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Encyclopaedia Judaica

Jews in the Ottoman Empire 12: Communities

Chief rabbis - Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities - institutions - agreements and regulations - confirmed chief rabbis since 1837

from: Ottoman Empire; In: Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971, vol. 16

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)




Religious Administration.

[Chief rabbis appointed by the government in the diwan: Moses Capsali - Elijah Mizrahi]

The chief rabbi was the rabbinical leader of all the communities. At the time of Sultan Muhammad II [[1451-1481]], Jews paid a tax called the rab akčesi (aqchesi), i.e., a silver coin to the king's treasury in return for being granted the sultan's authority to appoint a rabbi as leader of the community. It is not known whether the sultan imposed the tax, or the Jews requested that he authorized the appointment of a rabbi in exchange for the tax.

The chief rabbi, who was appointed by the government, was Moses *Capsali (1420-1495?) from the Romaniot population in Byzantium. He was official representative of the Jews to the government, and according to *Sambari (but no other source) sat in the sultan's diwan at the side of the grand mufti and the patriarch. Most of the contemporary rabbis in Constantinople taught the Karaites the Oral Law on condition that they did not treat the Jewish festivals with contempt.

Moses Capsali, however, opposed them, giving rise to disturbances and quarrels. Those who were jealous of him wrote slanderous letters to Joseph *Colon in Italy and stirred up opposition to him, in contrast to the honor and respect with which he was favored by the sultan and his government.

After his death, the chief rabbi was Elijah *Mizrahi. Also a Romaniot, he became well known for his knowledge of the Torah, as well as the ethical and natural sciences. In contradiction to Capsali's attitude, he taught many pupils among the Karaites. Due to his many duties as chief rabbi, head of the yeshivah [[religious Torah school]], and communal leader, he was unable to find time for regular contact with the government;

the heads of the community therefore established a new office for secular administration, the kakhya. They thus separated spiritual leadership from secular representation to the government. As a result of friction and quarreling between the communities in the capital, the office of chief rabbi ceased to exist not long after the death of Elijah Mizrahi.

The Secular Administration of the Kakhya.
office for secular administration of the communities]]

[Chief rabbi Shealtiel with coordinating work against the Greeks and some ministers]

When *Shealtiel filled this post, he had contacts with the viziers of the sultan and the government. His task was to serve as an advocate and mediator in order to protect the economic and political interests of the Jews; his appointment was confirmed by the government. The need for such a post and the placing of a strong man at its head also arose as a result of the jealousy of the Greeks and some of the ministers who treated the Jews contrary to the sultan Bayazid's instructions and oppressed them. Shealtiel knew the language of the country and was well integrated within the life there; he consequently prevented the application of restrictive decrees by the government, while serving in this office for a number of years. Due to internal dissension in the communities, his term of office was interrupted for eight months, but he was later restored, with everyone's agreement.

Communities and Congregations of the Empire After the Arrival of the Refugees: Secular and Religious Administration; Communal Institutions.

[Spanish and Portuguese Jewish refugees founding communities]

R. Joseph Levi (Bet Halevi), head of a yeshivah in Salonika and Constantinople, describes the divisions and differences between the congregations of the empire after the coming of the Spanish and Portuguese refugees as follows:

"Even in Salonika, where everyone speaks the native language, when the refugees came each language group founded its own congregation and no one switches from one congregation to the other. Each congregation supports the poor speaking its language, each is inscribed separately in the king's register, and each seems to be a town unto itself" (Responsa II n. 72).

All those coming from a town or a definite region founded a special congregation for themselves, spoke their own language, and paid taxes separately in accordance with their registration in the governmental registers.

[Community institutions]

Each congregation had a secular administration run by elected parnasim [[principals]] and treasurers, and a religious administration consisting of the rabbi, the head of the yeshivah [[religious Torah school]], the marbiz (col. 1547)

Torah who taught and performed various religious functions, and the *dayyan [[judge]]. Sometimes the rabbi held all of these positions, sometimes they were divided up. Each congregation had institutions such as a synagogue, talmud torah, yeshivah, and bet din [[court]], as well as charitable societies for lending money (without interest), visiting the sick, and extending help to the poor, a poorhouse, a burial society, and others.

