The Gates of Heaven Will Never be Closed: The World of the 1538 Sanhedrin

Based on this thread on Napoleons Sanhedrin https://www.alternatehistory.com/fo...-in-the-jewish-world-if-napoleon-wins.547255/ I decided to ask a question about the 1538 Sanhedrin revival attempt. In 1538 a Rabbi from Safed decided to implement Maimonides' thesis that if every Rabbi in Palestine agreed Semicha could be reinstated and a new Sanhedrin formed. IOTL this failed because of Jerusalemite opposition. My question is what if it got unanimous support.
1 Can and Do the Ottomans kill this new organization?
2. Does a revived Sanhedrin mean Zionism arises earlier out a romantic movement due to the new sanhedrin
3. Does this butterfly the Shulchan Aruch and Mapah being the major codices of Jewish practice in the Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions. They were composed in the wake of the Inquisition or roughly around the time this proposal was getting underway. Does a Sanhedrin a la Napoleons but independent undercut the work of Karo and Isserles.
 
I'll admit I don't know too much about this, but:

I don't think the Ottomans would attempt to nix this. Considering they were seen in the 16th century as a free land for Jewry, and certainly many Jews left Spain and Portugal following their expulsions from those areas. The Ottomans used the millet system, which allowed certain groups to have their own courts and laws. This applied primarily to non-Muslims, and the Greek Millet, for instance, was headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Jews had their own millet, headed by the Hakham Bashi, which was the Chief Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire. Jews had wide spread freedoms in the period comparable to Christian subjects under the Porte. If the Sanhederin is reformed, perhaps it can play a role in the Millet system and the organization of Jews within the empire.
 
I'll admit I don't know too much about this, but:

I don't think the Ottomans would attempt to nix this. Considering they were seen in the 16th century as a free land for Jewry, and certainly many Jews left Spain and Portugal following their expulsions from those areas. The Ottomans used the millet system, which allowed certain groups to have their own courts and laws. This applied primarily to non-Muslims, and the Greek Millet, for instance, was headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Jews had their own millet, headed by the Hakham Bashi, which was the Chief Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire. Jews had wide spread freedoms in the period comparable to Christian subjects under the Porte. If the Sanhederin is reformed, perhaps it can play a role in the Millet system and the organization of Jews within the empire.
In fact I think it was the Hakham Bashi that refused assent. So maybe a way to fix this is that the first Av beit Din and Nasi are the Hakham Bashi.
 
1 Can and Do the Ottomans kill this new organization?
2. Does a revived Sanhedrin mean Zionism arises earlier out a romantic movement due to the new sanhedrin
3. Does this butterfly the Shulchan Aruch and Mapah being the major codices of Jewish practice in the Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions. They were composed in the wake of the Inquisition or roughly around the time this proposal was getting underway. Does a Sanhedrin a la Napoleons but independent undercut the work of Karo and Isserles.
1. The Ottomans were usually willing to let millets govern themselves and accommodate local power structures as long as they didn't rebel. So if the Sanhedrin is loyal and doesn't make trouble, I'd imagine the Ottomans would consider it an internal matter. OTOH, from what I understand of the movement to re-establish the Sanhedrin, they wanted to hasten the messianic age through acts of mortification and penance, and depending on what those acts might be, there's a possibility that they would lead to a decline in the tax base, riots by Jews who don't want to be part of the mortification program, or even conflict with non-Jews in the area, and in any of those cases, the Porte would be more inclined to intervene.

2. I don't think so -- the Sanhedrin wouldn't change the material conditions of life in Ottoman Palestine, and I'm not sure if diaspora Jews would see the political changes they make as being for the better, especially if the Sanhedrin really did become a flagellant regime. Mass migration would also still face daunting financial and logistic obstacles which a Joseph Nasi might be able to overcome but which a council of impecunious rabbis probably could not. (Maybe one possibility is for the Sanhedrin movement to form in the 1560s instead, coinciding with Nasi's settlement plan?)

3. I don't know nearly as much about the origin of the Shulhan Arukh as I should, but maybe the Sanhedrin would co-opt the work of Karo and Isserles rather than pre-empting them? The demand for a single book containing all the practical halacha a layman would need to know would still be there. Maybe there would be more of an editing/compilation process similar to that which led to the Talmud Bavli in the first place, with individual rabbis of the Sanhedrin adding to the work, but the base might still be the same.
 
