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History of the Jews in Spain
Origins and History of Sephardic Jewry

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Iberian Peninsula Before and During Roman Rule

Figure 1. Paleohispania.

Figure 2. Europe, 500 BCE.

Figure 3. Europe, 300 BCE.

Figure 4. Iberia, ethnographic areas.

Prehistoric Spain was settled by the Iberians, Tartessians, Basques, and Celts (Figure 1). While the Basques remained in the northern region centered around the Pyrenees, a distinct ethnic group eventually formed called the Celtiberians, tribes of mixed Iberian and Celtic stock who inhabited an area in the central part of the peninsula before the start of the first millennium BCE. The map area in light green, the Iberian area, is the Catalonia of antiquity while the dark-green area is the homeland of the Basques. The name “Vascones” is “Basque” in French.

If we look at a map of Europe of the sixth century BCE (Figure 2), we can see how Spain fits into the overall picture of Europe in the early first millennium BCE. The traditional date for the founding of Rome is 753 BCE and Alexander the Great didn’t begin his campaign in Asia until 334 BCE. During the fourth century BCE (Figure 3), we see Rome beginning to grow, Alexander’s conquests being split among his generals, and the great northern tribes, those of the Gauls and Germans, coalescing into discreet groupings. The population of Hispania (the ancient name of the Iberian peninsula), was ethnically quite diverse; even in pre-Roman times a number of cultures lived in this region (Figure 4).

It still is diverse; Spain has the most ethnically diverse population of any country in Europe. As we’ll see in this course, the ancestors of today’s Spaniards include, in addition to the Iberians of antiquity, Celts, Phoenicians, Romans, Carthaginians, Germanic/Scandinavian peoples, Moors, middle-eastern Arabs, Slavs, and Jews. A commercial genetic database reports the following genetic ancestries of Spanish residents they tested: 40% Celtic; 30% Iberian; 15% Germanic derived; 7% Viking (Scandinavian); 8% Arabic/Berber.1 A recent study found that 19.8 percent of Spaniards share a Y-chromosome haplotype with Sephardic Jews and 10.8 percent share this genetic similarity with northern African populations.2 When considering these results, also keep in mind that correlation is not proof of causation, but these results are nonetheless illustrative of the intimate genetic relationship among Spanish Jews and Christians—and Muslims.

When did the Jews first arrive in Spain? There are hints from the Bible that the lands of the western Mediterranean were well known to the Israelites. Around 970 BCE Solomon formed an alliance with Hiram of Tyre, the king of the Phoenicians, providing Hiram with sailors who had a knowledge of the sea equivalent to that of the Phoenician sailors. The territories of the Israelite tribes of Asher, Zebulon, and Dan were part of Phoenicia and some early Spanish Jewish documents actually refer to those tribes as having descendants living in Iberia.3 The Bible implies that expeditions to Spain were routine as early as the tenth century BCE.

Solomon also built ships.... And Hiram sent his servants to serve as shipmen in the navy, those that had knowledge of the sea, with the servants of Solomon. (1 Ki 9:26–27; see also 2 Ch 8:17–18)

For the king had at sea a navy of Tarshish with the navy of Hiram: once every three years came the navy of Tarshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks. (1 Ki 10:22; Tarshish has frequently been identified as Tartessa—southern Spain)

Men of Sidon and Arvad were your oarsmen; your skilled men, O Tyre, were aboard as your seamen. (Eze 27:8)

But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. (Jon 1:3)

Figure 5. Pre-Roman Iberia.

Herodotus reported that in about 600 BCE the Phoenicians had circumnavigated Africa; archaeological evidence shows that by the seventh century BCE they had planted colonies all along the north African coast and southern Spain (Figure 5), so it’s quite plausible that Jews, close allies and trading partners of the Phoenicians, were also involved in these far-flung colonies. One item of material evidence for the early presence of Phoenicians in the Iberian peninsula is a signet ring found at Cádiz (Gadir—Hebrew: city of Gad?) that dates from the 8th–7th century BCE. The inscription on the ring has been identified as either Phoenician or paleo-Hebrew.4 Other archeological evidence makes it clear that during the first millennium BCE the Phoenicians and their allies extensively colonized coastal areas all around the Mediterranean, including multiple colonies in Hispania. The Phoenicians of north Africa were called the “Puni” by the Romans.

Figure 6. Roman Empire, 150 BCE.

Figure 7. Jewish and Christian population distribution, 100–300 CE.

If the Jews hadn’t already been in Hispania from biblical times or as colonies planted by ancient trading activities, then they would have arrived by accompanying the Greeks in the late first millennium BCE. The Romans first invaded Hispania about 220 BCE, and following the fall of Carthage in the Second Punic War (218–202 BCE) (Figure 6) the Romans were able to expand their empire into Hispania and by 15 CE Rome controlled all of the peninsula. After the second temple’s destruction in 70 CE, any early Iberian Jewish immigrants would have been joined by those who had been enslaved by the Romans during the Jewish-Roman Wars (70 and 135 CE) and dispersed to the extreme west. One estimate, acknowledged as “exaggerated,” places the number carried off to Iberia during this period at 80,000.5 It is virtually certain that subsequent Jewish immigration into Iberia existed, reaching the region by traveling along both the northern African and southern European coasts of the Mediterranean.6 In fact, during the second and third centuries Jews had established communities in towns throughout the Roman empire (Figure 7). By the third century the Jews constituted about 25 percent of the population in the eastern part of the Roman empire and about ten percent of the entire population.

Another source of information about Jews in the Iberian peninsula comes from the Christian Bible. In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul speaks of his intent to visit Spain; he was noted for his visits to regions of large Jewish populations to proselytize, so apparently Spain was known even then to have a significant Jewish population. Also from early written sources, the Jewish aggadic Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 29:2, mentions a “return of the Diaspora” from Spain by 165 CE.

Figure 8. Tortosa tombstone.

Figure 9. Adra tombstone.

The earliest unambiguous evidence for the presence of Jews in the Iberian peninsula—in the form of tombstones dating from around the second to third century CE—includes a tombstone inscribed in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek found at Tortosa, a city south of Tarragona near Barcelona (Figure 8) whose Hebrew text reads, “Peace to Israel.... This is the tomb of Meliosa, daughter of Yehuda and [?] Miriam of blessed memory—let her soul be gathered up in the bonds of eternal life. Amen. Peace....”7 Another stone is that of a Jewish child named Annia Salomónula [fig13], who died at the age of one year, four months, and one day. This tombstone was found in Adra, in the province of Almería, a coastal city to the east of Granada. The inscription in Latin speaks of her as a Judaea (Jewish girl) (Figure 9).

Whether the Jews only imagined that their origins were far earlier than early Roman occupation or that their ancestors truly had been residents of Iberia for many centuries prior to that is immaterial; the Iberian Jews had a strong tradition that their roots extended back to a time before the rule of King Solomon. They imagined that the biblical Adoniram, King Solomon’s tax-controller and emissary to the west, whose tomb they claimed was located in Spain, visited Iberia along with other Jewish communities all around the Mediterranean Sea as one of Solomon’s tax collectors.8

Cultural anthropologists are quite familiar with the way that cultures will lay claim to deep roots in their adopted lands—witnessed, for example, by the stories told by American Jews about how Jewish crew members were included in Columbus’ expeditions to the New World and were among the first settlers here—in this case, this belief has some basis in fact. Actually, evidence exists for the presence of Jews in the New World possibly even earlier than the seventh century BCE, but that’s definitely another story, and not for now. (If you’re curious, try web-searching for “Los Lunas stone,” “ancient copper mines Lake Superior,” or “Decalogue tablet Ohio.”) The connection between Jews in Spain and ancient American artifacts is language—the writing on inscriptions in the southwest is seventh-century BCE Hebrew and that of many of the inscriptions discovered at ancient mining sites in America’s northeast is Celtiberian—whose linguistic roots are Phoenician/paleo-Hebrew. In any event, it appears quite likely that the presence of Jews in the Iberian peninsula can be dated back to the very beginnings of the development of Iberian civilization. Some of the place-names in southern Spain appear to have a Semitic origin. Indeed, some linguists have suggested that the name “Iberia” itself may be related to the Hebrew word “iber,” “to cross over,” the root of the word “ivri”—Hebrew.

Figure 10. Roman Empire, 200 CE.

Figure 11. Iberian towns.

In the third century CE Rome reached its greatest extent (Figure 10). However, all along its northern border were a number of fierce Germanic tribes, including the Vandals, the Suevi, and the Goths. Apparently the Romans must have been fiercer; they kept out those tribes, but to protect Rome’s northern borders and keep marauders out, they arranged a number of treaties with the northern tribes to have them patrol their borders to keep them secure.

With the advent of the fourth century there is evidence of significant Jewish populations in many areas of Spain, especially in the areas of Granada, Córdoba, and Seville in the south, Toledo centrally and Barcelona in the north (Figure 11). Over the course of the fourth century, Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion (following the conversion of Constantine in 312). But in Spain of the early fourth century the Church was well established and a major presence. The first Church council that ever met in Spain took place in 306 in Iliberis (Elvira) in southern Spain (close to Granada). This was a meeting in which nineteen bishops and many other clerics and laymen from most Iberian provinces participated and passed 81 ecclesiastic laws (canons) of which four directly pertained to the Jews.9

Canon 16: On faithful maidens, that they shall not be joined to infidels.
If heretics should refuse to cross over to the Catholic Church, Catholic maidens shall not be given to them; and it was resolved to give them neither to Jews nor to heretics, because no association could exist between the faithful and the infidel. It is resolved that if parents should act contrary to the interdiction, they shall be removed for five years.

This canon recognized a social reality—intermarriage existed; Jews appeared to be well integrated into society.10 Notice that the girl’s parents are the ones who would be punished; arranged marriages were a common business practice that linked families closer than any business contract could. The reason that Christian women marrying a non-Christian was a concern to the clergy was because women followed the religion of the men that they married; thus they and their children would be lost to the Church. There was no similar prohibition of a Christian man marrying a Jewish woman since in the society of the time, the woman would be assumed to follow her husband’s religious practice.

Canon 49: On the fruits of the faithful, that they shall not be blessed by Jews.
It was resolved to warn the landowners that they should not suffer that their fruits—which they receive with thanksgiving from God—shall be blessed by Jews, lest they make our blessing null and void. If anyone should unlawfully presume to do it subsequent to the interdiction, he shall be utterly expelled from the Church.

This canon underscores the reality that Christian landowners regularly had their crops blessed by both Christians and Jews. There likely was more than a “belt-and-suspenders” idea behind having the blessings of both faiths for crops; one possible reason was marketability—doubly blessed crops could be more marketable. Thus the implication is clear that the two religious groups lived together and interacted closely. Turning to the Jews for their blessing was seen as a threat to the Church; it could dilute the value of the Christian blessing or even affect people’s faith in Christian blessings entirely, thus the reason for the severity of the punishment.

Canon 50: On Christians who eat with Jews.
It was resolved that if, indeed, any cleric or faithful should take food with Jews, he shall be removed from communion, in order to make him amend.

Ample evidence exists from around the Roman Empire that shows that Christian clergy often attended ceremonial meals held by Jews. This practice was becoming a threat to the Christians, since of the few Jewish ritual practices that the Christians retained, the blessings over wine and bread were paramount, having been incorporated into the eucharist ceremony. Since Jewish meals began with these blessings, a Christian who participated in the Jewish ritual would essentially be seen as rejecting communion; thus he was to be removed from communion until he repented.

Canon 78: On the married faithful, if they should commit adultery with a Jewess or with a gentile.
If anyone of the faithful with a wife should commit adultery with a Jewess or with a gentile, he shall be kept away from communion. If he should be exposed by another man, he shall be allowed to join the Lord’s communion after he has completed a five-year regular penance.

This is a telling law. Notice the punishment here and then compare it to that of Canon 16. A penance is punishment for a violation of adultery—one of the Ten Commandments—but for a marriage, it’s a five-year expulsion? Here, as in Canon 16, the problem concerns a child of an adulterous union. A child born of a Jewess would be lost to the Church since she wouldn’t be joining the man’s family. But the marriage is presumably a permanent condition, while an adulterous liaison, especially one that is exposed, is likely to be a shorter-term affair.

Historical evidence indicates that Jews lived not only as farmers but as residents of the villages and towns as artisans, craftsmen, and merchants, and as these councilary laws show, they were well integrated into the local society. The close association of Christians and Jews was viewed as a significant problem by the clergy, who were beginning to preach the superiority of Christianity, and if the common Christian people saw the Jews as a people no different than themselves, the messages from the pulpit would be discounted, or worse, ignored. Despite the Church canons, which had no force of civil law, Jews and Christians coexisted in harmony in Roman Iberia. But Europe was soon to undergo major political changes, which we’ll explore in some detail now.

Rise of the Visigothic Empire

Figure 12. Roman Empire, 400 CE.

Figure 13. Invasions of the Roman Empire, 100–500 CE.

Figure 14. Roman Empire, 450 CE.

The fifth century was marked by massive population movements in western Asia and in Europe (Figure 12), a result of the invasion of the Huns. The Huns appeared in eastern Europe from the Asian steppes and subjugated a number of eastern European tribes including the Alani (Alans) from the Caucasuses and defeated and supplanted the Goths in 372–375. Surviving clans of the defeated tribes, particularly those of the Alani, Vandals, and Suevi, began migrating westward, while the Goths went south. Beginning in 395 the Huns fought some skirmishes with Roman forces (Figure 13), having sent smaller expeditions south into Roman lands, but the Huns tended to look westward for their conquests.

