Tag Archives: Spanish Expulsion

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: Abraham Seneor

The Crown Rabbi Who Built Spain

A Castilian maravedi gold coin issued in 1191

Abraham Seneor (1412-1493) was born in Segovia, Castile, into a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family who served as treasurers and accountants for Spanish monarchs. Seneor himself served the Castilian crown. In 1469, he was the key negotiator that arranged the marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon, resulting in the eventual birth of the new Kingdom of Spain. Seneor became Isabella’s main advisor and confidante. In 1480, Isabella decreed that Seneor would receive a lifetime pension of a whopping 100,000 maravedi coins per year for his invaluable services. He was also appointed the Jewish chief justice and “crown rabbi”. In this role, he worked together with his close friend and fellow rabbi-treasurer, Don Isaac Abarbanel. Between the two of them, they were able to raise the sums needed for the Spanish to defeat the Moors in the War of Grenada. They were also the ones that got crown support and funding for Christopher Columbus’ first trip to America. Seneor often intervened on behalf of the Jews, and saved countless Jewish lives by ransoming those that had been captured by pirates. In 1492, the Spanish decreed the Edict of Expulsion to exile all Jews who did not convert to Christianity. Seneor was 80 years old, and knew he wouldn’t survive exile and expulsion. While the younger Abarbanel refused to stay in Spain (although he was given an exemption), the older Seneor decided to convert, at least publicly, in order to keep his influential role and try to ease the plight of the Jews as much as possible. He helped secure temporary refugee for the Jews in Portugal, then did whatever he could to make sure the Jewish exiles did not lose all of their wealth. Still, he was unable to survive the stress of the ordeal and passed away just months after the Expulsion. Seneor had taken on the new name Fernando Coronel, starting a new lineage of Spanish nobility. The Coronel children continued to play important roles in Spanish affairs for decades to come. Many of them were arrested by the Inquisition for continuing to practice Judaism in secret; some were executed and others deported. A great number ultimately returned to Judaism in Holland and the Americas.

Words of the Week

Israel was extraordinary in being the one socially revolutionary people in the Near East to produce a literature and to survive as a distinctive cultural and religious entity.
Norman Gottwald, renowned professor of Biblical studies and political activist

Jews of the Week: Abraham Garton & Gershom Soncino

The First Jewish Printers

Abraham Garton (c. 1450-1510) was born in Spain and moved with his family to Calabria, Italy sometime before the Spanish Expulsion of 1492 (which took place on Tisha b’Av). Little is known of his life. Inspired by Johannes Gutenberg, who produced the first printed book in Europe in 1439, Garton established his own printing press to produce Jewish books. His first publication was the Torah commentary of the great Rashi, produced in 1475. In order to avoid using the holy script of the Torah itself, and to be able to fit more letters on a page, Garton decided to use a special cursive Hebrew font previously developed by Sephardic rabbis. This went on to become the standard font for printing the commentary of Rashi on the Torah and Talmud, as well as the commentaries of other sages, and is referred to as “Rashi script” – even though Rashi himself never used it!

Rashi script, originally developed by Sephardic rabbis in Spain (top) compared to regular Hebrew script (bottom).

Emblem of the Soncino family and printing press

Several years later, Yehoshua Shlomo (the son of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants to Italy) established a Hebrew printing press in the town of Soncino, and later in Naples. He undertook the publication of the entire Talmud, starting with the first tractate, Berakhot, in 1483. The work was taken over by his nephew, Gershom Girolamo Soncino (c. 1460-1533). A scholar in his own right, Gershom was fluent in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. In addition to the Talmud, he published books of Torah and the Megillot, as well as various rabbinic texts. He traveled all over Europe to find manuscripts that he could publish. He also produced non-Jewish books, and became famous among Italians for the high quality of his work. All in all, he produced some 200 works, and was the first to use illustrations in a Hebrew book. Soncino later established printing presses in other cities, the last in Constantinople, where he lived out the remainder of his life. He became wealthy, and used his funds to assist Sephardic Jews following the 1492 Expulsion from Spain, and the Portuguese Expulsion in 1497. The Soncino family printed Jewish books until 1557, playing a key role in the wide-spread dissemination of Jewish wisdom, and opening up the study of Jewish texts to the masses. Soncino Press was reestablished in London in the late 19th century, and continues to publish Jewish books today.

How to Observe Judaism in Outer Space  

Words of the Week

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.
– George Bernard Shaw