The History of the Me'am Lo'ez: A Ladino Commentary on the Bible

By Ginio, Alisa Meyuhas | European Judaism, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

The History of the Me'am Lo'ez: A Ladino Commentary on the Bible


Ginio, Alisa Meyuhas, European Judaism


Abstract

The eighteenth century was a turning point in the cultural history of the Judeo-Spanish community in the Ottoman Empire. This turning point evolves the use of Ladino for rabbinical literature, until then mostly and regularly written in Hebrew. It was the initiative of Rabbi Ya'akov Khuli (Jerusalem, 1689-Kushta-Constantinople-Istanbul, 1732) to publish his commentary on the Bible entitled: Me'am Lo'ez (1st edition: KushtaIstanbul, 1730) in Ladino, that inaugurated a new era for Ladino culture. Rabbi Ya'akov Khuli decided to take such a revolutionary step in view of the cultural gap existing, in his time and place, between the Hebrew-writing rabbinical elite on the one hand, and the rank and file of Judeo-Spanish speaking and Ladino-reading Sephardi public on the other hand. The author of the Me'am Lo'ez explained his intentions in the two introductions preceding his work: the first one in Hebrew, addressed to his fellow rabbinical sages and the second one in Ladino, addressed to the general public of readers in that language. Soon after its publication, the Me'am Lo'ez gained an unprecedented popularity that was to last for the next two hundred years. Even after the premature demise of Rabbi Ya'akov Khuli, other rabbinical scholars continued his project and published their commentaries on more books of the Hebrew Bible, following Rabbi Khuli's guidelines. Thanks to its Ladino language, the Me'am Lo'ez became known among Sephardi women as well. Although most of them could not read or write, they could understand what was being read aloud to them in Ladino. For Sephardi women, the Me'am Lo'ez thus became the gateway to Jewish tradition. The Me'am Lo'ez turned out to be the guiding authority for everyday life of the Sephardi communities in the Mediterranean basin. The teachings of the Me'am Lo'ez were the backbone of their cultural heritage with which they were to face the new trends of modernity arriving in the Ottoman Empire in the course of the nineteenth century.

Introduction

The introduction in the eighteenth century of rabbinical literature in Ladino, hitherto usually written in Hebrew, was a watershed in the cultural history of the Sephardi communities of the Ottoman Empire. It was Rabbi Ya'akov Khuli's initiative to publish the Me'am Lo'ez (Constantinople, 1730), a commentary on the Bible, in Ladino that inaugurated this new era for Ladino culture. (1) Rabbi Khuli decided to take this revolutionary step because of the cultural gap that existed between the Hebrew-writing rabbinical elite on the one hand and the rank and file Judeo-Spanish speaking and Ladino-reading Sephardi public on the other. Soon after its publication the Me'am Lo'ez gained unprecedented popularity that continued for the next 150 years. During this time the Me'am Lo'ez became the guiding authority on the everyday life of the Sephardi communities of the Mediterranean basin. After Khuli's premature demise other rabbinical scholars continued his project, publishing commentaries on various books of the Hebrew Bible and following Khuli's guidelines. Thanks to its use of Ladino the Me'am Lo'ez became known to Sephardi women as well. Although most could neither read nor write, they understood the Ladino texts that were read aloud to them. Thus, for Sephardi women, the Me'am Lo'ez was their introduction to Jewish learning.

Post--Expulsion Works in Ladino

Although knowledge of Hebrew was slowly declining in the Mediterranean Sephardi diaspora, many important rabbinical treaties were written by Sephardi Jews in Hebrew in the first century after the Expulsion. One such work is the Shulhan Arukh by Yosef Caro (1488-1575) who was born in Portugal. It was written in Safed and published in 1565. Extracts of this most important work were translated into Ladino as Meza del Alma and published in Salonica as early as 1568. This tendency to resort to Ladino instead of Hebrew became more and more pronounced during the course of the century.

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