Tag Archives: Spanish Jews

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Moshe Cordovero

The First Systemiser of Kabbalah

The grave of the Ramak in Tzfat, Israel

Moshe ben Yaakov Cordovero (1522-1570) was born in Tzfat, Israel to a Sephardic family from Cordoba, Spain that fled during the Expulsion of 1492. The family first settled in Portugal before Portugal, too, expelled its Jews. They eventually made it to Israel and settled in Tzfat. By the time he was twenty, young Moshe was already recognized as a great sage and rabbi, a leader of Tzfat’s rapidly-growing Jewish community, and the head of its Portuguese Yeshiva. That same year, he heard a Heavenly voice instruct him to begin the study of the Zohar, the central textbook of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah). He began studying with his brother-in-law, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (famous for composing Lecha Dodi). Within a few short years, he mastered the entire Zohar—and the rest of Kabbalah with it. In 1548 he completed his magnum opus, Pardes Rimonim, “Pomegranate Orchard”, which organized and integrated all of the vast Kabbalistic wisdom into one cohesive system. He then wrote a 16-volume commentary on the Zohar, and was soon recognized as the world’s preeminent Kabbalist. In 1550, he opened his own mystical school, and attracted rabbis from far and wide to come study with him. Among them was Rabbi Chaim Vital, and many years later, the great Arizal. The latter only arrived in Tzfat on the day that Rabbi Moshe Cordovero—immortalized as the “Ramak”, based on his initials—passed away. The Arizal would go on to create his own Kabbalistic system, which later inspired several more branches, including those of the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism), and the Ramchal. However, the Ramak will always remain as the first great systemiser of Jewish mysticism. The Ramak wrote several other renowned works, and devised a new system of Jewish meditation, too. He is still ranked among the greatest Jewish mystics of all time. Today is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

The pageant of evolution [consists of] a staggeringly improbable series of events, utterly unpredictable and quite unrepeatable… human beings are an improbable and fragile entity… it fills us with amazement that human beings ever evolved at all.
– Stephen J. Gould, world-renowned evolutionary biologist

Jews of the Week: Sinan Reis and Samuel Pallache

Jewish Pirates!

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

Jew of the Week: Benjamin of Tudela

The Jew Who Inspired Marco Polo

A 19th century engraving of ‘Benjamin of Tudela in the Sahara’

Binyamin MiTudela (1130-1173) was born to a religious Sephardic family in the town of Tudela, now in Spain. In 1165, he set out for what is believed to be a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He had a larger objective in mind as well, since this was at the height of the Crusades and a perilous time for anyone to make a pilgrimage, especially Jews. Binyamin wanted to explore all the Jewish communities along the way and to create a detailed map showing the route one should take and where a Jew can find safe refuge on his journey. This would open the door for more Jews to take a trip to their beloved Holy Land. A lover of history and geography, he also wished to leave a record of what the Jewish (and non-Jewish) world looked like in the 12th century. Binyamin recorded all that he saw in his Sefer haMasa’at, “Book of Travels”, also known as Masa’aot Binyamin. His adventures were so popular they were soon translated into just about every European language. Today, the book is among the most important historical documents for scholars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as of Jewish and Muslim history. A great deal of what we know about that era, including the daily lives of simple people, comes from his book. Some believe that it was this book that may have inspired another, more famous, adventurer about a century later: Marco Polo. Binyamin’s travels took him to France and the Italian Peninsula, then to Greece and across what is today Turkey to the Near East, then to Persia, back around the Arabian Peninsula, to Egypt, and returning to Iberia by way of North Africa. While in Ethiopia, he describes a large Jewish community, which was a key source of information allowing modern-day Ethiopian Jews to be accepted by the State of Israel and the rabbinate. He is possibly the first writer to detail the community of Al-Hashishin, better known as “Assassins”, as well as among the first to describe the Druze. In Posquières, he meets and describes the great Raavad. In Rome, he sees a Rabbi Yechiel, who is an advisor to the Pope, and has “free access to the Pope’s palace”! While in Baghdad, he writes of the Caliph, who is “like a Pope” for Muslims, and that the Caliph is fluent in Hebrew and knows Torah law extensively, though he rules with an iron fist. All in all, Benjamin of Tudela visited and wrote about some 300 cities. Today, there are streets named after him in Jerusalem and in Tudela, Spain, where there is also a high school bearing his name.

Words of the Week

One day I learned that dreams exist to come true, and since that day I do not sleep for rest. I sleep just to dream.
– Walt Disney