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Shabetai ben Me’ir ha-Kohen

(ca. 1621–ca. 1662), author of Sifte Kohen (1646–1647); an important and influential halakhic authority known as Shakh. Shabetai was born in Amstibovo, Lithuania, to a well-known rabbinical family. His father and grandfather served as rabbis in important communities; his father-in-law was a wealthy grandson of Mosheh Isserles. Though he quotes his father, and less frequently his teachers—Yehoshu‘a Heshel ben Yosef of Kraków and Yehoshu‘a Heshel ben Ya‘akov of Lublin—it appears that most of his scholarship was independently acquired.

After the pogroms of 1648–1649, Shabetai, in his capacity as a communal rabbi, was involved in the proclamation of the 20th of Sivan as a fast day commemorating the massacre in Nemirov, and he composed penitential prayers to be recited along with a literary description of the events of that day (published as Megilat ‘efah). Between 1650 and 1655 he was a member of the rabbinical court in Vilna that was led by Chief Dayan Mosheh Lima, author of Ḥelkat Meḥokek. In 1655, during fighting between Polish forces and the invading Swedish army, Shabetai fled Vilna with the entire Jewish community. It appears that he then settled in Holesov, Moravia, where he served as communal rabbi until his death.

Shabetai began to write about at an early age, and was an active participant in the critical-legal discourse of East European Jewry. Sifte Kohen is written with clarity and is characterized by exceptional acuity, and prodigious expertise. In 1654, his work on the Ḥoshen mishpat section of the was enthusiastically approved by the rabbis of the Council of Four Lands. In their endorsement of his work and to ensure its success, the rabbis issued an unprecedented ruling that no other work on the Ḥoshen mishpat was to be published “unless he had first brought his work before us for our approval.”

Despite his youth, Shabetai was considered to be the primary disputant of David ben Shemu’el ha-Levi (Taz), author of Ture zahav, one of the senior rabbinic authorities of the day. Shabetai’s works were accepted as authoritative in the circle of Talmudists, so much so that almost none of the later commentators on the Shulḥan ‘arukh dared to disagree with him explicitly.

As a commentator, Shabetai offered creative and original interpretations. In Sifte Kohen on the Yoreh de‘ah section of the Shulḥan ‘arukh, which dates to his earlier writings, Shabetai’s discussions with earlier authorities, or prominent and venerable contemporaries, are expressed in relatively cautious language. However, in his later writings, as his status as a leading scholar grew, he became more assertive and polemicized vehemently against them. He views the Shulḥan ‘arukh and Isserles’ codifications on it as a point of departure for discussion but not as absolutely binding.

The service of God was Shabetai’s primary concern, and as such he tended to demand stringency in matters that were the subject of debate or controversy, ruling that a stricter opinion was to be followed even if it represented a minority of one, or a lesser authority against a greater one. His legal decisions assign little consideration of human conditions; even when he maintained that “it is forbidden to forbid that which is permissible . . . because usually, in another case, it will be [a] basis for leniency,” it is on the basis of a legalistic construct.

Shabetai’s tendency was to limit the introduction of nonhalakhic practices into Jewish business law, even norms that had been accepted by earlier communities, or had become “the law of the land.” He maintained that the task of a rabbi was to apply norms arising from the Jewish legal system itself, and not from outside sources.

In addition to his commentaries on the Shulḥan ‘arukh, Shakh’s polemics with Taz (Nekudot ha-kesef, Kuntres Aḥaron), his writings connected to the events of 1648–1649, and a number of treatises on divorce and other halakhic topics survive. A short letter he wrote to a non-Jew, apparently a respected Hebraist, has also been preserved.

Suggested Reading

Ḥayim Nathan Dembitzer, Kelilat Yofi (Kraków, 1888), pt. 1, pp. 61–64; Ḥayim Dovberish Friedberg, Keter Kehunah (Drohobych, 1898); Samuel Joseph Fuenn (Shemu’el Yosef Fin), Kiryah Ne’emanah, 2nd ed. (Vilna, 1915), pp. 80–85.



Translated from Hebrew by Deborah Weissman