Rabbi Akiva Hakohen Katz, ABD Saloniki (Alter of Salonika) - Born in Spain?

Started by Private User on Saturday, January 16, 2021
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Private User
1/16/2021 at 7:28 AM

To Whomsoever This May Interest:

As a result of a preliminary investigation and some consultation with academic authorities, some doubt as to the Alter's birthplace has arisen.

In the late 14th Century there were three new Synagogues erected in Salonika: the Ashkenazic in 1376 (Hingarian Jews arrived in Salonika around this time; Rhine Valley Jews were in Salonika since 1348-59), the Mayorca Synagogue in 1391, and the Provence Synagogue in 1394. So based on the Alter's dates he is most likely connected to one of these three communities. If he was born in Spain then the place is most likely to be Mayorca. However, as we can see from the profiles of his descendants there is a strong Hungarian association in later generations. At this stage of my investigation it would appear that the Alter most likely belonged to the Ashkenazic community of Salonika. The possibility of Mayorcan or even Provencal origins remains, but if so the family history would suggest a cross-over from one of these cultures into Ashkenazic lands in later generations.

I shall be seeking further consultation on this matter and intend to post anything significant in future.

Private User
1/16/2021 at 9:48 AM

It might be worth looking at this recent research from the University of Washington: https://www.washington.edu/news/2016/11/02/devin-naars-book-jewish-...
Salonica has a history of at least two millenia as a destination for Jews. Indeed, as part of the Ottoman Empire and later the Austria-Hungary Empire it was multiethnic, multicultural haven for Jews, Muslims, and Eastern Orthodox Greeks until the Holocaust.

Like most Central and Eastern European cities, Salonika's Jewish population grew rapidly after the expulsion of Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492.

Private User
1/16/2021 at 1:39 PM

Funny you mention Devin Naar because he is one of the scholars I have consulted on this question. According to Dr. Naar (who also said his expertise lies mostly in the 19th and 20th Centuries) it seems unusual for there to have been an Iberian origin Jew in Salonica before 1492, but he supposes it to be possible.

I believe the source of the factoid about Spain may be Friedman's Utser HaRabanim (#16786) in which is specifically stated that R' Akiva the Alter is an exile from Spain, and I do remember reading somewhere that the problems in Spain began well before 1492, so it might stand to reason that there were refugees already there in the mid-14th Century.

For me, what seems to be a key fact is that we do have evidence of an Ashkenazic Synagogue going up in Salonika in 1376 just around the time when the Jews were expelled from Hungary (1376). Then we see that R' Akiva's grandson thrives in Buda before fleeing to Prague. There doesn't appear to be any descending lines that remain in Ottoman lands after the 1540s.

I ask myself, if the family had been originally Sephardic, then why wouldn't any descending lines have chosen to remain in Ottoman lands after Salonika was overtaken by Ottomans in 1541? After all, many Sephardim found themselves welcome in Ottoman lands and stayed there for centuries. Interestingly, there is a citation in the article: History of Jews in Thessalonika on Wikipedia, which states: "Salonika's registers indicate the presence of "Buda Jews" after the conquest of that city by the Turks in 1541." Could it be that Ashkenazim did not feel the same desire to remain in Ottoman territory and thus opted to try their luck back in Hungary, Czechia, and Germany? Another question I ask myself is whether, for political reasons, the family wanted to give the appearance of being Sephardim in the hopes of receiving more favorable treatment in Central Europe (cf. Zamosc, etc,).

So it does seem to be a little more reasonable at this point that the family began as Ashkenazim fleeing Hungary to a Hellenic Salonika and then eventually returned to their place(s) of origin as conditions allowed (perhaps even under the guise of being Sephardim).

It is difficult to explain otherwise how the R' Akiva HaCohen the Elder's descending lineage would take such a central role in the development of Ashkenazic theological history: among other things: it is a granddaughter who marries a son of the first Horowitz (see below about Horowits family), a 3x ggs who becomes a Dayan in Frankfurt, another 3x ggs who marries a daughter of the Maharal of Prague, and a 5x ggs (the SHaCH) who marries a 2x granddaughter of the Rema, among others! Looked at in this light, the family of R' Akiva the Elder was and remained Ashkenazic from the beginning, or represents an astonishing introgression of a Sephardic lineage into the mainstream of several Ashkenazic rabbinical families.

