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Encyclopaedia Judaica

Jews in Istanbul 04: 1600-1800

Leader problems - fires - fusion of communities - blood libel - redemption actions for East European Jews - tax actions for towns in Palestine - boat owners' society

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

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)



<The 17th Century.

[No leading person for the Jewish communities - fires in the town and change of places - fusion]

The economic and cultural decline of the Jewish community of Istanbul began during the 17th century, together with the general decline of the Ottoman Empire.

[[Supplement: The main direction of world wide trade changed to the "new colonies" in America, and also the protestant powers (Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia) started their East Asian Companies for a direct trade with the Far East products. So the towns on the west European coast (Amsterdam, Lisbon etc.) were growing now, and Istanbul was more and more "out". The definitive "out" and bankrupt decline came only with Suez Canal in 1859]].

The community was gradually weakened and lost its importance to the point that a man with sufficient firmness and status to act as interceder at the court of the sultan could not be found. the great fires which devastated (col. 1090)

a number of quarters during the 17th century brought about changes in the structure of the kehalim [[congregations]].the ancient organization according to origin, synagogue, etc., fell into disintegration and many Jews joined synagogues near their new places of residence, even if they belonged to another kahal [[assembly]]. This process was essentially responsible for the fusion of the Romaniots with the Sephardim.

[Jewish women with influence at the sultan's court]

During the reigns of the sultans Muhammad III and Ahmad I (1595-1603; 1603-17), two women wielded influence at the court: Esther *Kiera Handali, the wife of R. Elijah Handali, and Bula Ikshati Ashkenazi, the wife of R. Solomon Ashkenazi, the physician.

[1633: Blood libel - massacres in Eastern Europe and Jews sold as slaves - redemption action]

During the reign of Sultan *Murad IV, in 1633, an accusation was brought against the Jews of Istanbul saying that they had murdered a Turkish child on the eve of Passover (see *Blood Libels).

Following the massacres of 1648-49 in Poland (see *Poland), the Cossacks, Tatars, and Ukrainians took many Jews into captivity and sold them in Istanbul. The Jews of Istanbul competed with one another in observing the precept of redeeming captives. Together with the communities of Salonika, Venice, Rome, Amsterdam, and Hamburg, they thus succeeded in saving tens of thousands of Jews.

The community of Istanbul sent a special emissary to Italy and Holland in order to raise funds for the redemption of captives. R. Nathan *Hannover, the author of Yeven Mezulah, who was an eyewitness to the events in Podolia and Volhynia and escaped through Western Europe, writes:

"There was among them [the Jews] a hazzan [[cantor]] and his name was R. Hirsch. When the Tatars came, he began to lament ant to intone the El Male Rahamim [prayer for the departed] in a loud voice over the deaths of our brothers of the House of Israel; all the assembled broke into a great weeping and they aroused the mercy of their captors who comforted them with kind words and said to them: 'Be not concerned, you will not lack food nor drink. Tomorrow we shall bring you to your brothers in Constantinople and they will redeem you.' In this fashion the Tatars dealt with our brothers of the House of Israel in Istanbul, who redeemed them together with the other captives from Poland - about 20,000 souls - and they spent much money on them."

[Failing Shabbetean movement under Shabbetai Zevi]

In 1666 *Shabbetai Zevi arrived in Istanbul in order to depose the sultan. The opinion of the Jews of the capital was divided: the majority feared that the appearance of (col. 1091)

Shabbetai Zevi would be the cause for actions against the Jews in general. Others were attracted by his messianic enthusiasm and went out to meet him in order to pay him homage. The opponents informed the grand vizier of this and he ordered Shabbetai Zevi's arrest. The royal police seized and imprisoned him. His opponents also persecuted the adherents of the "sect of Shabbetai Zevi", who were in the capital and elsewhere in Turkey. A herem ("ban") was also issued there against Nehemiah Hayon.

[Decline of the Jewish community after some fires - dispersed Jews in the suburbs - clothe and hat regulations]

After the failure of Shabbetai Zevi's movement, the decline of the Jewish community set in.

The 18th Century.

