Y.S. was born in Cairo probably in the 1040s/1630s where he lived for the rest of his life as a member of the Musta’ribi congregation of the Jewish community (autochthonous Eastern Jews, assimilated in the Arabic culture). Besides his name, that of his father, Isaac, and his toponymic nickname, Qataya, there is almost nothing more we know about Y.S. Although the distinguished Qatawi family of Cairo claimed Y.S. as their ancestor, his name does not appear in the community’s archival documents. Y.S. studied in Cairo at the yeshiva (rabbinic academy) headed by Rabbi Abraham Scandari, whose extensive library not only aroused in Y.S. an intense curiosity in history, but also provided him with sources he used in his works. Y.S. seems to have been one of the few Cairene scholars of his time whose research went beyond history proper and included the history of Biblical texts as well.
The only available information about the later years of Y.S. pertains to his professional life. In the 1670s he functioned as a clerk in the service of Raphael Yosef, the chief financier (sarrafbashı) of Qaraqash Ali (deposed 1080/1669), the Ottoman governor of Egypt at the time. The generous support of his patron enabled Y.S. to indulge in historical research and writing. Although he complained bitterly about the hard times that befell him after the assassination of his benefactor in 1080/1669, Y.S. managed to complete his main historical work five years later.
In the introduction to the second part of his main work Y.S. delineated the structure and the scope of his historical project, which consisted of two consecutive Hebrew chronicles, spanning a chronology of 1100 years: (1) Sefer Divrei akhamim (The Book Containing the Sayings of the Sages), a historical account from Adam to Rabbanan Savorai (Babylonian Sages of the 7th Century), which is not extant today, and (2) Sefer Divrei Yosef (The Book of Yosef’s Sayings), which was completed on 23 January 1673.
The historical material was cast in Sefer Divrei Yosef into a structure resembling concentric circles. The outermost circle gives a concise description of the politico-religious history of Islam written in a florid, Biblical language. After portraying succinctly the biographies of Islamic rulers beginning with Prophet Muhammad and the first four caliphs (10-40/632-661), followed by the Umayyads, Abbasids, and Fatimids, Y.S. describes in detail the Ottoman rulers, beginning with Osman Beg (r. 699-726/1300-26) up to the reign of Mehmed IV (r. 1058-99/1648-87).
The second circle is a history of the Jews written against this Islamic backdrop, describing the life-stories and activities of Jewish leaders and sages, who lived around the Mediterranean from the 4th/10th to the close of the 11th/17th centuries. The story of the Jewish community in Egypt, and particularly that of Cairo, makes up the third circle, which is a more detailed continuation of the preceding circle, discussing topographical and demographic data, relations between Jews and Muslims, communal institutions, the intellectual achievements of outstanding personages who lived in Egypt (e.g., Maimonides). It is within this third circle where Y.S. documented various calamities, especially episodes of persecution, that befell the Jews of Egypt, and interspersed the scanty autobiographical particulars mentioned above.
Ottoman sultans make up the main topic of about 52 chapters out of the total of 228 of Sefer Divrei Yosef. These chapters dealing with the lives of nineteen sultans supplies the background to the second half of this historical work. Each chapter, dedicated to a certain Ottoman sultan, depicts a significant event or activity that took place during his reign, mostly acts of conquest or critical political vicissitudes. Y.S. elaborates on the careers of prominent sultans, such as Mehmed II (r. 848-50/1444-46 and 855-86/1451-81), Selim I (r. 918-26/1512-20), and Süleyman I (r. 926-74/1520-66), fleshing out the accounts of their military expeditions in a sequence of chapters. The author offers, for instance, much detail on the campaigns against the Safavids (920/1514) and Mamlüks (922-23/1516-17). The detailed presentation of the latter encounter is understandable, since it resulted in the conquest of the Holy Land, which aroused Messianic expectations among the Jews of the Ottoman Empire. Y.S.’s ethnocentric attitude is one of the reasons for his positive evaluation of the Ottomans, whom he describes as “gracious Kings (Malkhey hesed)” or even as “Kings who loved the Jews (ohev ha-Yehudim).” Another expression of the centrality of Egypt in Sefer Divrei Yosef is the enumeration of the names of governors appointed to the province by Ottoman sultans beginning with Selim I up until the reign of İbrahim (r. 1049-58/1640-48). Y.S. occasionally adds short remarks about the relations of Ottoman governors with the local population, and more specifically with the Jewish sarrafbashıs (chief financiers).
Y.S.’s access to the writings of previous historians facilitated his work of reviewing the history of the Ottoman Empire from its early days onward. Y.S. drew mainly on the works of two historians of the 16th century, namely Elia Capsali’s comprehensive history of the Ottoman Empire entitled Seder Eliyahu Zuta and on Samuel Sullam’s Addenda to the Book of Genealogies (Sefer Yuhasin). Among the historical sources Y.S. utilized are also Arabic chronicles, such as Ahmad ibn Zunbul’s Infisal al-awan wa ittisal dawlat Bani Utman. Almost certainly unversed in Turkish, Y.S. had no access to the works of Ottoman historians who wrote in that language. His sketches of the sultans who reigned from the very beginnings of the Ottoman Empire until the middle of the 16th century are an epitome of the works of his predecessors, and lack, therefore, originality. As to the description of the next century, roughly up to 1050/1650, Y.S. did rely on some unidentified informants and on his own experiences, albeit the scarcity of elements of objective source criticism in his Sefer Divrei Yosef marks Y.S. as a faithful follower of the traditions prevailing in medieval Jewish historiography.
