The Sanhedrin English The Sanhedrin English

The Mahari Beirav and Beis Yosef's attempt to re-establish a Sanhedrin in 1538

Omer ha-ShikchahRabbi Yakov Berav , know as the Mahari Beirav, was born at Moqueda near Toledo, Spain, in 1474; died at Safed April 3, 1546. Rabbi Yakov Beirav was a pupil of Rabbi Yitzchak Avoav. When he fled from Spain to Tlemcen, then the chief town of the Barbary states, the Jewish community there, consisting of 5,000 families, chose him for their Rabbi, even though he was only eighteen years old[1]. Evidence of the great respect they paid him is afforded by the following lines of Rabbi Abraham Gavison in 'Omer ha-Shikchah: "Say not that the lamp of the Law no longer burns in Israel! Yakov Beirav has come back, once more he sojourns among us! " It is not known how long Rabbi Yakov Beirav 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[2]. Some years later (1527) Rabbi Yakov Beirav, now fairly well-to-do, resided in Damascus[3]; in 1533 he became Rabbi at Cairo[4]; and several years after he seems to have finally settled in Safed, which then contained the largest and most learned Jewish community in Eretz Yisroel.

Aftermath of the Spanish Expulsion

After the Spanish expulsion, many Jews remained in Spain, practicing their Judaism in secret, while publicly appearing to be Christians. Thousands of these Marrano Jews eventually escaped to areas where they could practice their religion with relative freedom, yet they were haunted by the sins they had committed in previous years. Many were concerned that they would never escape their more serious sins, many of which carried the punishment of kareis. Although they had become true baalei tshuvah, they lived in fear of their ultimate day of judgment when they would have to give a reckoning for their actions and face the serious consequences. As chief Rabbi of Safed, Rabbi Yakov Beirav came up with an original solution to the problem. He proposed the creation of Jewish courts that would carry out the punishment of malkos, lashes, which releases someone from the punishment of kareis[5]. There was one serious problem with this proposal. In order to create Jewish courts that can exact these punishments, one must have dayanim who have received a special semicha that can be traced to Moshe Rabbeinu. Since this semicha had terminated over a thousand years before, the Rabbi Yakov Beirav needed a different approach.

Ordination of 1538 CE

The Rambam taught[6] that if the sages in Eretz Yisroel would agree to somech (ordain) one of themselves, they could do so, and that the man of their choice could then ordain others. For a year, Rabbi Yakov Beirav discussed the halachic issues of re-establishment institution of semicha with the scholars of Safed. After much discussion the scholars at Safed came to the conclusion that Rambam's view was correct, and that there was a pressing need to re-establish the Sanhedrin. In 1538 twenty-five Rabbis met in an assembly at Safed and ordained Rabbi Yakov Beirav, giving him the right to ordain others who would then form a Sanhedrin. After sending a delegation to Jerusalem, Rabbi Yakov Beirav expounded on Shabbat before all the scholars of Safed the halachic basis of the re-establishment of semicha and its implications, with an intent to dispel any remaining doubts. On hearing of this event, approximately two hundred scholars, most of the scholars in Eretz Yisroel, also expressed their consent. Rabbi Yakov Beirav then ordained a few other Rabbis, including the chief Rabbi of Jerusalem (the Mahralbach), Rabbi Yoseph Karo, Rabbi Moshe of Trani, Rabbi Yosef Sagis, Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, Rabbi Abraham Shalom and Rabbi Israel de Curial. Rabbi Yoseph Karo later ordained Rabbi Moses Alsheich, and Alsheich ordained Rabbi Hayyim Vital around 1590.

Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto was the grandson of Rabbi Yaakov Beirav. Nicknamed Riaf, was a Syrian rabbi from Damascus, Syria. He was born in 1565 and died in 1648 at the age of 83. As a disciple of Rabbi Yaakov Abulafia, he was ordained with the semicha ordination, received from his grandfather. Rabbi Yoshiyahu was appointed Chief Rabbi of Aleppo and Damascus after the death of Rabbi Chaim Vital in 1620. Rabbi Vital's son, Rabbi Shmuel Vital, married Rabbi Pinto's daughter. He wanted to settle in Safed and traveled there in 1625, but due to family pressures he returned to Syria to lead the many Jews who lived there. In 1643, he wrote the commentary on Ein Yaakov, which was titled Meor Einayim. He also wrote a Torah commentary Kessef Nivchar, as well as 15 essays explaining difficult passages of the Talmud and verses of the Torah.