I am not studying the Horovits family tree, but I remember reading a discussion about whether that family may have been Sephardic originally, eventually leading GENI curators to sever a proposed connection between Rabbi Joseph HaLevi and the Benveniste tree, because that connection was deemed to be a fabrication of the 19th Century. I wonder whether the claim that R' Akiva was Sephardic is another example of erroneous information (which may have been fabricated for political purposes in earlier times).

My apologies for such a long post, but this is a complex and deep topic, which is why I am seeking consultation with as many Jewish historians as I can find.

The reason this is important to me (and many others I imagine) is that this fork in the road determines whether to look for prior genealogy in Spain or Hungary. The take-home message is this: R' Akiva the Elder may not have been born in Spain and instead may have been one of the Buda Jews who expelled from Hungary in 1376 and lived in Salonika for several generations before returning to Hungary and other predominantly Ashkenazic lands. I am merely suggesting that this is a plausible possibility, subject to the opnions of more learned analysts.

Private User
1/17/2021 at 2:38 AM

Interesting thesis. Well considered. Definitely worth looking a bit deeper. Thanks!

1/19/2021 at 7:57 AM

given the fact that all of the sources regarding Akiva's birthplace specified that his family left Spain after the pogroms in 1391, and given the fact that the first Shul built in salonika after the pogroms was from majorca, it can be assumed that he came from somewhere Catalonia in general, most likely majorca. (I say somewhere in Catalonia because people from Majorca would've had the same general customs as those of greater Catalonia.) I have confirmed from numerous sources that majorca's Shul is in fact the only Spanish one built in Salonica at that time as well as the first one to be built after the massacres.

1/22/2021 at 7:55 AM

Based on the evidence so far, the theory that Akiva the Elder hailed from Catalonia (likely Mallorca) is by far the strongest. It is coincidental---but the coincidence is believable as just that since the era was rife with expulsions---that Jews were fleeing the Buda region at the same time as they were fleeing the early (and less famous) persecutions in Iberia. The Ashkenazic path of some of Akiva's grandsons and beyond is in keeping with the ways Cohanim Jews of the rabbinical persuasion would seek out and/or be called to head distant communities. Once that step was taken by a couple of famous and prolific grandsons (Akiva the Younger & Chaim), the large number of descendants of these lines in Ashkenazi communities is not hard to explain at all and is still consistent with an originally Sephardic origin. Of course, there is the question of when and from where Akiva's line migrated to Iberia. It could have been anytime between ca 750 and ca 1200 and from anywhere that Jews were hanging out in that timeframe.

1/22/2021 at 8:06 AM

I should add that the reason for my last sentence in my post above is that I have a couple of lineages in a J2a-FGC4992-YFull4975 cohanim YDNA project that I believe are going to trace to R' Akiva (I'm working on their genealogies now) and then there is another lineage that traces to about the same time (ca 1375) in Brno, Bohemia (Czech Republic now). So depending on how the YDNA SNP TMRCA results come out, one theory might be that Akiva's clan actually was in the Hungary/Czech region prior to migrating to Iberia and that some branches went, some did not....but in this scenario Akiva's grandsons' migration to that region would be a "return" to an area that might have been familiar in their family history/lore.

Private User
3/9/2021 at 6:27 AM

Eli Rubin 1) according to this document: https://www.geni.com/photo/view?album_type=photos_of_me&id=6000... which is the only reference I have been able to find stating an Iberian origin (and whose author and date remains a mystery to me), the place of origin mentioned is Portugal. Question: if Portugal is accurate, then how does this impact the discussion? Might it suggest an origin in Spain other than Catalonia? For example, Burgos? Under the latter scenario, the family would have migrated west to Portugal and then to Salonika, possibly joining the Mayorka congregation there. 2) Another possible avenue of investigation and clues surrounds the religious rites practiced by Akiva the Elder;; as Eli notes, the Catalonian (including Mayorkan) rites were different from the rites of Castiliia y Leon (the latter being what we consider the Sephardic ritual today). To this end, the question is whether there is any known evidence of the liturgical affiliations of Akiva the Elder in Salonika? To which synagogue did his family belong there? Which rites did his proximate descendants observe in their various migratory destinations (Buda, Prague, Constantinople, etc)? Thanks for your attention.

