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In 1546, a rabbi tried to unite the Jewish community of Patras, in western Greece and at the time part of the Ottoman Empire. Or as the opponents might have put it, he tried take control of the community. The fallout was ugly, causing great disagreement throughout the large Jewish communities on the Mediterranean. Patras had four Jewish communities — native Greek, Spanish, and large and small Sicilian communities. Years earlier, all the communities had governed together by mutual agreement but decades prior to this incident, the communities agreed to self-govern without a federated Jewish government. This allowed each community to set its own rules and enforce them.

A recently arrived rabbi, Rav Yosef Forman, discovered that the communities had previously been united and attempted to reunite them under his leadership. Each community would have equal representation in the lay leadership. However, the native Greek community refused to submit to joint control because it realized that it would always be in the minority. The Greeks would be subject to Sicilian control. In response to this refusal, Rav Forman wrote a halachic treatise on the subject which he circulated to leading rabbis in the region, in the hope for their support for his consolidated control of the Patras Jewish community.


In particular, the support of the leading rabbi of the Salonica Jewish community — Rav Shmuel De Modena (Maharshdam) — was important for the consolidation plan. However, the relatively young Maharshdam (40 years old) refused to comment on this contentious situation. Rav Forman sent emissaries across Greece to Salonica, to ask for his opinion. Simultaneously, the native Greek community in Patras sent their own emissaries to Salonica to enlist Maharshdam on their side. After repeated requests from both sets of emissaries, Maharshdam agreed to adjudicate only if both sides agreed in advance to follow his conclusion, which was impossible.

In frustration, one of the native Greek emissaries decided to sail to Constantinople, where he might find rabbinic assistance. Before the boat left dock, members of the local Sicilian Jewish community — whose Sicilian comrades in Patras supported the consolidation — boarded the boat and beat up the Greek emissary. Then they turned him into the police, claiming that the Greek Jew owed money to a Sicilian Jew — with two local witnesses falsely testifying to the debt. The Greek Jew remained in jail for three days until he was able to find someone to pay the fictitious debt. Additionally, the community declared a curse on anyone who assisted the Greek emissaries, which they had announced in the marketplace. As a divine epilogue to this episode, two of the consolidation emissaries died within the year and a third fell seriously ill. (Maharshdam tells this story in the often omitted introduction to his responsum, Yoreh De’ah 253.)


Rav Forman then traveled himself to Salonica to enlist Maharshdam’s support. Maharshdam greeted him warmly but adamantly refused to discuss the consolidation issue. When Rav Forman left, he sent a blistering letter to Maharshdam, angry over his refusal to engage. Finally, Maharshdam conceded and got involved in this controversy. To Rav Forman’s dismay, Maharshdam supported the native Greek community in their fight against consolidation.

Setting aside the personal elements of this case, the issue at hand is one inherent to all democracies: how is a minority protected from the tyranny of the majority? Different countries have tried various solutions, with some success. The Greek Jewish community in Patras wanted its rights protected from the majority. On the other hand, Jewish unity is important. A united Jewish community has inherent value. Only, says the Maharashdam, if the minority is allowed to maintain its independence when necessary. One important detail is whether people can switch communities. If they can, then people can game a decentralized system by jurisdiction shopping, joining the community most favorable to their situation. In Salonica, people were not allowed to switch communities, thereby avoiding this problem.


The dispute over consolidation revolves around two Talmudic passages. The first, on which Rav Forman bases his argument (his treatise is included as an appendix to the 2010 edition of Responsa Maharshdam (Yoreh De’ah), on the rights given to city residents to issue local regulations:

“It is permitted for the residents of the city to set the measures used in that city, the prices set for products sold there, and the wages paid to its workers, and to fine people for violating their specifications.” (Bava Basra 8b, Koren Steinsaltz translation)

Maharshdam replies with a different passage emphasizing community rather than city. Regarding disagreements between Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai, when each group follow d their own ruling rather than accepting a consensus, the Gemara asks why this does not violate the prohibition of lo sisgodedu, forming separate communities:

“Rather, Rava said: When we say that the prohibition: “You shall not cut yourselves” applies, we are referring to a case where there is a court in one city, a section of which rules in accordance with the statement of Beis Shammai and another section rules in accordance with the statement of Beis Hillel. However, with regard to two courts located in one city, we have no problem with it.” (Yevamos 14a, Koren Steinsaltz translation)

Maharshdam says that from the fact that lo sisgodedu does not apply to a city that has two courts we see that a city does not need to have uniform practices. Or rather, a community with its own synagogue and religious court constitutes a city. When the Gemara in Bava Basra says that residents of a town or city may set regulations, they include a community as a city or town that may have its own regulations.


Gil Student