When Constantinople Was Taken

Aaron Taylor recently posted a translation of a Hebrew lament written by Rabbi Michael ben Shabbetai Kohen Balbo of Candia in Crete, dating most likely to early July 1453. The news of the fall of the city arrived in Crete on 29 June 1453, a month after the City fell. I’ve been meaning to post this interesting Hebrew piece, but have been otherwise occupied (gainfully, mind you).

As is immediately obvious to anyone familiar with the Bible, particularly with the Prophets, this text is a florilegium, combining excerpts from various books of the Bible, though mostly from the Prophets. Some of the verbs and pronouns are adapted to this context by the author.

Some readers might be puzzled by the reference to “Bela”, in quotation from 1 Chronicles 1.44. Bela was a king of Edom. The Rabbinic “callsign” for the Roman Empire was “Edom”. The fallen emperor, Constantine XI, is “Bela”, following this reckoning.

The following text, citations (following RSV versification; corrected and added to by myself), and translation are from Excursus D, pages 341-343 of Steven B. Bowman’s highly informative The Jews of Byzantium: 1204-1453 (University of Alabama Press, 1985). I combined the notations and the Hebrew text, separating the latter according to the sources. The notations in Bowman are only in the translation. I include the Bowman translation at the bottom, for comparison with the one posted by Aaron. Neither translation quite captures the pathos of the Hebrew, with its very strong language of lamentation and mourning rooted in Prophetic mourning for the sins and punishment of Israel. The punishment theme is here too, preserved by the author, indicating a punishment of both the Romans and the Israelites in the City: a great and murderous destruction has overtaken them all. Even though it’s at the hand of God, that’s no reason not to be shocked and to mourn! And I think if more people knew what kind of treatment was coming their way for the next several centuries, they might have shared some of the Prophets’ and the good Rabbi’s emotion!

This was a fun (if somewhat gloomy in subject) afternoon project!

וזה עשיתי כנתפשה קושתדינא
קול שמועה 1
נגאלה ומוראה 2
הנה באה מארץ צפון ורעש גדול 3
בין הים ובין מגדול 4
כי שבי גדול שביה בת עמי 5
עם עם חרמי 6
שחתו כרמי 7
והמון לאומי 8
משמים ארץ 9
לכליון וחרץ 10
נפל הלל בן שחר 11
כדבר אין לו שחר 12
עליו תרנה אשפה 13
ומזיח אפיקים רפה 14
זאת והב בסופה 15
האריכו למענית 16
להב כידון וחנית 17
האמונים עלי תולע 18
כל חכמתם נתבלע 19
ונפשם בתוך כף הקלע 20
וימת בלע 21
ובנחלי הבתות 22
חבקו אשפתות 23
על זאת תאבל הארץ 24
כי כלה ונחרצה 25
נהייתה בארץ 26
רוע התרועעה הארץ 27
ותעבור הרנה 28
אנה ואנה אוי לנו כי היום פנה 29
קול אומר קרא הנפש מרה ואמר מה אקרא כל בשר חציר 30
כעוללות כרם בציר 31
קדרו שמים ממעל 32
על אשר שתה מיד 33
סף רעל 34
כוכבי השמים וכסיליהם לא יהלו אורם 35
חשך משחור תארם 36
חשך השמש 37
וירח באהלי קדר 38
לא תאר ולא הדר 39
הן אראלם צעקו חוצה 40
לריב ומצה 41
מלאכי שלום מר יבכיון 42
ובנו אצלם ציון 43
על כן אמרתי שעו מני אמרר בבכי אל תאיצו לנחמני 44
השברתי קדרתי שמה מחזיקתני 45
רעדה אחזתני חיל כיולדה 46
וארכובתי נקשן דא לדא 47
מעי מעי אוחילה 48
מלאו מותני חלחלה 49
וכל אבירי בקרבי סלה 50
שמה ומהומה מבוכה ומבוסה 51
מי נתן למשסה ישראל לבוזזים 52
אשר גובהו גובה ארזים 53
הנשר הגדול אשר לו הרקמה 54
ריפת ותוגרמה 55
השח יושבי מרום קריה נשגבה 56
וישלח ארצה מן הככבים ומן הצבא 57
המצפצפים והמהגים 58
אוי נא לי כי עיפה נפשי להורגים 59

1. Jeremiah 10.22
2. Zephaniah 3.1
3. Jeremiah 10.22
4. Exodus 14.2
5. cf. Isaiah 52.2
6. cf. Isaiah 34.5
7. Jeremiah 12.10
8. cf. Psalm 65.8
9. Isaiah 14.12
10. Isaiah 10.22
11. Isaiah 14.12
12. Isaiah 8.20
13. Job 39.23
14. Job 12.21
15. Numbers 21.14
16. Psalm 129.3
17. Job 39.23
18. Lamentation 4.5
19. cf. Psalm 107.27
20. 1 Samuel 25.29
21. 1 Chronicles 1.44
22. Isaiah 7.19
23. Lamentations 4.5
24. Jeremiah 4.28
25. Isaiah 10.23
26. Jeremiah 5.30
27. Isaiah 24.19
28. cf. 1 Kings 22.36
29. Jeremiah 6.4
30. Isaiah 40.6; Job 21.25
31. Isaiah 24.13
32. Jeremiah 4.28
33. Isa 51.17
34. Zechariah 12.2
35. Isaiah 13.10
36. Lamentations 4.8
37. Isaiah 13.10
38. cf. Joel 2.10, 4.15; Song 1.5
39. Isaiah 53.2
40. Isaiah 33.7
41. Isaiah 58.4
42. Isaiah 33.7
43. Ezekiel 39.15
44. Isaiah 22.4
45. Jeremiah 8.21
46. Psalm 48.7
47. Daniel 5.6
48. Jeremiah 4.19
49. Isaiah 21.3
50. Lamentations 1.15
51. Isaiah 22.5
52. Isaiah 42.24
53. Amos 2.9
54. Ezekiel 17.3
55. Genesis 10.3
56. Isaiah 26.5
57. cf. Daniel 8.10
58. Isaiah 8.19
59. Jeremiah 4.31

