Jewish Questions

Jewish Questions: Responsa on Sephardic Life in the Early Modern Period

Matt Goldish
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 248
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7pf9b
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  • Book Info
    Jewish Questions
    Book Description:

    InJewish Questions, Matt Goldish introduces English readers to the history and culture of the Sephardic dispersion through an exploration of forty-three responsa--questions about Jewish law that Jews asked leading rabbis, and the rabbis' responses. The questions along with their rabbinical decisions examine all aspects of Jewish life, including business, family, religious issues, and relations between Jews and non-Jews. Taken together, the responsa constitute an extremely rich source of information about the everyday lives of Sephardic Jews.

    The book looks at questions asked between 1492--when the Jews were expelled from Spain--and 1750. Originating from all over the Sephardic world, the responsa discuss such diverse topics as the rules of conduct for Ottoman Jewish sea traders, the trials of an ex-husband accused of a robbery, and the rights of a sexually abused wife. Goldish provides a sizeable introduction to the history of the Sephardic diaspora and the nature of responsa literature, as well as a bibliography, historical background for each question, and short biographies of the rabbis involved. Including cases from well-known communities such as Venice, Istanbul, and Saloniki, and lesser-known Jewish enclaves such as Kastoria, Ragusa, and Nablus,Jewish Questionsprovides a sense of how Sephardic communities were organized, how Jews related to their neighbors, what problems threatened them and their families, and how they understood their relationship to God and the Jewish people.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2900-2
    Subjects: History, Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. xvii-lvi)

    The history of the Jews in Spain is a long, important, and well-known chapter in the annals of the Jewish people.¹ Jews had certainly arrived in Spain by the period of Jesus; it is likely that some came even earlier. The Book of Obadiah refers to the “captivity of Jerusalem that is in Sepharad,” which the Aramaic translation renders as “Espamia,” referring to Apamea or another location in Mesopotamia. Espamia was easily conflated with “Hispania” or “España,” so the term Sepharad has been understood since late antiquity to connote Spain.² Indeed, the Jews of Spain referred to their community using...

  5. SHORT BIOGRAPHIES OF THE HAKHAMIM
    (pp. lvii-lxvi)
  6. Part I: Life among Muslims and Christians
    • 1. CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF OTTOMAN-ITALIAN WARS (GREECE, 1716)
      (pp. 5-7)

      Lepanto and Patras are neighboring cities in southwestern Greece. Lepanto is best known to historians as the site of a critical naval battle in 1571 in which the Ottoman fleet was beaten by Christian forces. Nevertheless, the city of Lepanto itself, which had become a Venetian port in 1407 and later fell to the Turks in 1499, remained in Ottoman hands. From 1687 to 1699 Lepanto was reoccupied by the Venetians, but at the peace of Karlowitz it reverted to Ottoman control once again. Patras had a small Jewish community since ancient times. The town was held by the Ottomans...

    • 2. THE FINANCIAL FALLOUT OF A BLOOD LIBEL (RAGUSA, 1622)
      (pp. 8-12)

      In the period from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries, Jews were regularly charged with blood libel or ritual murder—false claims that Jews kidnapped and murdered Christian children as part of a Jewish religious ritual. These calumnies are usually associated with the Ashkenazi world because the most numerous and infamous of them happened in Italy, Germany, and England. We have already seen in the introduction, however, that a ritual murder accusation—the “Holy Child of La Guardia”—was directly associated with the expulsion of Spanish Jewry. A large number of such incidents occurred elsewhere in the Mediterranean as well....

    • 3. A BLOOD LIBEL AMONG THE SEPHARDIM (OTTOMAN EMPIRE, MID-SEVENTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 13-14)

      It is not clear precisely where and when this blood libel took place. It may have been an otherwise unknown local incident in the area of Izmir where Hakham Algazi was located. Here the whole community was arrested, and the Jews suffered physical harm as well as incarceration. This accusation, too, might have gone unrecorded were it not for the financial strife caused by the huge bribes needed to free the Jews, which led to the legal query.

      Question: The following event occurred. One day a Turkish girl was found cast down the well of a certain Turkish man. The...

