The Ottoman Empire

How Jews lived under the Turks.

Print this page Print this page

After the conquest of Constantinople, Muhammad II, wishing to aggrandize the city and make it into a capital befitting a great empire, brought into it many people from the provinces. This migration affected the Jewish community and changed the character it had acquired during the Byzantine period.

The economic and religious situation was indeed ameliorated; but many of the older Romaniot congregations disappeared, their memory preserved only in the names of several synagoguesin Istanbul. The congregations which replaced them in the capital as well as in Salonika or in Tiriya in western Anatolia, were purely Spanish.

Within the communities, the congregations were organized according to the geographic origin of their members. Grouped around synagogues, the Jewish organizations provided all the religious, legal, educational, and social services, thus creating an almost autonomous society. Until the end of the sixteenth century, these institutions were very flexible, allowing significant mobility within them. The geographic origin of its members soon lost its importance, and the development of the congregation was determined by power struggles between rich individuals or groups with conflicting interests.

Throughout the sixteenth century, the Jews in the Ottoman Empire enjoyed remarkable prosperity. The empire was rapidly expanding, and economic demand rose accordingly. Thus the Jewish population could easily enter into trade with Christian Europe, and into industries such as wool weaving which were only then beginning to evolve. Under the leadership of figures like Don Joseph Nasi and Solomon ibn Yaish, they could take advantage of their world‑wide network of family connections and their knowledge of European affairs in order to promote the concerns of the Sublime Porte, as well as to protect their personal interests and those of their community.

This was also a time of cultural blossoming: Hebrew Law was enriched by Joseph Caro's Shulchan Arukh (the "Prepared Table") which was to become the authoritative code for the entire Jewish nation, while from Safed in Palestine emerged the Lurianic Kabbalah of Ha-Ari, one of the most influential trends in Jewish mysticism. It seems that these communities of exiles, suddenly liberated from the danger of extinction, could give expression to an outburst of cultural forces which had been stifled by centuries of persecution.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University