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Capsali, Elijah


CAPSALI, ELIJAH (c. 1483–1555), rabbi and historian of Candia, Crete. His father, Elkanah Capsali, also rabbi in Candia, in his capacity as "constable" (civil head of Cretan Jewry), directed the relief work for Spanish exiles in 1492–93. In 1508 Elijah Capsali went to Padua, then a great center of talmudic scholarship, to study in the yeshivah of Judah *Minz. Minz died soon after his arrival, and Capsali continued his studies under Israel Iserlein Ashkenazi. His studies were interrupted by the occupation of Padua by German troops in 1509, after which he moved to Venice. In 1510 Capsali returned to Crete, studied there under Isaac Angelheiman, and c. 1528 became rabbi in Candia. Capsali served as constable of the Jewish community several times, in the years 1515–19, 1526–32, and also during the war with the Turks in 1538–41, without compensation. In 1523 during the plague he was put in charge of treating the infected Jews. In 1538 when the Jews were threatened with massacre by the Greek populace, he took the lead in intervening with the Venetian authorities; when they were saved, he instituted a special local Purim on Tammuz 18th.

Capsali was in communication with some eminent contemporaries, among them Jacob *Berab and Joseph *Caro. He was responsible for the collection and redaction of the takkanot of the Candia community. In general, he showed himself learned and vigorous but somewhat quarrelsome and intolerant of opponents. His most memorable literary work was in the field of history. Seder Eliyahu Zuta (wrongly referred to as de-Vei Eliyahu), written as a distraction during the plague of 1523, is a survey of the history of the Ottoman Empire up to his lifetime, with special reference to the Jews. It also includes an account of Spanish history and of the sufferings of the Jews of Spain and Portugal at the time of the expulsion, for which this book is a primary source. An appendix discusses and demonstrates by historical instances the triumph of righteousness. In this work Capsali shows wide knowledge, a keen historical sense, and a power of description almost unique among Jewish historians of his age. Capsali's earlier and less-known work Divrei ha-Yamim le-Malkhut Venezia was written in 1517, and gives an account not only of Venice but also of the condition of the Jews in the Venetian dominions. Particular attention is devoted to the intense intellectual life of the yeshivot established by the Ashkenazi immigrants and the hardships they suffered during the war of the League of Cambrai in 1509; personal reminiscences of the period are also included. Capsali's account, written in a lively and fascinating style, is a primary source for the social, cultural, and political history of the north Italian Jewry in the early 16th century. Capsali also wrote various responsa and a book about honoring parents, Mea Shearim, still surviving in manuscript form.

Capsali was also a notable book collector; many manuscripts formerly owned by him are now in the de'Rossi Collection in the Vatican Library. Among them is an Italian glossary to the Prophets and Hagiographa bearing his signature (Rossiana Ms. 72); the composition of the glossary was at one time wrongly ascribed to him.


A. Marx, Studies in Jewish History and Book-lore (1944), index; Porgès, in: rej, 77 (1923), 20–40; 78 (1924), 15–34; 79 (1924), 15–34, 28–60; Studia et Acta Orientalia, 1 (1957), 189–98; E.S. Artom and M.D. Cassuto (eds.), Takkanot Kandyah, 1 (1943), index; Margoliouth, Cat, 3 (1909–15), 429–34; D.S. Sassoon, Ohel Dawid, 1 (1932), 349–57. add. bibliography: M. Benayahu, S. Simonsohn, and A. Smuelevitz (eds.), Seder Eliyahu Zuta (1975); M. Benayahu, Rabbi Eiyahu Capsali (1983). H.H. Ben-Sasson, in: "Memorial Volume for Gedalya Allon" (Heb., 1970), 276–89.

[Cecil Roth]

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