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12 Adar II 5765 - March 23, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Nesi'im — Princes of the Golus

by Y. Ben Avi

Part II

Very few chapters have been recorded on Jewish history in the Golus that are in any way comparable to that of Don Yosef Nasi, the Duke of Naxos, and his aunt, Dona Gracia. They were born into a wealthy family in the Marrano community in Lisbon, Portuguese noblemen on the outside and loyal Jews in secret. The fear of the Inquisition led them far from their birthplace and after years of moving from place to place and of adventures, they settled in Constantinople. They openly returned to Judaism. They supported Jewish communities and talmidei chachomim on a massive scale and earned the admiration of the gedolei hador, among them the Beis Yosef, the Mabit, and the Mahari ben Leib. Their political and economic power, and their ability to set international processes in motion were unprecedented in Jewish history. The saga of the Nasi family.

The first part followed the early years of Donna Gracia Nasi, born in Portugal. She married into a family of wealthy bankers. Widowed young, she carried on the business. She also raised her nephew Yosef, whose father also died young. The family fled Portugal as the Inquisition became stronger there, moving to London, Antwerp, Italy and eventually Turkey, where they were finally free of Christian persecution.

Pope Paul IV moved quickly against the Jews as soon as he took office in 1555. One of the first to suffer was the community of Ancona, Italy, where a number of secret Jews were living. Donna Gracia asked the Sultan to intervene. He was able to save some of the Jews. Many fled, but 52 were executed as martyrs. The world was horrified by the extreme cruelty displayed. The Nasi family consulted with rabbonim and decided to take action.

Hitting Their Pockets

The tragedy of Ancona Jewry shook the entire Diaspora. Even the gentiles felt uncomfortable with this behavior, which was unusually cruel even in the atmosphere of contempt for Jewish blood which was prevalent in Europe in those days. Donna Gracia consulted with the rabbis of Turkey, and they imposed a ban on trade with Ancona.

One of the supporters of the ban was the Mahari ben Lev. It was the first time in the history of the Golus that Jews imposed sanctions of this kind.

Donna Gracia and Don Yosef cut off trade relations with the city, even though it was an important port. They diverted their ships to the port of Pesaro. There, the duke of the city also consented to accept the Jews who had escaped from Ancona. Delegates went around the various communities to spread the word about the trade ban with Ancona.

The government of Ancona watched with horror as their town changed from being a thriving port town to a frozen region. They realized that the city's economy would not be able to hold up very long in this situation. But the Pope refused to give way and he rejected the plea of the residents of the town to change his policy.

However, not everyone in the Jewish community — including important rabbonim — was in agreement with this procedure. First, the merchants were harmed by it, since the port of Pesaro was not suitable for commercial ships. But the main fear was that it might worsen the plight of the many Jews who were living in various countries under the authority of the Catholic Church.

The most prominent among the opponents was Rabbi Yehoshua Tzunatzin, rabbi of the Italian community in Constantinople. Supporters of the ban argued that aside from the benefit and the lesson contained in the painful retaliation, annulling it now would endanger the Jews of Pesaro. The Duke of the town had taken in the refugees from Ancona so that they could develop the economy of the city, but if commerce were restored to Ancona it would end the Duke's hopes, and he was likely to expel all the Jews, or even deliver them into the hands of the Pope.

Both sides set spokesmen to work to argue that their side was right. The controversy did not die down even when Don Yosef threatened to stop giving financial support to whoever opposed the ban. Once in a while there were reports of merchants who did not stand up to the test and broke the ban, while others bided their time to see how matters would develop.

The Decision of the Tzfas Rabbis

Amidst all the perplexity, Donna Gracia brought her influence to bear on the battle. She applied to the center of Torah in Tzfas, where HaRav Yosef Caro, the Mabit, HaRav Y. Beirav and other great rabbis lived in those days, to ask for their support. HaRav Caro and the rabbis of Tzfas agreed with the policy and published their opinion in favor of the embargo.

