Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The first Sephardic Jew recorded to have settled in Buda, the ancient capital of Hungary, is Shlomo ben Efraim Seneor (sometimes spelled Senior) who escaped from Spain after the expulsion of its Jews in 1492. According to many sources he was a brother of the famed Abraham Seneor, a leader of the Spanish Jewish community during the period of the expulsion. Abraham, who became a celebrated convert to Catholicism, had a grandson who fled to Holland and reverted back to Judaism. More on that branch of the family in a different installment.

Shlomo Seneor, unlike his brother, chose to retain his faith and leave his native land for greener pastures. He arrived at the capital of Hungary where he quickly climbed the ladder to success.

Seneor quickly ingratiated himself into the Hungarian upper class, changing his name to Etil (Atilla) and learning the Hungarian language. He eventually became close to King Lajos (Louis) II, who appointed him as chancellor of the treasury. However, a scandal soon erupted when it was discovered that he carried on an affair with a Christian woman. In order to avoid punishment and/or to further his career he had himself baptized in circa 1510 (a sad irony considering his previous circumstances). His new Christian name was now “Imre Szerencses” (later Emericus Fortunatus or Emeric the Fortunate). He left his Jewish wife and two sons, married a Christian woman and retained his position as the king’s treasurer. It wasn’t long before he made some powerful enemies in the king’s court, who blamed him for various things that went wrong, including a series of defeats at the hands of Hungary’s implacable foes, the Ottoman Turks.

Seneor was eventually caught up in yet a new scandal that involved the debasement of Hungarian coinage—minting money worth about half its face value—in 1521. The king had Seneor imprisoned and, before long, a death sentence loomed on the unfortunate man. However, he was released after a large sum of money was paid on his behalf. After his release he celebrated at his house with friends and family. The raucous celebrations soon attracted an outraged mob, which proceeded to attack and ransack his house. Remarkably, Seneor was able to convince the magnates that he was able to restore the financial situation of the royal court and, as a result, he was entrusted with the profitable copper mines at Fuggers. A few weeks before the Battle of Mohács (which was to end in a historic Turkish conquest of the city of Buda) he donated a large amount of money to support the city’s defenses against the Turks. The date of his death is uncertain, but it is assumed that he died around the time of the aforementioned battle.

Interestingly enough, a contemporary rabbinical responsum later claimed that in the hour of his death, crying and praying in the presence of several Jews, he returned to the Jewish faith.

But the story does not end there. Still in his lifetime, a halachic dispute arose as to his status. Seneor’s two sons from his Jewish wife, Avraham and Efraim, who remained part of the Jewish community, would be called up to the Torah by their grandfather’s name rather than that of their apostate father. The sons did not like this state of affairs one bit. Only after the death of Shlomo did the Rabbi of Buda at the time, Naftali Hacohen (Katz), allow the name “ben shlomo” to be used again when calling the sons to the Torah.

The foremost halachic decisor of that time, Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen (also known as Maharam of Padua and the progenitor of a large portion of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewry), gave his halachic sanction to this decision and claimed that if the kings and nobles who certainly are not Jews can be mentioned in blessings in the synagogue, so too can the name of Seneor (adding that according to all reports, Seneor retained his affections to his former co-religionists and showed them favor).

A Sephardic rabbi in Istanbul went even further in portraying Seneor in what can only be described as “glowing terms.” Eliyahu ben Benjamin Halevi of Istanbul described him as a person of great generosity who would give charity to poor Jews every Friday and who spared no money and effort to save the Jewish community when it was in danger (most notably during a blood libel). One of his sons wrote that his father warned the Jews in a secret Hebrew letter that they were in danger, thereby saving their lives. He also reportedly prevented the expulsion of Jews from Prague when the city was under Hungarian rule.

From that point on, the attitude toward Seneor changed drastically. It was “universally” accepted that his apostasy was never sincere and that he did so for the good of his people. It was announced in synagogues that whoever maligned his Jewishness would be “punished in person and in his belongings by the prefect.” The decision to rehabilitate Seneor’s reputation was given halachic sanction by the Rema (Rabbi Moses Isserles, the major authority on Jewish law in Eastern Europe). The Rema based his opinion on the earlier ruling by Rabbi Katzenellenbogen and concluded, “Once he [Katzenelnbogen] gave his permission, who can have a word after the king?”

The two Jewish sons of Seneor, apparently still uneasy about being reminded of their scandalous familial past, left Buda after the Battle of Mohács and changed their name to Zaks (Sachs). The name is supposed to be an abbreviation of “zera kadosh seneor,” literally “holy seed of Seneor.” One of his sons, Avraham, settled in Kismarton (Eisenstadt today in Austria) with his family. Some of his descendants were to be found later as far away as Vilna, among other places. This is another irony, as the Turkish conquest of Hungary laid the foundation of a proper Sephardic community there, the remnants of which can still be found to this day (more on that a different time).

Joel S. Davidi Weisberger runs “Luach Libekha-Tablet Of Your Heart” (formerly, Jewish History Channel), a grassroots group dedicated to the dissemination of Jewish history and culture (find it on Facebook). You can also get to know him at the wonderful Cong. Beth Tefillah in Paramus, NJ, where he serves as an assistant. He resides with his wife and son in Fair Lawn and would love to hear from you at [email protected]