03 May 2024

The Delmedigo family
in Iraklion and Jewish
intellectual life in
Venetian-ruled Crete

The Venetian harbour in Iraklion … the old Jewish quarter in Iraklion was beside the seafront and within the Venetian outer walls of Candia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

When I was in Crete a week or two ago, I went searching once again for the possible location of the Jewish community in Rethymnon, when it was a Venetian-rule city, and also recalled the story of the Capsali family, one of the principal, influential Jewish families in the mediaeval Rethymnon and Iraklion.

The records of the Jewish community in Crete, which extend from 1228 to 1583, show a remarkably stable elite of families with names such as Capsali, Casani and Delmedigo, who were dominant in Jewish life in Crete for five or six centuries.

An early Jewish community in Gortyn, on the south coast of Crete, is referred to in I Maccabees 15: 23, dating that community to ca 142 BCE, when Gortyn was the most prosperous city in Crete. Evidence for a Jewish community on Crete at that time is also seen in inscriptions from the third and second centuries BCE from an ancient synagogue on the island of Delos that honour two Jewish citizens of the Iraklion and Knossos areas on Crete.

After Constantinople was sacked in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, Crete became a Venetian colony, with Iraklion, also known as Candia, as the island’s capital. The Jewish population in Venetian-rule Crete grew significantly in the 14th and 15th centuries, boosted by the arrival of Sephardi Jews from the Iberian Peninsula following the expulsions in 1391, then with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and again after the Spanish expulsions in 1492.

These and other families were absorbed into the local Romaniote communities in Crete, with the adoption of the local language, culture and religious customs, along with intermarriage.

On 25 August Street, a pedestrianised street leading down to the harbour in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The old Jewish quarter in Iraklion was right beside the seafront and within the Venetian outer walls of ancient Candia. The perimeter of the area is delimited today by Sofokli Venizelou, Archiepiskopou Makariou, and Giamalki streets. At one time, there were four synagogues in the district. The synagogue on Giamalki street was still active at the start of World War II when it was bombed. The former Hotel Xenia was later built on its ruins.

Several Venetian houses in the area were inhabited by Jewish families, including the building housing the Historical Museum. Two sculptures in its heraldic collection depict two crowned lions with sabres, symbols of the Sephardic Saltiel and Franco families.

The family of Delmedigo (Del Medico) was one of the wealthiest and most learned Jewish families in Candia. The family is said to be of German descent. At the end of the 14th century, it is said, Judah Delmedigo, emigrated to Crete, where many of the Jewish residents were of German rather than Romaniote origin. However, recent research suggests the Delmedigo family was in Crete from the beginning of the 14th century, and some family genealogists say the story of German origins is ‘Ashkenazi myth-making.’

The forms of the surname include Delmedigo, Del Medico, Del Medigo, Del Medego and Della Medega. All are related to the medical profession practised by one of the family’s ancestors, perhaps even by several family members, a popular profession among Jews in mediaeval Europe.

The latest research traces the Delmedigo family back to Elia del Medico da Negroponte, who was living in Crete in the early 14th century. In the late Middle Ages, many members of the family adopted the additional surname Cretensis, indicating the family’s deep roots on the island of the Crete.

The remains of the Venetian bastion on the shoreline in Iráklion … the city was fortified by the Venetians with walls, gates, arsenal, bastion, and fortress (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Elia del Medico da Negroponte was the father of Jecuda or Jehuda Delmedigo de Candia who was living in Candia or Iraklion ca 1340. Other early members of the family included Abba ha-Zaḳen Delmedigo de Candia, Elkanah Delmedigo de Candia, Samuel Delmedigo de Candia and Samuel Menahem Delmedigo de Candia, who lived in Crete and Padua.

Jehuda Delmedigo de Candia was the father of three sons:

1, Abba ha-Zaḳen I Delmedigo.
2, Mejuhas, who had no children.
3, Shemariah Delmedigo Cretensis.

The youngest son, Shemariah Delmedigo Cretensis, wrote a philosophical work, Heber Ish we-Ishto, and many treatises. His descendants included Moses Delmedigo, a philosopher, Judah Delmedigo, a rabbi, and Rachel Delmedigo, who married Joseph Comtino of Constantinople.