The uncertainty over the right way to proceed in this episode generated the responsa which the Mabit wrote (part I, 237). Here, he brings in the arguments of the merchants about their inability to anchor in the port of Pesaro, and sets it against the plea of the Jews of Pesaro that trade should come through their city as their Duke had hoped. "For the Duke will make room in the port so no mishap will occur," and there is a fear "that it might be worse for them because he took pity on them."

After judging both sides of the issue, he concludes: "It is indeed important and fitting for regular merchants to travel to Ancona to make them remember the greatness of the mitzvah of saving souls and the greatness of the punishment for those who stand idly by the blood of their neighbor—and if a loss is incurred, chas vecholilo, the residents of Pesaro can cover it."

As for Donna Gracia, he called her, "the lady who is famed throughout the kingdoms," and "the elevated lady."

Meanwhile, on the scene, matters were evolving at their own pace. The Jews of Ancona continued their struggle with the Jews of Pesaro over public opinion. And it took quite a few months till the appeal reached the rabbis of Tzfas and the answer came back. Furthermore, the mercantile community was spread out over a large number of cities and it was difficult to disseminate the opinion of the gedolei Yisroel in every location.

For their part, in an attempt to make their city more attractive, the government of Ancona announced that any ships anchoring in their port were free of taxation.

A few merchants started to come back to Ancona, at first secretly and then openly, and little by little the embargo began to dissolve. A short while later, to everyone's relief, the Pope died and the edicts were eased.

Donna Gracia, disappointed at the lack of success of the embargo on Ancona, continued to work for the welfare of her brethren. In 1556 (5316) she aided thousands of Jews who were smitten by the plague and, after intensive diplomatic efforts, was able to rescue her nephew Shmuel and his wife from the claws of the persecutions in Ferrara. In 1558 she established the Leviat Chen synagogue in Salonika.

There is no doubt that the existence of two such influential figures within the strongest power in the Mediterranean Sea, the Ottoman Empire, ignited the imagination of friends and enemies, Jews and non-Jews alike, in terms of the interpretation that they gave of their moves. The daring experiment to renovate the Jewish settlement in Tiberias must be viewed in this light.

On the Shores of the Kinneret

In 1560, Donna Gracia applied to the Sultan, requesting that she be given the lease of the Tiberias region, which at that time lay desolate, in exchange for a high annual fee of 1,000 ducats. It is safe to assume that what lay behind this enterprise was the dismal plight of those who had been expelled from Spain during that period.

Donna Gracia and Don Yosef Nasi were hoping that a settlement in the Holy Land would provide a place of refuge and a chance to begin a new life under the auspices of the tolerant Turkish government.

The Sultan gave his consent, but they were still a long way from achieving the full legal authorization. The Church delegate appeared before the Grand Vizier and protested against the project. The latter, who was himself not overly fond of Jews, responded that he would do his utmost to ensure that the idea was shelved.

However in the summer of 1563 (5363), the Sultan signed the firman (concession) for the lease of Tiberias and seven neighboring villages to Donna Gracia. In exchange she committed herself to transmit a yearly payment of 1,000 gold ducats to the Sultan's treasury, and to increase the amount tenfold after 10 years.

Donna Gracia placed the task of implementing this project on her nephew and son-in-law Don Yosef's shoulders. She put at his disposal any funds that he might need, as well as a fleet of her ships to transport new settlers to the region. For herself she requested only a house beside the baths of Tiberias, since she had heard of their healing powers and wished to live there peacefully at the end of her days.

Yosef himself was unable to leave his ramified businesses and supervise the construction of Tiberias. He sent his aide, Yosef Ibn Ardut, to Tiberias. He had in his possession the firman that the Sultan had given him, in which the pasha of Damascus was ordered to recruit workers for the construction project and follow the instructions of Ibn Ardut.

The first project was to build walls for the city to give residents a sense of security. The builders reconstructed the southern wall of the city, and built a sewer and houses, some of which are still standing to this day. One of the houses was a palace that was erected for Donna Gracia. Mulberry trees were planted there in abundance in order to develop a silk industry, and sheep were imported from Spain for their wool.

Don Yosef put out an appeal to all Jews to come and settle in the newly-renovated city. Many indeed answered the call and arrived in ships which were placed at their disposal. The responsa seforim even contain a report of an increase in the number of Jews in Tiberias during that period.

