Salonica was a Greek town built by Alexander the Great’s general, Kassandra. He named it after his wife, Thessaloniki, one of Alexander’s sisters.
Jews were attracted to Salonica because it stood at the crossroads of the Balkan States (Northern Greece, Romania, Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria) and had a famous harbor built by Constantine the Great in the fourth century CE.
When did the Jews arrive? Some claim that King Ptolemy of Egypt sent Jewish artisans to help Kassandra build the city, while other historians record that Jews arrived when they were exiled throughout the Roman Empire.
Salonica is famous as the city where the docks closed every Shabbos. Why was the harbor paralyzed every time its Jewish stevedores took their day of rest?
The jobs of cosmopolitan Salonica were divided on ethnic lines for centuries. Turks, for example, typically filled government and army posts, while construction was done by Christians; Albanians made yoghurt and halva, Greeks were almost everything except craftsmen and farmers, and Bulgarians generally tilled the soil. Jews were salesmen of clothing and junk, and also comprised the town’s huge army of porters and stevedores.
On top of that, there were centuries when Jews comprised the majority of Salonica’s population and so the entire town closed down for the Jewish day of rest.
THIRTY JEWISH COMMUNITIES
The first written record of the Jews’ presence in Salonica is a report of the hot reception given to an early Christian who arrived there to spread his poisonous beliefs in about 3810/50. Cunningly concealing his false beliefs, the man spoke in shul for three weeks and ensnared a few souls before the Jews realized that he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing and hounded him out of town. Two shuls from that ancient era survived until 5677/1917.
One of the early Salonican gedolim
was Rav Tuviah ben Eliezer who authored Medrash Lekach Tov (Pesikta Zutrasa). In 4856/1096, Rav Tuviah reported that many Salonican Jews were so convinced that the Crusaders’ capture of Eretz Yisroel was a prelude to Moshiach’s coming that they hastily sold their homes and also repented with fasts and mortifications.
Over the centuries, Salonica became a patchwork of different kehillos, each with their own customs. The original Jews were called “Romaniotes,” Greek-speaking Jews who lived there since the days of the Roman Empire. During the fifteenth century, the old community was swamped with an influx of Ashkenazi Jews fleeing persecution in Hungary and Germany, and other Jews from France, Italy and Sicily. In turn, these Jews created separate kehillos that spoke Yiddish and preserved their own customs.
Then the community was overwhelmed by the arrival of about twenty thousand Spanish exiles when many of the 250,000 Jews thrown out of Spain in 5252/1492 spread throughout the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Turkish Sultan, Vahazit II, reputedly said concerning this, “They say that Ferdinand [of Spain] is a wise king. But is this the way [a wise king] acts, to impoverish his land and enrich mine?”
The new arrivals swamped the old Romaniote and Ashkenazi communities and supplanted Greek with Ladino, a mix of old Spanish, Turkish, Greek and Hebrew. Each new group created its own kehillah, named after their old Spanish homes in Lisbon, Aragon, Sicily or elsewhere, and each kehillah stuck tenaciously to its unique minhagim. By the end of the century, Salonica had thirty separate communities.
This gave rise to a lively debate about how to apply the Gemara’s principle of “Lo tisgodedu” that ostensibly proscribes having disparate minhagim in one town.
“In Salonica… each tongue established its own kehillah,” the Mahari Ben Lev wrote in his discussion of this shaylah. “No one leaves or joins another kehillah. Each kehillah supports its own poor, each one appears separately in the king’s records, and it is as if each kehillah is a town to itself.”
Another halachic issue arose soon afterwards, in 5274/1514, when hundreds of Marranos fled from Spain and settled in Salonica. Had their Judaism been impugned? Could their children marry cohanim? Many poskim were lenient in these issues. Another novel psak of the time was that, after a Marrano died, his inheritance was not sent to his Marrano heirs back in Spain and Portugal.
Ottoman archives record that by 5279/1519, the town had about 6,870 Moslems and 6,635 Christians, while about 15,715 Jews lived in its sixteen neighborhoods. A few centuries earlier, the Jews had only numbered about five hundred. For the next two centuries, it was rare for a ship to dock at Salonica without disembarking at least, a few more Jews and, to prevent the proliferation of even more kehillos, newcomers were divided by lot amongst the existing kehillos.
A MAKOM TORAH
Many of Salonica’s communities supported yeshivos and hundreds of talmidim came to Salonica from all over the Balkans.
“My father brought me to the house of aged wine,” one talmid wrote, “the remnants of the yeshivos of our illustrious leaders, the best of the best of Spain that came to Salonica.”
One of Salonica’s great roshei yeshivah was the famed Rav Yaakov ibn Chaviv. Its famous poskim included Rav Yitzchak Adarbi, author of Divrei Rivos and Divrei Shalom, Rav Moshe Almosnino, Rav Shmuel di Medina (the “Rashdam”), Rav Chaim Shabetai, author of Toras HaChaim, Rav Aharon Cohen Perachyah, author of Porach Mateh Aharon and Rav David Conforte, author of Kore HaDoros.
