These are for the most part unedited excerpts from my upcoming book on Sephardic heritage in Eastern Europe. Please note that this is not the final product and there may be errors and such.
The history of the Sephardim in
Transylvania, a region that borders the countries of Hungary
is not very well known. The first serious attempt at a study of this community
was made by Bernard Klein who in 1965 contributed an article entitled The Decline of a Sephardic Community in
Transylvania to Studies in honor
of M.J. Bernadette.
The article (a condensed version of which follows) is a monographic sketch of
the Sephardim in Karlsburg (not to be confused with ‘klausenburg’), dubbed the
“Jewish Capital” of Transylvania.
The defeat of the Hungarians by the
Ottoman Turks at Mohacz in 1526 precipitated the partition of Hungary into three sections: the Western section
was controlled by the Hapsburgs; the Central section, including the cities of
Buda and Pest, were under the direct domination of the Turks; the Eastern
section of Transylvania was autonomous but
under Turkish suzerainty. Within the latter two areas the Turkish conquest was
responsible for considerable changes in Jewish community life, especially in
bringing Ashkenazim and Sephardim together in the same town and frequently in
one community. We know for example, that Ashkenazi Jews had emigrated to Turkey,
where they eventually assimilated with the Sephardim. On the other hand
Sephardic Jews frequently settled in Hungary.
Thus a significant Sephardic community was established in Buda, which existed
as a separate entity for close to 200 years.
Similar communities developed elsewhere, and especially in Transylvania.
All of the Sephardic communities were, however eventually absorbed by the
there were a number of communities which were organized and established by
Sephardic Jews. The
reasons why Sephardic Jews were attracted to Transylvania
are many. Geographically, Transylvania was in proximity of the Balkans which had
been settled primarily by Sephardic Jews. The Turkish conquest of the Balkans
facilitated communication and migration between these areas. Furthermore, the
towns in which the Sephardim settled were important trade centers. Thus
Karlsburg (also known as Alba Iulia), the most important Sephardic center in Transylvania was a frontier town through which Turkish
trade was exchanged. It was only natural for Sephardic Jews, acquainted with
the business matters and tastes of the Turks and their language, to exploit
existing trade opportunities. They also acted as tax farmers. Finally the
political condition in Transylvania was
extremely favorable to Jews. There existed a general tolerant climate and an
absence of the virulent anti-Semitism which characterized life in other parts
of Europe. The Jewish population of that area
in that period was considerably small. Around 1780, after a considerable influx
of Ashkenazim, there were only 322 Jewish families in all of Transylvania.
Karlsburg, its capital, had 31 Jewish families who paid taxes in 1764. How many
of these were Sephardim and how many Ashkenazim is unknown. There is however no
question that the early Jewish residents in Karlsburg were Sephardim. This is
obvious from the fact that the minutes of the community were in the Hebrew
script customary among the Sephardim and that the early contacts which the
Karlsburg community maintained with other Jews were primarily with other
Sephardic communities mainly Belgrade
and neighboring Ungarish-Brod (also known as Temesvar).
Their questions on law were addressed primarily to Sephardic Rabbis and one
seldom comes across any reference to an Ashkenazi scholar.
In 1623 Prince Bethlen Gabor granted
the Jews of Alba Iulia a liberal charter of residential and
commercial privileges framed at the insistence of Abraham Szasza (his name is
also given as Sasa and Shasha), a Jewish Physician from Constantinople who had
been invited to settle there. The first known Chief Rabbi of the city was R.
Abraham Isaac Russo (d. 1738).
In Porumbacul de Sus near Fagaras in southern Transylvania,
Sephardic Jews are credited with introducing glass manufacture to the region.
In Targu-Mures, Sephardim are mentioned from 1582; a permanent community was
founded in 1601 in the nearby village Naznan-falva. The first known communal
leader was Moshe Aizik Frenkel, heir to a converso family (Yivo 1689).
