Sunday 6 December 2020





The Tikkun Chatzot ritual to be recited during the Three Weeks as instituted by the preeminent Italian Kabbalist, R. Moshe Zacuto (1620-1697), the teacher of R. Avraham Rovigo.


Rabbi Avraham Rovigo (c.1650-1714) was a Talmudist, Kabbalist, patron of Torah scholarship and promotor of Jewish settlement in Palestine. He associated with a wide range of Torah personalities who were active around the turn of the eighteenth century. Like so many other rabbis of that period, he also kept the fact that he was a believer in Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) a secret.

This article, based extensively on the research of Professor Matt Goldish[1] deals with the fascinating discovery of a document of R. Avraham Rovigo. It was found by historian and bibliographer Professor Isaiah Sonne (1887-1960) and published in 1961. Goldish dedicated this research to the memory of Isaiah Sonne.


The newly discovered document was published under the title Ovrim ve-shavim be-veto shel Rabi Avraham Rovigo[2] which translates as Visitors to the house of Rabbi Abraham Rovigo. Essentially it was a logbook in which the distinguished R. Avraham Rovigo documented and commented on important rabbinical scholars who had visited his northern Italian home in Modena, during the periods 1679–1694 and 1698–1699. Modena was strategically situated at the crossroads between North and South, East and West of the Jewish world, and had about one thousand Jewish inhabitants at that time.

Goldish (p.25) writes:

Sonne recognized that this seemingly trivial record was in fact a singularly precious document for early modern Jewish historiography. He faithfully transcribed Rovigo’s almost illegible scrawl and then offered a series of comments about the list, which could only have been penned by a scholar of Sonne’s breadth.

Sonne added some biographical details about each of the visitors and Goldish explored those interesting visitors even further. Thus, we get a uniquely broad perspective of a cross-section of rabbinical personalities during that period. These rabbis helped shaped the Judaism which was to emerge during the critically influential eighteenth century.


Born to a wealthy family in Modena, Avraham studied in Venice, under “the most renowned Italian Jewish scholar and kabbalist of the day” (Goldish 2018:26), R. Moshe Zacuto[3].

Another work by R. Moshe Zacuto, Kol haRemez (Remez is an acronym for Rabbi Moshe Zacuto).

His study partner was Binyamin haCohen Vitale, who later became the rabbi of Reggio. R. Binyamin haCohen Vitale was the father-in-law of R. Isaiah Bassan, the teacher of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. R. Binyamin haCohen Vitale was brazen enough to hang a portrait of Shabbatai Tzvi in his home.

Many of the rabbis who visited R. Avraham Rovigo were considered to be ‘prophets’ in the sense that they claimed to have mystical visitations by beings known as maggidim. Part of Sabbatian ideology was the return to an era of biblical prophecy that had been discontinued since the Second Temple era.

Goldish (p.27) writes:

[Rovigo][4] maintained a successful business in an environment often unfriendly to Jews, and he was renowned for his scholarship, but in private he was the generation’s leading Jewish patron of prophecy.

It seems that R. Avraham Rovigo kept his Sabbatian leanings largely to himself and his group because it only broke out into the open about a year before his death, when he showed his support for R. Nechemiah Chiyya Chayon in the latter’s famous controversy with the anti-Sabbatian R. Moshe Chagiz.[5]


In 1702, R. Avraham Rovigo, together with his student R. Mordechai Ashkenazi, went to Jerusalem to establish a yeshiva. The yeshiva appeared like any other Kabbalistic yeshiva except that they celebrated Tisha beAv as a festive day as it was the birthday of Shabbatai Tzvi. 

R. Avraham Rovigo joined another group of about 1000 Sabbatian Ma’aminim, or believers as they were known, from a previous aliya in 1700 headed by R. Yehuda Chassid.[6] Although R. Yehudah Chassid passed away just days after his arrival, the group remained on.  The synagogue built by his followers was later destroyed by the Ottomans (when the impoverished immigrants could not afford the taxes) became known as the famous Churvat Yehuda Chassid [see previous post].

R. Avraham Rovigo assumed the leadership role of the Sabbatians who now formed the most dominant community in Jerusalem. The reason why Rovigo did not join the earlier aliya of R. Yehudah Chassid in 1700 was because at that time he was still working together with R. Mordechai Ashkenazi on their Kabbalistic interpretations revealed through dreams, which was published in 1701.


Goldish (p.28) points out that recently discovered archival evidence shows that R. Avraham Rovigo’s son had converted to Christianity and was known as Antonio Felice Fiori. Antonio went on to sue the Jewish community of Modena for 12, 000 scudi which his late father had donated as an investment venture to benefit the Jews of Palestine.


No one is quite sure why Rovigo kept a logbook of all his visitors. But it seems that his main concern was the documentation of Sabbatian affiliates. 

Over a period of about sixteen years, he made 42 entries. Sometimes there were more than just one associate at a time. It seems that the list is incomplete as it was copied from another notebook which is lost. Most of the guests, 22 in number, were Palestinian emissaries who were sent on fundraising missions. 13 were from Jerusalem, 3 from Chevron and 6 from Safed. Three visitors were on their way to publish books. Other visitors were collecting for the redemption of captives who were often seized by the Knights of Malta.

