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Rabbi Joseph HaKohen

Rabbi Joseph HaKohen

(5256 - 5837; 1496 - 1577)

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For many years it was the custom of a great many communities to read on Tisha B'Av chapters from a book called "Eimek Habachah," the Valley of Weeping. This chronology of Jewish martyrdom through the ages was very fitting to the mood of mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple which is commemorated on Tisba B'Av. this outstanding book of Jewish martyrology was written by Rabbi Joseph Ben Joshua Meir Hakohen.

It was not mere chance or academic curiosity which prompted this Jewish scholar, physician and historian to compile the facts of "Emek Habachah." Bitter personal experience and long years of persecution, as a hunted Jew and constant refugee, were the lot of Rabbi Joseph Hakohen; and he felt it his sacred duty to preserve for posterity the memory of the trials and tribulations of Israel in exile.

Rabbi Joshua Meir Hakohen, Joseph's father, had been forced to take up the life of a refugee when the cruel decree of Ferdinand and Isabella drove all Jews from Spain. He travelled north and finally settled in Avignon, which had a flourishing Jewish community. He was a learned man of considerable Jewish and secular knowledge. When his son Joseph was born three years after he had settled in Avignon, he took his education into his own hands and personally taught and supervised the amazing progress of his son from his earliest youth.

Unfortunately, however, the young boy's education was interrupted when his family was forced to leave Avignon to seek a new haven of refuge. Rabbi Joshua Meir decided to join his relatives who had left Spain by ship and who, after some initial refusals, had been admitted to the Genoese republic. During the following fourteen years of relative quiet he gave his son a thorough Jewish education, which included all the Talmudical and Halachic traditions of the great school of Spanish Talmudists. At the same tune he instructed him in Utin and Greek, which were the prerequisites for entering a medical school. At a much younger age than most students, the future historian and physician started out on his medical career at one of the great schools of Italy, probably in Salerno. While he was yet studying for his profession, the Doges of Genoa decided to expel the Jews from the city. Rabbi Joshua Meir took his family to the small town of Novi, anticipating that Genoa would soon relent and permit the return of the commercially valuable Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal whom they had harbored to their great advantage. Yet he himself never lived to see it. Only in 1538, twenty-two years later, did the city of Genoa take back the Jewish residents which had spread through the various small towns of the surrounding land. By that time Rabbi Joseph Hakohen had completed his medical studies and had acquired the much vied papal diploma as a skilled physician. He moved into Genoa and soon acquired great fame as a doctor of extraordinary success and skill. He was consulted by famous personalities all over the country, and in his extensive travels to visit his many patients, he became acquainted with the Italian nobility and scholars.

Rabbi Joseph Hakohen used these excellent connections both for his scientific research and for his philanthropic work on behalf of the unfortunate refugees who roamed the countries and seas in search of a haven, falling prey to all kinds of greedy lords and pirates. The ships of the Italian republics and of the Corsairs waited for them on the high seas, took their possessions away and sold them into slavery, or left them to starve, if they did not kill them immediately. In 1532 the famous Condottiere Andre Doria took many Jewish captives, when he stormed the cities of Coron, Patras and Zante. Rabbi Joseph Hakohen utilized his good name and influence to buy the captives of the cruel Doria. Three years later Emperor Charles V carried out his great ambition of invading the North African coast and took Tunis, where many hundreds of Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal had rebuilt much of the flourishing cultural life that had been destroyed in their homelands. After superhuman efforts in travelling about the country to collect funds and enlist the assistance of the influential men of Italy, Rabbi Joseph Hakohen was able to buy the prisoners of the Spanish ruler and send them by ship to new havens in Turkey and in the New Continent, then opened to the homeless. Similarly in 1542 he was informed that the galleys of the pirating Agala Visconti had taken a good many Jews off boats and thrown them into chains to have them die a slow death, after they were deprived of all their possessions. It took much money, procured by the untiring work of the Jewish scholar, to buy their freedom and give them another chance for rebuilding their lives in liberty.

For twelve years Rabbi Joseph Hakohen practised his profession in Geneoa and was as popular among Gentiles as among Jews. This, however, caused his non-Jewish competitors to look upon him with jealousy and hostility. They used a general trend of anti-Jewish feeling among the rulers of the Genoese republic to have the entire Jewish community expelled a second time. The citizens of the small town of Voltaggio invited the famous physician to make his domicile amongst them, for he had once helped them combat an epidemic. Seventeen years Rabbi Joseph Hakohen stayed in the small Italian city, and utilized the relative quiet and security to write most of his historical works. In 1567 the council of the Genoese republic drove all Jews from the surrounding land where they had settled after their expulsion from the city of Genoa proper. Only after much pressure did the people of Voltaggio let Rabbi Joseph Hakohen move away. They had even petitioned the rulers of Genoa, that they all would rather leave the city with him. Thereupon the council had permitted the famous physician and historian to stay on in Voltaggio as the only exception. Yet Rabbi Joseph Hakohen would not dream of making use of this offer. He was a Jew and never wanted to dissociate himself from his brethren. Even though he was an old man of over seventy years, he took his family of three sons and two daughters and wandered with the rest of the expelled Genoese Jews to new cities. The smaller town of Costeletto, or Montferrat, received him and his co-sufferers for his sake with open arms. Four years he spent in this hospitable city, until the council of Genoa rescinded their anti-Jewish decree and called the Jews back in 1571. Rabbi Joseph Ha-kohen returned too, and lived there until his death.

The first great historical work of Rabbi Joseph Hakohen was something of a European history presented as a struggle between East and West; the outcome of the struggle depended upon the treatment of the Jews in the western and eastern countries. France represented to him the leading western power, and the Ottoman empire the eastern power; both were battling for supremacy. "Divrei Hayamim Lemalkei Zarefath Veottoman"--Chronicles of the Kings of France and Turkey, is the title of this presentation of his Jewish view of European politics in its broad outlines. It was written in excellent Hebrew style and followed an extremely careful scientific approach. Rabbi Joseph Hakohen begins with the downfall of the Roman Empire and showed the growth of the two countries, France and Turkey, through the centuries. He stresses the cruelty of the Christian church in the times of the Crusades and in the following centuries when Jewish persecution was at its height, and he foretells the". downfall of the monstrous system, which brought unrest and unhappiness to thousands of innocent people. It was translated into many languages and was long popular for its scholastic standards, epecially for its significant characterizations ol contemporary political and social life.

More important for the Jewish world was his second great book, the popular "Emek Habachah," the Vale of Weeping. Whereas his first chronicle made only references to the inhuman treatment of the Jews by the various countries, he now went about writing a special history of Jewish martyrdom. As inspiration and example served him the famous Spanish report of Jewish suffering in Spain and Portugal by the poet Rabbi Samuel Usque. He goes through the history which he had already given a broader treatment in his first book, and shows how Jewish history was linked with the fate of the countries that served as hosts. He shows -how time and again cruel persecution destroyed what Jewish ingenuity had constructed during the short periods of peaceful work. Almost until the last days of his life he worked on this sad chronicle, and he ended with a forewarning of the Divine retribution that was to overtake the Christian rulers and countries for their treatment of the Jews.

Rabbi Joseph Hakohen wrote also some medical treatises and a description of the conquest of Mexico and of Columbus' discoveries, called "Matziv Gevuloth Amim," (Who Setteth the Boundaries of Nations). He further composed an alphabetical list of Hebrew nouns, with illustrations of their use in the Holy Scriptures. This he called "Peles Hashemoth."

Rabbi Joseph Hakohen died at the age of 81 in Genoa, Italy.

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