About five hundred years ago there was a flourishing Jewish community in Italy. One of the greatest scholars who lived there at that time was Rabbi Obadiah,de Bertinoro, the famous author of a commentary on the whole of the Mishnah, known by the name of the author -"Bertinoro."
Bertinoro was a small town in the province of Flori, in Italy, which had a Jewish population of several hundred souls. There were many Talmudic scholars in that little community. Rabbi Obadiah (the name means 'servant of G‑d') became their Rabbi and teacher at a very young age, for he was very brilliant indeed. He was gifted with great mastery of speech and writ ing and in the course of a few years became famous far beyond the borders -of his native country.
In his early thirties Rabbi Obadiah decided to settle in the Holy Land. Before his departure (in the year 1486), Rabbi Obadiah had already written his commentary on all the six divisions of the Mishnah, a gigantic work. In a clear and concise way, and in a simple style, Rabbi Obadiah gives a full explanation of every Mishnah, giving the gist of the Gemoro discussion ox the particular Mishnah. In a way, the commentary may be considered an enlargement of Rashi's commentary on the Mishnayoth, but whereas Rashi often says 'This point will be explained in the Gemoro,' Bertinoro gives immediately a brief explanation, and clarifies the point on the spot. Thus, the commentary gives a complete explanation of each Mishnah, and so clearly is it, that it can easily be followed by the average student. Indeed, no student of the Mishnah can do without this commentary, and since it was first printed in Venice in 1549, hardly an edition of the Mishnah was published without this great and standard commentary.
Rabbi Obadiah is the author of other works, notably a commentary on Rashi's explanations of the Torah, called "Amar Naki" (Pure Wool), and a commentary on the Book of Ruth, called "Midrash Ruth."
Rabbi Obadiah set out for the Holy Land in the autumn of 1486, and arrived at his destination about 18 months later. Fortunately, a report of his eventful journey has been preserved in the form of a letter which this great scholar sent to his, father in Bertinoro after his arrival in Jerusalem in the year 1488. Because of its colorful description of the countries and their Jewish inhabitants which he visited on the trip, this report has become one of the most valuable documents about medieval Jewish life.
Here are some of the most important passages of Rabbi Obadiah's letter: "...In the fourth month, on the fast day, the seventeenth of Tammuz, 5247 (1487), he set out from Naples, in the large sailing ship of Mossen Bianchi, together with nine other Jews, it was five days, however, before we reached Palermo, owing to a calm.
"Palermo is the chief town of Sicily, and contains about 850 Jewish families, all living in one street, which is situated in the best part of the town. They are artisans, such as copper-smiths and ironsmiths, porters and peasants. They are despised by the Christians, and they are obliged to wear a piece of red cloth on their garments, so that they may be identified as Jews. This badge is about the size of a gold coin, fastened on the breast. The royal tax falls heavily on them, for they are obliged to work for the king at any employment that is given them; they have to draw ships to the shore, to construct dykes, and so on. They are also employed in administering corporal punishment and in carrying out the sentence of death.
"The synagogue of Palermo has not its equal in the whole world; the stone pillars in the outer courtyard are encircled by vines such as I have never before seen. I measured one of them and it was of the thickness of five spans. The vestibule has three entrances and a porch in which there are large chairs for rest, and a splendid fountain... On the eastern side there is a stone building, shaped like a dome, the Ark. It contains the scrolls of the law which are ornainented with crowns and pomegranates of silver and precious stones to the value of 400 gold pieces; the scrolls rest on a wooden shelf, and are not put into a chest as with us... In the center of the synagogue is a wooden platform, the Teba, where the Readers recite their prayers. There are at present five Readers in the community...
"In Palermo I noticed the following custom: When anybody dies, his coffin is brought into the vestibule of the synagogue and the ministers hold the funeral service. If the departed is a distinguished man, especially learned in the law, the coffin is brought into the synagogue itself, a scroll of the law is taken out and placed in the corner of the Ark, while the coffin is placed opposite that corner...