Last edited:
1. The Ottomans were usually willing to let millets govern themselves and accommodate local power structures as long as they didn't rebel. So if the Sanhedrin is loyal and doesn't make trouble, I'd imagine the Ottomans would consider it an internal matter. OTOH, from what I understand of the movement to re-establish the Sanhedrin, they wanted to hasten the messianic age through acts of mortification and penance, and depending on what those acts might be, there's a possibility that they would lead to a decline in the tax base, riots by Jews who don't want to be part of the mortification program, or even conflict with non-Jews in the area, and in any of those cases, the Porte would be more inclined to intervene.

2. I don't think so -- the Sanhedrin wouldn't change the material conditions of life in Ottoman Palestine, and I'm not sure if diaspora Jews would see the political changes they make as being for the better, especially if the Sanhedrin really did become a flagellant regime. Mass migration would also still face daunting financial and logistic obstacles which a Joseph Nasi might be able to overcome but which a council of impecunious rabbis probably could not.

3. I don't know nearly as much about the origin of the Shulhan Arukh as I should, but maybe the Sanhedrin would co-opt the work of Karo and Isserles rather than pre-empting them? The demand for a single book containing all the practical halacha a layman would need to know would still be there. Maybe there would be more of an editing/compilation process similar to that which led to the Talmud Bavli in the first place, with individual rabbis of the Sanhedrin adding to the work, but the base might still be the same.
For 3 one consequence of co-opting Karo and Isserles would be more diversity of minhag. Especially if they recruit more Isserles like rabbis.
 
For 3 one consequence of co-opting Karo and Isserles would be more diversity of minhag. Especially if they recruit more Isserles like rabbis.
I wonder if a single book which includes both Ashkenazi and Sephardi minhag, including regional variations, might lead to more communities picking and choosing from "foreign" customs - or whether it would emphasize more strongly that they should not.

For what it's worth, Karo would actually be on the Sanhedrin - he was living in Tzfat by then - and Isserles would not, so the odds might be toward a halachic manual that attempts to unify rather than diversify minhag, but if a sufficient number of the other Sanhedrin members have attitudes more like Isserles (which is something I don't know), they might overrule him.
 
I wonder if a single book which includes both Ashkenazi and Sephardi minhag, including regional variations, might lead to more communities picking and choosing from "foreign" customs - or whether it would emphasize more strongly that they should not.

For what it's worth, Karo would actually be on the Sanhedrin - he was living in Tzfat by then - and Isserles would not, so the odds might be toward a halachic manual that attempts to unify rather than diversify minhag, but if a sufficient number of the other Sanhedrin members have attitudes more like Isserles (which is something I don't know), they might overrule him.
In modern Israel it has led to picking and choosing minhag most famously on whether Lentils are Kosher le pesach. And I think the effect depends on the editors stance on such picking and choosing. The single book is less important than the author's stance on keeping customs separate.
Youre right about the Tzafat circle.
IIRC the OTL shulchan aruch was originally going to be just Karo until the publisher got wind that Isserles was attempting a similar project in Krakow and decided to force the collab, with Isserles being very anxious that since Karo was more established he would be considered a footnote.
 
In modern Israel it has led to picking and choosing minhag most famously on whether Lentils are Kosher le pesach. And I think the effect depends on the editors stance on such picking and choosing. The single book is less important than the author's stance on keeping customs separate.
My mother would cook rice at Pesach when I was a child and would always say "we're Sefardi this week." But we weren't very religious and I'm even less so now that I'm 52 and married and do my own cooking.

I agree that the author's stance is important, especially since the single book, once imbued with rabbinic authority, will be the only halacha that many laypeople ever read.
Youre right about the Tzafat circle.
I wonder if one effect of this scenario might be for the Galilee to eclipse Jerusalem as the center of scholarship and the source of Jewish religious authority. Two of the four cities are there after all, and a Sanhedrin that sits in Tzfat will be the political authority for the Jews of Palestine as well as the religious authority for many others. Maybe that's even what the Jerusalemites were afraid of when they opposed the plan.
 
My mother would cook rice at Pesach when I was a child and would always say "we're Sefardi this week." But we weren't very religious and I'm even less so now that I'm 52 and married and do my own cooking.

I agree that the author's stance is important, especially since the single book, once imbued with rabbinic authority, will be the only halacha that many laypeople ever read.

I wonder if one effect of this scenario might be for the Galilee to eclipse Jerusalem as the center of scholarship and the source of Jewish religious authority. Two of the four cities are there after all, and a Sanhedrin that sits in Tzfat will be the political authority for the Jews of Palestine as well as the religious authority for many others. Maybe that's even what the Jerusalemites were afraid of when they opposed the plan.
Probably Especially as that Kind of already happened historically in the Amoraim and Geonic period. What little authority Jerusalem maintained might collapse in this scenario.
 
bereishit hasanhedrin hahadash the beginning of the 1538 sanhedrin timeline.
Probably Especially as that Kind of already happened historically in the Amoraim and Geonic period. What little authority Jerusalem maintained might collapse in this scenario.
So maybe we can play this out.

