Safed in the Sixteenth Century Part 1 by Solomon Schechter

Safed in the Sixteenth Century Part 1 by Solomon Schechter

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SAFED IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY
A CITY OF LEGISTS AND MYSTICS
 
by
 
Solomon Schechter
(from "Studies in Judaism" Series Two)
 
Part 1
Safed is a small city in Upper Galilee situated on a hill in a mountainous country, and forming part of the Holy Land assigned in the Scriptures to the tribe of Naphtali. Of the various cities of Palestine boasting of a large Jewish population it is relatively the most modern. Neither the Bible nor the Talmud has any definite reference to it, whilst the mention of a locality Zephed, by Kalir, is obscure, and can serve little for purposes of identification.
    Yet this was the spot of which R. Joseph Caro wrote in the sixteenth century: "After nearly fifteen hundred years of living in the exile and persecution, he (God) remembered unto his people his covenant with their fathers, and brought them back from their captivity, one of a city and two of a family, from the corners of the earth to the land of glory, and they settled in the city of Safed, the desire of all lands."
    The impulse under which the "one of a city and two of a family" acted when they preferred the "land of glory" to the great commercial centres of Europe was a religious one.    `
    Samuel Usque, the famous author of the "Conplacam as tribulacoes de Ysrael" ("The Consolation and the Tribulations of Israel"), has the following passage in praise of the country in which most of his fellow sufferers from the Pyrenean peninsula found an asylum: "Great Turkey, .....there the gates of freedom and equal opportunity for the unhindered practice of Jewish worship are ever open to Israel; they are never closed against thee. There thou canst renew thy inward life, change thy condition, strip off thy habits, cast away erroneous teachings, recover thy ancient truths, and abandon the practices which, by the violence of the nations among which thou wast a pilgrim, thou wast forced to imitate. In this land thou receivest boundless grace from the Lord, since therein he granteth thee unlimited freedom to begin thy repentance."
    The inducement thus held out to the exiled from Spain and Portugal was not only that they would in the new country be allowed to serve their God, without let or hindrance, but also that an opportunity would be granted them of a total regeneration and renewal of heart.
    The sense of sin apparently weighing so heavily on Usque may be detected also in other writers, as, for instance, Joseph Jabez, who depicted the spiritual condition of the Jews in Spain in the darkest colours, and describes the men who witnessed the expulsion as an "evil generation, increasing rebellions and transgressions without number." He declared that it was mainly the Spanish Jewesses who remained faithful, and who themselves suffered, and made their husbands suffer, martyrdom for the Sanctification of the Name.
    Another instance is found in the chronicler Abraham ben Solomon, of Torrutiel in Spain, who says, "Our iniquities had increased over our heads, and our trespasses had grown up unto the heavens, seeing the evils and the sin and the terrible pride so rampant among the Jews in the kingdom of Spain." Jabez and Abraham benSolomon belonged to the anti-rationalistic party of the Spanish Jews, and may have exaggerated the evils of the situation in their accusations, but their feelings were very likely shared, to some extent, by all other exiles. Nathan Nata of Hanover, the well-known author of the Yeven Mezaclala, concludes his account of the terrible suffering of the Jews during the Chmielniclci persecution with the words: "What shall we speak, or how shall we call ourselves? The Lord has found out oursins. Does Godexecute judgment without justice?" The sufferers of Spain doubtless viewed their misfortunes from the same standpoint. And since these evils must have been in some way proportionate to the greatness of the catastrophe which had overtaken them, those of deeper religious sensitiveness must certainly have felt the need of a new life and a regeneration.
    It is to this need that we have to attribute the fact that large numbers of the exiles were impelled to emigrate to the Holy Land, the country which, from the times of the prophets down to Judah Halevi in the twelfth century, and from the time of Judah Halevi down to the disciples of Elijah Wilna and Israel Baal Shem in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was always considered a country of great "spiritual opportunities." As a Spanish Jew of the thirteenth century who took a vow to emigrate to the Holy Land expressed it, "There (in Jerusalem, or near it) is the place for fulfilling the commandments and receiving upon oneself the Kingdom of Heaven. Our worship there is acceptable, for there is the House of our God and the Gate of Heaven."
    Indeed, it may be stated without fear of contradiction, that there never was a time in which the Holy Land was not an object of attraction and deep longing for the pious Jew, even though he was not always able to gratify his longing in this respect. As we know now, there were for centuries after the destruction of the Holy Temple, every year during the Feast of Tabernacles, large meetings on the Mount of Olives constituted of pilgrims from Palestine itself, Babylon, Egypt, and perhaps also from Europe.
    These meetings were probably brought to an end in the eleventh century through the troubles of the Crusades; but the second decade of the thirteenth century witnessed the famous pilgrimage of three hundred Rabbis from France, England, and Spain to the Holy Land. In the fourteenth century the well-known traveller Pharchi explored the Holy Land, and reported about different scttlements in various localities." Emigration to Palestine assumed, however, larger dimensions in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, caused by the general distress of the Jews in almost all parts of Christendom. The majority of the refugees escaped to Turkey, but a considerable minority, composed, as already indicated, of the more spiritual-minded among them, directed their steps to the Holy Land.
