The Jews of Sepharad

Jeff Zolitor offers an introduction to the history of the Jews in Spain. Reprinted from the CSJO newsletter.

Josephus, the Jewish historian of Roman times, tells us that the conquests of Nebuchadnezzar reached as far as the Iberian peninsula. It’s no wonder that some modern historians believe that the earliest Jewish settlements in that region were inhabited by people banished there by the Babylonian king. If these claims are true, then Jews arrived concurrently with the waves of Greek merchants sweeping across the Mediterranean three centuries after the first Phoenicians and settled among the Iberians and Celts already living in the region since prehistoric times. Archaeological records show that after Rome's suppression of the Jewish Revolt in 135 C.E., Jews fanned out in great numbers to Italy and Spain in the north and the African coast to the south. Spain [Sepharad] was one of the wealthiest provinces of the Roman Empire. Its rich soil and moderate climate made it into Rome's granary. Other commerce included livestock and minerals. The great Roman highway and communication network facilitated the exchange of information among such widely dispersed people as the Jews. So long as Rome was tolerant and prosperous, Jewish life flourished. And so it did for several hundred years.

Decline of the Roman Empire, Decline of the Jews

Deterioration of ancient Jewish life in Spain began in the fourth century with the decline of the Roman Empire and the adoption of Christianity as the state religion. Christianity defined itself as the successor to Judaism and if monotheism in some way appealed to the pagan population of new Christian Spain, ecclesiastical legislation would make certain that they chose Christianity. Conversion to Judaism became a capital crime!

In the fifth century Germanic tribes overran Spain, and the Visigoths found themselves ruling 8 million Latin speaking Catholics. It was the Jews who became the mediators between the foreign elite and the indigenous majority. For 200 years the life of Jews in Visigothic Spain is very obscure.

By the eighth Council of Toledo the terms “baptized Jew” and “non-baptized Jew” had entered the lexicon as did the concept of Old and New Christian. Reference to Jews as a “contagious pestilence,” a “plague of Jews” and the need to rise up against the “leprosy of Jewish corruption” were products of the 12th Council of Toledo and may have been further exacerbated by the news that in the wars between the Byzantium and Persian Empires the Jews had sided with the Persians against Christian Byzantium.

During the rule of particularly harsh kings, Jews would flee to Morocco or France and when the king was finally deposed they would return. The Visigothic King Erwig in about 685 mandated that all business transactions between Christians and Jews begin with the Lord's Prayer and the consumption of a dish of pork.

The Muslim conquest of Spain has been depicted by historians as an accident or afterthought to the conquest of Morocco. More accurately, it was still another victory in the process of Islamic expansion. As people arrived in Morocco with stories of chaos and discontent, an Arab general named Tarifa sent a small reconnaissance party of 400 troops to survey the situation. His small band found themselves welcomed as liberators by the warring princes, tired city dwellers and persecuted Jews. In 711 a larger invading force arrived, and resistance quickly collapsed. Within four years almost all of Spain had capitulated, as did Sicily. The westward expansion of Islam would not be stopped until 732, by France in the Battle of Tours.

The events of the jihad [Moslem holy war] were detailed in chronicles with surprising accuracy in that they documented both victories and setbacks. Upon reaching a city, the invading force usually found the gates unguarded and the city almost deserted. Few but the Jews remained, and the invaders would frequently leave the almost vacant city in the hands of Jewish patrols.

The invading forces were not one homogeneous people. They were North African Berbers, Syrians, Egyptians, Yemenites, and they occupied a country of Spanish Christians and Jews. While the Caliph in Damascus was the leader of the Islamic world, his reach fell short in Spain. The diversity, both cultural and linguistic, accounts for both the instability of Muslim Spain and its intellectual ferment.

Jews who had fled the later decades of Visigothic persecution returned on the heels of the Islamic conquerors. Word soon spread of the vastly improved position of Jews in Spain and this set off a wave of immigration to the newly pacified country. Succeeding waves of Jewish immigration would transform Spain, and within 300 years it would replace Babylon as the spiritual center of Jewish thought.

The place of Jews and Christians in Muslim society was subject to interpretation and re-interpretation over the years, but both had the special designation as ahl ed-dhimma, protected people. Possessors of Scripture who did not believe in Allah were to be opposed until they surrendered, according to classical Islamic theory. Upon surrender, the payment of a tribute was required as one of several obligatory signs of subjugation. The Islamic scholar, Abu Yusuf, reasoned in his treatise called the Book of Taxes that once the tribute or tax is collected, there is no further claim nor obligation. Having paid the tribute, they must not be harmed and their property rights respected. They must also be permitted to worship in their own tradition.

