The Maharal of Prague's Descent from King David

The Maharal of Prague’s Descent from King David

Chaim Freedman, Petah Tikvah, March 2006.

Published in "Avotaynu" Volume XXII Number 1, Spring 2006

Rabbi Yehudah Leib[i] the son of Betzalel (circa 1522-1609), known as the “Maharal of Prague”, was one of the world’s most famous rabbis. Revered during his lifetime and by many until this day, the Maharal wrote many scholastic works. Several families claim descent from him, a fact of special importance to them since the Maharal also is widely believed to descend from King David.

Rabbi Meir Perels of Prague created a genealogy of the Maharal’s family, Megilat Hayukhsin[ii], in 1727 (some say 1717). The book was not published until 1853 and since then genealogists generally have accepted Perels’ claims, many incorporating Perels’ findings into their own works.

An exception to the believers in Perels’ claim was Prague historian Otto Muneles who discovered (in the early 1950s) that Perels’ claim was invalid since it was based on an erroneous copying of the date of death on the tombstone in Prague of the Maharal’s supposed great-great-grandfather Yehudah Leib (Liwai) the Elder. Perels recorded the date in Hebrew as the Hebrew year corresponding to 1439/1440.

Muneles’ examination of that tombstone shows that the date corresponds to 1539. Since the Maharal, also named Yehudah Leib, bore the same name as Yehudah Leib the Elder, and since the Maharal was born about 1522, he could not have borne the same name as a living ancestor. Soon thereafter, critical rabbinic genealogist, Rabbi Shlomo Englard of Bnei Brak, Israel, examined Muneles’ claims and, by studying sources described below, determined that Muneles’ claims were valid.

If the basis for the claim to Davidic descent of the Maharal is the text of the tombstone of Yehudah Leib the Elder (called in Hebrew Hazaken) then this would indicate that the Maharal may not be descended from King David at all. The consequences of such a finding would seem to sever all the descendants of the Maharal from their assumed Davidic descent. Such a circumstance would be particular serious for many famous rabbinic families whose ancestors wrote in many rabbinic works and genealogies of their Davidic descent, based on Perels’ work.

I have studied Muneles’ and Englard’s analyses of the situation and find them valid in negating the basis of Perels’ claim. On the other hand, my study of a number of rabbinic genealogies, written independently of Perels’ book, show that the Maharal indeed was descended from King David, but through a different line from that claimed by Perels. The descendants of the Maharal may breathe a sigh of relief; their illustrious ancestry has been salvaged.

An Alternative Line from the Maharal to King David

Prior to publication of Perels’ work a tradition existed that the Maharal was a descendant of Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi (died 217 C.E.), of the House of Hillel, who was of Davidic descent. These genealogies list the Maharal's father Betzalel and Chaim of Worms, and do not include Yehudah-Leib (Liwai) of Prague. The genealogies also do not trace the ancestry through the much-disputed line back to Hai Gaon and thence to the Exilarchs and King Solomon. Rather they state descent from Yehudah Hanassi, without listing the intervening generations.

The problem of the ancestry of the Maharal of Prague was debated on Jewishgen in 2002 when Daniel Polakovic, of the Jewish Museum in Prague posted the following:

There was a great discussion on this forum about the reliability of Perles's book "Megillat Yuhasin" on the roots of the MaHaRaL of Prague. One of the problematic points was a gravestone of "his relative" Yehuda Loeb the Elder. Since I work in the Jewish museum of Prague, I've had access to the archives of the Prague Hevra Kadisha from the 17th-20th century. Among these documents are the transcriptions of the gravestones of the old Jewish Cemetery of Prague. I've done this repeatedly and so far about 12,000 gravestones have been copied.Naturally, the gravestone of Rabbi Yehuda Loeb "the Elder" mentioned by Perles was found, and it still stands up to present time. The inscription is almost identical with Perles's version except for the dating (not 1440 but 1540) and the last line of the gravestone which was romantically improved for this purpose (a passage about the descendant of Davidic royal dynasty). I assume that these lines in Perles's book aren't his alone, but only the addition from the beginning of the 19th century (probably of Polish origin), because this book was not edited for the first time until 1864.
The photo of the above mentioned gravestone is available for inspection at It originated from the 1950s, at that time a full setof pictures of gravestones from this cemetery were taken”

Figure 1. Tombstone of Rabbi Yehudah Leib (Liwai) the Elder in the ancient cemetery in Prague.

