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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews in Palestine in the 1850s

(Part 1 here, part 2 here.)

Some other fascinating details are uncovered in James Finn's "Stirring Times: Or, Records from Jerusalem Consular Chronicles of 1853 to 1856".

Here is an overview of the Sephardic and Ashkenanic Jews, and their relations:

At the period of this history (1853-6), there were about 10,000 Jews in Jerusalem. The modern Jews within their ancient land cannot fail to present an interesting field for contemplation.

In 1853 the Hebrew population was, as now, almost entirely congregated within their four holy cities : — Jerusalem, sacred to them on account of the Temple and its sacrifices ; Hebron, on account of Machpelah, in which are laid the three Patriarchs and their wives, excepting Rachel ; Tiberias and Safed, as cradles of the Talmud and homes of venerated Rabbis of ancient generations.

The people are to be classed as :

1. The Orientals, called ' Sephardim,' who are almost exclusively subjects of Turkey, and speak Spanish in their family intercourse, being mainly descendants of the refugees from Spain and Portugal, when banished thence in the fifteenth century : their very dialect of the Spanish language is antique in its peculiarities. These people are but few in Safed and Tiberias ; but in Jerusalem and Hebron are more numerous. In Jerusalem they more than double the number of other Jews, and are regarded by the Turkish authorities as the Jews par excellence. Their representative to the government is styled the ' Chacham Bashi ' in Turkish, but among his own people he enjoys the honoured appellation of ' First in Zion.' His secretary is also recognised as a public officer, having a seat in the Common Council of the city. This Chief Rabbi administered civil and religious law under penalties of fine, imprisonment, and bastinado, to the extent allowed by the Pentateuch. He is assisted by a council of seven Rabbis, called the ' Seven Seals,' each of whom is a judge in an inferior court of his own. Besides these, there are officials in sufficient variety among themselves, superintending different departments of administration.

The Chief Rabbi and his council affect the outward forms of supremacy in dealing with Rabbis or synagogues of foreign countries, based on the text of Isaiah ii. 3 : ' For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem ; ' but in the present state of the Hebrew nation, the Rabbis of other lands concede to him no pre-eminence in authority. The chief at Amsterdam or Wilna considers himself no more bound to submit to the chief at Jerusalem than he would be to the chief of Paris or London, notwithstanding that a certain degree of sanctity and deference would anywhere be attributed to the ruler of the people in the Holy City — at least such was the case till of late years.

In times gone by these native Jews had their full share of suffering from the general tyrannical conduct of the Moslems, and, having no resources for maintenance in the Holy Land, they were sustained, though barely, by contributions from synagogues all over the world. This mode of supply being understood by the Moslems, they were subjected to exactions and plunder on its account from generation to generation (individuals among them, however, holding occasionally lucrative offices for a tune). This oppression proved one of the causes which have entailed on the community a frightful incubus of debt, the payment of interest on which is a heavy charge upon the income derived from abroad.

In Jerusalem their synagogues are four, and all collected under one roof, so that they may pass from each into the others, and they are but meanly furnished. They are named— 1. The Great; 2. The Medium; 3. The Talmud Torah ; 4. The Stambouli. The people believe the first of these to have remained undisturbed since the fall of the second Temple.

Such is the outward framework of their society. The small community of Arabic-speaking Morocco Jews of similar origin with these are subject to the Sultan.

2. There is a distinct community of Jews called the 'Ashkenazim,' who are an aggregate of various religious sections. They are mostly natives of Germany, Bussia, and the Danubian principalities ; their common language is in substance German, but modified by Russiau, Polish, or Wallachian, according to their native places. As subjects of European Powers, they are, equally with Christians from the same respective countries, placed uuder consular protection and magistrature, according to the capitulations with the Porte. Their children, though born in Palestine, retain the nationality of the parents. These, however, are not numerous, and the Ashkenaz population is kept up by fresh arrivals from abroad of persons in old age, who come for the privilege of dying and being buried in holy ground. Each sect of the Ashkcuazira ( Perushim, Ghabad, Anshe Hod, &c.) is independent of the rest, and has its separate ' House of Judgment ' and synagogue. The Chorbah synagogue of the Perushim, recently restored from a ruin of ancient date, is believed to have existed from the days of Rabbi Judah han-Nasi, the compiler of the Talmud Mishnah.

Upon the internal government of both divisions of Judaism, in the Holy Land, with all its abuses of irresponsible Rabbinical domination, the observations that might be made do not seem to belong to the character of this work. They are well understood — alas ! too well — in the country itself; and the Israelites of Europe, who are aware of the same, while despairing of a remedy, have little desire to see the evils divulged, as they are fearful of the foundations of Rabbinism itself becoming consequently undermined.

Until the English Consulate was established in Jerusalem, there was, of course, no other jurisprudence in the country than that of the old-fashioned corruption and self-will of the Mohammedans, and for many ages but • very few (often none) of the European Jews ventured to make an abode in Palestine. A man is now l living, who, as a child, was brought there by his father on a venture, as there was then no Ashkenaz congregation in Jerusalem — the father just made up the minyan, or number of ten, required by Jewish canon law to form a congregation for public worship. According to our ideas it is scarcely praiseworthy, in the ' Sephardim,' that they have always placed obstacles in the way of European Jews forming settlements together with them in the Holy Land, declaring to the Turkish authorities that there are difficulties in the way of recognising these people as genuine Israelites, and much of that feeling still remains, as I have reason to know ; indeed, it is upon this ground that the ' Sephardim ' hold their monopoly from the government for legal slaughtering of animals for food to be used by all the Jews in Jerusalem.