When Rabbi Yaakov Culi arrived in Constantinople, Turkey, in 1714, he did not expect to find a Jewish community lacking Jewish knowledge. While the city was home to some of the great Torah scholars of the generation, the general Jewish populace had recently been devastated by the betrayal of the false messiah, Shabbetai Zvi(1626 – 1676).
Born in Jerusalem in 1689, the 24 year old Rabbi Culi had traveled to Constantinople in order to publish the works of his late grandfather, Rabbi Moshe ibn Habib. He became a student of the Chief Rabbi of Constantinople, Rabbi Judah Rosanes, who appointed Rabbi Culi to serve as a judge on the beit din (Jewish court). In 1727, after Rabbi Rosanes passed away, his house was pillaged and any manuscripts that were not destroyed were left scattered across the house. Rabbi Culi thus embarked on his second publishing project: organizing and printing the work of his mentor (including Rosanes’ Mishneh la-Melek commentary on the Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah).
Once Rabbi Culi completed publishing the works of his grandfather and his teacher, it was expected that he would release a work of his own original insights. Instead, he set himself to creating an encyclopedic work that would reinvigorate Sephardic Jewish life. Writing in Ladino (a Judeo-Spanish language), Rabbi Culi set out to create a unique commentary on the Torah. Each chapter interpolated with explanations from the Mishna, the Talmud, the Midrash, the Zohar and popular commentaries, as well as extensive explanations of Jewish law. He named his work Me’am Lo’ez and finished this work on the Book of Genesis and most of Exodus before his unexpected passing on 19 Av, 1732.
The Me’am Loez was so popular, however, that several contemporary scholars decided to use his notes to continue Rabbi Culi’s work. Rabbi Yitzchak Magriso completed the Me’am Loez commentaries on Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Rabbi Yizchak Bechor Agruiti completed the commentary on Deuteronomy. Several other rabbis used his notes and style to create commentaries on several other biblical books and Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers.
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