04 November 2008

Book: Sephardi responsa

The online Jewish Magazine has an interesting selection of articles each month. The November issue offers a book review by Jay Levinson on "Jewish Questions: Responsa on Sephardic Life in the Early Modern Period," by Matt Goldish (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008).

These Sephardic responsa were written from 1492-1750 and provide information on social history as well as Jewish law. What were the important questions of those days and how did they illustrate the times in which our ancestors lived?

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

Most of Western Europe was closed to Jews and Moslem countries were common destinations.

The responsa illustrate the problems of conversos (anousim, Hebrew for "forced ones"), many who left in exile, while others accepted a Catholic lifestyle and kept secret Jewish traditions. Over generations, Jewish identity was impacted by lack of Jewish education.

Among the interesting portions of the review:
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.

In England, when Jews were not permitted to reside, conversos - with a non-Jewish persona - were permitted. Amsterdam was another location where conversos settled. In some places, once Jews were allowed to live in certain areas, conversos had to live separately. One of the responsum addresses the question of a converso rejoining the Jewish community. There are also questions on Karaites.

Business and trade are topics. Jews traded with both parties during the Ottoman war with the Venetians. Questions ask about interest charged to Jews and non-Jews, government official relations and other topics.

Jewish men often travelled in danger over long periods of time, so important questions focused on chained wives (aguna) and marriage annulment.

Unknown political events are addressed, such as a Turkish blood libel case not recorded elsewhere. The question: if Jews were away from the city during the event, must they contribute funds to the ransom amount?

Fire was a constant problem in crowded cities with wooden houses, and open cooking and heating fires. Numerous towns were destroyed along with libraries and rabbinic writings, such as 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.

I'm ordering a copy of this book and believe it should be of interest to other Sephardic researchers as well as all genealogists interested in this historical period.

Read the complete review at the link above.


  1. Anonymous9:46 AM

    You should probably read the book "Tightrope: Six Centuries of a Jewish Dynasty" by Michael Karpin. The book reviews the history of the Backenroth family spanning 650 years, through Europe, Israel, north and south America and more. It made me wonder about my own family's lineage. Anyone interested in the book in this post (and in Jewish history in general) would probably be interested in reading "Tightrope".

  2. Anonymous12:23 PM

    Yes, The history of the Backenroths is the history of the Jews. The experiences that the Backenroths went through as a family are those the Jews went through as a people. Being a lineal descendant of Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller (1578-1654) I was delighted to find in Tightrope a detailed history of my family. Lipmann Heller became renowned amongst European Jews in the first half of the 17th century. He was a disciple of the legendary Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, one of the most seminal thinkers of Judaism of the post-medieval period. In 1625 Heller became rabbi of Vienna and in 1627 he was appointed chief rabbinate of Prague. The Habsburg emperor, Ferdinand II, accused Lipman Heller of causing damage to Catholicism and on 4 July 1629, he was arrested and put on trial. In court he was asked how he dared to eulogize the Talmud after it had been banned by a papal rule. Heller explained his deed but lost the case. He was released penniless, forbidden to practice his profession. When the ban was lifted he wrote an excellent commentary on the Mishnah, the oral religious laws from which Judaism’s legal code, the Halakhah, developed. This commentary reflects the heritage of medieval Jewish thought. It pleased me to discover that intellectuality passes in my family from generation to generation. Karpin narrates a captivating true plot. Mic Maya, NYC