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  • Honor and Its Meaning Among Ottoman Jews
  • Yaron Ben-Naeh (bio)

On his deathbed in Istanbul at the end of the sixteenth century, Shlomo Ashkenazi wrote a will in which he instructed "that his children and his children's children who inherit their share shall neither be able nor permitted to lease their share of the houses to any living soul in the world [whether] a Jew, or a Gentile, or an Ishmaelite." Some 60 years later, some of the houses he bequeathed to them were abandoned or served as the scene of "innumerable crimes" committed by one of the heirs. Members of the family claimed this heir was "an evil doer who committed transgressions in public... and this brings upon us and our entire family disgrace and shame to the state of ignominy when it becomes public knowledge."1

They were concerned that, apart from the damage to family honor, serious acts of crime might be committed that would endanger them. In view of the circumstances, they asked for permission to lease out the houses to strangers despite the oaths and vows in the will. Rabbi Yehoshua Benbenesht (1590–1668), one of the prominent sages in the capital, adjudicated the matter and scrutinized the wording of the will. Since the main intent of the testator was family honor, and yet upholding the will might cause "shame and disgrace" to the family, he permitted the requested change. Rabbi Benbenesht referred to the testator as someone whom

we knew for his good name and fame, we found him prodigious in honor and virtues, we heard that all of his intentions were to attain honor, to in [End Page 19] crease the honor of his household and his excellent family...that all of his being and intent was for the honor and esteem of his name...that neither his sons nor descendants would be allowed to be known as multezim [a renter or a tax lessee; one who leases a tax collection concession], nor any of his servants because of the danger and because of the disgrace, that he not be disgraced in the eyes of the public to be the slaves of slaves.2

The honor of the deceased and family was therefore a sufficiently important value for the adjudicator (Heb.: posek) to overturn an explicit will and annul the strict sanctions that the testator had set down.

My objective in this article is to analyze the role of honor in the consciousness of Ottoman Jews, reconstruct what it meant to different strata of Ottoman Jewish society, and clarify its role as a component in the shaping of their mentality. I will study the cultural context of the Jewish-Iberian heritage, on the one hand, and the circumstances of life in an Ottoman urban environment, on the other.

Ottoman Jewry was an urban society in which, from the middle of the sixteenth century onward, the numerical and cultural dominance of Jews coming from the Iberian Peninsula was noticeable, particularly in the provinces of western Anatolia and the southern Balkans. Tens of thousands of Jews lived in the large urban centers such as Istanbul and Salonica. The population of medium-sized communities such as Izmir (Smyrna), Aleppo, Cairo, and sometimes Jerusalem numbered between one and five thousand, whereas in hundreds of small communities there were at most several dozen families. The economic pursuits of the Jews were diverse, constituting part of the fabric of urban life, a fact that influenced both their social structure (stratification, class) and their culture. They generally lived within an organizational framework known as a kahal (congregation), the Jewish community in every city comprising several congregations. The congregation was a social framework centered around the synagogue. It was governed by an elected oligarchic leadership that filled many roles, among them negotiating with the authorities and the provision of various services such as Jewish law court, education, poor relief, kosher food, a synagogue, and a cemetery.

The subject of the current study is a group composed mainly of Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin and their descendants, a group that in itself was highly diversified. Lack of sources keeps us from discussing or even relating to the other ethnic...