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Book Review by Jay Levinson:
Jewish Questions: Responsa on Sephardic Life in the Early Modern Period


Book Review by Jay Levinson:

by Matt Goldish

Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008

ISBN 978-0-691-12265-6

This collection of Sephardic responsa written during the period 1492-1750 is a fascinating effort to document daily life based upon the practical halachic questions that were asked of prominent rabbis. The emphasis is on social history, which the author explains with clarity and precision. Although the halachic answers are provided to questions asked, the thrust of the book is to depict life through information provided in the queries.

The first section of the book is a broad overview of Sephardic political and social history starting with the Inquisition and stressing facts that general readers often overlook. Those who fled Spain and later Portugal faced the perils of travel --- shipwreck, piracy, and being kidnapped into slavery. It was often hard to find a port that would accept Jews. Nor were they always allowed to leave the Iberian Peninsula. Rules and restrictions were random and selectively enforced.

Where could a refugee seek a new home? Western Europe was closed to Jews. The most common destination was the Moslem world.

The author details the plight of the conversos (Hebrew, anusim or "the forced ones"). Despite hardships, many Jews set out to establish new lives when they were given the choice of imposed conversion or foreign exile. Others, however, accepted a Catholic lifestyle, either out of economic greed, religious apathy, sheer opportunism, or the desperate hope of keeping Jewish lives in secret. As generations passed intermarriage and lack of Jewish education obscured Jewish identity; this can be seen in several of the responsa in the book.

Rabbinical authorities had a strong reputation as Biblical scholars. There were no overt Jews in England when Henry VIII was determined to divorce Catherine of Aragon, so he sought advice about Biblical divorce from the Sephardic rabbis of Venice. One might say that this was a classic case of a non-Jew asking a question in Jewish Law.

While it was forbidden to be a Jew in England at this time, conversos were permitted by government and ecclesiastical authorities, since they maintained the overt demeanor of being non-Jews. This same ruse was played in Amsterdam, where the mercantile value of traders connected to the Iberian Peninsula dissuaded those in favour of banishing the conversos. Over the years, when Jews were allowed to establish residence, the conversos were kept in a separate community. One responsum addresses the question of a converso rejoining the standard Jewish community.

A similar question arose when a Karaite who accepted Rabbinic Judaism died childless. Did his wife have the obligation of levirate marriage (yibum or halitzah) with the deceased's brother, who was still a Karaite? (The answer is that there is room for leniency, not requiring such marriage.)

There are numerous questions regarding business transactions. One fact that stands out is that even as the Mediterranean was at war with Moslem (Ottoman) fighting Christian (Venician), Jews maintained an active commerce with both sides. Related issues are charging interest to Jews and non-Jews, relations with government officials, and the frequent need to "buy justice" in foreign courts.

There are questions of aguna, not surprising in an era when business travel was wrought with danger. Marriage was usually morganatic, highly valuing social status of the wedding couple; two questions involve the issue of annulment.

Sometimes questions shed light on otherwise unknown political events. There was a blood libel case in Turkey, apparently unrecorded in other sources. The Jew accused of the ritual murder was ransomed, but the entire Jewish community was held suspect, if not responsible. Did those Jews away from the city at the time of the murder have to contribute funds to pay off local authorities?

One question in particular stands out and is relevant for us today. A Jew bought a medallion with an image of a pregnant woman along side a Greek inscription. Unknown to the Jew at the time, this was a Christian symbol and quotation. Through research he was able to establish that these medallions were never worshipped; they were only an expression of religious tenets. He wrote to a Sephardic rabbi to ask if he could derive any benefit (e.g., resale) from the medallion. He received a very short answer --- totally forbidden. The rabbi was Hacham Karo, better known to us as the author of the Shulchan Aruch.

Unfortunately, fire was a constant threat to cities in past centuries. Buildings were crowded together and made of wood, and open fires were used for heating and cooking. Salonika, for example, was destroyed several times by major conflagrations. Many books were also destroyed in this manner, including a large number of handwritten Sephardic responsa.

The selection of responsa in this book is a serious contribution to preserving not only memory of those responsa, but also perpetuating an understanding of the Jewish communities in which they were written.


from the November 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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