The year is partially obscured by vegetation so Polakovic excavated the base of the tombstone to reveal the essential line where the date can be seen clearly:

The date on the bottom line is "shin" (the Hebrew year 5300) which corresponds to1539/40, The inscription is identical with that copied by Muneles in his book in 1955[iii].

Some Important Facts:

The Maharal died in 1609 at the age of 97 or 87 [iv]. Thus he was born about 1512 or 1522.
He was born in Posen, not Prague. His father Betzalel and grandfather Chaim lived in Worms as did his uncle Yaakov. Neither his father nor grandfather is buried in Prague.

Someone named Yehudah Leib the Elder died in Prague in 1539. His tombstone includes the inscription "descended from Yishai", which was the name of King David’s father.

Perels wrote a genealogy of the Maharal in 1727, that is, 118 years after the Maharal’s death. The book was published in Zolkiew, Poland, but not until 1853 (and then in Warsaw in 1864).

Perels wrote that Chaim, the grandfather of the Maharal, Khaim was a grandson of the above Yehudah Leib the Elder who was buried in Prague, and that, therefore, the descent of the Maharal's family from King David was proven by the inscription on Yehudah Leib the Elder’s tombstone.

Figure 2. Megilat Yukhsin by Meir Perels.


There was one man who was called Reb Chaim Worms. And he lived in the Holy Community of Virmeiza[v]. And the man was Kosher and a famous righteous one. And the head of his line of descent was his father’s father. He was called by his name Reb Yehuda Livai the Elder[vi] and on the stone tablet of his tombstone is engraved this language. Our teacher the Rabbi Reb Yehuda Livai and this is to Yehudah. To Torah and certification. Wise of the secrets. Uprooter of mountains and cedars. Proficient in Shas[vii] of the Talmud. And there was nobody to be found in the entire world in sharpness and proficiency and memory. And he is of the trunk of the pedigreed Geonim[viii] whose lineage is from David the son of Yishai. And the rest of the titles which are written about him I did not want to copy. And he was called to the dwelling above in the year five thousand and two hundred[ix] of the Creation. And to this day the above tombstone is in the Holy Community of Prague in the House of Life[x]. And his grandson Reb Chaim had three very important sons Reb Betzalel and Reb Yaakov and Reb Helman.

The date given by Perels is incorrect. Muneles and Polakovic found that the date of death on the Yehudah Leib’s tombstone was in the month of Kheshvan in the year "shin" (5300) not "resh" (5200) as claimed by Perels. That is 1539 not 1440.

Muneles copied the inscription as he saw it before he published his book in 1955[xi].

Figure 3. Transcription by Muneles of the tombstone in Prague of Rabbi Yehudah Leib the Elder

Our Teacher the Rabbi Reb Liva
A lion’s whelp of Yehudah: In Torah and certification: He was engaged in them all his days: Charity he gave to the poor of his nation: And he was of the trunk of the Geonim: His deeds were fitting: Wise of the secrets: He was proficient in the six orders
[xii]: He departed at a ripe old age” ….. about him …. Will drop ….. Yishai….Cheshvan Shin[xiii] according to the lower detail[xiv]. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life.

Muneles claims that Perels’ book raises many doubts, because of the date discrepancy with the existing stone and because its location is in an area that did not belong to the cemetery in 1439/40. Further evidence arises from David Gans’ book Tzemakh David (1543) in which Gans writes that he saw the tombstone of Avigdor Kara. Since Kara’s tombstone is located next to that of Yehuda Liva and since Gans took a particular interest in the Maharal of Prague, one might expect Gans to comment on the adjacent tombstone of Yehuda Liva if he believed that Liva was an ancestor of the Maharal.