A treatise entitled Porath Yosef, which contains Y.S.’s explorations in the text of the Old Testament is extant, but has not been published.
1) Sefer Divrei Yosef
Manuscripts: (1) Jerusalem, Ben-Zvi Institute Library, no. 1748; 13 (non-consecutive) fol., 26 lines, Oriental cursive script. (2) Oxford, Bodleian Library, Oppenheim Add. 8° 34; 127 fol., 27-28 lines, Sephardic Oriental semi-cursive script (Adolph Neubauer, Catalogue of Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, vol. 1 (Oxford, 1886), 846, 1163-64, no. 2410; Malachi Beit-Arié, Catalogue..., vol. 1. Supplement (Oxford, 1994), 469-70). (3) Paris, Alliance Israélite Universelle Library, H130A; 134 fol., 25 lines, Spanish cursive script (Moise Schwab, “Le manuscrits et incunables de L’Alliance israélite,” Revue des etudes juives, 49 (1904), 80-81). (4) St. Petersburg, Russian National Library, (no shelf-mark mentioned); 2 fol [a fraction].
Editions: (1) Abraham b. Yehudah Leib. Sippur Devarim ha-Moshchim et ha-Lev (Fascinating Tales) (Istanbul, 1728). Selection of stories taken from the latter part of Sefer Divrei Yosef, also comprising the chapters pertaining to Ottoman sultans. (2) Abraham Moseh. Sefer Me’oraot Olam (Tremendous Events) (Izmir, 1756). A selection similar to that of no. 1 based on Sippur Devarim, but the tales of the Ottoman sultans were omitted. (3) Re’uven and Nissim Askenazi. Sefer Sippur Malkhei Otmanlis is declare del Reyno di Othmanjik, i su gradeza (!), (Tales About the Ottoman Kings, Reputed as Reyno di Othmanjik and their Grandeur) (Istanbul, 1767). Translation of the chapters of Sefer Divrei Yosef surveying the history of Ottoman sultans into the Judeo-Castilian language (Ladino). (4) Adolph Neubauer. Mediaeval Jewish Chronicles and Chronological Notes (Oxford, 1887), Part V entitled “Extracts from Joseph Sambari’s Chronicle.” Contains exclusively Jewish materials. (5) Abraham A. Harkavi. “From an Unknown Book of Jewish History” (in Hebrew), adashim Gam Yeshanim, 3 (1893), 11-13. Publication of the fragment of the St. Petersburg manuscript. (6) Shimon Shtober. Sefer Divrei Yosef (Jerusalem, 1981). Facsimile edition of the Paris manuscript (see above) with a short introduction. (7) Shimon Shtober. Sefer Divrei Yosef by Yosef ben Yitzhak Sambari: Eleven Hundred Years of Jewish History under Muslim Rule (Jerusalem, 1994). The first critical and annotated edition of the complete text of Sefer Divrei Yosef based on the examination of the 4 manuscripts and the 2 princeps editio of Istanbul and İzmir. (8) Maria E. Barjau i Rico. El Se'fer Divre' Iossef (Les Cro`niques de JOSEP) de Iossef ben Isaac ben Sambari (Barcelona, 2004) [extracts, mainly on Jewish matters].
Secondary Sources: Uriel Heyd. “Ritual Murder Accusations in 15th and 16th century Turkey,” Sefunot, 5 (1961), 135-49. Uriel Heyd. “Moses Hamon Chief Physician to Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent,” Oriens, 16 (1963), 152-70. Isra’el Ben-Ze’ev, “The Hebrew Documents in the Archives of the Jewish Community in Cairo,” Sefunot, 9 (1965), 263-93. Dina Bonan. “The Nile of Egypt: A Sample of the Way that Yosef Sambari adapted his Sources in Sefer Divrei Yosef,” Zion, 47 (1982), 419-34. Shimon Shtober. The Historiographic Work of Yosef Sambary, the Author of the Book Divrey Yosef. PhD Dissertation (The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1987). Shimon Shtober. “The Chronologies of the Muslim Kingdoms in Sambari’s Chronicle Divrei Yoseph,” Exile and Diaspora - Studies in the History of the Jewish People Presented to Prof. Haim Beinart, eds. A. Mirsky et al. (Jerusalem, 1988), 415-429. Michael Winter. “A Jewish Historian of the 17th Century,” Pe’amim, 65 (1995), 154-56. Shimon Shtober. “The Book Divrei Yosef and its Links with Arabic Literature,” Contacts between Arabic Literature and Jewish Literature in the Middle Ages and Modern Times, ed. Yosef Toby (Tel Aviv, 1998), 145-162.
General Bibliography: Abraham Zakkut. Liber Juchassin (Book of Genealogies), ed. Herschell Filipowski (London - Edinburgh, 1857). Abraham Berliner. Quellenschriften für jüdische Geschichte und Literatur, vol. 1 (Frankfurt am Main, 1896). A. Marx. “Bibliographische Miscellen: Zu Sambari's Chronik.” Zeitschrift für hebräische Bibliographie, 8 (1904), 190-92. Moses Steinschneider. “Miscellen und Notizen,” Zeitschrift für hebräische Bibliographie, 6 (1902), 183-86. Moses Steinschneider. Geschichtsliteratur der Juden (Frankfurt am Main, 1905), 140. Shmu’el A. Rosanes. Korot ha-Yehudim be-Turkiyah u-ve-Artzoth ha-Qedem (The History of the Jews in Turkey and the Oriental Countries), 5 vols. (Tel Aviv - Sophia, 1930-38). Elijah Capsali. Seder Eliyahu Zuta, 3 vols. (Jerusalem, 1976-83).