Modern Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Development in Torah and Kabala

The Italian Ghetto.

So far the general status of the Jews in Europe; now let us survey their condition in separate lands. Let us turn our attention first to Italy and Turkey.

Although Italy was the home of the Renaissance and although this land became modern earlier than any other in Europe, the comparatively favorable status of its Jews underwent an unfavorable reaction. This began under Popes Paul IV and Pius V and VI. Paul IV reintroduced the yellow badge and in 1554 established the Ghetto of Rome. But Venice had already set the example in 1516 of thus crowding the Jews into a few unhealthy streets and we may add, out of all handicrafts. Italy it may be remembered was not one nation, but was composed of several states.

Simon Luzzatto, Venetian rabbi and literateur (1590-1663) found it necessary to write a treatise in defense of Jews and Judaism. He showed to the prejudiced Venetian patricians what valuable service their presumed Jewish rivals were rendering in retaining for Venice the trade of the Levant (lands on Eastern coast of the Mediterranean) for it was fast passing into the hands of English and Dutch. He pointed out that the Jews contributed wealth to the State, gave employment to thousands and fostered local industries.

He further showed that their learning, their religiousness, their hospitality, self-denial and patience made them desirable subjects.

But prejudice is ever blind. From 1550 to 1597 the Italian Jewish story is one of local expulsions; chiefly from papal states, i.e., provinces ruled by the Popes. But those exiled from southern Italy found a refuge in Turkey, as did their Spanish co-religionists nigh a century earlier. Here they were politically and religiously unfettered. Venice now met its day of reckoning; for the Jews showed their capacity for commerce by taking the wholesale trade of Turkey and the collection of customs largely in their hands. From this vantage ground, the "merchants of Venice" now found their most dangerous competitors among those whom they had mocked and spurned on the Rialto. But the doom of Venice was foreshadowed by the discovery of America and when in consequence the Mediterranean, controlled by this leading commercial State, gradually lost its importance as the chief highway for the trade of the world.

Jewish Statesmen in Turkey.

From the time when Turkey settled in Europe and overthrew the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453, it more and more became a Jewish center of gravity. Constantinople had thirty thousand Jewish souls and forty-four congregations in the sixteenth century. Through this "open door" of Turkey came a great man — Joseph Nasi. Born in Portgual about 1500, he settled successively in Antwerp, Venice and Constantinople. In each place his wealth and genius for finance singled him out for distinction; but not till he reached Turkey could he openly live the Jewish life. Insofar his history was characteristic of many. In the Porte (Turkey) he attained a position of state as influential as that of Ibn Nagrela or Chasdai Ibn Shaprut in the golden days of Spain.

Venice, that had imprisoned his aunt, the cultured Donna Gracia, and confiscated her wealth, had now to release both her and her property at his dictation as Turkey's representative. In this case, the Venetians were the Shylocks and Joseph Nasi, the "Daniel come to judgment." How the tables had turned! It was at his urgency too that Turkey wrested Cyprus from Venice. The European nations so recognized his influence that William of Orange appealed to him to aid the Netherlands and the Protestant cause by persuading Turkey to enter into war with Philip II of Spain (though no war followed). Through him the Emperor of Germany sought a treaty of peace with Turkey. Austria and Poland were suitors for his "good offices." Such was his power that France, refusing to pay money borrowed from the Nasi family, he was allowed to seize French vessels in Turkish waters, and to sell their cargoes to repay his debt. As further mark of favor the Sultan gave him some neighboring islands and made him Duke of one of them — Naxos.

Nasi, showing himself also a patron of Jewish scholarship and a warm ally of his co-religionists, Tiberias in Palestine was given into his hands for Jewish colonization. Although late in life shorn of his power, (the favor of princes is capricious) the favorable status of Turkish Israel remained unchanged.

Still more remarkable was it that Nasi should be succeeded in this prestige by yet another co-religionist, Solomon Ashkenazi. Born in Italy in 1520, he first won distinction as physician to the King of Poland. Settling later in Constantinople, he was the power behind both the Sultan and his vizier. It was he who virtually placed Henry of Anjou on the Polish throne. In 1574, unwilling Venice was forced to receive him with appropriate honors as Turkey's ambassador in signing a treaty of peace. In fact, it was through his intercession that Venice was induced to revoke its decision of banishment of its Jews.

