Ḥakham Bashi

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ḤAKHAM BASHI , the title of chief rabbi in the *Ottoman Empire, composed of the Hebrew work ḥakham ("sage," "wise man") and the Turkish word bashi ("head," or "chief"). At the end of 1836 or the beginning of 1837 the Ottoman authorities confirmed the first ḥakham bashi, Rabbi Abraham Levi, in Constantinople (see *Istanbul). According to a report in the official gazette of the empire this gesture was made at the request of those members of the community in the capital who were subjects of the sultan. They had no Christian-European powers behind them and were jealous of the honor of official confirmation that the government accorded to the Greek and Armenian patriarchs. Current research attributes the Ottoman authorities with imposing the ḥakham bashi on the Jewish community. The motivation for such a change in their policy regarding the Jews was the recent Greek war of independence that resulted in the establishment of a Greek state in 1832. As a result, the Ottoman Empire began a series of reforms that changed their relationship with various minority communities. Another factor was the improved relations with Great Britain, which was expressing increased interest in "Jewish Emancipation." Since European intervention assisted the Greeks in their war of independence, the Ottoman authorities were careful not to alienate other minority communities. This interpretation of events explains the fact that for over 30 years, the Ottoman Jewish communities regarded the ḥakham bashi with suspicion, to a great extent ignoring the rabbis who occupied the office. Thus, the rav ha-kolel was regarded as the religious leader. In 1864, when Rabbi Jacob Avigdor was appointed ḥakham bashi, his prestige as an esteemed scholar finally won over the Jewish community. His successor, also a scholar of great repute, Rabbi Yakir Geron (ḥakham bashi from 1863 to 1872), helped cement the communities positive attitude toward the ḥakham bashi. In any event, this was in fact a turning point in the policy of the Ottoman authorities, who hitherto had not interfered in the internal affairs of the Jewish community and for centuries past had given no official status to its representatives. The original copies or authentic texts of the berat hümayun (imperial confirmation of appointments) occurring from 1836 onward, which were also granted to chief rabbis in *Adrianople, *Salonika, *Izmir (Smyrna), Broussa (now *Bursa), and *Jerusalem, show that there was indeed a policy, the significance and consequences of which went beyond mere confirmation or appointments. Implicitly contained was an official recognition of the Jewish *millet (a religious communal organization of non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire).

A berat was concerned with three interrelated matters: the religious powers of the ḥakham bashi, his powers as representative of the government, and the permission to read the Torah. Within his area of jurisdiction the ḥakham bashi was the supreme authority in all religious matters and in charge of all ḥakhamim and heads of the community. He alone was authorized to ban and excommunicate offenders and to prohibit their religious burial. The person and official residence of the ḥakham bashi enjoyed immunity which extended also to the ḥakhamim and officials subordinate to him. Disagreements on religious questions between ḥakhamim and the local Muslim authorities were to be settled before the supreme authorities of the empire in Constantinople. As representative of the government the ḥakham bashi was responsible for the collection of government taxes. Government officials had to lend the ḥakham bashi's officials every assistance in performing this task and place guards at their disposal. To protect his officials from molestation and restrictions when traveling, they were excused from wearing distinctive Jewish clothing and permitted to carry arms. They were thus exempt from two important provisions of the Covenant of *Omar. By an order of 1850 the religious heads of the four millets were required to collect the poll tax. Regarding the permission to read the Torah, the intention to grant rights to the community as a whole is conspicuous in a clause figuring in all berat texts; it declared that the reading of the Torah in the ḥakham's house and in other houses is permitted in the Jewish religion, as is hanging veils and candelabra where such reading takes place. This declaration was tantamount to the permission to establish permanent synagogues, and it constituted an ingenious circumvention of a prohibition contained in the Covenant of Omar, which was a source of many difficulties and an occasion for incessant extortion. The berats issued in provincial towns to the ḥakham bashi state expressly that they were granted upon the recommendation of the ḥakham bashi of Constantinople, who was thus the head of all the rabbis in the empire. This was why, in the event of a disagreement among the members of a community concerning the appointment of the local ḥakham bashi, the disputants would try to influence the ḥakham bashi of Constantinople. His decision not infrequently was based on other than objective considerations. From certain (especially Tripolitanian and Iraqi) sources it appears that a ḥakham bashi was sometimes sent from the capital without the local community having been consulted. The provincial ḥakham bashis were technically on an equal footing with the ḥakham bashi in Constantinople. However, the central Ottoman authorities viewed the ḥakham bashi in Constantinople as the leader of the Jews throughout the empire.

