Forgotten giants

Sephardic Rabbis before and after the Expulsion from Spain by Rabbi Yosef Bitton

Gefen Publishing, 2016

For a variety of reasons, some of the greatest rabbinic scholars of our history are unknown to the majority of Jews today. In fact, even those Jews who would regard themselves as being knowledgeable are often only aware of the more ‘famous’ rabbinic figures of Jewish history and can say little about some of the great Torah giants, and especially, the great Sephardic Torah giants.

In his delightful book titled ‘Forgotten Giants’, Rabbi Yosef Bitton has sought to redress this lacuna by presenting twenty-six short monographs of great Sephardic scholars from the fifteenth, sixteenth & seventeenth centuries. This particular time period is significant given the fact that Jews were expelled from Spain (Sephard) in 1492. As such, the scholars explored in Forgotten Giants are those who were born and lived in Spain, those who were born in Spain but who left at a young age, and those who were sons of refugees who had to flee.

As Rabbi Bitton explains in his Preface, although this time period was one of sadness and tragedy, what we learn from these great leaders was their determination to continue debating, writing and producing new books and ideas, because ‘the exiles and the endless persecution exhausted their physical strength but could not stop them from forging ahead with their teachings.’

Forgotten Giants begins with an introduction about the origins of the Jews of Sepharad as well as details of those who left Spain at the time of the Expulsion. It then follows with the 26 monographs, each spanning 4-5 pages, which means that Forgotten Giants is a handy 121 pages while packing a big punch of facts and ideas.

In Forgotten Giants you will meet Rabbi Yitzchak Canpanton (1360-1463) whose Darkhei HaTalmud (literally, ‘the methodology of the Talmud’) was an instructive manual that taught the proper way to study and teach Talmud.

You will also meet Rabbi Avraham Zacuto (1452-ca. 1515) whose astronomical tables guided Christopher Columbus on his travels and whose Sefer Yohasin is a valuable record of Jewish history including the final years of the Jewish communities in Spain.

While many of us have heard of Rabbi Yosef Caro, fewer people know of the literary contribution of his uncle Rabbi Yitzchak Caro (1458-1535) who actually raised the young Yosef after his brother (and Yosef’s father) died at the age of four. Rabbi Yitzchak was a great scholar, and many of his responsa and sermons still remain in manuscript form in libraries and museums in Oxford and New York.

Rabbi Tam Ibn Yahya (1475-1542) was a great leader and prolific writer in Constantinople. Sadly, as Rabbi Bitton explains, one of the reasons why so few people know of this great yet forgotten leader is because a terrible fire destroyed all his writings in 1541. He died just one year later as a result of his great anguish for such a irreplaceable loss.

Rabbi Moshe Almosnino (1515-ca. 1580) was another prolific author, whose commentaries on the Megillot, and Avot are majestic (I say this with experience, having previously studied his commentary to Megillat Esther).

Beyond these less-well-known figures, Rabbi Bitton includes sections on Rabi Hasdai Crescas (1340-1411), Rabbi Shimon Duran (1361-1444), Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380-1444), Rabbi Yitzchak Arama (1420-1494), Rabbi Yitzhak Abarbanel (1437-1508), Rabbi Avraham Saba (1440-1508), Rabbi Yehuda Hayyat (ca. 1450-ca. 1510), Rabbi Shelomo Ibn Verga (1460-ca. 1520), Rabbi Ya’akov Ibn Habib (ca. 1460-1516), Rabbi Moshe Alashkar (1466-1541), Rabbi David Ben Zimra (1479-1573), Rabbi Yitzchak Delouya (ca. 1480-ca. 1572), Rabbi Ya’akov Berab (1474-1546), Rabbi Levi Ibn Habib (ca. 1480-ca. 1545), Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488-1575),Rabbi Shelomo Serilio (1490-1555), Rabbi Shelomo Alkabetz (1500-1580), Rabbi Moshe Alshekh (1507-1593), Rabbi Shmuel De Medina (1505-1589), Rabbi Yisrael Najara (1550-1625) & Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto (1565-1648).

Rabbi Bitton writes in his Preface that it is the duty of all Jews, but especially those with Sephardic heritage, to keep the memory of these great leaders alive: ‘We must promote their books, ideas, ideals, and the golden tradition that they brought from Sefarad’, because ‘the tradition of Sefarad is today more relevant than ever to the struggles and dilemmas we face in modern Jewish society.

I believe Rabbi Bitton is right, and I greatly enjoyed his book. To purchase a copy, click here.