Shlomo Englard, an authority on critical rabbinic genealogical evaluation, also questioned the authenticity of Perels’ claims[xv]
Translation of Englard’s article:
“In all the genealogies which are in our hands the Maharal of Prague is descended from his grandfather[xvi] Our Teacher the Rabbi Reb Livai the Elder of Prague, who was of the trunk of the Geonim whose lineage was from David the son of Yishai. There are those who added (on their own authority) that his lineage goes back to Reb Hai Gaon the son of Sherira Gaon, whose lineage goes back to the kingdom of the House of David. Great doubt should be cast upon this.”

Englard quotes the claim of Perels, noting that it was not published until 1853.

“In these lines Rabbi Perels connects the lineage of the Maharal of Prague to Yehuda Livai the Elder and upwards in holiness to King David of blessed memory. Thenceforth all the genealogies copied [Perels].”

Englard further states that the tombstone referred to by Perels still stands in the ancient cemetery of Prague, and the inscription is quoted in Gal Ed[xvii] and in Muneles’ book on the inscriptions in the Prague cemetery[xviii], with certain variations from Perels’ transcription. Botyhbooks quote the year “Shin” [1539] and not “resh” [1439/1440] as claimed by Perels, the critical discrepancy. Muneles points out that the section of the cemetery where the tombstone stands was not part of that cemetery in the year 1440. Englard draws the conclusion that the Maharal, whose name was Yehudah Leib (or Liva) was aged either 97 or 87 when he died in 1609, and therefore born well before Yehudah Leib the Elder died. Since they bore the same personal name, and since Ashkenazi Jewish naming practice forbids the naming of a child after a living ancestor, then the Maharal could not have been descended from Yehudah Leib the Elder.

Englard debates Muneles’ claims as to the reason Perels erred in the year 1439, doubting that it was done deliberately in order to connect the Maharal’s family with Prague and with King David. Perels was a noted scholar and official of the community, and he would not have dared to perpetrate such a forgery, since it could be checked at any time by anyone who visited the cemetery. Englard surmises that Perels either erred in his transcription or received a copy from some other person. Englard further propounds that Perels heard of a tradition that the Maharal was descended from someone called Yehudah Leib who lived a considerable time earlier and presumed that this forebear was the so called Yehudah Leib the Elder. A further discrepancy in Perels’ transcription is that the tombstone recorded descent from David the son of Yishai. Examination of the tombstone will see reference to “Geonim”[xix] and then an area of the tombstone which is damaged and mostly illegible, with only the word “Yishai” discernable”. But perhaps the words preceding “Yishai” were discernable in Perels’ time.

However close examination of the photograph after Polakovoc's excavation shows that the word is not "Yishai" at all, put the end of the word "Khamishi", the Hebrew for the fifth day, namely Thursday. This is followed by the date 25th of Kheshvan.

Englard continues with his critique of the Maharal claim to Davidic descent by drawing attention to later works that incorrectly claimed that all the generations prior to Yehudah Leib the Elder were known back to Hai Gaon. Prominent among these works is Weinstok’s Mekor Niftakh Lebeit David[xx] [A source opening to the House of David] and Shapira’s “Mishpekhot Atikot Beyisarel [Ancient Families in Israel][xxi]. All modern genealogists have accepted these incorrect claims which Englard suggests may have been fabricated by some unknown writer. The names linking Hai Gaon with Yehudah Liva the Elder first appeared in Kol Beramah (Jerusalem 1911).

In another article [Tsfunot #11) Englard quotes from Beit Aharon (Berlin 1829) the genealogy of Rabbi Mirels of Shwerin which says: “On his mother’s side the Gaon Reb Leib (of Krakow) was a grandson of the Gaon Maharal of Prague who was of the family of Rashi and Rabbi Yokhanan the Sandlar.

Figure 4. Extract from an article by Englard.