    • 4. PREPARATIONS FOR SIEGE (ALGIERS, 1732)
      (pp. 15-15)

      Algiers was attacked by Spain on several occasions in the early modern period, which obviously made the Jews very skittish. Rumors of an impending Spanish assault, which might strike fear into the hearts of Muslim residents as well, meant far more to the Jews—it meant that any Jew who survived the violence of the siege would be expelled and his or her property confiscated, just as in Spain. The text communicates something of the atmosphere permeating an Ottoman city in terror of a siege. It also illustrates the impressive piety of the Jews. Even under the worst conditions they...

    • 5. THE JEW WHO STOOD UP TO THE GOVERNOR—BUT MAYBE NOT ENOUGH (ALGIERS, MID-EIGHTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 16-18)

      This episode, presumably occurring in the Algiers region, tells us something about both the modes of trade in that area and relations between Jews and non-Jews. What is most striking is the fact that one of the protagonists, faced with a local official who wanted to help himself to the Jew’s horse, argued and fought back. In fact, the other Jew, who actually owned the horse, felt this man had not fought back hard enough! The case thus suggests that the balance of power in relations between Jews and non-Jewish officials was not always completely one-sided. It was sometimes possible...

  7. Part II: Trade and Other Professions in the Sephardi Diaspora
    • 6. AN INTERNATIONAL LOAN GONE AWRY (MEDITERRANEAN, LATE SIXTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 23-25)

      Hakham Abraham de Boton officiated in Saloniki, Greece, one of the major Mediterranean seaports of the Ottoman Empire, in the late sixteenth century. The case at hand demonstrates the type of loans Jews were able to float for non-Jewish merchants because of the extensive Jewish trade networks. The borrower is an Ottoman subject, but he is presumably a Greek Orthodox Christian rather than a Muslim. A Jew lends him a very considerable sum of money for four months while both are in Venice, but the Turk is to pay back the loan to the Jew’s partners in Corfu. The case...

    • 7. THE WOMAN WITH A STEEL WELDING MONOPOLY (ALEPPO, ca. 1559)
      (pp. 26-28)

      In the Eastern Sephardi Diaspora, many women worked in business and crafts at every level. In the highest realms of finance were wealthy bankers like Doña Gracia Nasi and Bienvenida Abarbanel. We also know of two Sephardic women who managed the sultan’s harem around the turn of the seventeenth century (Kobler,LettersII, 391–92). Legal sources supply insight into the more mundane lives of women engaged in handicrafts. This document offers a fascinating window onto such a life.

      Note the suspicion this woman must counteract; apparently people questioned whether she had actually done the welding herself. She is also...

    • 8. DEATH OF A SALESMAN IN PERSIA (BURSA AND PERSIA, LATE SIXTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 29-31)

      This letter is interesting for the light it sheds on the interaction between Sephardic communities and neighboring non-Sephardic Jewish groups. While the Ashkenazim appear in Sephardic responsa with some regularity, and the local Romaniote or Musta ‘rib Jews are always present among the Sephardim, this case bears witness to the Ottoman Jews’ penetration into markets further east, in Persia. Bursa is in western Turkey near Istanbul (Constantinople), while Hormuz is in the far south of today’s Iran, near the Persian Gulf. Nothing strikes the parties writing as unusual about this great distance being traveled by Sephardic merchants in search of...

    • 9. A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY (CONSTANTINOPLE, LATE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 32-34)

      This text raises an interesting human problem, and one that still occurs with particular frequency with Middle Easterners: How do you distinguish between people with the same name? Like the responsum below about the Indian impostor, this case illustrates difficulties of identity and identification in early modern life. Natalie Zemon Davis’s work on Martin Guerre demonstrates how the increased mobility of Europeans with the decline of feudalism made identification a problem in Europe. It had been an issue far longer in the Mediterranean world, and it would be surprising if cases like this did not arise rather often.

      Another interesting...

    • 10. THE DEATH OF TALL ASLAN (ALEPPO AND TURKEY, 1681)
      (pp. 35-37)

      Despite the lack of details about the location and the depressing subject matter, I was immediately drawn to this responsum. There is the obvious curiosity of the opening of the first testimony. It beautifully demonstrates the type of thing that can happen when original voices permeate the curtain of time. It is also fascinating to listen to various people describe the same person and the same event, each in his own way. The witnesses meander a bit, as people do when they talk, and the details they drop along the way give us a sense of their lives. Among these...

