26 April 2024

The Capsali family:
generations of
rabbis and scholars
for 300 years in Crete

The name of Kapsali Street, off Tombazi Street in Crete, evokes memories of the Capsali family, one of the leading Jewish families in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

I searched without results in Rethymnon over the past week for any signs or remains of the Jewish quarter in the town. 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.

Kapsali Street, off Tombazi Street, is just three minutes walk from where I was staying, and the name of the street evokes memories of the Capsali family, one of the leading Jewish families in Rethymnon.

The Capsali family were a distinguished Romaniote family of scholars in Crete, Venice and Constantinople in the 15th and 16th centuries. They took their family name from Capsali, a village in the southern part of the Greek island of Kythira. Members of the Capsali family served as constables (condestabile) and heads of the Jewish community in Crete on several occasions, and they included a number of distinguished rabbis and scholars known for their work in the Torah and the Talmud and as historians and philosophers.

By 1320, the Jewish community in Rethymnon lived in the old burgus or suburb, outside the Byzantine city. Sabateus Capsali, the Jewish owner of several houses abutting the walls of the suburb, was then authorised to open windows in this wall by Pietro Bragadin, the rector or governor of Rethymnon.

Some time later, two Jews were granted vacant land on the other side of the wall, in parte exterior dicti burgi … extra burgum, and allowed to build houses. Later they received permission to build the houses along the wall where Capsali had opened the windows.

References in documents in 1328 to Parnas Capsali ben Solomon ben Joseph indicate, perhaps, that by the early 14th century the Capsali family had been living in Crete for at least three generations.

By the 15th century, the Jewish population of Crete was estimated at 1,160. From that time on, the Capsali family included leading rabbis such as Moses ben Elijah Capsali (1420-1495), Elijah Capsali (ca 1483-1555) and Elkanah Capsali. Moses Capsali became Hakham Bashi or Chief Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire, while Elijah Capsali later wrote histories of Crete and Venice.

Elijah Capsali, who was living in Crete in the early 15th century, was the father of two distinguished sons Moses and David Capsali, a distinguished grandson Elkanah Capsali, and a learned great-grandson Elijah Capsali.

Moses ben Elijah Capsali (1420-1495) was the Chief Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. He born in Crete in 1420 and as a young man left Iraklion to study in Germany. He is next mentioned as a rabbi in Constantinople ca 1450. He rose to prominence during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II, who appointed him Chief Rabbi and gave him seat in the divan or Ottoman court beside the mufti, the Muslim religious leader, and above the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople.

The sultan’s respect for the rabbi is said to have come about when, disguised as a civilian, Mehmed II was present one day while Capsali was rendering his decisions. He was assured himself that the rabbi was incorruptible and impartial in his judgments. It is said the rabbi prompted the sultan’s plans improve the moral conditions of some parts of Constantinople.

Capsali dealt very severely with Jewish youths who imitated the un-Jewish and immoral lifestyles of the janissaries lives. Some of these youths, enraged by the corporal punishment Capsali inflicted on them, attempted to kill him during a street riot in 1481, but he escaped by fleeing.

Capsali was equally influential at the court of Sultan Bayezid II, Mehmed II’s son and successor. This resulted in the ready reception of Jewish exiles who had been expelled from Spain.

Capsali directed communal affairs with considerable skill, and commanded general respect. He lived an ascetic lifestyle, fasting frequently and sleeping on a bare floor.

He was an advocate of rigorous rabbinical Judaism, severely criticising the attempt of some rabbis to instruct the Karaites in the Talmud. However, Capsali’s critics accused him of being an ignorant and unscrupulous rabbi, and addressed their complaints to Joseph Colon in Italy, one of the greatest rabbinical authorities of the time. They accused Capsali of being careless in deciding cases dealing with marital troubles.

However, in the ensuing controversy, men like Judah Minz and the three learned Del Medigo brothers (Elkanah, Moses, and Elijah), and many other rabbis supported Capsali. He died ca 1495 in Constantinople.

Moses Capsali was a kinsman of Eliezer Capsali, a Talmudist in Constantinople in the second half of the 15th century. In answer to the appeal of the Karaites, whose literary degeneracy was then notorious, he consented to instruct them in rabbinic traditions. The only conditions he imposed on his pupils should refrain from vilifying the Talmudic authorities, and from desecrating the holy days of the rabbinical calendar.

This attempt to reconcile the Karaites with Talmudic Judaism, or at least to soften their hostile attitude toward it, did not meet with the approval of the rigorists among the rabbis. Even Moses Capsali, who certainly was independent enough otherwise, stoutly opposed his kinsman Eliezer Capsali, perhaps chiefly because it was not customary to treat the Karaites in a friendly manner.

Moses Capsali’s brother, David Capsali, was the father of Elkanah ben David Capsali, a Talmudist and philanthropist in the second half of the 15th century. He studied under his uncle, Moses Capsali, in Constantinople, and in Padua. When he returned to Iraklion, he married another family member, Pothula Capsali, and became one of the most prominent members of the Jewish community in Venetian-ruled Crete.

