Our story takes us back some five hundred years. It was a very difficult time for the Jews in many Christian countries of Europe, especially in Spain. At that time, a new haven of refuge opened for Jewish refugees-in the Turkish Empire.

In the summer of 5213 (1455), the Turkish Sultan Mohammed II conquered Constantinople. The Sultan opened the gates of his empire for the Jewish refugees, knowing that they could bring many benefits to his country. He permitted the Jewish refugees to build homes, synagogues and houses of study, and to practice their religion and way of life freely. The Jewish communities of Constantinople and of other Turkish cities began to grow and flourish spiritually as well as economically.

Sultan Mohammed II had a Jewish physician, whose name was Jacob. Jacob was a learned and wise man, and the Sultan appointed him as his finance minister. Jacob had a considerable influence over the Sultan, and it was as a result of this influence that the Sultan granted many rights and privileges to the Jews in his empire.

Soon after Constantinople was taken by the Turks, Rabbi Moshe Capsali was appointed by the Sultan as the Chief Rabbi (Chacham Bashi) of all Jews in the Turkish empire. He became the official representative of the Jewish people and had a seat in the council of all caliphs. Rabbi Moshe Capsali's rank was higher than that of the Christian patriarch, being next to the chief spiritual leader of the Mohammedans.

Not much is known about Rabbi Moshe Capsali's earlier life, except that he came from a prominent Jewish family, and that he studied the Torah in several important Yeshivoth in Germany and other places. When he came to Constantinople, the community was small and poor. He was appointed a Dayyan (member of the Jewish Beth-Din, or Court). But, as we have seen above, after the city was conquered by the Turks, he became the Chief Rabbi, and his great gifts of leadership made him famous. Rabbi Moshe Capsali used his high office wisely, and he did much to help the growth of the Jewish communities in the Turkish empire. He appointed qualified Rabbis and communal leaders, and personally supervised all the affairs of the Jewish communities. He was also responsible for the taxes which the Jews had to pay to the Sultan. This was an important source of revenue for the Sultan; as the Jews had done well in developing the industry and commerce of the country.

As might well be expected, such a high position was not without problems. One problem was that of the Karaites. They were a sect which came into being many hundreds of years earlier. They denied the Talmud and the whole Oral Law, accepting only the T'NaCh as their authority. They began to reinterpret the Torah in their own way and thereby excluded themselves from the Jewish faith. At one time they had strong communities of their own in various cities in the countries of the Middle East, from Egypt to Crimea and other parts of Russia. But gradually they dwindled in numbers. However, under the friendly attitude of the Sultan, the Karaite congregations in Constantinople, Adrionople and other cities began to grow, as they attracted Karaites from Crimea and other parts of Russia. They were quite ignorant of the Jewish Law, and they turned to the Rabbis to teach them. Some Rabbis, hoping to convert them back to the Jewish faith, began to teach them also Mishnah and G'mara. Rabbi Moshe Capsali was not in favor of teaching them the Oral Law in which they did not believe.

A more serious problem arose in connection with the support of the Jewish community in the Holy Land. Ever since the destruction of the Beth Hamikdosh, there always lived a small Jewish community in the Holy City of Jerusalem. It was poor and oppressed, and depended for its support on the Tzedoko which was collected for them from Jewish communities in other countries. Special emissaries from the Holy Land would come to collect funds for this purpose.

Now at the time when Rabbi Moshe Capsali was the Chief Rabbi in Constantinople, there was a Jewish community of Italian and Sephardic Jews in Jerusalem. Later, a number of Ashkenazic Jews from Germany came to Jerusalem, but they were not welcomed in a friendly manner by the local Jews who were not in a good economic position, and feared that now their position would become even worse. Most of the heavy taxes which the Jewish community had to pay to the governor of Jerusalem fell onto the shoulders of the Ashkenazic Jews. Not being able to carry the burden, the Ashkenazic Jews began to leave Jerusalem, and now the Sephardic Jews had to pay the taxes. During those difficult days for the Jerusalem Jewish community, the great and famous Rabbi Obadia Bertinoro came to Jerusalem and accepted the position of Rabbi. He reports that when he came, only 70 Jewish families remained in Jerusalem out of 300 which had lived there earlier on. Rabbi Obadiah came to Jerusalem in the year 5248 (1488) and began to bring order and peace into the Jewish community there.

In the meantime an emissary from the Holy Land, whose strange name was Rabbi Moshe Esrim Vearba (meaning "Twenty-Four," after the 24 books of the T'NaCh), came to Constantinople to collect money for the poor and needy in the Holy Land, and he turned to Rabbi Moshe Capsali to help him in this matter. Now, it so happened that Sultan Bayazid II of Turkey was at war with the Sultan of Egypt to whom Palestine belonged, and it was forbidden to send money from Turkey to any part of Egypt or its provinces. Rabbi Moshe Capsali could not officially help the emissary from the Holy Land, but he tried to help in any other way he could. The emissary became very angry with the Chief Rabbi, and he gathered around him several other individuals who were jealous of the Chief Rabbi or disliked him for their own selfish reasons. They wrote a letter full of various accusations against the Chief Rabbi, and sent it to the great and famous scholar Rabbi Joseph Colon (known as the Maharic) in Italy. The aged scholar accepted the accusations in good faith and sent an order to Rabbi Moshe Capsali to resign from his post. He also ordered the leaders of the Jewish communities in Constantinople and other cities to demand his resignation. When Rabbi Colon's representative came to Constantinople with the stern measures which had been prescribed for the dismissal of the Chief Rabbi of Constantinople, and when he saw the respect and authority which the Chief Rabbi enjoyed, he feared to reveal his mission at once, and held it back for two years. Finally, the matter came to the Chief Rabbi's attention. He called in the leaders of the community and read to them the order of Rabbi Joseph Colon. They were horrified that the great scholar in Italy, who was recognized as one of the greatest of his time, should have permitted himself to be misled by the intrigue of a few trouble-makers, without taking the trouble to investigate the matter more carefully. With the consent of the Jewish leaders in Constantinople, Rabbi Moshe Capsali wrote a reply to Rabbi Joseph Colon, rebuking him for his stand in this matter. The controversy caused a great deal of agitation in various Jewish communities, and several leading Rabbis took part in it, some siding with one, some with the other. Later on, Rabbi Joseph Colon became convinced that he had wronged Rabbi Moshe Capsali, and he was very much grieved about it. While lying on his death-bed, he sent his son Rabbi Peretz to Constantinople to personally ask Rabbi Capsali's forgiveness. Rabbi Moshe Capsali welcomed the son of his opponent with fatherly affection, and was deeply moved by the gesture. He was indeed sorry to hear that Rabbi Joseph Colon was so ill, and he tried his best to befriend Rabbi Colon's son and bestow many favors on him.

Despite his high position, Rabbi Moshe Capsali was always very humble, and he lived very simply and modestly. He spent much time in fasting and praying, and it was small wonder that he was loved and respected by all who knew him.

Towards the last years of his life, the great tragedy of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain took place (in 1492). Rabbi Moshe Capsali, his advanced age notwithstanding, threw himself body and soul into a great effort to help the victims. He personally traveled to various Jewish communities in his country to collect funds for Pidyon Shvuim, to redeem the Jewish refugees from Spain who had been captured by pirates and threatened with slavery. He also imposed a special tax, by the authority granted him by the Sultan, on Jewish communities in the Turkish empire, for the purpose of helping the Jewish refugees from Spain. Many of them were brought to Constantinople and welcomed with open arms by their more fortunate brethren.

Rabbi Moshe Capsali died three years later, at the age of 75. Although he left no written works, his good works and deeds gave him much fame, and included him among the great and illustrious Jewish personalities of all times.