The Numerical predominance of the Sephardim seems to have been broken around
the beginning of the 18th century. The influx of Ashkenazim from Hungary, Bohemia,
Moravia, and Germany
on the one hand, and from Poland
on the other, not only undermined the numerical superiority of the Sephardim,
but also challenged their authority in communal affairs by the 18th
century, the Ashkenazim and Sephardim were considered two distinct communities.
Unity of the two congregations was only a necessity in relation to the
non-Jewish community and in the selection of a Chief Rabbi who served both
Congregations. In the period between 1736 and 1823 Karlsburg had 7 Chief
Rabbis, of these 4 were Sephardic. The fact that in 1742 an Ashkenazi Rabbi
could be appointed to this former Sephardic stronghold indicates that by that
time the Ashkenazim were already a dominant and influential factor in the
community. On the other hand the election of a Sephardic Rabbi as late as 1818
seems to demonstrate that despite their decline the Sephardim were not without
influence in the community. As the 18th century progressed, it
became obvious that the Sephardim were losing ground and that the Ashkenazim
were becoming the dominant factor in the community. This is also obvious from
the fact that the Sephardim had to resort to a ban against any member deserting
the Sephardic congregation in order to attend services at the Ashkenazic one.
Many Sephardim disregarded the ban. In order to prevent any further decline,
the Sephardim deemed it advisable to enlist the cooperation of the Ashkenazim.
In 1793 both the Sephardim and Ashkenazim appeared before the Ashkenazi Chief
Rabbi, Moses ben Samuel Halevi Margolioth. This momentous occasion was recorded
in the community minutes and was also transmitted to Rabbi Moses Sofer of Pressburg
(known as the Chatam Sofer) by
a correspondent from Karlsburg who asked for a decision regarding the case.
According to these sources, the statement from Rabbi Margolioth was as follows:
“today the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities presented the following case to
me. The Sephardim had issued a ban on their members not to attend the Ashkenazi
Synagogue. Several individuals have however disregarded the ban. The holy
community of the Sephardim has therefore presented a complaint against them. It
is therefore our decision that in accordance with the law of the holy Torah,
the ban is to apply to these individuals until such time as they return to the
Sephardic Synagogue. Moreover the Ashkenazim are not to accord any honor or
holy functions to these individuals, as is prescribed by law for those in a
state of excommunication. Should any influential man call these individuals to
the Torah or accord them any honor, this individual will likewise be in
excommunication and all Israel
will be absolved of any guilt. In return the Sephardic community has obligated
itself to subscribe to the ticket system and contribute half the expenses for
the needs of wayfarers and itinerary speakers. Each individual is to receive
half the expenses from the congregation of the Ashkenazim and half the expenses
from the congregation of the Sephardim..”.
Soon however, most of the Sephardim
themselves-because of their rapidly shrinking numbers- regretted issuing the
ban and sought to extricate themselves from it. They therefore sought the
advice of the two leading Halachic authorities of that time, namely Rabbi Ezekiel Landau of Prague
and Rabbi Moses Sofer of Pressburg. Rabbi Landau in
his lengthy response paints a picture of a rapidly declining Sephardic
community in Karlsburg that could barely complete a minyan for prayers. The
children of the Sephardim had no choice but to attend the schools of the
Ashkenazim and slowly forget their own customs and traditions. Both Rabbis
Sofer and Landau answered that the ban might be lifted. However, both Rabbis
also insisted that they were interested in the preservation of the Sephardic
community as a distinct entity with its own customs and tradition and hoped
that the dismal conditions of Sephardic life would prove to be temporary. Of
course this did not prove to be the case; the community rapidly shrank to the
point where only several years later they ceased to exist as a separate
community. Their exit from the public scene was, however, accompanied by an
uproar. In 1818, the Karlsburg community was engulfed in a bitter conflict over
the selection of a Chief Rabbi. The community preferred the outstanding
Ashkenazi candidate, Rabbi Ezekiel Paneth. The file electors, however, selected
the Sephardic candidate, Rabbi Menachem, a descendant of an ancient and wealthy
Transylvanian family. Many influential members of the community refused to
accept the appointment of Rabbi Menachem. The latter’s detractors spread rumors
that he achieved his position through bribery and that he was not sufficiently
learned to hold such a position. The matter was sent to Rabbi Sofer in
Pressburg to decide. The latter wrote a respectful but stern letter to Rabbi
Menachem that he go have a “scholarly conversation” i.e. be tested by the local
Rabbi of Sighet and. if he is unwilling or unable to do so, he should engage a
Rabbi or a teacher until he is able to render Halakhic decisions on his own. We
do not know if Rabbi Menahem acquiesced to these proposals but we do know that
he stayed secure in his post until his death in 1823 when he was succeeded by
the aforementioned Rabbi Ezekiel Paneth.
