The Responsa of the Ribash and the Jewish Status of Anusim

A Sefer Torah, the traditional form of the Heb...
A Sefer Torah, the traditional form of the Hebrew Bible, is a scroll of parchment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Rabbi Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez

The practice of a Jewish community writing for guidance to a recognized rabbinic authority in a different geographical location was a well established practice by the late medieval period. These teshuvot or responses often reveal much more than the intricacies of rabbinic thought and exegesis on a particular subject. They often disclose the various political and theological issues that were of pressing concern during the period in question. For the subject of Crypto-Judaism they provide invaluable evidence to the very real theological, sociological, political, and even financial concerns in play among Conversos and their compatriots in the Jewish community.

One interesting collection of legal responsa of the period that is particularly relevant to the subject of anusim is that of Rabbi Isaac Ben Sheshet Perfet (1326–1408). Rabbi Perfet, known by the acronym, Ribash was prolific author of responsa.[1] The Ribash was born in Barcelona and studied under a number of eminent Spanish rabbis including Perez ha-Kohen, Hasdai ben Judah, and under the renowned Rabbi Nissim ben Reuben.

It was the tragic riots of 1391[2] that led to his eventual forced conversion.  While his own writings never mention this, the court records of Valencia reveal that the Ribash had been asked to convert as a means of ending the riots. He refused but converted once false charges were levied against him- charges that would have surely resulted in his death.[3] The Ribash was baptized on July 4, 1391, an ominous date as it coincided or was orchestrated by Christian authorities to fall on the Ninth of Av, the date of the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Unlike many of his Converso contemporaries, within a year and a half’s time, he was able to escape Valencia. He eventually arrived in North Africa and was able to return to an open Jewish life and was ultimately appointed to the position of chief rabbi of Algiers despite some opposition.[4]

The Ribash was a prolific writer of responsa which reflects his recognized and respected position of authority.[5] His decisions were of great significance and ultimately exerted lasting influence on the future writing of the Bet Joseph and ultimately the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative code of Jewish law authored in the 16th century by another Jew of Spanish origin, Rabbi Joseph Caro.[6] Of principle concern to us, is the Ribash’s discussion of Conversos and their standing in Jewish law.

The Ribash on the Jewish Status of Anusim

Two responsum of the Ribash of are particular interest into the Jewish status of anusim.  They appear in his work of responsa simply titled, She’elot u-Teshubot first collected and published posthumously in Constantinople in 1546-1547 and later as (She’elot u-Teshuvot ha-Ribash ha-Ḥadashot).[7] The first question that the Ribash received involved the acceptability, or the kosher status of wine and meat touched by anusim and was likely received not to long after his arrival in Algiers[8]. The laws of kashrus specify that wine that a non-Jew pours/handles is forbidden to be drunk by a Jew.[9] Furthermore a Jew is prohibited from even deriving benefit from it. The principal concern here goes back to antiquity wherein wine was used as a libation in pagan ritual. During the medieval period when Christianity was by and large considered avodah zarah (i.e. idolatry) by most rabbis, the concern remained.

The petitioners continued in detailing their question by noting that many anusim made wine in their houses. They claimed the wine was kosher. Were non-converted Jews allowed to rely on the testimony of Conversos and hence drink their wine? Furthermore, if Conversos transported wine from across the sea, could they testify that it was kosher? The complexity of the daily relationship between Conversos and Jews is further highlighted by the statement which describes the social interaction between the two groups.  Sometimes Conversos would invite a Jew to eat with them and place before him meat and wine. Could Jews, the writers asked the Ribash, trust a Converso that their food was kosher? Could the principal of hazakah (i.e. presumption of innocence) prove sufficient?

The Ribash’s response to this question is fascinating. He responded by first relating the idealized level of self sacrifice a person should have when faced with the possibility of conversion or death.  The Ribash noted that an individual should be willing to give up their life before serving an idol because of the severity of this sin. Nevertheless, he acknowledged, should a person haven proven weak in the face of persecution and accept baptism over death, these anusim would not become non-kosher witnesses. They were instead to be considered complete Jews since if a conversion happens under duress, G-d surely forgives. Hence a Jew who sins is still a Jew and consequently, their wine and meat was kosher and available to other Jews.

 The Second Responsa

The second responsa of interest to us concerns the matter of a certain divorced woman.[10] The woman, a Converso, divorced her husband who was also a forced convert. The woman was able to, as the petitioner’s note, serve G-d without fear by escaping from the land of persecutions and journey to the land of the Muslims. In divorcing her husband, she obtained a get, a Jewish writ of divorce. The witnesses were themselves anusim, however, and this fact led some to question the legitimacy of the get and hence the ability of the woman to marry again. Were these anusim, kosher witnesses?

Jews of Iberia-3DMany years had passed since his own escape from Spain. The Ribash now answered in a very complicated fashion in contrast to his rather direct and seemingly simple answer in the previous response. The continued presence of anusim in Spain presented a problem for the Ribash. He argued that these forced converts who signed the get and which had lived for a number of days in Spain and did not choose to flee, must be investigated carefully.

