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Levi ben Ḥabib


LEVI BEN HABIB (Ralbah ; c. 1483–1545), rabbi in Jerusalem and principal opponent of the restoration of the *semikhah. Levi b. Ḥabib was born in Zamora, Spain, and in 1492 was taken to Portugal by his father, R. Jacob *Ibn Ḥabib. There he was forcibly baptized. Both he and his father escaped to Salonika where Levi received his education. He succeeded his father, teaching at the congregation of Spanish exiles, called Gerush Sefarad, in Salonika. Levi became famous as a talmudist, showing a preference for the use of literal meaning (peshat) as opposed to casuistry (pilpul). He never presented his own views unless they had been given by previous scholars. Levi admitted that he was not well versed in Kabbalah, but he was proud of his knowledge of astronomy. In order to atone for his baptism as a youth, he went to Ereẓ Israel, traveling via Asia Minor, Aleppo, and Damascus. He first settled in Safed and later moved to Jerusalem. For 15 years he officiated there, instituting as rabbi various new regulations for the community. At that time, there was no "ordained" (Heb., samukh) bet din, like the ancient Sanhedrin, i.e., one which was authorized to sentence to punishment by lashes (malkot), prescribe fines, and determine the intercalation of months. Therefore the rabbis of Safed decided to restore the ancient semikhah and chose R. Jacob *Berab to ordain rabbis and act as a judge. This act was of great significance, as the ordination was to be reestablished only in messianic times, and it also marked the supremacy of the Safed rabbis. Levi b. Ḥabib refused to accept the authority of Berab and accused the latter of disgracing the honor of Jerusalem. A violent controversy ensued whose details are recalled in an appendix entitled Semikhat Zekenim o Kunteres ha-Semikhah ("Ordination of the Elders or Pamphlet Concerning Ordination") printed at the end of Levi's responsa (Venice, 1565). The volume also contains Levi's commentary on Maimonides' Hilkhot Kiddush ha-Ḥodesh. In addition to responsa, he completed and published the second part of his father's Ein Ya'akov.


Frumkin-Rivlin, index; Rosanes, Togarmah, 2 (1938), 156–8; Y.R. Molḥo, in: Ḥemdat Yisrael … H.H. Medini (1946), 33–42; Y. Katz, in: Zion, 16 (1950/51), 28–45; M. Benayahu, in: Sefer Yovel … Y. Baer (1960), 248–69.

[Simon Marcus]

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