But earlier, some Gothic tribes—those that had been pushed out of their lands by the Huns—had been allowed to enter Roman territory peacefully. This group became known as the Visigoths (a combination of wesi, a term meaning “good or worthy people” and Goth). However, soon after they settled in Roman territory, local Roman leaders subjected them to severe mistreatment. As a result the Goths rebelled and in a major battle at Adrianople in 378 they won a decisive victory (scholars point to this battle as the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire). Losses in this battle so significantly weakened Roman forces from the Balkans all the way to Italy that the Germanic tribes were able to overcome any resistance that Rome could muster. Having little opposition, Visigothic warriors continued to move through the eastern into the western Roman empire, sacking Rome in 410 and raiding as far as southern Italy. During the last decade of the fifth century and the beginning of the sixth, other Germanic tribes were moving into the western part of the empire ahead of the Huns’ conquests.

In 409 the Iberian peninsula was invaded by the Suevi and Vandals along with a number of Alani clans. The Visigoths arrived about eight to ten years later and displaced the Vandals who with the Alani were driven into north Africa while the Suevi retreated into the peninsula’s west and north and established a kingdom there. (The Huns were defeated by a coalition of Roman and Visigothic forces at Chalons in 451 and Attila died in 453. The empire Attila had built dissolved the following year.) After the Vandals had reached northern Africa, they began a campaign of piracy and raids across the Mediterranean and sacked Rome again in 455. This map shows the situation in Europe in the mid-fifth century (Figure 14). The Hun Empire was dissolving under fractured leadership, the Ostrogoths (meaning “Goths of the rising sun”), who had also been displaced from their lands, were moving toward Italy, and the Visigoths were moving into Iberia in force.

Figure 15. Visigothic kingdom, 500 CE.

The total Hispanic-Roman population of Iberia during the fifth century numbered perhaps four million. The invading Visigoths were a small minority,11 amounting to perhaps ten percent of the population of the central plateau or about 30,000 to 40,000 people; however, some sources claim the Visigoths numbered 200,000. They spoke Gothic, an early dialect of German, and were primarily herders and warriors; they always remained a small fraction of the indigenous population. They initially settled southwestern France and central and eastern Spain (Figure 15) and by 475 controlled most of the Iberian peninsula. When the Visigoths entered a town they destroyed any remaining physical vestiges of Roman government, such as government buildings (which couldn’t be fortified) and bathhouses (which they considered effeminate), but they did retain one Roman element: the legal system, which they adopted in all their territories, combining it with their own laws.

The Visigoths practiced a form of Christianity known as Arianism, which held the belief that Jesus as the son of God did not always exist but was created by—and is therefore distinct from and inferior to—God, a denial of the Trinity which the Church held to be heretical. The Visigoths established Toledo as the political center of their new kingdom, but the reality was that their authority did not extend very far outside Toledo itself, except through their control of the local Church apparatus. Remember this point as it becomes significant in future years. The kings controlled the local Church and its activities and policies by appointing bishops, structuring dioceses, and convening periodic councils where ecclesiastic laws would be passed to govern the society. Dynastic succession was never established and as a result the Visigothic period was characterized by constant political turmoil bordering on anarchy; the eighteen Visigothic kings who ruled from the late sixth to the early eighth centuries represented at least fifteen different families with seven being murdered or otherwise deposed. Under this disorganized political system, the Jews at first lived quite easily; the Visigothic rulers apparently didn’t see much difference between the Jews and Christians in their lands.

Figure 16. Europe, 500 CE.

In the mid-fifth century the Roman Empire faced the threat of the Vandals who were raiding cities all around the Mediterranean basin. After the Vandals sacked Rome in 455, the eastern and western Roman Empire branches sent naval forces against the Vandals in 460 but suffered a complete defeat. Further action against the Vandals during the 470s were also unsuccessful. Rome itself only lasted until 476 when it fell to the Ostrogothic army; thus the Western Roman Empire disappeared while the Eastern Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire (Figure 16). The Vandals were not eliminated as a threat until 533 when they were defeated after ten years of conflict with Byzantium and the Berbers.

In the Iberian peninsula in 586, a new Visigothic king, Reccared, came to power. (See the Timeline of Iberian Rulers.) Around the time he became king, Reccared converted from Arianism to normative, Nicaean or Trinitarian Christianity. In May 589 he convened the Third Council of Toledo, initiating the era of Catholic rule in Visigothic Spain and providing support for civil law structures based upon Christian tenants by instituting a number of practical policies. Although it appears that he believed that statewide and state-controlled religious conversions of the Jews should be adopted, no such policy was implemented under his rule, but other restrictions on the Jews were enacted. Canon 14 is one of the canons adopted by the Third Council.

Canon 14. On the Jews.
On the council’s proposal our most glorious lord ordered that it should be entered in the canons, that Jews should not be allowed to have Christian wives or concubines nor to purchase a Christian slave for their own use; yet if any sons were born in such a marriage they must be taken to be baptized; it is necessary that they should not act in any public office that would provide them with the opportunity to inflict punishment on Christians. Indeed, if any Christians have been defiled by them in the Jewish rite or have been even circumcised, they should return to liberty and the Christian religion with no repayment of their price.12

The abolition of slave-holding by Jews was actually a major issue. The Jews did keep slaves; slaves were essential for farming, and the Christians, and later the Moors, relied heavily on slaves for agricultural work. So did the Jews, but Jewish practices concerning slavery were so different from those of other cultures that the Christians were threatened. Jewish slaves rested on the Sabbath. If a slave converted to Judaism he would be freed. Slaves were considered to be part of the household and had to be treated fairly; in many cases they held positions of trust. Slaves of Jews could own property and could transact business on their own. No doubt this explains why if one had to be a slave, being a slave for a Jew was far preferable than being one for a Christian. And this is why the Christians were so concerned about Christian slave conversions to Judaism. So among the first restrictions that Reccared enacted was to end Jewish slaveholding. Slaves had to be turned over to Christians thus effectively ending Jewish involvement in agriculture, since the Jews were later forbidden from paying Christians to work for them. In addition to the canon about slavery, other canons provided that Jews who proselytized were to be put to death and Jews were prohibited from intermarrying or holding public office.

Figure 17. Europe, 600 CE.

Figure 18. Jewish world, 600 CE.

When the seventh century opened (Figure 17), the Visigoths controlled virtually all of the Iberian peninsula with the exception of Vasconia in the north and a small coastal area in the south that was occupied by Byzantine garrisons as a result of a Visigothic civil war in 550. The Byzantines were able to establish a foothold there during the civil war; they weren’t driven out of Iberia until 625. In 612 Sisebut became king and in 613 put Reccared’s conversion policy into effect, issuing an edict that all Jews must be forcibly converted to Christianity, and in 616, probably in response to continued resistance against this policy, he ordered that those Jews who refused to convert should be punished with one hundred lashes. Continued refusal brought confiscation of property and banishment.

Historians are at a loss to explain why Sisebut made this decision. The Church had long taught that forced conversions were immoral and were absolutely forbidden and there were no political or economic advantages to be gained either. This was the first of at least three major episodes of forced conversion imposed on the Jews of Iberia (there were innumerable minor or local episodes). As a result of this edict, some Jews fled to north Africa or to Burgundy while many did convert (Figure 18). Many of these forced converts, called the anusim (coerced or forced [ones]), maintained their Jewish identities in secret, just as did those of later periods.13 Sisebut died in 620 or 621, and under his successor, Suinthila, the Jews were quietly allowed to resume their religion. However, the nobility objected to many of Suinthila’s policies and eventually, in 631, overthrew him.

King Sisenand ascended to the throne in 631 and soon convened the Fourth Council of Toledo (December 5, 633). The amount of legislation passed was massive and included ten canons that pertained to the Jews. Some of these laws dealt with the entirely new situation created by the forced conversions imposed by Sisebut, i.e., the existence of crypto-Jews, who had been formally baptized and recognized as Christians but were now secretly practicing Judaism and living in communities together with non-baptized and openly practicing Jews. While the council recognized that forced conversions were forbidden by Church canon and they condemned on principle all forced baptisms, they refused, on strong theological grounds, any compromise over the immutable nature of baptism once it had been actually performed. So their problem was how to construct legislation that would force the crypto-Jews into becoming true Christians. The result was a strange form of legislation that did not distinguish between the faithful converts to Christianity, the crypto-Jews, and the openly practicing Jews, treating them all simply as “Jews.” Grouping all of these communities into one class led to the eventual application of the measures intended to apply to the so-called “baptized Jews” to the “non-baptized,” openly practicing, Jews; whether this effect was intentional or not is unknown. The law that rendered this decision is Canon 57.

Canon 57. On the distinction between Jews.
On the Jews, however, thus did the Holy Synod order, that no one should henceforth be forced to believe, God hath mercy on whom he will and whom he will he hardeneth [Rom 9:18]; such men should not be saved unwillingly but willingly, in order that the procedure of justice should be complete; for just as man perished obedient to the serpent out of his own free will, so will any man be saved—when called by the divine grace—by believing and in converting his own mind. They should be persuaded to convert, therefore, of their own free choice, rather than forced by violence. Those, however, who were formerly forced to come to Christianity (as was done in the days of the most religious prince Sisebut), since it is clear that they have been associated in the divine sacraments, received the grace of baptism, were anointed with chrism, and partook of the body and blood of the Lord, it is proper that they should be forced to keep the faith; it is necessary that the faith, even if by force they are required to hold the faith, lest the name of the Lord be evilly spoken of, and the faith which we have undertaken worthless.15

The ultimate result of the decisions of the bishops at Toledo IV was that even though the forced conversions of the Jews was immoral as well as illegal under Church law, they could not be allowed to return to their original faith. This left the Jews of the Visigothic kingdom in confusion. Some had converted and wanted to integrate into the Christian community, some had converted against their will and wanted to return to Judaism—the anusim—while some had never converted at all. Those who had converted and were found to have backslidden, including the anusim, were punished severely. Other canons were adopted that required that children of unfaithful anusim families were to be removed from their families and placed in monasteries. If any anusim were to make contact with unconverted Jews, both parties were to be punished.

What was the Christian doctrine that underlay such a severe treatment of the Jews? The answer can most likely be found in the writings of Augustine (354–430), especially in his City of God. In this work, Augustine claims that God did not destroy the Jews after Christianity arose because the Jews were to serve as an example of the fate of a people who failed to recognize the teachings of the true religion. Therefore, Christians were to preserve the Jews but must keep them humble and subservient, never letting them rise in economic, social, or political stature, and certainly not to have any dealings with them. As a people they were to be under the control of the Church to make certain that their beliefs could not be spread to the faithful masses. The Visigoths did not follow most Catholic Church guidance, but they certainly paid attention to Augustine’s teachings.

By the 630s the situation had grown even worse. In about 636 King Chintilla ratified a law (copies not extant) abolishing “Jewish superstition” and declaring that his kingdom was to be a Catholic land and therefore only loyal Catholics would be allowed to dwell there. At the Sixth Council of Toledo in 638, one of the measures that was adopted was a requirement that the converted Jews sign a placitum, or declaration of faith, a pledge to foreswear their ancestral customs and to punish with fire or stoning those who fail to observe the Christian faith. We don’t have a copy of this placitum but we do have one from about twenty-five years later which refers to this one and is probably very similar in content, and we’ll discuss this next.

The group of unassimilated and partly assimilated Jews and anusim became a source of great social unrest in the population and by the time Reccessuinth became king in 653, he was faced with major social problems. Under his rule, the Church councils became the most powerful force in the government and the bishops the primary support of the monarchy. In 654 Reccessuinth issued a new code of law, “The Book of the Judges,” which reaffirmed all existing laws concerning Jews and in addition imposed new laws that were intended to eradicate all Jewish practices, to include celebrating the Sabbath and Passover, observing any non-Christian marriage custom, practicing circumcision, observing the dietary regulations, and marrying any relative up to the sixth degree. These laws were enacted and Recceswinth’s placitum was published which all converted Jews were required to sign.

The year 654 also marked the convening of the Ninth Council of Toledo, and one of the canons adopted required that Jewish converts be watched to ensure that they truly had abandoned all Jewish customs. For example, all converts were to spend all Christian and Jewish holidays in the presence of their bishop so that he would be able to ensure that they were properly observing the Christian faith. The fact that these anti-Jewish laws became part of Church canon law meant that they circulated widely through Europe, and even though most pertained only to the political situation in Visigothic Spain, many of these Visigothic laws became the basis for the numerous anti-Jewish laws that were adopted in other European countries in the following centuries.

But it appears that the Visigoths never succeeded in converting many of the Jews. The kings didn’t have much control of the lands outside Toledo and many of the kingdom’s Visigothic nobles paid little attention to Church laws; many opposed the current ruler and besides, the nobles needed the services of the Jews for managing their estates and fiefdoms. Furthermore, fighting between rival fiefdoms and the monarchy was common during the entire Visigothic period but became especially violent during the latter part of the seventh century. The problem of the Jews being protected by the nobles (and even by some clergy) is addressed in Recceswinth’s “Book of the Judges” in Title II, Canon XV and Title III, Canon XXIV. The presence of these laws makes apparent that Jews holding positions of authority and their sheltering by the nobility was an important issue for the Church. Thus Jews outside the immediate control of Toledo enjoyed a far greater degree of freedom than the Jews of Toledo and other large towns where Church presence and crown authority were strong.

