Tag Archives: Ottoman Empire

Jews of the Week: Rav Saragossi and the Radbaz

Two Inspiring Sages

Tomb of Rabbi Yosef Saragossi in Ein Zeitim, Israel

Yosef Saragossi (1460-1507) was born to a religious Sephardic family, either in Saragossa, Spain, or in Syracuse, Sicily. He became a respected rabbi at a young age. Around the time of the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, Rav Saragossi settled in Tzfat. He discovered a tiny community of just 300 poorly-educated Jews, with not a single full-time rabbi among them. Rav Saragossi revived the three synagogues in the city and founded new schools, reinvigorating Jewish life. His yeshiva soon attracted students from far and wide. Within a century, Tzfat was a major centre of Jewish learning, and the capital of Jewish mysticism. There, Rabbi Yosef Karo would produce the Shulchan Arukh, still the central code of Jewish law, and there the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria) revealed his Kabbalistic system, forever revolutionizing Judaism. Rav Saragossi was beloved not only by Tzfat’s Jews, but by its Muslim residents, too. In fact, the Muslim governor at the time paid two-thirds of Rav Yosef’s salary just to keep him from leaving. Rav Saragossi’s tomb remains an important pilgrimage site, and is known as a place of miracles. Because of one such miracle involving 500 white hens, he has been called Tzadik haLavan, “the White Saint”.

One of Rav Saragossi’s foremost students was David ben Shlomo ibn Abi Zimra (c. 1479-1589). He, too, was born in Spain, and was exiled around the time of his bar mitzvah. His family settled in Tzfat, and the young David studied in Rav Saragossi’s yeshiva. Becoming a renowned rabbi of his own (later known by his initials, Radbaz, as is common among Jewish sages), he moved to Egypt and became a member of its beit din, the Jewish court. He would soon be appointed Hakham Bashi, Egypt’s chief rabbi. Meanwhile, the Radbaz made some good investments, and became exceedingly wealthy. He built a new yeshiva in Cairo, and it was there that a young Isaac Luria, the Arizal, would get his start. After serving as Chief Rabbi for nearly forty years, writing a number of important books, and penning over 3000 responsa, the Radbaz retired at age 90. He left most of his wealth for the poor, then returned to the Holy Land. Although he wished to settle in Jerusalem, the Ottomans made it difficult for Jews to live there, so the Radbaz returned to Tzfat. He was immediately placed on the highest beit din, alongside Rav Yosef Karo. The Radbaz merited to live many more years, inspiring a new generation of rabbis, including the great Rabbi Chaim Vital. He was over 100 years old when he passed away.

Words of the Week

It is never too late to be what you might have been.
– George Eliot

Jews of the Week: Moses Levy and David Levy Yulee

The Abolition of Slavery and the First Jewish Senator 

David Levy Yulee

David Levy Yulee

Moshe Eliyahu Levy Yulee (1782-1854) was born in Morocco to a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family. His father was a prominent figure in the Ottoman Empire, and an adviser to the Sultan. Moshe went off on his own across the Atlantic, settling in the US Virgin Islands, and dropping the family name of “Yulee”, now going by Moses Elias Levy. He made his own fortune in the lumber and merchant trades, then moved the whole family to Florida. There, he purchased 100,000 acres of land and established it as a refuge for persecuted European Jews. He also planned for a 50,000 acre “New Jerusalem” in Florida. Levy has been described as a “proto-Zionist”, as he sought to re-establish a Jewish homeland in Israel long before the official Zionist movement began. Though he originally owned slaves, Levy soon joined the anti-slavery movement, and in 1828 published the popular treatise A Plan For the Abolition of Slavery. Levy’s work was instrumental in abolishing slavery in both the United States and across the British Empire. In 1835, Levy’s fortunes soured with the outbreak of the Second Seminole War, which devastated his land in Florida, destroyed the refuge, and strained his finances. In poor health, Levy retired to St. Augustine, Florida, where he slowly rebuilt his wealth.

His son, David Levy Yulee (1810-1886) was elected to the House of Representatives in 1841. When Florida became a state in 1845, he became the first Jew in the US Senate. The following year, he married into a prominent Kentucky family, and to do so, had to convert to Christianity. Though he only did this in name at the request of his wife, the move drove a wedge between David and his father, and the two became permanently estranged. After failing to win re-election in 1850, David turned to business, first opening a sugar plantation, and then spearheading the construction of railroads across Florida. Yulee returned to the Senate in 1855, after his father’s death. When the Civil War began, he joined the Confederates, for which he was imprisoned following the war. After being released, Yulee continued his railroad ventures, and went on to be nicknamed the “Father of Florida Railroads”. The town of Yulee and Yulee County in Florida are named after him, and he was selected as one of the “Greatest Floridians” in 2000.

Words of the Week

You are not as great as you think, and the world is not as bad as it seems.
– Rabbi Wolf of Strikov

Jew of the Week: Dona Gracia Mendes

Commemorative Coin of Dona Gracia Mendes

Commemorative Medal of Dona Gracia Mendes

Hanna ‘Gracia’ Nasi (1510-1569) was born in Lisbon, Portugal to a family of conversos – aka Marranos, Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity – and named Beatriz de Luna Miquez. She married Francisco Mendes Benveniste, a wealthy spice trader and banker. When she was only 28, Gracia’s husband passed away, leaving the business to her and his brother. Gracia thus joined her brother-in-law in Antwerp (then part of the Spanish Netherlands). From there, she organized an escape network for Jews to flee Spain and Portugal from the Inquisition, smuggling them in spice ships, providing them with money and documents to make their way to the Ottoman Empire where Jews were still welcome. This saved the lives of countless Jews, who nicknamed her ‘Our Angel’. Shortly after, her brother-in-law died as well, leaving Gracia alone at the helm of the massive Mendes financial empire, dealing with the likes of European kings, the Sultan of Turkey, and several Popes. At the time, she was possibly the most powerful woman in the world. After a series of political intrigues, which included an unjust imprisonment and several attempts to seize her wealth, Gracia settled in Istanbul, where she was now free to return to her religion. She built and financed dozens of synagogues and yeshivas across the Ottoman Empire. In 1558, the Sultan granted her a lease for the desolate town of Tiberias in Israel. Gracia began rebuilding the town, allowing Jewish refugees to settle there, with the vision of reestablishing a Jewish homeland in Israel. Many historians consider this the earliest modern Zionist attempt. Today, Donna Gracia has become a feminist icon, and is celebrated as a hero around the world. Both Philadelphia and New York City host a ‘Dona Gracia Day’, and the Turkish government has sponsored exhibits in her honour. There is a museum exploring her life in Tiberias, and the ‘La Senora’ synagogue of Istanbul, named after her, still stands to this day. Dona Gracia is the aunt of past Jew of the Week Joseph Nasi

 

 

Words of the Week

One of the greatest tragedies of intellectual human experience is that we study Bible stories when we are 55 in the same manner as we studied them when we were 5.
– Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky