[Page 49, Volume 2, Hebrew]
[Page 14, Volume 2, Ladino]
Until the fourth century of the sixth millennium of the Hebrew calendar (about 1540 CE), the Jewish community of Saloniki lacked nothing. It included many prominent persons, such as Rabbi Shmuel de Medina, Rabbi Moshe Almoshnino, the famous physician Amatus Lusitanos, the poet Saadia Longo, Rabbi Izhak Adrabi, Rabbi Yosef ben Lev, and Rabbi Shlomo ben Hasson. But these exiles from Spain, Portugal, and Italy were missing one thing: unity. It was not easy for these Jews, who had come from various corners of Europe and at different times and for various reasons, to form a single united community. They formed separate kahalim (congregations), according to the places from which they had come; each with its own rabbi, cantor, teachers, court, and charitable organizations.
There was no feeling of community between these kahalim,. Much friction occurred among them, and even within their ranks. Even worse, there were some who wished to impose their own will on the everyday life of others ; and who did so without reference to the authority of the duly constituted leaders of the kahalim. .These behaviors caused great fights within the congregations.
The years of the reign of Sultan Suleiman were considered the golden years of the Jews of the Ottoman Empire; during which the Jews of Saloniki flourished in both intellectual and economic spheres. But between the years 5202 and 5203 (1542-3 CE), a great argument arose in the community. Rabbi Yosef ben Lev and Rabbi Shlomo ben Hasson, both important leaders, took opposing sides in the dispute,
Rabbi Yosef ben Lev , known as MAHARIBAL (also spelled MAHARBAL or MAHARVAL) which is the acronym for Moreinu Ha Rav Yosef ben Lev - Our Teacher the Rabbi Yosef ben Lev - was very knowledgeable in Talmud and the Law. He had been born in Monastir in the year 5260 (1500 CE) and came to live in Saloniki at the age of 34 years. His publications were so numerous that even though there were many wise men and Rabbis in the area of Saloniki at the time, people used to come to seek his advice on questions of halacha and other personal matters.
In those years, many conversos came to Saloniki to return openly to the religion of their fathers. These conversos brought with them their knowledge, fortunes, and eagerness to succeed; and with these enriched more and more both the Jewish community and the town as a whole. They stimulated commerce to an extent not previously known,; but on the other hand they brought with them another way of life, with different habits which they had adopted during their period of feigned conversion. These caused bewilderment and separation among the Jews., and the peace and harmony of the community was disturbed. This reached a point where the Portuguese Jews separated into two camps, the Holy Community of Old Lisbon, and the Holy Community of New Lisbon.
The leader of the dictatorial and argumentative group was a wealthy man named Barukh (his full name is not known). He came to Saloniki in the year 5301 (1541), and immediately on his arrival tried to rule the kahal of the Portuguese. Inasmuch as he was rich and influential, he was able to bully the members of his community, and falsely accuse many of his opponents. Complaints against him were serious; and came to the ears of Rabbi Moshe Hammon. Rabbi Moshe was the minister and physician to the Sultan in Constantinople, and always stood ready to help his brethren thoughout the Empire in difficult times. Unfortunatrely, Barukh had many supporters in the Portuguese kahal, including Rabbis and wise men such as Rabbi Shlomo ben Hasson.
Rabbi Moshe Hammon wrote a letter to Rabbi Binyamin Halevi Ashkenazi, who was the leader of the important Ashkenazi kahal in Saloniki., asking him to intervene for peace. In this letter he asked Rabbi Binyamin to speak to Barukh and to influence him to be more moderate ; since his behavior could cause him and others much trouble. Barukh and his group did not heed Rabbi Moshe Hammon's request; and sincee his opponents could not bear his behavior, they sent a delegation to the capitol. This delegation included several rabbis, who compained to Rabbi Hammon. When he heard the whole story, he became angry and brought the matter to the heads of the government.
