E2 - Talmudic Commentators
The Maharsha (1555-1632), a Hebrew acronym for "Our teacher, the Rabbi, Shmuel Eliezar (Eidels)" is one of the most renown commentators on the Talmud from the period of the later talmudic commentaries (a period spanning the 16th through 20th centuries.)
Born in Ostrog, Poland (now a part of Russia) at the apex of Polish Jewry, he was part of an extremely fortunate generation, where there was Jewish autonomy in poland, before the ascendency of the cossacks twenty years after his death, and the consequent political strife. He was in a situation with a structured system to promote the learning of Talmud and religious Judaism, yet not one affluent enough to encourage the assimilation of Jews into secular society, and the attendant distractions of secular life. After marriage, supported by his in-laws, he first founded a large Yeshiva. After their deaths, when he fell on hard times, he moved on to the slightly more lucrative position as a pulpit Rabbi, first in Chelm, then Lublin, and finally Ostrog. In Ostrog, as a Rabbi, he was able to found a second large academy, this time teaching hundreds of students.
The Maharsha is famous for two somewhat divergent commentaries that have since been compiled into one; Chiddushei Halachot and Chiddushei Aggadot (Insights into law, and Insights into allegory.) These two books are each very important for very different reasons. Chiddushei Halachot remains on of the best resources for complete analyses of the early commentators, and how they understood the didactic portions of the Talmud. Chiddushei Aggadot, however, is a much more philosophical work, explaining the meaning of the allegories used in the Talmud with much of the same clarity found in Chiddushei Halachot.
Chiddushei Aggadot was one of the first books to write analyses of the allegorical sections of the Talmud, which until then were largely left to the Rabbis to explain, since much of the meaning was considered too esoteric for the common Jew, and was largely philosophical in nature. His explanations stand today as the basis of almost all consideration of these sections, considered to be the sources for much of Kabbala, which came into wider study in the decades and centuries after the Maharsha died. The Baal Shem Tov and the Chazon Ish both greatly encouraged the study of the Maharsha's works, and they gained acceptance, until today when it is difficult to find a copy of the Talmud without his commentary included as one of the appendices in the back.