This source shows that even prior to the publication of Perels’ genealogy in 1853, traditions existed of the Maharal’s descent from the House of David, not through Yehudah Leib the Elder or Hai Gaon, but through Rashi (1040-1105) and his ancestor Yokhanan the Sandlar (died 140 C.E.). Yokhanan was a descendant of House of Hillel as was Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi, who Beilinsohn and others also claimed was the Maharal’s ancestor.

Proof of the date of death of Yehuda Leib the Elder already appeared in Gal Ed[xxii] by Lieben published in Prague in 1856. A chronological list of tombstones does not include a Liwa or (Yehudah Leib) in the year “resh” (1439/40)

Figure 5. Gal Ed, Lieben, Prague, 1856, chronological list of tombstones.

However there is a “R. Lowe” listed who died in the year “Shin” (1539).

Biographical notes about the Maharal of Prague (#8 on page 2 of Gal Ed) refer to: “Jehuda son of Betzalel son of Chaim”. No mention is made of Chaim’s parentage or ancestry , as he might have been expected to do if he knew any earlier names, such as Yehudah Leib the Elder.

Figure 6. Gal Ed, Lieben, Prague, 1856. Biographical notes about the Maharal of Prague.

The Maharal held the position of Landesrabbiner of all Moravia from 1553. Therefore, even if his date of birth (c.1522) might be claimed to be wrong, such that he might have been born after the alleged death of Yehudah Leib Hazaken in 1539, the Maharal would then have been aged 13, and would have been too young to hold such a position.

Brief details of “Lowe” are given #53 on page 37 of Gal Ed

Figure 7. Gal Ed, Lieben, Prague, 1856. Biographical notes about Rabbi Yehudah Leib (Lowe) the Elder.

No connection is claimed with the Maharal, and that part of Lowe’s tombstone claimed to indicate Davidic descent, is not mentioned. But he Lowe is described as “learned and descended from famous rabbis”.

Perhaps the family of the Maharal had a tradition they were descended from King David, and this tradition existed before Moshe Perels wrote his genealogy of the Maharal in 1727. The family did not know the details of the generations prior to the Maharal's grandfather Chaim of Worms. It is possible that it was known that the Maharal was named after an ancestor called Yehudah Leib. When Perels wrote his genealogy of the Maharal, he sought ancestors in the Prague cemetery and assumed that Yehudah Leib the Elder was an ancestor of the Maharal.

Possibilities for Perel’s error

Perhaps Perels saw the tombstone during a visit to the cemetery, but did not copy the exact details of the inscription. Later he may have sent somebody to copy the tombstone and that person erred in the date. Possibly the lowest line of the tombstone where the date appears was partially covered in mud thus obscuring part of the letter shin (1539), and what remained visible of the letter was misread as resh (1439), thus allowing, according to Perels, the possibility that Yehudah Leib the Elder was an ancestor of Yehudah Leib the Maharal, which could not be so had Perels read the date as shin (1539).

Evidence of a tradition of Davidic descent can be found in several sources that apparently were unaware of Perels’ incorrect claim.

The earliest of these sources dates from 1851:

Figure 8. Megilat Yukhsin , Beilinsohn, Moshe Eliezer, Odessa 1851[xxiii]

Yehuda Liva son of Reb Betzalel, called by the scholars Maharal of Prague and his lineage is until the holy Tanna Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi of blessed memory.

This lineage is repeated in a source from 1863

Figure 9. Megilat Yukhsin , Beilinsohn, Moshe Eliezer, Odessa 1863 [xxiv]
the authorized Gaon and head of all the children of the Exile, the G-dly man, Marana Yehuda Liva son of Reb Betzalel son of Reb Chaim, known by the scholars, and his lineage is until the holy Tanna Reb Yehuda Hanassi of blessed memory as explained in the book Marot Hatzovot[xxv], and Arkhei Hakinuim[xxvi] – and until King David, peace be unto him.

Figure 10. Zikhron Lemoshe Moshe Rashkes, Odessa 1873.