In retrospect it is difficult to
tell whether the struggle against Rabbi Menachem was purely a struggle of
Ashkenazim vs. Sephardim. The names of his known opponents perhaps indicate
that some of them were Sephardim (among these names are Solomon Mexiner, Moses
Doman and Moses Rafael) thus ruling out a purely anti-Sephardic motive, though
there were certainly opponents within the Ashkenazi camp with such a vendetta.
Be it as it may, with the death of Rabbi Menachem, the once flourishing and
prominent Sephardic community of Karlsburg exhaled its last breath. Thereafter
one no longer hears of quarrels between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, as Rabbi
Paneth at the helm became the unchallenged and dominant leader of the Jewish
community of Karlsburg and its environs.
Temeshvar (Ungarish Brodt)
The Timisoara region received Sephardic immigration during the 16th and 17th centuries. Turkish armies occupied Timisoara in 1552, after which Sephardic Jews coming from Belgrade and Istanbul settled throughout the area. In Lugoj to the north, Caransebes to the East, and Faget to the South, Sephardic Jewish settlements were documented in 1733, 1746, and about 1750, respectively. At the time of the Hapsburg occupation in 1716, Sephardim in the city of Timisoara were given the option of remaining and living on the city’s outskirts; many chose to stay. Don Moses Pereira became a leading merchant and held the tobacco monopoly for the whole Habsbug Empire, while Diego Aguilar obtained the right in 1739 to found a community composed of both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Two Synagogues, one of them Sephardic, were built in 1762. During the 19th century, two Sephardic communities, one Orthodox and one modern, were founded (along with three Ashkenazic ones), led by Rabbi Moshe Alkalay between 1831 and 1863 and Yosef Levi between 1815 and 1856, respectively. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were approximately 1,000 Sephardim in the city (Yivo 1690).
The oldest grave found in the Jewish cemetery of Timisoara/Temshvar belonged to Rabbi Azriel Asael of Salonica, who died in Temeşvar in 1636, but it had been in use long before then. In 1716, the Hapsburgs conquered much of the Banat, including Temeşvar. The city’s Jews could have left with the Turks, but chose to remain. In 1718, local Jews were accused of spying for the Ottomans. Vienna ordered them exiled, but the decree seems to have been cancelled, possibly through the intervention of Don Moses Pereira Diego Aguilar, the founder of the Sephardi community in Vienna, who held the monopoly on importing tobacco to the Austrian Empire. In 1739 a united Ashkenazi-Sephardi community was formed in Temeşvar. During the Austro-Ottoman War (1787–1791), the Ottomans recaptured Temeşvar in 1788 and pillaged it in 1789, but at war’s end it was returned to the Austrians.
The first Rabbi of the town was a Sephardic Jew by the name of Jacob Moises (1739-1741).Shortly after Moises’ reign, both communities shared the same Rabbi.
