The Old City of Jerusalem, with a view of the Dome of the Rock (Tal Cohen)
The Old City of Jerusalem, as it is today, with a view of the Dome of the Rock. Photo by Tal Cohen
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Wikimedia Commons
Facsmile woodcut depicting ancient Jerusalem, in the Liber Chronicarum Mundi, Nuremberg, 1493. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

October 29, 1486, is the date on which the rabbinical scholar Ovadiah ben Avraham departed on the journey that took him from his native Italy to Jerusalem.

Ovadiah of Bertinoro, as he is best known, arrived in the holy city a year and a half later, on March 25, 1488. There he quickly became the acknowledged leader of the small and ailing Jewish community.

The three letters he wrote and sent back to Italy serve as important historical documents regarding the communities he passed through on his way to Palestine, and on the state in which he found the Jews of Jerusalem.

The best-known of Ovadia’s writings, however, is the commentary he wrote on the Mishna, which was first published only after his death, in 1548, in Venice. His commentary, which incorporates elements from both Rashi and Maimonides, is now a standard part of most editions of the Mishna.

The family of Ovadia (c. 1445-c. 1515) apparently had its roots in Bertinoro, in the northeastern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. He himself seems to have been a resident of Cita di Castella, in Umbria, to the south. Although tradition says that Ovadia set out in 1486 for the purpose of reaching Jerusalem, according to historian Elliott Horowitz, he left Cita di Castella in a hurry.

He speculates that Ovadia, who was not married, was involved in a scandal – either sexual or financial – and that his actual goal was saving his skin.

Ill manners in Palermo

Ovadia’s travels took him through the length of Italy, to Italy and to Egypt, before his arrival in Eretz Israel. It was only after he arrived in Jerusalem that he composed the letters that he sent back to Italy – one to his father, one to a brother, and the third to an unidentified person.

His letters were written in response to his having been “commanded,” as Ovadia described it, by his father to “describe the manners and customs of the Jews in all the places in which my foot has trod, as well as their intercourse with the gentiles among whom they live” (translation by Elliott Horowitz).

His descriptive skills – prized for their objectivity and non-judgmental quality – were put to great use once he arrived in Palermo, Sicily. Ovadia was surprised by the relative poverty of that city’s Jews, as well as their laxness in matters of Jewish practice, for example, with regard to the laws of family purity, as compared with what he was accustomed to in the north.

He also was taken aback by the frequency with which Jews were willing to inform on their brethren, and even level false accusations at them when they wanted to settle scores.

Other locations visited by Ovadia during his lengthy journey to Jerusalem included Messina, Rhodes and Alexandria, and, once he was in the Holy Land, Hebron and Bethlehem. His descriptions of the Karaites and Samaritans of Egypt offer valuable historical testimony about those two special communities.

The Mamluk whip

Palestine at the time was under the rule of the Mamluks, the slave-based Muslim sultanate that had its capital in Cairo. Jerusalem was a heterogeneous city, but far from prosperous and the Jews, though tolerated as a religious minority, were subject to frequent and harsh tax levies from the Mamluk rulers, to finance their military campaigns.

In his 1488 letter, Ovadia estimated that overall, Jerusalem’s population numbered some 4,000 families. Among them, he wrote, only 70 were Jewish families, “of the poorest class.”

In fact, he observed, “there is scarcely a family that is not in want of the commonest necessities; one who has bread all year round is regarded as rich... In my opinion, an intelligent man versed in political science might easily raise himself to be chief of the Jews as well as Arabs, for among all the inhabitants there is not a sensible man who knows how to deal kindly with his fellow-men."

With the help of the nagid (the governor of the Jewish community) of Egypt, Natan Hacohen Ibn Shulal, Ovadia got to work reorganizing the Jewish community of Jerusalem. So poor were their conditions initially that Ovadia himself was forced to dig the grave of someone who had died, for lack of a burial society.

Under his leadership, that and a number of other self-help organizations – medical, financial and the like – began operating. He intervened with the Mamluk authorities to have the tax burden eased. At the same time, he served as the community’s chief authority on questions of Jewish law. It is even said that Muslim residents of Jerusalem would come to him to decide legal disputes.

Following 1492, Jerusalem became a destination for Jews who had been expelled from Spain. They looked to Ovadia for religious guidance, and they provided him with the support for the construction of a yeshiva. He is believed to have passed away in or about 1515, in Jerusalem.