Thursday, April 3, 2014


My religious training began in Istanbul, in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue to which my parents belonged. I excelled in my studies and became not only a shohet (ritual slaughter for chickens only) but also the hazzan kavua (the main liturgical leader) of my temple. My teacher, I know realize, was a well-intentioned but narrow-minded individual.  In law school, when I discovered Reform Judaism, he quickly dismissed me from the pulpit. I was no longer kosher for him. 

For me, however, finding a liberal expression of Judaism was liberating. I could now, in good conscience, become a religious and observant Jew. During my military service in Turkey, I applied and was accepted by the Reform rabbinic seminary (the Hebrew Union College) in Cincinnati. After six months in Paris, where I studied at the Institut International d’Etudes Hebraiques, the now defunct French-Jewish rabbinic school associated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I came to the States in late August of 1961. I was in heaven!

In the 60’s, Reform Judaism had a distinct style and philosophy. Even though there were differences of opinions among us--we are Jews after all—we all had a general idea of what Reform Judaism stood for: We supported progressive revelation; we believed in the immortality of the soul; we had a common liturgical style and prayerbook etc. Now things are different. At times, I don’t know where Reform Judaism stands.

I realize that it is in the nature of Reform to be progressive and diverse. After all, the Centenary Perspective of the Reform Rabbinate (CCAR, 1976) clearly states that, “Reform Judaism does more than tolerate diversity; it engenders it.” Today, however, we have more theological discord among ourselves. For example, we cannot even agree whether we support tehiyyat hametim (resurrection) or immortality of the soul, and our new prayerbook, Mishkan Tefillah, has to include both options. We espouse different perceptions of the divinity; and we are all over the map with regard to ritual practices. 

The only continuity we have is the particular rabbi’s style of worship and philosophy in his/her congregation. When I was a congregational rabbi, I, too, influenced my synagogue with my style of worship and thinking pattern. Being a religious naturalist, my services certainly reflected my philosophy, even though I tried not to impose it on others. Every rabbi does this in his/her temple. I understand that, and congregants do too. As a rabbi who has been on the pulpit close to 50 years and a shaliah tzibbur (prayer leader) for almost 60 years, I would suggest that once in a while, rabbis and cantors review their prayer practices, and vary them as necessary. Not all services have to start with, “Let us take a big breath.”  After a while, it is boring. 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

April, 2014

Friday, March 28, 2014


According to Jewish tradition, it is not permitted to eat fermented grain products (called hametz) during the entire Passover week. The Mishnah specifically mentions wheat (hittim), barley (seorim), spelt [also known as farro] (kusmin), rye (shifon) and oats (shibolet shual) (M. Pes. 2: 5). [Danby translates kusmin as “goat-grass”]. Ashkenazic Jews add to this list of prohibited food items rice, millet, corn, beans and other legumes (called kitniyot) in Hebrew. Most Sephardic Jews do not follow this custom and eat rice and other legumes during Passover. 

What is the reason for this prohibition that emerged among Jews of Eastern European background?  Apparently, the custom originated in France in the 13th century and from there it spread to other Jewish communities in Europe. According to some sources, the reason is that these legumes resemble grain. Some point out that rice also “rises” when cooked in water. Others argue that some people could become confused and actually resort to making flour out of them. 

In 1988, a prominent conservative Rabbi in Israel, David Golinkin, wrote a responsum on this subject and stated that the actual reason for this custom is unknown, and in fact contradicts an explicit statement in the Talmud (BT Pes. 114b). He also quoted another medieval Rabbi, Rabbi Yeruham, who called it “a foolish custom.” [See a longer article online by Jeffrey Spitzer, “Kitniyot, Not Quite Hametz” in My Jewish Learning].

Similarly, the CCAR, in its 1996 responsum on this subject, indicated that the early Reform Jews in Europe found this custom unnecessary and burdensome, and abolished it. It also stated that the “Reform practice, following the standard of the Talmud, permits the eating of rice and legumes during Passover,” but added that some observant Reform Jews may continue to follow the Ashkenazic tradition, if they wish. 

I think it is time to eliminate this unnecessary burden on our fellow Jews. As a Sephardic Jew, I will continue to eat rice and legumes, without any sense of guilt. 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

April 2014.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


In 1454, Symon Ebreus, a descendent of Moses of Speyer (14th cent.) in Germany, came to Soncino, in northern Italy. In 1483, his grandson, Rabbi Israel Nathan, along with his two sons, Joshua and Moses, established the world-famous printing press that became known after the town itself. However, in 1490, just seven years after, he and his family were expelled from Soncino, because of the religious persecutions that took place during the rule of Ludovico Maria Sforza (1452-1508), the Duke of Milan. Family members spread to different places of Italy (e.g., Casal Maggiore, Naples, Brescia, Fano, Pesaro etc.) and continued to publish books, both Jewish and non-Jewish. In 1527/8, Rabbi Gershom, the son of Moses Soncino and grandson of Israel Nathan, moved first to Salonika and from there to Constantinople, today, Istanbul. He, too, continued in the tradition of his family and published many Jewish books. His son, Eleazar b. Gershom Soncino also became a prominent publisher. 

Other members of the Soncino family took residence in different parts of the Ottoman Empire, still continuing with the publishing trade. We find Gershom b. Eliezer Soncino in Cairo (in 1557); Moses Joshua Soncino in Smyrna (c. 1715); some members even immigrated to Safed. One of the latest in the business was Joshua, son of Moses Soncino who lived in the first half of the 18th century (c. 1737). 

In his collection of studies on Turkish Jewry[i], the historian Avram Galante, mentions Rabbi Eliezer Soncino who was the rabbi of the Italian community in Constantinople (late 1500’s) as well as a certain Moises Sonsin, who lived in the late 1700’s. Galante also states that the city of Smyrna had a neighborhood known as “Sonsino.” During my youth in Turkey, I had heard that there were other Sonsinos in the country, but I never met them.

A word about the spelling of our name: In Italian, the letter “c” in Soncino is pronounced as “tch,” like the “c” in “Chile” or “cheetah.” In Hebrew, the same letter “c” was rendered by “tzadi,” and pronounced as “Sontz/sino.” However, Turkish or Spanish does not have a letter that is equivalent to the Hebrew “tzadi.” Besides, in Turkish, “c” would have been pronounced as “dj.” I surmise that is the reason why the spelling of our family name was moved from SonCino to SonSino, in line with the French and Spanish pronunciation. 

Today, the Sonsinos are spread all over the world. From our Sonsino page in Facebook I know that there are Sonsinos in Latin America, in Israel, in the States and other parts of the globe. The family is no longer engaged in the printing businesses. The name was taken over by a Jewish-English publishing company in 1929 (the “Soncino Press”) to honor the famous printers of the past. 

Today Sonsinos are found in many professions. However, to my knowledge, I am the only one in the world who is a Rabbi. At least there is one more now. 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

March 2014

[i] Avram Galante, Histoire des Juifs de Turquie. Isis, vol. 1-9.

Thursday, March 20, 2014