A Tale of Two Hebrew Patronesses

(The following post is by Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Every age has its own image of the “woman of valor,” and in the crumbling Jewish world of post-exilic Spain, that image was embodied in the persons of two unique women: Doña Gracia Nasi and Signora Benvenida Abravanel. Born into households “alike in dignity” and alike in influence and wealth, each of these women experienced the traumas of the exile from Spain, lived her life on the stage of international politics, and, ultimately, comes alive for us today in rare Hebrew books housed at the Library of Congress.

A map depicting the nautical charts of the Eastern Mediterranean in the middle of the 16th century. By Battista Agnese, 1544. Geography and Map Division.

A map depicting the nautical charts of the Eastern Mediterranean in the middle of the 16th century. By Battista Agnese, 1544. Geography and Map Division.

The exile from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497 were not single events in the annals of Jewish history but rather milestones in a process of destruction, disruption and, above all, an ongoing search for a new home that, in many cases, lasted over several generations. The lives of both Gracia Nasi and Benvenida Abravanel are telling examples of these processes and of the political maneuverings they involved.

Members of the two most important Jewish families in Spain, each of these women was born into a matrix of wealth and power that led them to take leading roles in the struggle for Jewish survival in the aftermath of the exile. Nasi’s path led from Lisbon to Antwerp, Venice, Ferrara and finally to Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire. Abravanel’s path was centered largely in Naples, but the two women crossed paths, albeit unknowingly, at many points on the compass of international politics, as well as in their generosity to fellow Jewish exiles and support of Jewish culture.

"Le-Khol Hefets," by Eliezer Mili. Venice, 1552. African and Middle Eastern Division.

“Le-Khol Hefets,” by Eliezer Mili. Venice, 1552. African and Middle Eastern Division.

 We do not know whether the two ladies ever met in person, but they do meet today on the shelves of the Library of Congress, through the books that their authors dedicated to their generous patronesses.

In an article published online in Jewish Women’s Archives, Howard Tzvi Adelman documents the good press enjoyed by Abravanel in contemporary Jewish literature; here in the Library of Congress we have evidence of her cultural patronage in a Hebrew book titled “Le-Khol Hefets” (“For Every Purpose”), published during her lifetime in 1552.

The book takes its name from a biblical verse: “For every purpose there is a time and a rule” (Ecclesiastes 3: 17), and as the title suggests it deals with the formal side of Jewish religious practice. With moving grace and notable alliteration, the author refers to Abravanel (“may her glory be exalted”) as “more perfect than all [other persons]”(“kulah kelulah min ha-kol”).

Illustration showing an elegantly dressed “modern noblewoman” of Naples from Signora Benvenida’s day. "Degli habiti, antichi et moderni di diversi parti del mondo" (Venice, 1590). Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Illustration showing an elegantly dressed “modern noblewoman” of Naples from Signora Benvenida’s day. “Degli habiti, antichi et moderni di diversi parti del mondo” (Venice, 1590). Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Like Abravanel, Nasi was known in her day as a patroness of Jewish culture; one contemporary writer called her quite simply “the heart of the body of the Portuguese nation” – the “Portuguese nation” being a kind of shorthand for the Jews forcibly converted in Spain and Portugal and now seeking to return to Judaism. The book was written in Portuguese, the mother-tongue of its author Samuel Usque, as well as most of the exiles.

Nasi’s daughter, Reyna, was the heir to her mother’s ideals as well as her wealth, and she, too, supported Jewish culture. Only in her case, the books she helped publish were in Hebrew rather than Portuguese, and she actually had the books printed in her own palace, Belvedere, using equipment that she herself commissioned. Of the 15 known books from her press (all exceedingly rare), five are now in the collections of the Library of Congress.

The books all bear similar information on the title page; the page shown here comes from a commentary on Genesis written by a rabbi visiting in Istanbul:

"Sefer Torat Moshe"  ("The Book of the Teaching of Moses"), by Moses Alschich.  Belvedere, ca. 1593. African and Middle Eastern Division.

“Sefer Torat Moshe” (“The Book of the Teaching of Moses”),by Moses Alschich. Belvedere, ca. 1593. African and Middle Eastern Division.

“Printed in the home and with the letters of the illustrious lady, woman of valor, Doña Reyna Nasi, ‘may she be blessed above women in tents’ [Judges 5:24], widow of the prince and magnate in Israel, the lord Duke Don Joseph Nasi in her home here in Belvedere near the great city of Constantinople [i.e., Istanbul] under the rule of our lord the great and powerful Sultan Murad, may his glory be exalted.”

What books did Reyna choose to sponsor? Well, in addition to this commentary on Genesis, we find a commentary on the Book of Ruth and a volume of legal opinions by a local rabbi much admired in the Nasi circle. In his biography of Doña Nasi, the great scholar Cecil Roth deplores Reyna’s choices, dismissing the books as trivial works by local authors. Yet perhaps this judgment was over-harsh or misses the point altogether. By cultivating “local talent,” so to speak, Reyna Nasi may well have sought to create a living Hebrew culture in the best tradition of the great Jewish patrons who once lived in Spain and whose memory continued to inspire their descendants in exile.

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