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The Child Bribe of Tripoli

I. MARRIAGE, ANNULMENT AND MARRIAGE

In 1516, two brothers in Tripoli, Lebanon (not Libya) married their children to each other — a nine-year old girl named Yakuta to her first cousin, Pinchas, who was probably not much older than 13. Eight months later, the Ottomans conquered the city. The young couple was captured and separated. Yakuta was eventually released but Pinchas disappeared, rumored to have converted to Islam and assimilated into the population. Without witnesses or knowledge of Pinchas’ death or whereabouts, the young bride was left an agunah. She made her way to Egypt with her father and after a number of years, they approached rabbis with witnesses who testified that the marriage was invalid.

Child brides lack the ability to consent to a marriage. Instead, her father consents on her behalf. Yakuta and her father claimed that he and his brother had argued before the wedding, with Yakuta’s father never giving consent. Since she was married against her father’s will, the marriage is null and she may remarry without a divorce.

When the witnesses met with the rabbis of the court, some testified that the father consented, undermining Yakuta’s claim, while others testified that he did not consent. However, the proceedings took place at night, which are invalid. The witnesses testified again to other rabbis, this time during the day, at which time they all said that Yakuta’s father did not consent to the marriage. The rabbis of the original court did not believe this story. Could it be true that a community of over 800 families celebrated this wedding while the bride’s father objected? Why was Yakuta silent for years? And why did the witnesses change their story overnight?

Another court took interest and accepted the final testimony of the witnesses. The court conducted more investigations for over two years and finally declared Yakuta free to marry, against the protests of the rabbis of the original court. Yakuta married in 1523 and had a number of children, whom some rabbis considered illegitimate and others considered perfectly fine.

II. REOPENING THE CASE

In 1530, when he arrived in Egypt, Rav Ya’akov (Mahari) Beirav was invited by members of the original court to review the case, which they considered a travesty. Mahari Beirav then went to the rabbis who permitted the woman to marry to hear their arguments. He left convinced that the rabbis had permitted adultery. Mahari Beirav issued a call to survivors of the conquest of Tripoli who remembered the wedding. He traveled across Israel, through Gaza and Jerusalem, threatening with excommunication those who remembered the wedding but failed to testify.

Many witnesses came forward and Mahari Beirav recorded the testimonies and sent them to the strict rabbis in Egypt and to Rav Levi Ibn Chaviv (Ralbach) in Jerusalem, to send to the leading rabbis in Egypt who permitted Yakuta’s marriage. Ralbach was reluctant to get involved with this political mess and apparently somewhere in the chain of delivery, a truncated and inaccurate version of the testimonies was sent to Egypt. Additionally, in a strange turn of events, Mahari Beirav and the strict rabbis in Egypt lost the testimonies. Mahari Beirav writes that he heard from multiple witnesses who remember that the two brothers fought before the wedding over the amount of money pledged to the bride in the kesubah. However, an elder of the community sat down with the brothers and together they reached an agreement so the wedding could take place, which both brothers celebrated together with the rest of the community.

The testimonies sent to Egypt were missing important information. The lenient rabbis investigated the four witnesses and found that two had left Tripoli long before the wedding. Now already 1533, Mahari Beirav sent them a responsum (Responsa Mahari Beirav, no. 56) containing pertinent information about the testimonies along with arguments about why the remaining testimonies are valid. Even though two of the testimonies are invalid, Mahari Beirav argues that the other two witnesses can be combined for a valid testimony. Since none of the four witnesses testified together, one or two bad witnesses do not invalidate any of the others.

III. CLOSURE

The other rabbis — who had previously permitted the marriage — came to Jerusalem to recollect testimony from the witnesses. This time, the witnesses all testified that the bride’s father refused to consent to the marriage. After all his effort, Mahari Beirav was furious at what presumably he saw as rabbis being fooled by a conspiracy. From his perspective, it was clear what was happening. Everyone in Tripoli knew about the fight and the wedding, which is why people who weren’t even there would testify about it. But they also knew that the girl was destined to remain alone for the rest of her life. All they had to do was say that the father didn’t approve and her life would be salvaged. In short, it was a deception born of mercy that attempted to make a mockery of halakhah.

One of the lenient rabbis, Rav Shmuel Ha-Levi, wrote a response to Mahari Beirav’s responsum. Needless to say, Mahari Beirav then wrote an even lengthier critique of Rav Shmuel Ha-Levi’s letter. In return, both Rav David Ibn Zimra (Radbaz; Responsa 4:57) and Rav Moshe (Maharam) Alashkar (Responsa, 16) wrote permissive responsa, the latter with very sharp, personal language about Mahari Beirav.

What were these other rabbis thinking? The lengthy responsa on the subject address mainly issues of procedure regarding witnesses and testimony. Maharam Alashkar, in particular, clashed with Mahari Beirav multiple times with harsh words. He did not seem to trust the latter’s judgment, knowledge or ability. Another possibility is that they concluded that in a case of an agunah, they must take every leniency possible, push halakhah to its limit without breaking it. While this woman’s husband was rumored to be alive, he might not have been, and therefore extreme leniency might be appropriate. In the end, the permissive logic of these great sages isn’t clear.