This introductory chapter provides an overview of the rabbinate, particularly the chief rabbis, in the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire. There is a widely held conception that, throughout history, the rabbi was the ultimate Jewish leader and, in the absence of counterbalancing community institutions, had the final word in all matters. For Jews within the Ottoman Empire, the right to appoint their rabbis was part of the autonomy they enjoyed, an aspect of the community's life with which the imperial authorities were not involved. However, the creation in 1835 by the Ottoman authorities of the institution of ḥakham bashi transformed the chief rabbi from the senior religious figure within Jewish society into its senior government official. With this change, the long arm of the government began to reach into Jewish communal affairs, and as a result Jewish autonomy gradually weakened. From this point on, the chief rabbi's relationship with the rulers became the most important aspect of his position. This tendency was strengthened throughout the period of the Ottoman reforms (1839–76), during which security, protection, and equality before the law were promised to members of all religions.
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