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Rabbi Ovadiah M’Bartenura – The Journey to Jerusalem

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

It’s almost impossible to study the Mishnayot properly without guidance

from R’ Ovadiah M’Bartenura, also known as the “Bertinoro”. His commentary on

the Mishnah is like Rashi’s commentary on the Torah and has become a classic in

almost all printed versions. Few people however know that he also wrote a

supracommentary on Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, along with many letters

to his relatives in Italy and descriptions of his travels.

R’ Ovadiah M’Bartenura was born in a small town in the modern province

of Forlì-Cesena, Italy. He was the disciple of the Maharik (R’ Joseph Colon

Trabotto) and his birth marked a new, better phase in the Jewish community in

Italy. Nevertheless, his dream of going to the Land of Israel never ceased and in

1488, he left by ship from Naples to Sicily, and then to Egypt. From there, he

continued on a journey by camel caravan through the Sinai Desert and then to

Gaza. Finally, he went from there to Hevron and Beit Lechem.

R’ Ovadiah M’Bartenura left the prosperous community from Italy to move

to Jerusalem, a feat that was filled with dangers of all sorts, especially from the

Arab rulers at that time.

In a breathtaking report of his arrival, the Bertinoro writes:

“Around three quarters of a mile from Jerusalem [...] the blessed city was

revealed to us, the site of our happiness. And at that time we tore our clothes in

sorrow, as was proper to do.

Later, we saw our Holy Temple and its desolation, we tore our clothing a

second time for the Temple. We arrived at the gates of Jerusalem, [...] on the

thirteenth of Nissan 5248 (1488), in the afternoon.

A lot of Emunah and dedication was needed at the moment to live in the

Holy City. Generally, the situation in the city and the status of the Jews in

particular were very bad. Only seventy Jewish families stayed behind, out of more

or less 4,000 inhabitants. The Jews were less than 2% of the total number of


The situation in Jerusalem was heartbreaking. There was a dire lack of

Rabbis, Torah scrolls, holy books and many other items that would enable Jews to

live a Jewish life. Moreover, few people lived a Torah life there since the

synagogues were in really poor shape.

The Bertinoro continues his report:

“Jerusalem was desolate and destroyed, it did not have any walls

surrounding it… The Jews once owned many buildings, but they were all destroyed

and desolate, piles of rubble […] A small section of the Western Wall [The Kotel

HaMa’aravi, Wailing Wall] still exists. Its stones are big and thick, I have never

seen such great stones in any ancient construction, neither in Rome nor in any

other place.

The Jews are the poorest of the inhabitants, with no form of sustenance […]

Someone who can get a single loaf of bread for an entire year is considered rich in

this place. There are many widows, old and alone, seven women for every man […]

And they all remain poor and wretched […] There was a harsh famine in the land,

and many of the Jews died of famine […] Many people ate grass from the fields,

searching like the deer for fodder […] Or they ate the remains of carob fruit [...]”

Seeing the great desolation, R’ Ovadiah M’Bartenura took it upon himself to

rebuild the community. He gathered the destitute Jews, helped dug new graves

and became a renowned Torah scholar and leader for all. Even government authorities began respecting him and helped lighten the burden of taxes upon the

community. It wasn’t long until the Jewish community of Jerusalem was reborn as

it also received large waves of immigrants from the Spanish expulsion in 1492.

Interestingly enough, the Bertinoro describes also some of the Jewish

customs of Jerusalem and those of the Karaites (the sect that rejects the oral

Torah), without judgment. For example, the Jews used to eat a hearty meal right

before Shabbat, then go to the Synagogue and come back home to eat a morsel

of bread and say Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals). While the Jews would never

pray Mincha Friday afternoon, they nevertheless kept the Shabbat more

stringently than other communities, and nobody in these Muslim controlled lands

entered the synagogue wearing shoes.

R’ Ovadiah M’Bartenura is buried in the Valley of Yehoshafat, close to the

foot of Mount of Olives and near the spring of Shiloah. May his memory be for a

blessing and his merit protect us all.

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