Rabbi Ovadiah of Bertinoro, Italy was one of the most distinguished Italian rabbis of the late 15th century. His commentary on the Mishna, called "The Bertinoro" remains a standard work. In 1487, he immigrated to Israel and is thought to have resided in Jerusalem until his death around the year 1500. Letters that he wrote to family in Italy have been preserved and provide a glimpse into 15th century Jewish life in the Mediterranean world.

When visiting Alexandria, Egypt on 14 Shevat 5248 (5 February 1488), Rabbi Ovadiah of Bertinoro stayed in the home of Rabbi Moses Grasso, a prominent resident of the city who served as an interpreter for Italians in Alexandria. On the Sabbath Rabbi Grosso gave a dinner in Rabbi Bertinoro's honor. In a letter he sent from Alexandria to his father in Italy, Bertinoro describes the Friday evening customs of the Jews in the medieval Muslim world:

On Friday, all go to bathe and on their return the women bring them wine, of which they drink copiously. Word is brought that supper is ready and it is eaten in the daytime before evening. Then they all come to the synagogue, cleanly and neatly dressed. They begin with psalms and thanksgiving and the evening prayer is read until two hours after dusk. On their return home, they repeat the Kiddush, eat a small portion of bread and recite the grace after meals.

The Sabbath meal is arranged as follows: They sit in a circle on the carpet, the cup-bearer standing near them close to a small cloth, which is spread on the carpet; all kinds of fruit, which are in season, are then brought and laid on the cloth. The host now takes a glass of wine and pronounces the blessing of sanctification and empties the cup completely. The cup-bearer then takes the cup from the host and hands it successively to the whole company, always refilled, and each one empties it. Then the host takes two or three pieces of fruit and eats some and drinks a second glass while the company says "Health and life."

Whoever sits next to him also takes some fruit, and the cup-bearer fills a second glass for him and he says, "For your pleasure," and the company joins with the words, "Health and life," and so it goes around. Then a second type of fruit is partaken of and another glass is filled, and this is continued until each one has emptied six or seven glasses,,,

The wine is unusually strong, and this is especially the case in Jerusalem where it is drunk unmixed. After all have drunk to their heart's content, a large dish of meat is brought and each one stretches forth his hand and eats quickly, for they are not big eaters. Rabbi Moses brought us confectionery, fresh ginger, dates, raisins, almonds and confectionery of coriander seeds; a glass of wine was drunk with each kind. Then followed raisin wine, which was very good; then malmsey (Greek) wine from Candia and again native wine. I drank with them and was exhilarated.



From: Elkan Nathan Adler, Jewish Travellers in the Middle Ages, 19 Firsthand Accounts. New York: Dover, 1987. pages 209, 220, 221.

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