    • 11. EGYPTIAN JEWS WITH CIVET CATS (EGYPT, MID-SIXTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 38-38)

      This small question is interesting because it exemplifies the wide range of Jewish trades in early-modern Egypt. While the records are full of information about Jews in international trade, textiles, and other better known fields of endeavor, we learn here of Jews involved in several aspects of the perfume industry. The fact that the query concerns the lending of money at interest—a law only relevant when both lender and borrower are Jews—indicates that the perfumers who were customers of the cat owners were also Jews. The question also raises a very widespread issue in the early modern Sephardic...

    • 12. JEWISH TRADE IN A WAR ZONE (ZANTE AND VENICE, ca. 1620)
      (pp. 39-41)

      This query tells us a bit about the effects of war on Ottoman Jewish sea trade, and presumably the trade of all Ottoman merchants. When the trip from Venice to Zante (Zakynthos) in southwestern Greece became too hazardous because of the war between Venice and Spain, the Jew in question attempted a new and seemingly less hazardous route, from Venice to Spalato. Apparently, he planned to have the merchandise taken from there by land to its ultimate destination. It was his poor luck to run into Spanish marauders even on this relatively short trip.

      Question:Instruct us, righteous teacher. Reuben...

    • 13. THE TALE OF THE CLOTHIER AND THE VIZIER (CONSTANTINOPLE, 1641)
      (pp. 42-48)

      This is one of the most intriguing documents in the collection. The style of the tale is so leisurely and literary that it seems almost out of place in the responsa genre. In fact, its charm and meandering storyline are more reminiscent of the Arabian Nights.

      Hakham Benveniste was the brother of the famous Hakham Hayyim Benveniste and served the community of Istanbul (Constantinople) throughout the middle of the seventeenth century. He wrote four volumes of responsa but they were lost in a fire; the few dozen that were preserved were published only in the beginning of the last century....

  8. Part III: Life within the Sephardic Community
    • 14. DIVORCE AND AN INDIAN IMPOSTOR (GREECE, MID-SIXTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 53-57)

      This strange case relates to the intriguing early modern problems of identity and imposture we encountered before in “A Case of Mistaken Identity.” With the waning of the Middle Ages it became increasingly easy for people to move from place to place. Adventurers or con artists could shift identities by moving to a new location and pretending to be something different, as long as nobody from the person’s old life recognized him or her. The case of Martin Guerre in France is the most famous example: A man left home and returned a few years later, except that there was...

    • 15. THE GREAT FIRE OF SALONIKI (SALONIKI AND LEPANTO, 1620)
      (pp. 58-60)

      Before the modern period, most cities experienced major fires on a regular basis. Homes were crowded together, there were almost no building codes, most materials were flammable, and fire was used everywhere for light and heat. Saloniki suffered several cataclysmic fires in the early modern period. This one, in fact, is not even recounted in the usual lists of such conflagrations.

      Like so many other responsa, the original concern of this responsum is to establish the death of a man so his widow would be able to remarry. Naturally, then, the detailed testimony is incidental to the main purpose, and...

    • 16. AN APOSTATE SOLDIER OF FORTUNE (ZANTE, ca. 1620)
      (pp. 61-63)

      This is one of those episodes that illustrates the lives of Jews living at the margins of Mediterranean Jewish society. The husband is a mercenary, an apostate, and a person of generally low character. He has undergone one conversion and is contemplating another, neither of which appears to be out of any religious conviction. He seems completely inured to the plight of his wife and child. We find, nevertheless, that he is still part of Jewish society—he is seen coming and going from the homes of Jews.

      The case arises from a rumor that even after he issued a...

    • 17. THE FALLOUT FROM A TALL BUILDING (OTTOMAN EMPIRE, EARLY SEVENTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 64-65)

      This case brings out the jealousy and calumnies with which Jews in the Mediterranean world had to deal constantly. As we saw earlier, Jews and Christians in Muslim lands were treated reasonably, but they were expected to maintain a posture of subordination to Muslims. In this instance, the construction of conspicuous homes may have contributed to the general envy felt by the Jews’ neighbors, and it probably violated the conditions of the Pact of ‘Umar. When an opportunity came to profit from accusing the Jews of too much success, their neighbors were happy to exploit it.