During the 17th and 18th centuries several fires devastated the Jewish quarters. The greatest of these was in 1740 after which the Jews were not allowed to rebuild their quarter. As a result most of the Jews moved to Ortaköy and Galata. Others also settled in Üsküdar, Hasköy, and Piri Pasa.

During this period orders concerning apparel were again issued, which included detailed instructions on appearance in more modest clothes and shoes. It was forbidden for Jews to go out into the street in silk clothing and they were to wear an anomalous hat which was pointed at the top and wide at its base, in sharp contrast to the turban of greenish-lemon color which was worn by the Muslims.


[Contact with Jewish spiritual leaders of Palestine - money transfer between Europe and Palestine]

In Istanbul, as in many other communities, the "treasurers for Erez Israel", or the "officials for Erez Israel", were active during this period. They collected various contributions for the inhabitants of Erez Israel and transferred them through special emissaries. Istanbul was one of the most important centers for funds because of its geographic proximity, and since it was the capital of the central government of Erez Israel, its hakhamim [[spiritual leaders]] were spiritually close to those of the Holy Land. The funds destined for Erez Israel from Eastern Europe also passed through the capital and it was there that the letters and recommendations of the emissaries and their missions were verified.

[Payment of the debts of the Jews of Jerusalem]

In 1727 the Jews of Istanbul undertook the payment of the debts owed by the Jews of Jerusalem. The community of Istanbul imposed a payment of one parà per week per person in favor of Jerusalem on all the communities of the (col. 1092)

Ottoman Empire and later on the oriental countries in general and Italy. This tax was called the "parà donation" or the "parà obligation".

[Tax action for Hebron - Jewish donations from Istanbul for Palestine]

Istanbul also served as a center for the other holy cities of Erez Israel - *Hebron, Tiberias, and Safed. On some occasions there were also indirect taxes, for example, a tax imposed on the capital in 1763, which consisted of

"half a lavan (the Ottoman coin akçé, whose meaning is lavan, "white") on every metro (measure of volume) of wine and beer"

in order to save Hebron from its debts.

There were special societies, whose members contributed regularly to charities for Erez Israel, the first having been founded during the last third of the 16th century for the benefit of the yeshivah [[religious Torah school]] of Tiberias. There were also societies which saved the same purpose in both the Sephardi and Romaniot kehalim, [[congregations]], in addition to the generous contributions of the wealthy Nasi family. Professional societies were also founded in Istanbul, but there is little information available on them.


[1715 approx.-1912 approx.: Kaïkçis (ship owners) society in Istanbul - developments with other professions - structures]

The existence of the "Benevolent Society of the Congregation of the Kaïkçis" [[ship owners]] has been revealed through a manuscript which records decisions of the bet din [[ecclesiastical court]] from the years 1815-94. From a note of 1815 it is learned that the society was founded in Istanbul in about 1715 by the Jewish boat owners whose task it was to ferry people from one side to the other of both the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. The objective of this union was not a professional one but to provide its members with assistance in times of need.

They were later joined by workers from related professions: the balukçis, fishermen; the manafis, fruiterers, who often sailed on boats because of their occupation; and the mayahaneçis, wine merchants, the owners of taverns, who used boats in order to convey their goods from the town to the villages.

Every member was required to contribute one perutah [[small silver coin]] per week, i.e., an akçe [[Ottoman silver coin unit]] or parà [[40th part of an akçe]], toward the society's fund. The mayahaneçis brought four metros (measure of volume in Ladino) free of charge in every boat for the fund. This money was used for two principal purposes: for the poorer members on the occasion of a celebration or a mourning, and for the burial of those drowned at sea. The society would send a number of members to search for the corpse and return it for a Jewish burial. It was later decided that even a person who was taken sick at sea, or who had been recovered from the sea alive and later died from the consequences, would be buried by this society and not another.

Because the incomes of these workers were small, the rabbis exempted them from payments to other public charities and also forbade the officials of the benevolent societies and institutions to collect funds from them in order not to endanger the income of the society of the boat owners. In order to assure the proper function of the society, the bet din [[ecclesiastical court]] of Istanbul appointed two scholars as "supervisors of all the affairs of the society". It appears that the society continued to exist until shortly before World War I.> (col. 1093)

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