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Cappadocia Capers

An old Jewish saying states 讛讻诇 转诇讜讬 讘诪讝诇 讗驻讬诇讜 住驻专 转讜专讛 砖讘讛讬讻诇 鈥 everything needs luck, even a Torah scroll. Why is one scroll used more than another? And why do some people and places become famous while others, equally significant, sink into obscurity?

I thought of this saying while researching the province of Cappadocia. While it had a significant Jewish population and in its heyday was counted among major Jewish centers like Babylonia and Alexandria, today it is virtually unknown. What do we know about Cappadocia and where does it appear in Yevamot?

In the midst of a discussion about accepting testimony about a man鈥檚 death, the Gemara tells us the following story:

鈥淭hey told Rabbi Yehuda: There was an incident involving an armed bandit [listim] who was taken out to be executed in Megizat of聽Cappadocia, and he said to those present: Go and tell the wife of Shimon the Priest that I killed her husband as I entered Lod.鈥 (Yevamot 25b)

Cappadocia is a province in what was called in ancient times Asia Minor. Today it is in Anatolia in Turkey and is a tourist magnet for its beautiful landscape and mysterious underground cities.

An underground city in Cappadocia (Nevit Dilmen, Wikipedia)

In Biblical times it was part of the vast Hittite empire and it seems that its name means 鈥渢he place below鈥 in the Hittite language. It became a Persian province at the height of the Persian empire around 500 BCE and many of its residents followed Zoroastrianism. While some later scholars confused it with Caftor, the island home of the Philisitines, that seems to be Crete, not Cappadocia.

Cappadocia in Turkey (Wikipedia)

Later the Cappadocian kings became allies with the Romans and eventually it became a Roman province. Its capital was originally called Mazaka, or as the Gemara terms it Megizah, as we see here. When the area came under Roman control, the city changed its name to Caesarea of Cappadocia. Like its Judean counterpart, Herod鈥檚 city of Caesarea, it was named in honor of the Roman Caesar Augustus. Herod and the Cappadocian king Archelaus also had family ties 鈥 Herod鈥檚 son Alexander was married off to the king鈥檚 daughter, a useful way to have diplomatic connections. Today Caesarea has morphed into Kayseri, a similar name.

Kayseri (Wikipedia)

While Cappadocia was ruled by Romans and eventually became an important Christian center, it also had a significant Jewish population. When Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri hears that Rabbi Tarfon only allows olive oil to light Shabbat candles, he stands up and defends the other Jewish communities who have less access to olives and olive oil:

鈥淎nd what will the Babylonians do who only have sesame oil? And the people of Medea who only have nut oil and the Alexandrians who only have radish oil? And what of the people of Cappadocia who have none of those?鈥 (Tosefta Shabbat 2:3)

The Jews of Cappadocia may have lacked natural resources but they are included in this list of the most significant Diaspora communities. We know of at least two rabbis from Cappadocia: Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Samuel. Jews also traveled back and forth from the land of Israel to Cappadocia. Among the ancient graves discovered in Jaffa is one from a Jewish Cappadocian merchant.

A very interesting testimony about Diaspora Jews, including the Cappadocians, appears in the New Testament. In the book of Acts there is an almost comic scene, where the students of Jesus, the apostles, start to speak in all different languages, despite not knowing these languages:

鈥淣ow there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing聽Jews from every nation under heaven.聽6聽When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.聽7聽Utterly amazed,聽they asked: 鈥淎ren鈥檛 all these who are speaking Galileans?聽8聽Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?聽9聽Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,聽10聽Phrygia聽and Pamphylia,聽Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene;聽visitors from Rome聽11聽(both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs鈥攚e hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!鈥澛12聽Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, 鈥淲hat does this mean?鈥13聽Some, however, made fun of them and said, 鈥淭hey have had too much wine.鈥濃 (Acts 2)

In this story, many Jews have traveled to Jerusalem for the holiday of Shavuot. The apostles, filled with the holy spirit, start to speak in tongues and each one spoke a different language. The foreign Jews are amazed to hear their languages spoken by these Jews from the Galilee, none of whom are learned men. Among the Jews from all over are a group from Cappadocia. So the journey, while it seems very far away, was one that was undertaken by some from this community to visit the Temple.

Travel went in the other direction as well. The Gemara brings stories about rabbis traveling to Cappadocia for various reasons. One, at the very end of Yevamot, highlights the danger that these journeys sometimes entailed:

Rabbi Akiva said: Once I was traveling on a boat, and I saw a certain boat sinking at sea, and I was grieved over the apparent death of the Torah scholar who was on board. And who was it? Rabbi Meir. But when I disembarked at the province of Cappadocia, he came, and sat, and deliberated before me about halakha. I said to him: My son, who brought you up from the water? He said to me: One wave carried me to another, and that other wave to another, until I reached the shore, and a wave cast me up onto dry land.鈥 (Yevamot 121a)

Rabbi Meir, who will finish his life in Asia (although not necessarily in Cappadocia) traveled there along with Rabbi Akiva and other scholars to teach and perhaps to learn as well. Cappadocia, like other vibrant Diaspora communities, contributed economically, politically and spiritually to the community in the Land of Israel.

A landscape in Cappadocia (Rumeysaraz, Wikipedia)


Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
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