Manfred and Anne Lehmann Foundation

Aleppo and Its Jews—A Proud History

Over the years I have taken my readers on visits to the most far-flung communities. Together we have travelled in my columns to such scattered cities and communities in the Diaspora as Worms, Germany; Aden, Yemen; London, England; Djerba, Tunisia; Carpentras, France; Karachi, Pakistan; Recife, Brazil; Amsterdam, Holland; Gibraltar; Madrid, Spain; Stockholm, Sweden; New port, Rhode Island; Kingston, Jamaica; Vancouver, British Columbia; Helsinki, Finland; New Orleans, Louisiana; Vishau, Rumania; St. Petersburg, Russia; Cairo, Egypt; Moncalvo, Italy; Mexico City, Mexico; Jodensavanne, Surinam; Halberstadt, Germany; Izmir, Turkey, and many more. Quite an impressive array of cities and their communities, representing important aspects of Jewish history of which we should be profoundly proud.

But few cities and communities can match the glory of Aleppo, Syria, a city which spans the millennia from the days of David until our own time. Whenever I meet a Jew whose roots are in Aleppo, I know I am facing aristocracy and nobility. Aleppo is certainly the crown jewel of splendor in the Sephardic world. Although I have never physically been there, I feel that I have touched its hallowed ground because of its people and its books which I have encountered.

Sometimes one hears the city referred to in Arabic as Halab, from which the name Aleppo is derived, but Aleppo's original name in Biblical days was Aram Tzova, which its Jews have preserved throughout all the 3,000 years since King David's great victory there, as reported in the Book of Samuel (II, Chapter 10) and in Psalms (Psalm 60). This name bears witness to the fact that in the days of our Kings the land of Israel extended through what is today Syria and according to my interpretation of the Jonah story, Jeroboam II almost captured Niniveh, the capital of Assyria.

Throughout its long history Aleppo has been characterized by its exemplary communal life. Always headed by great Talmudic sages, whose benevolent authority was always followed with awe and total dedication, Aleppo has the enviable record of unbroken communal peace and spiritual productivity. Early Jewish travellers, such as Benjamin of Tudela, reported Jews living there in 1173. Before him, the great Rav Saadia Gaon visited Aleppo in 921, and found great Talmudic scholars there. The Cairo Genizah fortunately contained surviving remnants of handwritten response originating from Aleppo in the 12th century. Rabbi Petachya of Regensburg, Germany, visited Aleppo from 1170-80 and expressed his admiration of its great scholars.

The famous Spanish poet Yehuda Alcharisi, translator of the Rambam's philosophical work Moreh Nevuchim, visited Aleppo and reported that it had Talmudic scholars, medical doctors, poets and authors. The Rambam's famous disciple R. Yosef ibn Aknin, for whom he wrote the Moreh Nevachim, settled in Aleppo after passing through Egypt.

Ancient inscriptions still exist today in Aleppo, dating back over 1000 years. I knew Israeli diplomat Dotan when he was Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, and he told me of timeworn Hebrew inscriptions he had seen inside Aleppo's ancient city-fortress. (Dotan, a fine elderly gentleman, was tragically killed in a traffic accident.)

In the early 1500s the Aleppo Jewish community was providentially changed when the Ottoman Empire opened its gates to the influx of Spanish Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. This immigration was led by a true Spanish "grandee," R. Shlomo Kassin, who bore the Spanish noble title "Senor" throughout his life. He arrived in Aleppo in 1504 and was soon appointed head of the ancient community because of his great wealth and administrative genius. Besides his wide business interests he devoted much of his time to Torah study. His contemporary was R. Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, who had settled in nearby Safed in the land of Israel. Another great Sephardic personality of the time was Rabbi Shmuel Laniado who was sent to Aleppo by R. Yosef Carol (Israel's famous Laniado Hospital bears his family name.)

Señor Shlomo Kassin's sons were Señor Ephraim Kassin and Menashe Kassin, who were the mainstays of Aleppo's many charities and communal administrations. Testimonies to their outstanding communal ventures are found in the biographical notes of their contemporaries.

The first member of the Kassin family to serve as the community's Chief Rabbi was R. Yom Tov Kassin, followed by his son, the great Talmudist and Kab balist, Rabbi Yehuda Kassin, who was born in Aleppo in 1708. Yehuda was the great-grandson of Señor Shlomo Kassin, and during his life he was beset by much suffering in health, poverty and communal burdens. His main work, Machaneh Yehuda, was recently published by his descendants in New York. It contains hundreds of response and displays the most profound erudition and mastery of all phases of the vast Talmudic literature.

