Escape from Christian Europe

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by R. Gil Student

After Jews were formally expelled from Christian countries, those who remained had to convert to Christianity and maintain their Jewish identities at the risk of their lives. Many attempted to escape to Muslim countries, like Turkey, where they could live as Jews with relative freedom. One woman’s challenges in her difficult trek to freedom are catalogued in a series of six responsa by the Maharshdam, Rav Shmuel De Modena of Salonica (Choshen Mishpat 327-333), with other authorities responding elsewhere. Parts of her story emerged after she escaped to Muslim land, when she tried to settle her financial matters with her daughter and niece, with whom she escaped.

I. Sharing Brothers

Two brothers who were forced converts to Christianity named Reuven and Shimon lived in different countries (these names may be pseudonyms for the purpose of the responsa). Reuven married Chanah and settled in Portugal, where they were blessed with a daughter named Sarah, all the while hoping they would escape and live as Jews. Sadly, Reuven died so Chanah traveled to Belgium with her daughter and her sister, Rivkah. In Belgium, Chanah hoped to acquire Reuven’s money from his brother Shimon and use the money to leave Christian Europe. In the meantime, Chanah’s brother-in-law Shimon married Rivkah, with whom he had a daughter Dinah. In other words, two brothers — Reuven and Shimon — who wished to live as Jews married two sisters — Chanah and Rivkah. Each couple had one daughter.

The law in Portugal divided a deceased’s estate half to his wife and half to his children, which was also an explicit condition Reuven made when marrying Chanah. If a man wanted to give away some of his money in his will, he was restricted to one third of the children’s inheritance. However, Reuven, who was in business with his brother Shimon, stated that half of his assets belonged to his brother. Did Reuven have the right to give away half of his money before it was divided between his wife and children?

Maharshdam says that Reuven did not technically give away half his money. Rather, he stated that half already belonged to his brother. This declaration is sufficient and Shimon may keep half the money. Rav Moshe of Trani, known as the Mabit (Avkas Rokhel, 80), agrees with this approach. However, Rav Yosef Karo, known as the Beis Yosef, disagrees (Avkas Rokhel, 81). Beis Yosef says that since Reuven never gave Shimon the money, Shimon never acquired it — the declaration alone does not transfer ownership.

II. Wife’s Portion

What about the wife’s half? According to the Torah, children inherit their father’s entire assets. However, Reuven married Chanah with the explicit condition that she would inherit half of his assets if he died before her. Additionally, that was the law in Portugal. Maharshdam quotes the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Ishus 23:12) who says that a man’s financial obligations to his wife in divorce or death follow local custom. The law and universal practice in that time and place was that Chanah receives half of her husband’s remaining assets.

Mabit says that the couple’s Christian marriage was not valid in the eyes of Judaism. However, any condition Reuven made voluntarily upon entering that Christian marriage remains valid. Additionally, since the condition is legally binding in secular court, it is halakhically binding. Therefore, Chanah receives half of her husband’s remaining assets.

However, Beis Yosef disagrees completely. He says that Chanah was not Reuven’s wife because they never married halakhically. Rather, she was classified as his concubine, which comes with no financial benefits. Their explicit condition lacks force because Reuven promised Chanah future assets that did not exist at that time (davar she-lo ba le-olam). He could not give Chanah something he did not yet own. Therefore, Beis Yosef says that Reuven’s daughter Sarah inherits 100% of her father’s estate.

III. Bribes

After Shimon died, the government accused him of following Jewish practices and froze all the assets under his control, which also included Reuven’s money that Chanah inherited, thus frustrating her plans to escape. Chanah had to pay bribes to free those assets. Is she obligated to share in that expense or should she be reimbursed by Shimon’s estate? Mabit says that since Chanah’s money was also at stake, she should pay her share of the expenses.

However, Maharshdam rules that Chanah was acting on behalf of Shimon’s estate and therefore should be reimbursed. He quotes a responsum of the Rashba (vol. 3, 389) about two men who lived in a house next door to a cleric, who wished to get rid of them. Two visiting friends joked in a way that the cleric was able to misrepresent as insulting Christianity. The community paid off the cleric and Rashba rules that only the friends have to reimburse the community, not the homeowners. Maharshdam points out that Rashba exempted the homeowners even though they caused the cleric’s hatred long before and the friends only generated an excuse. In the case of Chanah, she caused neither the hatred nor the excuse. Therefore she should not have to pay to redeem Shimon’s money. Beis Yosef agrees.

After recovering Shimon’s money, the widows and their daughters moved to Venice. Chanah wanted to continue to Turkey, where they could finally live as Jews. Her sister Rivkah wished to remain a Christian and informed the authorities of Chanah’s escape plan, in the hope of gaining control of her daughter’s inheritance. Shimon had anticipated Rivkah’s reluctance to leave and had left instructions not to let his wife control their daughter’s money. The unstoppable Chanah paid more bribes to counter the government interference. Should she be reimbursed for that expense, as well? Then Rivkah told a man where some of the money was stored, asking him to retrieve it for her. Instead, the man kept the money and told the government that the women were going to revert to Judaism. This led to another round of bribes. Who is responsible for that bill?

Maharshdam says that in the first case, Chanah was not just saving her niece’s money — she was also saving her niece. If Rivkah had obtained control of her daughter’s money, she and her daughter would have remained Christians in Venice. By preventing Rivkah from gaining control of the money, Chanah saved her niece’s Jewish soul. Therefore, she should be reimbursed from her niece’s funds.

Regarding the second case, Maharshdam distinguishes between the bribe to the man who retrieved the money and the bribes to avoid punishment for wanting to return to Judaism. Rivkah was responsible for the former because she foolishly enlisted the help of someone who would take advantage of them. However, regarding the accusation of Jewishness, all had to pay equally because all were in danger. On this, Mabit and Beis Yosef agree.

Despite all these challenges, Chanah, Sarah and Dinah escaped to Turkey where they return to Judaism. They managed to avoid imprisonment, torture, financial exploitation and family opposition in order to live as Jews. And then like any family, they fought over money.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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