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
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.