Let's say that the Jerusalemites' objections are overcome and the Sanhedrin is constituted in mid-1538, holding its first session soon after Rosh Hashanah.

At first it is a fanatic body, eager to bring on the messianic age. It invites, and then commands, every adult male Jew to appear before it, confess his sins, and face corporal punishment. It also enforces moral laws very strictly and follows the example of Simeon ben Shetach rather than Elazar ben Azariah in its use of the death sentence. Needless to say, this leads to discontent among the Jews of Galilee and all Ottoman Palestine.

At the same time, however, the Sanhedrin administers the Jewish community capably - it establishes schools, corruption is unknown, and its reputation as a law court is unassailable. And it is soon forced to moderate. In 1540 and 1541, there are riots against flogging and puritanism among the Jews of Tzfat and Tiberias, and some of the riots spill into the Arab quarter. The Ottoman authorities then make very clear to the Sanhedrin that they need to cool it or face an unpleasant demise. So by 1542 or 1543 at the latest, the more lenient faction of the Sanhedrin is in the ascendancy, and the body settles down to the task (under Karo's guidance but involving all of them) of codifying halacha.

Twenty years later, the Sanhedrin is a well-established governing authority sitting in Tzfat (although it sometimes holds sessions in Jerusalem to placate the Jerusalemite rabbis), the *Shulhan Arukh is in the final stages of editing, and Tzfat is the capital of the Ottoman Jewish "state" (in the same way that the Druze and then the Maronite dynasties of Lebanon were states). But in the early 1560s, Joseph Nasi wins his charter to settle Jews in the Galilee - we'll assume that still happens, because I don't see anything in this scenario that would change the trajectory of the Mendes/Nasi family - and now, the Sanhedrin faces a political challenge. It can either help Nasi with his settlement project, which will increase the Jewish community's numbers and prosperity but force it to share power with Nasi as secular lord of the region - or it can choose to hinder that project in any way possible.

Could go either way, or both ways - I imagine there would be factions. But the later 16th century might be a powder keg.
 
So maybe we can play this out.

Let's say that the Jerusalemites' objections are overcome and the Sanhedrin is constituted in mid-1538, holding its first session soon after Rosh Hashanah.

At first it is a fanatic body, eager to bring on the messianic age. It invites, and then commands, every adult male Jew to appear before it, confess his sins, and face corporal punishment. It also enforces moral laws very strictly and follows the example of Simeon ben Shetach rather than Elazar ben Azariah in its use of the death sentence. Needless to say, this leads to discontent among the Jews of Galilee and all Ottoman Palestine.

At the same time, however, the Sanhedrin administers the Jewish community capably - it establishes schools, corruption is unknown, and its reputation as a law court is unassailable. And it is soon forced to moderate. In 1540 and 1541, there are riots against flogging and puritanism among the Jews of Tzfat and Tiberias, and some of the riots spill into the Arab quarter. The Ottoman authorities then make very clear to the Sanhedrin that they need to cool it or face an unpleasant demise. So by 1542 or 1543 at the latest, the more lenient faction of the Sanhedrin is in the ascendancy, and the body settles down to the task (under Karo's guidance but involving all of them) of codifying halacha.

Twenty years later, the Sanhedrin is a well-established governing authority sitting in Tzfat (although it sometimes holds sessions in Jerusalem to placate the Jerusalemite rabbis), the *Shulhan Arukh is in the final stages of editing, and Tzfat is the capital of the Ottoman Jewish "state" (in the same way that the Druze and then the Maronite dynasties of Lebanon were states). But in the early 1560s, Joseph Nasi wins his charter to settle Jews in the Galilee - we'll assume that still happens, because I don't see anything in this scenario that would change the trajectory of the Mendes/Nasi family - and now, the Sanhedrin faces a political challenge. It can either help Nasi with his settlement project, which will increase the Jewish community's numbers and prosperity but force it to share power with Nasi as secular lord of the region - or it can choose to hinder that project in any way possible.

Could go either way, or both ways - I imagine there would be factions. But the later 16th century might be a powder keg.
And unless the riots butterfly the Arizal the seventeenth will be as well with the Deluge leading to the antinomian Shabtai Tzvi. Actually in this case we'll probably get something like the Gospels ie the Sanhedrin fearful of Tzvi bringing the Ottomans down on them basically hand him over to the Porte to prevent him from causing trouble.
 
