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History Highlights: Salonika

Rabbi Meir Goldberg

In History Highlights this week, we head to Yavan! That’s right, Greece. But not the Greece of Antiochus or Alexander the Great. We head to Greece of a much later time, when Jews lived in the port city of Salonika…

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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In History Highlights this week, we head to Yavan! That’s right, Greece. But not the Greece of Antiochus or Alexander the Great. We head to Greece of a much later time, when Jews lived in the port city of Salonika (right next to the Mediterranean Sea). The non-Jews called it Thessaloniki. 

We’ll find out about some great rabbanim, interesting people, and some villains who lived there

Two Millennia

Jews have been in Salonika, Greece for almost 2,000 years. In fact, the oldest shul there was called the Etz Hayyim shul, built almost 1,900 years ago. It stood until 1917, when it was destroyed in a fire. Jews of that time lived under the Roman Empire, which treated them badly. This lasted until the 1400s when the Ottoman Empire took over Greece.

Jews under the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was based in what is now Turkey. They were Muslim and they controlled most of the countries in the Middle East (where Eretz Yisrael is) as well as parts of Europe. In 1492, when the Spanish King and Queen exiled all Jews from Spain (unless they agreed to become Christians), many of the Spanish Jews went to Salonika, where they were welcomed, although Jews in the Ottoman Empire weren’t considered equal to the Muslims. Jews (and other non-Muslims) were called dhimmi, literally “protected person.” But Jews didn’t mind their status in the Ottoman Empire, since they were treated far better there than in Europe.

Reading and Writing

There were all types of Jews in Salonika; Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Italians, etc. There were 30 different shuls and kehillos. In 1520, they all got together and formed one big school called a Talmud Torah. It had 200 teachers and 10,000 students. They learned Torah and also some secular subjects. Jews always knew how to read and write. .

 

Shlomo escaped Portugal with Dovid and learned in a yeshivah in Salonika, becoming a big talmid chacham. Shlomo Molcho learned in the great yeshivah there, headed by one of the gedolei hador, Rav Yosef Taitazak. He also learned with Rav Yosef Karo, who years later wrote the Shulchan Aruch. 

A Hero 

This was very rare in the world, as most people, unless they were royalty or a priest, didn’t know how to read and write. But Jews were different, since the Torah requires fathers and the beis din of each city to make sure their children know how to learn Torah.

Learning Undercover

One of the most mysterious people in Jewish history who also lived in Salonika, was a man named Shlomo Molcho. Shlomo was born in Portugal, into a family of anusim (secret Jews who converted to Christianity to avoid being killed by the Church). When a Jew named Dovid Hareuveini came to Portugal, Shlomo begged him to teach him Torah. Shlomo escaped Portugal with Dovid and learned in a yeshivah in Salonika, becoming a big talmid chacham. Shlomo Molcho learned in the great yeshivah there, headed by one of the gedolei hador, Rav Yosef Taitazak. He also learned with Rav Yosef Karo, who years later wrote the Shulchan Aruch.

A Hero

Rav Yosef Taitazak was not only an expert in halachah, he was also one of the leading mekubalim (those who study Kabbalah) of his day. Shlomo learned much Kabbalah and went around telling people that Mashiach was near. He went to Rome and told the Pope (the head of the Catholic Church) that there would soon be a flood in Rome. Sure enough, it soon happened. But when Shlomo went to Germany, the Holy Roman Emperor, King Charles V, arrested him and sent him to Italy where they told him that either he converts to Christianity or he must die. Shlomo chose to die al kiddush Hashem and is a hero of Klal Yisrael. (Excerpted from Mishpacha Jr., Issue 657)

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