"On my arrival in Palermo the leaders of the, Jewish community invited me to deliver lectures on the Sabbath, before the Afternoon Service. I consented and began on Sabbath, the New Moon of Ab, 5247. My discourses were favorably received, so that I was obliged to continue them every Sabbath; but this was no advantage to me, for I had come to Palermo with the object of going on to Syracuse, at the extreme end of Sicily, for I had heard this was the time when Venetian ships going to Beirut, near Jerusalem, would stop there. The Jews of Palermo then got many persons to circulate false rumors to dissuade me from my intention, and succeeded in taking me in their net, so that I missed the good crossing... In my further discourses in Palermo I denounced informers and transgressors, so that the elders of the city told me that many refrained from sin, and the number of informers also decreased while I was there; I do not know if they will go back to their old ways. But yet I cannot spend all my life among them, although they honor and esteem me... "On the eve of Shevuoth, 5248 (1486), a French galley came to Palermo, on its way to Alexandria. The worthy Meshullam of Volterra was on it, with his servant, and I rejoiced to travel in his company... We were in Messina on Monday at noon. This town is a center of trade for all nations. Messina is not so large as Palermo, neither has it such good springs; but the town is very beautiful and has a strong fortress. There are about four hundred Jewish families in it, living quietly in a street of their own; they are richer than those in Palermo, and are almost all artisans. At a wedding which took place near my residence I witnessed the following ceremony: After the seven blessings had been repeated, the bride was placed on a horse and led through the town. The whole community went before her on foot, the bridegroom in the midst of the elders; youths and children carried burning torches and made loud exclamations, so that the whole place resounded; they made the circuit of the streets and all the Jewish courts; the Christian inhabitants looked on with pleasure and no one disturbed the festivity.
"We left Messina to go to Rhodes. For four days we had favorable winds; on the fourth day towards evening we were thrown back by a storm and could only escape the fury of the waves by remaining in a little natural harbor in the mountains into which we were thrown...After three days we left this place and came within sixty miles of Rhodes... One of the sailors used insolent language to the worthy Meshullam who complained of it to the master. The master himself went in search of the sailor; the others tried to hide him, but in vain. He commanded him to be tied to the mast and severely flogged, and when the thrashing seemed too mild, he took the rope himself and continued to punish the insolence of the sailor. He also desired him to make a public apology to the worthy Meshullarn. The whole ship's crew were very much annoyed that all this should have happened On account of abusive words spoken against a Jew...
"The inhabitants of Rhodes welcomed us gladly, for the master of our ship was a friend and relative of the governor. The chief men of the Jewish community soon, came to our ship and received us with kindness; for the merchant Meshullam was the brother of the physician Rabbi Nathan, the most distinguished man among the Jews of Rhodes. A fine room provided with all necessities was assigned to me. Anyone who has seen Rhodes, with its high and strong walls, its firm gates and forts, has seen a true fortress. The Turkish Emperor in the year of his death sent an army against it, bombarded the town with a multitude of stones, which are still to be seen there, and in this way threw down the walls surrounding the Jewish quarter and destroyed the houses. The Jews here have told me that when the Turks got into the town they killed all before them until they came to the door of the synagogue. There G‑d brought confusion among them, so that they began at once to flee and slay one another. On account of this miracle the governor built a church on the spot and gave the Jews another building instead of it. While I was in Rhodes, he granted them a hundred ducats from the revenues of the town to build a new synagogue
"Not many Jews have remained in Rhodes; altogether there are twentytwo families, all poor, who subsist with difficulty on vegetables, not eating bread or meat; nor do they buy any wine, for fear of getting into disputes with the Greeks who dwell there. When they buy in the market they touch nothing that belongs to the Greeks. . . . They all allow their hair to grow long and are beautiful in appearance. . . . The Jewish women occupy themselves doing all kinds of handiwork for the nobles of the land and thus support their husbands. . .
"We reached Alexandria on the fourteenth of Shevat, tired and weary. Here G‑d gave us favor in the eyes of a generous man who was very much beloved even by the Arabs. His name was Moses Grasso, dragoman to the Venetians. He came to meet us and saved us from the bands of the Arabs who sit in the gates and plunder foreign Jews at their pleasure. He took me in his house, and there I had to. remain while I stayed in Alexandria.... The following is the arrangement of the Kiddush preceding the Sabbath meal, customary to Jews in all Arabian countries. They sit in a circle on a carpet, the cupbearer standing nearby waiting on them; all kinds of fruit which are in season are brought and laid on the cloth. The host now takes a glass of wine, pronounces the blessing of Kiddush, and empties the cup completely. The cupbearer then takes it from the host, and hands it refilled to the whole company in turn, and each one empties it. Then the host takes two or three pieces of fruit, eats some and drinks a second glass, while the company say, 'Health and life.' Whoever sits next also takes some fruit, and the cupbearer fills a second glass for him, saying, 'To your pleasure,' the company join in with the words 'Health and life,' and so it goes round. . . .
"I spent seven days in Alexandria. It happened just at this time that there was a man in Alexandria who had made a vow to celebrate the Passover feast in Jerusalem with his family. I joined his company and traveled with him on camels. On the Nile I saw the large species of frogs, called El Timsah, the crocodile, , which remained in Egypt from the time of Moses, as the Ramban mentions in his commentary. Before coming to Bulak, a suburb of Cairo, we observed two very old dome-shaped buildings on the same side of the stream. It is said that they are the stores for grain which Joseph had built. The door is above in the roof....