Later kings, such as Ervig (680–687), took even harsher measures against the Jews who came under their control. Under Ervig all of the Jews were to be converted and even the Jewish converts had greatly restricted rights. When Egica (687–702) came to the throne, he began a program of confiscation of all property owned by Jews that had been acquired from Christians and prohibited the Jews from trading with Christians in the kingdom and also from engaging in any foreign trade. Then in 694 the authorities learned that some Jews appeared to be collaborating with Jews in north Africa in a plot to invade Spain; this resulted in even more draconian laws being adopted at Toledo XVII, including the imposition of travel restrictions, a requirement for Jews to purchase personal copies of the law codes, assessment of special taxes, additional restrictions on Jewish commerce, removal of their children over (some sources say under) the age of seven to be raised as Christians, forfeiture of property, finally leading up to the enslavement to Christian masters of much of the entire Jewish population that they controlled.15, 16 But before the situation could get even worse, world events caught up with the Visigoths.

Iberia Under Islam

Figure 19. Islamic world to 710.

Figure 20. Islamic world after 711.

By the end of the seventh century, fighting among the different Visigothic fiefdoms and King Roderick (710–711) and his predecessor, widespread civil unrest resulting from famine and other natural disasters, together with military threats and incursions from Africa, had become issues of great concern to the Visigoths.17 During the last half of the seventh century, Muslim armies had swept westward across northern Africa and an army of Arab and Berber troops was present in Morocco (Figure 19). The Visigoths’ fears were realized when, on April 29, 711 (according to the traditional dating), and at the instigation of the former Visigothic king’s oldest son who had lost the throne to Roderick, a major force led by Tariq ibn Ziyad invaded Spain. The army of Tariq, numbering 12,000, was mostly composed of recent converts to Islam (the Berbers of Morocco and Algeria). They landed at Gibraltar (the name Gibraltar is derived from the Arabic name “djabal Tariq” meaning “mountain of Tariq”) (Figure 20). The armies of the Visigoths are said to have numbered about 60,000, but they were no match for the Muslims, who swept through southern Iberia and on July 19, 711, won a decisive victory in the battle of Guadalete where Roderick was defeated and killed. When you read numbers of troops or populations, be very skeptical of the numbers being reported. The only reports of Muslim and Visigothic troop strengths that can be found exist in the works written by Muslim chroniclers writing some years following the invasion, and modern scholars have deduced that the actual numbers are probably closer to 4,000 Muslims and perhaps 6,000 Visigoths.

We can only guess how the Jews viewed the Muslim invasion. Heavily oppressed by the Visigoths, they must have had thoughts ranging from feeling that their situation couldn’t get much worse to the idea expressed in an old Islamic adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It seems in many cases the Jews welcomed the Muslims with hopes for a better life. Did the Jews actually help the Muslims in their driving out the Christians? There are no records that support this idea; however, polemical writing from the thirteenth century, such as that in the Chronicle of Lucas de Tuy (?–1249), claimed that the Jews delivered the cities into Muslim hands. The reality may be more accurately reflected in the Historia de rebus Hispaniae by Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada (c. 1170–1247), the archbishop of Toledo, where Toledo was described as being “almost of completely empty from its inhabitants,” not because of Jewish treachery, but because “many had fled to Amiara, others to Asturias and some to the mountains.”

Islamic records claim that Christians usually fled in the face of Muslim approach, leaving city gates unguarded, and few but the Jews remained in the almost vacant cities and towns; so we see that the later Christian claims that the fall of the Visigothic kingdom was a result of Jewish perfidy were greatly exaggerated.18 Although the Jews did not actively engage in overthrowing the cities from within, the Muslims did use the Jews to garrison captured towns, and many Jews joined the Muslim armies together with the native Iberians who also fought against their Visigothic oppressors. In contrast to the Jews elsewhere in Europe, Iberian Jews were not unfamiliar with fighting. As landowners and agriculturists they were used to the necessity of defending their land; as residents of the towns, Jews also served in the town militias; many Jews had experience fighting in the frequent civil wars between the Visigothic factions.

Figure 21. Topography of Iberia.

Figure 22. Al Andelus of 780.

Figure 23. Andelusia—Alpujarras in the Sierra Nevadas near Granada.

By 715 almost all of the Iberian peninsula had been conquered; only the mountainous areas of northwest Spain remained under Christian control (Figure 21; notice the mountainous areas to the northwest); this was because the invaders, overextended in their conquests of southern and central Iberia, needed to consolidate their territory and eliminate local pockets of resistence. During the 720s Muslim forces invaded southern France (then the independent country of Acuitaine) but were repulsed. When they turned their attention to the Christians in northwestern Iberia, they found that the terrain was too rugged and the Christians too entrenched for them to bring their strongest weapon to bear: their cavalry.

In early 732 the Muslims again crossed the Pyrenees to attack Acuitaine, advancing into central France. Here their advances were stopped in October 732 at Poitiers by an army led by Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours, but the Muslims were able to keep control of Narbonne and the surrounding territories, which they controlled until Charles’ son (Pepin the Short) recaptured the region in 759. (Charles’ grandson was Charlemagne, who also caused the Muslims grief.) After the Muslims were repulsed in their attempts to capture the northwest provinces of Spain, this region remained in Christian hands, and during 740 to 755 these Visigothic remnants were able to retake much of Spain’s northwest and part of northern Portugal, bolstering hopes and providing a base for an eventual Christian reconquest of Spain (Figure 22).

During the eighth century, with their Visigothic oppressors gone, the Iberian Jews began to re-establish contacts with Jewish communities in north Africa and communities as far away as Baghdad, including contacts with the Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbedita, the sites involved in the writing of the Babylonian Talmud.

Meanwhile, the conquering Muslims were dividing up southern Spain among themselves and began to refer to their new realm as “al-Andelus” (Figure 23). At first, political control was decentralized, and various factions emerged that took control in different regions: Arab, Berber, Egyptian, and Syrian-ruled regions were established, with the Arabs and Syrian groups taking the better lands and leaving the Berbers to the less desirable hill country. But the Muslims were actually a distinct minority with Christians and Jews willingly living under their rule. Since converts to Islam were viewed as inferior by the invaders, those who converted became a kind of Muslim underclass and future voluntary conversions to Islam were quite small as a result.

Politically, the civil and religious leadership of the various regions of Muslim control fell under the authority of the caliphate of Damascus, and the local governors appointed by Damascus were generally Syrians who were strongly influenced by Byzantine political practices. The governors varied in their approach to the non-Muslim population but overall the forty-year period following the Muslim conquest of Iberia was characterized by alternating periods of high taxation, seizures of land and property, and other discriminatory practices against Jews and Christians alike, and periods of relative permissiveness and prosperity.

Despite these problems, Iberia experienced waves of immigration of both Jews and Christians alike. There are estimates that between 50,000 to 80,000 Jews emigrated from north Africa to Iberia during the first half of the eighth century, but these numbers are suspect. The primary reason for doubting numbers of this magnitude is tied to the sizes of the Andalusian towns. None would have been able to absorb an influx of a population of that size. Furthermore, the Jewish population of the known world in the tenth century has been estimated as between 800,000 and 1.2 million, 0.4 percent of the world’s population.19 The Jewish population of Italy by the middle of the seventeenth century was only about 0.2 percent of the total population.20 The reduction in Jewish population density over seven centuries of persecution is commensurate with the level of massacres and forced conversions experienced by Jews; these population densities were likely similar in other European countries Jews of this period settled in towns but also in farming areas since, in many cases, Jews were given grants of agricultural lands and property that had belonged to Christians who had fled in the advance of the Muslim invasion.

Of all the members of the new Iberian Muslim population, the Berbers formed the largest contingent. The Berbers were the most recent converts to Islam and were known as the “Moors”—they were the most fundamentalist of the Muslim conquerors. The Moors were usually hostile to the Arabs, Yemenites, and Syrians who comprised the ruling elite, resulting in large part from the unequal land distribution following the conquest but also from the Arabs’ attitude of class superiority. This hostility frequently erupted into civil war; there was constant strife between the rival groups of Moors, Syrians, Arabs, and Yemenites.

The first half of the eighth century was characterized by rampant political anarchy; frequent battles broke out among cultural factions and several revolts against the caliphate-appointed governors occurred, one of which needed to be suppressed by a Syrian army which was sent by Damascus and supposedly numbered 27,000. Most of those soldiers refused to return to Syria after that rebellion was quelled; this resulted in a significant population of Syrians now settling in Iberia. By the middle of the eighth century, I estimate that the population of al-Andelus was composed of about two-thirds of peoples of Iberian and Visigothic descent (mostly Christian), less than one-third of Berber folk, and a small number of middle-eastern Arab, southeastern European (called saqa-liba, “Slavs” by the Muslims), and Jewish peoples.

As a province of the Damascus caliphate run by its Syrian-appointed governors, al-Andelus was subject to the authority of that distant government. In 750, however, the Arab-dominated Umayyad dynasty in Damascus was violently overthrown by the Persian Abbasids, who assassinated every Umayyad noble that they could find and moved the caliphate, the Islamic capital, to Baghdad. One Umayyad noble managed to escape assassination in Damascus and made his way to Spain. This was the 25-year-old Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu'awiya who, when he arrived in Spain in 755, was able to gain control over and consolidate all of the disparate Muslim provinces into an emirate (the Emirate of Córdoba). Al-Rahman’s emirate founded a ruling dynasty in al-Andalus which flourished for over 250 years and controlled more wealth and political power than any other European country of that period.

The century and a half from 750 to 900 were by no means quiet for the Muslims of al-Andelus. They had to deal with several insurrections led by rebellious nobility and needed to repulse at least one challenge to their rule that was sponsored by the Baghdad caliphate. They had to defend against incursions from the Frankish kingdom including a major foray led by Charlemagne, deal with raids by the Basques from Vascones, and face constant military pressure from the kingdom of Asturias, the surviving remnant of the Visigothic kingdom. They even had to stop an invasion by a large Viking force (most likely Normans) that attacked Lisbon and sacked Seville. Those Vikings were quickly decimated by a Córdoban relief force.

By the late eighth century, the emirate of al-Andelus had begun to build up the country commercially, culturally, and architecturally into a center of commerce and learning. The rulers’ permissive approach to the presence of Christians and Jews in society led many of those who had fled earlier persecution in Iberia to return, and al-Andelus flourished under the stimulus of the resulting cultural cross-fertilization. Communication from Iberia across the Mediterranean flourished through the ninth century.

In about 850 Rabbi Isaac bar Simeon, head of the Jewish community of Barcelona, which at the time had become one of the most important Jewish communities in the world, wrote to Amram bar Sheshna, Gaon of Sura, asking numerous questions about Jewish law that formed the basis of the liturgy that their community followed. In the form of a long responsum, Amram produced a book-length document that became known as the Seder Rab Amram, which went on to form the foundation of the Spanish-Portuguese liturgy and eventually became important in Ashkenazic European liturgy as well. This was the earliest modern siddur; it’s considered “modern” because it combines the liturgy for the Sabbath and the holidays for the entire year with commentary, laws, and customs pertaining to the prayers.

By mid-tenth century Córdoba possessed some 70 libraries; the emir’s library was said to hold 400,000 volumes.21 In 929 Abd al-Rahman III (c.890–961, whose mother was a European—by now many of the Islamic nobility had intermarried) elevated the emirate to the status of a caliphate, thus cutting any remaining ties with Baghdad and ensuring that thereafter the rulers of al-Andalus would enjoy complete religious and political autonomy. Al-Rahman embarked on a program to make al-Andalus into the pre-eminent center of Islamic learning and thus to surpass Baghdad in the Islamic world. His ministers and ambassadors set out to attract the best Islamic scholars, poets, and theologians from the Islamic world and the caliphate spared no expense in building Islamic libraries that would have no rival.

The economic engine that drove al-Rahman’s kingdom was trade, but he also didn’t miss the chance to include a little piracy in his fund-raising efforts. One of the pirate expeditions he sponsored resulted in the capture and enslavement of four distinguished rabbis from Sura, one of whom, Rabbi Moshe ben Enoch, was brought to Córdoba and went on to become the leader of the Jewish community. According to the Sefer haKabbalah by the philosopher Abraham ibn Daud (1110–1180), Moshe ben Enoch’s arrival in al-Andelus marked the beginning of Iberian Jews’ independence from the Babylonian academies, with scholars of Córdoba becoming the “chief diocesan authorities for the majority of Jews in the Islamic world.”

The building projects of the Muslims and even of the Christians during this period are spectacular. Here is a sampling:


Figure 24. Mezquita, the Great Mosque (784–978)


Figure 24. Mezquita, the Great Mosque (784–978)


Figure 25. Alhambra (9th–13th cent.). Top row right: looking north; bottom row left: looking southeast.
Bottom row right: Courtyard of the Lions (Thought to be modeled on the home of Jewish courtier Samuel ibn Nagrela)


Figure 25. Alhambra (9th–13th cent.). Top row right: looking north; bottom row left: looking southeast.
Bottom row right: Courtyard of the Lions (Thought to be modeled on the home of Jewish courtier Samuel ibn Nagrela)


Figure 26. Alcazar (fortress), Damsel Courtyard


Figure 27. Alcazar (ca. 1100, Christian).
Left, in the foreground: Bridge of Alcantara and the River Gate (866–1267)

Figure 28. Left: Model of medieval Toledo;
the Jewish quarter is all the way to the west (off of the left side of the image).
Right: A typical medieval town: Seville’s Jewish quarter.

What were the Jews doing while the Muslims were consolidating their new empire? During the ninth and early tenth centuries, centralized Muslim political control of the peninsula faltered and numerous small civil wars broke out. Generally the Jews and the Christians were caught in the crossfire of the fighting and this period was marked by significant hardship for all classes of society. But the Jews increasingly began to form the nucleus of a small middle class, a literate class that was engaged in mercantile, craft, and professional occupations as well as agriculture. The Iberian peasantry was mostly agricultural and the Moors also largely had become agriculturalists. The small number of Islamic nobility needed people who could serve as management for governmental activities and the Jews increasingly began to fill these positions, in some cases rising to positions of great responsibility.

