates” the Shulchan Aruch.
The Rema’s first comment on the Shulchan Aruch’s first part, Orach Chaim (1:1), cites a pasuk from Tehillim (16:8):
שיויתי ה’ לנגדי תמיד, הוא כלל גדול בתורה.
“Envisioning HaShem before me always, is a great rule of Torah”.
In his last comment on the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim (697:1), Rema cites a pasuk from Mishlei (15:15):
וטוב לב משתה תמיד.
“A good heart always drinks”.
Many ask: how could the Rema possibly end his commentary with a call for a party?
If we go back to look at the beginning of his commentary, the message is clear: as long as you envision HaShem in front of you, throughout your life – at all times, in all situations and in all places – as long as you rise to such a level where you live a life of solid faith in Him and follow His commandments even when you drink and enjoy life – you have nothing to worry about. This will safeguard you and balance the spiritual and material aspects within your personality, guiding you safely to the shores of Avodat HaShem.
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