And unless the riots butterfly the Arizal the seventeenth will be as well with the Deluge leading to the antinomian Shabtai Tzvi. Actually in this case we'll probably get something like the Gospels ie the Sanhedrin fearful of Tzvi bringing the Ottomans down on them basically hand him over to the Porte to prevent him from causing trouble.
Ha-Ari was born in 1534 and was probably living in Egypt already by 1540, so he'd be safe. And with a POD in 1538, I don't see any way that the late 16th and 17th centuries wouldn't be a catastrophe for European Jews - the spread of ghettos, increasing repression under the Counter-Reformation, the wars of religion culminating in the apocalypse of the Thirty Years' War, and if there's a European war that involves Poland, there would almost certainly be a Ukrainian uprising with Jews caught in the middle. So there would be false messiahs - if not Zevi himself, then another charismatic figure much like him.

From what I remember (correct me if I'm wrong), the rabbis of Palestine were mostly against Zevi IOTL, and would probably be more so ITTL for exactly the reason you say. For that matter, if the Sanhedrin manages to reach a modus vivendi with Nasi and Galilee has a growing and prosperous Jewish population, then it might be an island of stability in a world of messianic madness, and maybe that is when migration on a larger scale might happen.
 
the mystical messiah
1580

Eleven months had passed since the death of Joseph Nasi, called the Duke of Galilee by his Italian guards and Yusuf Bey by the Muslims. His widow Reina – no queen, despite her name – ruled now from the Venetian-style palazzo he built on Tzfat’s tallest hilltop.

She was not there today. Today, dressed in black silk made from the mulberry trees of Peki’in, she was in the cemetery for the unveiling of her husband’s grave. And ninety-one of the hundred members of the Sanhedrin stood behind her.

Few would have imagined that on the day Nasi landed at Acre with a phalanx of armed Livorno Jews as his bodyguards and the first hundred settlers behind them. A majority of the Sanhedrin had bitterly opposed him then – who, whether a disciple of Karo or a follower of Alkabetz, would ever countenance the rule of a foppish Marrano who knew the Law little and cared for it even less? The rabbis of the court had debated whether to declare Nasi herem, to forbid the Jews of Palestine to traffic with him, even whether to join the Muslims and resist him with arms; there had been shouting in the Sanhedrin’s chambers and there had been fistfights in the streets.

The chasm had been bridged by, of all people, Karo. Stern guardian of the Law he may have been, but the grand old man of the Sephardic rabbis and the aristocratic converso had understood each other. Karo had offered Nasi a ready-made administration which would leave him free to pursue his dreams of colonization and development – but in return, he would have to recognize that administration. Nasi could control industry and trade, build a military force, and travel the world recruiting colonists, but the Sanhedrin would run the schools, aid the poor, and be the supreme court for the Jews of Palestine as they had been before. And the Sanhedrin would also be Nasi’s go-between with the qadis and zu’ama, giving him the benefit of relationships twenty years in the making.

There had been some who dissented; there were some who dissented even today. But most saw the advantages, and they remembered their own excesses and were shamed by them; they acquiesced in the end, and for eighteen years the arrangement had served all parties well.

The Sanhedrin would pray at Nasi’s grave today. And maybe someday, they would return to place stones on it.

1611

Reina was dead now too, fifteen years in her grave, and the House of Nasi with her. She had died childless, and there were no nephews or cousins willing to travel to the ends of the earth to be her heir. The palazzo stood empty, already beginning to crumble.

The Sanhedrin had met the day she died – not to mourn, although by that time they did mourn her sincerely, but to decide how to fill her place. They had ruled the Jews of the sanjak for decades; now, the rulership of the sanjak itself was vacant. If they didn’t choose a replacement – if they and the qadis didn’t choose a replacement – then the Grand Turk would, and the prosperity that the Nasis had brought through the silk and grain trades would be taxed away.

As luck would have it, the meeting of the ulama had taken place the same day, and at the end of it, rabbis and qadis met together. By nightfall the shape of the future had been set: the Sanhedrin would elect three members of a council of seven, the qadis would choose three, and the last would be a Christian priest acceptable to both. And before another day had passed, the Sanhedrin had decided on their three: Moshe Galante, the protégé of Karo; the poet and mystic Elazar ben Moshe Azikri; and Ibn Soussan, grandson of the great mathematician and himself a natural philosopher of no mean repute.

All of them were dead now, their graves keeping company with the Nasis’. But they had set a pattern: of the three rabbis on the governing council, there would always be a lawgiver, a mystic and a man of practical learning. One for the world, one for the Law, and one for all the olamim; all the sefirot and all the limbs of Adam Kadmon working together.

