While most of us are quite familiar with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492, many of us are less familiar with the tragic expulsion of the Jews from France in 1306.
On July 22, 1306, King Philip IV ordered the expulsion of all the Jews from France. Although they were allowed to return more than a decade later, it was at that time the largest expulsion of Jews from European soil. It is estimated that up to 100,000 Jews may have been affected. Among the expellees were many descendants of the foremost Ashkenazi Torah sage known as Rashi. Rashi is the acronym of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki; it is also cleverly rendered as Rabban shel Israel, literally “Rabbi of all Israel.” Rashi was born at Troyes, France, and died there in 1105. His descendants formed many of the German and French biblical and talmudic commentators known as the Tosafists.
Many family genealogical traditions—buttressed by recent genetic findings—reveal that indeed not only was Rashi the rabbi of all Israel, but he is likewise the progenitor of a large portion of Israel; almost all Ashkenazim and many Sephardim—particularly North Africans—count themselves among his descendants.
Let us return to Rashi’s descendants on the eve of the expulsion from France. Among the multitudes of Jews who formed the sad exodus out of France were groups of rabbis and religious leaders who prided themselves in their descent from Rashi via his famous grandson Rabbi Jacob “Tam.” This clan would not return to France when permission was eventually granted to do so (indeed, many of the expellees would choose to stay in their new places of residence). They, like many of their compatriots, made their way across the treacherous Pyrenees to begin their life anew among the flourishing—and as of yet not imperiled—Jewish communities of Spain. They quickly assimilated among the Sephardic Jews of Toledo where they appended to themselves the moniker ha-Sarfati, literally “the Frenchman.”
Alas, peace and serenity were not to be their lot for very long; after several centuries of residing in Spain as Sephardim, members of this family joined the tens of thousands of Jews who exited the country on the eve of March 31, 1492.
According to family tradition, it was Rabbi Vidal HaSarfati I who served as the spiritual leader of the broken and dispirited Sephardim making their way across the Strait of Gibraltar to tolerant Morocco. There they took up residence in the famous city of Fez, where the great Talmudist Rabbi Isaac Alfasi once flourished. In Fez,
the Sarfati family established a line of sages and prominent men up until the 20th century.
The last of this rabbinic line, Rabbi Vidal Sarfaty V (1862-1921) [the “ha” prefix was dropped during the French Colonial period], was the first to be granted the title “Chief Rabbi of Fez.” As rabbi and Jewish communal leader, he used his influence to ease the conditions of Moroccan Jewry who were often subjected to unfair treatment by the authorities.
He is mentioned in a letter dated January 30, 1911, by Avram Elmaleh, head of the Fez boys school, to the president of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris. From this letter we learn of the degrading conditions imposed upon the rabbinical leaders of the Moroccan Jewish community in connection with “community business” (i.e., such as payment of the Jewish poll tax, the jizya), even into the second decade of the 20th century.
Rabbi Vidal is also remembered for his custom of riding a white horse into town every Friday afternoon to bid the townsmen Shabbat Shalom (apparently, this custom was instituted only after the French occupation, since during the Muslim period Jews were forbidden to ride horses).
But not all of Rashi’s descendants went about the route describes above; aside from North Africa, many Sarfatis settled all across the Ottoman Empire as well as the Dutch and English colonies of the New World. Indeed, one branch of Rashi’s family did not migrate to Spain at all but rather went to Germany and thence to the Ottoman Empire. Rabbi Isaac Sarfati-Treves (a derivative of Troyes, Rashi’s birthplace), for instance, immigrated to Adrianople in Turkey in the 15th century where he established a line of rabbis who for a time followed a hybrid Sephardic-Ashkenazic rite. Rabbi Isaac would write a famous letter to his Ashkenazi brethren imploring them to leave the bloodsoaked lands of Europe for the freedoms of Ottoman Turkey. The following are excerpts from this fascinating circular:
Alas! How evilly are the people of God in Germany entreated… Brothers and teachers! Friends and acquaintances! I, Isaac Zarfati, from a French stock, born in Germany, where I sat at the feet of my teachers, I proclaim to you that Turkey is a land wherein nothing is lacking. If ye will, all shall yet be well with you. The way to the holy land lied open to you through Turkey. Is it not better for you to live under Moslems than under Christians? Here every man dwells in peace under his vine and fig tree..O Israel, wherefore sleepest thou? Arise, and leave this accursed land forever!
Ironically, this branch of the Sarfatis would eventually likewise assimilate among the Sephardim when the latter migrated to Turkey in large numbers in the decades and centuries after the expulsion of the Jews from Iberia.
To be continued...
By Joel S. Davidi Weisberger
Joel S. Davidi Weisberger is the founder of the Jewish History Channel and a historian specializing in the history of Medieval Jewry and the Sephardic Diaspora. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Exiles of Sepharad That Are in Ashkenaz,” which explores the settlement of Sephardic Jews in various parts of Eastern Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. He resides in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, with his wife Michal. He can be reached at [email protected].