Page 170 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 47

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Rabbi Yaacov Huli
On the 300th Anniversary of His Birth
u r i n g
t h e
l a t e
17th and early 18th centuries, the Jews of
the Ottoman Empire underwent a number of severe crises
which left them reeling. Many had fervently believed the mes­
sianic promises of Sabbatai Zevi, himself from Izmir. When the
pseudo-messiah converted to Islam in 1666, the faithful Jewish
masses were left in a state of shock and horror. They were
plunged into a deep despair; the recovery from that spiritual
explosion was slow and painful.
Aside from this spiritual crisis, the Jews suffered a period
of severe economic decline. The Ottoman Empire was plagued
with financial problems — inflation, devaluation of currency,
increased competition from Europe. These problems resulted
in the impoverishment of many residents in the Ottoman do­
mains, including large numbers of Jews. Wealth and prosperity
were the blessings of a privileged few; the masses were com­
pelled to work long and hard just to eke out a living.
Although there still existed an active and creative intellectual
elite, the masses of Jews did not have the luxury of devoting
many years to academic study. Their knowledge of Hebrew de­
clined, thus closing off to them the classic sources of Jewish
religious and intellectual life. While they were generally observ­
ant and pious people, they had relatively little literature avail­
able in their vernacular — Judeo-Spanish — to guide them.
Consequently, their knowledge of Judaism and the universe be­
came narrower. It should be remembered that the Judeo-
Spanish-speaking world at that time was large; it included the
Jews of Turkey, the Balkan countries and much of Greece, most
of the Jews in Eretz Israel, communities in North Africa, the
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