Tag Archives: Spanish Jews

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: Shimon Lavi

Father of Libyan Jewry

Shimon ibn Lavi (1486-1585) was born in Spain and exiled with his family during the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. The family settled in Fez, Morocco, where Lavi studied to become a rabbi. He then sought to make aliyah to the Holy Land, but was kidnapped along the way near Tripoli by Arab brigands. After being ransomed, he found the Tripoli Jewish community in need of a rabbi so he stayed there. It was Lavi who opened the city’s first yeshivas, established a beit din, and went on to make the city one of the largest Jewish communities in North Africa. He is often credited with being the “father of Tripoli Jews”. Rabbi Lavi was the community’s official representative to the government, and served as the Ottoman governor’s personal physician. He was also a major Kabbalist, alchemist, and mystic. In fact, he wrote the popular song “Bar Yochai”, in honour of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai whose teachings would become the Zohar (the primary “textbook” of Kabbalah) and who is celebrated on Lag b’Omer. Lavi wrote a commentary on the Zohar called Ketem Paz, as well as a dictionary translating some of the Zohar’s most cryptic words. He was widely known as a miracle worker, and was revered by Jews and Muslims alike (the latter refer to him as “Ibn Limam”), with his tomb serving as a major pilgrimage site in Libya.

Lag b’Omer Begins Tonight!

How To Celebrate Lag b’Omer

Video: Secret Origins of Lag b’Omer

Words of the Week

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.
Carl Sagan

Jew of the Week: Moses Cohen Henriques

The Jewish Pirate Who Conquered Brazil

Moses Cohen Henriques (b. 1595) was born to a family of Sephardic Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity. The family eventually made their way to Amsterdam and returned to their Jewish faith. Henriques joined the Dutch navy, and rose up through the ranks to be the right-hand man of famed Dutch admiral Piet Hein. Together, they defeated the Spanish fleet off the coast of Cuba in 1628. Following this, Henriques went to scout the Portuguese colony of Pernambuco, Brazil as a spy, to prepare for a Dutch invasion. He was part of that invasion in 1630, leading a contingent of 3000 men to successfully capture the colony. Henriques helped to turn the area into a Jewish refuge, bringing in America’s first rabbi, and establishing the first synagogue, mikveh, and yeshiva in the New World. When the Portuguese recaptured the colony in 1654 and restarted persecution of Jews, Henriques fled along with the rest of the Jewish community. To survive harsh times, he was forced to become a pirate, soon joining the infamous Henry Morgan. He became Sir Morgan’s trusted advisor. Henriques later ventured on his own, establishing a pirate island off the Brazilian coast. The Inquisition sought to capture him for years, unsuccessfully, and Henriques saw it as his mission to avenge the evil that the Spanish and Portuguese had done to the Jews. After the English conquered Jamaica, Henriques settled there and lived out the rest of his life on the island, helping to establish its Jewish community. When his old friend Henry Morgan became Jamaica’s governor, he gave Henriques a full pardon for piracy in 1681.

Illustration depicting the burning of Jews at the stake, from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

Words of the Week

The Jews are our chief supplyers in Barbadoes, and would sell very cheap, and give one not seldom two years to pay, by which credit the poorer sort of planter did wonderfully improve their condition.
Sir Thomas Modyford (d. 1679), English governor of Barbados and Jamaica


*The biography above is adapted from Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, by Ed Kritzler.