It is clear that while the ḥakham bashi's official functions enhanced his importance and prestige, they were not in themselves sufficient to grant him supremacy in the field of halakhah and religious jurisdiction. In fact, this post was sometimes assigned to a simple schoolteacher. Besides the ḥakham bashi who was described in French as temporal head (a translation of the Arabic-Turkish term shaykh zamani), there were ḥakhamim bearing the designation rav ha-kolel (chief rabbi) or spiritual head (shaykh rūḥī). It happened sometimes that a ḥakham bashi who had resigned or been deposed subsequently served as rav ha-kolel, just as rav hakolel (see *Kolel) was occasionally appointed ḥakham bashi. The powers vested in the ḥakham bashi show that he was regarded by the Ottoman authorities as their representative visà-vis the Jewish population, performing official functions on behalf of the Jews, and he was so regarded by the Jews themselves. His situation was further complicated by dissension between strictly traditionalist, anti-modernist members of the community and those favoring a general education and reforms in communal affairs. This situation accounts for the fact that of the five such chief rabbis officiating in the years 1836–63, three were deposed by the community and one was dismissed by the government because of his non-Turkish nationality. Three continued in office in the post of rav hakolel, which seems to indicate that they had been deposed as a result of clashes between the different factions within the community.

The first ḥakham bashi in Jerusalem was appointed by imperial firman in 1841. His Hebrew title *rishon le-Zion was used by the Sephardi chief rabbis of Jerusalem. The "Organizational Regulations of the Rabbinate," confirmed by imperial firman in 1865 (see *Millet and *Community), describe in the first 15 clauses the status and powers of the ḥakham bashi as the head of the Jewish millet in the empire. The powers of the provincial chief rabbis have always been defined in the firmans issued on their appointment. In 1835 *Tripolitania again came under the direct rule of the Sublime Porte who introduced there the same order that existed throughout the empire. The first ḥakham bashi was appointed by imperial firman in 1874 and therefore Tripoli is not mentioned in the "Organizational Regulations of the Rabbinate" of 1865. The title became so common that it referred to the head of every small community. The title ḥakham bashi is still in use in the Turkish republic, which has in Istanbul the largest Jewish community of the territories which once belonged to the empire, except Israel. After *Iraq's separation from the *Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the British Mandate, *Baghdad Jewry was presided over by the deputy ḥakham bashi and spiritual head of Baghdad. This title was abolished in Iraq in 1932 and the title raʾīs al ḥakhāmīm came into use.

Holders of the office of ḥakham bashi
Abraham Levi Pasha1836–1839
Samuel Hayim1839–1841
Moiz Fresko1841–1854
Jacob Avigdor1854–1870
Yakir Geron1870–1872
Moses Levi1872–1909
Chaim Nahum Effendi1909–1920
Shabbetai Levi1920–1922
Isaac Ariel1922–1926
Chaim Bejerano1926–1931
Chaim Isaac Saki1931–1940
Raphael David Saban1940–1960
David Asseo1961–2002
Isak Haleva2002–


M. Franco, Essai sur l'histoire des Israëlites de l'Empire Ottoman… (1897), 151–2; A. Galanté (ed.), Documents officiels turcs concernant les Juifs… (1931), 32–50; Appendice… (1941), 4–8; H.Z. Hirschberg, in: A.J. Arberry (ed.), Religion in the Middle East, 1 (1969), 187, 196–201. add. bibliography: A. Levy, in: The Jews of the Ottoman Empire (1994), 425–38; S.J. Shaw, The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic (1991), index; J.M. Landau, Exploring Ottoman and Turkish History (2004), index; Y. Harel, in:Pe'amim, 44 (1990), 110–31; idem, in: Asufot, 11 (1998), 211–43; idem, in: Zion, 66 (2001), 201–25; A. Ha-Levi, in: Pe'amim, 55 (1993), 38–56; idem, in: Yemei ha-Sahar: Perakim be-Toledot ha-Yehudim ba-Imperiyah ha-Otomanit (1996), 237–71.

[Haïm Z'ew Hirschberg /

David Derovan (2nd ed.)]