After the splitting up of the Roman empire in 395 C.E., Salonika became the second most important city – after Constantinople – in the Byzantine Empire . The Byzantine emperors in their efforts to "Christianize" their subjects were hostile to the Jewish communities in their territory and especially to the Jews of Salonika. Constantine the Great (306–37) and Theodosius II (408–50) enforced anti-Jewish laws. Justinian I
(527–65) and Heraclius (610–42) prohibited public fulfillment of the mitzvot. Basil I (866–86), the Macedonian, and Leo III (717–41), the Philosopher, forced the Jews to convert or leave the country. One of the very few emperors who acted favorably toward the Jews was Alexius I Comnenus, who during the First Crusade alleviated the taxes imposed upon them. During the same period, in 1096, the messianic movement that had started in Germany as a result of the persecutions in Mainz and had spread throughout Europe also reached Salonika. In 1169 Benjamin of Tudela visited Salonika and mentions that at that time there were about 500 Jews in the city. The sufferings of the Jews continued during the Latin Empire, which was established by the Crusaders (1204–61), as well as under Theodore Ducas Angelus, the despot of Epirus, who ruled the kingdom of Salonika from 1223 or 1224 to 1230.
During the second half of the 14th century Salonika attracted Jews, among the first being Hungarian Jews in 1376. Refugees from the 1391 riots in the Iberian Peninsula, mostly from Catalonia, found refuge in Salonika. In 1394, Jews migrated to the city from Provence. Like the Ashkenazim, the immigrants from the latter two regions formed their own synagogues. In 1423, Andromachos, the governor of Salonika, sold the city to the Venetians. The Venetians imposed heavy taxes on the Jews, who sent a special delegation to Venice to convince them to alleviate the burden. In spite of the hardships they suffered during the Byzantine period, the Jewish community of Salonika flourished: most of the Jews were merchants, engaging especially in the silk trade. Jews from Sicily, Venice, and other Italian cities migrated to Salonika and formed the synagogues Sicilia Yashan and Italia Yashan. There was also a veteran Romaniot community in the city. It is to be noted that the oldest synagogues of Salonika – Etz ha-Hayyim (which existed until the 1917 fire) and Etz ha-Da'at–date as early as 142 B.C.E., and until the arrival of the Iberian expulsees in 1492, they observed the Romaniot prayer rite and customs. Nevertheless, it is impossible to affirm the continuity of the community.
In 1430 Salonika was occupied by the Turks. At approximately the same time waves of Jewish immigrants started arriving in the town. In 1470 Bavarian Jews arrived in Salonika and formed the Ashkenazi community near the existing Romaniot community. The two communities differed in every aspect: clothing, eating habits, religious rites, prayer books, etc. The Ashkenazi community continued to exist until the beginning of the 20th century and the members were not assimilated into the other Jewish groups in Salonika. During the 15th and 16th centuries many Jewish expellees from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sicily, and France, and refugees from North Africa, settled in Salonika. The largest numbers came in 1492–3 and 1536. Once in Salonika they founded separate synagogues ("congregations," kahal kadosh). These synagogues were named after their native countries or towns: Sicily, Calabria, Majorca, Lisbon, etc. Salonika also received Marranos who were expelled from Portugal. In 1514 the rabbinical triumvirate of Salonika issued a special haskamah regarding the Marranos as Jews as far as marriage and divorce were concerned, i.e., they practically regarded the Marranos as Jews in every respect. Additionally, in 1555, when the Marranos from Ancona were persecuted by Pope Paul IV, the Jewish merchants of Salonika decided to boycott Ancona and incited the Jewish merchants all over the Ottoman Empire to follow them in their act. Nevertheless, as a result of political and economic reasons, the boycott did not succeed. There was some emigration from Salonika, but not to a great extent. The reasons for the emigration were plagues and fires that ravaged the town in 1543, 1545, and 1548. It is estimated that by 1553 there were 20,000 Jews in Salonika: the location of the city and the fact of being a port – constituting a key point on the international trade route between the East and the West – helped attract settlers. Merchandise from the East came to Salonika and from there was transferred to the West and vice versa. The Jewish immigrants maintained their relations with their coreligionists and colleagues in their countries of origin – France, Flanders, Egypt, and especially with the Italian ports, above all Venice. They therefore had a relative advantage in international trade, Salonika's location helping to exploit this advantage to the maximum. Troubles, of course, were not lacking, coming in the form of pirates and highwaymen. The Jews of Salonika also engaged in the crafts, and the city was famous for its Jewish weavers and silk and wool dyers. Nearby there were gold and silver mines in Siderokastro and many of the miners were Jews. Another craft was the manufacture of jewelry.
There were three main concentrations of Jews in Salonika: a quarter next to the city wall at the port, i.e., very close to the main artery of trade; the Francomahalla, i.e., the quarter of the "Francos" (foreigners from Europe), which presumably consisted of the elite of the Jewish inhabitants; and the quarter near the hippodrome, which was primarily Greek. Thus, the Jews did not live near the Turks, the rulers of the town. The organization of Jewish life in Salonika was of a special character. There were about 30 independent congregations who sometimes associated themselves as a voluntary body that took care of the common interests of the congregations. The takkanot issued by this body had to be accepted by every congregation to be valid for it. They included women's rights, ethical matters, religious matters, etc. These takkanot were based on the takkanot of Toledo (1305), Aragon (1335), and Castile (1432). The heads of each community were called parnasim, memunim, nivrarim, and anshei ma'amad, and were elected by all the members of each congregation. A committee elected by the parnasim of each congregation decided what proportion of taxes each congregation had to pay to the Turkish authorities, according to the number of members and their financial state. Women, orphans, and the poor were exempt from taxes. Each congregation had the following communal organizations: Ḥevra kaddisha, which was also called Ḥevrat kevarim; gemilut ḥasadim ("philanthropic organization"); bikkur ḥolim
(sick wards); yeshivah; and bet din. The religious head of each kahal kadosh was the marbiẓ torah or ḥakham shalem, who was elected for a limited period of time and usually came from the town or country of origin of the kahal kadosh. The marbiẓ torah taught at the yeshivah of the congregation, was usually also the dayyan of the congregation, and delivered sermons on Sabbaths and holidays. Jews were forbidden by the halakhah to go to the Turkish authorities for matters pertaining to inheritance and ketubbot. The Talmud Torah Hagadol was formed in 1520 as a communal solution to education, since maintaining a school for each of the more than 30 kahalim became an insurmountable burden. It was a very large institution of 200 teachers, serving more than 10,000 students, and was not only a school but also had a communal treasury, library, printing press, a fabric industry, and its own prayer congregation. Salonika became a center of Torah learning and attracted many students from abroad. During the 16th century there were numerous important rabbis whose influence spread beyond the borders of Salonika and even the Ottoman Empire. Among the most prominent were: Joseph Caro , the famous rabbinic decisor who lived in Salonika during the years 1532–34 and continued to work there on his monumental Bet Yosef; Solomon Alkabetz , the author of Lekhah Dodi; Isaac Adarbi , the author of Divrei Rivot and Divrei Shalom; Moses Almosnino , the author of many important works including Regimiento de la Vide and inventor of an astrolabe; Moses de Boton (d. 1570) and his son Abraham de Boton (d. 1592), the author of the responsa Leḥem Rav and Leḥem Mishneh, a commentary on Moses Maimonides ' 12th-century code of Jewish law, Mishneh Torah; and Samuel di Medina ("RaSHdaM"), who left over 1,000 responsa and is considered among those halakhic authorities whose decisions both in halakhah and in practice can be relied upon. Salonika was also renowned as a center of Kabbalah. In addition to the rabbinical schools in Salonika in the 16th century, there was a bet midrash for piyyutim and singing, as well as a bet midrash for secular studies where medicine, natural sciences, astronomy, and other subjects were taught. Saadia Longo was a noted local poet, and Israel Najara of Damascus, who was of Salonikan familial origin, spent time there. The physician Amatus Lusitanus , who wrote treatises on circulation, taught in that above school of medicine when he settled in Salonika in 1558.
From 1515 the Jewish weavers of Salonika provided the Ottomans with cloth for army uniforms. Later the community could pay the mandatory poll tax (the jizya) as a protected minority religious group through this service. Thus, the Jewish community was recognized as "Musselemlik," recipient of "a freedom letter" which exempted it from other taxes and made it an autonomous administrative body directly under the Sublime Porte.
At the beginning of the 17th century the city once again suffered from plagues and fires (1604, 1609, 1610, 1618, 1620, 1630, 1636, 1640, 1648), causing emigration; nevertheless, by the middle of the century there were about 30,000 Jews, or half of the total population of the town. Trade continued to flourish in spite of the drop in Venetian trade, which resulted from the loss of Crete to the Turks in 1669 and the riots caused by the janissaries at the same time. The Jews continued to export grain, cotton, wool, silk, and textiles. Many Jewish women worked in growing tobacco and its industry. At the same time fewer and fewer Jews worked in the crafts. Toward the end of the century a decline in commercial activities took place as a result of the decline of the Ottoman Empire, which had entered a state of continuous war with various countries and peoples. In spite of all these troubles Salonika remained a center of religious studies and halakhah. The famous halakhic authority R. Hayyim Shabbetai (1556–1647), author of the Torat ha-Hayyim and Teshuvot Rav Ḥayyim Shabbetai, lived in the city during the first half of the 17th century; other important religious authorities included Aaron Cohen Perahiyah, the author of Parah Matteh Aharon, David Conforte , author of Kore ha-Dorot., Eliya Judah Kovo, av bet din from 1670 and author of Shenei Me'orot ha-Gedolim, and the great talmudic scholar Aaron Ḥayyim ha-Kohen (1648–1698), author of the two-volume Matteh Aharon.
While in theory, the 1568 edict provided Salonikan Jewry protection from the whims of the local authorities, in practice local governors and government officials in the capital often ignored it. Dozens of firmans provide testimony as to how local authorities extorted additional sums from Salonikan Jewry for the poll tax. In 1636 the sultan ordered the execution of Rabbi Judah Covo when he underestimated the amount and quality of the cloth transmitted for tax payment from the Jews of Salonika to the authorities. Frequently, the Jews had to finance the sultan's wars by paying a special tax (avarish), and in 1646 a firman was issued for the rabbinical court judges of Salonika to issue a special tax to finance the war against Crete. The Jews, like other non-Muslims, were also frequently tormented by the Janissaries serving in the city.
The most influential event for the Jewish community in the 17th century was the appearance of the pseudo-messiah Shabbetai Ẓevi . Expelled from Izmir ca. 1651–54, he arrived in Salonika sometime afterward. In the beginning he was very well treated, and he preached in the Shalom synagogue; but later, when he married a Torah scroll, he was expelled after a decision made by the most important rabbis of the town. In 1666, after it was declared that he was the true messiah, he was arrested and given the choice by the sultan between death or conversion, he converted to Islam, and seven years after his death, in 1683, a group of believers – some 300 Jewish families – also converted to Islam. This sect was called the Doenmeh (in Turkish "apostates") and their religious center was in Salonika, from which they spread to Constantinople and other places. Shabbetai Ẓevi's passage from Salonika and the conversion in 1666 that ensued caused turmoil among the Jews in Salonika; the community consequently felt the need to unite. In 1680 the 30 congregations merged into one, with
a supreme council composed of three rabbis and seven dignitaries. The three rabbis were elected for life and could not be replaced unless all three died. The first triumvirate was composed of Moses b. Hayyim Shabbetai, Abraham di Boton, and Elijah Kovo. Another important step was the reorganization of all the rabbinical courts into three bodies along the following lines: matrimonial; rents, possessions (Ḥazakot); and ritual matters (issur ve-hetter). Each bet din was composed of three rabbis who were elected by the triumvirate; they were known for their justness, and many Muslims and Greeks preferred to try the cases they had with Jews in these courts instead of the Turkish ones.
As the Ottoman Empire declined, the community's financial situation in Salonika worsened, and French merchants began to gain control of business interests. In 1720–30, Portuguese Marranos, called "Francos," immigrated to Salonika. Most of them were well-educated, and among them were merchants and bankers, who had been established in Italy and in particular in Livorno.
They did not pay taxes to the sultan since they were considered as interpreters of the consuls. In the beginning they also refused to pay the relevant taxes to the Jewish community, but after a decision by the central committee of the community, they acceded to the community's demands. The Jewish population at that time was between 25,000 and 30,000. Nevertheless, both religious and secular studies declined, and only study of the Kabbalah still flourished.
Leading rabbis of the 18th century were Asher Ben Emanuel Salem, author of Responsa Asher (1748), Moses ben Solomon Amararillo, who wrote the 3-vol. Responsa Devar Moshe (1742, 1743, 1750), and Joseph ben David, author of Responsa Bet David (1740).
Toward the second half of the 19th century the Turkish governors of the city initiated a further expansion of the town. A new port was built in 1889, which helped to develop trade. European culture and technology also began to flow into Salonika, and signs of this "Westernization" became apparent among the Jewish inhabitants as well. In 1873 the Alliance Israélite Universelle established a school, and additional schools along Western standards were also built. By the end of the 19th century, the Alliance educational system in Salonika and other locations had produced a new generation of European-educated entrepreneurs; prepared students to learn medicine, pharmacy, law, and education; created secular literacy; and enticed its graduates to pursue journalism, theatrical performance, and even the publication of novels, historical works, and short stories. Physicians who had studied in Europe helped to eliminate epidemics.
In 1864, Juda Nehama printed El Lunar, the first Judeo-Spanish newspaper in Salonika. Though it was short-lived, it was a new format of communication. He brought to the attention of the public items about science, translations from noted rabbinic works, stories, historical pieces, folkloric stories, commercial issues, and the like.
The main Judeo-Spanish newspaper of Salonika, La Epoca, was founded in 1875 by Saadi Halevi Ashkenazi, who was an active publisher in Salonika and was a scion of a family that published many exegeses from Sephardi ḥakhamim in Salonika and elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire. This commercial and literary newspaper appeared twice a week until the summer of 1898, when it appeared also every Friday. The Halevis struggled financially to print the newspaper and keep it running, and it closed in 1912.
Parallel to Yiddish theater in the Ashkenazi world, the Sephardim of the Balkans had an active Judeo-Spanish theater. The Judeo-Spanish theater was the most active in Istanbul in the last quarter of the 19th century, but by the end of the 19th century it would be surpassed by the Salonikan stage. The first plays took place at the time of the opening of the local Alliance schools. The play Saul by Vittorio Alfieri was adapted into Judeo-Spanish by Joseph Errera, a local poet and train station manager who coordinated the dramatic productions of the organization. In 1882, El Tiempo, a translation of Racine's Esther, was also performed in Salonika, and in 1884, David Hassid adapted L'Avare of Molière into Judeo-Spanish for the local Salonikan stage. In the 20th century in Salonika, ideological movements like the Socialist Labor Federation, which essentially was a Jewish movement with 6,000 Sephardi Judeo-Spanish speaking members Jews, or Zionist movements and organizations like Betar, B'nai Mizrachi, Maccabi, Tiferet Israel, B'nai Zion, Cercle Max Nordau, and Po'alei Zion organized Judeo-Spanish theatrical productions. In 1914, the drama group of the Socialist Federation produced both Molière's Garonudo and the comedy El hastron. In 1919 the above group performed Tolstoy's Resureccion.
Some of the Judeo-Spanish plays performed by the religious Westernization helped in the development of trade. In Istanbul and Izmir, the Jews could not compete against the Greek-Orthodox and Armenian merchants, as the latter were much more numerous and powerful, but in Salonika, where the Jews were a majority, they attained great wealth, developed the city industrially, and controlled the port, the commerce, banking, the tobacco trade, and the artisan professions. As a result of their European education, Salonikan Jews represented big European firms as maritime, commercial, insurance, and tobacco agents. As Salonika became connected to Mitrovitsa (1871), Belgrade (1880), Vienna (1888), Monastir (1893), and Istanbul (1895) by rail, exports from the city increased greatly, but the local Jews also developed industrial infrastructures, with small factories supplying Macedonia and Ottoman markets with flannel, knitted goods, and wool and cotton products. Nevertheless, the export of cotton, hides, silkworms, and wool continued to represent an important part of its activity. The volume of the Salonikan port rose from one to two million tons between the years 1880 and 1912.
As a result of this Westernization, liberalism became paramount among the Jews of Salonika. Nevertheless, this did not
undermine the traditional ways of the community, and many new yeshivot were established. The Ḥevrat Kadimah – for the spreading of the Hebrew language – was founded in 1899, and the well-known teacher Isaac Epstein was brought to Salonika to teach Hebrew. In 1887 the rabbinical triumvirate was dismissed, and Jacob Kovo was appointed to the post of ḥakham bashi (chief rabbi). In 1900 there were approximately 80,000 Jews in Salonika (out of a total population of 173,000). In 1908, when the Young Turks rose against the Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II, Jews were among their numbers. One of the first actions of the Young Turks when they came to power was the recruiting of all non-Muslims into the Turkish army. As a result, many young Jews left Salonika and emigrated to the U.S. in order to avoid serving in the Turkish army.
The Jews and the Doenmeh in Salonika, in particular, and Jews in other parts of the Ottoman Empire were active in the Young Turk Movement, the Committee for Union and Progress. The religious minorities led by Muslim reformists united, and were optimistic that they could induce change and play a more integral part in the political life of the Ottoman Empire. Some Salonikan Jews like Emmanuel Carasso, Moise Cohen (who was born in Serres and later changed his name to Tekinalp to assert his patriotism to Turkey), the attorney Emmanuel Salem, Nissim Mazliah (initially from Izmir), and Sam Levy were active and were somewhat prominent in CUP, but their influence has been questioned by scholars. During the demonstration in Salonika at Freedom Square ushering in the Young Turk Revolution and declaring a constitution, Carasso was one of the four speakers. In 1908 Carasso was one of four Ottoman Jews elected to the Ottoman Parliament. He refused the appointment of minister of public works in 1910, but was elected to the Senate in 1912 (along with two other Jews).
Since the Jews believed that the new government was more liberal and tolerant than the former one, they openly organized socialist and syndicalist movements. Avraham Benaroya of Plovdiv, an active Bulgarian socialist and former student of Bochor Azaria, moved to Salonika in 1907 to try the challenge of organizing a socialist movement. The Socialist Labor Federation of Salonika became primarily a Jewish socialist movement of some 6,000 workers. Benaroya was ultimately exiled and imprisoned by both the Young Turk government and the Greek authorities after Salonika became part of Greece in 1912.
At the same time, the first Zionist organizations, Agudath Bnei Zion and Maccabee, appeared in Salonika. By the eve of World War II there were more than 20 Zionist organizations. The Young Turk revolution marked a new "golden" era for the Jews of Salonika, and they could be found in every profession: merchants, tobacco workers, lawyers, physicians, teachers, while the Jewish stevedores of Salonika were famous. On Sabbaths the town and the port came to a standstill since the Jews did not work.
When the Greek army entered the town in 1912, King George declared that Jews and all other minorities were to have the same rights as the Greek population. After the Balkan Wars (1912–13), Salonika could no longer be used as the port for the Balkan states. Nevertheless, trade continued to flourish during World War I since Salonika became a center for Allied soldiers. In 1917 a great fire destroyed most of the town, leaving some 55,000 Jews homeless. The Greek government, which followed a policy of Hellenizing the town, was ready to compensate the Jews whose houses had been destroyed, but it refused to let the Jews return to certain parts of the town, causing many of them to leave the country and emigrate to the U.S., France, Italy, and Alexandria. In 1923, a separate electoral college was set up for the Jews of Salonika (as well as for the Muslims in Thrace). While this enabled several Jews to be elected to parliament, they could not participate in national elections for the prime minister. This discriminatory system, which the Salonikan Jews unsuccessfully tried to fight internationally, continued until after the 1933 elections. In 1924 a law (no. 236) was enacted which forced all the inhabitants of Salonika to refrain from working on Sundays, thus causing another wave of emigration. Some went to Palestine, while most immigrated to Paris, where they founded an important community. In the 1931 Campbell riots, which accompanied the elections and were antisemitic in tone, an entire Jewish neighborhood was burned to the ground by hooligans of the EEE (Greek National Front) student movement and Asia Minor refugees, and most of the Jews who lived in the Campbell neighborhood emigrated afterward to Palestine. In the 1930s, 15,000–18,000 Salonikan Jews immigrated to Ereẓ Israel, and some 15,000 emigrated to France, mostly to Paris, but also to Marseilles and Lyons. In 1935 there were nearly 60,000 Jews in Salonika, and in spite of the drop in Jewish population from the turn of the century and all the riots and fires, the Jews continued to maintain their status in the economic activity of the town. The coup d'etat of Metaxas (1936) brought a change for the better in the lives of the Jews of Salonika.