How dramatic the contrasts had always been in the history of the Jew! From behind the throne of one land he dictates terms to another that spurned him. Here exalted to the peerage and given lands, and there not allowed to own a foot of soil and degraded with the yellow badge.

Turkey was then a safe haven for harassed Jews; it is a pity that they did not make of it something more. For though rich and at ease, our brethren at Constantinople in no way emulated the intellectual achievements of earlier Spain. The reason is partly to be sought in the less favorable national background. For the Turks showed neither the energy nor the love of culture that had distinguished the Moors of the Peninsula. The Turks were a very different race from the Arabs, though they accepted the Moslem religions from them. Turkey soon reached the anti-climax of slothful inactivity. It became an enervated nation ruled by favorites, with intrigue and assassination the all too familiar associations of the Court. So it did not offer the best atmosphere for the intellectual life.

Karo's Shulchan Aruch.

Let us now turn to the inner life of the Jew. While Jewish refugees bent on commerce, sought refuge in European Turkey, those desiring a religious atmosphere turned their steps to Asiatic Turkey. It was a mystic Judaism that they sought in which visions of the speedy advent of the Messiah played a large part. But that was just the environment congenial; to Joseph Karo whom we are now to consider. Born in Spain in 1488, after many wanderings he finally settled in Safed then a safer Palestinian refuge than Jerusalem. He will always be remembered as the final codifier of Jewish Law for which his extensive studies and scholarly patience made him chief authority. These vast researches first presented in a profound work were finally summarized and simplified into a popular book called Shulchan Aruch (The Spread Table). This name explains its purpose. It is based on the Code of Law of Asheri and follows the same four divisions. But it included all later law development up to Karo's day through Responsa (written decisions) of individual rabbis. Issued just at the time when the printing press was being used to disseminate Jewish literature, it was very widely distributed and moreover, printing gave to this digest a kind of finality. The press stopped the fluidity of the oral law and thus it impeded further progress in Jewish observance. Crystallization had been the tendency ever since the Talmud was committed to writing.

The Shulchan Aruch was valuable in that it brought uniformity into divergent Jewish practice. Though some of its injunctions suit only mediaeval conditions, it has continued to be the final authority for the orthodox Jew.

To find out a particular religious practice the individual does not go to the Talmud, which would be a wild search at best, but makes the Shulchan Aruch his guide. It was further amplified by Moses Isserles of Poland, with whose commentary it is usually printed. Its form is that of a code to master, not a religious work to inspire. For the moral principles scattered through it are lost in vast ceremonial minutiae. Through such a code unformity is obtained, though at the expense of religious spontaneity. Judaism must be based on law, but we do not need detailed laws for every turn in human experience. When opportunity to express individual needs is suppressed, religion may degenerate into cut-and-dried forms and formulas.

Most mediaeval scholars were either legists or mystics. Karo was both. In his versatile nature were combined the systematic routine of the classifier and the imaginative phantasy of the dreamer. The Mishna was to him first a cold book of law, and secondly an angelic personification that whispered counsel in his dreams.

Mysticism Again.

The sixteenth century Jew was becoming more and more steeped in the mysticism of Kabala, and the dreamy Orient offered a favorable environment. Its most renowned exponent in Safed of this time was Isaac Luria, the influence of whose life and teaching brought many disciples. A quaint but beautiful teaching of his was that the world's purification can be hastened by a union of souls, i.e., a weak living soul can be strengthened by union with the worthier soul of one departed! The Zohar was now regarded like the canon of Scripture; Kabalism became more and more fantastic. Spiritualism, metempsychosis, marvel and exorcism of devils now preponderate in the mystic literature of the day.

In the previous volume we have endeavored to present Mysticism and Kabala at their best. But these wild enthusiasts of the second half of the sixteenth century were dangerous guides for the people at large. From Palestine the mystic wave spread through Turkey to all the lands of European settlement, "darkening counsel without knowledge". It was the enemy of healthful thought and even began to affect the moral tone of Jewish life. So while Christendom was emerging from its intellectual Dark Ages, the Jews in a sense were entering theirs.

