Radbaz (Rabbi David Ben Zimra)

Prolific author of responsa tackled significant issues in his time.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

David Ben Zimra, Egyptian halakhic authority and Kabbalist (1479-1573), was known, after the initial letters of his name, as Radbaz.

Radbaz, leaving Spain, where he was born, at the time of the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, studied in Safed and then became a judge in Cairo and eventually both the spiritual and lay head of Egyptian Jewry. Towards the end of his long life he settled again in Safed, where he served as a member of Joseph Karo's court.

As a man of great wealth Radbaz was able to achieve a stern independence throughout his career. Radbaz is chiefly renowned for his collection of Responsa containing over 2,000 items. Azulai writes of him: 'In the light of his keen reasoning walked those who had wandered in darkness and his Responsa went forth to every questioner from all over the world.'

In a famous Responsum (no. 344) on the principles of the Jewish faith, Radbaz opposes the whole attempt at drawing up principles since this implies that some aspects of the Torah have greater significance than others. In the same Responsum, Radbaz sides with Yom Tov Ishbili against Maimonides, in the belief that a Jew is obliged to suffer martyrdom rather than embrace Islam, even though Islam is not an idolatrous faith.

On Forbidden Relations

In another Responsum (no. 352) Radbaz replies to a questioner who had asked why Scripture forbids a man to marry the mother of his mother-in-law but allows him to marry his own grandmother. Is it not an a fortiori argument? If he is forbidden to marry his wife's grandmother he should certainly be forbidden to marry his own grandmother.

Typical of Radbaz's attitude to the limited role of human reasoning in Judaism is his reply that the a fortiori argument is based on human reasoning, whereas the forbidden degrees of marriage are a divine decree, so that human reasoning is inoperative there. All we can say is that God has so ordained. One degree of relationship is forbidden, the other permitted.

Nevertheless, if the questioner persists, Radbaz is prepared to offer a tentative solution. Those affinities are proscribed for which man in his lust has some inclination. But no man would ever want to marry his own grandmother, so there is no cause for Scripture to record a special law prohibiting this. On the other hand, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a man should wish to marry his wife's grandmother.

If, for example, a man marries a young woman of 13 and he is 40 years of age, it is possible for his wife's grandmother to be younger than he, and so be attractive to him. Radbaz concludes that, in fact, this solution has been given by Menahem Meiri.

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