How Talmudic Scholarship Shifted to Spain
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How Talmudic Scholarship Shifted to Spain

After the expulsion, Sephardim built the Jewish community of Hamburg.

Mariana Montiel
By Robert Bowyer (1758-1834) published this view of the port of Hamburg in 1814 (via Wikimedia Commons).
By Robert Bowyer (1758-1834) published this view of the port of Hamburg in 1814 (via Wikimedia Commons).

Moshe ben Hanoch was a rabbi from the Yeshiva of Sura in Babylonia, the most important Talmudic academy in the world (along with Pumbedita) between the third and 10th centuries of the Common Era.

Around 945, with three other scholars, Moshe ben Hanoch and his family left Sura in a fundraising endeavor for the deteriorating academy; their target was the Jewish Diaspora throughout the world, especially in Europe.

Traveling around the Italian coast, their ship was captured by the Moorish-Spanish admiral Ibn Rumahis, who became infatuated with Moshe ben Hanoch’s beautiful wife. According to legend, his wife, foreseeing the inevitable, asked her husband in Hebrew whether those who drown in the ocean can hope to be resurrected. He answered from Psalms: “The Lord saith, ‘I will bring again from Bashan, I will bring them again from the depths of the sea.’”

Hearing that, she threw herself into the sea and drowned.

The four scholars were taken as slaves, and Moshe ben Hanoch and his son, Enoch, a child at the time, were sent to Cordova. The Jewish community of Cordova always bought Jewish slaves to free them, and Moshe and his son were liberated around 948.

A man of great prudence and integrity, he did not announce who he was and agreed to work as a servant at the Talmudic school.

Because of the centralization of Talmudic studies in Babylonia, the discourse was rudimentary in other parts of the world, including Spain. At one point Moshe could not contain himself when hearing Nathan, a rabbi and judge, explain a passage, and he gave an alternative interpretation in perfect rabbinical Aramaic to the assembly.

Astonished, they realized who he was, and Rabbi Nathan resigned immediately, ceding his position to Moshe ben Hanoch.

The prosperous Jewish community of Cordova named him its rabbi, and Hasdai ibn Shaprut organized a yeshiva that became, for a time, the center of Talmudic studies and the recipient of legal consultations from all over the Jewish Diaspora, answered through famous responsa. Because of Hasdai ibn Shaprut’s support and Moshe ben Hanoch’s scholarly knowledge, Cordova became the seed of independent Western Jewish thinking.

Looking North to Hamburg

This month we will talk about the Sephardic presence in Hamburg, a northern German port city on the banks of the Elbe River. Its first Jewish residents were Portuguese marranos.

The Sephardic emigration to northern Europe began in 1580. Of the 5,000 Portuguese Jews who abandoned Portugal during the 16th century, about 1,200 went to Hamburg. Many of them first went to Brazil, North Africa, Italy or the Balkans.

Many Spanish Jews who had left Spain in 1492 also eventually went to Hamburg, and the prosperous Jewish community became an important trade center.

These Sephardic Jews, successful in commerce, conducted their business through international family networks that encompassed the Mediterranean Sea and the American colonies. They dominated the trade in sugar, spices and silver. They were agents of the stock market.

The flourishing trade was carried out with Portugal, Spain, the Spanish West Indies, Curaçao, Suriname and the Caribbean in general. These commercial relations extended to Venice, Bordeaux and Bayonne, as well as the Baltic ports, such as Danzig, and the interior of Germany.

The peak of the trade system came between 1660 and 1780. As active persecution became less pronounced, the Portuguese Jewish communities became more and more integrated into their countries of immigration.

The Sephardic Jews played a big role in the founding of the Bank of Hamburg. The best-known protagonist of this story was Rodrigo de Castro, a businessman and doctor. In recognition of his services, he was given the privilege of possessing property in the city.

These communities, of course, were dedicated not only to commerce; the positive conditions created by the first Portuguese merchants saw their fruit in a Jewish community of doctors, poets, authors, philologists, rabbis and scholars.

The first jajam (rabbi) of Hamburg was Isaac Athias of Venice, whose successor was Abraham Hayyim de Fonseca. In 1652 the great synagogue Bet Israel was constituted, and the congregation chose the scholar David Cohen de Lara as the chief rabbi. Benedicto de Castro, Rodrigo’s son and a famous doctor like his father, was among the oldest members of the congregation.

In 1663 the Sephardic congregation was the only Jewish community in Hamburg, and the wealth and political influence of several members helped the community survive and flourish.

For example, Daniel Abensur and his son, Jacob, were the Polish king’s ambassadors in Hamburg, and Diego (Abraham) Teixeira and his son, Manuel (Isaac), administered the fortune of Swedish Queen Christina in Hamburg.

Jacob Sasportas, a famous Sephardic rabbi who lived, studied and officiated in London, Amsterdam and Livorno, was the Hamburg rabbi from 1666 to1672.

The Hamburg Sephardim were active in the movement around false messiah Shabbetai Zevi. They prepared celebrations in his honor, and Rabbi Sasportas, known for his opposition to this phenomenon, tried to intervene and moderate the enthusiasm that eventually was transformed into massive disillusionment when Shabbetai Zevi was unmasked and chose to convert to Islam.

Internal problems in the community, restrictions on religious freedom and the resignation of Jacob Abensur as the ambassador of the king of Poland were among the causes of the declining Sephardic presence in Hamburg.

In 1697 the city raised the taxes on the Jews to an unsustainable amount, and the majority of the Jewish merchants, together with physicians, rabbis and scholars (most of whom belonged to the Spanish-Portuguese congregation) moved to Altona (Germany) and Amsterdam.

This emblematic community of the Sephardic Diaspora, which can be traced in many of the Sephardic surnames among the Jewish people, had descendants in Hamburg and all German society.

Some of our post-expulsion anecdotes have narrated the roles that the heirs of the Spanish-Portuguese tradition have played in key moments in the modern history of Western Europe, both in Jewish and secular contexts. Often, we do not think about the Iberian-Sephardic influence on the religious, scholarly and economic evolution of countries such as Germany, Poland and Denmark, an influence that can be followed to present-day reality.

The Sephardic Corner is a monthly contribution of Congregation Or VeShalom to the greater Jewish community. Historian Alicia Benmergui contributed to this column.

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