True, the Jews needed to be extremely careful to show that they had no ambitions for seizing power and overthrowing the rulers. Actually, this idea might have been the primary reason for the Jews’ being able to rise so high in government: the rulers knew that the Jews would pose no threat to their rule because as Jews they would not be able develop the support necessary to overthrow the Muslim government. The growth of al-Andelus into one of the most powerful countries in the known world and the religious tolerance of the Muslims of Spain continued to attract a large number of people to Spain, including many Jews from other areas of Europe and from Islamic territories from Morocco to Babylon as well.22 This influx of Jews having such a diverse background from countries all over Europe, Africa, and Asia provided a unique cultural, intellectual, and religious commingling of Jewish traditions with those of Iberian Jewry. Also at this time, the influence of the Jewish Babylonian academies was at its height and many academy-trained scholars were among the new arrivals.

Figure 29. Al Andelus of 900.

Figure 30. International contacts of Hasdai ibn Shaprut (in red).

By the beginning of the tenth century (Figure 29), Jews were firmly invested in all areas of the society. When Abd al-Rahman III came to power, they saw how he was gathering leading Islamic scholars from around the world and building great libraries, and the Jews, having risen to important positions of power in the caliphate and within the context of the cultural patronage that they enjoyed, were able to emulate al-Rahman’s model by attracting the best Jewish scholars of the Bible, Talmud, Hebrew, literature, and linguistics, in addition to poets, philosophers, translators, and scientists to come to al-Andelus to build a world center of Jewish learning. The “Golden Age” of Spanish Jewry is most closely identified with the reign of Abd al-Rahman III, and in particular with the career of his Jewish councilor, Hasdai ibn Shaprut (915– c.975).

Although his original position was a court physician, ibn Shaprut’s duties eventually came to include the supervision of customs and foreign trade and he was instrumental in creating a favorable environment for the advancement of Jewish scholarly pursuit. His position as the head of the caliphate’s commercial enterprises allowed him to use his influence to intervene with foreign rulers on behalf of foreign Jews (Figure 30). For example, he wrote to Princess Helena of Constantinople to request protection for Byzantine Jews, attesting to the fair treatment of the Christians of al-Andalus, intimating that such continued fair treatment was contingent on similar treatment of Jews in her kingdom.

He intervened in support of the Jews in the southern West Frankish Kingdom seeking to ease their oppression by the Christians. He corresponded with the Jews of southern Italy in trying to help them deal with local persecution. He even corresponded with the king of the Khazars of southern Russia,23 whose rulers had converted to Judaism in the eighth century. As the caliphate’s leading diplomat, he negotiated with envoys of Emperor Otto I of the Germanies to prevent them from delivering a deliberately insulting letter from Otto to the caliph (their leader was determined to be martyred by Islamic hands) and was able to obtain a letter from Otto that contained no objectionable material. Locally, he gained a diplomatic triumph by securing the peaceful submission of Queen Toda of Navarre to al-Rahman. Ibn Shaprut also tried to locate the “ten lost tribes of Israel,” an interest that was quite common for educated Jews of that era. He heard of the Jewish traveler named Eldad the Danite, who told fantastic stories of the kingdoms of Jews who lived in southern Africa and in the far east and claimed to have visited those kingdoms. Ibn Shaprut was the model of the Jewish courtier class, one of a number of wealthy, highly educated Sephardic Jews who moved freely among the Islamic nobility and who were able to ensure that their people would be mostly free from persecution. According to Nahum Sarna, under the patronage of ibn Shaprut, Córdoba became the “...Mecca of Jewish scholars who could be assured of a hospitable welcome from Jewish courtiers and men of means.”24

Ibn Shaprut was a poet (reputedly, but we have no evidence of his work) in addition to his other achievements and was instrumental in attracting other literary scholars and authors to come to Córdoba. These included Dunash ben Labrat from Baghdad, an innovator of Hebrew metrical poetry, and Menahem ben Saruq of León, compiler of a Hebrew dictionary which was to become widely used by the Jews of western Europe (ben Saruq codified Hebrew grammar and was the first to describe the tri-literal basis of Semitic-language roots). Under the influence of Islamic culture in Spain, Jewish culture was transformed. Arabic was the language of commerce, diplomacy, and the arts. Jews studied Arabic philology and applied this knowledge to Hebrew, which is closely related, and extensively enriched Hebrew vocabulary and the understanding of grammar thereby.

Poetry was extremely important in cultured circles, and an explosion of Hebrew poetry occurred during the Islamic period, composed by the greatest Jewish literary geniuses of all times. The emphasis on Jewish literary arts that began during ibn Shaprut’s sponsorship culminated within the next several generations with the greatest outpouring of secular and liturgic poetry in history.

Celebrated poets living in Córdoba during this period included Samuel ha-Nagid ibn Nagrela (993–c.1056), Solomon ibn Gabirol (c.1021–c.1058), Moses ibn Ezra (c.1055–c.1138), Yehuda Halevi (c.1075–1141), and Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164). The writings of ibn Gabirol in particular are used in modern siddurim; for example, the first verses in Nishmat are by Gabirol as is the last meditation in the Amidah; also, Adon Olam is attributed to him. In addition many readings from Halevy and Moses ibn Ezra can be found in siddurim of all denominations. And Abraham ibn Ezra was, of course, one of the greatest biblical exegetes, a noted philosopher and grammarian, as well as being an accomplished poet. The ibn Ezra family produced many prominent scholars and diplomats between the eleventh to fifteenth centuries.

Since the Muslims were intent on extolling the virtues of the Koran, calling it the “perfect” expression of Allah’s will, Jews were inspired to delve deeply into the Torah to extract as much knowledge and wisdom as they could to be able to debate theological points with the Muslims. No doubt this provided the impetus for the later development of Jewish mysticism in Iberia. Then there was the challenge posed by the Karaites, a Jewish sect which had originated in Baghdad and spread all across the Mediterranean region. The Karaites were very active in Spain during the tenth and eleventh centuries; this sect did not accept the authority of the Talmud or rabbinic law and claimed that the only valid laws were contained in scriptures. Karaites studied Hebrew and the Bible intensively to find justification for their beliefs and practices, and in response to their writings, close study of these topics by the rabbinic leadership was stimulated so that Karaite doctrine could be refuted. During the 1050s Rabbi Yishak Alfassi of Lucena codified the entire Talmud and made it into a usable guide for daily life. This book, called the Talmud haKatan, was widely circulated all around the Jewish world and brought prominence to the Jews of Iberia.

In addition to poetry and theology, another subject in which Iberian Islamic scholarship greatly influenced Jewish thought was philosophy. The Muslims had embarked on a plan to translate all of the Greek classics into Arabic and most of this translating was done by Jewish scholars. In this way the Jews became exposed to Greek philosophical thought and new ways to view a wide range of concepts. All of the Greek philosophers were of great interest to the Muslims, Aristotle in particular, and through this Muslim interest in the Greek classics the Greek philosophical writings became known to the Jews.

One early outcome of the Jewish exploration of philosophy was a book written in Arabic around 1049 by one Avicebrol, Fons Vita, a neoplatonic philosophic dialog widely translated into Latin that is credited with introducing neoplatonism to Christian Europe. Prominent Christian scholars spoke of its author as “the most exalted of all the philosophers”; the work was endorsed by the Franciscan order and became the basis of medieval Christian doctrine. Until the nineteenth century it was universally assumed that Avicebrol was a Christian or possibly Muslim writer, but then an accidental discovery in Paris of a very early copy of excerpts of the work proved that the author was Solomon ibn Gabirol and the work was originally titled Mekor Hayyim.25 Sephardic Jewish philosophical writings culminated in the work of Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed) in the late thirteenth century.

It was during the tenth century that the Jews began to form a new picture of themselves as long-time inhabitants of Iberia—that their ancestors had lived there for more than 2000 years. The Jews of al-Andelus began to identify themselves as descendants of former residents of Jerusalem who had left Jerusalem to travel to the west even before Solomon’s rule, and pointed to the Book of Ovadyiah where a community of “exiles of Jerusalem that are in Sepharad” (Ob 20) is mentioned. And where was Sepharad? Why, their communities of Iberia, of course! In this fashion the Iberian Jews began to refer to themselves as the Jews of Sepharad, the Sepharadim.

This is where the name Sepharadim, or in modern pronunciation, Sephardim, originated. The other major cultural division of Judaism is the Ashkenazim, a word probably derived from the name of one of Noah’s grandsons (Ashkenaz) and applied to Germany. Quiz: name some other Jewish cultural groups not included in these two. Answer: the tiny groups of Beta Israel of Ethiopia and Bene Israel, B’nei Menashe, Cochin, and Bene Ephraim of India can be included, but the better-known groups include the Teimanim (Yemenite/Omanite Jews) and the Romaniotes of Greece. There is also a very tiny remnant of ancient Italian Jews, the Italkim, who originated from a community that came to Rome during the early Maccabean period. Practitioners of the Italkim rite are further subdivided into minhag Benè Romí (Rome) and minhag Italiani (northern Italy). The Romaniotes are a distinct, non-Sephardic Jewish group whose religious practices tend to follow Sephardic rites more than Ashkenazic, while the Italkim rite is a blend of Sephardic and Ashkenazic minhag, but closer to the customs of the Romaniotes. All of these groups came into existence around the end of the first millennium BCE.

Figure 31. Trading routes, 800–1000; Radhanite routes shown in blue.

The height of Islamic Spain was reached during al-Rahman III’s rule, despite the fact that the caliphate remained under constant military pressure from the kingdom of León, one of the kingdoms that was created as a result of the dividing of Asturias among its first king’s sons, and al-Rahman had to face the constant threat of internal revolt. After al-Rahman’s death, the caliphate began a long, slow decline in political and economic power, eventually fracturing into rival fiefdoms. Documents from the Cairo genizah dating to the ninth and tenth centuries reveal an enormous amount of trade by Jews over the region stretching from Spain to India.26 Jews were frequent travelers between Spain and Egypt, sometimes making two trips a year. It was not unusual for some traders to make as many as two trips between Spain and India in their careers. Since Muslims were barred from Christian ports and Christians were prohibited from traveling in Muslim waters for commerce, Jews were chosen as their intermediaries and acted as commercial agents for both groups.

A remarkable Jewish “company”—an association or guild, really—was active in trading across the known world (Figure 31). These were the Radhanites, who were based in northern Spain or southern France and maintained a number of distinct trading routes, including one that traversed central Europe from Spain through France, Germany, the Habsburgs, Khazars, Asia, thence into China; another that ran along the southern coast of Europe from Spain through Burgandy, Italy, the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, Baghdad, India, and around Indonesia to China; and another traversing Spain, north Africa, Egypt, Arabia, Yemen, and India, linking up to the China route. The routes of the Radhanites are shown on the map in blue; other trade routes of the period of 800–1000 are shown in purple. An account of the activities of the Radhanites was given by Abu’l Qasim Ubaid’Allah ibn Khordadbeh, an official of the Baghdad caliphate, in his Book of Roads and Kingdoms (ca. 870).27 The Radhanites primarily dealt in commodities of high demand that were easily transported, including spices, perfumes, jewelry, and silk. They were also involved in transporting oils, incense, steel weapons, furs, and slaves.

Figure 32. Taifa kingdoms of al Andelus.

In the beginning of the eleventh century, great upheaval struck Córdoba. After a long period of debilitating dictatorship by a regent, Muhammad al-Mansur ibn Abi’Amir, who in 976 had seized ruling power over the caliphate at the expense of the young son of al-Hakam II, in 1009 Sulayman II ibn al-Hakam of the Umayyad family, with the aid of a Castilian army, was able to recapture Córdoba and expel the Berbers. Then Sulayman allowed his troops and the Castilians to sack the city. But three years later the Berbers returned, recaptured Córdoba, ousted the Umayyads and began a reign of terror among its inhabitants.

Subsequently, by 1030, with the unifying dynasty of the Umayyads gone, all of al-Andelus had fragmented into twenty three taifas, independent regional fiefdoms—some weren’t much more than a city-state—under the rule of local Arab, Berber, and even Slavic leaders (in Almeria, Dénia, and the Balearic Islands) (Figure 32). Some taifas, in particular Seville, Granada, Valencia, and Zaragoza, became strong emirates, but all faced frequent internal political upheaval and inter-taifa war. Córdoba was reduced to but a small shadow of its former grandeur.

How did this affect the Jews? Rather than limiting the importance of Jews serving the government, this explosion of independent principalities multiplied the opportunities for Jews to serve as administrators, merchants, and even military leaders. Furthermore, the services of Jews as doctors, scientists, scholars, and poets were generally valued by the Muslim rulers of these principalities, especially as order was being restored in towns damaged by recent warfare.28

One of the most prominent and powerful Jewish figures of this period—indeed, of Jewish history—was Samuel ibn Nagrela (mentioned above), who served as vizier to the Berber king Badis al-Muzaffar of Granada. Ibn Nagrela had received a complete Sephardic rabbinic education on the Bible, Talmud, Hebrew, Arabic, and grammar. He was an accomplished poet—over 2,000 of his poems exist—and his commentary on the Talmud is standard today. As vizier, ibn Nagrela was the kingdom’s policy director and he also served as the commander-in-chief of Granada’s army (he was one of only two Jews ever to command Muslim armies; his son Joseph was the second).

