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Samuel ha-Levi

10/02/2018 08:01:00 PM


Dr. Mariana Montiel

Samuel ha-Levi, the protagonist of this story, is believed to have been born in Toledo around 1320
to the family ha Leví Abulafía.

In 1351 Samuel ha Levi Abulafia began to serve in the court of King Peter (“the cruel” for some historians and “the just” for others!), where he eventually exercised a tremendous influence. During this time he reorganized the King’s finances, given that the tax collectors had kept a good amount for themselves and had taken advantage during the first years of King Peter’s reign (he was very young and inexperienced when he inherited the throne). Samuel investigated the activities of these agents and forced them to return the money stolen from the royal treasury.

In 1353, the King wrote that Samuel ha Leví was his “dearest treasure”. As King Peter ́s court did not have a fixed location, Samuel kept the royal treasure in his own home. In 1354, the Jewish quarter of Toledo was attacked and the King ́s treasure fell into enemies’ hands.

The King found himself in a very difficult position, even his own mother plotted against him. He fell into a trap in the town of Toro (in the province of Zamora) where his enemies proposed negotiations as a pretext to get him to travel there. Samuel ha Levi accompanied him and, when the King was taken prisoner, Samuel used his abilities to weaken the already precarious coalition of ambitious noblemen and women. Ha Levi helped King Pedro escape and, a few months later, he played a key role in reconquering Toledo from their enemies. The Jews of Toledo, who had suffered a pogrom the previous year in the hands of King Pedro ́s enemies played a key role in retaking the city. In general, King Pedro was a friend of the Jews and the emerging bourgeoisie, while the traditional noble class saw him as an enemy.

Samuel ha Levi did not only take care of the royal finances. He also played a role in the justice system where, together with a Christian judge, he presided over the royal tribune that decided if the Bishop of Cordova should pay taxes. He also carried out diplomatic functions in the negotiation of the Evora treaty with Portugal in 1358.

Samuel ha Levi became so influential that the King ignored certain legalities in order to please him. There was an ecclesiastical prohibition to construct new synagogues; however, between 1357 and 1358 Samuel ha Levi constructed the famous Synagogue of El Tránsito. Indeed, Samuel ha Levi is remembered, above all his other achievements, as the founder of this Synagogue in Toledo. Samuel ha-Levi also occupied a mansion in Toledo, which is still known as Palacio del Judío ("Jew's Palace"). Several synagogues, apart from the Synagogue of El Tránsito, were built at his expense in various parts of Castile.

The writings on the walls of the Synagogue of El Tránsito praise King Peter and acclaim Samuel himself. For example “The great King Peter our lord and master, may G-d help to increase your strength and glory..” or “the king of Castile has magnified and exalted Samuel Levi; he has raised his throne above all the princes who accompany him ... without his approval, no one can move an inch...”

Samuel ha Levi became an important protector of the Jewish community in Toledo and beyond. The King not only confided in his financial capacities, but he was named High CourtJudge (Oidor de la Audiencia), a key position in the justice system. However, this unabashed rupture with the Church ́s law made him an easy object of the intrigues on the part of other members of King Pedro ́s council. Around 1361 Samuel ha Levi was accused of robbing the royal treasury. King Pedro was led to believe the accusations and Samuel was made prisoner, with his family, and taken to a dungeon in Seville, where he was processed for treason.

The ha Levi mansion was searched and in the vast basement there was a great treasure. However, Samuel ha Levi maintained that he had not appropriated this gold and silver, that he was just guarding it for the King. However, his prosecutors insisted that there was even more than they had found and he was tortured, so to get him to confess. Ha Levi resisted until his death, and some say that it was caused, more than by the torture itself, by the deaf ears to his claims of loyalty to his King.

Now we will continue with the saga of doña Gracia Nasi, “la Señora”. We left off when Gracia and her daughter Reyna were freed from prison in Venice, due to the intervention of Suleiman the Magnificent, spurred on by his Jewish physician Moshe Haman. Instead of going to the Ottoman Empire, Gracia and Reyna went to Ferrara, where the Jewish community was composed entirely of Sephardim. This thriving Jewish community had, as benefactors, families such as the Abravanels, the Modena and, with the arrival of Gracia, the Nasi. These patrons and philanthropists opened their houses and their collections of Jewish books and manuscripts to scholars and rabbis.

While in Ferrara, Gracia Nasi sponsored charity work in the Jewish community and even helped non-Jewish artists such as Miguel Angel and Tiziano! In 1553, two rabbis, Abraam Usque and Yom Tov Athias, were in charge of the first translation of the Torah to Ladino, the famous “Bible of Ferrara”. In the introduction the Rabbis thanked Gracia Nasi for her support, and they dedicated the version for the Jewish people to her.

During that same year, 1553, Gracia and Reyna decided to move to the Ottoman Empire, accepting the recurring invitation of Suleiman the Magnificent. She came to be known by theJews of Constantinople as Ha-giveret  (the crowned woman) or just “la Seniora”. There is a synagogue in Izmir, that exists to this day, called “La Seniora” or Ha-giveret.

Once in the Ottoman Empire Gracia Nasi left the administration of her shipping business and the Mendes Bank in the hands of her nephew and son-in-law Yosef Nasi, dedicating her time to the rescue and relocation of the Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal, the Anusim who were returning to the faith of their fathers.

The majority of Sephardim relocated in Salonica (Thessaloniki), an important port city that eventually came to have the largest percentage of Jewish residents of any city of the Diaspora in the world. Gracia Nasi founded a textile factory and made sure that there was always work in the port activities. She also founded a Talmud Torah which eventually counted con 10,000 students and 200 teachers, as well as a Yeshiva led by Rabbi Shmuel Moshe de Medina (RaShDam), one of the most brilliant minds of the time.

We will continue with the saga of Gracia Nasi in the next article, where we will follow her to Ancona and to Eretz Israel.

Fri, July 19 2024 13 Tammuz 5784