Last week I wrote that in 1488-1490 R. Ovadia wrote three letters from Israel and that CIS publishers did an English translation: “Pathway to Jerusalem: The Travel Letters of Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura.” From the first letter he wrote, we learn that he left the city of Citta di Castello in 1485, and stayed temporarily in Naples, Salerno, Palermo, Messina, Rhodes, Alexandria, Cairo, Gaza and Hebron. He reached Jerusalem in 1488. He seems to have lived in Jerusalem the rest of his life (until his death in perhaps 1530), except for a short period in Hebron in 1489.
The first letter describes in detail the Jewish communities he encountered in the above places. Last week I omitted this material, and skipped to his description of Jerusalem. Below is a small selection of the material I skipped. (All are quotes or adaptations from the English translation above.)
Palermo: About 800 Jewish families live there. I would never want in all my days to live among people who loved, honored and exalted me like the Jews of Palermo. They honored me as the gentiles honor their saints. Many of them wanted a piece of my clothing as a keepsake. The woman who had the honor of doing my laundry was envied by all the other women! They did everything they could to persuade me to stay with them for at least a full year. But I did not listen to them, because my heart was set on traveling to the land of Israel.
Rhodes: Very few Jews are left in Rhodes—no more than about 22 families. They eat mostly vegetables and grains. They do not have meat or wine because the evil Greeks do not allow them to slaughter or make wine.
I never saw Jews with the good qualities possessed by these Jews of Rhodes. They are intelligent, well-spoken, ethical, cultural and well-mannered. Their hair is well-styled, and they are as handsome as princes. Similarly there are no women as beautiful. I have not breathed air as pure and wholesome as that of Rhodes. Its water is sweet as well.
Alexandria: A rabbi came out to greet us at the city gates, and thus saved us from the Muslims there who rob and mistreat foreign Jews entering Alexandria. There are about 25 Jewish families in Alexandria. There are two ancient synagogues. Most people pray in the small synagogue, for they believe that Elijah the prophet appeared to the tzadikim in the southeast corner.
This large city is now mostly desolate. One can see that it was once very beautiful. But few people live here because of the poisonous air that has plagued the area for the past few years. Most of the people who live here have eye problems.
Every night, the Muslims lock the Christians into their houses from the outside, and let them out in the morning. They also lock the Christians in on Friday, from midday to evening, which is when the Muslims go to pray in their mosques.
The Jews in the Muslim lands welcome Shabbos as follows: On Shabbos eve, the men go to the bathhouse. When they return home, their wives give them wine, and they drink liberally. Afterward, while it is still daylight, they eat the food that was cooked for the evening meal, until darkness falls. Then they go to the synagogue…and chant songs and praises to God, stretching out the evening prayers for two hours into the night. Then they return home, make Kiddush, eat a minimal portion of bread and conclude with Grace. The Jews in these areas do not say Mincha in a quorum on Friday afternoon. Jerusalem is the sole exception, for, I have been told, the Ashkenazim annulled that particular custom. [He continues with a description of the practices of the Jews in Jerusalem: They pray Mincha and Maariv as we do, and then they go to the evening meal. They never begin Maariv before the stars come out. They keep Shabbos much more carefully than do the Jews in our part of the world. No one leaves his house on Shabbos to take a walk or for any reason, unless he is going to do a mitzvah or to the synagogue or the beit midrash.]
In all the Muslim lands, no one enters a synagogue wearing shoes. Even when visiting a friend’s house, people leave their shoes outside by the door.
Cairo: Cairo is filled with people speaking languages from all over the world. There are about 700 Jewish families in Cairo. Fifty are Samaritan, 150 are Karaites and the rest are Rabbinic Jews.
The Samaritans only have the Five books of Moses. The Rabbinic Jews feel very hostile to them because they offer sacrifices and incense on Mt. Gerizim. Many of these Samaritans traveled with us from Cairo to their temple on Mount Gerizim to sacrifice the paschal lamb. They keep Shabbos from midday Friday to midday Saturday.
The Karaites sanctify the new moon with witnesses. Sometimes, due to conflicting testimony, the Karaites in Cairo will make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on a different day than the Karaites in Jerusalem. Also, the Karaites in Cairo may add a month, and the Karaites in Constantinople will not. They see nothing wrong with this.
They fast on the seventh and tenth of Av. On Sukkot they hang a lulav (together with the other species) in the middle of their synagogue. Everyone looks at it, and they consider this sufficient to fulfill their obligation.
Jews in Muslim lands make themselves appear poor [even when they are wealthy]. They go about like an impoverished, despised people, with their heads bowed down before the Muslims.
Among the Jews in Cairo, some work as money-changers, merchants and traders, for one can easily make a profit all year round. People stay up day and night, and torches burn throughout the night to illuminate the streets and marketplaces. The people sleep on the ground outside their stores or in the street. They cook at home only once a week. They are so busy at their jobs—both men and women—that they buy whatever they need from the marketplace.
Gaza: It is a beautiful city and as large as Jerusalem. I saw the building that according to the Jews there was pulled down by Samson. There are about 70 Jewish families and two Samaritan families.
Hebron: I visited the cave of Machpelah. It is covered by a large mosque. The Muslims treat it with great respect and come on pilgrimage from all the Muslim lands to worship there. In the cave itself, where the Patriarchs are buried, neither Jew nor Muslim may enter. The Muslim pilgrims throw money into the cave through the shafts. When the Muslim caretakers want to take the money out, they lower a young boy on ropes into the cave, who gathers the money and is pulled back up.
At present, about 20 Rabbinic Jewish families live in Hebron.
Every day, they distribute bread and lentils, or some other legume, to the poor, whether Muslim, Jew or Christian, in honor of our forefather Abraham.
The Pathway book is very inexpensive. Everyone can buy their own copy, as I presented only a very small selection.
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He would consider living in Palermo.