Many of ibn Nagrela’s poems were composed while he was on Granada’s frequent military campaigns; he sent his poems home from the battlefield by carrier pigeon. Ibn Nagrela’s son Joseph ibn Nagrela (1035–1066) succeeded him as vizier. While Samuel’s career was marked by his political adroitness, Joseph committed a major political misstep that resulted in his being murdered by an Islamic mob that went on to kill about 4,000 other Granada Jews in the Granada massacre of 1066. Granada was not unique in having a Jewish vizier: Jews served as viziers in the taifas of Zaragoza, Seville, and Lucena (near Córdoba).29

In the year 1035 Castile became a kingdom as a politically separate entity from León under Ferdinand I, who assumed the title of king of León and Castile. This is a storied time in Spanish history, the time of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (who became known as El Cid Campeador) and the wars between the Spanish Christian kingdoms. It was also a period that saw the emergence of leaders who possessed very colorful names, such as Sancho the Fat, Wilfred the Hairy, and Ordoño the Bad.

The story of El Cid has a tenuous link to Iberian Jewry: in the epic Poem of the Cid possibly set in writing by Per Abbat in 1207 but likely older, El Cid was able to carry out some of his military campaigns using funds provided by Jewish merchants from Zarazoga—although the poem casts this episode in an antisemitic light.

Figure 33. Iberia's Reconquista, 1065.

While the Christians were fighting among themselves, so were the taifas, and the constant warfare between the taifas gave the Christians, who settled their disagreements within eight years, the opportunity to make inroads against Islamic lands. Ferdinand I attacked several taifa kingdoms during his rule, forcing them to pay tribute and thus keeping them weak financially and militarily; in this way the taifa of Toledo become a tributary province (Figure 33). Ferdinand’s son, Alfonso VI, returned to Toledo in 1085 and annexed the entire taifa of Toledo almost peacefully, as it turned out. Toledo had been independent in name only for several decades; Alfonso simply eliminated some commanders and nobles, eased out its ruler, resettled some populations, and took over.

As Toledo had been the capital of Visigothic Iberia, the Christians viewed their regaining control of Toledo as just the beginning of a holy “reconquista” campaign to retake the entire peninsula. The idea of a holy “crusade” to wrest control of the Holy Land from Islam was a powerful idea among the Christians of western Europe during this period, and the Iberian Christians saw their “reconquista” in the same way—as a holy crusade to recapture their lands.

Figure 34. Iberia's Reconquista, 1100.

Figure 35. Political map of the Reconquista, 1100.

The fall of Toledo greatly alarmed the rulers of the other taifa kingdoms and led the ruler of Seville to seek assistance from the Berber Almoravides of Morocco (Figure 34). This was a fundamentalist sect that abhorred the liberality of the Islamic culture of al-Andalus, including the positions of authority that some non-Muslims held over Muslims. Besides engaging in widespread forcible conversions after they invaded, the Almoravides implemented numerous reforms to bring Iberia’s cultural customs closer to orthodox Islam. Despite these challenges, Jewish culture was not entirely lost. For example, the Jewish community of Lucena, a prosperous center of Jewish life in southern Iberia, was able to bribe their way out of being converted. But the orthodoxy of the Almoravides became relaxed fairly quickly, and so were its policies concerning Jews. The poet Moses ibn Ezra (c.1055–c.1138) continued to write during this time, and several Jews including Yehuda Halevi (c.1075–1141), Moses ibn Ezra’s student, served as diplomats or physicians to the Almoravides.30 Yehuda Halevi is famed as a great poet, but he was also a great statesman whose services as a diplomat, negotiator, and translator were greatly valued by the Muslims and he garnered great wealth and fame. But the warfare between the Christians and Muslims was escalating, and the Jews were caught in the middle. Where could they go to reach a place of refuge? For Yehuda Halevi, his wealth allowed him to go to Palestine. For other Jews, their hope lay with the Christian kingdoms of the north (Figure 35).

During the twelfth century the population of Sephardic Jews reached its maximum; indeed, nine out of every ten Jews in the world were Sephardic and living on the Iberian peninsula. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Jewish community in Barcelona became the strongest and most successful Jewish community in all of Europe. Even by the mid-fourteenth century Barcelona was an important center of Iberian Judaism and Hasdai ibn Crescas was one of its champions of anti-rationalistic philosophy as well as a powerful defender of Judaism against Christian theological attacks.

But in the mid-twelfth century war had returned to the Muslim world of northwest Africa, where the Almoravides were defeated by the Almohades, a far more puritanical and intolerant sect, and by 1172 the Almohades gained control over much of Islamic Iberia. These Berbers far surpassed the Almoravides in their fundamentalist orthodoxy and, especially in the south, threatened both Jews and Christians with expulsion or death unless they converted. Lucena, which was essentially a Jewish town, was virtually destroyed. Many Jews emigrated, and some, including the family of Maimonides in 1160, left the peninsula and fled south and east to the more tolerant Muslim lands, while others went northward to settle in the growing Christian kingdoms.31

The Reconquista

By the middle of the twelfth century, the Christians were making significant inroads in regaining territory from the Muslims. The Reconquista was continuing in force in the north, and some Jews were finding conditions in the newly conquered Christian lands to be increasingly favorable. Just as had happened in the early eleventh century with the breakdown of authority under the Umayyads, the services of the Jews were needed to help in reconstruction and administration. In addition, the Jews’ knowledge of the culture and language of the Muslims made them invaluable as diplomats and negotiators. Finally, the Christians needed people to occupy the reclaimed territories and the Jews proved useful for those purposes as well. As a result, as conditions worsened for the Jews and Christians in southern Spain, immigration to the northern principalities increased.32

However, the favored treatment of Jews who had emigrated to the Catholic north didn’t extend to those who were left behind. Invading Christian rulers, such as those from Castile and León, dealt with the Jews as harshly as they dealt with the Moors, razing synagogues and mosques alike and killing teachers, scholars, and other civilians of both religions. Soon it began to occur to the nobility of the Reconquista that they actually couldn’t afford to turn the Jews against them because the remaining Jewish population would constitute one of their few allies in recaptured lands and so the Jews began to be welcomed into Christian lands. For example, Alfonso VI, the conqueror of Toledo (1085), offered the Jews various privileges, including full equality with the Christians and other rights only enjoyed by the nobility.

The Jews reciprocated in their gratitude, and his army was said to contain 40,000 Jews forming a special corps which wore distinguishing black-and-yellow turbans.33 This is of course an impossible number—the total Jewish population of thirteenth-century Castile numbered only 3,600 families based on the kingdom’s 1290 tax records; the eleventh-century numbers couldn’t have been much larger. This is still a sizeable number of Jewish families. For comparison, 1290 was the year of the expulsion of the Jews from England; fairly reliable estimates indicate that no more than 3,000 individual Jews left that country. Another way of arriving at an estimate of populations involves examination of the sizes of the juderías (Jewish quarters) of the towns. This provides results that are commensurate with Jewish populations of not much more than 350 families for Toledo, the Castilian town that held the largest Jewish population. The next largest, Seville, was home to perhaps 200 families, while Burgos, a typical town, held 120 to 150 families. It wasn’t until the fourteenth century that Jewish populations in the towns had grown significantly.34

Thus we can assume that the number of Jewish troops in the Castilian army probably amounted to about 400 out of a total of 10,000. Even so, they must have formed an important corps since Alfonso even delayed the beginning of one major battle—the Battle of Zula in Zallaqa (near Badajoz,1086)—until the Sabbath was over. The level of favoritism he showed to the Jews had its consequences, however. It roused the envy and hatred of the Christians, and this growing animosity eventually resulted in an anti-Jewish riot in Toledo in 1108 that left many Jews dead and homes and synagogues burned.

Figure 36. Reconquista against Almohades, 1157.

Figure 37. Berber counterattacks and Jewish exodus from southern Iberia.

Alfonso’s son, Alfonso VII, rescinded the special rights his father had granted the Jews, but later relented and restored much of their former status and allowed Jews fleeing from the Almohades to settle in Toledo. He even opened some of the cities of León to the fugitives, assigning them dwellings. Other Christian kings treated the Jews reasonably well in most cases, and Jews fought in many armies against the Moors, who were slowly but inexorably losing territory (Figure 36). Apparently the Jews’ services were valuable; in a war that broke out between León and the united kingdoms of Navarre and Aragon, Jews served in both armies; after peace was concluded they were placed in charge of the fortresses along the borders. Several Christian kings gave Jews high military positions too, placing them in charge of the defenses of a number of cities. For example, Alfonso VII appointed Judah ibn Ezra, nephew of poet Moses ibn Ezra, commander of Calatrava (Ciudad Real), an important fortress on the Muslim border. One notable event that had a major effect on the status of the Jews of Christian Iberia occurred in 1176; this was the fuero (charter of privilege) of Teruel in which the Jews were made the property of the royal treasury. This didn’t imply slavery for the Jews; it did, however, require that the king protect their physical safety as well as their assets.

The persecution of the Jews under Almohade rule in the twelfth century continued the mass exodus of Jews from Andalusian Spain (Figure 37). Most chose to remain in Christian Spain, but despite the favored treatment that many Jews received in the Spanish kingdoms, many chose to leave the area entirely; some, like the prominent families of Maimonides and ibn Aquin sought protection in northern Africa, while others, like the renowned translator Judah ibn Tibbon and halakhist Joseph Kimhi, fled to Provence.

Re-emergence of Christian Rule

Figure 38. Christian gains and Berber counterattacks.

Figure 39. Christian defeat of Berbers.

In the latter part of the twelfth century the advances of the Reconquista slowed in the face of increased Berber resistance (Figure 38); the Christians were only able to make small gains. In the last decade of the century the Almohades mounted a major counter-offensive and in 1195 won a major battle against the Castilians; after subsequent battles during the next ten to twelve years they threatened to overrun Aragon and even the rest of Christian Iberia. The Archbishop of Toledo summoned the Crusade to assist. At the resulting battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 (Figure 39), the Christian kings Alfonso VIII of Castile, Sancho VII of Navarre, Pedro II of Aragon, and Alfonso II of Portugal, defeated the Almohades under Caliph Muhammad al-Nasir. The Christians fielded between 60,000 to 100,000 infantry and about 10,000 cavalry, consisting of troops from western Europe, Castile, Navarre, Aragon, León, and Portugal, and urban militias, in addition to the Christian military orders of Santiago, Cavatrava, the Knights Templar, and Knights Hospitaller. After this defeat the Almohades never again constituted a serious threat to Christian Iberia. However, when the troops of the Crusade arrived in Toledo following the Moors’ defeat, they turned their attention to the Jews of the city and began robbing and murdering them. It was only through a great effort of the knights of the military orders that the Crusaders were checked.

But all was not grim for the Jews at this time. Jews were engaged in great synagogue-building projects, as this synagogue built in 1203 in Toledo by Joseph ben Shushan, financier to Alfonso VIII of Castile, illustrates (Figure 40).

Figure 40. Toledo: Sinagoga Santa María la Blanca

Figure 40. Toledo: Sinagoga Santa María la Blanca

In 1411, following the upheavals that occurred at the beginning of the fifteenth century, this synagogue was converted into a church and became known as Santa Maria la Blanca.

Just as the rulers of al-Andelus needed the Jews to manage the professional operations of their government, so did the Christians, and many Jews occupied positions of great power. This use of Jews in powerful positions led to objections by the Church, which responded by issuing canons limiting and restricting the Jews. To keep the Jews from associating with Christians, Iberian Jews, like the Jews of France, were compelled to wear a yellow badge on their clothing. In a papal bull of April 1250, Pope Innocent IV commanded, among other restrictions, that Jews must secure special approval to build any new synagogues and proselytizing was to be forbidden under pain of confiscation of property or even death. Jews were forbidden not only from associating with Christians in public; they could not live in the same building as Christians. Christians were forbidden to drink wine that had been prepared by a Jew and could use medicines only prepared by Christian apothecaries. Only the king himself had the authority to waive the obligation of wearing the badge.

But not all of the laws that the Church published were adopted in Castile and Aragon; the rulers were selective in how the Church’s laws were implemented and many of the kings continued to be mostly lenient to the Jews. During the period of the Reconquista, in fact, the importance of the Jews to the economies of every kingdom in Iberia was paramount, and the rulers were well aware of their importance. According to most sources, the Jews provided between thirty-five to sixty percent of the income to the treasury of every kingdom on the Iberian peninsula.35 This is the major explanation for the rulers’ interest in protecting the Jews against ever-increasing pressure from the Church to prevent Jews from gaining any economic or political power.

Figure 41. Keys to Seville.

Figure 42. Epitaphs from the tomb of Ferdinand III in Seville Cathedral.

In Castile under Ferdinand III (1200–1252) and in Aragon under James I the Conqueror (1208–1276), the Jews rose in importance to attain many senior posts; in Aragon even occupying positions controlling the royal treasury. When Pope Innocent IV heard that Jews had risen to positions of such importance in a Christian kingdom, he wrote to James to warn him that Jews should not have such significant positions. James wrote back to deny that his kingdom had Jews in such positions. But everyone knew what was really happening; James was very protective of his Jewish councilors and, indeed, of the entire Jewish population. Of the cooperation among the peoples of the three religions the term convivencia was coined, a term that expressed the unique experience of their peacefully living together. Despite the harmony implied by this term, the convivencia was actually a relationship between unequal partners, however. Figures 41 and 42 illustrate how closely linked the communities of Christians, Muslims, and Jews had become. When Ferdinand III captured Seville from the Muslims in 1248, a Jewish delegation presented him with a set of commemorative keys, and his tomb contains inscriptions in Hebrew, Arabic, and Castilian (Castilano: a dialect of Romance that had evolved from Latin, which eventually evolved into Spanish).

As the thirteenth century opened, Christians in Europe were beginning to return to an old problem—how could the Jews not be aware of the great revelation of Christianity? The Jews shared the same Bible text, their Old Testament, which clearly could be shown to predict that a messiah would be sent by God and this messiah would grant salvation to all who believed. Christian theologians could not understand how the Jews would not see the truth in the teachings of the Gospels. So they embarked on studies of the Talmud to learn in more detail about Jewish thought, and some of the things they read in the Talmud disturbed them greatly. To cite one example, one of the Christian claims was that the Talmud blasphemed Jesus. How?

Its Christian clergy readers interpreted any word that referred to some kind of nation or a class of people, such as edom (Edomites), minim (sectarians), nochrim (foreigners), akum (worshiper of stars), kutim (Samaritans), apikorsim (heretics), goyim (non-Jews), amei ha’aretz (people of the land), ovdei elilim (idolaters), and avodah zarah (foreign worship), as referring to Christianity and therefore were considered to be coded references to Jesus. Thus any comment in the Talmud that used terms such as those was subject to claims of blasphemy. And what of Augustine’s theory of how the Jews should be protected from harm yet be humbled and prevented from assuming any important roles in society? To this Church theologians argued that the Jews had lost any earlier privileges accorded to them by earlier Christian authorities by reshaping their biblical heritage and adopting the anti-Christian ideas of the Talmud—a work that was viewed as being directly hostile to Christianity.

In addition to these anti-Jewish theological arguments, false rumors about Jewish practice were circulating broadly in Europe, including the “blood libel” slander, the accusation that Jews were murdering Christian children to use their blood in Passover rituals, the claims that the Jews performed ritual murders of Christians, particularly children, as part of certain worship services, and charges that the Jews routinely desecrated the host—the malicious use of a consecrated host wafer—in magical rites intended to re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus in some way. It was also claimed that Jews could not be trusted in business dealings, pointing as evidence to the appeal for absolution of vows in the Kol Nidre prayer, which contains a formulaic renunciation of “all vows” to be made during the coming year. The change in the Sephardic version of this prayer to refer to all unfulfilled vows of the past year may have been influenced by this charge. The Sephardim adopted their altered version in the twelfth century and this version remains in the modern ritual. Various anti-Jewish ideas were filtering into the peninsula and while the rulers remained generally protective of the Jews, these ideas were taking root in the culture.

Southern France during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries came to the attention of the papacy as a seat of heretical thought. This region was where the break-away sects of the Cathars and the Waldensians were active, so the Church began to take steps to combat this religious nonconformity. Southern France, of course, bordered Spain, where Christians were closely associated with the two enemies of Christianity—Muslims and Jews, and the leaking of any heretical ideas into Spain from France had to be prevented. Furthermore, the prominent role of the Jews in the Spanish monarchies was disturbing to Rome, so the response of the Church was to create two special mendicant preaching orders, the Franciscans (in 1209) and Dominicans (in 1215), charging the latter with the additional task of ferreting out and eliminating all nonconforming religious thought.

This special responsibility established the basis of the Inquisition, the Dominican-supervised institution to investigate and extirpate all forms of heretical thought. In their preaching duties, the Dominicans sought to impose conformity on society by, among other means, seeking to convert all non-Christians. In order to convert Jews, the Dominicans’ study of the Talmud led to their attempting to use the words of the Talmud to show how even the rabbis of the Talmud accepted the truth of the Christian Bible.

Figure 43. The Sephardic and Ashkenazic world.

Now under Christian rule, Sephardic Jewish culture was changing. No longer did the Jews see themselves as a part of the great Islamic empire stretching to the south and east (Figure 43), they were now looking north toward the Jews of Europe, to France and the Holy Roman Empire, to learn how the Jews of those countries managed living under Christian rule. Learning about the Jews of northern Europe, the Ashkenazim, changed Sephardic culture in many ways. Sephardic culture valued the study of science, medicine, literature, the arts, and especially philosophy, in addition to the study of traditional Jewish subjects. Ashkenazic Jewry had little, if any, interest in scholarship outside of the Bible and Talmud. While the Sephardic interest in these other subjects was never completely lost, the Jews of Iberia never again reached their former heights of secular scholarly activity. The philosophic writings of Maimonides had made an overwhelming impact among Jews of Iberia, and his philosophic rationalistic viewpoint of Judaism had reached the other lands of Europe and was being closely analyzed by Jewish scholars and rabbis.

The rabbis and scholars of Provence, in particular, were strongly opposed to any rationalistic approach to Judaism. One of the major reasons why rationalism was rejected was because Maimonides had articulated the meaning of each of the 613 commandments and the rabbis were concerned that if Jews were given rationalistic reasons for keeping the mitzvot, many would decide that some mitzvot made no sense for that era’s culture and would cease observing them. The resulting debate, which was referred to as the “Maimonidean controversy,” spread south into Spain, and the first Iberian scholars to consider the controversy, those of Aragon, supported the pro-Maimonidean faction. However, in central Castile, in the city of Toledo, a major center of Islamic and Sephardic scholarship for hundreds of years, the scholars of this city essentially came to a draw with neither viewpoint achieving a majority. The rejection of Maimonides’ philosophic rationalism anywhere among the Jews of Iberia represented the major, significant changes in Sephardic philosophy that were now occurring. But the debate over Jewish rationalism continued among the Jews (who unfortunately involved the Christians in their disputes); this caused great controversy and it provided significant openings to the missionary work of the Dominicans who exploited these divisions in Jewish belief.

Advances in Jewish scholarship in the peninsula were continuing, however. In the early thirteenth century a major development in biblical interpretive methods came into being. This new method focused on the idea that humans could not fully understand Scripture as it was God’s word that could not be readily expressed in human language because language does not convey esoteric concepts very well. Thus mystical exegesis was born in Narbonne, Burgundy (or re-born, some mystical interpretive writings exist from a thousand years earlier) in about 1200 and very quickly spread south across the Pyrenees to Castile, where, in the towns of Burgos, Segovia, Guadalajara, Avila, and in Gerona in Aragon, it was shaped into the form that became accepted as authoritative. Mysticism actually has deep roots in the Bible—chapter 28 of the Book of Job and chapter 8 of Proverbs both treat “wisdom” as a living, creative force through the use of metaphor and analogy, which suggested that wisdom could hold the key to understanding the universe and even God. Mysticism arose, in part, to counter the rationalistic interpretive methods of Abraham ibn Ezra and Maimonides, which traditionalists believed threatened Jewish beliefs.

Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman Gerondi, known as Nahmanides (1194–1270), lived in Gerona and wrote his commentary there; in his work he strongly endorsed the emerging methods of mystical interpretation which was at first called “hokhmah nistarah” (secret wisdom). Quickly this term was replaced by a term used in the Talmud, “kabbalah,” where it simply meant “to receive [wisdom or doctrine].” A thousand years earlier, a group of tannaitic rabbis had explored neo-Platonic mysticism in their writings when Judaism was then challenged by Hellenistic rationalism; early kabbalistic interpreters sought to connect their modern interpretations with those second-century CE roots to give their new discipline an aura of ancient legitimacy. The most famous work in kabbalah, the Sefer ha-Zohar (“Book of Splendor”), written in Castile between 1280 and 1286 and published by Moses ben Shem Tov de León of Guadalajara, attempted to explicitly link kabbalah mysticism with second-century writings. De León ascribed the work to Shimon bar Yochai, a rabbi of the second century, but the Zohar clearly was a thirteenth century work. The Zohar is actually a commentary on the Torah, a work that has many explicit pantheistic elements and thus is seemingly heretical to the Jewish view of God. The fact that Nahmanides hints at the use of kabbalistic interpretation in his writings, especially in his Bible commentary, made it possible for kabbalistic works to pose as conservative biblical interpretation and thus to escape being held heretical.

As we saw earlier, James I of Aragon was a great supporter of the Jews, but after repeated urging from Pablo Christiani, an apostate spokesman representing the Dominicans, he reluctantly agreed to allow a debate about the truth of Christianity to take place between Church officials and the Jews. The subject of the debate concerned how Jewish rabbinic writings, including the Talmud and midrashim, supported the idea that Jesus was the messiah. This was the Disputation of Barcelona, and it took place during late July 1263. The king required Nahmanides to represent the Jewish position; Nahmanides requested and received permission to speak frankly without the threat of being punished for heresy. The participants were Christiani, other Dominican priests, Franciscans, prominent Church officials, and Nahmanides, and King James presided.

It soon became clear that the disputation was turning in Nahmanides’ favor; the Franciscans in attendance at the debate were so demoralized that they asked the king to discontinue the proceedings while the Jews of Barcelona, fearing reprisals from the Dominicans, begged Nahmanides to withdraw. He told the king of the Jews’ fears, but James refused both requests and required the debate to continue. In the fourth session Nahmanides was able to strongly challenge the basis of the Christian religion. This happened when Christiani demanded that Nahmanides prove that the messiah, in the person of Jesus, did not exist. Nahmanides then again requested the king’s permission to speak freely and directed the king’s and the Dominican’s attention to the concept of universal peace promised by the prophets under the messiah. In leading up to his argument on this point, Nahmanides said,

...That the Creator of heaven and earth and all that is in them should withdraw into and pass through the womb of a certain Jewess and should grow there for seven [sic] months and be born a small child and after this grow up to be handed over to his enemies who condemn him to death and kill him, after which, you say, he came to life and returned to his former abode—neither the mind of Jew nor of any man will sustain this.... And it is impossible for me to believe in the messiahship of Jesus, because the prophet says of the messiah that “he shall have dominion from sea to sea and from the River until the ends of the earth” [Ps. 72:8]. Jesus, on the other hand, never had dominion, but in his lifetime he was pursued by his enemies and hid himself from them, falling finally into their power whence he was not able to liberate himself. How then could he save all Israel? Moreover, after his death dominion was not his. For in regard to the Empire of Rome, he had no part in the growth of that. Since, before men believed in him the city of Rome ruled over most of the world and after faith in him had spread, Rome lost many lands over which it once held sovereign power. And now the followers of Muhammad possess a larger empire than Rome has. In like manner the prophet Jeremiah [31:34] says that in the messianic age “they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord: for they shall all know Me,’” while in Isaiah [11:9] it is written, that “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” Moreover the latter prophet states that, in this time, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares ... nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” [2:4]. But since the days of Jesus up to the present the whole world has been full of violence and rapine, the Christians more than other peoples being shedders of blood and revealers likewise of indecencies. And how hard it would be for you, my lord the King, and for those knights of yours, if they should learn war no more!36

Very soon after Nahmanides made these comments, and more in the same vein, Christiani, apparently feeling that he was losing control of the situation, petitioned the king to “interrupt” the disputation; to this request James agreed. On the following Sabbath, James appeared with his entourage at Barcelona’s largest synagogue, ascended the podium, and spoke about the wisdom of the Christian Bible and invoked its blessings for the people. In response Nahmanides made some spirited remarks defending Judaism, after which the king awarded a monetary prize to Nahmanides, commenting that he had “never seen a man defend a wrong cause so well.” Despite James’ Janus-like decision, the Dominicans published a tract claiming victory and Nahmanides felt compelled to publish his own description of the details of the debate. This publication was charged by the Dominicans to contain heretical statements and after several court trials and hearings, which James attended to assure that they would be fairly conducted, Nahmanides was sentenced to a two-year expulsion from Aragon. The Dominicans objected to the leniency of this decision, appealing to Rome, and Pope Clement IV insisted on a more severe punishment. It appears that James was inclined to ignore both the expulsion sentence and the pope’s demands, but despite the king’s support and apparently tired of being under constant pressure of heresy claims, Nahmanides left Aragon in 1267 and traveled to Israel where he died three years later.

Figure 44. Iberia in 1300.

Figure 45. Political divisions in Iberia.

When the fourteenth century began (Figure 44), Christian Spain contained about 120 Jewish communities, comprising possibly as many as 100,000 Jews, divided mainly between Castile and Aragon with slightly more in Castile.37 By the middle of the century the Iberian peninsula was divided into four Christian kingdoms, Portugal, Castile, Navarre, and Aragon, and the tiny emirate of Granada (Figure 45). The Jews of the kingdom of Aragon, which absorbed Catalonia and Valencia during the early fourteenth century, had been slowly emigrating because of increased antisemitic laws and persecution, and by mid-century were beginning to leave in larger numbers. The largest Aragonese Jewish community of this period was Zarazoga, which contained only about 200 families, based on documents dating from the fifteenth century.38 Even Barcelona, which at one time was home to a significant Jewish community, never had much more than 200 families. Far smaller Jewish communities existed in León (which had become a province of Castile in 1230) and Portugal, and there was only a tiny number of Jews in Navarre and in the much diminished Islamic province of Granada.

In the fourteenth-century kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, rulers came to the throne who were very favorably disposed to the Jews. Pedro I of Castile (1350–1369) appointed so many Jews to high positions that his detractors spoke of his court as the “Jewish court.” This so antagonized his enemies that a riot broke out in 1355, and in the fighting that resulted a mob tried to destroy the Jewish district of Toledo. Although a number of Toledo nobles and their troops, as well as Jewish fighters, resisted, perhaps as much of a quarter of the Jewish population was murdered, but the district was saved from being destroyed. The riot triggered a civil war that was briefly quelled in 1356. It was during the mid-1350s that the great synagogue of Toledo, el Tránsito, was built, its construction funded by Samuel haLevy Abulafia, the chief treasurer to Pedro (Figure 47).


