Rabbi Abraham Antebi (1765-1858) and the earthquake that devastated Aleppo

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Rabbi Abraham Antebi ז”ל was born in Aleppo (Aram Tzoba), Syria, in 1765. He was a descent  of Jews expelled from Spain who settled in the city of En-Tab, now known as Antep, located in the south of Turkey. His great-great-grandfather, Hakham Rahamim (1554-1627), emigrated from En-Tab to Aleppo, and hence the origin of his last name Antebi.

In his youth he studied mainly with his father, Hakham Itzhaq Antebi, of the great sages of Aleppo. In 1817 he was appointed Rabbi and Superior Judge of all Aleppo, a position he held for more than 40 years.

Rabbi Antebi was a prolific author. His works deal mainly with halakha (Jewish law), derushim (speeches and sermons) and musar (Jewish ethics). He also composed several poems and songs of religious character. But no less than for his works, he was noted for his passionate dedication to the welfare of his community that in those years was in a very difficult situation.

In 1824 an earthquake devastated the city of Aleppo and about a thousand Jews died (in those days, the community did not exceed 10,000 people) and those who were saved, including the Rabbi, had to camp in improvised tents outside the city and live there for 18 months. At that time Rabbi Antebi wrote his first book, which he called Yosheb Ohalim,  “Seated in the Tents”. This book contains sermons on the weekly sections of the Tora in which it combines, in a very creative way, the halakhic analysis, the biblical stories and the hagadic narratives (stories and parables of the sages). In those improvised tents, without his  books, Rabbi Antebi wrote his work quoting all sources from his memory.

The main problem Rabbi Antebi faced as a community leader was the general impoverishment of the community. Revenue fell, prices rose and the Ottoman Empire demanded more taxes. There are many stories about how the Rabbi dedicated all his efforts to supporting the needy. In his musar books Ohel Yesharim and Hochma Umusar he writes extensively about how each Jew is guarantor for his Yehudi brothers and should not ignore them in their times of trouble. He also wrote that one of the reasons for the bad economic situation of the Aleppo Jews was because people were only engaged in trade and had no professions. The Rabbi exhorted parents to provide their children with a profession and not be content with just training them in trade.

One of the Rabbi’s most important books is Mor Vahalot, questions and answers on innumerable cases that appeared in the community and required an authoritative rabbinical opinion.

Let’s look at one of these questions (H.M. 2).

The custom of the Jewish courts in Aleppo was that the chief Rabbi of the city, then Rabbi Antebi, judged individually the various monetary conflicts, without being accompanied by two other judges (dayanim), which was the common practice of the other rabbinical judges.

The Rabbi was questioned for this procedure. It was not a legal problem, since according to the halakha the litigants can accept to be judged by a single dayan, but still there was an “ethical” problem. The famous rabbi Rabbi Shabetai Hakohen (the Shakh, Poland, seventeenth century, in HM 3, 10), based on the Shulhan Arukh and the Talmud of Jerusalem, wrote that although technically the rabbinical judge can judge for himself, it is not right that a judge would do so, unless he is a great expert in rabbinical jurisprudence. But it does not end there. Rabbi Shakh goes on to say that no one today can be considered as a “great expert” as it was in the time of the Talmud. Since with the passing of the generations the knowledge of Tora has diminished. Therefore today no rabbi should judge individually. And many prominent rabbis adopted the Shakh’s opinion.

At this point Rabbi Abraham enlightens us with his halakhic vision. Rabbi Antebi disagreed with the vision of the Shakh. These are some of his words:

“Contrary [to what Rabbi Shakh said], it is more common to find an expert in our generations than in the generations of the Talmud, since the whole expertise [of the Talmud sages] was based on memory and oral transmission. In those times to be an expert was not very common. The same is not true in our generation, because all [the law] is already written in the books and [the Sages] did not leave any great or small matter without recording it. Therefore, if a rabbinical judge knows how to legally analyze[the case at hand] and he is familiar with the books of the posqim (halakhic lawmakers), there is no doubt that he can be considered a “great expert” in law.

Rabbi Abraham Antebi died in Aleppo in 1858 at the age of 93, and is remembered to this day as one of Aleppo’s greatest luminaries.

Written for Halakha of the Day by Abraham Sacca, son of Rabbi Isaac Sacca of Buenos Aires, ARGENTINA