Barak was born on September 16, 1936, in Kaunas, Lithuania and spent three years in the Kovno Ghetto following the Nazi occupation of his country. At the end of the war, his family wandered through Hungary, Austria, and Italy before finally settling in Rome for two years. In 1947, they received travel papers and immigrated to Palestine, and moved to Jerusalem.
He studied law, international relations, and economics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and obtained his Bachelor of Laws in 1958. Between 1958 and 1960, having been drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces, he served in the office of the Financial Advisor to the Chief of Staff. Upon his discharge, he returned to the Hebrew University, where he completed his doctoral dissertation with distinction in 1963.
In 1968, Barak was appointed Associate Professor of Law at Hebrew University, and by 1974 he had become the Dean of the Faculty of Law. The prior year he was awarded the Kaplan Prize for excellence in science and research, and in 1975, he was awarded the Israel Prize for his contributions to Israeli society in the legal sciences.
From 1975 to 1978, Barak served as Attorney General of Israel, and in 1978, he was appointed to sit as a justice on the Israeli Supreme Court. In 1993, Barak was appointed Deputy President of the Supreme Court, and he assumed the presidency in 1995, a position he held until 2006, when he retired due to age constraints.
In 2023, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu pursued several controversial legal reforms that were directed in part at the activist judicial approach introduced by Barak. Moshe Koppel and Eugene Kontorovich explained one reason for the proposed reforms was the “unchecked power” they say the Court assumed in the early 1990s when Barak “announced that even in the absence of a constitution, the Court could invalidate legislation and block government actions with which it disagreed…Barak retroactively declared Israel’s Basic Laws to be a functional constitution and began striking down laws on that basis.”
In 2005, Barak was voted the 39th-greatest Israeli of all time in an online poll conducted by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth.