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Encyclopaedia Judaica

Jews in Istanbul 01: Jewish mother-city since 1453

Names of the town - Jewish immigrants from Central Europe, from Eastern Europe, and from Spain and Portugal

from: Istanbul; In: Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971, vol. 9

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)



<ISTANBUL, city in N.W. *Turkey, on both sides of the Bosphorus at its entrance on the Sea of Marmara (for history prior to 1453, see *Constantinople).

[Names of the town and territorial developments]

Constantinople was taken from the Byzantine emperor in 1453 by the Ottoman sultan Muhammad II (1451-81) and became the new capital of his state, known from then on as Istanbul. The Arabs called it Qustantiniyya, hence the name Kushta in Hebrew.

During the Ottoman period three townlets in its vicinity became quarters of Istanbul: Galata, between the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus; Eyup, at the northwest extremity of the Golden Horn; and Üsküdar (Scutari), on the eastern shore of the Bosphorus.

The town occupied a central position on the routes between Asia and Europe and the maritime communications between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea passed through it. It also served as an administrative and commercial center. After World War I the capital of Turkey was transferred to Ankara.

The 15th and 16th Centuries.

[Forcibly transferred Christians and Jews to Constantinople]

Immediately after the conquest of the town, the armies of Muhammad II, the Conqueror, perpetrated a massacre of its inhabitants which lasted for several days; they did not, however, attack the Jewish community. According to some opinions, the Jews assisted the Ottoman armies in their conquest of the town. In order to renovate the town, populate it, and convert it rapidly into a florishing and prosperous capital, Muhammad II adopted a policy of transferring Muslim, Christian, and Jewish inhabitants, most of them merchants and craftsmen, from various regions of the empire - principally from Anatolia and the Balkans - to the new capital. Among this group of forcibly transferred persons, there were Jews from Salonika, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania.

[Karaite quarter]

Among the inhabitants of *Edirne (Adrianople) there were also Karaites who settled near the harbor of Eminönü, which became the principal Karaite quarter of Istanbul.

[Forcibly and not forcibly settling Jews - "Jewish mother-city" - Jews in mixed quarters]

Some settled there by choice, including the *Romaniot community, as well as Ashkenazim and Karaites who returned to the city after they had fled from it during the war. In the responsa literature of the 16th century, Istanbul is called "a Jewish mother-city".

The Jews also settled in mixed (col. 1086)

quarters, and their residence in the neighborhoods with Muslims testifies to the improvement of their condition in comparison with their status under Byzantine rule. They were mainly concentrated along the shores of both sides of the Golden Horn. However, there were also some Jewish concentrations along the strait itself. The largest of these were to be found in the districts of Balat, Galat Hasköy, and Ortaköy.

[Jewish Communities]

The Jews of Istanbul were divided into congregations according to their origins: the Romaniots of Gregos, the former inhabitants of Greece and natives of Byzantium; the Ashkenazim and Italians; and the Sephardim [[from Spain and Portugal]]. On the eve of the Ottoman conquest and after it, the community was led by R. Moses b. Elijah *Capsali. The Jews of Istanbul, like those of the whole of the *Ottoman Empire, constituted a religious-administrative unit which enjoyed an extensive internal autonomy, in accordance with the system of community divisions which was known as *millet [[Ottoman minority protection system]].

The first to represent the Jewish millet under Ottoman rule was, as already stated, R. Moses Capsali, a Romaniot and the spiritual leader of the community of Istanbul. In addition to its religious importance, this function was also of a political nature. Capsali concerned himself with the internal affairs of his community, served as the representative of the Jewish congregations before the government, and collected the Jewish taxes. After his death, R. Elijah *Mizrahi was elected as his successor.

[Jewish immigration: European Ashkenazi Jews expelled from central Europe coming to Istanbul]

Ashkenazi Jews had already settled in the town before the Ottoman conquest, but their greatest numbers arrived at a later date. Some from Hungary and Austria first arrived during the    15th century in reaction to the enthusiastic appeal which was included in a letter sent by R. Isaac *Zarefati, an inhabitant of Adrianople (second half of the 15th century), to the Jews of Germany, Austria, and Hungary, in which he described the agreeable, peaceful, and happy life of the Jews of Ottoman Turkey.

The proximity to (col. 1087)

Erez Israel and messianic aspirations also drew many Jews into settling in Istanbul and the other towns of the Ottoman Empire. Refugees from Bavaria, who had been expelled by King Ludwig IX, arrived during the late 1460s.

The second wave arrived after the conquest of Hungarian territories during the reign of the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1526).

For many years the Ashkenazi community enjoyed an independent status. It produced distinguished personalities who became renowned among their coreligionists, among them R. Elijah ha-Levi ha-Zaken and Solomon Tedesci (the physician Solomon Tedesci Ashkenazi, right-hand man of the grand vizier Muhammad Sokollu). Some members of this community were opposed to R. Moses Capsali, whom they accused of having issued pesakim (decisions) which were not in accordance with halakhah. The The Ashkenazim continued relations with their coreligionists in their countries of origin and they were therefore slow to assimilate among the Sephardim. In time the differences disappeared.

[Jewish immigration: Iberian Jews from Spain and Portugal coming to Istanbul - new religious schools]

Spanish and Portuguese Jews arrived in the town as a result of the massive expulsions of 1492 and 1497 (their numbers have been estimated at about 40,000). Among the refugees who came to the capital were eminent Torah scholars, rabbis, dayyanim [[judges]], and rashei yeshivot, [[sg. rosh yeshiva, deans of Talmudic academies]] including R. Joseph ibn *Lev, R. Joseph *Taitazak, R. Abraham *Yerushalmi, R. Isaac *Caro, R. Tam ibn *Yahya, and R. *Elijah b. Hayyim. They established famous yeshivot [[religious Torah schools]] in addition to the existing yeshivah of the Romaniots, which was headed by R. Elijah Mizrahi. They thus raised the spiritual and cultural level of the local Jews.


The refugees founded various congregations (kahal-kehalim; see *Community) according to their country of origin, the region-province, or the town which they had abandoned. These congregations jealously maintained their independence and individuality. Every kahal had its own synagogue, rabbi, teacher, talmud torah [[Talmud Torah school]], hevra kaddisha [[Jewish burial society]], welfare institutions (hekdeshim), and various societies, such as gemilut hasadim ("benevolent society"), bikkur holim ("visiting of the sick"), societies for the support of the yeshivot of Tiberias, etc.;

in most cases they also had a bet din [[ecclesiastical court]]. Moreover, every kahal [[assembly]] constituted an administrative unit which was responsible for the registration of its members, and the imposition and collection of taxes, and their transfer to the Ottoman authorities.

In every kahal there was a spiritual and secular leadership. The secular leadership was assumed by memunim [[sg. minumeh, appointed officials]], berurim [[inspectors]], and gabba'im [[tax collectors]] who were elected in the presence of all the members of the kahal and who administered the affairs of the kahal according to established agreements and takkanot [[sg. takkanah, major legislative enactment within halakha (Jewish law)]].

Various penalties, such as the herem [[highest ecclesiastical censure (critical comment) in the Jewish community]] and niddui ("bans"), etc., were imposed on those who challenged the opinion of the rabbi of the kahal. The takkanot and agreements on which they based their decisions concerned various matters: the prohibition of leaving one kahal [[assembly]] for another, tax assessments, the appointment of rabbis and Torah teachers and the conditions of their activity, the prohibition of the wearing of expensive apparel and jewels by women, etc. The number of kehalim [[congregations]] in the town rose to between 30 and 40 by the middle of the 16th century and the Jewish population at that time numbered about 50,000.

The numerous kehalim [[congregations]] of the capital had their roof organization, which was known in responsa literature as Ha-Va'ad ha-Kolel shel ha-Kehillot, to which every kahal [[assembly]] sent its delegate. There were also other institutions in which all the kehalim were associated. Gradually and in the course of time, the Sephardi kehalim attained a dominant position in the town as a result of their economic status, cultural standards, and large numbers.> (col. 1089)

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