Dispute with the Mahralbach

To obtain the good-will of the scholars of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yakov Beirav sent Rabbi Shlomo Chazan to inform them of the reinstitution of semicha and to obtain their approval. He extended semicha to the chief Rabbi at Jerusalem, Levi ben Yakov ibn Chaviv, the Mahralbach (Ralbach). Since the latter had for many years been a personal opponent of Rabbi Yakov Beirav, and the two had had disputes in regard to Rabbinical decisions and approbations, Rabbi Yakov Beirav's semicha was probably an attempt to show that he placed unity above personal interests. Moreover, the terms in which Rabbi Yakov Beirav officially announced Mahralbach's semicha were kindly ones. Rabbi Yakov Beirav, it seems, did not expect opposition from the Mahralbach. The Mahralbach however rejected the semicha. 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 scholars of Jerusalem. He did not content himself with an oral protest, but sent a communication to the scholars of Safed. Rabbi Moshe deCastro of Jerusalem also expressed doubts over the applicability of semicha. Because of this opposition some of the scholars of Safed also began to entertain doubts. Rabbi Yakov Beirav again assembled the scholars of Safed, and reviewed the halachic basis for re-establishment of semicha. Rabbi Yosef Karo and others sent a treatise "Maaseh Beis Din" to the scholars of Jerusalem explaining the basis for semicha and protesting their opposition to its re-establishment. In the course of time, the Mahralbach put his objections to Rabbi Yakov Beirav's semicha in writing, involving additional scholars in the dispute. In response Rabbi Yakov Beirav composed and distributed "Iggeret Hasemicha" to settle any halachic doubts. The dispute lasted for a year. In general the scholars outside of Eretz Yisroel did not get involved at this stage in the dispute, with the exception of the Radbaz.

The Mahralbach's objections

The Mahralbach's objections centered around the following points[7]:

1. The re-establishment of semicha efer Hamitzvos, Asehwill cause the speeding up of redemption, which is not permitted. The geula is not dependant on any action on our part and there is nothing for us to do but wait. Moshiach must be ordained from someone already ordained. He writes "and if you [Rabbi Yakov Beirav] want to create a situation where this is possible, know that it is impossible because Eliyahu, who was carried up in a chariot of fire, is the one who must ordain Moshiach.

2. The Rambam's closing words, "This matter requires a final decision"� shows that he was not fully decided on this halacha. The Ramban[8] disagrees with the Rambam, contending that semicha can not be reinstituted until Moshiach arrives. Thus, since the Rambam was uncertain and the Ramban was certain, the halacha follows the Ramban.

3. Lastly that the role of Sanhedrin had to be complete, not just limited to malkos. According to a simple interpretation of Rambam[9] the calendar change should happen immediately on the formation of the Sanhedrin, and Rabbi Yakov Beirav's sanhedrin could misuse this power.

4. Even if we assume that the Rambam meant this ruling to be definitive, the sages of Safed had not fulfilled the procedure correctly since the sages of Jerusalem were not present. The Maharalbach insisted that the scholars of Jerusalem must be involved in the active debate and that all must agree. Even if someone holds that a majority of gedolim is sufficient, the minority must be aware of the debate and participate in it.

Rabbi Yakov Beirav's explanation

Rabbi Yakov Beirav countered with the following points[10]:

1. First, that the re-establishment semicha is not interfering with the process of redemption, rather it is simply the fulfillment of a positive mitzvah. Rabbi Yakov Beirav based himself on the Rambam's interpretation of (Isaiah 1:26) "And I will restore your judges as at first... Afterwards you will be called a City of Righteousness [and Zion shall be redeemed...]" that the Sanhedrin would be re-established before the coming of Moshiach and the geula; and besides "the order of the redemption is hidden even from them [Torah scholars]".

2. The Rambam's closing words "This matter requires a final decision� refer to a previous halachic matter, not semicha. (Rabbi Yosef Karo later concludes in his commentary the Beis Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 295, that the view of the Rambam is indeed definitive halacha).

3. Concerning the calendar, Rabbi Yakov Beirav held that the calendar would be left as it is. (The Chazon Ish reconciles the Rambam and the Maharalbach by saying that the calendar will be changed some time between the formation of the big Sanhedrin and the coming of the Messiah).

4. Rabbi Yakov Beirav maintained that the most learned scholars of Eretz Yisroel lived in Safed and that was sufficient; that in halacha the word kol means the "main part". (It is interesting to note that the Maharalbach did not differ with Rabbi Yakov Beirav on this point, only he objected that kol must include the scholars of Jerusalem. He did not claim that every scholar in all of Eretz Yisroel should be present in the assembly).

