Sephardic Rabbis Impact Halachah
by Sarina Roffé
Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, nicknamed Riaf, was a Syrian rabbi from Damascus, Syria. He was born in 1565 and died in 1648 at the age of 83. He was the grandson of Rabbi Yaakov bei Rav. As a disciple of Rabbi Yaakov Abulafia, he was ordained with the semicha ordination, received from his grandfather.
Rabbi Yoshiyahu was appointed Chief Rabbi of Aleppo and Damascus after the death of Rabbi Chaim Vital in 1620. Rabbi Vital's son, Rabbi Shmuel Vital, married Rabbi Pinto's daughter. He wanted to settle in Safed and traveled there in 1625, but due to family pressures he returned to Syria to lead the many Jews who lived there.
In 1643, he wrote the commentary on Ein Yaakov, which was titled Meor Einayim. He also wrote a Torah commentary Kessef Nivchar, as well as 15 essays explaining difficult passages of the Talmud and verses of the Torah.
Rabbi Shmuel Vital was the son of Rabbi Chaim Vital, a Chief Rabbi of Syria. He was born in Damascus where he officiated as Dayan for most of his life. He was a kabbalist who studied with Rabbi Yaakov Tzemach and Rabbi Meir Popperos.
He inherited many kabbalist works, called Eitz Chaim, that were written by his father. Rabbi Vital organized the manuscripts into the compendium of the Shmonah She'arim.
In 1663, Rabbi Vital left Damascus and moved to Cairo, Egypt, where he remained for the rest of his life (1677). He wrote a kabbalistic commentary on the siddur, according to the system of Ari, which contained kabbalistic mediations for the prayers. He wrote many other works, most of them unpublished, and collected his own and his father's chidushim on the Talmud.
Rabbi Yosef ibn Zalach lived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and served as rabbi of Jerusalem. Pressures from the Turkish government forced him to flee to Damascus, where he was able to serve as a rabbi.
He periodically returned to Jerusalem and was able to finish some kabbalistic works - Avnei HaShoham and She'eiris Yosef, which were never published.
Rabbi Yosef was a noted halachist, who received inquiries from Syria, Egypt, and Eretz Israel. His unpublished volume of responsa contained over 600 replies to halachic inquiries. Some of his decisions have been published in works of his contemporaries, many of whom refer to him with great reverence. Two responsa by Rabbi Yosef appear in Shivah Einayim.
Rabbi Yosef Caro (Joseph Karo)
Rabbi Yosef Caro was born in Toledo, Spain in 1488. He was a small child when his family fled to Constantinople in 1492, after the Jews were expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. His father, Rabbi Ephraim Caro, and his uncle, Rabbi Yitskhak Caro, both important scholars during their time, gave the youngster his Talmudic training.
Rabbi Yosef Caro arrived in Eretz Israel in 1535, after living briefly in Turkey. It is believed that he studied under Rabbi Yaakov bei Rav while in Egypt. After arriving in Safed, Rabbi Yosef Caro was appointed to the Beit Din of Rabbi Yaakov bei Rav, his teacher. Rabbi Caro supported his teacher and his attempts at restoring the ancient institution of semichah, authoritative rabbinical ordination and jurisdiction. Rabbi Caro was one of four rabbis who received semichah from Rabbi Yaakov. But other rabbis opposed his tradition and after the death of R' Yaakov in 1546 its use diminished.
Rabbi Yosef became the leader of the Safed Beit Din after the death of Rabbi Yaakov. It was probably the Beit Din held in highest regard throughout the world during its time. Its opinion was sought on difficult issues by rabbis from all over the world.
Rabbi Yosef also had a significant impact on shaping halachah, and his works are used today to decide many points of Jewish law. While living in Turkey, and for the next 20 years, he wrote a commentary to the Turim of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, which traces each ruling in Tur, to its Talmudic source and cites all other opinions relevant to the ruling and concludes with a decision. The commentary, called Beis Yosef, was finished in 1542. After some revisions, it was published in 1551. It was so well received it had to be reprinted.
Although Rabbi Yosef Caro wrote many famous works, he also wrote Kessef Mishneh, a commentary on Rambam's Mishneh Torah, which was another monumental work. Originally published in 1574, it has been published in almost every edition of Rambam.
As a person, this rabbi was humble, devout, gentle, and ascetic. He was a true kabbalist. Rabbi Caro died in 1575.
Source: The Early Acharonim, The ArtScroll History Series.
Sarina Roffé is a career journalist and holds a masters in Jewish Studies. She has researched numerous genealogies including the Kassin and Labaton rabbinic dynasties and is considered an expert in Aleppan Jewry. She is a member of Brooklyn's Syrian Jewish community and the Jewish Genealogical Society, Inc. of New York. She may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.