      Question:Reuben built houses...

    • 18. POLISH FUGITIVES IN EGYPT (EGYPT, LATE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 66-67)

      In 1648–49, a Ukrainian Cossack (warrior) named Bogdan Chmielnicki led a rebellion of Cossacks and Tatars against Polish landowners in the Ukraine, and then against Poland itself. Chmielnicki was extremely successful until 1651, when he was routed. But once neighboring states witnessed the weakness of Poland that Chmielnicki’s war uncovered, the Russians, and then the Swedes, invaded Poland (1655). These were wars of staggering brutality, wanton murder, and destruction of property that left Poland a broken and ruined country. The Jews, perceived as lackeys of the great Polish landowners, suffered disproportionately in this terrible period, which is remembered as...

    • 19. THE QUARANTINE COLONY IN SPALATO (SPALATO, SEVENTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 68-70)

      Spalato (also called Spalatro, or Split) is a seaport on the Dalmatian coast that was under loose Venetian governance at the time of these events. A formerconverso,Daniel Rodriga, struggled long and hard to convince the Venetians to develop the city for trade in the sixteenth century. The Jewish community, though not large, was very active economically, politically, and religiously. As our document shows, Spalato was a major way station for goods and people traveling both directions between the Ottoman Empire and the European continent. The quarantine reflects the well-placed fear of plagues migrating with the movement of ships’...

    • 20. UNSCRUPULOUS PARTNERS AND THE FEAR OF FORCED CONVERSION (RHODES, EARLY SEVENTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 71-72)

      Portugal was not the only country to forcibly convert Jews. While recent research has revealed that this was done on an occasional basis in Muslim lands as well, we find it here again in a Christian setting. Levi’s experiences, and the threat to the community, come from the governor, while his wife fears groups of common thugs. The responsibility of the partners in this matter is a difficult matter to assess. On the one hand, it is likely that they turned to the government for recovery of a perceived debt because the rabbis might not have had the means of...

    • 21. A CHANGE OF FORTUNE, AN UNWILLING WIFE, AND A CITY IN PANIC (MOROCCO, ALGERIA, AND EGYPT, 1737)
      (pp. 73-76)

      Although Hakham Monson, the figure at the center of this case, was a member of the learned class, he was clearly not among the great scholars of his time. The tribulations of a mediocre figure like this give us an interesting perspective on success and failure in the Sephardic world. The man gets nowhere as either a rabbi or a businessman and is forced to move from place to place trying to make a living. His family, of course, is left behind in Tétouan. When he finally finds a sponsor, his wife invokes the standard clause from her marriage contract,...

    • 22. THE CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES OF A DENUNCIATION (MEKNES, MOROCCO, 1721–1728)
      (pp. 77-82)

      This complex story rapidly turns into a quagmire of interconnected circumstances and forces, to which the response only adds more confusion. It should give us pause to consider that any of the queries in the responsa literature might look much different if we possessed more particulars.

      We begin with a robbery. The only really noteworthy circumstance here is the brazenness of the bandits, who come into a home, beat the residents, then beat their neighbors who come to help them. The next layer of complexity unfolds like a detective novel: the owner of the home is recently married to a...

    • 23. THE PERSECUTION OF A WITNESS TO IMMORALITY (TANGIER AND FEZ, 1744)
      (pp. 83-88)

      This strange case turns upon two laws. First is the biblical injunction that two or three witnesses are required in order to convict a person of transgression. Second is the precept against slander and defamation. The subject of the query, Rabbi Solomon ha-Kohen, was following an order of his communal leaders to report any amorous misdeeds in the community. It seems obvious that anyone coming forward was understood to be acting on the very firm dictates of the leaders, not with the intent of slandering a fellow Jew. Yet this is exactly the accusation later made against ha-Kohen.

      The document...