A yeshiva was founded in the city, with the Nasi family in charge of supporting its talmidim. Jews from Tzfas, Italy and even Yemen began to be drawn to the city.

At one stage there was some apprehension regarding the success of the project. The Moslem sharif warned the Arab workers that when the city was built "the Mohammedan religion would be lost," and the building was halted since the workers refused to continue.

The strike only ended when the Turkish soldiers threatened the strikers, and even hung two of them. The construction of the city was completed in 1565 ( Kislev of 5325). This was actually the first attempt up till that time to found a Jewish settlement in the Holy Land since the Churban.

In the end, not a single member of the Nasi family arrived to settle on the shores of the Kinneret. Historians of that period do not give a reason for this, but it is well known that Yosef Nasi was embroiled in his struggle against the government of France over money that it owed him. Donna Gracia was apparently sick by then, and a move to another country was beyond her strength, although some reports say that she did move. As the years went by, the Jewish settlement disintegrated in the city, and the stones of the walls eroded in the dust and wind.

The Jewish Duke

It was not that the Turkish government had any lofty intentions in its efforts to rehabilitate Tiberias. The attitude in Constantinople was that desolate regions needed to be developed to keep them protected against robbers, and the Nasi family was prudent enough to exploit this policy for the good of their Jewish brethren.

However, the whole process ignited the imagination of numerous Jews of that generation since, through all the suffering and persecution, they saw a spark of redemption in the reconstruction of the ruins of Tiberias, the city from which the Moshiach would reveal himself in future times.

The Christian world viewed Don Yosef with concern and fear. In various sources he is described by them in exaggerated terms, such as being an `emissary' who goes around the world and seeks vengeance on the Christian world for its offense to his property and his people.

From the writings of the King of Spain from that period, it turns out that the king had ordered him to be captured alive or dead, and offered an enormous sum to whoever brought him in. Based on this, the words of the French ambassador in Constantinople become clearer. He reported to Paris that Don Yosef wished to build Tiberias and become king of the Jews, and that explained his aggressive demands for money from France. The demands to which the ambassador referred comprised one of the international political maelstroms in which Yosef Nasi was submerged.

Yosef Nasi had struggled for years with the French government, over 150 thousand ducats from the property of the Mendes family which it confiscated, claiming that Jews had no rights in France. All attempts to demand that the property be returned to the family came to no avail.

In 1566, the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent died and there was a struggle among his sons, Selim and Bajazet. Don Yosef supported Selim in the battle over his inheritance, and he later repaid him for this with a great deal of benefits.

During that time, the Island of Naxos fell into the hands of the Turks, along with an adjacent archipelago of Cycladies islands not far from Greece. When Selim took over he appointed Yosef Nasi as Duke of Naxos and the islands. Don Yosef never visited his duchy and managed it from his home in Constantinople, which he never left out of fear of all sorts of court intrigues.

In 1566 (5366) when Selim the Second (son of Suleiman the Magnificent) rose to the sultan's throne, Yosef, as a long- time supporter of Selim, decided that the time was right for the French debt to be recovered. After heavy pressure was put on him, the French ambassador found himself in Constantinople consenting in writing for the debt to be paid by means of confiscating merchandise from French ships.

In 1568, the Sultan, at Yosef's request, made out a firman enabling him to confiscate one-third of all merchandise arriving at the port of Alexandria under a French flag. This was a daring step, since it violated the contract between the two countries which gave mercantile preference to French ships east of the Mediterranean sea. In another situation this would have perhaps given rise to war, but France needed Turkey and Yosef Nasi exploited this for his own purposes. At least part of the debt was collected as a result of this step, but the Sultan soon revoked the privilege.

She Surpassed Them All

While Don Yosef was engrossed in his battle with France, Donna Gracia had gone to her grave. She was only 59 years old, but the events of her life proved too overpowering for her.

News of her passing threw Jewish communities all over into mourning. Hespedim and mass memorials were held in all the synagogues, especially those which she had founded. The Mabit in Tzfas said about her, "Rabbos bonos osu choyil, veChannah olsoh al culonoh" (Many daughters have amassed achievements, but Channah surpassed them all).

