Chosen Rabbi at Eighteen.

Talmudist and rabbi; born at Moqueda near Toledo, Spain, in 1474; died at Safed April 3, 1546. He was a pupil of Isaac Aboab. When he fled from Spain to Tlemçen,then the chief town of the Barbary states, the Jewish community there, consisting of 5,000 families, chose him for their rabbi, though he was but a youth of eighteen (Levi ibn Ḥabib, "Responsa," p. 298b). Evidence of the great respect there paid him is afforded by the following lines of Abraham Gavison (" 'Omer ha-Shikḥah"):

"Say not that the lamp of the Law no longer in Israel burneth! Jacob Berab hath come back—once more among us he sojourneth! "

It is not known how long Berab remained in Algeria; but before 1522 he was in Jerusalem. There, however, the social conditions were so oppressive that he did not stay long, but went with his pupils to Egypt (Palestine letter, dated 1522, in Luncz, "Jerusalem," iii. 98). Some years later (1527) Berab, now fairly well-to-do, resided in Damascus (Levi ibn Ḥabib, "Responsa," p. 117a); in 1533 he became rabbi at Cairo (ib. 33a); and several years after he seems to have finally settled in Safed, which then contained the largest Jewish community in Palestine. It was there that Berab conceived the bold idea which made him famous, that of establishing a central spiritual Jewish power.

Plan for Ordination.

Berab's undertaking, to be judged correctly, must be considered in connection with the whole current of thought of the younger generation of Spanish exiles. The overwhelming catastrophe of 1492, which, in view of the wretched condition of the Jews in Germany and Italy, had threatened the very extinction of Judaism, produced phenomena which, while apparently opposite in character, were but natural consequences. Imaginative and sentimental persons thought that the promised Messianic time was approaching; they regarded their great sufferings as the process of purgation, as the , the eschatologic "birth-throes," of the Messianic era. The main representative of this mystical tendency was Solomon Molko, whose tragic fate by no means extinguished these fond hopes and the desire for martyrdom. But the delusion had quite a different effect upon more practical natures. According to yet another view, the chief advocate of which was Maimonides, the Messiah would not appear suddenly: the Jews would have to prepare for him; and the chief preparatory step needed was the establishment of a universally recognized Jewish tribunal as their spiritual center.

Although the hopes of a Messiah, cherished especially in Palestine, were fundamentally wild and extravagant, they afforded the right person an excellent opportunity to create for the Jews a recognized central authority, spiritual—and perhaps, in time, political—in character. There is no doubt that the man for the purpose was Berab; he was the most important and honored Talmudist in the Orient, and was endowed with perseverance amounting to obstinacy. His plan was the reintroduction of the old "Semikah" (ordination); and Safed he held to be the best field for his activity. The lack of unity in deciding and interpreting the Law must cease. No longer should each rabbi or each student of the Law be allowed to decide upon the gravest matters of religion according to his own judgment. There should be only one court of appeal, to form the highest authority on subjects relating to the comprehension and interpretation of the Torah.

Though this idea seemed new, it was not without precedent. The Sanhedrin in tannaitic times was, in a certain sense, Berab's model. But the Sanhedrin consisted of such men as could trace their ordination back to Moses; yet for a thousand years no such men had existed. Berab, however, was equal to the difficulty. Maimonides, he was aware, had taught that if the sages in Palestine would agree to ordain one of themselves, they could do so, and that the man of their choice could then ordain others. Although Maimonides' opinion had been strongly opposed by Naḥmanides and others, and Maimonides himself had not been quite positive in the matter, Berab had so much self-reliance that he was not to be deterred from his great undertaking by petty considerations. Moreover, the scholars at Safed had confidence in him, and had no doubt that, from a rabbinical standpoint, no objection to his plan could be raised. Thus in 1538 twenty-five rabbis met in assembly at Safed and ordained Berab, giving him the right to ordain any number of others, who would then form a Sanhedrin. In a discourse in the synagogue at Safed, Berab defended the legality of his ordination from a Talmudic standpoint, and showed the nature of the rights conferred upon him. On hearing of this event most of the other Palestinian scholars expressed their agreement, and the few who discountenanced the innovation had not the courage to oppose Berab and his following.

Dispute with Ibn Ḥabib.

