Pathway to Jerusalem
The Travel Letters of Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura
Written Between 1488-1490
By Rabbi Ovadiah
CIS Publishers, 1992, 93 pages
Rabbi Ovadiah is well-known and highly respected because of his clear Hebrew commentary on the third century Mishnah, a commentary still used today. He was born in Bartenura, Italy, sometime around 1445, and died near or in Jerusalem about 1516. He left his father and siblings in Italy and arrived in Israel after months of travel in 1488. He may have left Italy to escape the rational renaissance that began there at that time, but this is pure speculation.
The fifteenth century was a terrible period in Jewish history. He arrived in Israel just before the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, when the number of Jews in the Promised Land was very small, and the people extremely poor. This was a time when the non-Jewish rulers of Israel mistreated the Jewish inhabitants, taxed them highly, curtailed their travel with toll collectors on roads, and turned blind eyes to hoards of robbers.
This book contains three letters by Ovadiah and a letter by one of his students who praises him. Ovadiah reports on the communities that he visited during his trip to Israel. He saw how Jews mistreated fellow Jews; how they informed on one another to the non-Jewish governments. He tells how there were close to three hundred families in Jerusalem before he arrived, but they were harassed by fellow Jews, the “elders” of the community, who imposed heavy taxes on them. When foreign Jews became ill fellow Jews were afraid to visit the sick; they feared “that the elders would accuse them of stealing or holding his property.” Most of the three hundred families left Jerusalem to escape this treatment. “Now, only the poor and women are left in Jerusalem,” people who aren’t taxed by the Jews or government.
Yet, in contrast, the Jews were careful about not drinking or even touching non-Jewish wine in all the lands that he visited. He mentions wine frequently, although far less than his comments about other behaviors. He tells how at Shabbat meals, Jews eat in a circle on mats; not on a table; tablecloths spread over the mats. The host makes Kiddush on a cup of wine and drinks the entire cup. Then he pours wine in this cup for each guest who also drinks a full cup, one after another. The family and guests eat a fruit and drink another full cup of wine. This continues until everyone has drunk at least six or seven cups. “The wine,” Ovadiah writes, “is exceptionally strong – particularly in Jerusalem – and they add no water to it.” Ovadiah drank as well. He reports that when he was in Gaza, “We drank seven or eight cups before the meal. And we were joyful.” This is actually the second Friday series of drinks. On Shabbat eve the Jewish men in Muslim lands welcome the Shabbat by going to the bathhouse. “When they return home, their wives give them wine, and they drink liberally.”
He tells a tragic tale about wine: “a Muslim in Jerusalem murdered his own mother. When he was brought to trial, he claimed that he had acted under the influence of alcohol. The judges decided that the Jews and Christians were responsible, because they are the only ones who make wine. So the Jews were fined six golden florins, the Christians twelve florins – and the Muslim went free. And I could tell you many other such stories.”
These wine comments are interesting since today there is a Jewish winery that produces Rashi wines because of a legend that this Bible and Talmud commentator had a winery, and a company that produce Bartenura wine because Rabbi Ovadiah mentions wine on many occasions.
Rabbi Ovadiah saw that rabbis do not run services in the Muslim lands, but cantors. The Jews would not begin the Shabbat before the stars came out on Friday night. No one entered the synagogue wearing shoes. When Ovadiah delivered sermons to people, they listened only because he entertained them; but he was unable to change them.
He saw many noteworthy things. For instance, Jews today retain the four letter name of God in the Hebrew Torah scrolls, but do not pronounce it; they substitute “Adonai,” meaning “Lord,” out of respect for God. The Samaritans, who consider themselves Jews, replace the four letter divine name in their Hebrew scrolls with “Asima,” a word that means “guardian” and “protector” in Arabic. They also retain and use the ancient Hebrew script that the Israelites used before they were exiled to Babylonia in 586 BCE.
He saw Jews spend lots of time visiting graves of “saintly people,” prostrate themselves before the graves, and pray asking the dead to help them. He also did so. Money lending was a good business because lenders got as much as twenty percent for loans.
In 1495, six years after Ovadiah’s arrival in Jerusalem, one of his students wrote that there were then about two hundred families in the city and Jews and Muslims respected Ovadiah because of his intelligence. Ovadiah only spoke in the synagogue on holidays, three times a year. But his writings, especially his commentary on the Mishnah, have instructed thousands after his death.