  9. Part IV: Ritual Observance and Jewish Faith in Sephardic Communities
    • 24. THE JEW ACCUSED OF HERESY (OTTOMAN EMPIRE, EARLY SIXTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 93-95)

      Christian, Jewish, and Muslim philosophers of the Middle Ages struggled with the legacy of Aristotle. They all believed that the Holy Scriptures contained the complete spiritual truth, but they could not deny the utility of Aristotle in understanding the world. The problem was that Aristotle expressed certain beliefs (such as the eternality of the world) that could not easily be reconciled with the revealed truth of the monotheistic faiths. Great thinkers of all three religions struggled to reconcile the Scriptural and Aristotelian systems, resulting in a great flowering of philosophical creativity. The conciliators were of course not without their critics...

    • 25. JEWS BECOMING KARAITES AND KARAITES BECOMING JEWS (EGYPT, LATE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 96-98)

      The Karaites were a loosely organized group of dissidents who split from mainstream Judaism beginning in the eighth century C.E. Their main difference from traditional Jews, to whom they referred as “Rabbanites,” was the Karaites’ rejection of the Talmud and the authority of the rabbis. They attempted to practice the laws of the written Bible with no embellishments or changes, which proved to be far more challenging than it might seem at first blush. Some Karaites associated themselves with the Sadducees of the New Testament, who similarly rejected the Oral Law tradition. Many Rabbanite Jews, in turn, also saw Karaites...

    • 26. BEQUESTS OF CONVERSOS AND THEIR STATUS AS JEWS (ISTANBUL, EARLY SIXTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 99-101)

      In the following responsum we see how the most mundane legal issues are the occasion for interesting historical texts. This responsum and the next are among the many dozens of discussions preserved in rabbinic literature between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries about theconversoproblem. If the Iberian society and leaders had a problem with the religious identity of this group from their side, the Jews had a whole parallel set of difficulties. Whileconversosare referred to in Hebrew asanūsim(forced ones), suggesting that they all converted to Catholicism against their will, it was well known that this...

    • 27. THE CONVERSO AND THE CHARITABLE FRATERNITY (AMSTERDAM, LATE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 102-105)

      This somewhat complex question offers a brilliant case study on the identity problems concerningconversosand formerconversosin the early modern world. In addition, it contains important information about the life and attitudes of Amsterdam Sephardim.

      Hakham Sasportas came to Amsterdam from North Africa. Whereas most Amsterdam Sephardim were formerconversos,Sasportas was descended from a famous line of rabbis who had left Spain in the fourteenth century. He was known as a tough, uncompromising character. Here he is asked about a charitable fraternity among the Amsterdam Jews, the Society for Dowering Orphans, whose bylaws allowed membership to be...

    • 28. MONSTROUS BIRTHS AND MARVELOUS CREATURES (VENICE, MID-SEVENTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 106-108)

      Several aspects of the early modern world came together in the contemporary fascination with monsters and marvels of nature. The voyages of discovery and generally increased sea traffic brought extensive new knowledge of natural phenomena in distant lands to the attention of Europeans and Ottomans. Unknown types of humans, animals, and plants from distant shores sparked the interest of “natural philosophers,” those progenitors of the modern scientist who sought to understand and categorize all knowledge. They began to look more closely not only at the natural wonders of foreign lands, but at the strange creatures God created in their own...

    • 29. PROTESTANTS WHO SEND MONEY TO POOR JEWS IN THE LAND OF ISRAEL (PALESTINE, MID-SEVENTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 109-111)

      The circumstances surrounding this responsum are remarkable, and some aspects of the query itself are even more singular. The episode in question went as follows. The Ashkenazi Jewish community of Jerusalem was in dire straits in the 1650s, and sent an emissary, the famous Rabbi Nathan Shapira, back to his native Poland to collect money for their support. It was 1657 when Rabbi Shapira arrived in Europe. He found himself unable to collect in Poland because of the Swedish invasions that followed the Thirty Years’ War, so he made his way to Germany and the Netherlands. His pleas for support...

