Rabbi Obadia ben Abraham, popularly known as “Bartenura”, was born in 1455. He was a student of the famous Rabbi Yosef Colon, מהרי”ק, and acted as the rabbi of his city, Bertinoro, in the province of Cesena, Italy.
From an early age his desire was to settle in Erets Israel, and specifically in Jerusalem. We know very minute details of his trip to Israel because many of his letters describing the trip were recently found.
He left his home town, Bertinoro, at the end of 1486 and traveled towards Rome. He arrived in Naples, and settled nearby in Salerno for four months. In 1487 he arrived in Palermo, Sicily, where he spent three months preaching every Shabbat in the local synagogue. In Sicily the local community tried to persuade him to stay as their Rabbi, but he declined. From Sicily he travelled through Rhodes toward Alexandria, Egypt, where he arrived in early 1488. From Alexandria he proceeded to Cairo, where Rabbi Natan ha-Kohen Shoulal received him with great honors. Rabbi Shoulal also offered him to stay in Cairo, but once again he refused because of his fervent desire to settle in Yerushalayim. He continued his journey through Gaza, Hebron and Bet Lehem arriving and arrived to Jerusalem just before Pesah of 1488.
His arrival was a great blessing for the Holy City
The small Jewish colony of Jerusalem was on the brink of ruin. The affluent Jews had fled the city because of the exorbitant taxes demanded by the local Muslim government. The Jewish community in Yerushalayim was in one of its worst moments. There were only about 70 Jewish families in the city, all very poor and no one to help them. Rabbi Obadia writes: “in the city there are many widows and many abandoned elderly Jews: Ashkenazim, Sephardim and from other countries … those who have bread for a week are considered rich …” . In one of his letters to his family Rabbi Obadia writes that upon his coming to Jerusalem he was received by an Italian rabbi, Ya’aqob Colombano, the main rabbi of the city. Rabbi Obadia writes that this rabbi was so poor that he could only allow himself to eat a piece of bread during Shabbat. And during the week, he only ate dry carobs, i.e., the remnants of a carob once its juice was extracted. At first Rabbi Obadia had to take care all by himself of all the needs of the community. He even had to dig the graves and bury the dead, since no one else was able to undertake this religious duty.
The rabbi took upon himself raising funds to help the people of Yerushalayim. His friends and family in Italy gave him support to assist the needy. Soon after, he established charities for the poor and medical assistance for the sick. Emanuel Hai Camerino, from Florence, the man Rabbi Obadia had entrusted to manage his properties in Cesena, sent him 100 ducats (gold coins) a year, to which Camerino added another 25 ducats of his own to charity. The brother of Rabbi Obadia and other wealthy families from Italy also sent their generous contributions to the Jewish community in Jerusalem.
In a few years, because of his great reputation in the city, even Muslims citizens came to him to resolve judicial cases. Rabbi Obadia obtained the abolition of the annual tax of 400 ducats that the Jewish community had to pay to the local Muslim authorities for a right of residence in the city. Instead, a more reasonable tax was instituted.
In 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, many Sefaradim refugees settled in Jerusalem. Rabbi Obadia became their spiritual leader and he supported them materially for some time, because these Spanish refugees arrived without any means. But soon, thanks to the arrival of these Yehudim who came with no money but were very educated and trained in commerce and international trade, the community began to grow. As a sign of their enormous gratitude, the refugees from Spain gave to Rab Bertinoro the best gift he could have asked or dreamed for: they built a Yeshiba (rabbinical academy) for him in Yerushalayim. This was the first Yeshiba in Jerusalem in over 1200 years.
Rabbi Obadia was declared “abi hayshub” of Yerushalayim, the equivalent of the protector or maximum benefactor of the city.
He died in 1515 and is buried on the Mount of Olives (Har haZetim).
Rabbi Obadia de Bertinoro is known for his commentary on the Mishna. The Mishna includes the rabbinic oral traditions, i.e., the application and the details of all the Mitsvot of the Tora. The Mishna is studied usually together with the Gemara, which explains the Mishna and elaborates its details. Maimonides was the first rabbi who wrote an independent commentary (pirush) to the Mishna. Rabbi Obadia followed his example and his pirush became the most popular commentary for centuries. Unlike Maimonides’ commentary, originally written in Arabic, Rabbi Obadia’s pirush is written originally in Hebrew. The commentary of Rabbi Obadia is an excellent introduction to the study of the Talmud