At the end of the fifteenth century and beginning of the sixteenth, Jewish merchants in Transylvania traded in domestic animals, financed ransoms to free Poles captured by Tatars, and supplied credit to traders in the three Romanian principalities. Jews migrated to Transylvania from Poland (mainly Lvov) and the Ottoman Empire. Under Ottoman suzerainty, Alba Iulia was the capital. The Hungarian Báthory family ruled Transylvania as Ottoman princes (hospodars) from 1571 to 1599, followed by a period of conflict and the succession of several princes. In 1618 Prince Gabriel (Gábor) Bethlen (r. 1613–1629) suppressed the Christian-Jewish Sabbatarian sect. Influenced by Abraham Sarsa, a Jewish physician in Istanbul, Bethlen encouraged Jews to settle in Transylvania to help restore its economy. In 1623 the Transylvanian diet granted special privileges to the Jewish settlers, but in 1650 it again imposed commercial restrictions on them.
When Ashkenazi refugees from Poland began to arrive after the Chmielnicki massacres in 1648, Jewish settlement was restricted to Alba Iulia. The Italian Street was renamed the Jewish Street in 1657, and from then until 1848 Alba Iulia had the first and only officially recognized Jewish community in Transylvania. In 1698, it numbered only fifteen families—perhaps seventy or eighty people—but between 1711 and 1735, the community was estimated at somewhere from six to seven hundred souls. In the second half of the seventeenth century, Jews from Moldavia who came to Transylvania to work for the nobility set up unofficial Jewish communities in Gheorghieni, Zlatna, Maramureş and other places in the Turkish areas of the principality.
In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Temeşvar had three Ashkenazi and two Sephardi synagogues. In 1919 the city was incorporated into Romania. The 1930 census found that its Jewish population was 7,264.
In the Sephardic cemetery, there are still extant
graves dating back to the Turkish occupation, the oldest of them belonging to the mentioned Azriel Asael, a Rabbi and surgeon who died in 1636 and on whose gravestone is
inscribed “born in Salonica”. A century after his death, in 1736, Rabbi Meir
Amigo and another four Sephardic Jews from Istanbul were permitted to settle in the city.
Rabbi Amigo became the head of the city’s combined Ashkenazi-Sephardi
community. Agent for Diego d’aguilar of Vienna,
who held a Tobacco monopoly in Austria,
he was known as “little king” (rey chico)
because of his wealth and he was highly respected in the court of Maria
Theresa. His descendants Yitzchak Amigo and Yosef Meir Amigo continued to be
prominent in the Jewish community of Timisoara
until the early 19th century.
The other “Sephardim” of Transylvania
The election of Rabbi Moses Glasner to the
post of Chief Rabbi of Cluj, Transylvania
(better known by its German name; Klausenberg) in 1878 precipitated the establishment of a newly
formed “Sephardic” community in that city. The group consisted of about one
hundred families (out of a total Jewish population in Klausenburg that exceeded
10,000) who decided that they could no longer remain subject to the authority
of a Zionist Rabbi (Rabbi Glasner was an outspoken religious Zionist, a very
unpopular ideology among Hungarian Chassidim). The term “Sephardic community”
was a sort of legal fiction designed to gain the recognition of the secular
authorities that would recognize only one Orthodox community within a given
town or district. The only “Sephardic” aspect of the community was that they
recited prayers in “nusah s’fard.”
Largely made up of Sigheter Hasidim, the group chose as their spiritual leader
Joel Teitelbaum, the future Satmar Rebbe, whose older brother, the Atzei Haim, was then the
incumbent Rebbe in Sighet, original seat of the family dynasty. R. Teitelbaum
never took up residence in Klausenburg, and after heading the Klausenburg
Sephardic community for about five years, he vacated the position in favor of
his nephew Rabbi Y. Y. Halberstam, who later became famous as the Klausenburger
Labels: akiva katz. akiva kohen zedek, alba iulia, ottoman romania, salonican jewry, salonicans., sephardim in hungary, sephardim in romania, SERIES Sephard in Ashkenaz and Ashkenaz, temeshvar, temesvar, timisoara