Joseph Melkman - "The Early Years of Rabbi Moshe Zacut"

Sfunot 9 (1965), p. 129

(Translated from Hebrew by Yossi Beck)


Rabbi Moshe Zacut (the "Remez"), who was amongst the great scholars of Italy, was one of the most important Rabbis of his era.

We have many sources concerning his life and his literary work. Particularly important are his many letters, of which more hand written manuscripts remain than printed versions.

But concerning his early years, the confusions outnumber the proven facts.

Even his birth year is disputed. Most of his biographers give the year 1625. The first to mention this year was Berliner who wrote "Around 1625, in Amsterdam". He does not put forward any proof for this, but he is quite certain, since he places the Remez with other known scholars, who lived in Amsterdam at that time. Not all accepted Berliner's ideas.

Da Silva Rosa assumed the Remez was born in 1630. He took 5 years off the Remez's life. Others added 5 years and state his birth year as 1620.

Appelbaum dedicated quite some attention to this matter and he concluded that the Remez was born no later than 1612. His arguments are quite convincing: "In his book "Kol Ha-Remez", the Remez twice mentions Reb Shmuel Eliezer Halevi Eidels (called the "Maharasha", 1555 - 1631) 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 1631, this means that if the Remez were indeed 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."

Further proof Appelbaum found in the words of the Remez about Rabbi Itzhak Abuhav "using phrases that prove that he was not a student in that Beit Midrash, but rather of the age of the teachers".

The source that all refer to is the book of Rabbi Haim Joseph David Azulai (Ha-Chida) "Shem HaGedolim" who wrote: "Our great and exalted Rabbi Moshe Zacut was born in Amsterdam and was a student of Rabbi Saul HaLevi Mortira. In Amsterdam I saw a printed book in Spanish concerning the establishment of the Sephardic community there and a Beit Midrash "Etz Haim" they had there, and he [the Remez] is amongst the first group of students in the Beit Midrash at its establishment."

Given this, we now have to establish when Rabbi Mortira commenced teaching in this Beit Midrash. Almost all researchers, with Berliner leading, accept Gretz's assumption that the Beit Midrash was established just before the unification of three communities in the year 1639. The Remez was one of the first students and if so would have been no older than 14. However, here Gretz erred and confused two institutions that existed in Amsterdam. A Beit Midrash named "Talmud Torah" was established 23 years earlier in the year 1616. "Etz Haim" was just a company that was set up to provide assistance and allowances for the students. This company was established in the year 1637.

Also as to the commencement of Rabbi Mortira's position in the "Talmud Torah" we have conclusive information. On the 5th of the month Iyar 1621 the contract was signed with him and he already taught somewhat before that. The Remez, who according to Rabbi Haim Joseph David Azulai ("Ha-Chida") was one of the first students of Rabbi Mortira, must therefore have been around 14 years old then. Therefore we must conclude he was born around the year 1607.

But then why did Da Silva Rosa, who mentioned Gretz's mistake, place the Remez's birth date so many years later, in the year 1630?

This is because amongst the first "Talmud Torah" students who received assistance from the "Etz Haim" company he found the name Moshe Zacut, who received assistance in the year 1646. In the year 1651 his assistance was higher than that of all other students of Rabbi Mortira - 9 Florins a month. From this Da Silva Rosa concluded also that the Remez couldn't have been amongst Rabbi Mortira's first students.

But take note: in this year the Remez did not reside in Amsterdam anymore and most certainly wasn't a student in a Beit Midrash. In the year 1645 he was already a proofreader of books in Venice! Amongst the letters the Remez sent to Rabbi Shmuel Abuhav, part of which were already published by M. Beniyahu, is a letter that was written in the year 1644 in Venice. In another letter, written in the year 1642 in Hamburg, the Remez tells of his decision to emigrate to Eretz Israel. That year he was married and had children.

Therefore, the only conclusion we can draw is that there was more than one Rabbi Moshe Zacut, and the scholar in Venice is not the same Moshe Zacut who was a student in the Beit Midrash in Amsterdam in 1651.

Also, the friendship between the Remez and Rabbi Shmuel Abuhav, who was born in the year 1609, shows they were of the same age group, since Rabbi Abuhav addresses him with honor as a great scholar with great knowledge in Kabbalah. There can't have been a great age difference between them.

The grandfather of the Remez, Moshe (Enrique) Zacut, signed the founding scroll of the Talmud Torah in 1617, together with leaders of the Portuguese community in Amsterdam. That same year he dealt in diamonds, together with the Remez's father Mordechai. He had business relations with one of the richest families of Anusim who live prominently in Hamburg. The Zacut family moved to this city too. A few people by the name Zacut resided in this city as well as in close by Emden, which housed one of the first Portuguese communities in Northern Europe.

It is likely that the Zacut family moved to Hamburg after the Dutch-Spanish war resumed in 1621. Many Portuguese businessmen came to trade in this neutral city.

In the Portuguese cemetery in Altona we find a grave stone on Moshe Zacut, who died on 14th February 1623. He may have been the Remez's father. Also the fact that the name Zacut does not appear later on in lists of Portuguese notables or other lists of Jews in Amsterdam supports the assumption that the whole family moved to Hamburg.

The young Moshe Zacut who received assistance from "Etz Haim", was apparently a grandson of Moshe Enrique Zacut, by another son. It is possible he was sent from Hamburg to study in the famous Beit Midrash in Amsterdam.

There were no Batei Midrash in Hamburg. Many of the residents of the city objected to the Jews, and they did not manage to establish religious institutions. Members of the community who were anxious about their sons' education sent them to Amsterdam or Italy. In this way also Rabbi Shmuel Abuhav was sent off to Venice at age 13.

The Remez, had the same problem. However, he did not join the Sephardic institutions, but went to different places. The Remez himself mentions that he studied for a while in Posen. The fact that he learned with Ashkenazi Rabbis, made him different from other Sephardim, who often ridiculed Ashkenazi Rabbis and Poland. If the Remez wouldn't have resided in Hamburg, a city where Sephardim did not distance themselves from Ashkenazim, it is doubtful he would have joined Yeshivas in Poland. It would seem there may have been an additional reason. In Posen lived to brothers belonging to the Zacut tribe. These may have been relatives of Mordechai Zacut, the Remez's father, and therefore he may have sent his son to the Yeshiva in Posen.


Summary [by the author Melkman]

Rabbi Moshe Zacut was born shortly after the year 1610, apparently in Amsterdam.

He learned in the Beit Midrash "Talmud Torah" that his father was amongst its founders.

In the year 1621 the family moved to Hamburg.

Since there was no Beit Midrash there, the Remez traveled to Poland.

In 1642 he lived in Hamburg and thought about Aliyah to Eretz Israel.

In 1647 or 1648 he arrived in Venice and proofread Hebrew books.


An Important Source used by Melkman

Abba Appelboim, "Moshe Zacut", Snunit Publishing, Labov, 1926