Five were overt Sabbatian travelling preachers spreading their mystical and messianic ideology in the belief that Shabbatai Tzvi would soon rise from the dead and herald the final redemption. The true number of Sabbatians who visited and consulted with Rovigo is not clear as many kept their affiliations secret. By that stage, during the late seventeenth century, Sabbatian ideology had moved from the mainstream position it held in around 1665/6 to one where it was officially regarded as a form of Jewish heresy. Nevertheless, even at that time, about 18 of the 42 visitors were known to have had some Sabbatian leanings. 

One visitor was a baal shem or mystical healer from Poland who apparently did a healing ceremony in Rovigo’s home.

Another visitor was the wealthy Mordecai the Shtadlan (intercessor) who did not come to collect but rather to deposit money for Rovigo to safely send to Palestine for his (Mordechai’s) use when he made an aliya.

R. Ephraim Cohen of Ostrov also visited Rovigo. He was a Sabbatian who had studied at the yeshivah of R. Yitzchak Yahya in Salonika, a prominent Sabbatian ideologue.

At around Chanukah in 1685, Chacham Eliezer Tatzi, an emissary from Jerusalem and a Sabbatian preacher, also visited Rovigo.

Goldish (p.32) writes:

Rovigo, in his standard cryptic language, says that he shared all his Sabbatean secrets with Tatzi, who left his home full of joy.


Very significant is the recorded visit by the respected R. Shlomo Ayllon[7] just after Shavuot in 1688. R. Ayllon served for ten years as Sefaradic Chief Rabbi of London, and from 1700, he headed the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. His Sabbatian credentials were undeniable as he had studied under Shabbatai Tzvi’s ideologue, Nathan of Gaza. In Rovigo’s home, he continued to spread those teachings by either writing or handing over his Sabbatian Kabbalistic treatise. R. Sholmo Ayllon and R. Avraham Rovigo continued to maintain contact with each other through postal correspondence.

R. Shlomo Ayllon, although maintaining prestigious rabbinical positions, was most controversial in that besides a known Sabbatian propagandist, he is also suspected of converting to Islam, as did many followers of Shabbatai Tzvi. During his tenure in Amsterdam, he came to loggerheads over Sabbatian issues with the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi (1656 -1718) - known as the Chacham Tzvi - and R. Shlomo Ayllon expelled the Chacham Tzvi from Amsterdam for voicing his opposition.

Ironically, another visitor in Rovigo’s log was the Chacham Tzvi’s uncle and close friend, R. Yehuda haCohen, who was an avowed Sabbatian. He arrived in Rovigo’s home in 1688 on his way to print his father’s book Sha’ar Efrayim. R. Yehuda haCohen sold a work by Nathan of Gaza, entitled Derush haTaninim to Rovigo and accompanied him on his aliya in 1702.

Goldish (p.34) continues:

The picture that emerges from Rovigo’s list of visitors is that he was part of a large, complex network of learned Jews. His home served as a way station between Jerusalem and Amsterdam, between Salonika and Lublin, between wealthy and poor, between learned and ignorant, and between the Sabbatean faithful and their opponents.

R. Avraham Rovigo was a main conduit - sometimes noticed but most times unobserved - through which Sabbatian ideology, particularly from the school of Nathan of Gaza, was disseminated.

Goldish (p.36,37) writes:

[In his home][8] information, texts, and theological ideas were exchanged and passed along through Rovigo to the entire Sabbatean network

Rovigo’s home and visitors’ list constitute primary evidence for the shift of the Sabbatean center from the Ottoman Empire to the European continent in the period after Sabbatai’s death in 1676.


The information gleaned from this logbook serves to emphasise just how difficult it was, in those days, to know who represented mainstream Judaism and who was secretly attempting to subvert it from within. This is an important concept to grasp and contemplate upon as it must have had a tremendous bearing on the great shifts and changes within Torah ideology which began to emerge during the next century.

[1] Rabbi Abraham Rovigo’s Home as a Center for Traveling Scholars, by Matt Goldish. July 2018.

[2] Sefunot 5 (1961): 275–295.

[3] Also known as Moshe Zacut.

[4] Parenthesis mine.

[5] Elisheva Carlebach, The Pursuit of Heresy: Rabbi Moses Hagiz and the Sabbatian Controversies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

[6] Not to be confused with R. Yehuda heChassid (d.1217) of the Chassidei Ashkenaz.

[7] Also known as R. Shlomo Aailion.

[8] Parenthesis mine.

1 comment:

  1. Rabbi Katzenellenbogen, whose diaries are now in the Bodleian library, wrote at the time when he was a well respected rabbi in Moravia, that he was in possession of a hand-written script of "shulchan aruk of the Ari". This script had been copied and given to him when he was a young child in Furth. The script, including the penitential rectifications of Nathan of Gaza, was copied and given to him by "the holy pure man" none other than....