Category Archives: Religious Leaders

Spiritual and Religious Greats of the Jewish People

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Yosef Karo

Code of Jewish Law

19th Century Illustration of Rabbi Yosef Karo

Yosef ben Ephraim Karo (1488-1575) was born in Toledo, then in the Spanish kingdom of Castile. The infamous 1492 Spanish Expulsion of the Jews took place when he was just four years old. The family first fled to Portugal, and were then expelled from there as well in 1497. They eventually settled in Nikopolis, in the Ottoman Empire, which had opened its doors to Sephardic Jewish refugees. (The Ottoman Sultan at the time, Bayezid II, reportedly said: “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man, but he is a fool, for he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.”) Karo was tutored by his rabbi father and soon became a rabbi himself. He also studied under the great Rabbi Yosef Taitazak in Salonica. For a couple of years, he served as a rabbi in Adrianople, and eventually resettled in Tzfat. At the time, Tzfat was experiencing a resurgence of Jewish life and a renaissance in Jewish scholarship, thanks mainly to an influx of Sephardic Jewish refugees. It soon became the “capital” of Jewish mysticism, and Rabbi Karo was one of its most famous mystics and scholars. It was in Tzfat that he composed the Shulchan Arukh, to this day the standard code of Jewish law worldwide. (Tzfat boasted one of the first printing presses in the Middle East, helping to spread the Shulchan Arukh far and wide and making it extremely popular and accessible.) The Shulchan Arukh was itself only a summary of the far broader and more complex Beit Yosef, which was Rabbi Karo’s true magnum opus that he worked on for over twenty years. Rabbi Karo opened his own yeshiva, with 200 students including the renowned “Ramak”, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero. Karo also served as the chief rabbi on the Tzfat beit din. In fact, he was one of the main leaders in a rabbinic attempt to re-establish the ancient Sanhedrin. Rabbi Karo was recognized as the preeminent authority for all Sephardic Jewry worldwide, and was deeply respected by Ashkenazi Jews as well who, on several occasions, asked him to intervene in local European disputes. Among his other noted publications are Kesef Mishneh, a commentary on the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, along with a textbook for Talmudic study. One of his most intriguing works is Maggid Meisharim, a personal journal which records his prophetic experiences and the teachings he received from an angel over a period of fifty years. Rabbi Karo is often referred to simply as Maran, “Our Master”.

Words of the Week

Today, what is demanded of the Jewish people is mesirut nefesh, self-sacrifice, and this is particularly true with regard to chinuch, education. The resources for which we have labored must be dedicated to the education of children – both our own, and the children of others.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Shimon Lavi

Father of Libyan Jewry

Shimon ibn Lavi (1486-1585) was born in Spain and exiled with his family during the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. The family settled in Fez, Morocco, where Lavi studied to become a rabbi. He then sought to make aliyah to the Holy Land, but was kidnapped along the way near Tripoli by Arab brigands. After being ransomed, he found the Tripoli Jewish community in need of a rabbi so he stayed there. It was Lavi who opened the city’s first yeshivas, established a beit din, and went on to make the city one of the largest Jewish communities in North Africa. He is often credited with being the “father of Tripoli Jews”. Rabbi Lavi was the community’s official representative to the government, and served as the Ottoman governor’s personal physician. He was also a major Kabbalist, alchemist, and mystic. In fact, he wrote the popular song “Bar Yochai”, in honour of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai whose teachings would become the Zohar (the primary “textbook” of Kabbalah) and who is celebrated on Lag b’Omer. Lavi wrote a commentary on the Zohar called Ketem Paz, as well as a dictionary translating some of the Zohar’s most cryptic words. He was widely known as a miracle worker, and was revered by Jews and Muslims alike (the latter refer to him as “Ibn Limam”), with his tomb serving as a major pilgrimage site in Libya.

Lag b’Omer Begins Tonight!

How To Celebrate Lag b’Omer

Video: Secret Origins of Lag b’Omer

Words of the Week

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.
Carl Sagan

Jew of the Week: Rav Chaim Kanievsky

Prince of Torah

Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky (1928-2022) was born in Pinsk (then Poland, now Belarus) and made aliyah with his family to Israel when he was six years old. He never left the Holy Land thereafter. His father was the great “Steipler Gaon”, Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky, and his maternal uncle was the famed Chazon Ish. Following in their footsteps, Kanievsky became a rabbi, too, and was recognized as a sharp scholar at a young age. As a yeshiva student during Israel’s Independence War, he briefly served in the newly-formed IDF and defended Jaffa (though he did it spiritually, spending most of the time at his post learning Torah!) He then married the daughter of another great rabbi, Rav Elyashiv. Rabbi Kanievsky typically studied Torah for about 17 hours a day. He would wake up at midnight to pray Tikkun Chatzot (mourning for the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people) and then learned for the rest of the day, starting with eight (double-sided) pages of the Talmud Bavli, followed by eight pages of the Talmud Yerushalmi, and then selections from a number of Jewish legal codes, the Tanakh, as well as Midrashic and Kabbalistic texts. What normally takes a typical rabbi a lifetime to study, Rav Kanievsky would complete every year! He was famous for his total mastery of all Torah texts, with photographic memory and an ability to mentally “scan” these texts for any word or phrase. He was often called the “Prince of Torah”. In addition to his studies, Rav Kanievsky wrote over a dozen popular books and commentaries. Hundreds of people would line up daily to ask questions and request blessings. His blessings were known to be fulfilled, often miraculously, and his legal rulings were followed closely by religious Jews, especially those in non-Hasidic Ashkenazi communities. He regularly responded to thousands of letters, too. Rav Kanievsky lived simply in a small apartment in Bnei Brak his whole life. After the passing of Rav Shteinman in 2017, he was widely-recognized as the supreme authority on Jewish law, and the top gadol hador. Sadly, the Prince of Torah passed away shortly after the conclusion of Purim last week. He had completed his yearly study cycle the previous day. Some 750,000 people came to his funeral, making it among the largest in Israel’s history.

Words of the Week

In a lottery, it is not the ticket that wins but the person.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky