February 18, 1577
Jews in Safed deliver a petition to the Ottoman Sultan seeking protection from persecution by local officials. Jews wanted protection against extortion, robberies and violence. Local officials also required Jews to violate the Sabbath by performing menial tasks.
The request states, “The Sanjak-Beg (a local Ottoman official) troubles us at present saying, ‘Most certainly you shall work (on Shabbat).’ He also demands excessive amounts of money. As we are not in a position to pay the money he makes us transport dung on that day (Shabbat).” (Source: Heyd, Uriel, Ottoman Documents on Palestine 1552-1615: A Study of the Firman according to the Muhimme Defteri, London: Oxford University Press, 1960, p. 166-167).
The document reveals the precarious nature of Jewish life under Ottoman rule as well as a continuing presence in the land of Israel before the establishment of the Zionist movement. In the 16th century, Safed (Tzfat) was the largest Jewish community in Ottoman Palestine. This petition came during a time of growth of that community. Evidence of the growth would come in September 1577 when the Sultan would ask for an investigation into the taxes being paid by the Jewish community in light of the fact that “their additional population comprises a considerable number of people.” (Heyd, p. 121).
Safed was also an important religious center. In 1565, Joseph Karo published the Shulkhan Arukh (the Set Table), an authoritative and comprehensive work on Jewish law. He wrote and taught in Safed at the same time as Isaac Luria, the founder of modern Jewish Mysticism. (The photo shows the Sephardi quarter of Safed in 1895)
Under Ottoman rule, Jews and other non-Muslims were protected people, or dhimmis, in Arabic. As such, Judaism and Christianity were tolerated religions. Their followers were allowed to practice their faith openly and organize in autonomous [self‐ruled] communities, as long as they followed a set of specific rules. The level of autonomy as well as other rights given to them would vary from ruler to ruler.