Radbaz (Rabbi David Ben Zimra)

Prolific author of responsa tackled significant issues in his time.

Print this page Print this page

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.