Rabbi Yehoshua Tzunatzin, who had opposed the attempt to impose the ban on Ancona, said of her in his hesped that she "held the hand of the poor and needy to save them — she merited, and she got others to merit, saving people from death, releasing from the darkness of the grave, worldly vanities, those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death."

But the Jews of Tiberias especially mourned her, since they had so longed for her to come to their city. The rabbis of Salonika too, whose communities were greatly helped by her, gave long hespedim on "the great lady who is grieved for, Donna Gracia . . . who is solely unique like one of the gedolei hador—a remnant of the princess' household, a morning star, in the gates she is praised."

When she was alive, Donna Gracia had requested that she be buried beside her husband in Yerushalayim, but the place of her final burial is not known. Don Yosef Nasi remained the sole heir to all of Donna Gracia's enormous wealth. That summer, 1569 (5366), his brother Shmuel also passed away.

While Yosef Nasi was steeped in grief, the Grand Vizier managed to persuade the Sultan to annul the confiscation on the French ships. A few months later, a new agreement had already been signed between Turkey and France, in which the Sultan apologized for what happened in the past and claimed that he had been deceived.

Many years later the French attempted, through various means, to claim compensation from Don Yosef's estate for the losses they claimed to have incurred.

In regard to the mingling of the Jews of Turkey in community life, an interesting fact emerges: that particular agreement was written in Hebrew. This was apparently for the convenience of the agents and Jewish workers who were working for both sides.

Continuing Influence

However, all the difficulties, both internal and external, did not really damage Don Yosef's position in the court. The Cyprus affair, which occurred during that period and led to an intermingling of the Moslem and Christian worlds, indicates that Yosef Nasi continued to be one of the closest of the Sultan's confidants.

Don Yosef urged the Sultan Selim the Second to declare war on Venice in order to conquer Cyprus, one of its colonies in the Mediterranean Sea. The Grand Vizier, Mehemet Sokolli tried to dissuade the Sultan from such a step.

But Don Yosef was insistent in pushing for war with Venice. Perhaps he planned to settle Jews on the island, as part of a political plan to improve their plight. In 1570 the Ottoman powers invaded Cyprus and the Venetian flag stopped waving on the island. The conquest of Cyprus not only affected Venice but was viewed as a threat to the entire Christian world.

In the capital cities of Europe the rumor spread that the Sultan had promised his Jewish friend nothing less than the rulership over Cyprus, where a Jewish state would be founded. Although this was probably an exaggeration, these rumors definitely added color to the image of Yosef Nasi as an enemy of Christianity.

Venice, Spain and the pope mobilized themselves for a war of reprisal against Turkey. Their fleets united under the command of Don Juan of Austria, and set out to battle with the powerful Turkish fleet.

On November 7, 1571, the forces clashed near the Greek coastal city of Lepanto. Hundreds of sailing vessels and thousands of soldiers took part in what was the greatest sea battle in the history of Europe in the 1500 years until then. After a three-hour battle which was unsurpassed in its cruelty and destruction, the war ended with the Turkish commander slain and his navy defeated.

After two years Venice contracted a peace agreement with Turkey. Venice agreed to give up Cyprus and even paid compensation to the Turks, who had renovated their fleet. But after the Lepanto battle never again were the coasts of Europe subject to a serious Moslem threat.

Ben Porat Yosef

"Let your ears be spared from hearing how Reuven acted wickedly to dare to use his tongue to inform on the Minister Nasi, may Hashem protect and preserve him! . . . the way he abused his tongue on the community and on the person. And when the rabbis and wise men of Constantinople and its gedolim found out about his wicked intention . . . they outlawed him, ostracized him and excommunicated him in the world sefer Torah . . . and the rest will hear and be afraid, as will all this nation about his place he should come in peace — the spokesman of the city of Tzfas. Yosef Caro, Yisroel bar Meir, Moshe bar Yosef MiTrani (the Mabit) — "

This serious excommunication was the climax of an episode which swept the Jewish communities in 1571 (5331). This time the person concerned was not a gentile Jew-hater but lehavdil a Jew who endangered his people.

