Tag Archives: Ottoman Empire

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Yosef Karo

Code of Jewish Law

19th Century Illustration of Rabbi Yosef Karo

Yosef ben Ephraim Karo (1488-1575) was born in Toledo, then in the Spanish kingdom of Castile. The infamous 1492 Spanish Expulsion of the Jews took place when he was just four years old. The family first fled to Portugal, and were then expelled from there as well in 1497. They eventually settled in Nikopolis, in the Ottoman Empire, which had opened its doors to Sephardic Jewish refugees. (The Ottoman Sultan at the time, Bayezid II, reportedly said: “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man, but he is a fool, for he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.”) Karo was tutored by his rabbi father and soon became a rabbi himself. He also studied under the great Rabbi Yosef Taitazak in Salonica. For a couple of years, he served as a rabbi in Adrianople, and eventually resettled in Tzfat. At the time, Tzfat was experiencing a resurgence of Jewish life and a renaissance in Jewish scholarship, thanks mainly to an influx of Sephardic Jewish refugees. It soon became the “capital” of Jewish mysticism, and Rabbi Karo was one of its most famous mystics and scholars. It was in Tzfat that he composed the Shulchan Arukh, to this day the standard code of Jewish law worldwide. (Tzfat boasted one of the first printing presses in the Middle East, helping to spread the Shulchan Arukh far and wide and making it extremely popular and accessible.) The Shulchan Arukh was itself only a summary of the far broader and more complex Beit Yosef, which was Rabbi Karo’s true magnum opus that he worked on for over twenty years. Rabbi Karo opened his own yeshiva, with 200 students including the renowned “Ramak”, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero. Karo also served as the chief rabbi on the Tzfat beit din. In fact, he was one of the main leaders in a rabbinic attempt to re-establish the ancient Sanhedrin. Rabbi Karo was recognized as the preeminent authority for all Sephardic Jewry worldwide, and was deeply respected by Ashkenazi Jews as well who, on several occasions, asked him to intervene in local European disputes. Among his other noted publications are Kesef Mishneh, a commentary on the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, along with a textbook for Talmudic study. One of his most intriguing works is Maggid Meisharim, a personal journal which records his prophetic experiences and the teachings he received from an angel over a period of fifty years. Rabbi Karo is often referred to simply as Maran, “Our Master”.

Words of the Week

Today, what is demanded of the Jewish people is mesirut nefesh, self-sacrifice, and this is particularly true with regard to chinuch, education. The resources for which we have labored must be dedicated to the education of children – both our own, and the children of others.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Panigel

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.

What is Shemitah, the Sabbatical Year?

Words of the Week

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
– Albert Camus

Jew of the Week: Sir Sassoon Eskell

Father of Iraq

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