The eldest son of Jehuda Delmedigo de Candia, Abba ha-Zaḳen I Delmedigo, built a synagogue at his own expense and was the father of three sons: Elijah, Moses and Elkanah. They were all Talmudists, and with other rabbis they defended ‘with flaming swords’ Moses Capsali, also from Crete, against the charges of Joseph Colon.

Elijah Delmedigo (1458-1493) was born in Iraklion … he is known mainly for his treatise ‘Beḥinat ha-Dat’

Elijah Delmedigo (1458-1493) was born in Iraklion and is one of the most representative Jewish philosophers of the Italian Renaissance. He is also known as Elia del Medigo or Elias ben Moise del Medigo and was sometimes known among his contemporaries as Helias Hebreus Cretensis or in Hebrew Elijah Mi-Qandia, indicating his birth in Candia. Delmedigo is known mainly for his short treatise Beḥinat ha-Dat (‘The Examination of Religion’), a philosophical-religious work that influenced Spinoza and others. In it he reinterpreted some of the key issues in Averroes’ Decisive Treatise in the light of Jewish context.

Delmedigo had a traditional Jewish religious upbringing in Candia. He studied rabbinic learning, philosophy, Italian, Greek, Latin and Hebrew.

He probably went to Padua with the original intention to study medicine. The university in Padua was also the most important centre for traditional Aristotelian philosophy in Italy.

The entrance to the Italian Synagogue on Via San Martino e Solferino in Padua … Elijah Delmedigo studied in Padua (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

By 1480, Delmedigo was in Venice, where he wrote Quaestio utrum mundus sit effectus. There he supported himself by teaching Aristotelian philosophy to the sons of wealthy and influential families. He moved to Perugia, where he taught classes ‘radical Aristotelianism’, heavily interpreted with the ideas of Averroes and Islamic commentators.

In Perugia, Delmedigo met Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. For five years, from 1481 to 1486, Delmedigo was one of Pico’s Jewish associates and was involved in Pico’s work in Aristotelian and Averroistic philosophy. He also translated manuscripts from Hebrew into Latin for Pico in Florence.

Delmedigo saw himself as a follower of Maimonides. But, according to many scholars, he was a follower of Averroes, even in his more radical ideas such as the unity of intellect, eternity of the world, autonomy of reason from the boundaries of revealed religion, and he is remembered for a number of translations and commentaries on Averroes.

Delmedigo influenced many Italian Platonists of the early Renaissance. His students included the Venetian theologian Cardinal Domenico Grimani (1461-1523), who encouraged Delmedigo to write several manuscripts that were read widely among Italian philosophers.

Delmedigo was no Kabbalist, and he became increasingly disenchanted with the syncretic direction Pico and his colleagues were taking, and their tendency to combine concepts of magic, hermeticism and Kabbalah with Plato and Neoplatonism. Delmedigo was discredited himself by the backlash following Pico’s imprisonment and the Vatican interdict on his ‘900 Theses’.

There were further tensions between Delmedigo and the Italian Jewish community over his secular intellectual interests and his associations with gentile scholars. He suffered financial difficulties when Pico lost favour.

Delmedigo decided to leave Italy and return to Crete, and he spent the rest of his life in Iraklion. Back in Crete, he returned to Jewish thought, writing the Sefer Bechinat Ha-dath, in which he clarified his disagreement with the magical and Kabbalistic theories that inspired Pico. He expounded his belief that a human being cannot aspire to become a god, and that Judaism requires that a man must ‘fight for rationality, sobriety and the realization of [his] human limitations.’

Delmedigo argued against the antiquity of the Kabbalah, noting that it was not known to the sages of the Talmud, to the geonim, or to Rashi. He also denies that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was the author of the Zohar, and attacks esoteric allegorists among Jewish philosophers. Delmedigo also discusses the intellectual reasoning underlying the commandments of Torah (ta’amei ha-mitzvot).

Elijah Delmedigo died in Iraklion in 1493. His treatise on Jewish philosophy, Sefer Beḥinat ha-Dat (‘The Examination of Religion’), was published many years after his death, in 1629.