And they had worked. The sanjak had been forced to place itself under the protection of the Druze warlord Fakhr-al-Din, and it owed him military fealty, but the tribute it paid to the Porte through him – even after he took his share – was far less than the Turks would have taken had they ruled directly. And there was time to tend the silkworms and olive groves, time to weave cloth and fire glass, time to set type on the Hebrew press that Reina had commissioned, time to add to the never-ending work of codifying the Law and customs of the scattered Jewish world.

Maybe there was even a time to dream of a day when Jews would not be so scattered.

1649

Tzfat stood.

There had been a moment – more than one – when it seemed that it might not. The armies of Fakhr-al-Din’s son struck against the Porte first, but the Galilee was closer, and when the council chose loyalty to the Sultan over the lord of the Chouf, those armies were swift in punishment. The second Fakhr-al-Din swept through the hills looting and killing, uprooting groves and vineyards, trampling fields, burning villages and driving their people into the few walled towns that resisted. The towns filled to bursting with refugees: peasants, Bedouin herders, and the rural portion of a Jewish community now thirty thousand strong. And then the son of Fakhr-al-Din laid siege to those towns.

And they held! Tzfat held, Tiberias held, Peki’in held; they stood siege for nine months, Muslims and Jews stood on the walls together, rabbis and qadis turned from their spiritual duties to direct the defense, and townsmen with makeshift weapons repelled assault after assault. And at last the Sultan’s armies marched from the north, and Fakhr-al-Din the son had to lift the siege to meet them.

That had happened on the ninth of Av in the year of Creation 5394. The ninth of Av – the day of destruction and mourning become a day of deliverance. And less than two months later, the men of the Grand Turk were victors, the house of Fakhr-al-Din went the way of the house of Nasi, and its last ruler’s head adorned the Sultan’s palace gate.

Tzfat stood, and the Sanhedrin stood.

But would Jews elsewhere stand? The bulk of the world’s Jews were still in Europe, and for the past thirty years, Europe had been convulsed in wars of faith. With war came massacre; ghettos put to the torch and their inhabitants to the sword. Even Poland, for so long a safe haven, was aflame. And there were rumors of still worse – a Cossack rebellion sweeping all before it in eastern Poland, visiting atrocities on the Jews that had never been conceived even in the Crusades or the Black Death. Surely those rumors were false, surely such dreadful things could never truly happen.

But if they had? And if they came to Tzfat? Who would stand then?

1665

The messenger entered the market square at a dead run, breathless and dripping with sweat, barely able to speak as he halted at the council table. He drew himself up and began to say something, but it came out only as a heaving cough.

“What is the meaning of this?” asked one of the councilmen, but Rabbi Jacob Zemach, the broad shoulder of Adam Kadmon in this generation’s Sanhedrin, held up his hand. He knew this messenger, and the Jerusalemites would only have sent him if there were news of grave importance. And in a world where madness seemed only to increase, the news could be grave indeed.

“I have come from Gaza…” gasped the messenger.

“And?”

“Reb Nathan has proclaimed Zevi the messiah! Thousands are following him. He says…”

The messenger fell silent, and the silence lengthened.

“What does he say?”

The messenger raised his hand and pointed to the hilltop, at the decaying palazzo that had once belonged to the House of Nasi.

“That is where he will rule.”
 
1580

Eleven months had passed since the death of Joseph Nasi, called the Duke of Galilee by his Italian guards and Yusuf Bey by the Muslims. His widow Reina – no queen, despite her name – ruled now from the Venetian-style palazzo he built on Tzfat’s tallest hilltop.

She was not there today. Today, dressed in black silk made from the mulberry trees of Peki’in, she was in the cemetery for the unveiling of her husband’s grave. And ninety-one of the hundred members of the Sanhedrin stood behind her.

Few would have imagined that on the day Nasi landed at Acre with a phalanx of armed Livorno Jews as his bodyguards and the first hundred settlers behind them. A majority of the Sanhedrin had bitterly opposed him then – who, whether a disciple of Karo or a follower of Alkabetz, would ever countenance the rule of a foppish Marrano who knew the Law little and cared for it even less? The rabbis of the court had debated whether to declare Nasi herem, to forbid the Jews of Palestine to traffic with him, even whether to join the Muslims and resist him with arms; there had been shouting in the Sanhedrin’s chambers and there had been fistfights in the streets.

