Ya'akov Lattes - "Rabbi Moshe Zacut: his Life and his Works"

MA Thesis, Hebrew University of Jerusalem 1993

(Excerpts translated from Hebrew by Yossi Beck)



One of the central and most exemplary figures in Jewish life in Italy in the 17th century, was Rabbi Moshe Zacut (the "Remez"), who served in the period 1645 - 1697 as rabbi of the communities in Venice and Mantova until his death.


The Amsterdam Period

The only certain detail about his birth is the city where he was born - Amsterdam. However, the date of his birth is disputed amongst researchers.

Most follow Berliner who determined the Remez was born in 1625, though he did not come forward with any proof.

This date however, was already contradicted by Appelbaum who wrote: "This [date] is completely impossible, since in his book "Kol Ha-Remez" he mentions the Maharasha twice with the addition "May he live a long life", showing that the Maharasha was still alive. Since we know that the Maharasha died in the year 1632, if the Remez were born in 1625, he would have been under 6 or 7 years old when he wrote this very detailed book, that shows great wisdom and wide knowledge fitting a man of adulthood. Therefore we have to place his date of birth earlier, approximately to the year 1612, so that at the time he wrote this book he would have been 20 at least."

Melkman came to the same conclusion, though by a different calculation.

He proves that "Rabbi Moshe Zacut was born shortly after the year 1610, apparently in Amsterdam".

From all this we have to conclude that the more likely date of birth of the Remez is around 1610.


About his family we almost don't know anything. He always signed as "Moshe ben Mordechai", and from this we know his father's name.

The family was of Portuguese origin and apparently the Remez was a descendant of Rabbi Abraham Zacut who wrote the "Sefer Ha-Yohassin".

In Amsterdam he studied in the Beit Ha-Midrash "Talmud Torah", and was amongst the first students of Rabbi Shaul HaLevi Mortira.

The relations between the Remez and Rabbi HaLevi Mortira stayed strong until the latter's death. The Remeze continued to write to him from Venice, the birthplace of Rabbi Mortira, and when a Halachic dispute arose concerning a Mikve, the Remez wrote him and asked for his advice.

When Rabbi Mortira died in the year 1660, the Remez wrote from Venice a long and complicated mourning containing 7 sonatas with a long preface and a refrain "Daughters of Israel, weep over Shaul".

Gertz assumed that the Remez was a fellow student with Spinoza, since both studied with Rabbi Mortira. This mistake apparently stems from the assumption that the Remez was born in 1630. After all Spinoza was born in 1632, and since it is knows both were students of Rabbi Mortira, one might easily be thought to believe they studied together.

However, this has been shown to be impossible, as Appelbaum and Nahum Sokolov already pointed out, since the Remez was born some twenty years before Spinoza.

No further details about his family are known: did he have brothers, what was his mother's name, was his father a Rabbi? It is interesting to notice that he hardly mentions his family at all, in all of his works.

In one letter from 1680, the Remez writes his wife is ill and this is one of the reasons preventing him from making Aliya to the Land of Israel.

Then again we hear that at his death in 1697 his widow is called Rachel, maybe a second wife, and she is allotted an allowance from the community.

This period is quite vague in the Remez's life and his movements between several cities in not clear. Therefore we have to differentiate between the details that we know for certain and those that are assumptions only.

The certain information is that before coming to Venice the Remez resided some period of time in Posen and Hamburg.

Except for this it is very difficult to reconstruct his movements between these cities and the rest is pure speculations.

One possibility is that the father of the Remez, who dealt in diamonds, attempted in the year 1617 to trade with the city of Posen and didn't succeed. He tried again in 1619 and stayed in Posen for over 10 years. Then around the year 1630 the Posen community which was mainly Ashkenazi and was bothered by the competition of the Zacut family, managed to expel them from the city. This would explain the connection between the Remez, who got to Posen after 1620 following his father, and this city.

From there the family moved to Hamburg, where they already had relatives.

Another possibility is that the family moved to Hamburg from Amsterdam after 1621, after the Dutch-Spanish war flared up again. However, in Hamburg there weren't any Batei Midrash of standard and most youngsters were sent off to study in Amsterdam or in Italy. In the Remez's case, he wandered off to Poland.

In any case we know that in the year 1642 Rabbi Moshe Zacut resided in Hamburg, was married and had children.

This was an important period in the Remez's life, because of its influences on him and because these were the years that shaped his personality.

In fact no more than this is known about his life in Amsterdam. When he was still young his family moved to Hamburg and after that he was sent to Poland, to Posen, to study.




"Yesod Olam" with a forword in German by Abraham Ben Zvi Berliner, Altuna 1874, Introdution page XXI


Melkman Joseph, "The Early Years of Rabbi Moshe Zacut", Sfunot 9 (1965), p. 129


Appelbaum Abba, "Moshe Zacut", Lavov 1926, page 5.


Gretz Zvi, "Sefer Divrei Yemei Israel", Warshaw 1899, Vol. VIII, p. 199


Sokolov Nahum, "Baruch Spinoza and his Times", Paris 1929.


Binyahu Meir, "Rabbi Moshe Zacut from leaving Hamburg till settling in Venice", Asufot 5 (1991), p. 310.