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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

Sephardic Leadership in Old Jerusalem

Image Magazine / October 7, 2009

In the first months of 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella signed the order of expulsion for all the Jews to depart Spain. The seats of Jewish learning that enriched the intellectual realm of Spain became desolate. A majority of the Jewish refugees settled in Ottoman Turkey, (places such as Adrianople, Constantinople and Salonika) as well as the Levant, North Africa, Italy, and elsewhere. A number of these Jews made their way to the Ottoman province of Syria, settling in Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut and other places in the 15th and 16th century.

With the Turkish advance into Palestine in 1517, the Spanish Jews in the Ottoman cities were now free to go to Jerusalem - no passport required. It was during this period immigration increased. Thus, in their lifetime, some of that distraught 15th century generation of Spaniards, born on Iberian soil, would go on to thrive under the Turks. These Spanish speaking Jews, long desirous of living in the Holy Land, became the leaders of Eres Yisrael.

Sephardic Jews became the only accepted Jewish community by the Ottoman government. When a situation arrived in regard to the Ashkenazi Jews, the Turkish governors would seek either the Jewish community leader (a Sephardi)--an elder known as the shaykh al-yahud, or the head rabbinical figure (a Sephardi)--the dayan (the rabbinical judge) for consultation (the latter was known after 1841 as the hakham bashi). At one point there were two dayanim, but even during this period, the Sephardic dayan was officially regarded by the Turkish government as the more senior representative.

The Ashkenazim did not speak Spanish and they were not allowed to learn Arabic, by order of their rabbis. This was during the period when the Spanish language that was the lingua franca of the Sephardim and their Jerusalem leaders. While Arabic may have been a vehicular language for the region, among the va'ad haedah hasefaradit bi'yrusalayim, the Sephardic Community Council of Jerusalem, Spanish was the language spoken by the men that stood at the head of the community; it was the leader of the va'ad that was recognized by the Turkish authorities as the sole representative of the entire Jewish settlement.

In an account as late as 1868, we still see the Sephardim as the representative Jewish body to the Turkish government:

The Jews are divided into two sects, the Sephardim and the Ashkenazim. The Sephardim are of Spanish origin, having been driven out of that country…by Ferdinand and Isabella. They were at first twittered among the great cities of the Turkish empire, but they gradually congregated in Jerusalem. Though they have been long resident in the Holy City, comparatively few of them speak Arabic; a corrupt Spanish is their language. They are subjects of the Sultan, but are permitted to have their own rabbinical laws.

As a Jew, being in the government of the Sultan, in any capacity, was to be a de facto ambassador for the Jewish people. Interaction between the Sephardim and the Ottoman government helped increase the overall condition for all the Jews in Eres Yisrael and throughout the entire Empire. The Sephardim of Jerusalem went on to become the first official large body to be legally allowed to immigrate and settle there. Many became wealthy bankers, entrepreneurs, merchants, communal leaders, renowned rabbis, and well-respected members of the Sultan's administration.

Jews from Spain played a considerable role in the State's origins and modern fruition. Throughout their centuries in the Diaspora, Spanish Jews developed and devoted a sense of philosophical and spiritual nationalism that prepared the foundation for which modem Zionism stood on, and the resulting fruit which is the return of the Jewish people to their land.





© Shelomo Alfassa