Berab (Beirav), Jacob

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BERAB (Beirav), JACOB (c. 1474–1546), halakhic authority and leader of the Jewish communities of Palestine, Egypt, and Syria during the first half of the 16th century. Berab was born in Maqueda near Toledo, Spain, and went to Morocco after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. According to his own statement, he was only 18 years old when he was appointed rabbi of Fez. A few years later Berab left Fez and traveled to Egypt, Palestine (Jerusalem, Safed), and Syria (Aleppo, Damascus) in connection with business concerns, which proved very successful. During these sojourns Berab also taught Torah, gathering wide circles of pupils, who respected him greatly. He considered himself superior to the majority of scholars in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, and tried to impose his authority on questions of halakhah that were brought before him, or that he undertook on his own initiative. Although Berab had close associations with many of his contemporaries, his domineering tendency brought him into conflict with scholars who would not submit to him.

Berab was swept along with the messianic current of the early 16th century, which resulted in large measure from intensive study of the Kabbalah. Berab himself gave some impetus to messianic anticipation by trying to revive the institution of *semikhah ("rabbinical ordination"). According to Maimonides (Yad, Sanhedrin 1:3), the establishment of a "great bet din" will take place before the coming of the messiah. Since an institution competent to give semikhah had not existed for several hundred years, Maimonides provided instructions for its establishment. He authorized the rabbis of Ereẓ Israel to nominate one among them who would be the first samukh (ordained rabbi). In turn, that rabbi would have the authority to ordain others, who could then form a Sanhedrin (Yad, Sanhedrin 4:11). The Spanish expulsion and the ingathering of many Jews in Ereẓ Israel was interpreted as a sign that redemption was imminent.

Berab, while still in Egypt, conceived the idea of renewing semikhah. As the Palestinian settlement became stronger and the number of scholars increased, Safed became the seat of the messianic impetus. In 1538 Berab, who had been living in Safed periodically from at least 1524, succeeded in winning over the scholars there, including R. Joseph *Caro and R. Moses of *Trani, to his point of view. The scholars of Safed decided to renew the semikhah and they designated Berab as the first samukh. Immediately after this decision was taken, a messenger was sent to R. *Levi b. Ḥabib in Jerusalem, asking him to give his consent to the renewal of the semikhah and to accept the ordination of Berab. Not only did Levi b. Ḥabib, with whom Berab had had various disputes, refuse to accept the semikhah of Berab, he also opposed the decision of the rabbis of Safed on halakhic grounds. He also insisted that Maimonides' statement concerning the reestablishment of semikhah did not represent a decision but only an opinion, and that Maimonides had retracted it later (Yad, Sanhedrin 4:2). The protests of Levi b. Ḥabib delayed Berab's project. Discussions on the question of semikhah among the rabbis of both towns had been in progress for three months when Berab was forced by the Turks to leave Palestine. Apparently, he had become embroiled in a private affair, as a result of which his enemies denounced him to the Turkish authorities in Safed.

According to halakhah, semikhah could not be given outside Palestine. Berab feared that he might not be able to return and that all his plans would come to an end. Before he left, therefore, he gave semikhah to four rabbis of Safed, among whom were Joseph Caro and Moses of Trani. Levi b. Ḥabib, considering this to be a disregard of his protests, then publicly opposed the semikhah. From Damascus Berab conducted the discussion of the question in a vigorous manner, even by personal attacks on his adversary. Levi b. Ḥabib replied in kind and he was supported by an important ally – R. *David b. Solomon ibn Abi Zimra, who lived in Egypt. Thus, the project of establishing the "great bet din" came to an end; even the validity of the semikhot already given was in doubt. Nevertheless, those who had been ordained by Berab ordained other scholars after his death.

Berab wrote a commentary to all those parts of Maimonides' work not dealt with in the Maggid Mishneh commentary by *Vidal Yom Tov of Tolosa. However, only a small part was published (by Y.L. Maimon (Fishman) in Sinai, 36 (1955), 275–357). His responsa and his novellae to tractate Kiddushin were published together (1663). These novellae were republished from a manuscript in an enlarged form by Michael Rabinowitz (in Y.L. Fishman (eds.), Sefer ha-YovelB.M. Levin (1939), 196–299). Many of his halakhic decisions are reported in the works of his contemporaries, especially Joseph Caro.

Berab's grandson, jacob ben abraham (d. 1599), rabbi and halakhic authority, studied under Joseph Caro and was ordained by him. From 1563 he is mentioned in documents with the more important rabbis of Safed. By 1593 he was the most prominent of Safed's scholars and it was he who gave semikhah. He ordained R. Moses Galante, R. Eliezer Azikri, his own brother R. Moses Berab, R. Abraham Gabriel, R. Yom Tov Ẓahalon, R. Ḥiyya ha-Rofe, and R. Jacob Abulafia, all of Safed. In 1599 these seven rabbis reached an agreement not to ordain any other person without his approval. None of his writings remains, but his approvals of the decisions of his contemporaries, as well as some of his responsa scattered in the works of contemporary scholars, are known.


J. Newman, Semikhah (Eng., 1950), includes bibliography; Graetz, Hist, 6 (1949), index, s.v.Jacob Berav, Gruenhut, in: Ha-Ẓofeh me-Ereẓ Hagar, 2 (1912), 25–33; Katz, in: Zion, 16:3–4 (1951), 28–45; Benayahu, in: Sefer YovelY. Baer (1960), 248–69; Dimitrovsky, in: Sefunot, 6 (1962), 117–23; 7 (1963), 41–102; 10 (1966), 113–92; Teshuvot RalbaḤ (Venice, 1565), including a report of the controversy at the end.