Figure 46. el Transito Synagogue
Bottom left: Detail from molding illustrating Hebrew and Arabic
Bottom right: the aron.


Figure 46. el Transito Synagogue
Bottom left: Detail from molding illustrating Hebrew and Arabic
Bottom right: the aron.

Another major synagogue, known as the “Old Main Synagogue,” was constructed during this same period in Segovia (north of Madrid) (Figure 47).


Figure 47. Old Main Synagogue
(restored after 1899 fire).

The Castilian civil war was not contained and further fighting targeted Jewish areas. The war culminated in 1369 with the murder of Pedro I by his illegitimate half-brother, who ascended the throne as Henry II. Henry was the first king in the Iberian peninsula since the Visigothic king Egica to use antisemitism as a political tool—but when Henry became king, he continued to employ Jews in significant political positions precisely as his half-brother had done.

There was much latent antisemitism present in Castile; Henry was able to use it to further his political goals, but he also needed to use the Jews to help him manage the kingdom since there was no Christian middle class and the Jews were needed to fill this function in society. But his use of antisemitic propaganda left its impact on the populace and the last half of the fourteenth century was marked by periodic antisemitic uprisings with the resulting murder of Jews and theft or destruction of their property. The Castilian civil war gave the Portugese the opportunity to secede from Castile, and in 1385 Portugese forces defeated the Castilians at Aljubarrota and became a fully independent kingdom.

Figure 48. Crown of Aragon in 1400.

The situation in Aragon during the late fourteenth century was different, however (Figure 48). This kingdom had been developing its own Christian middle class. The Crown of Aragon, situated as it was on the coast of the Mediterranean, by the fifteenth century had annexed many lands from Italy to as far east as Athens. With its many major seaports, Aragon had developed a sophisticated trading network and a Christian middle class had emerged, thus the Jews were relegated to minor positions in the government. But the presence of its seaports and its far-flung trading enterprises by the middle of the century made the country especially vulnerable to the “Black Death” which had spread across Europe and the Mediterranean basin; population centers near ports were hardest hit by the epidemic. In Catalonia and Valencia especially, towns lost over 30 percent of their population. Even though the Jews suffered as much as anyone else, in many cases they were accused of causing the disease, leading to more mob violence and more killing. However, even though all of the tragedies the Jews experienced sounds overwhelming and that the Jewish communities of the peninsula must have suffered greatly (and they did)—despite all these problems, on the whole the Jews fared much better socially, economically, and culturally in the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula than did Jews anywhere else in Europe—until the last decade of the fourteenth century and the entire fifteenth century.

The Last Century

In late 1390, the king of Castile, John I, died in a riding accident; his son was only eleven years old and the regency that was established by the king’s will was composed of a powerless group of clerics, nobles, and a council of citizens. Then in early 1391 the archbishop of Seville died; the king and the archbishop had worked diligently to keep the kingdom’s rising threat of antisemitic violence in check. In the power vacuum that resulted after the death of these two leaders, a mob led by the archdeacon Ferrand Martinez of Seville, who had been preaching virulent anti-Jewish propaganda for several years including inciting his listeners to kill Jews and burn their synagogues, invaded the Jewish quarter of Seville in March and wreaked mayhem, killing a number of Jews.

Figure 49. Anti-Jewish riots, 1391.

The regency reacted to this riot by arresting several of the mob’s leaders and having them publicly whipped. This did not abate the fanaticism of the mob, which in June, responding to the continued inflammatory preaching of Martinez, overran the Jewish quarter, destroying most of the synagogues and according to one later report murdering at least 4,000 Jews.39 Since Seville at this time probably only contained about 450–500 Jewish families40 the number killed would probably be closer to 800. Some Jews were able to flee but the remaining survivors were forced to submit to baptism. The riots didn’t stop in Seville, however; they quickly spread to Córdova where most of the Jewish population was killed and their property destroyed (Figure 49). The riots spread to Jaén and then to Toledo. By mid-summer most of the towns in Castile had experienced severe anti-Jewish rioting and then the violence spread into Aragon, to Valencia, to Marjorca, and then to the towns of Barcelona, Gerona, and elsewhere in Catalonia.

Even though many local government authorities had advance warning of impending violence, all were completely unable to prevent or quell the riots, although records indicate that in many locales they tried to protect Jewish lives and property.41 In Aragon, when the king, John I, heard about the spreading disturbances, he instructed his provincial governors to take urgent steps to prevent rioting. The king’s brother, Prince Don Martin, who was the governor of Valencia, had gallows erected to punish any rioters in his province. Despite this warning the authorities were unable to keep the populace under control. When Don Martin wrote his brother in Zarazoga following the destruction of the judería of Valencia, the king wrote back a long letter strongly censuring his brother’s negligent behavior.42 The Jewish community of Barcelona was decimated even though its leading figure, Rabbi Hasdai Cresques, appealed to Aragon's queen, nis patroness, for assistance. Even though she tried to help by providing troops and shelter, the mobs broke into the castle and killed all the Jews sheltering there. Rioting continued into the smaller towns of both kingdoms, reducing in ferocity toward the end of 1391 but flaring up periodically during the next two decades. One much-inflated estimate records that 100,000 Jews were murdered, perhaps another 100,000 converted, scores of synagogues were destroyed, and innumerable houses were looted and burned.43

The major effect on Christian thought of the resulting mass conversions of Jews was how these conversions reminded them of the prophesy of Paul in Romans 11:25–32 which predicted that at the world’s end, those who had mocked and scorned the Son of God would return to him. In his City of God, Augustine had written about the large-scale conversion of Jews that would precede the Second Coming. With the large numbers of Jews being killed in riots and others being converted, Christians saw many biblical prophecies becoming fulfilled and began to believe that the end of days was at hand; that all of the Jews would now convert and that the messiah would return, bringing the kingdom of God to earth. This belief stimulated an ever-increasing religious fervor among preachers and their congregations, and pressure on the remaining Jews to convert became intense. In Aragon, a traveling preacher named Vincent Ferrer would travel from town to town with a group of fanatic followers who would parade the streets flagellating themselves with chains. When Ferrer and his army of flagellants arrived in a town, Jews would cower in their homes because the parade would be followed by mobs who would attack all the Jews they could find.

We will not discuss the aftermath of these tragedies and the flood of Jews who converted either by force or voluntarily—known as conversos—that resulted from the events of 1391 and the next hundred years, other than saying that the Jews of Spain were thoroughly demoralized and sought to understand the reasons for their great misfortunes. Rabbis and scholars attempted to link the disaster to the Jews’ failing to follow their laws, by fraternizing with the nobility, by reading philosophical works—in short, by not behaving as Jews. But these explanations made no sense to the ordinary Jew, who had no contact with nobility and didn’t read philosophy. Another question occurred to later students of the history of this period. Why did such a huge number of Jews convert? In many areas of Europe, for example, in the Rhineland during the First and Second Crusades (1096–1147), rioters slew many thousands of Jews who refused conversion, choosing martyrdom instead. The Jews of Spain converted in masses, even when not immediately threatened by personal harm.

The reason might lie in the history of the Sephardic Jew. Beginning with the persecutions of the Visigoths, then the Muslims, and then the Christians, the Jews periodically faced forced conversions; indeed, they were quite familiar with the earlier anusim and the existence of crypto-Jews and felt that they could follow the same course. Another reason could be linked to the degree of assimilation of the Jews in Spanish society. Many Jews were employed in Iberia’s governments and played prominent roles in commerce and the trades. Although the Jews typically—but not always—tended to live in their own areas of the towns, they freely participated in society and were completely integrated into the local culture, whereas their counterparts elsewhere in Europe were isolated and denied any cross-cultural contact.

And yet another reason may be linked to the ideas contained in Maimonides’ Epistle on Martyrdom. In this letter, Maimonides considers the forced conversions imposed by the Almohades and denounces a position by a contemporary scholar advocating martyrdom in the face of forced conversion as “foolish babbling and nonsense”—that faced with death a person was justified in accepting conversion so long as he wasn’t forced to publically transgress any mitzvot. Sephardic Jews accepted this reasoning because they generally revered Maimonides while Ashkenazim were very much unfamiliar with many of his works.

Figure 50. Medieval Jewish expulsions.

When the fifteenth century began, the Jews had become divided into three separate groups: those who remained Jews and continued to openly practice, those who had converted with the intention of becoming Christian, and those who became crypto-Jews, secretly renouncing their baptism and continuing to practice Judaism. Estimates of the number of remaining unconverted Jews living in fifteenth-century Spain range from about two to four percent of the population; about 120,000 in total. Scholars believe that by the second decade of the fifteenth century, about a third of the Jews living in Spain before 1391 had converted (one scholar maintains the number is about one-half44). Those who remained openly Jewish had a very difficult time during this period, and thousands left Iberia, following the paths forged by their forebears a century earlier. Jews emigrated to north Africa, Constantinople, Albania, Crete, the Dodecanese, and even to Jerusalem (Figure 50). Northern Europe was mostly closed to immigrants, since many countries had already expelled their Jewish communities—England at the end of the thirteenth century and France, Hungary, and Germany in the fourteenth. During the fifteenth century expulsions continued in Provence, Silesia, and Austria.

Life for the crypto-Jew was difficult. Fear was not only for discovery by Christian commoners, who called them marranos (meaning “swine”); they might be denounced to the Church resulting in torture and death if they were believed to have engaged in heretical behavior. But life for those conversos who had adopted Christianity voluntarily was just as difficult in a different way. The Church was totally unprepared and ill-equipped to handle the masses of Jews who had converted. The Church did not have a plan for integrating the Jews into society. Individual churches did not make any efforts to assist the converts to be welcome in their new religious community. The converso Jews of 1391 and later were called “cristianos nuevos,” “new Christians,” and their conversions were viewed with suspicion if not outright doubt, especially by the masses, and these new Christians were still subjected to antisemitic treatment.

Whether the convert had become a sincere Christian was also an issue for the “old Christians.” The Church was not overly concerned with this problem, since Church authorities assumed that in the due course of time the conversos would become sincere Christians. What surprised Church authorities was the reaction of the common people against the conversos; commoners totally rejected the attempts of the New Christians to assimilate, and the people began to demand that conversos be separated from all other believers. Of course the Church could not do this as a matter of doctrine. All baptisms resulted in the rebirth of the person’s soul as a Christian and all Christians were equal, a distinction that escaped the understanding of the common person.

Prominent Jewish figures who had converted went on to assume significant roles in Spanish society. Solomon Halevi, the distinguished former rabbi of Burgos, converted and eventually became the city’s bishop. Bartolomeo Carranza became the archbishop of Toledo and went on to become the primate of Spain. Even the patron saint of Spain, Theresa of Avila, was of converso descent.

What were the Spanish kings doing while their kingdoms were being torn apart by rioting, with thousands of Jewish families fleeing and entire areas of towns and cities being destroyed? The monarchs tried to preserve the remnants of the Jewish communities, who, after all, had provided significant contributions to the royal treasuries for the rulers of the past. This self-serving interest was supplemented by the need to keep public order because of the fear that anarchy could lead to political instability. But most of the kings of the first half of the fifteenth century were so weak that simply maintaining their thrones was the only objective that they could manage.

In 1413 a disputation was held in Tortosa in the province of Valencia which lasted for nineteen months. More a pageant than a debate, it was attended by Pope Benedict XIII (the pretender pope of Avignon; he came from Valencia) and some seventy cardinals, archbishops, and bishops. At times an audience of over 2,000 observed the proceedings. A number of prominent Jewish scholars were rounded up and compelled to participate, but were not permitted to see the texts that were used by the Christians or even to coordinate their rebuttals with the result that at times the scholars disagreed with one another. The period's greatest scholar, Hasdai Cresques, had died several years earlier and none of the rabbis or scholars remaining in Aragon were of his stature. The pressure of the Christian disputants was so extreme that even after the day’s spectacle concluded, the Jews were harangued in their quarters with the result that a number of them, including their beleaguered leader, converted during the course of the disputation. The demoralization of the Jewish community after this debacle was complete; as a result more conversions ensued.

By 1420, the situation of the status of the Jews in Iberia had mostly stabilized. In Castile, Jews had begun leaving the Jewish quarters of the cities and the larger towns to move to smaller communities located away from larger population centers. In Aragon the situation was different; the disturbances of the two decades from 1391 to 1410 had so decimated the Jewish population that Jewish areas of most towns simply ceased to exist. For example, after 1391 there was no Jewish community left in Barcelona; in Zarazoga only about 200 families remained.45 Jews did manage to move to smaller towns in Aragon, mainly in the province of Valencia. At the beginning of the fifteenth century Aragon's king was so weak he couldn't protect the Jewish population from harassment by the Church; the lack of a strong civil goverment was one of the reasons that Tortosa was chosen for the location of the disputation of 1413.

As the fifteenth century progressed, a strange thing happened. The New Christians, in attempting to assimilate, became increasingly involved in occupations that heretofore had been closed to them, and the general population was becoming restive. Most believed that the conversions were a ruse for the Jews to be able to secure nice jobs; that they weren’t sincere Christians at all. The unrest came to a peak by mid-century, when in 1449 a rebellion broke out in Toledo against the king and targeted his tax collectors who were mostly New Christians. The commoners as well as the nobles and clergy made a series of demands on the king that had severe consequences for the conversos of Castile. Waves of anti-converso violence broke out in Toledo again in 1467 and yet again in 1475. While these problems were affecting the conversos, the heat was removed from the Jews who hadn’t converted, and this group had a small respite from further violence. Now that Christian attention was focused on the conversos, people began to wonder exactly how faithful these New Christians were to their new religion.