Fiscal exploitation was not the only measure of subjugation. The dhimmis were to be differentiated from Muslims with “marks of recognition.” Clothes of special color, distinctive and sometimes ludicrous footwear and headgear were just a few. Limitations on the size and building of new churches and synagogues and a ban against conspicuous worship rounded out the collection of restrictions known as the Pact of Umar. Arab pragmatism and rapid conquest usually meant that, in Muslim Spain at least, these restrictions were followed intermittently.

In 752 or 753, a coup d’etat forced the last Umayyad Caliph in Damascus, Marwan II, from power, and the caliphate was moved to Baghdad. The lone survivor of the ensuing massacre of the ruling family managed to escape to Spain, where in 756 he was able to re-establish an Umayyad emirate in Cordoba. It was he and his successors who established a strong army and bureaucracy and began pacifying the divided country. The desire to equal the splendor of their rivals in Baghdad would ensure that the Persian traditions of statecraft, social life, art and architecture would continue to flower as would new forms of cultural expression.

By the 10th century, Cordoba was a capital unequaled in splendor by those in the west or the Islamic east. An Islamic legend has Allah creating the world and the Spanish province of Andalusia [southern Spain, including the cities of Cordoba, Granada, and Seville] asking for five things: clear skies, a sea well stocked with fish, trees laden with every imaginable fruit, beautiful women and a just government. Allah agreed to every one but the last, having decided that if all were granted, Andalusia would rival Paradise.

In a city of perhaps 200,000 people, Cordoba boasted 3,000 public baths, paved and illuminated streets, indoor plumbing in the more luxurious homes and hundreds of villas along the river landscaped with tropical trees, fountains and waterfalls, ceramic tiled basins and reflective pools. Cordoba had 28 suburban centers each with thriving markets. Cultural life was enriched by 70 libraries, schools of architecture and schools specifically for the translation of classic works into Arabic. During this time profitable new crops were introduced into the economy including citrus fruits, bananas, figs, cinnamon and almonds. The introduction of cotton, silk, flax and wool produced the cash needed to satisfy the growing demand for conspicuous consumption.

During these times of cultural expansion, discord and turbulence always seemed close at hand. Christians, still smarting under Islamic discriminatory laws, made appeals to neighboring Christian rulers to intervene on their behalf. With an eye on the internal discord of Muslim Spain, some tried to instigate revolt. New Christian converts to Islam were eyed with suspicion and contempt and had little chance of gaining any real power in Islamic society. It seemed that only the Jews had no claims to historical sovereignty over the land of Spain; they certainly had no foreign protectors to come to their aid.

Hasdai ibn Shaprut, a tenth century Jewish statesman, wrote: "The land is rich, abounding in rivers, springs and aqueducts; a land of corn, oil, wine, fruit and all manner of delicacies; it has pleasure-gardens and orchards, fruit trees of every kind including the trees with the leaves that the silkworm feeds on...” As Muslims left Spain to study with famous scholars in North Africa, Cairo and Persia, so Sephardic scholars traveled to the Jewish intellectual centers like those Yeshivot on the Tunisian coast and in Baghdad where the Babylonian Talmud had been written.

International trade was the avenue by which many Jewish families acquired significant prestige in Muslim Spain, but it should be noted that a large and influential merchant class was rising throughout the Middle East at this time. It was neither rare or surprising, therefore, for Jews to travel great distances; Maimonides remarked rather casually in a responsum that the Jews were regular passengers on boats commuting between Seville and Alexandria. Business partnerships and formal friendships between Jewish, Muslim and Christian families indicate a peaceful and profitable coexistence between these groups at this time.

Religious community rhythm

The rhythm of a Jewish community was determined by the religious calendar, but it was also shaped by arrival and departure of the itinerant merchants. The arrival of the representatives of a large trading firm like the Maghrebis or the Radhanites would mark full attendance and full coffers for the local synagogue. Upon their departure a contemporary wrote, “The synagogue is desolate, for the Maghrebis have left.”