"Twelve days before Purim we came to Cairo.
"In Cairo there are now about 700 Jewish families; of these fifty are Samaritanse called-also Cutheans; 150 are Karaites, and the rest our fellow Jews. The Samaritans keep only the five books of Moses, and the characters they use in writing of the sacred books differ from ours.* Maimonides remarks that this writing was customary among the Israelites before the time of the Assyrian exile, as already related in Sanhedrin; but their Hebrew is -like ours. They are an abomination to the Jews, because they offer up sacrifices and frankincense on Mt. Gerizim. Many of them left Cairo with our caravan to bring the passover offering to Mt. Gerizim, for they have a temple there; they celebrate the Sabbath from the midday of Friday till the midday of Saturday. There are very few of them in existence now, scarcely 500 families in all the world.
"The Karaites, as you know, do not believe in the words of our Sages, but are familiar with all the Bible. They fix the day of the New Moon according to the appearance of the moon; consequently the ' Karaites in Cairo do not keep the same days for Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement as we do. They celebrate Shovuoth on Sunday; they hang the Lulav and the other plants in the midst of the synagogue, and consider it sufficient if they all look upon them. They have no fire or lighted candles in their houses on Sabbath. . . . Every day they make new explanations of the Torah. . . . And they decide everything by the letter of the Torah. . . . Most of their praying consists of Psalms and other Biblical verses.
"In Cairo there are about fifty families of forced -apostates, 'Maranos' from Spain, who have done penance and returned to our fold; they are mostly poor, having left their possessions in Spain and come here to seek shelter under the wings of the G‑d of Israel.
"The 'Nagid,' the powerful prince of the Jews of Egypt, Rabbi Nathan HaCohen, tried to dissuade me from going to Jerusalem. He told me that all scholars and rabbis had left the holy city because of the oppression they had suffered. The Jews who lived in Jerusalem, disappeared on account of great taxes and burdens laid upon them by the elders, and only the poor remained. . . . Yet I did not lose my courage; I put my trust in G‑d. . . .
"In Ghaza I saw the ruins of the buildings that Samson had pulled down on the Philistines. . . .
"I was also in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, over which a mosque had been built, and the Arabs hold the place in high honor. All the kings of the Arabs come here to pray, but neither Jew nor an Arab may enter the cave where the graves of the Patriarchs are. The Arabs remain above, and let down burning torches into it through a window, for they keep a light always buming there. All who come to pray leave money, which they throw into the cave through the window.
"We arrived in Jerusalem on the 14th day of Nissan, 5248.... Its inhabitants number about four thousand families. As for Jews, about seventy families of the poorest class have remained; there is scarcely a family that is not in want of the commonest necessities; one who has bread all year round is regarded as rich... In my opinion an intelligent man versed in political science might easily raise himself to be chief of the Jews as well as Arabs, for among all the inhabitants there is not a sensible man who knows how to deal kindly with his fellow-men..."
When Rabbi Obadiah wrote these last few lines, he could not hive known that he himself was soon to play this major role in Jerusalem. His excellent character and great knowledge were soon recognized by the population, and after a few years he was the acknowledged ruler of the Jewish community. At the same time he was greatly respected by the Mohammedan population who frequently brought their disputes to him.
Rabbi Obadiah immediately began to deal with the evils that had beset the community. One of the greatest was the annual tax, the collection of which had been entrusted into the hands. of a few dishonest individuals.. This caused great hardships and. injustice to the wider sections of the community. Rabbi Obadiah succeeded in abolishing this tax, and substituting in its stead a simple tax, payable direct to the government.
These and other improvements brought a complete change for the better in the life of the Jewish community of Jerusalem.
Soon this Jewish community was to serve as a haven for thousands of Jewish families who had been cruelly expelled from Spain and Portugal. These Spanish and Portuguese Jews found here a well organized Jewish community, into which they easily could, fit themselves. They brought with them the wealth and cultural life to which they had been accustomed, and greatly enriched the Jewish community in every way. They readily accepted Rabbi Obadiah as their spiritual leader, and helped him to organize a Yeshivah in Jerusalem. With their help, Rabbi Obadiah also organized benevolent institutions, such as orphanages, homes for the poor and destitute, hospitals for the sick, and the like.
"Would I sing his praises," exclaims a visitor from Italy, "I would never finish. He is the most respected person in the country and nobody dares oppose him. 'When he preaches, his audience listens spellbound, and not the slightest sound can be heard. . . ."
When Rabbi Obadiah died in 1520, he was deeply mourned not only by the Jews and non-Jews of the Holy Land, but by all Israel everywhere. But where ever Jews gather to study the sacred words of the Mishnah, the "lips of this great man speak to them from the grave," and the light of knowledge he kindled, continues to shine with undiminishing brightness.