Translation of last few lines:
Tzvi Saba son of Yosef Yoshke, Av Beit Din of Lublin, grandson of the great eagle, the absolute Gaon, head of the Exile, marana[xxvii] Liva son of Betzalel, of blessed and holy memory, known by the name Maharal from Prague. And his lineage is from the holy Tanna Reb Yehudah Hanassi as explained in the books Arkhei Hakinuim, Marot Tzovot.

Rashkes’ terminology seems almost identical to that used by his relative Beilinsohn in his 1851 and 1863 genealogies. Notable by his absence is the so-called Yehudah-Leib (Livai) the Elder. It seems, therefore that neither Beilinsohn nor Rashkes were aware of Perels’ book published in 1853 and 1864. Yet they were aware, independently, of a tradition of descent of the Maharal from King David through Yehudah Hanassi, the editor of the Mishnah.

In the genealogies he published after 1893, however, Beilinsohn changed his story and introduced Yehuda Leib the Elder as the grandfather of Chaim of Worms. He gives Yehuda Leib’s date of death as the year resh (1439)

For example:

Figure 11. Megilat Yukhsin of the Aleksandrov Family , Beilinsohn, Moshe Eliezer, Odessa 1893

Translation of last few lines:
Yosef Yoshke, Av Beit Din of Lublin, descendant of the great eagle the authoritative Gaon, the G-dly head of all the exile, Marana ve rabana Yehuda Liva son of Betzalel, Av Beit Din of all the kingdom of Moravia and Prague ……..known as the Maharal from Prague of blessed memory, son of the Rabbi Khaim of Vermeisa of blessed memory, grandson of the Gaon, nobleman of the Torah, Marana Yehuda Livai of Vermeisa, of blessed memory, died in Prague in the year Resh, and his lineage goes back to the holy Tanna rabeinu Yehuda Hanassi who is descended from the house of our lord David the King…

Note that although Beilinsohn accepts Perels’ incorrect version, Beilinsohn still maintains that descent from King David was through Yehudah Hanassi and not Hai Gaon, the erroneous (or fraudulent) genealogy given by Weinstok.

Requirement for Further research

Further research that might clarify the descent of the Maharal should include books written by close relatives of the Maharal to ascertain whether they referred to their ancestry from King David. Books researched so far by this author include many of the Maharal’s books as well as two books written by his brother Chaim Igeret Hatiyul (published in Lemberg in 1864) and Sefer Hakhaim. None of these works refer to the ancestry of the authors. Nor does the extensive inscription on the tombstone of the Maharal in the Prague cemetery.


Perels’ error in the date of death of Yehudah Leib the Elder does not necessarily eliminate the possibility that the Maharal descended from King David, in some way other than through the so-called Yehudah Leib the Elder. Many indicators point to a tradition of descent from Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi, of the House of Hillel, who descended from King David’s son Shefatiah, and not through Hai Gaon who was descended from King Solomon. Unfortunately the names of the Maharal’s ancestors between his grandfather Chaim of Worms and Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi are not recorded in any known source.


1. Rabbi Shlomo Englard of Bnei Brak, Israel. A descendant of prominent rabbinical families, Rabbi Englard has devoted his scholarly research to the task of verifying traditional lines of descent of the famous rabbinical families. To this purpose he has reanalyzed the sources quoted by the authors of rabbinical genealogies as the basis for the lines of descent presented by them. Englard has checked these claims through independent research of additional sources. Painstaking comparison and analysis of rare texts, rabbinical compositions, recorded tombstone inscriptions have led Englard to conclude that the some of classical “ authorities” erred in confusing the identities of rabbis of the same name; used invalid dates of birth and death, which are incompatible with calculated historical time frames, and presented material which conflicts with facts presented in other verifiable sources.

Englard has published the results of his research in a number of articles in the journal Tsfunot. See the article about by Neil Rosenstein “Englard’s Articles on Questions in Rabbinic Genealogy”, Avotaynu, Volume XII, Number 1, Spring 1996.