Some of these trading companies acquired huge monopolies due to factors specific to medieval Jewry. Muslims were excluded from European markets and Christians were barred from Islamic waters. Only Jews could travel freely as commercial agents in both realms. And Jews were assured hospitality among other Jews living all along the trade routes. Jewish multilingualism further facilitated the expansion of trade. Because of their complex history, Jewish traders were able to converse in Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Greek as well as the languages of the Franks, the Andalusians and the Slavs. Hebrew of course, was the lingua franca of these Jewish traders and the Jewish communities they visited. They might be returning to Spain with letters or responsa from the rabbinic scholars of Baghdad or Palestine, and upon their return the Sephardic community would gather for a public reading.

Cordoba was the center of Andalusian government and it was, for a while, to become the center of Sephardic Jewish life as well. But prior to Cordoba, Lucena had been the Jewish intellectual center and the first to correspond with the academies in Baghdad. Granada is another of those cities in legend founded by Jews freed from Babylonian captivity after the destruction of the first Temple. Its large and dynamic Jewish population prompted one 10th century Arab historian to call it “Granada of the Jews.” Other cities with influential Sephardic communities include Calatayud [in Aragon in northeastern Spain — its very name in Arabic is "quarter of the Jews"] and Toledo in central Spain. There were large Jewish communities in Barcelona [northeast, on the Mediterranean] and in other cities, each with their own scientific, artistic and intellectual circles.

Sephardic assimilation into Spanish society took many forms. Jews worked as vintners, farmers, traders as we have discussed, members of the royal court, physicians, scientists, textile workers; but a much more important role was that of cultural intermediary. Jews were well equipped to arbitrate between the mutually exclusive and hostile worlds of Christianity and Islam because they had lived in the very heartland of both worlds. They could just as easily mediate between the various and competing Christian kingdoms and likewise between Muslim principates.

One such person was a Jewish entertainer from Baghdad named Ziryab. He had been invited to Cordoba to introduce to the court cultural innovations learned in the east. He established a music conservatory for the youth of the court, introducing new musical instruments and teaching music to the most talented women of the harem. His cultural innovations included reforms in etiquette; he insisted on using tablecloths and cutlery and established glass factories to produce the fine crystal goblets that were soon to become famous beyond Spain. He introduced perfumes, cosmetics and toothpaste, and set the fashion in hairstyles and wardrobe. It was through Ziryab that protocol and custom in Cordoba rivaled that of the Caliphate in Baghdad.

Life in the royal court was sometimes quite treacherous. Prestige had its price. Harems were large and each wife pressed the claims of her son. Each rival advisor had opportunity to fan the flames of discontentment among competing wives, princes and slaves, and there were times quite often when the Jewish physician or translator would become enmeshed. Samuel ibn Nagrela was briefly imprisoned in 1020 as a result of political intrigue; yet he managed to attain the highest political position in Granada based on his talents in the world of finance, his gift as a writer and, not least, by backing a successful contender for the throne. He and many of his neighbors were later forced to flee Granada. The stakes were high in the world of political intrigue: a life of privilege or violent death, imprisonment or great fortune. The advent of the Golden Age brought with it many risks and made great fortunes.

The history of the Jews in Muslim Spain is indeed a history of huge personalities who dominated the Jewish communities with their charisma while negotiating themselves into Gentile society.

The Golden Age could not have happened without the involvement of outstanding Sephardim in government and its bureaucracy. They made the ground fertile for the cultural explosion that was to follow. But the Golden Age of Jewish life was more than politics and administration. It was art and science, culture and philosophy.

The Jewish courtiers shared a cultural orientation and political ethos with the ruling Muslims. Their secular education was exceedingly broad and included astronomy, astrology, geometry, optics, calligraphy, rhetoric and language. When one went to see a court physician, the patient would be talking to a poet, philosopher, linguist as well as a physician. And yet, Jewish sons were still expected to complete rigorous training in the Hebraic tradition, including Bible and Midrash, Hebrew language studies, Talmud and commentaries. A distinctively Sephardic characteristic was the ability to blend these separate academic traditions with sophistication and eloquence.

To some extent, the history of the Jews in Muslim Spain is indeed a history of huge personalities who dominated the Jewish communities with their charisma while negotiating themselves into Gentile society. These individuals integrated Jewish traditions with Arabic and Islamic culture to create a new Jewish dynamic. Jewish people would not again experience such a synthesis of Judaic culture and thought until the modern era.