    As hinted before, Safed has no Biblical nor even Talmudic record. Its first appearance in Jewish history dates from about the beginning of the thirteenth century, when the traveller Samuel ben Shimshon reports the existence of a community there of more than fifty members. Somewhat later it is mentioned in connexion with a document relating to the Maimonides controversy, which bears also the signatures of R. Moses ben Judah and his colleagues, the Rabbis of Safed. R. Hananel Ibn Askara and R. Shem Tob Ibn Gaon, of Spain, migrated to Safed in the same century; whilst R. Isaac ben Joseph Chelo, of Laresa in Spain, and, Pharchi, mentioned above, visited Safed in the fourteenth century and speak of a large Jewish community  community dwelling there. Joseph Mantabia, who visited Safed in 1481, speaks of it as a "fine" community, numbering about three hundred families, including those living in the neighbouring villages.
    It is, however, not until the last decade of the fifteenth century that Safed begins to be especially noted for the importance of its Jewish population. The man who was the most significant factor in the development of this Jewish settlement, which excelled Jerusalem not only in the size of its Jewish population but also in the number of great men it harboured, was R. Joseph Saragossi. Saragossi, hailing perhaps originally from Spain, was an exile from Sicily, and, after a residence in Beyrout and Sidon, finally settled in Safed, where he most likely established a school. He was of humble disposition, making peace between man and man, including non-Jews, and he probably did his best to blend the various elements of the new settlement, consisting of natives, of exiles from Spain, and of immigrants from the Barbary States, into one great community.
    The preference given to Safed, a non-Scriptural town, over Jerusalem, the historical metropolis of Palestine and the holiest city of the Holy Land, may be accounted for by the unfavourable conditions prevailing in Jerusalem at that time. As evidenced by certain contemporary documents, the administration of the Jewish community in Jerusalem was influenced by a rather ungenerous spirit, imposing heavy taxes on new arrivals, and making residence there a great hardship. The Mohammedan population seems also to have been hostile to the Jews, rapacious, and extortionate. Safed, on the other hand, never having had before this time an important Jewish population, the community there had no occasion to make regulations calculated to exploit the foreigner, whilst the non-Jewish population seems to have been more kindly disposed toward the Jews, sparing them the heavy taxation which was the rule in Jerusalem. R. Obadiar. of Bertinoro, who had no opportunity to visit the north, writes, in his famous letter dated 1489, that, according to report, the Jews of Safed and of other places in Galilee lived in peace and in quiet, not being exposed to persecution on the part of the Mohammedans. He writes, "They are mostly poor, spending their time in villages, going about peddling in houses and on farms, asking for food."
    Another reason which may have been decisive in favour of attracting immigrants to Safed was the simple life led by the inhabitants of that city. The old saying, "Love work and hate lordship" (in modern parlance, snobbery), was followed by them to the letter. An anonymous traveller who passed through Safed in the year 1496 writes of the learned Rabbi Pharez Colobi, the head of the community, that he kept a shop where articles of food were sold, by which he made a living. Ig Shlomel of Moravia, the author of one of the legendary biographies of Loria [Luria], writing from Safed in the year 1607, says of its citizens that there were to be found among them "great scholars, saints, and men of action, full of Divine wisdom, so that they were worthy of the gift of the Holy Spirit," but what he seemed to admire most was the simplicity and the humility of spirit which they possessed. "None among them," he writes, "is ashamed to go to the well and draw water and carry home the pitcher on his shoulders, or go to the market to buy bread, oil, and vegetables. All the work in the house is done by themselves," without servants. Shlomel's statement may be illustrated by the following story: Once, R. Abraham Galanti, the leading disciple of Cordovero and the author of many works, was carrying a sack of flour on his shoulders from the market. But there came the famous scholar R. Solomon Sagis (?) and snatched away the sack from the shoulders of Galanti, and pronounced an oath, that no man should be permitted to carry this sack of flour to its destination except himself, who was so much younger and stronger. On another occasion, Galanti was carrying a cask of water on his shoulders from a village near Safed when the Saint R. Misod met him and said, "Master, give me a drink, as I am very thirsty." Whereupon Galanti offered him the cask. R. 1llisod then snatched away the burden and carried it to Galanti's home in Safed.
    Thus material as well as spiritual considerations combined to make Safed the chosen city for the time being. The rapid growth of Safed may easily be seen by the fact that whilst, according to one account, Safed counted three synagogues in 1522, and could point perhaps to only one Talmudic college established by Saragossi, it could a few years later boast of
being the centre of learning in Palestine, and, in 1603, according to Shlomel's letter of that year, it contained not less than eighteen Talmudic colleges and twenty-one synagogues, besides a large school for the children of the poor, with twenty teachers and four hundred pupils, maintained by wealthy Jews in Constantinople, who also provided the latter with clothes. The Jews in Turkey were particularly interested in maintaining the Safed schools, and special messengers were sent from this community to collect moneys. We even find mention of a single bequest for the Yeshiboth of Safed amounting to  100,000 lebanim.
    The history of the world, some maintain, is but the record of its great men. This is especially true of thehistory of Safed in the sixteenth century, which is essentially spiiitual in its character, made and developed by men living lives purified by suffering, and hallowed by constant struggle after purification and holiness. The two figures standing out most prominently among these are R. Joseph Caro, the leading legist of the time, and his contemporary, R. Isaac Loria, the generally recognised head of the mystical school of Safed. It will, therefore, be advisable to group our remarks around these two heroes. From their eminence we shall be able to obtain a general view of the lives of the other mighty men in Israel engaged in the same general religious activities and pursuing the same spiritual ends, contributing their share to the fame which Safed has achieved in Jewish history.
 
(to be continued)
 

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