If the members of the congregation were few, then two or three joined together to found educational institutions such as a talmud torah or yeshivah. The well-known Great Talmud Torah of Salonika was used jointly by the children of the poor of all the communities in the town.

[Community life: agreements and regulations]

The congregations based their economic, cultural, and religious life upon haskamot (agreements) and takkanot (ordinances, regulations) instituted by their rabbis, scholars, and communal leaders, together with appointed members, e.g., regulations not to transfer membership from one congregation to another; agreements relating to the appointment of a marbiz Torah, a hakham, and a rabbi, and his salary and duties; an agreement that no one may be married without the presence of ten adult male Jews, one of whom shall be the hakham, and that should anyone marry in any other way the marriage is to be considered void.

The best known of the agreed takkanot is that relating to the renting of houses: If anyone rented a house or shop from a gentile (Muslim or Christian), then no other Jew could enter that house or shop as long as it was rented to the other Jew, and even if the Jew vacated the rented house or shop, no other Jew was allowed to enter it until the passage of three years from the day it was vacated. Individuals opposing the agreements and takkanot were placed under a ban and excommunicated. Each congregation also had officials serving as readers and cattle slaughterers; they were paid salaries from the communal funds.


[Spanish, Portuguese and Asian Jews - pride and different customs]

During this period, friction and disputes arose between the early congregations, as much between the Romaniots, Ashkenazim, and Italians as between the Spanish and Portuguese refugees, who wanted to dominate the early, native congregations. The Spanish refugees regarded themselves as more learned, cultured, and of good descent, while the Romaniots regarded themselves as more important since they were the permanent and earlier settlers and had admitted the former.

An additional cause of friction was the differences in their customs, one of the many being the matter of sivlonot (presents sent by a man to his betrothed). In the Romaniot customs this is seen as indicating that kiddushin [[betrothal]] may have taken place; this is not so, however, according to the Sephardi custom (see Betrothal).

THE HAKHAM BASHI. [chief rabbis]

[1837: First confirmed chief rabbi R. Abraham ha-Levi - and other confirmed chief rabbis]

The Armenian and Greek Orthodox communities (millets) in the capital had patriarchs or bishops - acknowledged and confirmed by the Ottoman authorities - who supervised all the congregations. Only the Jewish millet had no confirmed rabbis. More than 300 years had passed since the time of the chief rabbis Moses Capsali and Elijah Mizrahi. At the end of 1836 or the beginning of 1837 the sultan Mahmud II (1808-39) confirmed R. Abraham ha-Levi as hakham bashi in Constantinople.

This gesture was made at the request of the Jewish subjects of the sultan in Constantinople. They had no Christian European powers behind them and were jealous of the honor of official confirmation accorded by the government to the Greek and Armenian patriarchs. This was in fact a turning point in the policy of the Ottoman authorities, which hitherto had not interfered in the internal affairs of the Jewish community and for centuries past had given no official status to its representatives.

The original copies or authentic texts of the berat hümayun (imperial confirmation of appointments; occurring from 1836 onward), which were also granted to hakham bashis in Adrianople, Salonika, Izmir, Bursa, and Jerusalem, show that the significance and consequences of this policy went beyond mere confirmation of appointments. It contained an official recognition of the Jewish millet [[communities]].

[Constantinople: chief rabbi Abraham ha-Levi - chief rabbi Samuel Hayyim]

As mentioned above, Abraham ha-Levi became hakham bashi [[chief rabbi]] of Constantinople in 1836. He appeared at the sultan's court in official garb, accompanied by ten of the community notables and thousands of other Jews, swore loyalty to the sultan and the monarchy, and paid his tax. The sultan handed him the berat
[[imperial warrant / authorization]] of his appointment. This hakham bashi, however, was not suitable for the office, and after one and a half years *Samuel Hayyim was appointed in his stead. The latter was an erudite rabbi.

In charge of a yeshivah in Balat (a suburb of Constantinople), he was well known in the other towns of the country and queries were addressed to (col. 1548)

him from all parts of the empire and the countries of Europe. At the end of a year of his service, he was relieved of office by the government because he was an Austrian national. He remained however, as a dayyan [[judge]]. Moses Prisco (1839-41) was elected in his place, being called "the old rabbi" because of his advanced age. Hakham bashis were also appointed in the provinces of the empire: in Erez Israel, Iraq, Yemen, Tripolitania, etc.> (col. 1549)

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