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Rabbi Yaakov Berab: Restoring the Sanhedrin Print E-mail

ResponsaAs the exiles from Spain and Portugal sought new homes, chiefly in the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean, they were concerned, first of all, with physical safety. Having found a fairly secure residence, they began to think of strengthening their personal religious life and rehabilitating and reconstructing the Jewish community.


Tradition taught that the Messianic time would be preceded by a period of general agony. On the one hand, the exiles naturally believed that their widespread sorrows where the sufferings preliminary to the coming of the Messiah. But on the other hand, if the Messiah was to come, the people of Israel had to be worthy of his advent. Now these tragic exiles felt deeply unworthy. Many of them had been forced to adopt Christianity. How could they do adequate penance for their apostasy?

Apart from this personal problem of the individual and his sense of guilt, there were no problems for the Jewish community. The refugees settled in the communities in the East, where they encountered customs different from their own. The new settlements were therefore disunited, disorderly, and quarrelsome. Was there no central source of authority that could bring order into Jewish life?

The desire for personal atonement in preparation for the Messiah and the hope for an overall authority to bring order into the communities were united in the plan involved by a group of Spanish exiles in this city of Safed to reestablish the ancient Sanhedrin.

The Sanhedrin, which had ceased with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, was held to have been the last in an unbroken sequence of authoritative bodies going back to the 70 men assembled by Moshe. It had enjoyed supreme authority. If such a Sanhedrin could possibly be revised, order and system could easily be restored to all the Jewish communities. But this restoration seemed impossible because membership in the Sanhedrin needed a special type of ordination: Just as the Sanhedrin as a body had been in an unbroken sequence from the days of Moshe, so the individual members of the Sanhedrin had received special ordination, each pupil from his teacher, back to the days of Moshe. Though the Sanhedrin had been dispersed at the time of the destruction of the Temple, it's ordained members still retained their individual authority. They continued to ordain their disciples period thus continues ordination had existed down to the time of Hillel II in the fourth century, when the chain of ordination broke.

What we call “ordination” today is not the classic, unbroken, spiritual ordination of the past. It is merely permission for a disciple to teach independently of his teacher. It is a scholar's license and not a spiritual ordination.

Now, since the true ordination had ceased finally in the fourth century, and since no one could be ordained unless his teacher himself had been ordained, there seemed no way of reviving ordination, and hence no way of reestablishing the old Sanhedrin.

In spite of this seemingly insuperable difficulty, the emotional need to reestablish the Sanhedrin persisted. It was rooted in the sense of personal guilt borne by the refugees, so many of whom had been converts to Christianity. The punishment for apostasy was Karet, literally, a cutting off, a shortening of life, as a punishment from God. For a sin which involves Karet, repentance seemed an insufficient atonement. From their Catholic life they had observed that atonement was made for certain serious offenses, by physical penance, as well as by repentance. Was there not some physical pendants in Judaism which could save them from the punishment of Karet?

Yes, there was: the law says that those who are flogged are freed from the punishment of Karet. But no judge could inflict flogging unless he were duly ordained. Thus the yearning for such expiation was, perhaps, the chief motive for the attempt to restore the old ordination.

But how could ordination be established? Only a man, himself ordained, could ordain others; and there had been nobody for centuries who had been duly ordained. Rabbi Jacob Berab, the Rabbi of Safed, found a way.

The following are selections from the text of his most famous responsum:

Our sins have brought it about that ordination seized at the end of the days of the sages of the Mishnah, when the alien government decreed that both the ordained and the ordainer shall be put to death. No regular cord of ordained judges was therefore left in the Land of Israel. This was about 300 years after the destruction of the Temple. At that time the sages of Israel and the elders of that generation gathered and agreed upon a sound plan to remove disputes and disagreements that had existed until then on the method of settling for dates for the New Year, the Day of Atonement, and the other holidays. The dispute was whether to continue the old method of witnesses who see the new moon or to adopt the newer method of settling the calendar by calculation. With great wisdom, and by using the calendar tradition that they had possessed since the days of the prophets and ancient sages of Israel, they then agreed to establish for us the proper calculation which they bequeathed to us; namely, how to intercalculate the years and to fix the months of the festivals. This they did so that the children of Israel, who from then on would be scattered to all the ends of the earth, might be able to follow these rules for the years in the months and the festivals every year.

I found that the Rambam wrote in his “Laws of Sanhedrin,” as follows: “it seems to me that if all the sages in Israel agreed to appoint judges and to ordain them, these will be ordained; and they will have the authority to judge laws of fines. They will have the right to ordain others. If so, why were the rabbis in the Talmud worried lest the ordination disappear? Because Israel was scattered and it was impossible to obtain unanimity. Of course, if there were one man ordained by a teacher who had been previously ordained, such a person would not need unanimous consent but could judge laws of fines for all. But the matter needs further consideration.”

Thereupon the scholars of Safed issued a public statement through which they ordained their teacher, Rabbi Jacob Berab. Rabbi Berab ordained his famous disciple, Rabbi Joseph Caro, and three others. But a difficulty arose. At that time, Jerusalem was a small community compared to Safed. Yet it had the sanctity of its name and was led by another famous Spanish exile, Rabbi Levi ibn Habib.

Rabbi Berab sent and ordination by messenger to Rabbi Levi ibn Habib, and the sages of Safed sent him a copy of their proclamation. Rabbi ibn Habib, however, declared the whole procedure invalid and explained that the Rambam in this case was not properly understood.

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