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  • Shadarim in the Colonial Americas: Agents of Inter-Communal Connectivity and Rabbinic Authority1
  • Stanley Mirvis (bio)

The Ottoman Empire rapidly decentralized following its defeat at the gates of Vienna in 1683. During the eighteenth century, local strongmen filled the power vacuum in frontier settings such as Palestine. These Beys, with the power to collect tax revenue, found an easily exploitable population in the small Jewish communities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberius, and Safed.2 Local Ottoman rulers terrorized these Jewish communities through high taxation and extortion. The instability of the environment itself added additional stresses to communal life in Palestine. Over the course of the eighteenth century, fires and natural disasters, such as the Levantine earthquake of 1759, plagued the region. To alleviate their plight, the Jewish communities of eighteenth-century frontier Palestine looked to the diaspora for support.

Early-modern Ottoman rabbinic authority was centralized in Istanbul through the council known as the pekidei kushta. This rabbinic council responded to the various crises of Ottoman Jewry by resurrecting the late-antique tradition of dispatching emissaries from the Holy Land to the diaspora in search of financial support.3 These emissaries are known by their Talmudic acronym sh”dr (sheluḥah derabanan), or the plural form shadarim. Shadarim traveled to diasporic communities as living embodiments of the Holy Land itself. They journeyed with a certain expectation of respect knowing that the success of their mission depended on their ability to represent the dignity and mystique of the Holy Land. [End Page 221] During the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, shadarim traveled to the Jewish communities of Persia, the Near East, North Africa, Europe, and the Americas.4

While there are certainly fruitful comparisons to be made between missions to the East and to the West, this article will focus exclusively on the impact of shadarim on the colonial Americas. In examining several case studies it reveals how their missions helped to define and strengthen the interconnectivity, communication, and the power dynamics between metropole and colonial Jewish communities. It also argues, through discussion of the career of the emissary Ḥayim Yiẓḥak Carigal, that while shadarim in Europe and North Africa were largely outsiders in both internal and inter-communal affairs, in the colonial Americas, the possibility existed for shadarim to transcend their outsider’s status and take on established communal roles. Though this article focuses only on the missions of eighteenth-century shadarim, these emissaries continued to travel to the Americas into the nineteenth century and beyond.5 Indeed missions to the Diaspora representing Israeli academies continue to this very day.

The Shadarim as Agents of Modernity

Shadarim have been a subject of considerable interest to scholars of early modern Jewish history. As perpetually peripatetic border crossers, “perennial outsiders,” and champions of traditional rabbinic authority, they played a central role in many of the most transformative historical developments of the early modern period in Jewish history. In many ways, the shadarim were the living embodiments of what it means to be “early modern.” They were agents of rabbinic tradition and the guardians of an imagined centrality of the Holy Land. At the same time, as travelers, they fully experienced and frequently embraced the changing world they visited. Travel is itself a type of “neutral society.”6 It brought Jews and non-Jews into close contact, with shared fates, on long sea voyages, overland carriage journeys, and during months spent in quarantine.7 [End Page 222]

A case in point is perhaps the most famous and articulate of all shadarim, Ḥayim Yosef David Azulai, who traveled throughout North Africa, Italy, as well as Central and Western Europe on two separate missions on behalf of the Jewish community in Hebron.8 During his second journey to Europe (1773–1778), Azulai was just as focused on secular pursuits—cabinets of curiosity, menageries, libraries, and garden sculptures—as he was on discovering Hebrew manuscripts, interceding in communal disputes, or giving approbations to Hebrew books. There is a strong case to be made that Azulai’s flirtation with secular culture in his travelogue Ma‘agal Tov (The Good Circuit) should place him among those agents of the “early haskalah” who preceded Moses Mendelssohn in engaging...


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