Hey it's me, click me to go to the main page, not too hard!
B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven


The Sephardic Classic of Constantinople: Me'am Lo'ez

By Shelomo Alfassa

Sephardic Image Magazine Vol. 12, No. 11. September 2002

The Me'am Lo'ez is a classic Jewish work written in the language that the Jews of Spain brought with them to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. Written in Ladino, the book is essentially an encyclopedic commentary on the Torah, written in an easy style for the laity to comprehend. Technically, the Me'am Lo'ez, as we know it today, is a 46-volume commentary on the entire Tanakh. It was developed via the brilliancy of Haham Yakoub Huli of Constantinople. Born in 1689 CE, Huli immigrated to the Holy Land via Crete, settled in Jerusalem, and lived his remaining days in Safed. He would become a principal leader of world Jewry by his fourth decade of life.

Before the Me'am Lo'ez was developed, Huli was given the great honor to edit and publish Haham Yehuda Rosanes' commentary on the RaMBaM's Mishna Torah known as the Mishneh LaMelekh. This was an enormous accomplishment by itself, but not his finest work. History will remember Huli's paramount contribution to Judaism as the Me'am Lo'ez, for it helped bring many Jews back to Judaism. When Huli embarked on the Me'am Lo'ez, he was doing it in response to the many Jews of the Turkish lands who had strayed away from Judaism over several decades.

Haham Huli took the "spiritually destitute" Jewish community of the Ottoman Empire back from the blow which the "false messiah" Shabbetai Sevi inflicted upon them. Sevi not only lured Jews away from their faith, but subsequently toward Islam. In a preface to a volume of the Me'am Lo'ez it is written, "Today there are many common folk who neither know or understand the Hebrew language. Their eyes are covered with clay…they do not know how to avoid the forbidden, nor when things are permitted." Huli lamented about the disappointment of Jews who became forgetful and ignorant of their own religion. Reacting not only to the spiritual damage Sevi brought to the world of Ottoman Jewry, but the general malaise of the Jewish people. Huli's declaration from 1730 CE tells of the waning knowledge of Hebrew in the population:

They may own many books inherited from their fathers, but, since they cannot understand, they never make use of them. Any information is concealed between the covers of the volumes. Whenever they hear a Haham's sermon, they are amazed at even the simplest thoughts. Never having read the Bible or the Shulhan Aruh [code of Jewish law], they know nothing of the obligation of the Jew. They have no knowledge, either of our history nor of the miracles that God has wrought for us. As a result, heaven forbid, it is very possible that the Torah will be forgotten by a majority of the Jewish people.

Huli set out to develop a sefer that would revitalize them. Not a work in Hebrew (which an increasing number could not read), but a work in the everyday language of the people, Ladino. This Hispanic language had been the primary language of the Balkan, Greek and Levantine Sephardim since their expulsion from Spain. Printed in Rashi characters, the Ladino language text made the material available to the broadest audience and the vast majority of Sephardim from Croatia to Cairo and beyond. A religious text specifically tailored in the day-to-day language of the Jewish people was not only needed, but was received with open arms. In Turkey printing of the work was done a few pligod (pages) at a time, and then distributed prior to Shabbat. Afterward, the pligot were bound, completing the various volumes.

The Me'am Lo'ez was a religious book, but one which was neither sterile nor difficult through complexity. Through the quill of this reputed Turkish sage, flowed a work of great enormity and importance. A manuscript, which transmitted the holy words, life lessons and heritage of the Jewish people, specifically tailored towards those in the Ottoman Empire. Professor Daniel J. Elazar said the Me'am Lo'ez "summed up the general knowledge popularly expected to be known by everybody (including women) in the eighteenth century." The Me'am Lo'ez was still popular with the immigrants when they came to America from the former Ottoman lands. Isaac Maimon of Seattle wrote in his memoirs:

Every morning and evening Uncle Jack would be the first one in kahal…. He occupied the same seat in the Sephardic Bikur Holim Midrash for over 30 years. Rather than dwell on idle talk, he used to take a Me'am Lo'ez, which was written in Ladino (the original language) and read until the prayers were started. They tell us that he read all the volumes of the Me'am Lo'ez twice, reading a page or two every day. He was one of a handful of men left who could read the original Ladino script....

As the number of Ladino readers fell drastically after the Holocaust, the Me'am Lo'ez would soon be translated for a new generation. In 1967 a Hebrew translation known as the Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez was printed. This version was a silent but fitting memorial to Huli who once feared the holy language would be forgotten.

In 1964, two Catholic scholars from the University of Granada made available a modern Spanish printing of the Me'am Lo'ez in Latin characters. Apparently, their lack of knowledge regarding both Turkish and Ladino resulted in an edition filled with inaccuracies. This effort was criticized by the New York City based Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture. Eventually a professional translation would take place by none other than the respected Haham Aryeh Kaplan. Working in conjunction with the Judeo-Spanish leadership of Louis Levy and David Barocas of the Foundation, the books were slowly translated into English. Barocas helped Haham Kaplan considerably in understanding many of the difficult and obscure Ladino words and phrases. Bob Bedford the director of the Foundation recalls Kaplan mentioning whenever he had a problem, a simple phone call to Barocas would usually solve it:

Eventually Kaplan asked Barocas to translate the 'Pirke Avoth,' which was very difficult to understand. Barocas concluded that after the initial work was printed in Constantinople, it was later reprinted in Livorno, although much of the obscure Turkish words were retranslated by the European editors, into modern Castilian. Thus, Barocas considered the Livorno edition to be a 'Rosetta Stone', and an excellent source to decipher the older work.

The translation into English was a step of immense importance making the books available to the broadest audience across the globe. The Me'am Lo'ez has now been printed in several languages from Judeo-Arabic to Russian, and is available in almost any Jewish bookstore today. In our modern day when Torah education is still not at the level it could be, the Me'am Lo'ez can serve as it was intended to do when it was written. Haham Huli's statement from 300 hundred years ago is a statement which can be still said to be true today: "[many people] do not understand the holy tongue, and that even those who do know the words, do not understand what they are saying, and from day to day, there are fewer and fewer readers, and the law and the customs of Judaism are being forgotten."

In our present day the Me'am Lo'ez is studied across the world in Sephardic, Ashkenazi and Hassidic congregations. The books making up the early Me'am Lo'ez were first published between 1730 and 1777 CE. The Haham himself intended to publish his commentary on all the books of the Bible, but he passed away while writing his commentary on Beresheet (Exodus) in 1732 CE. The work was soon continued by other Turkish Talmudists such as Haham Magriso (who completed it up to Devarim [Deuteronomy]), and Haham Agruiti (who wrote the commentary on Devarim and Yehoshua [Joshua]). Haham Shmeul Yerushalmi completed many of the later books. The great Sephardic sage of Constantinople and friend Haham Rafael Isak Yerushalmi declared about Haham Huli:

Never before has there been one whose soul yearned to teach all the children of Israel the rules and laws…the man of Jerusalem was the one who taught in a clear language…he worked so that the Torah not be forgotten among Israel…. From the time the sun rose until it set, words of Torah never left his mouth.



© Shelomo Alfassa