Book delves into the lives and works of medieval Sefardic rabbis
By Daniel Santacruz
Expulsion. Tragedies. Wandering. Suffering.
That characterized the lives of several of the 26 Sephardic rabbis profiled in Forgotten Giants: Sephardic Rabbis Before and After the Expulsion from Spain (Gefen Publishing House, 2016), a new book written by Argentine-born Rabbi Yosef Bitton.
With the book, published recently by Geffen of Jerusalem, Rabbi Bitton expects to “resurrect their memory and resurrect their works,” he said recently during the presentation of the book at Congregation Beth Torah, in New York City.
Forgotten Giants covers the years 1400 to 1600, considered “one of the most traumatic periods in Jewish history, particularly Sefardic history,” he said.
Three generations of rabbis are included: those who were born and lived in Spain, like Rabbi Hasdai Crescas; those who were born in Spain and Portugal and left after the 1492 expulsion from he former, like Rabbis Yitzhak Abrabanel and Yosef Caro; and those who descended from refugees, like rabbis Moshe Almosnino and Yisrael Najara.
Rabbi Bitton has a degree in Hebrew, Talmud and Bible from Bar-Ilan University, and completed graduate studies at Ben-Gurion University and Emory University, in Atlanta, Ga. He has served as rabbi in Uruguay, Argentina and the United States for more than 25 years, and is the author of Awesome Creation: A Study of the First Three Verses of the Torah. He has been writing a column, “Halakha of the Day,” in both English and Spanish, for the last six years.
He’s currently the rabbi Congregation Ohel David Ushlomo, in Manhattan Beach, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. The synagogue was founded in another section of Brooklyn, Brigthon Beach, by families with roots in Turkey and the Island of Rhodes.
How a book led to others
His interest in Sefardic rabbis and their books started in 1982 when he was studying for the
rabbinate in Jerusalem. He was a frequent visitor to the National Jewish Library, in that city, and one day he discovered a book, Biblioteca Española Portuguesa Judaica, that catalogued thousands of works written in Spanish by Sefardic rabbis between 1650 and 1750. Most of them were written for Jews who had escaped from Spain and Portugal, had a strong Catholic background and were searching for Judaism. “Those books were completely unknown to me,” Rabbi Bitton said. He was told by a librarian that they had belonged to the Etz Hahaim Synagogue in Amsterdam, but were now available in the Jerusalem institution. The problem was, he said, that he couldn’t afford to make copies on microfilm and wasn’t allowed to photocopy them. Thus, he started copying excerpts of some by hand.
“The more I read them the more I was fascinated by them,” he said. But what was more remarkable, he added, is that nobody knew about the books [back in 1982], many of which were hand-written or published only once.
Writing Forgotten Giants was also an emotional task, he said, because the stories of the rabbis were sad as some of them experienced the horrors of the expulsion from Spain, which in many aspects meant a death sentence as Jews weren’t allowed to take any money and were at the mercy of robbers and pirates on their way to their destination: Portugal, Morocco, the Ottoman Empire and Italy.
One of the most gripping stories of the expelled who went to Portugal was that of Rabbi Abraham Sa
ba, born in Castile in 1440.
His two sons, like many of the children of families who rejected conversion to Christianity, were taken way from him to be raised in convents as Catholics. Rabbi Saba dressed himself as a Catholic peasant and visited several convents, where he recited out loud the Shema in the hopes that Jewish children would come forward. Many did and cried upon hearing the prayer. However, he never found his sons.
“Unlike 1982, we now have almost complete access to those books thanks to hebrewbooks.org, a site that has more than 50,000 works that were never republished,” he said. “All you need to know is what you are looking for and then print the book.”
Resurrecting the memory of those rabbis is not just a duty for Sefardim, but it is also good for the identity of Sefardic Jews, he added.
As an example he mentioned Rabbi Yitzhak Canpanton, whose book, Darkhei Halamud (The Methodology of the Talmud), laid down the rules for the study and the teaching of the Talmud, or Gemara, as was done in Spain. Rabbi Canpanton was born in Zamora, a city in northwest Castile in 1360, and died in Peñafiel, also in Castile, in 1463.
“In Rabbi Canpanton’s book we can find the Sefardic way to study the Gemara,” he said. “Today almost no yeshiva in the world follows the Sefardic way of studying it. Isn’t it important to recover that now that we have access to that book and others? His book belongs to the past, but it’s our past.”
© Daniel Santacruz