2. Beilinsohn, Moshe Eliezer, author of Megilat Yukhsin, Shelomei Emunei Yisrael
a series of booklets published in Odessa from 1851 until the early 1900’s providing very detailed genealogical material for mainly Belarus rabbinical families. Since the author included all the members of a family known to him, this is a valuable source not only for rabbis, but also for their non-rabbinic descendants.

Principle families include Heilprin, Luria, Beilinson, Katz, Maharal of Prague, Raskin, Gunzburg, Mirkin, Rozenberg, Reichenstein, Dubnov, Tumarkin, Vilda, Kisin, Alexandrov, Margolis, Simchovitch, Ettinger, Brauda, Sirkin, Frumkin, Kazarnovsky, Freides, Zeitlin.

3. Muneles, Otto author of Ketovot Mibeit Ha'almin Hayehudi Ha'atic Beprag (Inscriptions in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Prague), Jerusalem 1988.
Muneles, who lived in Prague wrote his book in Czech, Hebrew and German versions. The Czech version was published in 1955. The Hebrew version was smuggled out of Czechoslovakia to Israel in 1966, shortly before Muneles died. But it remained unpublished until 1988.

[i] Yehudah Leib is one of the many extant variant spellings of his name. Other authors refer to him as Liwai, Liva, Loew, Loeb.
[ii] Megilat Yukhsin, Perels, Meir, written 1727 , or 1717 in Prague, and first published in 1853 in Zolkiev and again by Noakh Chaim Levin in Warsaw in 1864.
[iii] Muneles, Otto, Jerusalem 1988 Ketovot Mibeit Ha'almin Hayehudi Ha'atic Beprag (Inscriptions in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Prague).
[iv] Shem Vesheerit Katz, Krakow, 1895, page 9. Dor Yesharim. Katz, Berdichev, 1898, page 28.
[v] Virmeisa is a variant form of the town Worms in the Rhineland, Germany.
[vi] In Hebrew “Hazaken”.
[vii] Shas - acrostic for the six orders of the Mishnah
[viii] Geonim – Talmudic sages.
[ix] Resh = 1439/1440, depending on the month. From Muneles transcript of the tombstone and its photograph, it is known that the month was Cheshvan. Therefore the year “resh” corresponded to 1439.
[x] Cemetery.
[xi] Muneles, Otto, Jerusalem 1988 Ketovot Mibeit Ha'almin Hayehudi Ha'atic Beprag (Inscriptions in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Prague).
[xii] Six orders of the Mishnah..
[xiii] Five thousand two hundred = 1539.
[xiv] Abbreviation commonly found on tombstones whereby the letter “Hei” , five thousand is left of the date.
[xv] Tsfunot #12" reprinted in England's collection of his articles, Bnei Brak 2004.
[xvi] General term for `ancestor’ and not necessarily `grandfather’.
[xvii] Gal Ed, Lieben, Koppelmann, Prague 1856.
[xviii] Muneles, Otto, Jerusalem 1988 Ketovot Mibeit Ha'almin Hayehudi Ha'atic Beprag (Inscriptions in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Prague).
[xix] Geonim – Talmudic sages.
[xx] Makor Niftakh Lebeit David. Weinstok, Moshe Yair. Israel 1969.
[xxi] Mishpakhot Atikot Beyisreal [Ancient Families in Israel]. Shapira, Yaakov Leib, Israel 1981.
[xxii] Gal Ed Lieben, Koppelmann, Prague 1856
[xxiii] Manuscript provided by Rabbi Shlomo Englard.
[xxiv] Printed version of the same genealogy, held by the great-grandfather of the late Rabbi Shmuel Gorr.
[xxv] Marot Hatzovot, Moshe Zeev Wolf of Tiktin and Bialystok, Grodno 1810.
[xxvi] Arkhei Hakinuim, Yekhiel Heilprin, author of Seder Hadorot. 1769.
[xxvii] Marana – a term of honor.

No comments:

Post a Comment