Behinat ha-Dat by Elijah Ben Moses Abba Delmedigo (Vienna, 1833)

Elijah Delmedigo’s brother Elkanah Delmedigo, was the father of Samuel Delmedigo, also a rabbi. He in turn was the father of a posthumous son Samuel Menahem, who was a physician, the teacher of philosophy, and the head of a yeshivah in Padua. When he was captured as a prisoner of war, he was ransomed by his fellow Jews in Crete and was recalled to Iraklion (Candia) as rabbi.

His son, Abba (II) Delmedigo, was the father of Eliezer Delmedigo, who presided over a Talmudic school for many years, and was a zealous opponent of the Kabbalah.

He, in turn, was the father of Elijah Delmedigo was also a Talmudist and was his father’s successor as rabbi in Iraklion. He married his distant cousin Casta, a daughter of Joseph Comtino of Constantinople, and they were the parents of Joseph Solomon Delmedigo (1591-1655), the most illustrious member of the family. He was a famous rabbi, philosopher, author, physician, mathematician and music theorist – and also a staunch defender of the Kabbalah.

Joseph Solomon Delmedigo was the author of the important Hebrew scientific book, the Sepher Elim, published in Amsterdam in 1628-1629

Joseph Solomon Delmedigo (or Del Medigo), or Yosef Shlomo Rofe Delmedigo, could be called a true ‘Renaissance rabbi.’ He was also known as Yashar Mi-Qandia (יש"ר מקנדיא), and was born in Candia or Iraklion on 16 June 1591. He moved to Padua, where he studied medicine and attended lectures by Galileo Galilei in the academic year 1609-1610, when he had the rare privilege of using Galileo’s own telescope.

He later refers to Galilei as ‘rabbi Galileo,’ an ambiguous phrase that may simply mean ‘my master, Galileo’, as he never calls him ‘our teacher and master, Rabbi Galileo,’ then the typical way of referring to an actual rabbi. Elijah Montalto, physician of Maria de Medici, is also mentioned as one of his teachers.

After graduating in 1613, he moved to Venice and spent a year working with Leon de Modena and Simone Luzzatto.

From Venice, Delmedigo returned to Iraklion, and from there he started travelling in the Middle East, visiting Alexandria, Cairo and Istanbul, where he observed the comet of 1619. From Istanbul, he wandered among the Karaite communities in Eastern Europe, before arriving at Amsterdam in 1623.

Wherever he lived, he earned his living as a physician or as a teacher. His only known works are Elim (Palms), dealing with mathematics, astronomy, the natural sciences, and metaphysics, as well as some letters and essays.

Elim, published by Menasseh ben Israel in Amsterdam in 1629, is written in Hebrew in response to 12 general and 70 specific religious and scientific questions sent to Delmedigo by a Karaite Jew, Zerach ben Natan from Troki in Lithuania. The format of the book is taken from the number of fountains and palm trees at Elim in the Sinai Peninsula (see Numbers 33: 9), There were 12 fountains and 70 palm trees at Elim, so Delmedigo divided his book into 12 major problems and 70 minor problems. The subjects discussed include astronomy, physics, mathematics, medicine, and music theory.

Delmedigo argued that Jews did not take part in the Scientific Revolution because of Ashkenazi exclusive intellectual interest in the Talmud, and called on Jews to reclaim their prominence in philosophy and to incorporate into the non-Jewish surrounding through the exploration of natural sciences.

He also wrote a defence of the Kabbalah, Matzreif LaChachma (מצרף לחכמה), countering the attack on Kabbalah by his great-grandfather Eliyahu Delmedigo.

Joseph Solomon Delmedigo finally settled in Prague, where he died on 16 October 1655. His two daughters were born in Frankfort-on-the-Main, and his surviving daughter Sarah married the physician Solomon Bing, and after his death (1680) Isai Oppenheim, who died in 1691. Some of Delmedigo’s descendants settled in Belarus, and assumed the surname Gorodinsky, after the town of Gorodin.

Looking across Iraklion towards the sea … at one time, there were four synagogues in the Jewish district (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Shabbat Shalom

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