from Pathway to Jerusalem (translator).
A Letter of R. Obadiah Yerei of Bartinura, from Jerusalem to his father
You are my strength, and you give my life its meaning. But now I weep in sadness, because I abandoned you in your old age. Dear father, dear father, when I recall that I left you now that you are growing old, my eyes overflow with tears.
But it was God's will that I should go on my way. And even though I cannot stand before you and serve you, I can still show you honor here from the land of Israel. You had written to me a year ago, when I was in Naples, that you wanted me to write to you and tell you about all the Jewish communities that I visited on my way to the land of Israel. In this way, at least, I will be able to "make good-tasting things for you, as you have loved" (Gen. 27:4).
When I concluded my affairs in Citta di Castello on the first day of Kislev (5246; November 9, 1485), I traveled through Rome and arrived in Naples on the twelfth. I stayed in Naples for many days, because I wasn't able to find good passage. I went to Salerno and taught for about four months without pay, and then I returned to Naples.
Finally, on the fast day of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, 5247 (July 8, 1487), I left Naples on a large, fine ship belonging to Monsieur Blanche. Including me, there were nine Jews on board. We stayed at sea for a full five days, because there was no wind, before we arrived in Palermo.
Palermo is the capital of Sicily. In 1492 and 1493, all the Jews--a total of about 37,000--were expelled. This was in connection with the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Since then, there has been no Jewish community to speak of in Sicily. About eight hundred Jewish families live there, all together on one street in the best part of the land. They are very poor, however. They are mostly craftsmen, such as coppersmiths, ironworkers and porters, and they also work in the fields.
The gentiles despise the Jews, because they wear torn, ragged clothes. They are downtrodden in many ways. They are forced to wear a red cloth badge, about the size of a golden dinar, on their breasts. They have to pay a very high royal tax. Whenever the king has a project, such as drawing ships to dry land or constructing dikes, he drafts the Jews to do the work. And finally, if the courts sentence someone to be tortured or killed, the Jews are forced to carry out the sentence.
As for the nature of the Jews here, they are quite lax about informing on one another. They daily inform on each other in public, without shame. When someone hates his neighbor, he concocts a false accusation. And when a fabrication is proven false, nothing happens to the informer, because that is the law of the land.
The Jews are also lenient regarding the laws of nidah [menstrual laws]. Most women are with child when they get married.
However, the Jews here are very strict about gentile wine. I will give you an example of something I saw. A Jew was hired by a gentile to transport wine for him, and the other Jews fined him his salary. Not only that, but they said that if not for the fact that he had acted unwittingly, they would have excommunicated him.
The synagogue in Palermo has no equal in the entire world, even among gentile buildings. There are two courtyards outside the synagogue, one leading into the other. The outer courtyard is lined with stone pillars on which vines grow. These vines are incredibly large. I measured one and found it to be five finger-lengths thick. Stone steps lead down from the outer courtyard to the inner yard. This inner yard is enclosed on four sides by a portico. In the portico are large seats. These are for the use of the men who, for whatever reason, do not want to enter the synagogue. There is a very handsome well in this courtyard.
The synagogue is square, measuring forty by forty amah [cubits]. Against its eastern side stands a heichal [literally, "palace"], which is a beautiful, domed building made of stone. The Torah scrolls aren't placed in an ark, as in our land, but in this heichal, on top of a wooden board. The scrolls are wrapped in mantles and adorned with crowns, and silver and crystal pomegranates rest on top of the staves. I was told that the silver and crystal, together with the golden embroidery, are today worth four thousand gold pieces.
The heichal has two doors, one on the south side, and one on the north. Two respected men are in charge of opening and closing these doors.
In the middle of the synagogue is a wooden platform, the teivah, from which the cantors pray. Palermo has five paid cantors, who pray on the Sabbaths and holidays in pleasant voices and tunes. I didn't see their equal in any of the lands that I passed through. On weekdays, few Jews come to the synagogue.
The synagogue is surrounded by many rooms, like the chambers that surrounded the Temple. Some of these are bedrooms for sick people or foreign visitors who have no place to stay. One room has a mikveh [ritual bath]. Another room, which is large and handsome, is used by the appointed community officials for their meetings. There are twelve such officials, who are appointed annually by the community. These officials are authorized by the king to impose taxes and to fine and imprison people.
Unfortunately, this system has been vulnerable to corruption. Some unscrupulous men bribed the governor to appoint them, and then they gave him all the income from the synagogue and community that they controlled in order to retain their positions and do whatever they wanted. Then they started to oppress the people, and they have caused great suffering to the poor, to the point that "the cry of the city rises to the heavens" (Sam. I 5:12).
When a person dies in Palermo, his coffin is brought into the courtyard outside the synagogue, where the cantors eulogize him. If he was an important person--in particular, if he was a Torah scholar--his coffin is brought into the synagogue. A Torah scroll is placed on one of the corners of the teivah, and the coffin is placed below the teivah, next to the scroll. The person is eulogized, and then the ceremony is repeated three more times, with the scroll and coffin being placed at each corner of the teivah. Then the coffin is taken outside the city for burial. When the mourners reach the town entrance, the cantors begin reciting loudly, "Hear this, all the nations" (Ps. 49). They recite the entire psalm, and other psalms as well, in loud voices, until they reach the cemetery.
I also saw another interesting custom. After maariv [evening prayers] on the eves of Yom Kippur and Hoshanah Rabbah, the two men in charge of the heichal opened its doors and remained there the entire night. Women entered by family. They bowed and kissed the Torah scrolls, coming in through one entrance and leaving through the other. This went on the entire night, until daybreak.
The Jews of Palermo have many customs that differ from ours. They read the entire Sh'ma [Confession of faith in God's unity] in a loud voice (this is also the custom in Egypt and the land of Israel). On Yom Kippur, the prayer leader doesn't interrupt the prayer to say selichot [penitential prayers, but instead says selichot only after having finished his own prayer. Also, the people fall on their faces during each prayer on Yom Kippur. On Tisha B'av, they say "And He passed" even more than we do on Yom Kippur. And on Simchat Torah, they do so many different things that it would tire me out to write them all.
Town in northern Italy.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, situated to the southwest of Italy. Jews lived in Sicily from the time of Chazal.
Apparently, the Jews of Palermo prohibited even financial gain from gentile wine.
I.e., his repetition of the Amidah.
Not only during the musaf prayer.
The recital of God's thirteen traits of compassion.