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Mizraḥi, Elijah


MIZRAḤI, ELIJAH (c. 1450–1526), rabbinical authority, the greatest of the rabbis of the *Ottoman Empire of his time. Mizraḥi was of Romaniot origin (the original Turkish Jews as distinct from the Spanish exiles) and was born and educated in Constantinople. Among his teachers he mentions Elijah ha-Levi in rabbinic studies and Mordecai Comitiano (see *Comtino) in general studies. Until the death of Moses *Capsali, Mizraḥi devoted himself to study and public instruction. As early as 1475 he is mentioned as heading a keneset (probably a school in addition to a synagogue) and as having students. During this period of his life he was involved in controversies with *Moses Esrim ve-Arba and Perez Colon, and despite his stormy and aggressive temperament he submitted to the intervention of Capsali in these disputes, an intervention which reveals a certain tension between them. Perhaps for this reason he took no part in the famous controversy between Capsali and Joseph Colon. After the death of Capsali in 1498, Mizrahi became the foremost rabbinical authority in Constantinople and in fact throughout the whole Ottoman Empire. From far and near, problems of halakhah and procedure were addressed to him. There is reason to believe that he filled the position of head of the rabbis of Constantinople (though he did not have the title of ḥakham bashi, appointed by the sultan, since that office did not exist in that period). Nevertheless, it would seem that his authority derived not from any official position, but from the recognition of his personality and strength. He was considered both by his contemporaries and later generations as the greatest posek of his time in *Turkey. He was firm and unbending in his decisions, and even the great rabbis among the Spanish exiles accepted his authority.

In his responsa (56) he gives a description of his daily routine, which reveals the strain under which he worked. Fulfilling a number of functions simultaneously, he conducted the affairs of the community, gave decisions on all matters, headed a yeshivah, and taught not only Talmud but secular subjects. At the same time he wrote commentaries on both religious and scientific works, had an inner circle of select students whom he taught the codes, and wrote responsa in answer to queries addressed to him from afar. Like Moses Capsali, he was active in the problem of the absorption of the exiles from Spain and Portugal, collecting funds on their behalf, and forcing the wealthy members of the community to pay the amounts imposed on them (Resp. 66). Mizraḥi's attitude to these exiles was one of respect and high regard. He appreciated that their standards of culture and knowledge were higher than those of the native Turkish Jews, but nevertheless he came out firmly against attempts by some of them to impose their will on the old community. He resisted attempts on their part to impose customs and procedures to which they were accustomed, but which were contrary to those ruling in Turkey. Of special importance was his attitude toward the *Karaites. On the one hand he exerted himself to attract them to the Rabbanites, and, in opposition to Moses Capsali, to give them instruction in both secular subjects and even in the Oral Law, and in this context firmly resisted every attempt to isolate them. On the other hand he completely rejected on halakhic grounds the permissibility of intermarriage between Karaites and Rabbanites. Mizraḥi's halakhic method is distinctive and clear. He lays down fundamental principles and raises possible objections to his own statements, so that every topic is exhaustively examined and clarified. His responsa were accepted as authoritative by his and succeeding generations, despite the fact that some of the leading contemporary scholars opposed his views.

His best-known pupils and colleagues were Elijah ha-Levi, *Tam ibn Yahya, and Abraham ibn Yaish. Mizraḥi suffered greatly from ill health, financial strain, and family misfortunes. Three of his sons are known, Gershon, Israel, and Reuben, and a daughter. There are legends about his son-in-law's connections with the court of the sultan. Reuben died during his father's lifetime. Gershon was the victim of a libel that during a severe illness he had sought to be converted to *Islam. He had to abandon his family and, after paying heavy bribes, escaped to Naxos, but even there he suffered persecution and strife. These two incidents, as well as the death of his wife, affected Mizraḥi greatly. His third son, Israel, published his father's Rashi commentary and Sefer ha-Mispar. Mizraḥi died in Constantinople and Joseph *Taitaẓak eulogized his works.

Mizraḥi's personality and multi-faceted character emerge clearly from his works. His main activity was in the writing and teaching of both halakhah and general knowledge, but his main fame rests upon his crowning achievement, his supercommentary to Rashi (1st ed. Venice, 1527), a fact which he himself states. In this work he exhaustively discusses almost every word in Rashi, but does not refrain from disagreeing with him on numerous occasions. On the other hand he defends Rashi against the criticism of Naḥmanides. This work has given rise to a veritable literature. Later commentators answered his criticism and justified Rashi. The two works, Rashi's commentary and Mizraḥi's supercommentary, became a main subject of study of rabbinical commentators of the Bible from the 16th century onward. The work has an added importance as a result of the quotations it gives from the Romaniot scholars of the 14th and 15th centuries for which his work is the sole source, side by side with those of Ibn Ezra and the French and German scholars. Mizraḥi's responsa, published in two collections, number 140, but of them only 110 are his, although they undoubtedly represent only a fraction of his many responsa. More than 40 are still in various manuscripts. A comparison between the two reveals the many errors in the printed responsa, particularly in the Constantinople edition. An extant fragment (Resp. Const. 96) reveals the method of teaching in his yeshivah, consisting of notes made at the time by one of his pupils.

The only other rabbinic work of Mizraḥi published is his novellae on the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol of *Moses of Coucy (Constantinople, 1521), the only work of his published in his lifetime. His work on the Halakhot of Isaac Alfasi is not extant. In the field of secular knowledge his Sefer ha-Mispar (Constantinople, 1533) on mathematics is famous. It was highly thought of in its time and has been translated into Latin. He also wrote a commentary on Ptolemy's Almagest and on Euclid's Elements. R. Moses Almosnino possessed a commentary by Mizraḥi on the "Intentions of the Philosophers" of al-*Ghazālī. Mizraḥi took a negative attitude toward Kabbalah, particularly against relying on it for halakhic decisions, and the introduction of kabbalistic ideas into the prayer book.


A. Geiger (ed.), Melo Ḥofnayim (1840), 12 (Heb. pt.); Conforte, Kore, index; E. Bashyazi, Adderet Eliyahu (1833); M. Almosnino, Ma'amaẓ Ko'aḥ (Venice, 1588), 138b.; Me'oraʿot Olam (Izmir, 1756); M. Lattes, De Vita et Scriptis Eliae Kapsalii (Padua, 1869); Michael, Or, nos. 161–4, 306; Rosanes, Togarmah, 1 (1930), 70–77; A. Freimann, in: Zion, 1 (1936), 188–91; Ha-Segullah, 5 no. 5 (1938); A. Ovadyah, Ketavim Nivḥarim, 1 (1942), 63–198; S. Assaf, Be-Oholei Yaʿakov (1953), 145–96; Steinschneider, Uebersetzungen, 322, 508, 524; A. David, in: ks 45 (1970), 299.

[Joseph Hacker]

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