The Jewish community of Tripoli, Libya, goes back thousands of years and across the centuries has experienced a series of crushing catastrophes. Among the worst occurred as a consequence of the Spanish invasion in 1510. Led by General Commander Pedro Navarro, under the authority of the Crown of Aragon, the Spanish took a large portion of the population into slavery, including many Jewish people, who were sent to Sicily.

Several months before the Spanish conquest, Yakuta Bedash, a young girl, married her cousin Pinchas. In the days leading up to the wedding, the two families argued and Yakuta’s father, Suleiman, called off the engagement. This led the leader of Tripoli’s Jewish community, Sheikh Ibrahim Kabassi, to intervene. The exact nature of his “intervention” was later a subject of dispute, but the consequence was that the wedding took place as scheduled.1

The groom, Pinchas, was among the many people taken captive by the Christian invaders. He never returned, nor were there any confirmed sightings of him, although a rumor circulated that he had converted to Christianity.

Yakuta, who was also captured and summarily released with whatever remained of her family, left the decimated community of Tripoli and settled in Cairo. There, she waited over a decade for word of Pinchas – to no avail. All this time, Yakuta was unable to remarry, as she had not received a divorce from Pinchas, nor was there any report of his death.

After many years of waiting, in 1522, Yakuta and her relatives approached the beit din (rabbinic court) in Cairo, claiming that her marriage had never been halachically valid in the first place since her father had never consented to the marriage. As Yakuta was a minor (under the age of bat mitzvah) at the time of the marriage, paternal approval was required for it to go ahead.2 The assertion was that the dispute between the respective families was never really resolved, and that the “wedding” only happened due to external pressure.

Witnesses came before a distinguished panel of eminent scholars, headed by Rabbis Moshe (Maharam) Alashkar and Shmuel (Maharash) Ibn Hakim (also known as Hakkan). The witnesses testified that Suleiman had been unhappy that the wedding was taking place but could do nothing to stop it.

Based on this testimony, and taking into account the nearly impossible circumstances in which Yakuta now found herself, the court ruled that her marriage to Pinchas had never taken place and she was given the all-clear to remarry. Soon after, in 1524, she met and married a man with whom she had several children.

Conflicting Testimonies

Then things got very complicated. The year after Yakuta remarried, another prominent Cairo rabbi, Shmuel Ibn Sid, was approached by other witnesses who testified that the original wedding occurred with Suleiman’s consent, and that they saw him rejoicing at the wedding.

However, as the testimony was taken at night (when courts may not operate), the majority of the leading Egyptian rabbis ruled it invalid.3 In addition, they were dissatisfied with the credibility of the witnesses. Nevertheless, Rabbi Ibn Sid never retracted his position that Yakuta had been wrong to get married, and he considered her new marriage to be a scandal.

We would probably have never known about this case were it not for the fact that around five years later, in 1530, an outstanding scholar, Rabbi Yakov (Mahari) Beirav, moved from Jerusalem to Cairo and was alarmed by what he heard. How could it be that in one of the most important Jewish communities in the world a woman would be allowed to remarry without a divorce or confirmation of the death of her husband?! That would represent a major breach of Jewish law.

Mahari Beirav was inclined to accept the position that Yakuta’s new marriage was invalid and demanded an explanation from the rabbinic judges who had permitted it. They insisted that as a competent and duly constituted court, they were not answerable to outside interference. Ultimately, they provided the basis for their ruling, but nothing was settled.

Dismayed and outraged, Mahari Beirav informed the new husband that his marriage was invalid and that he was to separate from his wife until things were cleared up. He solemnly vowed that he would personally take urgent responsibility to get to the bottom of the matter. No sooner had the husband agreed to this demand, however, when the Cairo court banned him from doing so, as the newcomer rabbi had no right to meddle in their affairs.

Some of the greatest rabbis of the time were now at loggerheads. At stake was Yakuta and her family. One side felt that such a serious violation of Jewish law could not go unchallenged, while the other side felt that it was unconscionable to further pain a poor woman who had suffered so much already, and her innocent children.

In light of the fact that Yakuta had already (re)married and borne children in Egypt, the onus of proof lay with those who wished to claim that her current marriage was invalid.

Invalid Witnesses

Mahari Beirav traveled to Jerusalem and Gaza, where large Tripolitan Jewish communities had coalesced, to see if he could clarify what really happened at the original wedding. He announced that he was seeking testimony, and indeed two pairs of witnesses arrived to give their stories. They both testified that the families had made peace before the wedding and that there was no compulsion involved. Accordingly, it would seem, the original marriage was valid and Yakuta was living in sin.

The problem was that one witness from each pair turned out to be invalid (they weren’t even in Tripoli at the time of the wedding!), and rabbis Alashkar and Ibn Hakim rejected their testimony.

Mahari Beirav acknowledged that two of the witnesses were invalid, but he argued that the remaining two were sufficient.

Lengthy scholarly treatises were written by the main protagonists on each side scrutinizing the legal intricacies.

Central to the debate is the Talmudic4 principle that if a group of witnesses testifies, and one of them is found to be invalid, the entire group is disqualified – even if the other witnesses in the group are otherwise valid. Mahari Beirav insisted that this rule only applies if they intended to be witnesses at the time of the original event. Maharam Alashakar argued forcefully that once the witnesses came together to testify, they stand and fall as a unit.

Another key area of disagreement surrounded a ruling in the Jerusalem Talmud5 that if a couple come from abroad and present themselves as husband and wife, after thirty days of living together as a couple they attain the legal status of a couple.

Mahari Beirav took the view that since Yakuta had lived together with Pinchas for several months, she has the status of a married woman until conclusively proven otherwise. To him, it was inconceivable that the marriage could have gone on for so many months if it were nothing but a sham.

In contrast, Maharash Ibn Hakim argued that there was sufficient controversy around the original wedding that to treat her as unmarried unless it could be conclusively proven that the marriage was consensual.6 As to why Yakuta remained with Pinchas for all those months? She was too young at the time to be able to protest the marriage, and her father was most likely intimidated by the Sheikh.

An additional area of intense dispute revolved around whether the testimony heard by Mahari Beirav was legitimate if it occurred without the defendant–Yakuta’s father–being present, as required by Talmudic law.7 Maharam Alashkar cited Maimonides8 and other halachic authorities that require that the defendant be at least notified and invited to court, unless under extenuating circumstances. Mahari Beirav insisted that this requirement was only if the defendant was local and readily available to come to the court.

The story finally came to a close in 1533, when Maharam Alashakar traveled to Jerusalem and met with the witnesses who had spoken to Mahari Beirav.

Those witnesses clarified that they were not claiming to know for sure that the marriage was genuinely consensual. They admitted to conveying mere hearsay, which does not qualify as legitimate testimony. Thus, notwithstanding the fact that Mahari Beirav is not recorded as having rescinded his ruling, Yakuta’s second marriage was accepted, as was the legitimacy of her children.

This was bolstered by the fact that Rabbi David Ibn Zimra (the Radbaz) concurred with this ruling.9

We never got to find out what happened to Pinchas, but we do know that, after more than a decade of waiting and nearly a decade of controversy, Yakuta lived happily ever after.