The town’s batei din had such a famous reputation that Moslems and Greeks preferred to settle their disputes against Jews in those courts rather than the Turkish courts that were infamous for bribery and corruption.
Salonica also was also renowned as a center for the study of Kabbalah. Rav Yosef Karo met the great kabbalist, Rav Yosef Taitatzak, when he passed through, and Salonica was the birthplace of Rav Shlomo Alkavetz, the composer of “Lechah Dodi”.
Salonican merchants could make fortunes if they were willing to risk being captured by the pirates and bandits who infested the trade routes. These robbers included Christian monks who considered it a good deed to murder Jews. In 5343/1583, for example, the monks of Mount Athos murdered fifty- three Jewish merchants and plundered their goods. The problem became so widespread that a special “pidyon shevuyim” organization was established in Venice to redeem Jewish captives of Mediterranean pirates.
SHABSI TZVI AND THE DONMEH SECT
Salonica was one of the first towns to not be taken in by the delusions of the infamouse false messiah, Shabsi Tzvi. After his arrival there in 5417/1657, he entranced its Jews for a short while with his exciting drashos and feigned piety. But he revealed his true colors on Shavuos when the Aron Kodesh was opened and the chazan began singing the piyut, “Yarad dodi legano”, that compares the Torah to Israel’s bride. Clutching a sefer Torah in his hand, Shabtai Tzvi intoned Hashem’s explicit name and declared that he was marrying the Torah and, when he was accused of making a chilul Hashem, he replied that as Moshiach his actions were permitted.
The rabbis of the town unanimously threw Shabsi Tzvi out of town and decreed a day of fasting. Nevertheless, the town suffered from his influence until the twentieth century. A decade after the Moslems forced him to convert in 5426/1666, Shabtai Tzvi wrote to a distinguished Salonican Jew, Rav Yosef Philisoph, asking for his daughter in marriage. After a violent communal quarrel, Rav Yosef sent her away with his son, claiming, “I know what I’m doing. The matter has been decided by Hashem.”
Shabsi Tzvi passed away the following year but, seventeen years later, in 5443/1683, three hundred Salonican families converted and created a peculiar society of Judeo-Moslems, known as the Donmeh (Turkish for apikorsim). The person responsible for this nonsense was Yaakov, the son of Rav Yosef Philisoph, who claimed that Shabsi Tzvi’s soul was reincarnated inside his body. As strange as this sounds, other people later made the same claim.
The motto of the new sect was “Be a Turk in the street and a ‘believer’ in one’s house,” and their Torah observance was a hodgepodge. They kept the mitzvah of bris milah and were particular to marry only on Mondays and Thursdays, while casting aside major mitzvos, like Shabbos and kashrus. Ironically, they initially brought their shaylos to the rabbanim of the town and their “rabbis” studied Zohar.
Salonica remained the Donmeh sect’s main headquarters for over two centuries and attracted adherents from all over the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the nineteenth century, the sect was split into three factions with about ten thousand adherents. They finally lost their importance at the start of the twentieth century when Salonica became part of Greece and made a population exchange with Turkey. Considered as Turks, the assimilated Donmeh Jews were scattered throughout the Turkish Empire.
Paradoxically, the hostility of the Donmeh Jews led to the unification of the town’s diverse communities and, in 5440/1680, they united under a single council of three rabbis and seven laymen. It took another two centuries until the three chief rabbis were replaced by the Chacham Bashi (chief rabbi), Rav Yaakov Kovo, in 5647/1887.
THREE MASSIVE BLOWS
At the start of the twentieth century, Salonica suffered three massive blows.
In 5672/1912, Salonica reunited with Greece after four hundred and fifty years of Turkish rule. By the late 5690s/1930s, Greek had supplanted Ladino in the city’s streets and Sunday was the only official day of rest. Vast sections of the ancient Jewish cemetery were confiscated for urban development. The Jewish stevedores were thrown out of the harbor.
Another tragedy was the great fire of 5687/1917, started when a refugee woman’s paraffin stove overturned. 53,737 Jews were left homeless and almost all the town’s shuls and communal buildings burned to the ground.
A third tragedy was caused by the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey. Greek refugees began pouring in and Greek nationalism reached its peak while ultra-right Greeks aroused such intense anti-Semitism that it culminated in the Campbell arson of 5691/1931.
This was sparked off when the Maccabi sports organization of Bulgaria celebrated its fiftieth anniversary and invited Yitzchok Cohen, a member of the Salonican Maccabi, to attend. During the festivities, Yitzchok Cohen attended a nationalistic Bulgarian forum where it was enthusiastically resolved that Macedonia should be detached from Greece and annexed to Bulgaria.
Ayear later, the E.E.E. (Ethniki Enosis Ellados – The National Association of Greece) raked up this incident as proof of the Jew’s perfidy and incinerated the entire Jewish neighborhood of Campbell. In addition, Athens became the new center of national and economic life and, by World War II, the Jewish community had shrunk from its highest population level of 75,000 at the turn of the century to 56,000.
The final end came when the German army marched into Salonica on April 9, 5701/1941. By the time they left, ninety-six percent of the Jews had been massacred and, today, the Jewish population of the once glorious community numbers less than a thousand.