Private User
3/9/2021 at 6:54 AM

PS to post of earlier today: The Abravanel family presents what could be a model for the Akiba migration. According to my understanding, the Abravamel family fled from Seville and other places in central Spain to Portugal, during the time of the 14th century pogroms. In the WP article on the family I see: "Samuel Abravanel (Lisbon, 1473-Ferrara, 1551) was the youngest son of Isaac Abravanel, and the grandson of Judah. His father sent him to Salonica to pursue his Talmudic studies, where he became the pupil of Joseph Fasi", indicating that there was connectivity between the Portuguese community and Salonika at this time.

3/14/2021 at 7:34 AM

Debra Katz Eli Rubin

Would you be able to provide the sources and evidence that prove Rabbi Akiva Hakohen Katz, ABD Saloniki was born in Spain or Portugal? Books and reliable sources. I would much appreciate it.

Private User
3/14/2021 at 7:09 PM

Splendid work, Private User

3/14/2021 at 11:32 PM

Private User, like you, I am VERY suspicious of the claim that Rabbi Katz was Sephardic. We've discovered so many invented and incorrect claims of Sephardic background in the 19th century that it would almost be a miracle if one turned out to be true. Most likely is that someone assumed, as Eli Rubin and Debra Katz do, that because he was from Salonica he must have been Sephardic. The story was so delicious that everyone gobbled it up, as they did with the invented legends of Horowitz, Epstein, Todros, etc. I am willing to be proven wrong, but it would have to be a source from the 16th century or earlier.

3/14/2021 at 11:49 PM

If Karel Stehlik does a y-dna test, that might help. He has a pretty good male line of descent. See https://www.geni.com/list/ancestors/6000000031942284973#20

The Karpeles name comes from when Naftali Katz married Rachel Karpeles. Her grave identifies her husband as Naftali dajan bn Chaim j”Ts bn haGaon Naftali k”Ts. See Rachel Katz

3/15/2021 at 2:04 AM

Randy Schoenberg
Private User
Can a DNA test verify and / or deny his origin?
I'm not versed in DNA testing, but from what I know should be tested son after son, I'm convinced he has such offspring alive today.
I am a descendant of him, but through ancient mothers.

3/15/2021 at 7:29 AM

Randy Schoenberg
The source is a book called וידוי book written by Jonathan Ben Nahum, which deals with the life of martyrs in Christian Spain in the shadow of the Inquisition before the deportation in 1492 and is entirely based on the research of Professor Chaim Bainart. Bainart was one of the greatest scholars of Spanish Jewry in the Middle Ages and is one of the best. There he writes that Rabbi Akiva HaCohen, who left Spain with the deportation, and was an Av Beit Din in Thessaloniki. The book, and Ben Nahum, is considered very, very accurate.

3/15/2021 at 12:05 PM

could you send a link to that book

3/15/2021 at 12:08 PM

I'm son after son from him.

3/15/2021 at 12:15 PM

Eli Rubin
I'm also son after son from him through baal Halevush

Here's the link to the book https://books.google.co.il/books?id=TaAyAAAAMAAJ&q=%D7%A8%D7%91...

3/15/2021 at 12:51 PM

This is the bond between you and him, there are ancient mothers between you and him (just as mine is):
Eli Rubin

3/15/2021 at 12:58 PM

This is the connection between him and me, but there are ancient mothers.
To the best of my knowledge in order to do a DNA tes,t there must be offspring son after son

3/16/2021 at 9:16 AM

The bond between me and Akiva is direct father-son on my dads side, but one generation shorter on my moms side (that's why geni shows the maternal line for me). So I'm my own cousin. But my bottom line is since theoretically I would have some sort of Y chromosomal connection to Akiva, I'd love to test that. I'd also want a distant cousin with a different father-son connection to compare it to, which would be able to narrow down a specific marker.