Hark, a report, repulsive and terrifying, behold it cometh from a northern country; and a great noise extending from the Sea to Migdol. For my people is captive in a great captivity along with mine enemy. They have destroyed my vineyard and the multitude of my people. From heaven to earth to utter destruction has fallen the morning start as if it were something worthless.

The quiver rattles upon it, and he loosens the belt of the strong; this is (the reference of) Waheb in Suphah: they make long their furrows, the flashing spear and the javelin. They who were brought up in purple were at their wit’s end, and their lives are in the hollow of a sling.

And Bela died. In the steep ravines they lie upon ash heaps. For this the earth shall mourn; for utter destruction will be in the land; the earth is utterly broken; and a cry went forth: Woe unto us for the day declines. A voice says, Cry! (in the bitterness of soul), and said, “What shall I cry? All fless is grass as at the gleanings in the vineyard when the vintage is done.”

The heavens above have become black because he drank from the hand (of God) the cup of staggering. The stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light. Now their visage is blacker than soot. The sun darkened, and the moon was black as the tents of Kedar with neither form nor comeliness.

Behold the valiant ones cry outside, only to quarrel and fight. The envoys of peace weep bitterly, and they shall build a sign by them. Therefore I said — Look away from me. Let me weep bitter tears. Do not labor to comfort me. My heart is wounded; I mourn, and dismay takes hold of me. A trembling seized me there, an anguish like a woman in labor, and my knees knocked together. Therefore my loins are filled with anguish.

He flouted all my mighty men in my midst; there was there (tumult), trampling, and confusion.

Who gave up Israel to the robbers; he whose height was like the height of cedars. The great eagle, rich in plumage of many colors, Riphat and Togarmah. The inhabitants of the height, the lofty city, and some of the host of the stars, these he cast down to the earth with the chirpers and the mutterers.

Woe unto me for my soul is faint before the murderers.


  1. Nice job!!! I’ve never heard of the term florilegium – in Hebrew its called Melitzah and can include pieces of Talmud as well, there is usually many clever puns and allusions. Can this be found in anything besides the Jewish texts?

  2. The poem’s pretty neat, isn’t it?

    Florilegium is just a literal Latin rendering of the Greek anthologia, which means “collection of flowers” literally, but is used for collections of texts, generally. The texts involved can be long or short, though I may be skating on thin ice in using it for this writing.

    It sounds like melitzah is probably a better technical term, if it describes exactly this stringing together of phrases and verses into a new composition.

    There are somewhat similar Christian prayers that I’ve seen in Latin works (I don’t know their technical term) and Greek ones called eclogaria which are composed out of lines from the Psalms.

    I first heard the term used in reference to 4QFlorilegium (4Q174), one of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments that includes a number of Biblical verses from various books all combined and with little snippets of original stuff. Since the editors used florilegium for that, I figured it fits well enough with this one.

    If I find any other terms, I’ll let you know!

  3. Was that common, for contemporary events to be commemorated that way, Theophrastus?

    Bowman notes (p. 156, n. 93) that the Rabbi’s works (except for this poem) are unpublished, in Vatican MS 105. There could be something there. He lists the following references, too:

    Steinschneider, Moritz. “Candia: cenni di storia letteraria,” Mosè. Antologica Israelitica (Corfu, 1879-83), II.411-16, 456-62; III.53-59, 281-85, 421-26; IV.303-8; V.401-6; VI.15-18.
    (The poem is published here, at IV.105.)

    On R. Michael b. Shabbetai Kohen Balbo:
    Gottlieb, Ephraim. “The Metempsychosis Controversy in Candia,” (Hebrew) Sefunoth XI (1971-77), 45ff.

    That’s it. The pdf that Aaron linked to refers the reader to Bowman, but that’s only as much help as the above.

  4. Wow! Very interesting! I had no idea that was done.

    Are such kinnos (קינות) similar to the above melitzah/florilegium/cento? That is, are they composed in the manner, of selections from Biblical texts, arranged to rhyme? It’s just amazing that people know the text so well as to be able to extract rhyming bits from it that are actually relevant, all without the use of concordances and electronic searching. We’ve really lost something with the abundance of our tools, perhaps more than we’ve gained from them.

    (I thank Brandon of Siris for reminding me of the term cento, which for some reason had completely slipped my mind. This happens to me occasionally. I once temporarily forgot the word “elbow”, much to my brother’s disbelief and amusement. I knew there was another word for describing a poem made of extracts from other works, but it completely slipped my mind. I knew that florilegium wasn’t quite appropriate, but cento just wouldn’t come to the fore. It was very frustrating. Thanks, Brandon!)

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