Mas’ei – Port Cities of Refuge

Port cities are central to the history of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews. To escape the Inquisition the Western Sephardim found safety in international centres of trade, such as Amsterdam, London, Livorno and New York. There they were free to live as Jews, safe from persecution. These port cities of refuge evoke images of the Biblical cities of refuge, the ‘arei miklat.’ Those evading the ‘blood avengers’ could run to these Biblical cities, places where they would not be harmed (Numbers 35:25).

The six Biblical ‘Cities of Refuge’ were located amongst the forty-eight Levitical cities. The question is why were they amongst the Levites? Perhaps as the spiritual leaders of Israel, the Levites could be trusted to protect the fugitives. Others suggest that the Levites were meant to be a positive influence on the newcomers who had sinned inadvertently.

The fugitives required protection because they had murdered, albeit accidentally. According to the Talmud there is a difference between an accidental sin (sho-geg) and an unavoidable one (o-nes). Unavoidable acts are disregarded, while accidental ones require a measure of responsibility. If the fugitives had acted more responsibly then the murders could have been avoided. Such a person needs to enter into self-reflection and to conduct themselves with greater care in the future.

Along these lines, perhaps the Levites were there to inspire the newcomers. They could  show them another way to live. The Levites were in many ways an aesthetic tribe. They had no fields to tend; no trade in which to engage. Instead, they devoted their attention to spiritual matters, serving in the Temple, and teaching Torah. Whilst this degree of devotion was not intended for the entire people, the Levites still taught an important lesson. They taught that a Jew’s passion should be for higher things – for spiritual attainment, religious wisdom, and a nobler society. Living in such a setting, the fugitives surely learnt to aspire to greater heights, and to act with greater care to their fellows.

Perhaps this aspiration is the meaning of one of Maimonides’ most debated teachings. “Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before G-d to serve Him and minister to Him and to know G-d, proceeding justly as G-d made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many reckonings which people seek, he is sanctified as holy of holies.  G-d will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the Priests and the Levites. And thus David declared [Psalms 16:5]: “G-d is the lot of my portion; You are my cup; You support my lot.”  Blessed is the Merciful One who provides assistance. (Shemita 13:13).

Rambam is teaching that whilst we must surely engage in earthy pursuits, we are still free to also aspire to higher things. If we do, we can also share in the blessings of the Levites. In other words, we don’t need to be ascetic to be spiritual, all we require is a spiritual mindset and commitment.

This was a lesson also vital to our ‘Port Jews,’ the Western Sephardim. Dr Lois Dubin coined the term ‘Port Jews’ to contrast the Sephardic Jews of port cities to the ‘Court Jews’ of Central Europe. Court Jews regularly negotiated the status and rights of Jews in their environs, whilst Port Jews enjoyed the more defined security and rights that came with living in cities devoted to commerce. Port Jews tended to enjoy more economic, cultural and social freedoms than their ‘Court Jew’ coreligionists.

This new reality in Jewish history brought incredible opportunity to the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. They were free to excel, to achieve economic greatness, far beyond Jews elsewhere. However, it also brought challenge. How will a Jew choose to live when they are free to not live as Jews?

The Spanish & Portuguese Jews took advantage of their newfound freedom to return to the faith of their ancestors with gusto. In fact, having been denied the freedom of worship for so long, they constructed communities, schools, and synagogues across the globe. They were passionate in their newfound religious freedom. The community’s decision to maintain tradition while engaging fully in the opportunities of this new reality has led historians to consider these Sephardic ‘Port Jews’ the world’s first ‘Modern (Orthodox) Jews,’ well before the age of Moses Mendelssohn and German Jewry of the 19th Century.

Of course, when freedom is new, we relish it. Over time though, we sometimes begin to take it for granted, forgetting how fortunate we are. The Levites reminded those who were fleeing their past mistakes to live a more thoughtful religious life. Similarly, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews escaped their converso lives and laid the foundation for Judaism in the new religious freedoms of the Early Modern world. Let us then be inspired by their examples, and remember to always place the Torah and its values at the forefront of our contemporary lives.



6 responses to “Mas’ei – Port Cities of Refuge

  1. Dear Rabbi Shalom Morris, thank you very much for your excellent text and words that lead to a very accurate analysis of an ethnographic situation that I have a great interest. The associations of the “port cities” to the Levites and the reflections of Rambam is fantastic. I found very interesting your analysis about the “first” orthodox Jews. It is missing a port city in your initial list: Recife. It was from there that really was where the great international trade of sugar was installed that later spread to other port cities. I believe that on a smaller scale, I can transport your analysis to the port cities of the great Amazon River, from Belém to Iquitos, and the commercial network of these cities established with international trade of the extractive products of Amazonas to the world in the control of the Moroccan Jews of Amazon. Thanks! I miss our conversations at Bevis Marks. Shavua Tov!

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