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.

On Blackmail in Courts

Radbaz and other Jewish leaders were obliged to face the problems raised by Jews threatening to convert to another religion if the Jewish court insisted on punishing them for offences they had committed. Radbaz was asked (no. 187) whether a Jewish court should relax its demands in such circumstances.

Radbaz, aware of the seriousness of the problem, writes: 'All my days I have been disturbed by the matter you have raised. The result of leniency will be a diminution of the Torah, and yet we have no power to coerce the wicked. Every day I offer the prayer that nothing untoward should happen through me, yet I shall share my thoughts with you.'

He comes down on the side of a refusal to yield to threats. If the courts are to yield to blackmail, the wicked will be undeterred from robbery, plunder, rape, and other crimes. Throughout Jewish history the courts wielded their authority and never desisted because of threats of apostasy. In any event, he remarks, a Jew who is prepared to make threats of this kind will sooner or later leave the Jewish fold whatever the court may or may not do.

Nevertheless Radbaz is reluctant to provide a blanket ruling. Each case should be decided according to the particular circumstances.

On Stoicism & Asceticism

Especially interesting from both the theological and psychological point of view is the Responsum (no. 985) dealing with a great scholar who lost a son but did not shed a single tear. Is such a stoical attitude reprehensible or is it commendable?

Radbaz replies: 'This is an evil trait demonstrating hardheartedness and bad character. This cruel attitude is that of the philosophers who say that this world is vanity, a huge joke... But we who have received the Torah must believe and appreciate that this world is very precious to those who use it properly and who conduct themselves in a fitting manner. It is through the way he behaves in this life that man attains to the World to Come and to immortality, for this world is called the world of deeds. Consequently, we must never treat it as vanity, attributing its sorrows to the poor way in which it is governed and complaining about the woes of temporal existence, as the majority of the poets have done.'

On the question of asceticism Radbaz (no. 981) discusses the Talmudic saying (Nedarim 10a) that one who fasts is a sinner. How can this be, since many of the great saints used to fast? Radbaz refers to a report that Rabbi Eliezer of Metz (in the twelfth century) argued that one who fasts is only a sinner if he does it out of bad temper or because he is disillusioned with the world, not if he fasts for the sake of heaven.

This is incorrect, however, and is contradicted by Rabbi Eliezer of Metz's own comment to the Talmudic passage, where the Rabbi observes that the man is, indeed, a sinner but this sin is sometimes worthwhile. Another solution is that he is a sinner only when he fasts without following the advice of the prophet (Isaiah 58:7) to deal out bread to the hungry on a true fast day.

Radbaz himself fails to see any problem here. There are, in fact, two opinions on the matter in the Talmud, not one. We do not follow, he says, the view that one who fasts is a sinner but rather the view that he is a holy man. However, Radbaz concludes, this only applies if he has the strength to engage in fasting. Mortification of the flesh to an excessive degree is forbidden by all the authorities.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.