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Berekhyah Berakh ben Yitsḥak

(d. after 1665), prominent preacher in Kraków. Berekhyah Berakh ben Yitsḥak was a student of the noted kabbalist Natan Spira; Berakh’s wife’s brother was the son-in-law of the celebrated Talmudist and communal leader Yom Tov Lipmann Heller.

Berakh followed Spira’s method and delivered weekly sermons at the Kraków synagogue, ultimately incorporating these into the book Zera‘ Berakh (1646), a classic of Polish Jewish homiletic literature. Berakh added a second cycle of homilies on the weekly readings and published a combined edition in Amsterdam in 1662 (reissued in Jerusalem in 1986), with a new introduction containing a trenchant critique of contemporary Polish Jewish culture.

Reviewing the catastrophic losses recently sustained by Polish Jewry during the Khmel’nyts’kyi massacres and insisting that “God does not act unjustly,” Berakh specified the community sins that he felt had led to the suffering. He excoriated the “empty brilliance” of intricate Talmudic dialectics—pilpul—that he felt were threatening “the simple truth of the Torah,” and condemned the trend of publishing books containing kabbalistic material and thus popularizing doctrines that should, he believed, remain esoteric.

Berakh denounced the new style of “mendacious preachers” who purported to uncover meanings never intended in classical texts, and the practice of hiring cantors with beautiful voices despite their ignorance of the liturgy. He deplored the institution of the arenda, whereby “Jews lease towns or villages from the great nobles in order to sell liquor,” resulting in violations of Jewish law. And he censured rabbis for casually issuing approbations to unworthy books, lay leaders for pressuring learned preachers not to address community affairs, and both for not enforcing bans issued against wearing ostentatious clothing and taking bribes. His tirades, a dramatic contrast to the romantic idealization of Polish Jewish culture by Natan Note Hannover, do not reflect the technique of rebuke recommended in Zera‘ Berakh itself, which called for indirect criticism and allusion.

Whatever Berakh may have said from the pulpit, the actual homiletic essays following the introduction to Zera‘ Berakh contain little social criticism. Largely exegetical, with more space devoted to rabbinic agadot than to biblical verses (and often with very little reference to the actual weekly portion), they follow a so-called catenary structure, comprising a chain of exegetical insights with a series of textual problems discussed, each leading to the next issue more by association than by relevance to a clearly articulated conceptual topic. This mode of preaching, common in Eastern Europe, differed dramatically from the sermons of Berakh’s Sephardic and Italian contemporaries. Berakh quotes extensively from Spira and from the rich body of kabbalistic ethical and homiletic literature before suggesting his own solutions to the exegetical problems he raises.

Near the end of his life, Berakh became enthralled by the Sabbatian messianic movement. Traveling to Ottoman territory, he visited Shabetai Tsevi, then imprisoned in Gallipoli. Berakh’s widely circulated letter reports on his visit. Some have suggested that the figure of Rabbi Benish in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Satan in Goray (the subject of which was the impact of the Sabbatian movement in Poland) was based in part on Berakh.

Suggested Reading

Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, Hagut ve-hanhagah (Jerusalem, 1959); Gershom G. Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626–1676, trans. R. J. Zwi Werblowsky (Princeton, 1973).