    • 30. WHAT MAY A JEW DO WITH A NATIVITY MEDALLION? (GREECE, EARLY SIXTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 112-114)

      In the previous text we found a discussion about whether money donated to Jews by Christians can be used, or whether it has some sort of taint. In Document 31, the hakhamim struggle with the legality of lending money to priests, especially when their pledges include pages with embossed figures. Here, Hakham Karo addresses the problem of a man who, apparently unaware of its significance, buys a medallion containing an embossed nativity (or pre-nativity) scene. The query is whether or not the man can derive benefit from the medallion, by selling it or otherwise profiting. The Torah teaches that one...

    • 31. ON LOANING MONEY TO PRIESTS (JERUSALEM, ca. 1624)
      (pp. 115-119)

      Unlike Europe, the Ottoman Empire, including Palestine, was a place where Jews and Christians lived on equal footing. Jerusalem had gone back and forth between Christians and Muslims during the extended period of the Crusades, but there was always a presence of Christians, Jews, and Muslims there. In this case we discover an aspect of symbiosis: priests and monks, whose stipends from their home communities were often delayed, borrowed money at interest from Jews and Muslims to tide them over. This was very small-scale moneylending, carried out on an individual basis, largely by widows and orphans.

      The case can enlighten...

    • 32. THE PENITENCE OF THE KASTORIA COMMUNITY (GREECE, LATE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 120-122)

      Kastoria was a small, ancient Jewish community in Macedonia not far from Saloniki. The Jewish community in the early modern period was known for its trade in furs.

      This document beautifully illustrates a widely held tenet of Judaism: all evil, whether it comes through natural or human agents, is in fact a result of the sins of the Jews. This attitude reflects the fact that Jews, like members of other faiths, have a highly self-centered view of the universe. Their actions and thoughts are so important in the eyes of God that He alters the course of world events to...

  10. Part V: Marriage, Family, and Private Life
    • 33. A CONVERSO AND HIS FLEMISH CONCUBINE (TURKEY, EARLY SIXTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 127-128)

      The Low Countries, especially Flanders, with its connection to Spain, was a common place forconversosto flee in the sixteenth century. Trade was growing there, and enclaves of fellow fugitives from the Inquisition gathered to take advantage of their new anonymity and relative freedom. Doña Gracia Nasi, along with many otherconversoluminaries on the frontier between Christianity and Judaism, spent time in Flanders. Soon afterward, their crypto-Jewish proclivities would be discovered and they would be expelled, but at the time of this question Flanders was still a desirable destination forconversos.

      Reuben was afflicted with one of the...

    • 34. A CONVERT REPUDIATES HER MARRIAGE (OTTOMAN EMPIRE, EARLY SIXTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 129-130)

      Here is another case in which an unscrupulous Jewish man takes advantage of a young woman in a servile state. The conditions of her betrothal are not entirely clear. The bad character of the husband, however, is demonstrated not only in his behavior toward the girl, but in his theft of silver from the townspeople and his transgression of the Jewish dietary laws. He also spends his time with non-Jewish friends. He uses the fear of non-Jewish authority to scare the Jews, because there were strict laws against Jews converting others throughout the Sephardic diaspora. The girl is able to...

    • 35. THE MELANCHOLIC MONOGAMIST (EGYPT, LATE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 131-133)

      The details of this unusual case offer some larger insights into the nature of Jewish life in seventeenth-century Egypt. To begin with, the person facing the problem that is the subject of the question is a devout Jew of Istanbul, who is an officer of the (apparently newly appointed) Ottoman governor of Egypt. He leaves his family behind, and it is unclear whether he intends to bring them down later or return to Istanbul himself at some point. He must have an important position in the governor’s retinue or he would be allowed to return home without a fuss. It...

    • 36. THE AFFLICTED BIGAMIST (MOROCCO, EARLY EIGHTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 134-135)

      This case offers an interesting comparison with the previous one. It also occurs in the North African context and many of the elements are quite similar—a religiously scrupulous man, a disease that requires copulation to cure, and a wife who cannot help. The legal problem, exacerbated by the views of the kabbalists, is that wet dreams are considered a sin almost on par with masturbation, despite the fact that the man has no control over them. The conclusion of the hakham is very different from that in the Egyptian case.

      [To] our master and teacher, the great light, Hakham...

