Rabbi Jacob ben Rabbi Moshe Berab was one of the greatest Torah scholars of his time, over 400 years ago. He is particularly famous for his attempt to renew the "Semicha" (special Rabbinical ordination)-but about that a little later.
"Berab" is an added name, an honorary title bestowed on select Torah scholars. His family name was Marmaran, and he originated from Spain. He was born in the city of Moceda, near Toledo, about eighteen years before the infamous Expulsion from Spain, which took place in 5252 (1492). In the year 5293, Rabbi Jacob was a wanderer together with thousands of other Jews who were driven out of Spain. After much wandering, suffering and encountering many dangers, Rabbi Jacob Berab arrived at the town of Tlemsen in Algeria, North Africa. He delivered a Torah lecture there on Shabbos, which made a profound impression on his audience. It was quite evident to all that he was a great Torah scholar. The community of Fez accepted him as their Rabbi.
The city of Fez, where the worldfamous Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (Rif) had lived, then comprised about 5,000 Jewish families. The provinces of Tunis, Algiers and Fez in North Africa were, however, too near to Spain, and the Jews could not feel secure there. Many of them, therefore, wandered further, as far as Egypt, and even Eretz Yisroel. Rabbi Jacob Berab was one of, those who left Fez and went to Cairo, Egypt, where he found many famous refugees from Spain. Cairo, at that time, was an important Torah center, and amongst its scholars were to be found such luminaries as Rabbi David ben Zimra (Radbaz), the greatest Codifier of his time, and Rabbi Moshe Alashkar, who was a Gaon (Torah giant) and a Mekubal (Mystic) and was a Dayan (Judge) in the Radbaz's Court in Cairo. Both of them came from Spain, and underwent similar sufferings as Rabbi Jacob Berab.
In Cairo, Rabbi Jacob became friendly with the Jewish Finance Minister, Avrohom de Castra, also a Spanish refugeewhom the Turkish Sultan appointed as Finance Minister of Egypt. In Avrohom's house, Rabbi Jacob Berab was a welcome guest. Rabbi Jacob, however, did not stay long in Egypt; he went to Jerusalem. Here he found the famous Rabbi Levi Ibn Habib as the Chief Rabbi and Head of the Court. Rabbi Levi was a son of Rabbi Jacob Ibn Habib, the author of the Ein Yaakov. Rabbi Levi also was one of the Jews who had been driven out of Spain, and he came to Jerusalem together with his father. (The above-mentioned prominent refugees from Spain who took over such important Rabbinical positions, prove to us how great was the influence of the Spanish Jews who were uprooted from their land.)
Between Rabbi Jacob Berab and Rabbi Levi Ibn Habib (who was only a few years older than he) there arose a difference of opinion, and so Rabbi Jacob Berab took to his wanderings once more. He went to Damascus in the year 5288where he was appointed as Rabbi and Head of the Court. He entered the business field and became very wealthy. But here, also, he felt he could not stay; he felt drawn to the Holy Land, and five years later, we find him in Ghaza, on his way to Jerusalem once more. He did not stay long, as he received a "call" to serve as Rabbi and Dayan in Cairo. A few years later, he again left for Eretz Yisroel, and settled in the holy city of Tzefas (Safed). Tzefas was the largest and most important community in Eretz Yisroel at that time, with over 1,000 Jewish families and many Rabbis and Mystics. Rabbi Jacob was appointed as the Chief Rabbi over all the Rabbis and scholars of Tzefas, and he spread Torah and Kabbalah learning there. Amongst his disciples were the famous Rabbi Joseph Karo (author of "Beth Joseph" and "Shulchan Aruch") and Rabbi Moshe de Trani (the "Mabit").
As aforementioned, Tzefas was the center of the Kabbalists who occupied themselves with the study of the hidden secrets of the Torah (Kabbalah), and who tried to prepare themselves and the entire Jewish world for the coming of the true Messiah, the descendant of king David. Those were troubled times. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Portugal and other lands under Christian rule, apart from the general suffering of the Jews in every land under Christian influences strengthened the Jews' yearning and hope for the coming of the Messiah. It so happened that at that time the Jews lived quietly and securely in Eretz Yisroel, under Turkish rule, and they were given every opportunity to live their lives as devout Jews.
The idea then occurred to Rabbi Jacob Berab to renew the "Semicha" in order to set up a Sanhedrin (Supreme Rabbinic Court). He thought that by this he would bring nearer the approach of the Messiah. He also hoped that this would help the numerous Marranos to become true Baale Teshuvoh (Penitents), and would in general strengthen the Jewish spirit in those difficult times.