The chasm had been bridged by, of all people, Karo. Stern guardian of the Law he may have been, but the grand old man of the Sephardic rabbis and the aristocratic converso had understood each other. Karo had offered Nasi a ready-made administration which would leave him free to pursue his dreams of colonization and development – but in return, he would have to recognize that administration. Nasi could control industry and trade, build a military force, and travel the world recruiting colonists, but the Sanhedrin would run the schools, aid the poor, and be the supreme court for the Jews of Palestine as they had been before. And the Sanhedrin would also be Nasi’s go-between with the qadis and zu’ama, giving him the benefit of relationships twenty years in the making.

There had been some who dissented; there were some who dissented even today. But most saw the advantages, and they remembered their own excesses and were shamed by them; they acquiesced in the end, and for eighteen years the arrangement had served all parties well.

The Sanhedrin would pray at Nasi’s grave today. And maybe someday, they would return to place stones on it.

1611

Reina was dead now too, fifteen years in her grave, and the House of Nasi with her. She had died childless, and there were no nephews or cousins willing to travel to the ends of the earth to be her heir. The palazzo stood empty, already beginning to crumble.

The Sanhedrin had met the day she died – not to mourn, although by that time they did mourn her sincerely, but to decide how to fill her place. They had ruled the Jews of the sanjak for decades; now, the rulership of the sanjak itself was vacant. If they didn’t choose a replacement – if they and the qadis didn’t choose a replacement – then the Grand Turk would, and the prosperity that the Nasis had brought through the silk and grain trades would be taxed away.

As luck would have it, the meeting of the ulama had taken place the same day, and at the end of it, rabbis and qadis met together. By nightfall the shape of the future had been set: the Sanhedrin would elect three members of a council of seven, the qadis would choose three, and the last would be a Christian priest acceptable to both. And before another day had passed, the Sanhedrin had decided on their three: Moshe Galante, the protégé of Karo; the poet and mystic Elazar ben Moshe Azikri; and Ibn Soussan, grandson of the great mathematician and himself a natural philosopher of no mean repute.

All of them were dead now, their graves keeping company with the Nasis’. But they had set a pattern: of the three rabbis on the governing council, there would always be a lawgiver, a mystic and a man of practical learning. One for the world, one for the Law, and one for all the olamim; all the sefirot and all the limbs of Adam Kadmon working together.

And they had worked. The sanjak had been forced to place itself under the protection of the Druze warlord Fakhr-al-Din, and it owed him military fealty, but the tribute it paid to the Porte through him – even after he took his share – was far less than the Turks would have taken had they ruled directly. And there was time to tend the silkworms and olive groves, time to weave cloth and fire glass, time to set type on the Hebrew press that Reina had commissioned, time to add to the never-ending work of codifying the Law and customs of the scattered Jewish world.

Maybe there was even a time to dream of a day when Jews would not be so scattered.

1649

Tzfat stood.

There had been a moment – more than one – when it seemed that it might not. The armies of Fakhr-al-Din’s son struck against the Porte first, but the Galilee was closer, and when the council chose loyalty to the Sultan over the lord of the Chouf, those armies were swift in punishment. The second Fakhr-al-Din swept through the hills looting and killing, uprooting groves and vineyards, trampling fields, burning villages and driving their people into the few walled towns that resisted. The towns filled to bursting with refugees: peasants, Bedouin herders, and the rural portion of a Jewish community now thirty thousand strong. And then the son of Fakhr-al-Din laid siege to those towns.

And they held! Tzfat held, Tiberias held, Peki’in held; they stood siege for nine months, Muslims and Jews stood on the walls together, rabbis and qadis turned from their spiritual duties to direct the defense, and townsmen with makeshift weapons repelled assault after assault. And at last the Sultan’s armies marched from the north, and Fakhr-al-Din the son had to lift the siege to meet them.

That had happened on the ninth of Av in the year of Creation 5394. The ninth of Av – the day of destruction and mourning become a day of deliverance. And less than two months later, the men of the Grand Turk were victors, the house of Fakhr-al-Din went the way of the house of Nasi, and its last ruler’s head adorned the Sultan’s palace gate.

Tzfat stood, and the Sanhedrin stood.

But would Jews elsewhere stand? The bulk of the world’s Jews were still in Europe, and for the past thirty years, Europe had been convulsed in wars of faith. With war came massacre; ghettos put to the torch and their inhabitants to the sword. Even Poland, for so long a safe haven, was aflame. And there were rumors of still worse – a Cossack rebellion sweeping all before it in eastern Poland, visiting atrocities on the Jews that had never been conceived even in the Crusades or the Black Death. Surely those rumors were false, surely such dreadful things could never truly happen.

But if they had? And if they came to Tzfat? Who would stand then?