    • 37. A SUSPICIOUS PREGNANCY (SHEKHEM [NABLUS], PALESTINE, 1721)
      (pp. 136-138)

      In this query and the next we return to the rogue’s gallery of suspicious and marginal Jews. Women getting pregnant from men other than their husbands has been a fairly common problem in all societies. In fact, perhaps 10 percent of children in western societies today are believed not to belong to their assumed fathers (Globe and Mail,December 14, 2002, F1). This case contains some interesting details, however, that can teach us about the Sephardic context in the early eighteenth century.

      The rumors suggest that the child’s real father is either a gentile neighbor or the mother’s own brother....

    • 38. THE UNREPENTANT ADULTERER (WESTERN EUROPE, 1730)
      (pp. 139-142)

      With this case we return to the Western Sephardim and their particular foibles. The man at the center of this case is accused of almost every major transgression in Judaism. Note, however, that despite biblical sins of the worst sort—adultery, theft, shaving the beard with a blade, profaning the Sabbath, and so on—the man attends synagogue at times and feels it is important to be part of the community. He is a textbook case of the sort of marginal formerconversoinhabiting the fringes of the Western Sephardic world and exasperating the rabbis no end.

      Another noteworthy facet...

    • 39. A SLAVE AMONG THE WARS IN BELGRADE (BELGRADE, LATE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 143-146)

      The background to this case is the series of wars between the European Habsburg Empire and the Muslim Ottoman Empire that raged throughout the early modern period. The wars were particularly fierce in the Balkans at the time of this responsum, presumably written between 1686 and Hakham Almosnino’s death in 1689. The Ottomans besieged Vienna in 1683, and, while failing to capture the seat of the Habsburgs, threw a dire fear into the hearts of European Christians. The Europeans redoubled their efforts against the Turks, pushing them back from Vienna. In 1684 they laid siege to the Turks at Budapest,...

    • 40. A SEXUALLY ABUSED WIFE (OTTOMAN EMPIRE, LATE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 147-149)

      Early modern Sephardic responsa are replete with cases of sexual misdeeds—homosexuality, bigamy, infidelity, and others. This fact should be understood to reflect that the vast majority of Jews married, had children, and led devoted family lives. Only abberant cases were cause for comment and concern. Here the woman is extremely naive and has apparently never been informed by her mother or other female relatives what to expect in bed. It only occurs to her to report the matter to her father when the husband stops sleeping with her altogether, which she recognizes as abnormal behavior.

      This is the type...

    • 41. ON THE MANIPULATION OF WOMEN’S RIGHT TO DIVORCE (EGYPT, MID-SEVENTEENTH CENTURY)
      (pp. 150-152)

      It goes without saying that the rights and roles of women in premodern cultures were radically different than they are today. Women were expected to oversee the home, raise children, and perhaps help add to the family income. Divorce was rare and usually implied extenuating circumstances. In Jewish law, the husband could not simply decide to divorce his wife for no reason, but on the other hand, the wife’s ability to initiate divorce proceedings was much more limited.

      Families and rabbinic courts would sometimes intervene on behalf of a suffering wife to facilitate a separation. In this fascinating case, we...

    • 42. A MOTHER’S QUEST FOR JUSTICE (BELGRADE, 1698)
      (pp. 153-154)

      This case contains some familiar themes. The backstory is clear: a woman’s son was murdered, the murderer was known, but without paying bribes he would not be brought to justice. So, as we have observed repeatedly, justice in the early modern world cost money. Another familiar theme is the man who must be hired to help, and his attempt to take advantage of the woman who hired him.

      Other aspects of the case are compelling. The woman is clearly somewhat wealthy or she would not be able to expend money so aggressively for her cause. She is also independent minded...

    • 43. THE RUNAWAY GROOM (BAYONNE, 1742)
      (pp. 155-158)

      Clandestine marriages were apparently a problem in both Jewish and European society throughout the early modern period. This was undoubtedly another function of the growing freedom to create and manipulate identities. As we learn at the end of this responsum, the French government had ordinances forbidding unsanctioned unions. Rules about clandestine marriage can be found in the 1507 Venetiankahalstatutes and in numerous communal rule books from that time onward. The main reason that the establishment objected to such alliances was that they almost always involved two partners who were “in love” but not socially or economically well matched....

  11. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 159-170)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 171-180)