The Ribash provides his reasoning for such a different answer by arguing that there were some initially forced converts which had not taken steps to escape. Furthermore, many after having converted had now let go the yoke of the Torah and heaven and were willingly going the way of the Gentiles and violating all the commandments. Some were even informing to the government on other anusim whose hearts were in fact directed toward heaven and attempting to maintain their observance of Jewish law. These people, according to the Ribash did not have a share in the world to come or a share in the house Israel. If these were the type of people who signed the get, then the divorce document was invalid.

Regarding other anusim who did want to leave but often stayed  for the sake of maintaining their family unity and even keeping their family connected to Torah, the Ribash recognized that many attempted to avoid violations of the Torah unless is was too difficult.  The Ribash perhaps surprisingly argued that if an individual  could save themselves even if it meant, leaving their children behind, it was to be preferred because the of G-d supersedes comes everything even before being able to redeem a brother or family. These individuals, while in their minds staying for the right reason, were nevertheless not acting appropriately. Nevertheless, the Ribash argued that this type of forced convert were not to be regarded as non-kosher witnesses since they did not in fact believe they were committing a sin (omer muttar). The Ribash appealed to the famous letter of the Rambam, Iggeret Hashamad which noted that a person capable of leaving is like or close to a wanton sinner but this did not make them non-kosher witnesses.

The Ribash argued that the anusim who had acted as witnesses and who had stayed behind in Spain, should undergo a thorough investigation to properly determine which category they belonged to.  The underlying reason for such an approach, the Ribash contended lay in the fact that since this group of people had stayed in Spain for such a long period. He assumed they had not tried to escape as many people both rich and poor had successfully done, and consequently they lost their hazakah (i.e. presumption) of kosher status. Their status as witnesses would now rest with a rabbinic scholar capable of investigating which category they fell under. If they were fit to serve as witnesses, then the divorce document was legal. If not then the woman in question would be considered an agunah (i.e. a bound woman) and could not remarry.

The position of the Ribash reveals that attitudes towards Conversos were beginning to change even among those individuals who had undergone forced conversion. The Ribash assumed that he or other rabbis could find out if forced converts were in fact living kosher lives to the best of their ability. This may testify to the fact that Conversos and unconverted Jews continued to live side by side in many areas and the rabbis who remained in Spain could reasonably inquire about Converso practices and observances.

The Ribash however seems to have ignored a number of important issues regarding the identity of the four individuals in question (i.e. the husband, the wife, and the two witnesses). For example, the very fact that the woman requested a Jewish divorce document and that the husband granted it, is of significance. Furthermore that the witnesses signed the get should have arguably pointed to the fact or likelihood that the parties were interested in continuing Jewish observance since they were potentially risking exposure to themselves. The Ribash also seems to have ignored the fact that Conversos could not go to a regular beit din (i.e. a rabbinic court) since as in this case, both the husband and woman in question were themselves Conversos.

Perhaps most significantly, the Ribash’s directive to initiate an inquiry into the veracity of the witnesses potentially created the type of challenges that Conversos would experience in subsequent years. As contact with established Jewish communities, with rabbis, and with Jewish texts lessened, the overall knowledge of Jewish practice and beliefs diminished. For the time being, those who were more observant and knowledgeable were often reinforced by contact with openly practicing Jews who were outside of their normal circles. Yet in doing so they increasingly placed themselves under scrutiny. While there is no comparison between what Conversos would face in the last part of the 15th century when the Inquisition would investigate their faithfulness to Christian practice and what the Ribash suggested, there is perhaps an eerie foretelling of what they would eventually encounter.[11]

[1] A.M. Hershman, Rabbi Isaac bar Sheshet Perfet and his Times (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1943), p. 3.

[2] The severity of the persecutions is related by Reuven, the son of the Rabbi Nissim Gerundi and a survivor of the massacre. He described the extent of the devastation in the margins of his father’s Torah scroll: “Wail, holy and glorious Torah, and put on black raiment, for the expounders of your lucid words perished in the flames. For three months the conflagration spread through the holy congregations of the exile of Israel in Sepharad. The fate [of Sodom and Gomorrah] overtook the holy communities of Castile, Toledo, Seville, Mallorca, Cordoba, Valencia, Barcelona, Tàrrega, and Girona, and sixty neighboring cities and villages…. The sword, slaughter, destruction, forced conversions, captivity, and spoliation were the order of the day. Many were sold as slaves to the Ishmaelites; 140,000 were unable to resist those who so barbarously forced them and gave themselves up to impurity [i.e., converted].”  Mass Conversion and Genealogical Mentalities: Jews and Christians in Fifteenth-Century Spain,” Past and Present 174 (Feb. 2002), pp. 3-41.

[3] Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet, Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 10. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. p 49.

[4] A.M. Hershman, Rabbi Isaac bar Sheshet Perfet and his Times (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1943), p. 5.

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] A.M. Hershman, Rabbi Isaac bar Sheshet Perfet and his Times (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1943), pp. 4-5.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Shivat haRibash Siman Dalet

[9] Mishneh Torah Book 5, The Book of Holiness; Treatise 2 on Forbidden Foods, Ma’achalot Assurot; Chapter 17, Sec 9.

[10] Shivat haRibash Siman Sheis

[11] Rabbi Nissan Antine, Lecture at Beth Sholom and Talmud Torah, 2010.

Posted by Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education. He is the author of The Converso Dilemma: Halakhic Responsa and the Status of Forced Converts


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