The subject of "Semicha" is not to be confused with today's "Semicha" where a Rabbi or a Yeshiva gives "Semicha" to a Talmudic student in order to ordain him as a Rabbi. Today's "Semicha" is only an "echo" of the original "Semichas Chachomim" that goes back to Moshe Rebbenu, when he gave "Semicha" to the 70 Elders and to Joshua the son of Nun. "Semicha" means "Leaning", because it was the custom to lay the hands on the head of the one being ordained, and so handing over, so to speak, the power possessed by the ordainer to become a member of the Sanhedrin or Court. From the times of Moshe Rebbenu the power and authority of "Semicha" were given over to the greatest Torah scholars of each generation. This tradition was kept up even to the times after the destruction of the Second Beth HaMikdosh, in the times of the Tannaim and Amoraim, until the great- Yeshivos (Torah Academies) in Eretz Yisroel were dissolved. Then, the "Semicha" stopped functioning. In time, the Rabbis started to give "Semicha for decision", meaning that person in question was authorized to render decisions in matters of Jewish ritual and the daily problems.
Rabbi Jecob Berab, however, decided to renew the "Semichas Zekainim" (Semicha of Elders) as in the days of old. In this matter he relied on the decision of the Rambam (Laws of Sanhedrin, Ch.4, Section II; and in his Explanation of the Mishna on Sanhedrin, Ch.I), where the Rambam expresses the idea that when a suitable time will arrive before the coming of the Messiah, with the necessary spiritual revival and preparation, and the Jews will return to the ways of the Almighty, and when all the Torah scholars of Eretz Yisroel will be in accord and agree to renew the "Semicha" of old, then they will have the power to give "Semicha" to one of their group and he in turn will then be able to give "Semicha" to other scholars, and the prophecy of Isaiah (1:26) "And I will restore your judges as at first, and your advisers as at the beginning", will be fulfilled.
Rabbi Jacob Berab was of the opinion that time had arrived and the other Rabbis in Tzefas. were in agreement. They did not deem it necessary to ask the opinion of the Rabbis in Jerusalem or the great scholars in other lands, as Tzefas was then the main center of Torah and Kabbalah not only in Eretz Yisroel, but in the whole world.
This took place in the year 5298, when 25 Rabbis and Mystics assembled in Tzefas, and they gave "Semicha" to the greatest one amongst them, Rabbi Jacob Berab. Rabbi Jacob then gave "Semicha" to a few select Torah scholars: Rabbi Joseph Karo, Rabbi Moshe of Cordevera (the famous Kabbalist, the Ramak) and others. The Ramak gave "Semicha" to Rabbi Moshe Alschich and Rabbi Moshe Alschich gave "Semicha" to Rabbi Chaim Vital.
Rabbi Jacob Berab sent a specil messenger with "Semicha" for Rabbi Levi Ibn Habib in Jerusalem. But Rabbi Levi refused to accept it, and he came out strongly against the whole idea. He wrote a "Pamphlet about Semicha" to show that Rabbi Jacob Berab had no right to renew the "Semicha of the Elders".
There broke out a scholarly dispute between the supporters of the "Semicha" Rabbi Jacob Berab, his disciples, and colleagues, on the one hand, and the opponents of the "Semicha", with Rabbi Levi Ibn Habib at their head, on the other. The dispute lasted several years until Rabbi Jacob Berab died. The "Semicha" came to an end, as Rabbi Chaim Vital did not ordain anyone else after him.
Rabbi Jacob Berab was very distressed that his great accomplishment (in his opinion) was not universally recognized, and that it caused the strong opposition of Rabbi Levi Ibn Habib. There were also wagging tongues who made an accusation before the Turkish government that Rabbi Jacob's idea was to free Eretz Yisroel from the Turks. Rabbi Jacob Berab was forced to flee from Tzefas. He returned there later, however, and died during the night of Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh Adar in the year 5301 (1541) .
Rabbi Jacob Berab left Responsa. The Responsa "Mahari Berab" comprise 56 Responsa, and many more of his Responsa are mentioned in the Responsa " of the Mabit and others.
Besides his Responsa, Rabbi Jacob Berab wrote a commentary on the Rambam, and other works. He was regarded as one of the greatest Torah scholars of his time, and he received legal questions from all parts of the world. His stormy life ended before reaching 70 years of age. His great desire to see the "Semicha" renewed was not realized.
The Sanhedrin will be renewed only when Moshiach (the righteous Messiah) will come and unite all Jews under the banner of the holy Torah, and will redeem the Jews from Golus (Exile). May this be soon, in our days.