The debate deteriorates

Although the Mahralbach's tone was moderate, one could read between the lines that at issue was not just the re-establishment of semicha, but the honor of the scholars of Jerusalem and the honor of the scholars of Safed. An illustration of this is afforded by remarks made by the Mahralbach. The Mahralbach could have rested with his opinion that the Rambam was undecided in this matter and the Ramban conclusive, yet he discussed at length that that leaving out the scholars of Jerusalem not only invalidated the assembly in Safed, but even a second assembly to include the scholars of Jerusalem would not help. Once the scholars of Safed had ordained the Mahari Beirav, they now had a bias in their ruling (noge'ah b'din) that invalidated any ruling of theirs on the subject. The Mahralbach also hinted that Rabbi Yakov Beirav was not worthy to transmit semicha for neglecting the scholars of Jerusalem, albeit the greater level of learning in Safed at the time. In answer to the Mahralbach's observation, that a sacred semicha must not proceed from learning alone, but from holiness also, Rabbi Yakov Beirav replied: "I never changed my name: in the midst of want and despair I went in God's way"[11]; thereby alluding to the fact that, when a youth, the Mahralbach had lived for a year in Portugal as a Christian under an assumed name. The strife between Rabbi Yakov Beirav and Rabbi Ibn Chaviv deteriorated, and this had a bad effect on the plan. In addition Rabbi Yakov Beirav's life was endangered. The semicha had been represented to the Turkish authorities as the first step toward the restoration of the Jewish state. Since the Turkish officials would have showed him no mercy and used any opportunity to seize his estate, Rabbi Yakov Beirav was forced to flee to Egypt. 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 Rabbi Ibn Chaviv's following increased; and when Rabbi Yakov Beirav returned, he found his plan to be hopeless. He passed away a few years later without seeing resolution to the dispute.

The Shulchan Aruch

It is known that Rabbi Yosef Karo and Rabbi Moses of Trani were two of the four men ordained by Rabbi Yakov Beirav. The other two are assumed to be Rabbi Abraham Shalom and Rabbi Israel de Curial. After weighing the objections of Mahralbach, Rabbi Yosef Karo chose to be part of the Mahari Beirav's attempt to reinstate the Sanhedrin in his time. This is the source for the acronym MaRaN, which stands for the words Masa'im Rabanan Nismach. The scholars of Eretz Yisroel never criticized Rabbi Yosef Karo for this decision. Though there were arguments over many years about the authority of the Shulchan Aruch until it became universally accepted, yet no where does one criticize Rabbi Yosef Karo for the fact that he received semicha from Rabbi Yakov Beirav and trasmitted it onward. Rabbi Yosef Karo is known to have used his semicha to ordain Rabbi Moses Alsheich, who in turn, ordained Rabbi Chaim Vital. Thus semicha can be traced for four generations. Rabbi Yosef Karo, in his commentary the Beis Yosef[12], answered the objections of the Mahralbach by recording as definitive halacha the Rambam's opinion that semicha can be renewed by consensus.

The Current Attempt

While Rabbi Yakov Beirav and Rabbi Yosef Karo laid an excellent halachic foundation for understanding the Rambam. The current attempt to re-establish the Jewish Sanhedrin has tried to learn from these events and avoid some of the pitfalls. In this case, a massive publicity campaign of 50,000 copies of a detailed flier were distributed among 10,000 Jewish centers in Israel, outlining that a vote of a first samukh was going to be held, along with contact information of the Va'ad ha-Mekhonen la-Sanhedrin, so that the scholars of Eretz Yisroel should be aware that an election was going to take place. The election itself involved hundreds of Rabbonim and Torah scholars in person and by written letter, finally selecting a samukh from among the rabbonim of the Eidah HaChareidis. In addition, to avoid disagreements over who was worthy to sit on the Sanhedrin, a Beis din of 71 was immediately formed. It was formed with the best scholars available, with the public announcement every one of them has agreed to step aside the moment a more deserving candidate should step forward. Lastly, the Nasi has indicated that the Beis din would wait until the best scholars of Eretz Yisroel were represented on the Beis din before beginning to fully function halachically as the Sanhedrin of old. Until then the Beis din would be referred to as the nascent Sanhedrin or the developing Sanhedrin, or simply the Beis din of 71. Any authority it had would be only according to the most lenient opinion (that semicha and reasonable scholarship alone are sufficient for halachic authority).


  1. Levi ibn Chaviv, "Responsa," p. 298b
  2. Palestine letter, dated 1522, in Luncz, "Jerusalem," iii. 98
  3. Levi ibn Chaviv, "Responsa," p. 117a
  4. ibid. 33a
  5. Mishnah Makos 23a
  6. Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11,12
  7. Shealos v'teshuvos leRalbach
  8. Sefer Hamitzvos, Aseh 153
  9. Hilchos Kiddush Hachodesh 5:2
  10. Iggeret Hasemicha
  11. Mahralbach, "Responsa," p. 298b
  12. Choshen Mishpat 295