Chassidic Story #227

(s5762-227-23 / 7Adar 5762)
Rabbi Yaakov Beirav was intrigued with a plan to speed the redemption of the Jewish people.


[Tuesday, 7 Adar, is the birthday and yahrzeit of our first Rabbi, Moshe. In this week's Reading he transmits the priesthood to Aharon and his sons.]

In the 1500's, Safed was an important city and the largest Jewish community in the Land of Israel. It had more than one thousand Jewish families, constituting more than half of the town's population of 10,000, plus the many travelers who passed to and from Damascus and Cairo.

Not since the compilation of the Talmud had there been a city so full of great scholars and scribes, from the "Ari" in kabbala to Rabbi Yosef Caro in Jewish Law, to Rabbi Moshe Alshich in scriptural interpretation.

Standing at their head was Rabbi Yaakov Beirav, chief rabbi of the city and its famed rabbinical court, who had arrived in the city in 1524 and settled there permanently in the early 1530's. In the prominent Yeshiva he founded in Safed, Torah streamed forth to the entire world.

Rabbi Beirav was intrigued with a plan to speed the redemption of the Jewish people. He intended to plant the seed that would serve to unify all the Jews of the Diaspora around the establishment of a foundation for spiritual and intellectual independence in The Land of Israel.

This, in turn, would draw the educated, the wealthy and the masses to the Holy Land, in order to rebuild its ruins and thus hasten the redemption.

As the first step in this hopeful and ambitious plan, Rabbi Beirav proposed renewal of the institution of "semicha" which had died out twelve hundred years earlier in Talmudic times, in the days of Hillel the Second, one of the last presidents of the Sanhedrin.

Semicha, the roots of which were forged at the dawning of the Jewish people, entails bestowing rabbinical authority upon a disciple to be qualified to judge the people in all areas of Torah law, and to guide the people accordingly.

The first to be awarded semicha was Yehoshua, of whom it is recorded, "the Lord said to Moses: Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom resides the spirit of the Lord, and lay (ve-samachta) your hands upon him…that all the congregation of the children of Israel may hearken" [Num. 27:18]. Moshe himself, however, did not need semicha because he was addressed directly by G-d.

Beginning with Yehoshua, semicha passed from man to man and from generation to generation, for only he who had been ordained with semicha could also ordain others with semicha. Moreover, it was to be given only to those living in The Land of Israel. Out of it grew the unique supreme legislative body of the Jews, the Sanhedrin.

Of course, in the time of Rabbi Yaakov Beirav there was no one with the original traditional semicha. But he found a halachic basis for renewing semicha in the Rambam, Hilchot Sanhedrin, chapter four, law eleven. There it states:

If all the scholars of The Land of Israel would agree to appoint judges and give them semicha, they would be considered properly ordained; they could then render judgment in cases involving fines, and also be empowered to bestow semicha upon others.

In his commentary to the Mishna, the Rambam goes even further. He alludes to the words of the prophet Isaiah, "I will restore our Judges as in former times, and your counselors as at the beginning: then you will be called a City of Righteousness" - and declares the intended meaning of the words of the prophet to be that the Messiah will come only after the Sanhedrin will have been established!

On this basis, Rabbi Beirav convened in the year 5298 (1538) an assembly in the Yossi Bannai Synagogue of all the leading Torah scholars of Safed, who then constituted a majority of the rabbis of The Land of Israel - whereupon they unanimously agreed to bestow the first renewed semicha upon the bold and brilliant Rabbi Yaakov Beirav himself. At this festive occasion were also present twenty-five Rabbis from other parts of The Land of Israel - and they, too, placed their hands on Rabbi Yaakov, in accord with the principle laid down by the Rambam.

As soon as he was ordained, Rabbi Beirav in turn placed his hands upon ten scholars, among them Rabbi Yosef Caro, Rabbi Moshe d'Trani, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, and Rabbi Moshe Galente - all residents of Safed.

Rabbi Yaakov was careful to include his adversary, Rabbi Levi Chaviv, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, known as "the Ralbach". He sent a special messenger, Rabbi Shlomo Chazan, to Jerusalem to present Rabbi Levi personally with a written semicha.

This, however, was not sufficient. Rabbi Yaakov failed to anticipate that he should have consulted a scholar of the stature of the Ralbach prior to announcing renewal of semicha - not just sending him one after the fact. Rabbi Levi Chaviv, felt that he and his holy city of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people and its great rabbis, had been deeply insulted.
He refused to accept the document of semicha - and came out to do battle against the whole idea of its renewal.

Interestingly, at first the Ralbach had praised the idea of renewing semicha. His subsequent opposition derived mainly from the slight to the honor of the scholars of Jerusalem who had been mostly ignored. "Even though the scholars of Safed outnumber us," the Ralbach wrote, "still, we are not just sticks in the mud; and it was wrong to so degrade the honor of the Rabbis of Jerusalem."

He then came out with a pamphlet in which he challenged the validity of the new legislation on several grounds, but mainly that the Rambam, upon whom Rabbi Beirav and his followers relied, did not actually render an unequivocal ruling that the Rabbis of The Land of Israel can renew semicha, but was himself in doubt over the matter, as is shown by his concluding words, "The matter still requires decision." And in any case, added the Ralbach, the Rambam explicitly stated: "All the Rabbis of The Land of Israel," not just a majority, so the opposition of the Jerusalem rabbis in itself constitutes a veto.

Rabbi Alashker, Rabbi Yosef Caro and other supporters of the semicha cited opinions of the early post-Talmudic authorities that countered the Ralbach's pamphlet.. Rabbi Beirav, too, answered his adversary - but he went too far, inserting a harsh personal tone into the discussion by obliquely referring to Marrano elements in the Ralbach's childhood. This was a grave insult to Rabbi Chaviv, and it multiplied his supporters.

To make matters worse, there were those who, zealous to defend the honor of the Ralbach, informed gentile rulers of the land, that by this renewal of semicha Rabbi Beirav intended to establish the kingdom of Israel and rebel against them. This led to an investigation - and he had to flee the country and move to Damascus to save his life. After he passed away there eight years later, his body was brought for burial in the old cemetery of Safed.

Although Rabbi Caro subsequently ordained Rabbi Moshe Alshich, who in turn ordained Rabbi Chayim Vital, but the lack of universal acceptance caused the semicha experiment to fade away over the course of half a century.

Condensed and adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from "The Mighty Minds" by Avieser Burstein and Meir Holder (Hillel Press, Jerusalem).

Biographical note:
Rabbi Yaakov Beirav
[1474- 1 Iyar 1546] was born near Toledo, Spain. As a young man, he studied with Rabbi Yitzchak Abuhav. Subsequently, he wrote commentaries on the four sections of the Rambam and on Talmudic subjects and published a volume of responsa. After serving as a rabbinical leader in Fez, Morocco, and Cairo, Egypt, he became the chief rabbi of Safed.


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