Barukhs camp also sent a delegation to Rabbi Hammon, headed by a person named Eliyahu, with the purpose of convincing him of the justice of their cause. But Rabbi Hammon refused to see them. He then received another letter from his friend Rabbi Binyamin Halevi, who in his turn asked Rabbi Hammon to intervene to make peace between the two sides. To this letter Rabbi Hammon answered that Rustam Pasha, the Sultan's vizier, had sent a letter to the Governor of Saloniki in which there was an order to arrest Barukh and to bring him to the capital as soon as possible. Barukh was brought to Constantinople , where his life hung in the balance. But Barukh promised that if he were to be allowed to return to Saloniki he would stop his intrigues and arguments, and not bother anyone. Rabbi Moshe thereupon dealt kindly with him, and had him freed. But Barukh did not keep his promise, and on his return to Saloniki began to behave as before. When Rabbi Moshe found this out, he became very angry, and again brought the matter to the vizier. Rustam Pasha. conferred with the Sultan , who ordered two high officials sent to Saloniki. Rabbi Moshe advised all concerned about the Sultan's decision, and explained the powers which the two officials had. He also added his advice to the community to behave carefully, and with wisdom . The affair was very sensitive, since in Barukhs camp there were also several prominent rabbis.
For some reason, the Sultan's decision was not implemented, and the confrontation between the two camps increased from day to day. The disputes increased not only between the two kahalim, but also between the leaders and the rabbis. For personal reasons one of these rabbis, Rabbi Shlomo ben Hasson, joined the camp of Barukh, and looked for an excuse to belittle and anger his colleague Rabbi Yosef ben Lev, who was an opponent of Barukh.
The opportunity soon came. In the presence of many rabbis and sages in the yeshiva, Rabbi ben Hasson asked a question concerning the tosafot (commentaries). A discussion was followed by heated and insulting words between the two rabbis. The quarrel deepened.
Soon afterward, in the month of Sivan, 5305 (1545); an epidemic of plague broke out, and many of the inhabitants of Saloniki died. People dropped in the streets, and whoever could do so fled to nearby villages and towns.
Even in these times of suffering and despair, Barukh behaved as if lacking any pity or understanding. One day, he met Rabbi Yosef ben Lev in the street, yelled at and cursed him, and struck him on the cheek. Even though this happened in the middle of the busy bazaar, in front of the pharmacy of Avraham Catalan, no witness could be found who had the courage to speak up about it. Rabbi Yosef himself did not reply to Barukh's cursing, and did not respond to the blow. He only tore his garments, and cried to heaven out of his bitterness, Shomu Shamaim Alzot! (May the heavens bear witness to this deed!)
On the same evening, Monday the 4th of Av, 5305, the pharmacist noticed a rat in his shop. He ran after it with a torch in his hand. The rat escaped, but the torch fell on a pile of papers. A fire erupted, which soon spread to the market and the entire neighborhood. All efforts to extinguish it were in vain. Two hundred people died, 8,000 homes burned , and eighteen synagogues with all their torahs went up in flames.
But even this punishment from Heaven did not quiet the spirits nor diminish the hatred between the parties. One night, hooligans attacked Rabbi David, the eldest son of Rabbi Yosef ben Lev, and killed him. It is not known who did this, but it is known that the enemies of Rabbi Yosef wanted to harm him personally. Apparently they mistook the son for the father, as they resembled each other.
From the day that his beloved son was killed, Saloniki became intolerable to Rabbi ben Lev; and he departed for Constantinople. There he was received with open arms in the yeshiva which had been established by Dona Gracia Nasi This noble and wealthy woman provided for all his daily needs. In the yeshiva Rabbi Yosef taught Talmud, and had many students. His influence was great, and people came to him for advice and guidance from all over the Empire. He was superior in wisdom in his generation, and was one of the three most learned teachers of halacha of his time.
In the year 5316 (1556), many disasters occurred in Rabbi Yosef's family, and he himself became very ill. His doctors despaired of his life. He then decided to return to Saloniki.
The change of climate apparently had a favorable influence on his health He renewed his activities in the town, and even published his book Questions and Answers with the famous publisher Rabbi Yosef, son of Rabbi Yavetz. When his health improved, he returned to Constantinople, where he continued to be supported by Dona Gracia Nasi. He again became ill, but despite his sickness and weakness, he continued to answer the questions which came to him from all over. Finally, in the year 5321 (1561), he became so ill that he could no longer visit the yeshiva. Dona Gracia continued to support him until his death in the year 5346 (1586).
His many decisions were published in four parts.: Saloniki 5316; Constantinople 5322 and 5333; and Venice 5315. These books also include responses and new decisions of his son David.
Rabbi Yosef ben Lev -- as one of the writers of that period put it -– was the perfect symbol of his nation. Likes his people, he suffered hardships and torments from fanatic and argumentative people , and like them his destiny was full of bitterness and tragedy. But he found consolation in his work and study of Torah.
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