David Hareuveni

Since many Jews felt that the Spanish Expulsion was a harbinger of the Messianic Era, the time was ripe for dubious characters to make such claims. One such person was David HaReuveni, who in 1524 arrived in Rome on a white horse with two attendants and was granted aThe time was ripe for dubious characters to make such claims meeting with the Pope. Claiming to be an ambassador of the Tribe of Reuben, one of the lost Ten Tribes of Israel, HaReuveni proposed an alliance between the Ten Tribes and the Christians to conquer Eretz Israel from the Muslims. Intrigued by the idea, the Pope sent David HaReuveni to Portugal to gain the assent of the Portuguese king. In Portugal, the king cordially received HaReuveni, and the spirits of the oppressed conversos soared. However, fearing the consequences of a Jewish revival, the Portuguese king ordered HaReuveni to leave the country. Eventually, he wound up in Germany, where the emperor imprisoned him. Although it is not definite, in all probability HaReuveni died in jail.

Shlomo Molcho

While David HaReuveni was in Portugal, he attracted the attention of a brilliant converso named Diego Perez, who by age 21 had risen to great power at the king's court. Upon meeting HaReuveni, Diego decided to circumcise himself and adopt openly Judaism. Although HaReuveni tried to dissuade Diego, he went ahead, nearly killing himself in the process. Taking the name of Shlomo Molcho, Diego left Portugal and studied Torah, especially Kabbalah, under many great scholars, mainly in Safed. Feeling that his life's mission was to usher in the Messianic Era, Diego traveled throughout Jewish communities exhorting the populace to repent. At times, he claimed to be Elijah the Prophet, who will herald the arrival of the Messiah. When Diego came to Germany, the emperor arrested him, offering him a choice between conversion to Christianity or martyrdom. Diego chose the latter and was burned at the stake professing his desire to give his life Al Kiddush HaShem. To this day, Diego — Shlomo Molcho — remains a very enigmatic figure. On the one hand, he performed the greatest act a person can do — offering his life for G‑d's sake. On the other hand, he made false Messainic claims, either intentionally or delusionally, that demoralized many Jews when the claims were not fulfilled.

Donna Gracia Mendes and Don Joseph Nasi

These two conversos utilized their great power and wealth to help Jews in many places. Donna Gracia escaped from Portugal to Belgium, along with her nephew Don Joseph Nasi, taking much of their wealth with them. In the city of Antwerp, Donna Gracia managed the family's international banking house, thus making important connections in many countries. Don Joseph married his cousin, Donna Gracia’s daughter, and entered the banking business. Unable to practice Judaism openly in Belgium, in 1553 they fled to Turkey, where Don Joseph became the sultan's closest adviser. In 1561, the Turkish government gave Don Joseph permission to start a Jewish settlement in the city of Tiberias in Eretz Israel. A wall was constructed around the city, silkworm trees were planted, and plans were made for industries that would support many Jews. However, for unknown reasons, the project failed.

Don Joseph also used his influence at the sultan's court to help Jews in danger. When the Church arrested conversos in the Italian city of Ancona, Don Joseph convinced the sultan to write a letter to the Pope threatening harm to Christians in Turkey if the Jews were not released. Undaunted by the threat, the Pope freed only Jews who were Turkish citizens, and burned 25 other Jews at the stake. In response, Don Joseph organized an economic boycott of Ancona, which was backed by the leading halachic authority of the time, Rabbi Joseph Karo. Upon Don Joseph's death, thousands of Jews attended his funeral and mourned for their great benefactor.

The Printing Press

The advent of printing with movable type created a revolution in the Torah world. Sefarim became widely available, and many scholars were encouraged to publish their works, thus greatly disseminating Torah knowledge. Due to easily reprintable books, disasters, such as the burning of the Talmud in France in 1242, would have a diminished effect on the Jewish people. Not surprisingly, the first Hebrew book printed was a 1474 Chumash with Rashi's commentary. In 1484, the first volumeThe advent of printing with movable type created a revolution in the Torah world of the Talmud, Tractate Berachos, was printed in Soncino, Italy. Nevertheless, despite the greater availability of sefarim, they were quite expensive, and often a city had but one complete set of the Talmud. One great Talmudic scholar of the 1700s, the Pnei Yehoshua, lamented the fact that he could not write novellae on Tractate Kerisos because the volume was not in his town. Still, over a 400-year period, the Talmud was printed 56 times. The last printing, the Vilna edition, was completed in 1886, and remains the most accurate, authoritative edition, and is the one in current use.

Censorship

Sadly, throughout Jewish history Jews themselves have been responsible for perpetrating some of the greatest harm upon the Jewish people. In the Middle Ages and onward, Jews who converted to Christianity told the Christians the falsehood that the Talmud contains statements offensive to Christianity. As a result, through numerous printings of the Talmud, censors, both Christians and apostate Jews, were appointed to expunge any statements they felt were blasphemous. The deleted material ranged from single words to entire paragraphs. In particular, three pieces in tractate Sanhedrin discussing Yeshu, on pages 43a, 67a, and 107b, were stricken. Jews did manage to record the missing material in a slim volume called Chesronos HaShas, thus saving it for posterity. Further, in numerous editions of the Talmud tractate Avodah Zarah, which deals with laws of idolatry, was printed without a title page so to escape the censor's attention. Throughout the Talmud and other Jewish works, the word min, meaning heretic, was changed to tzadoki, Sadducee, so that no one might think Christians were implied. Frequently, the censors were wholly ignorant of Hebrew, and changed words even where no offense to Christians could be imagined. For example, the phrase min kitniyos, which means types of beans, was changed to akum kitniyos, meaning idolatrous beans, because the censors thought min meant a Christian heretic.

The Shtadlan

The Hebrew word L'Hishtadel means to make an effort, and its derivative, Shtadlan, was commonly used to describe Jews in the Middle Ages and onward who used their influence at a ruler's court to ameliorate anti-Semitic decrees. One of the most famous of all Shtadlanim was the legendary Rabbi Joselman of Rosheim, who lived in Germany in the 1500s. On countless occasions, he risked his life to save his fellow Jews. Once, an apostate Jew named Pfefferkorn informed the German emperor that the Talmud was insulting to Christians and must be burned. The emperor ordered that the Jews surrender their Gemaras to Pfefferkorn, who would review and burn them if he found incriminating material. Joselman enlisted the aid of many non-Jews, including the great philosopher Johann von Reuchlin, convincing them that the Talmud meant no harm to Christians. Joselman then made a personal appearance before the emperor, causing him to rescind the decree. Another time, Dominican priests attempted to convince Emperor Charles V, ruler of both Spain and Germany, to extend the jurisdiction of the Inquisition to German Jews. Risking being burned at the stake, Joselman traveled to Spain and succeeded in getting the emperor to disregard the priests.