This sefer is a remarkable book, quite unique in our vast literature over the centuries. Over 200 pages of the printed edition deal with a communal problem which had arisen between the original Jews of the ancient community and the so-called "Señores Francos," recent arrivals from such countries as France and Italy. It seems that upon arrival in Aleppo they made an arrangement with the local Jews that they would be exempt from community taxes and would not be subject to the edicts and ordinances of Aleppo's other Jews. Although most of the Francos settled permanently in Aleppo and intermarried with the native Jewish families, they continued to claim total immunity from the traditional laws of the city-folk. Their exemptions covered such indigenous ordinances as the prohibitions against Jewish women taking |walks in the public parks and holding public gatherings on Jewish holidays (out of fear of attracting the attention and jealousy of the Moslems). They were also exempted from charity collections for the needy locals or for the poor in nearby land of Israel, and they were allowed to maintain their own channels for sending charitable contributions to Israel.

In the days of Rabbi Yehuda Kassin, Chief Rabbi Rephael Shlomo Laniado, who headed Aleppo's Beit Din, tried to put a stop to these exemptions and to force the Francos minority to submit to all the public regulations. R. Yehuda Kassin thereupon composed a very lengthy and erudite defense for maintaining the old order of exemptions, and even brought the supporting approval of several leading Sephardic authorities of the time, including R. Yom Tov Algazi of Jerusalem. An interesting feature in this controversy, from the perspective of our collective history, was that the Francos threatened that they would cease attending services in Aleppo's synagogues and would establish their own places of worship if they could not have their way. Rabbi Laniado held that they could be prevented from forming such separate synagogues, but Rabbi Kassin defended their right to do so. Throughout the controversy Rabbi Kassin's main goal was above all else to maintain peace and harmony in the community.

Rabbi Kassin's humility was legendary, and many stories still circulate about his exemplary character. He lived to the ripe age of 76, and was buried according to the custom which many Sephardic communities reserve for their outstanding scholars and saints, in the courtyard of the ancient Great Synagogue of Aleppo, where the Jews could venerate his grave.

The Kassin dynasty is one of the most fabulous in our history. The name Kassin comes from the Biblical word katzin, captain or judge, which occurs many times throughout the books of the Tanach (e.g., Judges 11:6 and Proverbs 6:7). While most Spanish Jews had Spanish-sounding names, such as Caro, Amigo and Esperansa, the Kassin family's Hebrew name pre-dates the expulsion from Spain, indicating that they held positions as judges and leaders for hundreds of years before coming to Aleppo.

All of R. Yehuda's descendants were leading rabbis, Talmudists and Kabbalists in Aleppo. One of his descendants is today's Rabbi Saul J. Kassin, rabbi of the Syrian community in Brooklyn, whose book on the 613 mitzvot has been published in both Hebrew and English. His son Jacob is one of the leaders of the Sephardic community at large, and a great supporter of Sephardic institutions in Israel.

Thus the Kassin family spans over 500 years of unbroken piety, scholarship and leadership, and compares favorably with the great Jewish dynasties in Germany, Lithuania and Poland. Only the Jewish people can point to such outstanding families spanning centuries upon centuries, throughout times of oppression, expulsion and suffering.

Aleppo is famous for its greatest treasure: the fabled Aleppo Codex (Keter), one of the world's oldest Hebrew Tanach manuscripts. It was written 1000 years ago in Tiberias by a member of the famous Ben-Asher family, and shows the final vocalization and punctuation of the Biblical text. After some vicissitudes it ended up in Aleppo where it was venerated as an object of great sanctity. In 1947 it was burned and partly destroyed by an attacking Arab mob. Miraculously, most of it was saved, and it was smuggled from Syria to Jerusalem, where it is presently housed in the National Library. Some believe it is the Biblical text to which the Rambam refers in his Hilchot Sefer Torah. Parts of it are displayed in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem's Israel Museum.

Anyone who becomes familiar with Aleppo's marvelous Jewish community will be profoundly impressed with the contributions its Jews have made to our glorious history. They deserve our closest attention, so that all of us—Sephardic or Ashkenazic—can learn from their lofty example, and each in his own way can emulate their record of scholarly and communal achievements.

 

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