Sabbathai Zevi.

The mania reached its climax with the appearance of Sabbathai Zevi as Israel's Messiah. He was born in Smyrna. Asia Minor. This youth was as beautiful as Absalom. At first a sincere Kabalistic dreamer, the dazzle of a crown soon turned his head. His extravagant claims stirred a ripple all over Europe. For a time his crusade and large following were the subject of comment on its exchanges. Some Christians caught the fever and looked for the millenium. He kept the whole Jewish community of Turkey and its surroundings in a ferment from 1650 to 1676 and demoralized it, both in belief and conduct. His heretical influence extended to the introduction of a new synagogue ritual embodying his worship. Even when this weak and vacillating creature to save himself became a convert to Mohammedanism — aye even after his death — the delusion of his semi-divinity persisted. "Sabbatianism" became a cult injurious both to Judaism and the Jew.

A notorious adherent of Sabbatian Kabalists was Jonathan Eibeschutz (1690-1764) of Crakow, a strange mixture of good and evil. This rabbi and writer on Talmudic law, distributed talismans and amulets (Kemiath) inscribed with Zevi's name, and the tetragrammaton, (four lettered name of God), supposed to drive off spirits and to heal diseases. A new controversy now arose in Israel between Rabbanites and Kabalists in which the worthy and scholarly Rabbi Jacob Emden figured.

Jacob Frank, born in Podolia about 1726, went to yet further blasphemous extremes in starting an abortive movement named after himself. He was altogether an adventurer, playing with religion to serve his own selfish ends, assuming at times the role of Messiah. Yet even King Augustus III of Poland was deceived into endorsing him. Just as Zevi saw a way out of his difficulties by adopting Islam, so Frank saved himself by adopting Christianity.

Both movement appealed to the less intelligent Jews of Poland and the East; but that meant a very vast number. The Frankist faction was the lowest watermark reached by the Jews, as outgrowth of the Sabbatian heresy.

How foreign all this to the simplicity and rationalism of classic Judaism.


Shulchan Aruch:—The Law of Israel. The reader is referred to a work of this name as a popular presentation of the spirit of the Shulchan Aruch, by Bernard Abramowitz, 3 vols. Hebrew and English, New York, 1902.

Lippman Heller (1600) who flourished in Vienna, wrote a commentary on the Mishna called "Tosephoth Yom Tob" which is sufficiently important to be always printed with each copy of the Mishna.

Dembitz, Service in Synagogue and Home, pp. 42-43. See also Index. J.P.S.A.

Kabala:—Abrahams, Jewish Literature, 238-242.

Karo and Luria:—One should read Schechter's appreciation of these men in Studies in Judaism, second series, article "Safet" and Graetz' depreciation, in the abridged translation of his History, Vol iv., from p. 612 and Vol. v from p. 51, to obtain different points of view. J.P.S.A.

The semi-expiatory character of the Seventh Day of Tabernacles, known as Hoshana Rabba ('The Great Salvation") with its attendant mysticism, dates from Luria's time.

Sabbathai Zevi:—Zangwill, Dreamers of the Ghetto, "The Turkish Messiah". J.P.S.A.

Amulets:—See Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, pp. 182, 289, 290.

Students of the Law:—Azarya Dei Rossi flourished in Italy about 1550. Unlike so many who studied the Talmud to the exclusion of Philo, Josephus and Hellenistic literature generally, Dei Rossi in his "Light of the Eyes" brought them into direct relation. But unfortunately while Dei Rossi's works were shunned, Luria's were devoured.

A great polemic work in defense of Judaism was written by a Polish Karaite, Isaac Troki, 1533-94, called Chozek Amunali (Faith Strengthened), and translated in many tongues. An English translation of this excellent work was made by Mocatta in 1851, London.

Ghetto:—For the original meaning of this term and for the history of varied Jewish quarters, see Old European Jewries, Phillipson, J.P.S.A.

Theme for Discussion:—Elaborate the good and evil of imposing specific ceremonial obligations for every occasion of daily life.