He was the aide of Don Yosef Nasi, someone whom Yosef had raised from the lowest depths to take an important, senior position in his service. But this man did not repay him in kind and was caught in fraud.

"Nevertheless, the abovementioned minister (Don Yosef) was unaware of his fraud."

When the man saw that he had been caught red-handed, "he immediately added crime to his sin, and began to act against His Excellency, twice, three times, slandering and informing and he did not succeed—-and this man did not repay him . . . in evil letters he wrote things that pertained to the minister, things that are not to be written about. And not only did this pose immense danger and intensive damage to the minister himself, but also to the nation as a whole, choliloh" (Responsa 2158, paragraph 55).

`Reuven' was apparently a nickname and the real name of the informer was not mentioned there. He was excommunicated by all the rabbis of the various countries, together with two people who helped him in practice. In Tzfas, HaRav Yosef Caro and the Mabit, with ten other rabbis of the town, signed the cheirem.

According to writers of the period, that same `Reuven' claimed that all Yosef Nasi's lawsuits against France were based on forged documents. In private conversations with a French diplomat, Reuven did not deny that it was a false charge. He had also undertaken to remove from Yosef's home any private documents that apparently contained proof of the accuracy of this claim.

Fortunately, the shameful plot was brought to light and foiled. But it is not hard to imagine what position Don Yosef would have been in had the plan been successful, nor what position the Jews of Turkey would have been in.

The strict cheirem that all the rabbis of Turkey, Salonika, Egypt and Eretz Yisroel placed on the informer convinced the government that no serious person was involved here, and he was subsequently exiled to the Island of Rhodes.

Years later, when Don Yosef was no longer among the living, appeals were heard calling for the cheirem to be undone and for that Jew to be brought back from exile. Rabbi Eliyahu ben Chaim, the rabbi of Constantinople, judged the question as to whether to rescind the ban which was imposed with the agreement of all rabbis of the Jewish communities (Responsa 2158, cit.). He concludes that he cannot agree to a release, but neither can he stop anyone who wishes to cancel it.

The Beis Yosef also dealt with another controversy within the family of Donna Gracia, in connection with the division of property between her and her sister. Following a libel suit against her sister's husband, a large sum of money was used to save him and the question was who would pay it. The question, which was discussed at length by the Mabit and the Beis Yosef in the responsa Avcas Rochel (80, 81), also discussed the validity of the terms of a kesuvah which was written according to gentile law. The ruling was that it had no validity.

Incidentally, according to one of the sources which discussed the history of the Beis Yosef, he refused to accept any financial support from Don Yosef for the publication of his writings, although he was in need of funds.

Don Yosef Nasi's status was greatly weakened following the Cyprus affair since he had advised fighting. The Sultan wondered whether he had acted correctly in agreeing to accept his anti-Venetian policy. If any promise existed in regard to crowning Don Yosef king over Cyprus, it was not honored.

In the years that followed the rise of Morad the Third to the sultan's throne, Yosef Nasi spent a lot of time in his home, beneath the courtyard of the Sultan which for about twenty years had become as if part of his own home. Although Morad did not requisition his rights nor the concessions that he had been given, the gates of the palace were no longer open to Don Yosef.

Incidentally, the period of Morad's rule also signaled the beginning of the decline of the Turkish empire.

Don Yosef continued to be a patron of his people. His home buzzed with visitors—rabbis, emissaries, talmidei chachomim and community activists. He continued to serve as governor of Tiberias. He supported the publication of several seforim, and also published his own book, Ben Porat Yosef, on a dispute that he had had with Christians over astrology.

Don Yosef Nasi died on the 10th of Menachem Av 1579 (5339). He had no heirs, there had been an only daughter whom he had lost when she was 10. After his death, his widow Reina, the Duchess of Naxos, continued to be active in helping her people. She placed Don Yosef's huge library at the disposal of those learning and was involved in numerous charitable deeds. A printing shop was set up in her palace which was in operation for 50 years, and the writings of many talmidei chachomim were printed there.

Twenty years later she too passed away, and with her ended the remarkable saga of the Nasi family.


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