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Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi (Rom)

Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi (Rom)

circa 5210-5286; 1450-1526)

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Rabbi Eliyahu ben Abraham Mizrachi, known as the ROM (or R'EM), is well known to anyone who studies the Rashi commentary on Chumash with any depth. For the ROM's major work is a commentary on Rashi. He is also mentioned in the commentary of "Sifsei Chachomim" which is printed in many editions of the Chumash.

Rabbi Eliyahu was born in Constantinople (Turkey), approximately in the year 5210 (1450), i.e., over 500 years ago. He died there at the age of about 75 years.

Rabbi Eliyahu was a disciple of Rabbi Eliyahu HaLevi, and he studied also Linder Rabbi Judah of Padua (Italy).

Before he became the Chief Rabbi of his native city, he headed a great Yeshiva. He attracted many students, whom be taught the Talmud and the Codes of Jewish Law. Certain pupils he also taught mathematics algebra and astronomy, in which he was proficient, for these sciences are useful aids in the understanding of certain laws of the Torah.

At that time, the Chief Rabbi of Constantinople was the famed Rabbi Moshe Kapsali, who was well known for his great scholarship and piety. Although Rabbi Moshe lived very modestly, fasted a great deal, and despised all personal comfort, he conducted his office of the Chief Rabbinate with authority. He was the official Jewish representative at the Court of the Sultan, and he was responsible for the collection of the taxes which the Jews had to pay the Sultan. Rabbi Moshe placed the main burden of the taxes on the wealthy members of the community. He also made them support the various Torah and charitable institutions of the community. As a result, he had many enemies among the wealthier members, some of whom tried to have him removed from his position. They complained about him to the great Sage of the age, Rabbi Joseph Kolon (Maharik), who was the Rabbi of Manitoba, but whose authority was recognized by Jews everywhere. Rabbi Joseph Kolon, apparently misled by false witnesses, wrote a letter to the leaders of the Jewish community of Constantinople, instructing them not to recognize their Chief Rabbi any longer, but to choose another Rabbi in his place. A bitter controversy arose between Rabbi Moshe Kapsali and Rabbi Joseph Kolon, in which a great many prominent Rabbis were involved, taking one side or the other.

Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi felt that the saintly Rabbi Moshe had been wronged, and he wanted to come out in his defense, although he knew that if the Chief Rabbi were deposed, he (Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi) would be the logical choice as his successor. However, Rabbi Eliyahu's teacher, Rabbi Judah Mintz, wrote him a letter, strictly forbidding him to interfere, and he could do nothing but obey. In due course, the Maharik realized that he had made a mistake, and that his suspicions were without foundation, based on false testimony of interested parties. He therefore sent his son Rabbi Peretz (for he was too old to go himself) to Constantinople and convey to the saintly Rabbi Moshe his regrets and humble apology, and to ask for the latter's forgiveness. Rabbi Moshe forgave his erstwhile adversary with all his heart.

When Rabbi Moshe Kapsali died, in the year 5254 (1494), Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi was chosen to succeed him as Chief Rabbi of Constantinople and of all Turkish jewry. He occupied this exalted position until his death.

Like his predecessor, Rabbi Eliyahu was the official Jewish representative at the Court of the Sultan. In his capacity as Chacham-Bashi (Chief Rabbi), Rabbi Eliyahu was a member of the Supreme Council, as were also the Mufti (the spiritual leader of the Moslems) and the Greek Patriarch, the leader of the Christians. This government position was abolished, however, after the death of Rabbi Eliyahu, at the request of the Jews themselves, especially Rabbi Eliyahu's son-in-law, Rabbi Meshulem.

At that time many of the Karaites desired to come closer to Judaism. For hundreds of years the Karaites had been a separate sect, believing only in the Written Law (T'NaCH) but not the Oral Law (Talmud, etc.). Many of them had fought bitterly against their own people, in an effort to "justify" their beliefs. They formed their own communities, their own houses of worship, and their own religious way of life. At first, Rabbi Eliyahu, like most other Rabbis before him, would have nothing to do with them, since they had excluded themselves from the community of the Jewish people. Later, however, when he saw that some Karaites truly and sincerely wished to return to the fold, he was friendly to them and tried to help them come back.

The main work of Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi, as already mentioned, was his commentary on Rashi, entitled Sefer Mizrachi. It contains deep insights into Rashi's commentary on the Torah, and explanations of all difficult passages in Rashi. In this way he also removes many objections raised by Ramban in regard to Rashi's explanation of some passages of the Torah. This work was published soon after the author's death, by his son Rabbi Israel, in Venice, in the year 5286 (1526).

Other works by Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi included Responsa (Shaaloth uTeshuvoth), published in two parts (Constantinople, 1546, and Venice, 1647, respectively). He also wrote treatises on mathematics and astronomy.

His major work, the Sefer baMizrachi, became very popular. Various scholars wrote commentaries on it. A digest of it appears in many edition of the Chumash, alongside Rashi's commentary.

Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi was regarded as one of the greatest Rabbis and scholars of his time. The Jewish community in Constantinople was one of the largest and most important in those days, especially after the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (in 1492), when it became a haven of refuge for many prominent Spanish and Portuguese Jews. Rabbi Eliyahu did his utmost to help these refugees. Moreover, many "marranos" (Jews who had been forced to declare their acceptance of the Christian religion, but remained Jews at heart) were able openly. to return to the faith of their fathers in Constantinople, and other cities of the Sultan, where the Jews enjoyed a goodly measure of freedom.

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peter balkans December 26, 2015

Dearest Michael,

Kawasaki was indeed of Sephardic origin. Born in the Eastern Med...But hailing from the Western Med! And proceeding forward from the great academic and spiritual traditions of the Iberian Peninsula.

May your Family be blessed in every way.

Peter Evan Reply

Michael Makovi Petah Tiqwa, Israel January 3, 2010

Clarification Excellent and enjoyable article; thank you.

Perhaps note should be made of the fact that Rabbis Mizrahi, Kapsali, etc., living in Turkey before 1492, were Romaniote (Judeo-Greek, Byzantine) rather than Sephardi (Judeo-Spanish).

Indeed, the Romaniotes were very Tosafistic (predominately following either Rabbenu Tam or Rashbam, though I cannot remember which). Rabbi Mizrahi's rabbi, Rabbi Judah of Mintz, sounds to have been from Germany (Mainz?), making his a Tosafistic Ashkenazi, very different from the Spanish Jews who would very imminently come to dominate Turkey. Reply

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