Tag Archives: Rabbi

Jews of the Week: Rav Saragossi and the Radbaz

Two Inspiring Sages

Tomb of Rabbi Yosef Saragossi in Ein Zeitim, Israel

Yosef Saragossi (1460-1507) was born to a religious Sephardic family, either in Saragossa, Spain, or in Syracuse, Sicily. He became a respected rabbi at a young age. Around the time of the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, Rav Saragossi settled in Tzfat. He discovered a tiny community of just 300 poorly-educated Jews, with not a single rabbi among them. Rav Saragossi revived the three synagogues in the city and founded new schools, reinvigorating Jewish life. His yeshiva soon attracted students from far and wide. Within a century, Tzfat was a major centre of Jewish learning, and the capital of Jewish mysticism. There, Rabbi Yosef Karo would produce the Shulkhan Aruch, still the central code of Jewish law, and there the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria) revealed his Kabbalistic system, forever revolutionizing Judaism. Rav Saragossi was beloved not only by Tzfat’s Jews, but by its Muslim residents, too. In fact, the Muslim governor at the time paid two-thirds of Rav Yosef’s salary just to keep him from leaving. Rav Saragossi’s tomb remains an important pilgrimage site, and is known as a place of miracles. Because of one such miracle involving 500 white hens, he has been called Tzadik haLavan, “the White Saint”.

One of Rav Saragossi’s foremost students was David ben Shlomo ibn Abi Zimra (c. 1479-1589). He, too, was born in Spain, and was exiled around the time of his bar mitzvah. His family settled in Tzfat, and the young David studied in Rav Saragossi’s yeshiva. Becoming a renowned rabbi of his own (later known by his initials, Radbaz, as is common among Jewish sages), he moved to Egypt and became a member of its beit din, the Jewish court. He would soon be appointed Hakham Bashi, Egypt’s chief rabbi. Meanwhile, the Radbaz made some good investments, and became exceedingly wealthy. He built a new yeshiva in Cairo, and it was there that a young Isaac Luria, the Arizal, would get his start. After serving as Chief Rabbi for nearly forty years, writing a number of important books, and penning over 3000 responsa, the Radbaz retired at age 90. He left most of his wealth for the poor, then returned to the Holy Land. Although he wished to settle in Jerusalem, the Ottomans made it difficult for Jews to live there, so the Radbaz returned to Tzfat. He was immediately placed on the highest beit din, alongside Rav Yosef Karo. The Radbaz merited to live many more years, inspiring a new generation of rabbis, including the great Rabbi Chaim Vital. He was over 100 years old when he passed away.

Words of the Week

It is never too late to be what you might have been.
– George Eliot

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Akiva

The Greatest Rabbi of All Time?

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva in the 16th century Mantua Haggadah

Akiva ben Yosef (d. 135 CE) was born in Israel to a poor family in the last years of the Second Temple, possibly the grandson of converts to Judaism. Despite being unlearned and impoverished, he fell in love with Rachel, the daughter of one of Jerusalem’s wealthiest men (and his employer). Rachel agreed to marry Akiva on the condition that he would eventually go to study. Her father rejected her choice, and the couple lived in extreme poverty. Finally, aged 40, Akiva enrolled at the yeshiva of Lod, without even knowing the Hebrew alphabet. He returned home only twelve years later, but upon nearing the door of his home, overheard his wife say to a neighbour that if it were up to her, her husband would study for another twelve years. Akiva thus went back to Lod for another dozen years, by the end of which he had become a renowned rabbi with some 24,000 students. This time, he returned home to a huge procession and an adoring crowd. His wife tried to get through and was blocked by his students. Rabbi Akiva famously told them: “Leave her alone, for what is mine and yours, is hers.” His father-in-law recognized the huge mistake he had made, and ended up leaving his fortune to the sage. Rabbi Akiva is credited with setting the foundations of Judaism as we know it. He completed the codification of the Tanakh, and commissioned Aquila of Sinope to produce a new accurate translation of the Torah into Greek – an indispensable tool for the Jewish majority at the time. He helped to quell a number of heretical movements, and ensured the survival of traditional Judaism in the face of the new Christian sect. Some even see him as one of the earliest feminists: it was Rabbi Akiva that banned the practice of separating women from society during their days of menstruation. He also spearheaded the abolition of both slavery and capital punishment in Israel. Rabbi Akiva taught that the most important Torah principle was loving your fellow, and unraveled new techniques in Torah interpretation. (One legend has it that God showed Moses a vision of Rabbi Akiva’s future classroom, and it was so deep that Moses did not understand any of it and began to cry!) Rabbi Akiva also participated in the Bar Kochva Revolt in an attempt to re-establish an independent Jewish kingdom and rebuild the Holy Temple. Unfortunately, the revolt failed with catastrophic results. All of Rabbi Akiva’s students perished. The rabbi was able to find five new students and transmit the Torah to them before his own cruel death at the hands of the Romans. This act is sometimes credited with saving Judaism from extinction. One of those five students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the traditional author of the Zohar, and the first to publicly reveal the vast mystical dimensions of Judaism. (These teachings he learned from Rabbi Akiva, who was such a great mystic himself that the Talmud states he was the only sage to ascend to the Heavens and return to Earth unscathed.) Rabbi Akiva set the stage for the compilation of the Mishnah, and its eventual evolution into the Talmud. His kindness was legendary, as was his love for Israel – both the nation and the land. He died defending both, being flayed with iron combs by the Romans. He prayed until his last breath, which stunned both his executioner and his students, who asked how he was able to praise God at such a moment. His reply: “All my life I was worried about the verse, ‘[to love Him] with all your soul’ …And I said to myself, when will I ever be able to fulfill this command? And now that I am finally able to fulfill it, I should not?” He then recited the Shema, and just as the last word “echad” left his lips, his soul departed his body. Some scholars title him “the father of Rabbinic Judaism”.

Secrets of the Pesach Seder

Words of the Week

One of the gifts of Jewish culture to Christianity is that it has taught Christians to think like Jews… Any modern man who has not learned to think as though he were a Jew can hardly be said to have learned to think at all.
– Lord William Rees-Mogg

Rabbi Akiva’s Tomb in Tiberias, Israel