1665

The messenger entered the market square at a dead run, breathless and dripping with sweat, barely able to speak as he halted at the council table. He drew himself up and began to say something, but it came out only as a heaving cough.

“What is the meaning of this?” asked one of the councilmen, but Rabbi Jacob Zemach, the broad shoulder of Adam Kadmon in this generation’s Sanhedrin, held up his hand. He knew this messenger, and the Jerusalemites would only have sent him if there were news of grave importance. And in a world where madness seemed only to increase, the news could be grave indeed.

“I have come from Gaza…” gasped the messenger.

“And?”

“Reb Nathan has proclaimed Zevi the messiah! Thousands are following him. He says…”

The messenger fell silent, and the silence lengthened.

“What does he say?”

The messenger raised his hand and pointed to the hilltop, at the decaying palazzo that had once belonged to the House of Nasi.

“That is where he will rule.”
Please write a TL. I would read it obsessively.
 
Please write a TL. I would read it obsessively.
Much appreciated, but this was @jacob ningen 's idea and I probably shouldn't have taken it even this far. For the record, what I imagined happening next was an actual pitched battle between the Sabbateans and the Sanhedrin in which Sabbatai Zevi and Nathan of Gaza are killed, which on the one hand causes a religious sect to form around Zevi's martyrdom but on the other hand cements the Galilee as a theocratic republic within the Ottoman empire. From there, who can say?
 
Much appreciated, but this was @jacob ningen 's idea and I probably shouldn't have taken it even this far. For the record, what I imagined happening next was an actual pitched battle between the Sabbateans and the Sanhedrin in which Sabbatai Zevi and Nathan of Gaza are killed, which on the one hand causes a religious sect to form around Zevi's martyrdom but on the other hand cements the Galilee as a theocratic republic within the Ottoman empire. From there, who can say?
On the other hand @Jonathan Edelstein has been doing most of the work and imagination. Im not sure I had enough passion to do more than ask and transform it into an actual timeline.
 
On the other hand @Jonathan Edelstein has been doing most of the work and imagination. Im not sure I had enough passion to do more than ask and transform it into an actual timeline.
Is it OK then if I do another scene or two, taking it into the early 18th century? I doubt I'll do more than that, because I don't have the time or resources right now for a major project, but there are some more ideas that could be fun to explore.
 
mosiach defeated
1666
The Messiah’s soldiers were singing.

Jacob Zemach heard them before he saw them, thousands of voices echoing through the hills, singing the piyyut of Alkabetz as they marched up the Nazareth road. Lecha dodi, likrat kallah – come, my beloved, let us greet the bride.

That was a Sabbath hymn, and it was not the Sabbath. But Shabbatai Zevi had made it his war song. Once, in Salonika, he had married the Torah; now, he claimed as a bride the Holy Land, the holy cities, and the entire Jewish people.

He was marching to take one of those cities now, at the head of that most uncanny of things, a Jewish army. And it would be his, if he could defeat the other army that stood in his way.

An army. Zemach shook his head, feeling not for the first time the inadequacy of words. The Livorno Guard, at least, deserved the name – they lived in barracks, drilled, and fought bandits. The Bedouins weren’t soldiers, but they had learned in a hard school of raids, and some of the townsmen – Jewish and Arab both – had served in the militia. But most were no more soldiers than Zemach was, maybe even less. He’d stood on the city wall in the siege thirty years past; most of the men ranked behind him hadn’t been born then.

What kind of battle is it, when the old men know war and the young do not?

If there were any answer to that question, it was lost in the moment, because that was when Zemach caught his first sight of Zevi’s army. If anything, Zevi’s followers looked even less military than the peasants and townsmen who opposed them, but they filled the valley from one side to the other: Jews from Egypt and Smyrna, others who had given their life savings to flee the inferno of Europe. At their head, on white horses, were Zevi and his prophet Nathan of Gaza, and in spite of himself, Zemach was arrested at the vision.

“Tall as a cedar of Lebanon, framed in a black beard, shining in beauty," Cuenqui had described Zevi, and he was. On horseback, robed in silk and armed with a sword, he looked like a king. His followers sang once again of greeting their bride, and for a horrible moment, Zemach wondered if he might be the Messiah after all.

“About five thousand of them, I’d say,” said the Livorno Guard captain beside him, breaking the spell. Zemach could count soldiers too – he’d been in charge of a militia company during the siege, because he hadn’t been a young man even then – and agreed. The men of the Galilee would be outnumbered two to one, and although Zevi had initially hoped that his march on Tzfat would be a triumphal procession, his followers were now prepared for battle. They had left off singing and were chanting now, over and over: Shabtai, Melech Yisrael.

