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Letters From Rabbi Ovadia of Bertinoro

We all know of him from his commentary on the Mishnah. But what about his biography?

We would know very little of his life except that fortunately, in the years 1488-1490, he wrote three letters from Israel about his journey from Italy and his early impressions of Israel, and copies of these letters (not the originals) have survived. We also have a letter by a student of his in Jerusalem, composed in 1495.

These letters were written in Hebrew, but CIS publishers published an English translation: “Pathway to Jerusalem: The Travel Letters of Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura” (1992).

We do not know the year or decade of his birth. We know practically nothing about those first decades of his life in Italy since he does not discuss them in these letters. He mentions that his last position was in Citta di Castello. Perhaps he was a rabbi in Bertinoro before that.

From the first letter he wrote (to his father, in Elul 1488), we learn that he left Citta di Castello in 1485, and stayed temporarily in Naples, Salerno, Palermo, Messina, Rhodes, Alexandria, Cairo, Gaza and Hebron. He finally reached Jerusalem on the 13th of Nissan in 1488.

The first letter describes in detail the Jewish communities in the above places. He had promised his father that he would describe the communities he saw along the way, and fortunately he kept his promise. His descriptions of these communities are of tremendous interest. I will discuss them next week. This week I will limit myself to his comments about Jerusalem. I include only a very small selection.

—There are only 70 Jewish families. They are very poor. The total number of families in Jerusalem is 4,000. The city has no wall. [MF: This is before the Turkish conquest of the city in 1516.]

—There are, in addition, many old and lonely widows, “seven women to a man.”

—Earlier, there had earlier been 300 Jewish families. But the Sultan had appointed certain Jewish elders to collect taxes and the elders became corrupt. Any Jew of stature decided to leave. The elders sold almost all the Torah scrolls to Christian merchants. More recently, the elders regret what they did and are trying to get people to return.

—The Muslims come from very distant lands to bow down at the site of the Beit Hamikdash, which they regard with great awe.

—Most people who come to Jerusalem from distant lands become ill because of the change of atmosphere and rapid changes of temperature.

—The Jews in Moslem countries have been brought up for many generations to be more God-fearing than the Jews in Italy.

—False witnesses are common among both the Christians and the Muslims. The Muslim courts do not cross-examine witnesses. The courts believe and immediately act on their testimony. (He adds that if such laws existed in Christian countries, people would swallow each other alive!)

—The legal system allows Muslims to twist things. A Muslim in Jerusalem murdered his mother. He claimed he acted under the influence of alcohol. The judges decided that the Jews and Christians were responsible, because they were the only ones who made wine there. The Jews and Christians were fined and the Muslim went free.

—At the beginning and the end of this letter, he writes how bad he feels that he left his father in his father’s old age. (Feeling guilty about leaving one’s parents when making aliyah is not just a modern problem!) It has been suggested that he was a widower when he left for Israel.

His second letter was written to his brother in 1489. Some selections:

—“You asked me about the miracles that you have heard about that are supposed to occur at the site of the Beit Hamikdash and at the gravesites of the tzaddikim. What can I tell you? I myself did not see any such miracles.”

—“I deliver a sermon to the community twice a month in the synagogue in Hebrew, which most of the people understand. Unfortunately, the people regard my speeches primarily as entertainment. They praise my sermons but they do not really change.”

—“I am happy with my work here in Jerusalem and no one bothers me. We gather in the morning and evening to learn Halacha. Two Sephardi students learn with me regularly, and now two Ashkenazi rabbis have joined us.”

—“The king had demanded that the Jews pay four hundred ducats a year, regardless of the number of Jews living here, causing each one to be at the other’s throat. But God has had mercy and influenced the king to charge a poll tax—that is, to tax each individual separately, and not the community as a whole. This is a great improvement, which has made things better than they have been for fifty years. Many people who had left Jerusalem are now returning. Perhaps, with God’s help, the city will be rebuilt.”

From his third letter in 1490 written in Hebron:

—“I had gone to Hebron for an extended period. I ultimately came to enjoy living in Hebron more than Jerusalem because Hebron is populated by a small elite of Jews with excellent traits. They comprise about twenty families in all.”

Regarding the letter from R. Ovadia’s student, it was written shortly after the student’s arrival in Jerusalem. This student had left Italy earlier that year in order to study with R. Ovadia. This letter first describes the dangerous trip in detail. Finally, the youth arrives in Jerusalem and meets R. Ovadia: “The man is very great, ‘ve-al piv yishak kol ha-aretz.’ No one argues with him. From the ends of the earth [Jews] stream to him and do exactly what he says. When he makes a decree, it is enforced as far away as Egypt and in all the [surrounding] lands. Even the Yishmaelim honor him and are in awe of him… He is very humble and he knows how to deal with people in a pleasant way.… About him, it is said: ‘ein zeh yelod ishah.’”

The student also mentions that R. Ovadia helped him find a place to live, and to reduce a tax placed on him.

He continues that Jerusalem has about 200 families, most of whom are reliant on charity. A certain elderly sage spoke daily after Shacharit and Maariv, but only for 15 minutes, so as not to impose on anyone. (R. Ovadiah would give beautiful speeches, but only spoke on the holidays.) Every day, after Shacharit and the sermon, the people sit in the beit midrash and learn Mishnah or Talmud for about three hours.

The Encyclopaedia Judaica gives the year of R. Ovadia’s death as “before 1516.” But Pathway cites a passage from Chida (18th cent.) that gives the year as 1530. It also cites a letter from a rabbi who came to Jerusalem in 1516 that mentions that R. Ovadia was still conducting a yeshiva there at that time.

According to the EJ entry, “other works and exchange of letters as well as poems and prayers remain in manuscript.” Pathway also mentions that there may be more letters that he wrote from Jerusalem that have never been published. (Mossad Harav Kook published a biography. But there is little information there aside from what I have written here. The book largely addresses his commentary on the Mishnah.)

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. When starting this topic, he thought he would be learning about Bertinoro. Instead, writing this article was an education in everything else! Please visit his website at www.rootsandrituals.org.

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