||The masterpiece of Ladino, ethical-religious literature, and one which has had a profound influence on the masses to the present day.
Me'am Lo'ez, an 18th-century ethico-homiletical Bible commentary in Ladino, the outstanding work of Judeo-Spanish literature. The commentary, conceived on an encyclopedic scale, was begun by R. Jacob Culi, who felt that, after the chaos left by the Shabbetai Zevi heresy, there was a need for the reabsorption of the masses into Orthodox Judaism. Because of their ignorance of the Hebrew language they had no access to traditional literature, and gradually turned away from religious observance. As is clear from his preface to the first volume, on Genesis, this is what R. Culi had in mind when, in about 1730, he undertook the writing of this work. His aim was to popularize Jewish lore by means of extracts from the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Zohar, and the biblical commentaries - in fact all the branches of rabbinical literature - translated into the Ladino vernacular. R. Culi originally intended to call his work Beit Ya'akov, but quoting from Psalms 114:1, "When Israel went forth out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language," he finally called it by the original Hebrew of that phrase, Me-Am Lo'ez. Written in an unpretentious, popular style and in an attractive form, Me-Am Lo'ez was to put the elements of Jewish life at the disposal of people unable to use the sources. It deals with all aspects of Jewish life, and often with life in general, with history, ethics, philosophy, and biblical exegesis. It comments on the prescriptions of the Law and clarifies them with a profusion of detail. R. Culi's idea was to compile the first part of his commentary around the weekly portion of the Pentateuch, assembling, verse by verse, all the material that had any bearing on the section. This was linked together by anecdotes, legends, historical narrative and folklore. The easy, colloquial style of the work gives it a conversational quality. The first volume of Me-Am Lo'ez was published in Constantinople in 1730. No work designed to instruct the Jewish masses had ever proved so popular. When R. Culi died in 1732 he was about to publish his commentary on the first part of Exodus. He left many unfinished manuscripts on the other books of the Bible, which later writers used as the basis for their continuation of his work. R. Isaac b. Moses Magriso completed the volumes on Exodus (2 vols., Constantinople 1733, 1746), Leviticus (1753) and Numbers (1764). R. Isaac Behar Argceti wrote only a part of his commentary on Deuteronomy (1772). Both R. Magriso and R. Argceti followed R. Culi so faithfully that the Me-Am Lo'ez on the Pentateuch may be considered a unified work. Using the same method, others sought to cover the rest of the Bible and complete the undertaking. R. Joseph di Trani of Constantinople wrote on Joshua (2 vols. 1850, 1870); R. Raphael Hiyya Pontremoli on Esther (1864); RR. aphael Isaac Meir ibn Venisti on Ruth (1882); R. Isaac Judah Abba on Isaiah (1892); NR. issim Moses Abod on Ecclesiastes (1898); and finally R. Hayyim Isaac Sciaky worked on the Song of Songs (1899). There may have been other volumes, written in the spirit of R. Culi, that are no longer extant or that were destroyed before printing. One such work was R. Isaac Perahyah's commentary on Jeremiah, lost in the 1917 fire in Salonika. The commentaries on Genesis and Exodus were the most popular. There were at least six editions of Genesis between 1730 and 1897, and eight of Exodus between 1733 and 1884. The different places of printing show the popularity of the work among the Sephardim of Turkey and the Balkans, and there was even a partial Arabic translation in North Africa. Those who did not own the expensive complete set (sometimes given as a dowry) studied it in reading groups. For a long time the Me-Am Lo'ez was the only literature for thousands of Sephardi Jewish families, and its reading was often considered a religious duty. It was so well thumbed by generation after generation that very few sets remain in existence. The Me-Am Lo'ez played a role in Sephardi culture parallel to, but wider than, that of the Yiddish Ze'enah u-Re'enah in the Ashkenazi world, its main difference being that it was not intended primarily for women. As a vast synthesis of everything that had been written in Hebrew, the Me-Am Lo'ez was directed to all - men, women, and even children.