He was condestable (‘high constable’), one of the highest officers in the Jewish community in Iraklion, in 1493. In that role, he was active in relieving the sufferings of Jewish exiles expelled that year from Spain who arrived in Iraklion, then the Venetian city of Candia. In one day alone, 22 July 1493, he collected 250 Venetian gulden, a large sum at that time, for their relief.

Elkanah Capsali’s eldest son, David Capsali, travelled to Constantinople and may have been among the 17 people who wrote the statutes of the Jewish community in Iraklion in 1574.

Elkanah Capsali was also the father of Elijah ben Elkanah Capsali (ca 1485-1490 to post 1550), a notable rabbi, Talmudist and historian. His chronicle of Venice may be the first example of a diasporic Jew writing a history of their own location (Venice).

Elijah ben Elkanah Capsali was born in Iraklion ca 1485-1490. He left Crete in 1508 or 1509 to study in Padua in the yeshiva of Judah Minz. However, Judah Minz died eight days after Capsali's arrival, and so he went to study with Meïr Katzenellenbogen, Minz’s son-in-law and successor.

When his studies were interrupted by the occupation of Padua by German troops in 1509, Elijah then moved to Venice, but returned to Crete in 1510 to study under Isaac Mangelheim.

He was the leader of the Jewish community in Iraklion by 1522, with three assistants. Soon after, the plague devastated Iraklion, and the sufferings of Jews in the city was aggravated by their enforced isolation in the Jewish quarter, and Capsali worked unselfishly to relieve the stricken.

When the Chief Rabbi of Crete, Menahem del Medigo, became too old to officiate, Elijah Capsali and Judah del Medigo were appointed rabbis of the community. He became the Chief Rabbi of Crete ca 1528, and in office he associated himself with several great scholars of his time such as, Jacob Berab and Joseph Karo.

When the Jews of Iraklion were threatened with massacre by the Greek populace in 1538, Capsali took the lead in intervening with the Venetian authorities. When they were saved, he instituted a special local Purim on 18 Tammuz.

Capsali had a learned correspondence with the great Talmudists of his day. He showed remarkable independence of spirit, both in his relations with high authorities and in regard to ancient, time-honoured customs. For example, he abolished the widespread custom in Crete of selling by auction the honour of ‘bridegroom of the Torah.’ Instead, he ordered that this honour should be conferred on a scholar or other prominent person in the community.

Capsali showed independence and self-confidence in his decisions, but was opposed by many of his colleagues and contemporaries, including prominent rabbis and his associate rabbi in Iraklion, Judah del Medigo.

Elijah Capsali was the author of a number of works, including a history of Venice. The original manuscript is in the British Museum and includes material on other Italian cities and a section on the persecutions of the Jews in Germany.

He also wrote a history of the Turkish empire from the earliest times up to 1522. The manuscript is in the Bodleian Library and in the British Museum. It throws much light on the history of Jews in Turkey, and a section on Spain and Portugal down to the expulsion of the Jews at the end of the 15th century. He died in Crete ca 1555.

Capsali is remembered today for his ecstatic sentiment, exuberant messianism and exaggerated claims have dominated Jewish historiography for five centuries. He cast the Ottoman sultans in the redemptive image of Cyrus the Great, who allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity, and he believed the world in his time was facing a final apocalyptic conflict between Islam and Christianity, Gog and Magog, that would usher in the Messiah and a messianic age.

Looking down Kapsali Street towards the Cathedral … could this have been part of the old Jewish quarter of Rethymnon? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Shabbat Shalom

Next Friday: the Delmedigo family in Crete

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
27, 26 April 2024

‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places’ (John 14: 2) … houses in the narrow back street of Rethymnon this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Easter is a 50-day season that continues until the Day of Pentecost. The week began here with the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Easter IV), although this is still the Season of Great Lent in Greece, and Sunday last was the Fifth Sunday in Lent in the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Throughout this Season of Easter, my morning reflections each day include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

Before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

‘Believe in God, believe also in me’ (John 14: 1) … an image of Christ the Pantocrator surrounded by the Four Evangelists in the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopianó in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

John 14: 1-6 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 1 ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ 5 Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6 Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’

‘I am the way, and the truth’ (John 14: 6) … in the narrow streets of Koutouloufarí in Crete last weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Friday 26 April 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Living by faith is hard, and it is never the obvious path.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with an extract taken from a sermon by the Revd Chris Parkman, Chaplain at Saint John’s Menton, and volunteer for A Rocha France at Les Courmettes.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (26 April 2024) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for preachers, lay and ordained. May they be attentive to the needs of the world and have the courage to be prophets of our time.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life:
raise us, who trust in him,
from the death of sin to the life of righteousness,
that we may seek those things which are above,
where he reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful Father,
you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd,
and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again:
keep us always under his protection,
and give us grace to follow in his steps;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Risen Christ,
faithful shepherd of your Father’s sheep:
teach us to hear your voice
and to follow your command,
that all your people may be gathered into one flock,
to the glory of God the Father.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Christ the Good Shepherd … an image in the narthex of Saint Nektarios Church on Milissionou Street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org