3/16/2021 at 9:35 AM

Until I can find all the information on my grandfather's side, the connection that the algorithm will show me will always be through ancient mothers, because my family tree goes back many generations only through my grandmother and her mother. With my grandfather, I just started the research

3/16/2021 at 5:51 PM

Randy Schoenberg I do not assume that because R' Akiva lived in Salonica he was Sephardic. Rather I think that because he arrived in Salonica in 1391, the year Jews were expelled from Majorca, that the identification of him as Sephardic is supportable. My ancestral lineages have shown me that Jews floated back and forth between Iberia, Frankia, Italy and the Rhineland during the middle ages (fleeing attacks, due to expulsions and also just due to studying at specific yeshivas) and there are plenty of believable explanations for Akiva coming to Salonica from Bohemia and/or Iberia.

A topic I do know a fair amount about is Y-DNA testing. I've been at it for 20+ years, administer several genetics projects at Family Tree DNA and have tested 8 of my ggg-granparental lineages, including the Katz J2a Cohanim Lineage I mentioned in my earlier message and which I believe may trace to R'Akiva. Therefore I'd be willing to pay for the YDNA test for anyone with a fairly solid patrilineal descent from R'Akiva, including Eli Rubin or Karel Stehlik. [Haim is correct that because his descent includes generations of women, his YDNA test won't help in this situation]. If anyone reading this is interested in this possibility, feel free to contact me directly at dnadeb@gmail.com

3/16/2021 at 11:47 PM

What is the evidence for Akiva arriving in Salonica in 1391?

3/17/2021 at 4:29 AM

Randy Schoenberg
The source is a book called וידוי book written by Jonathan Ben Nahum, which deals with the life of martyrs in Christian Spain in the shadow of the Inquisition before the deportation in 1492 and is entirely based on the research of Professor Chaim Bainart. Bainart was one of the greatest scholars of Spanish Jewry in the Middle Ages and is one of the best. There he writes that Rabbi Akiva HaCohen, who left Spain with the deportation, and was an Av Beit Din in Thessaloniki. The book, and Ben Nahum, is considered very, very accurate

Private User
3/17/2021 at 6:12 AM

The references to Ben Nahum and Bainart, and especially the latter, are the closest thing I've seen to evidence, but aren't fully there yet. For Ben Nahum, are specific page nimbers possible? And for Bainart, who published many, long books, the title(s) and pages would be helpful. I realize asking for this level of detail is alot, but I feel is necessary ro get to the foundation. I would also like to commend and second Debra Katz's generous offer to fund appropriate dna studies of this Katz legacy. I am still on the fence regarding R'Akiva's origins and ydna signature, but I am optimistic about this process. FWIW i ran the nane Akiva through several Sephardic names databases and there were several results from the town of Tortosa, famous for a disputarion in the early 15th century

3/17/2021 at 12:51 PM

sefarim that i've found so far that mention akiva being an exile from spain, I'll upload them asap.

sefer anaf etz avot, siman (section) 37, aka page 10

שיבושים נפוצים במגילת יוחסין (ג), mishpachat kohen tzedek, aka page 86

שם הגדולים השלישי - חלק א, siman 103, aka page 36

3/17/2021 at 12:57 PM


שם הגדולים השלישי - חלק א, siman 130, aka page 40

Private User
3/17/2021 at 1:04 PM

Thanks Eli. Do any of these volumes provide details or clues as to where in Spain? Keep in mind that not everyone in this conversation can read Hebrew quickly.

3/17/2021 at 1:11 PM

Randy Schoenberg

the sources mention an expulsion from spain, which given his birth in ~1360, would lead directly to the massacres in 1391. Also, when I researched synagogues in salonika that were built in between 1360 and 1460, the 3 that I found were from Germany, Provençal, and Mayorka. I saw the same thing (about the synagogues) on wikipedia but I don't know where that info came from.

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