Closer to Zemach, officers were giving orders and men were scrambling into line. The Livorno Guard, who had muskets, took the front, augmented by those townsmen who had matchlocks from the days of the siege and who knew how to use them. The bulk of the army – the ones who had only swords or clubs or hand-cannons two centuries old – stood behind. But Zemach could also see messengers running or riding to either side, bringing orders to the Bedouin horsemen and the troops hidden in the woods and on the hillsides.

Closer and closer Zevi came. Zemach stood and waited, feeling every moment of his eighty-eight years. A man of his age had no business on a battlefield. But when there was no king in Israel, its judges must lead. The Sanhedrin, the qadis – they were imperfect men. But at least they were not kings.

A hundred yards separated the armies, and there were puffs of smoke rising in front of Zemach, followed a second later by the sound of gunfire and a second after that by shouts of anger and pain. Zevi’s army had drawn first blood. Some of the men beside Zemach moved to shoot back, but he shouted them down; “No! Wait!” he called, and he heard the same order from officers up and down the line. Zevi’s soldiers kept shooting, a few at a time, and it was hard to wait when the men next to you were being hit, but the officers kept shouting their orders, and the men, in spite of themselves, obeyed.

“Now!” shouted Zemach and the other judges and qadis and captains of the Livorno Guard, and the army of the Galilee loosed a volley at fifty yards. Its sound shook the valley, making the earlier gunfire seem like nothing, and it veiled Zevi’s forces in rising smoke; through that veil, Zemach heard cries of pain and shouts of consternation, and then a second report and more cries as another volley came from the men in the woods.

Zevi’s men were shaken – Zemach could see and hear that, he could feel that. He could feel the arm of Adam Kadmon – the sefira of Gevurah, Strength – squeezing their hearts. A volley was stronger than a single shot. An army together was stronger than a mob.

But they were not broken. Through the dissipating smoke, Zevi pointed his sword at the men of the Galilee, and his soldiers surged forward at a run. Shabtai Melech Yisrael, they shouted as one, and the two lines crashed into each other with the ring of clashing steel and the hot iron smell of blood.

Zemach felt a hand pulling on his arm – the left arm, the arm of Gevurah. “To the rear,” said the Livorno captain. “This is no place for you.” Zemach shook the hand off. The captain was right, but in this moment he was a judge of Israel. With his right arm – the arm of Hesed, of kindness, the arm that should have nothing to do with battle – he drew his own sword, and stood where he was with only two lines of men between him and the enemy.

The line held – it wavered, but it held. But then Zevi was suddenly there, wheeling his horse and charging through the men of Tzfat. He swung his sword down, and the sword of Zemach, a man of eighty-eight, rose up to meet it.

In any sane world, Zemach’s sword would have flown from his hand and he would have been cut down. But Zevi was still an inexpert rider, and his stroke was unbalanced and weakened. Zemach’s parry was agony, but at the end of it, his sword was still in hand, and their eyes met as Zevi looked down at the man who had checked him.

And then the Bedouin riders came down the hillside shouting battle-cries and crashed into both of the Messiah’s flanks.

Now Zevi’s men did break. They had come to this valley ready for battle and victory, but not for this much struggle and death. And as Zevi turned to see what had caused his army such dismay, a bullet from a Bedouin matchlock hit him in the chest, and slowly, the cedar of Lebanon toppled in the saddle and fell to the earth.

Some of Zevi’s followers – the most fanatic of them – still fought. A shout of Shabtai Melech Yisrael rose up from the left and, looking in that direction, Zemach saw Nathan of Gaza rallying a knot of swordsmen. But Nathan died too, falling to the sword of a Livorno Jew whose name Zemach didn’t know, and then it was well and truly over. The men who had followed Zevi gave way, running back to Nazareth, and the few who still stood were overwhelmed.

Zemach stood unmoving as the sound of battle was replaced by that of its aftermath: the cries of the wounded, lamentations over the dead. Hundreds of men who had come to sweep Zevi to his coronation lay unmoving in the valley, and so did far too many of the men of Tzfat and the Galilee. Zemach counted eight rabbis of the Sanhedrin among the bodies on the ground; men he had known for decades and with whom he had worked, struggled and argued. And there were many others; the cries of injured men would be accompanied tonight by those of widows.

One wounded man lay beside him, and he knelt. He was a medical doctor – he had been that before he was ever a rabbi, and long before he was ever a soldier or a judge. And at the end, it seemed, he would return.

Whoever destroys one life, destroys the world, and whoever saves one life saves the world. A universe of worlds had been destroyed this day – destroyed by a man who had thought himself their savior. Now Zemach would save one if he could.
 
Top