Wednesday, February 12, 2014

SEPHARDIC RABBIS: Rabbi Ya'aqob Kholi (1689-1732)

Rabbi Ya'aqob Kholi (aka Culi, Koli, etc) was born in Yerushalayim in 1689. In those days the situation of the Jews in Israel turned to be disastrous, politically and financially, and at a young age, rabbi Ya'aqob established himself in Constantinople, Turkey.  There he met the famous rabbi Yehuda Rosanes. Rabbi Ya'aqob became one of this best students, and Rabbi Rosanes assigned him as Dayan of Constantinople.  In 1727 rabbi Rosanes died, leaving behind a vast literary work in handwriting. Rabbi Ya'aqob took upon himself to publish his teacher's books, knowing that the task will demand many years of his life.  In 1728 he published Rabbi Rosanes' Parashat Derakhim and in 1731 he published the most famous book of rabbi Rosanes: Mishne leMelekh, a commentary on Maimonides' Mishne Tora.  During these years he also began his own work, the famous book me'am lo'ez.  

Me'am lo'ez is an extraordinary book, a monumental anthology of Midrashim and Halakhic material, arranged according to the weekly Parasha. The special thing about this book is that it was one of the first books written for the masses, not for Tora-scholars.  One book of this sort was previously written, 'en-ya'aqob, by Rabbi Kholi's great-grandfather, rabbi Ya'aqob ibn Habib.  The book was written in Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish (Spanish written with Hebrew characters) the language introduced  by those Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, which became popular among most Sephardic communities.   

Aside form the rich Talmudic material, rabbi Ya'aqob introduced many autobiographic notes and anecdotes, which makes the reader feel transported to the ancient Sephardic communities in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East, where Jews were victims of permanent abuse and persecutions. In those difficult circumstances Me'am Lo'ez invites the Jewish families to see the Shabbat as an "Island of time", a 24 hours opportunity to disconnect from sadness and enjoy peace and happiness.  The author encourages Jews, most of them living in poor conditions, to practice Hesed (kindness) with those who are in a worse situation.  He found that the best antidote to cope with the feelings of hardship is not self-pity but opening one's homes and hearts to those who are poorer than him (hakhnasat orahim), to take care of the widows, the orphans and the sick.  Rabbi Kholi died at a very young age. When he was just 43 years old.  

ספר מעם לועז

Rabbi Kholi, the author of me'am lo'ez, wrote the book of Genesis and on two thirds of the book of Shemot.  He had a great zekhut: in the same way that he published the books of his ancestors and teachers, his own book me'am lo'ez was continued by several rabbis from Turkey and other communities, for generations to come. 

Rabbi Ytshaq Magriso completed the book of Exodus and wrote the commentary on the books of Leviticus and Numbers.

Deuteronomy was written by Rabbi Ytshaq Bekhor Agruiti. 

The Book of Yehoshua by Rabbi Rahamim Menahem Miterani. 

The book of Esther by Rabbi Raphael Hiya Pontremoli. 

Rabbi Shemuel Yerushalmi translated the Me'am Lo'ez to Hebrew. 

And Rabbi  Aryeh Kaplan from Ladino to English  (see this)