The Rabbi Who Captured a Lion, and Saved Israeli Farmers
Raphael Meir ben Yehuda Panigel (1804-1893) was born in Bulgaria—then part of the Ottoman Empire—the only child of a wealthy and religious Sephardic Jewish family. When he was 3 years old, the family moved to Jerusalem. Despite being orphaned at 15, Panigel soon became a respected rabbi in the Holy City. At just 27 years old, the community appointed him as their official emissary to travel around the world to teach Torah and to collect funds in support of the old yishuv, the Jewish community that struggled to make a living in the Holy Land. In 1845, he was received by Pope Gregory XVI and inspired him to support and protect Jewish communities in Christian lands. Rabbi Panigel made several trips across North Africa, gaining a reputation as a holy miracle-worker. In one famous incident that happened in Tunis, a lion escaped from the city’s zoo and was terrorizing the locals. Incredibly, it was Rabbi Panigel that captured the lion. When he was asked how he did so, he replied that one who is righteous and fears God need not fear anything else. In 1880, Rabbi Panigel was appointed the Rishon LeZion, Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, and in 1890, the Ottomans made him hakham bashi, chief authority representing the Jewish community. He composed a penetrating work called Lev Marpe with novel Torah and Talmudic insights. He was also instrumental in developing heter mechira, allowing Jewish farmers in Israel to continue working during the Sabbatical shemitah year (such as this year) in a kosher way. As the shemitah of 1889 approached, the struggling Jewish immigrants of the First Aliyah worried how they would survive if they had to let the land lie fallow, considering the country was then completely undeveloped. After consultations with other Torah luminaries, Rabbi Panigel found a way to work around the shemitah restrictions, allowing the faithful farmers to survive while also adhering to Torah law. Rabbi Panigel was the first to institute heter mechira, a practice which continues in Israel to this day. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the famous “father of Modern Hebrew”, wrote of how he was inspired by Rabbi Panigel and described him as being of “electrifying” holiness, like one of the Biblical Patriarchs.
Sassoon Eskell (1860-1932) was born in Baghdad to a wealthy and illustrious Mizrachi Jewish family. At the time, some 40% of Baghdad’s population was Jewish. Eskell’s father was a rabbi, and at one point served as the chief rabbi of India’s large Baghdadi community. Eskell studied law and economics in Istanbul, London, and Vienna. He spoke nine languages fluently, and became the official translator (dragoman) for the Ottoman government in Baghdad. When the Ottomans drafted a constitution and established a new Turkish Parliament in 1908, Eskell was elected as Baghdad’s deputy representative. He also served as the under-secretary of state for trade and agriculture, and represented the Ottomans on multiple international delegations. At the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Eskell was among the key figures that pushed for Iraqi independence. He was one of two Iraqi representatives that negotiated with Winston Churchill in creating the new state and choosing its first king. Eskell went on to be Iraq’s first finance minister, and continued in this role through the next five governments. He was the primary advisor to the Iraqi king and prime minister, and was described as “by far the ablest man” on Iraq’s governing council. Eskell was elected to the first Iraqi parliament in 1925, and continued to serve on it until his death. He is often referred to as the “Father of Iraqi Parliament”. Among his many significant achievements was making sure that Iraq’s oil was sold to the British for gold, not pounds sterling. While this was unusual at the time, the British pound soon lost most of its value and was no longer backed by gold. Sassoon thus ensured Iraq’s wealth was not diminished, and that it would continue to profit from its oil sales. These funds were critical in ensuring the success and viability of the nascent state. Eskell was also a major philanthropist and gave countless sums to charity. Much of his wealth went to the Jewish National Fund to support the re-establishment of Israel. The village of Kfar Yehezkel in Israel is named after him. Among his many other awards and honours, Eskell was knighted by King George V. Several years ago, the Iraqi government demolished his historic 100-year old home in a controversial move that made way for a new development.
Words of the Week
Those who stand for nothing fall for anything. – Alexander Hamilton
Sinan Reis (c. 1492-1546) was born to a Sephardic family that was expelled from Spain during the Expulsion of 1492 and settled in the Ottoman city of Smyrna. At the time, many Jews became pirates, attacking Spanish vessels both for revenge and to reclaim some of their confiscated wealth. Sinan joined the Barbary corsair pirates that sailed under the Ottoman flag. He became the right-hand man of the well-known pirate and Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa. The two fought and won many battles against the Spanish and the Holy Roman Empire. The most famous was the Battle of Preveza in 1538. Barbarossa took Sinan’s military advice, leading to a magnificent Ottoman victory. Two years later, Sinan’s young son was captured at sea and forcibly baptized. The Christians refused to release him to the “infidels”, so Barbarossa led a fleet to bombard the Italian city of Piombino until Sinan’s son was finally freed. Barbarossa later dedicated his memoirs to Sinan, who was often referred to as Sinan Reis or Rayyis, Arabic for “chief”. Historical records from England describe him as “the famous Jewish pirate”, while the governor of Portuguese India at the time called him “the Great Jew”. Sinan went on to become Supreme Naval Commander of the Ottoman fleet.
Scholars believe Rembrandt’s famous painting ‘Man in Oriental Costume’ is a portrait of Samuel Pallache.
Samuel Pallache (c. 1550-1615) was also born to a Sephardic family, one that had fled Spain long before the Expulsion and settled in Morocco. His father and uncle were renowned rabbis, and Pallache became a rabbi, too. He also engaged heavily in commerce, and often took his merchant ships to the Netherlands, where other members of the Pallache family lived. When the Dutch made an alliance with Morocco against the Spanish in 1608, the Moroccan sultan appointed Pallache as his envoy to the Dutch. Two years later, Pallache negotiated a free trade agreement between the Dutch and the Moroccans, possibly the first such treaty ever made between a European and non-European state. Around the same time, the Dutch prince Maurice made Pallache a privateer (a pirate for hire). Pallache’s merchant fleet became a pirate fleet, and for the next several years his job was to capture Spanish and Portuguese vessels. In 1614, a storm diverted his ship to England, where he was arrested at the request of the Spanish. Prince Maurice got him released, and Pallache returned to Amsterdam where he lived out the rest of his life. Records show that he was a co-founder of Amsterdam’s illustrious Jewish community. His son was one of Amsterdam’s greatest rabbis, and a teacher of (former Jews of the Week) Menashe ben Israel and Isaac Aboab da Fonseca. Another descendant is the renowned Rabbi Haim Palachi.
Words of the Week
I like the impossible because there’s less competition. – Walt Disney