This Day in Jewish History / A Scholar Who Tried to Revive the Sanhedrin Dies

David Green
David B. Green
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Illustration in a 1883 encyclopedia of the ancient Jewish Sanhedrin council.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

On April 3, 1546, Rabbi Jacob Berab, one of the great Talmudic scholars of his day and the man who attempted to revive the institution of rabbinical ordination in its classical sense, died, in Safed.

Ordination – semikha, in Hebrew – in ancient times, referred to the procedure by which members of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical legislature of post-Temple Eretz Israel, were officially entered into the body, whose members traced their authority back to Moses. Berab clearly saw the reconstitution of the Sanhedrin as a step that would bring the Jewish people closer to the Messianic age.

Jacob ben Moshe Berab was born in 1474 in the town of Maqueda, near Toledo, in Spain. He studied with Rabbi Isaac Aboab of Castile (died 1493), before fleeing the country at the time of the expulsion, in 1492. He wound up in Fez, Morocco, whose large Jewish community appointed him its chief rabbi, although he was only 18 years old.

Details of the next few decades in Berab’s life are fuzzy, but he apparently didn’t remain long in Fez, instead traveling east to do business, with sojourns in Cairo, Damascus and Aleppo. By 1524, he was living in Safed, in the Galilee, where he established a yeshiva that drew students from around the region.

With his growing reputation as a scholar, Berab also attracted enemies, one of whom was Levi ben Habib, then in Cairo, but later the chief rabbi of Jerusalem.

The Jewish world in the early decades of the 16th century was going through one of its periodic spells of messianic fever. Several centuries earlier, Maimonides (died 1204) had written that the establishment of a high rabbinical court in the Land of Israel would be an essential step toward hastening the impending messianic age.

The Rambam had taught that the rabbis of the Holy Land could jump-start the process by agreeing among themselves on a leader who would head the court. He would then possess the authority to ordain them and other rabbis, and in this way the Sanhedrin could be reconstituted.

Jacob Berab believed that the time had come for such measures, and in 1538, he brought together 25 rabbis in Safed and proposed that they do just that. He would be the one that they chose to lead them.

One of those on whom he decided to bestow ordination was Rabbi ben Habib, now in Jerusalem. Berab clearly wanted to set aside their past differences on theological matters, and saw the political importance in enlisting the support of the Jewish community of Jerusalem for his plan.

But Ben Habib rejected Berab’s offer, taking offense that Berab and his colleagues in Safed had not seen fit to discuss the plan with them before trying to implement it, and questioning Berab’s authority to offer him semikha.

Playing the Christianity card

Berab responded in kind, writing to Levi ben Habib that “I least I never changed my name,” a reference to the fact that as a young man, Rabbi Habib had lived in Portugal, under a false name, posing as a Christian.

The Ottoman rulers of Palestine got wind of Rabbi Aboab’s plan for the Sanhedrin, and feared that it might be an attempt to undermine Turkish sovereignty there. When Aboab learned of plans to arrest him, he fled to Damascus.

Before departing Safed, however, he quickly ordained another four rabbis. One was Joseph Caro, who would compile the Shulhan Arukh book of Jewish law. Another was Moses ben Joseph of Trani, the rabbi of Safed.

Aboab continued his campaign for the reestablishment of semikha from Damascus, and, between them, Joseph Caro and Moses of Trani both went on to ordain several others. But in the interim, back home, Levi ben Habib consolidated his position. By the time Aboab was finally able to return to Safed, his plan had lost support and momentum.

The only example of Jacob Berab’s writings to survive is a book of responsa called “She’elot Veteshuvot,” published in Venice in 1663.