To obtain the good-will of the Jews of the Holy City, the first use that Berab made of his new dignity was to ordain the chief rabbi at Jerusalem, Levi b. Jacob ibn Ḥabib. Since the latter had for many years been a personal opponent of Berab, and the two had had many disputes in regard to rabbinical decisions and approbations, Berab's ordination of Ibn Ḥabib shows that he placed general above personal interests. Moreover, the terms in which Berab officially announced Ibn Ḥabib's ordination were kindly ones. Berab, therefore, expected no opposition from that quarter; but he was mistaken. Ibn Ḥabib's personal animus was non appeased, but rather stimulated, by his ordination. He considered it an insult to his dignity and to the dignity of Jerusalem that so important a change should be effected without consultation of the Jerusalem scholars. He did not content himself with an oral protest, but sent a communication to the scholars of Safed, in which he set forth the illegality of their proceeding and declared that the innovation involved a risk to rabbinical Judaism, since the Sanhedrin might use its sovereign authority to tamper with the calendar.

Although Ibn Ḥabib's tone was moderate, every one could read between the lines that he opposed the man Berab as well as his work. An illustration of this is afforded by the remarks made by Ibn Ḥabib when he maintained at length that the scholars of Safed were not qualified to ordain, since they were not unprejudiced in the matter, and when he hinted that Berab was not worthy to transmit ordination. Berab was surprised by the peril in which hisundertaking was now placed; and, embittered by Ibn Ḥabib's personal attacks, he could not adhere to a merely objective refutation, but indulged in personalities. In answer to Ibn Ḥabib's observation, that a sacred ordination must not proceed from learning alone, but from holiness also, Berab replied: "I never changed my name: in the midst of want and despair I went in God's way" (Ibn Ḥabib, "Responsa," p. 298b); thereby alluding to the fact that, when a youth, Ibn Ḥabib had lived for a year in Portugal as a Christian under an assumed name.

The strife between Berab and Ibn Ḥabib now became wholly personal, and this had a bad effect on the plan; for Berab had many admirers but few friends. Moreover, Berab's life was endangered. The ordination had been represented to the Turkish authorities as the first step toward the restoration of the Jewish state, and, since Berab was rich, the Turkish officials would have showed him scant mercy in order to lay hands on his wealth. Berab was forced to go to Egypt for a while, but though each moment's delay might have cost him his life, he tarried long enough to ordain four rabbis, so that during his absence they might continue to exercise the function of ordination. In the mean time Ibn Ḥabib's following increased; and when Berab returned, he found his plan to be hopeless. His death some years later put an end to the dispute which had gradually arrayed most of the Palestinian scholars in hostile lines on the question of ordination.

It is known positively that Joseph b. Ephraim Caro and Moses of Trani were two of the four men ordained by Berab. If the other two were Abraham Shalom and Israel de Curial, then Caro was the only one who used his privilege to ordain another, Moses Alsheik, who, in turn, ordained Ḥayyim Vital Calabrese. Thus ordination might be traced for four generations.

With the exception of some short contributions to the works of others, the only one of Berab's numerous works ever published was his "Sheëlot u-Teshu-bot" (Questions and Answers), responsa, Venice, 1663; but the Amsterdam edition of the rabbinical Bible (1724-28) contains notes by Berab on Isaiah and Jeremiah.

  • Azulai, Shem ha-Gedolim, ed. Wilna, i. 86;
  • Conforte, Ḳore ha-Dorot, see Index in ed. Cassel;
  • Frumkin, Eben Yerushalaim, pp. 34-40, Wilna, 1874;
  • Fuenn, in Ha-Karmel, ii. 486-494, 576-580;
  • idem, Keneset Yisrael, pp. 539, 540;
  • Grätz, Gesch. der Juden, 3d ed., ix. 12, 200-298;
  • Jost, Gesch. des Judenthums und Seiner Sekten, iii. 128, 129;
  • Michael, Or ha-Ḥayyim, p. 1069;
  • Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. col. 1194;
  • Zedner, Cat. Hebr. Books Brit. Mus. p. 307;
  • Zunz, Z. G. pp. 250, 531. The most important source of information for the dispute about ordination is Levi b. Jacob ibn Ḥabib, Responsa, pp. 277a, 328a, Venice, 1565;
  • S. P. Rabbinowitz, Mozaëi Golah, see Index.
L. G.
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