Several positions began to emerge within the secular and religious leadership of the kingdoms about methods of dealing with the problem of the religious fealty of the conversos. One position maintained that none were to be trusted since any converso could be a heretic who should be killed, while another advanced the idea that any converso heresy wasn’t their fault since there had been no effort made to educate and integrate them into Christian society. A third viewpoint soon developed: the religious fidelity of Christians was a problem that the Church had already dealt with when the problem of Christian heresy had arisen in southern France. The Church had responded by creating an order, the Dominicans, one of whose missions was to investigate the sincerity of Christians. Investigations of the fidelity of the conversos could be conducted by the Inquisition.

The Inquisition was already operating in Spain, but in a limited and random manner. Occasionally its agents would single out individuals for investigation and censure, seldom invoking capital punishment. But now pressure was mounting to allow the Inquisition to be used as a tool of the government to manage the problem of the integration of the conversos into society. In 1469, Isabella, who would become the ruler of Castile in 1474, married her cousin Ferdinand of Aragon, thus linking the kingdoms. Soon after their marriage, the couple lobbied Pope Paul II to formally establish the Inquisition in Castile with the condition that its activities be subject to Crown control. This request was refused, but when a new pope, Sixtus IV, came to power, the very papacy was threatened by an invasion of Italy by the Turks. After Ferdinand threatened to withdraw Aragon’s military support of the Papal States (the nearby Kingdom of Naples was an Aragonese dependency), Sixtus IV capitulated and approved Ferdinand and Isabella’s request in 1478.

In 1480 and 1481, Inquisition tribunals were set up first in Seville, then one near Toledo and in the kingdom of Aragon in Zaragoza. The Inquisitors focused their investigations almost entirely on the conversos and their investigative methods included torture, especially of those accused of heresy. What did these investigations determine? By 1487, the Inquisition reported to Ferdinand and Isabella that heretical thinking and practices were prevalent among the conversos and that the souls of all true Christians were at stake; coming into contact with a converso would somehow “contaminate” the true Christians.

From modern examination of the documents produced by the Inquisition we now know that the most common converso practices that were deemed “heretical” might include observance of minor Jewish cultural customs such as fasting on Yom Kippur or lighting candles on Friday nights—but these same individuals also attended church, observed the eucharist and confession, and practiced other Christian customs too. Customs ranged across the entire spectrum of both belief systems, illustrated by the testimony of a woman who told the Inquisitors that she always crossed herself before lighting candles, but the records show that many of the people charged with heresy exhibited mostly innocent cultural lapses.

The result of the reports to the government was legislation to enforce the separation of the Jews from conversos, since the Inquisitors believed that their continued exposure to the Jews was somehow “infecting” the conversos and not allowing them to leave their heretical practices behind. Slowly, some Iberian provinces and towns began to pass laws expelling Jews from their territories.

In 1478 the rulers took up the last military goal of the Reconquista: freeing Iberia of its remaining Muslim kingdom. By late 1491 the forces of Aragon and Castile succeeded in capturing Granada after its Muslim ruler, Muhammed XII, capitulated in exchange for securing religious freedom for any Muslim who desired to remain in Granada. For the first time since 711 the entire peninsula was under Christian rule. With the victory over the Muslims in hand, Ferdinand and Isabella now came to a decision of what to do about their kingdom’s Jews. But their decision had a back story.

During the previous thirty years the idea about who was a Jew and who was a Christian had begun to shift. No longer was religious belief an indication of one’s religion—ancestry, or as the laws termed it, “purity of blood,” became the new criterion for whether a person was a Christian or a Jew. The conversos now found themselves in a new class, neither Christian nor Jewish, and laws were enacted to try to define converso status more precisely. The first “blood purity” law was enacted in 1449 in the “Statute of Toledo” over the strong objections of Pope Nicholas V, who attempted to have the law overturned because Christianity viewed a baptized person as a Christian—there wasn’t any halfway step. But the pope’s objections were ignored and further blood-purity laws were adopted. All conversos were barred from municipal service and from holding positions of authority in the army, the universities, and the Church. These laws actually endured until the eighteenth century. The results of the laws were quixotic and random. A Spanish cleric, Padre Pedro, mystified and irritated by the blood-purity laws, wrote in the sixteenth century,

We Spaniards have succeeded in creating a nation of madmen. We still distinguish between New Christians and Old Christians.... We search for Jewish blood which hardly exists, almost one hundred years after the expulsion of the Jews. With such an attitude, it can only bring dishonor on us.

Throughout Europe during this period, it was assumed that religious unity was required for political unity, but only in Spain did such a sense of determination and urgency exist in enforcing religious conformity.

When Ferdinand and Isabella married in 1469, it marked the beginning of a partnership of two very strong rulers. It’s interesting that the matchmakers for the couple and facilitators of their first meeting were Jews and conversos. The Jews of the time believed that since Ferdinand himself had Jewish ancestors (his maternal great-great-great grandmother was a conversa), he would be lenient to the Jews if he became the ruler of Castile as well as Aragon. Even Isabella had Jewish forebears; her paternal grandmother was the daughter of a conversa. One of the prominent figures in making the monarchs’ marriage possible was Jewish, the chief revenue officer of Seville and Isabella’s closest advisor, Abraham Seneor (1412–1493). After the couple married, we find that they populated their court with prominent Jews, including Seneor, Don Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel (1437–1508), and many conversos.

Seneor was possibly the most influential person in the joint kingdoms. He, together with several other nobles, had engaged in negotiations which averted a civil war between Isabella and her brother and predecessor, Henry IV (“the Impotent”) of Castile. In gratitude for his service Isabella and Ferdinand appointed Seneor as “court rabbi,” supreme judge of the Jews of Castile, and as the factor general to the Spanish army. In his army post he played a major role in facilitating the conquest of Granada, the last remaining stronghold of the Moors in Spain. Isabella’s personal physician was a Jew, as were other court officials. Because of her gratitude for the excellent services her Jewish courtiers provided she was very protective of the Jewish community and acted rapidly and decisively to protect them and punish those who harmed any Jew, physically or financially.

But the eventual reports of the Inquisitors severely alarmed the monarchs, who took their religious responsibilities very seriously. The Inquisitors made a special target of those conversos who served the court, and in one of the first trials they conducted, in 1481 in Seville, dozens of members of the most prominent converso families were burned at the stake. During the 1480s the Inquisition introduced a policy of partial expulsions that were designed to separate the Jews from the conversos. The first expulsions were from Seville, Córdoba, and Cádiz in 1484, and expulsions from Zaragoza and Teruel quickly followed.

But the tipping point for the Jews’ remaining in Spain came in 1490 when a charge of blood libel (the episode of the Santo Niño, the Holy Child) arose in La Guardia, a community near Toledo, and confessions were extracted from tortured Jews and conversos that they had crucified a Christian child and were plotting to overthrow Christianity. No evidence was presented during the trial and there actually was no missing child; furthermore, a plot involving the overthrow of Christianity was a ludicrous idea, but despite this, those defendants who had survived a year of torture were convicted and executed and the townspeople became filled with such anti-Jewish passion that rioting was barely averted. At the beginning of 1492, with the conquest of Granada complete, the stage was now set for the decision about the fate of Iberia’s Jews.

Figure 51. Alhambra decree of expulsion.

Figure 52. Expulsion from Castile and Aragon.

Figure 53. Routes of exile.

Figure 54. Refuge in Ottoman Empire.

Not much is known about the composition of the Charter of Expulsion (Figure 51). Scholars assume it was written in late January of 1492, becauseit was about this time that Seneor and Abrabanel began to try to influence the king and queen to revoke the decree before its publication. Abrabanel wrotethat he met three times with the king to plead for the Jews. There are other reports that a substantial bribe was offered, but the royal couple was firm in their resolve. The decree was dated March 31 but wasn’t made public for a month;46 the original effective date was July 31 but was delayed two days to wait for Tish’a b’Av to pass—the sole concession that Abrabanel was able to obtain.

The difficulties for the Jews in disposing of their property and selecting a destination country (Figure 52), let alone finding the means to travel, were monumental. Not only were they at a considerable disadvantage in selling their property, they were prohibited from leaving Spain with any funds in the form of precious metals, coinage, or jewels. All negotiable assets were to be forfeited to the crown. And any Jew within the borders of Aragon or Castile on the effective date of expulsion would be forced to convert or be killed. England and France were closed as was virtually all of Italy. Most German city-states had expelled their Jews during the Black Death plague. Portugal and the tiny independent kingdom of Navarre were possibilities, but these countries, closely allied with Avalon-Castile, were uncertain; they actually only provided a few years’ respite.

North Africa, the Balkans, and the near East were the best available choices (Figure 53), but traveling there put the exiles into the hands of rapacious ship-captains who were as likely to kill the passengers or sell them into slavery as to deliver them to their destinations. Many sources cite the number of Jews expelled from Castile and Aragon as greater than 150,000; but Aragon's Jewish population was far smaller than Castile's, and probalcly numbered only about 6,000 families. However, the population numbers given in various early sources vary greatly.47 Also, the total number of conversos over the history of the Jews in Spain must be significantly greater than reported by historians given the results of genetic testing mentioned at the beginning of this article: these tests show that about 20 percent of the Spanish male population has a direct patrilineal descent from Sephardic Jews.2

For the expelled Jews, two countries offered the most hope for sanctuary—one from a most unlikely source. Pope Innocent VIII, pope from 1484 to 1492, was strongly opposed to the practices of the Spanish Inquisition and the extreme methods used by the Dominicans to examine and convict conversos. His successor, Pope Alexander VI, appeared to be also sympathetic to the Jews’ plight and opened the Papal States to Jewish immigrants (this sympathy of the papacy lasted only some eighty years; Jews were expelled from the Papal States in 1569).

The other region of refuge lay farther East. In the early fifteenth century the Ottoman Turks invaded the Byzantine Empire and in the 1440s began a siege of Constantinople. The capital city fell in 1453 with many of its residents having died of starvation and disease (Figure 54). The Ottoman rulers needed people to repopulate the city; the Byzantine Greeks were not an option because of strong mutual hatred. So the Ottomans relocated the populations of a large number of Jewish communities into Constantinople—now renamed Istanbul. The Jewish population of the city immediately went from zero to over ten percent. Jews leaving Spain were welcome in the Ottoman Empire and as a result of the Spanish expulsion, Istanbul’s Jewish population swelled almost eightfold. Sultan Bayazid II, the Ottoman ruler, was said to have remarked that “the Catholic monarch Ferdinand was wrongly considered as wise, since he impoverished Spain by the expulsion of the Jews, and enriched Turkey.”

Regardless of the potential sanctuaries in the east, many thousands of Jews lost their lives in leaving Spain, thousands wound up as slaves, many thousands were forced to convert, while the lucky ones who were able to find a place of refuge had to pay sizable bribes. The Jews who were able to find refuge in Portugal after payment of a stiff royalty soon learned that their safety would only be temporary. In 1497, those Jews were given an expulsion decree but it had a cruel twist. The expulsion was a ruse to assemble the Jews at ports, but no vessels were waiting for their transport. Instead, once assembled they were converted en masse and many of their children were seized and converted and given for adoption. The Jews who had sought refuge in Navarre were also forcibly converted in 1498 at the insistence of Ferdinand and Isabella. This was the end of the open presence of Jews in a land that had been occupied by their ancestors for at least 1500 years.


Like a haftarah, I hate to end on a negative note, so it might be appropriate to explore the interesting question about the identity and origins of Christopher Columbus (Figure 55).


Figure 55. Who was Columbus?

Columbus appeared in Spain in 1485; he came from a humble family but had great aspirations so he took pains to obscure his background. He claimed that he came from Genoa in Italy, but all of his journals and the marginal notes in his books were written in Spanish or Latin. He had a brother and son with whom he had extensive correspondence; he always wrote his letters in Spanish. When he wrote Latin, he wrote it in a characteristically Spanish manner (but it appears he learned Latin while he was living in Portugal). His customs and mannerisms appeared to resemble someone having a Catalonian background. And he always kept company with Muslims and Jews.

Columbus came to Spain to attempt to find a sponsor to support his goal of seeking a route to India by traveling westward across the Atlantic. It’s not widely known, but in the 1400s educated people were aware that the world was spherical. Before coming to Spain, Columbus had sought support for his exploration in Portugal, in particular seeking the approval of Joseph Diego Mendes Vezinho (1450–1520), a Jewish scientist and cosmographer at the Portuguese court. Finally, after several years of climbing the social ladder in Portugal, including changing his name from the commoner’s name of Cristoforo Colombo to the proper Portugese name of Cristóbal Colón, marrying the daughter of a minor Portugese noble and noted mariner, and finally Latinizing his name to Christopher Columbus, he was able to secure an audience with the young king John II.

The king, an ardent supporter of Portugal’s maritime explorations, was intrigued with Columbus’ proposal for a westward expedition and referred Columbus to his council of mathematicians. This group included Vezinho, a later convert to Christianity, together with a number of scholars, nautical experts; the king also appointed to the group the bishop of Ceuta, Diego Ortiz of Cazadella, who, unfortunately for Columbus happened to be a vocal opponent of Portugal’s maritime explorations of the African coast. Many of the scholars were dubious about Columbus’ plans but despite this the king was favorably disposed to the idea. However, Columbus had placed a number of conditions on his undertaking of the expedition: to have three caravels at his disposal, to be named admiral of the Ocean Sea and viceroy of any lands he might discover, plus he requested ten percent of any profits realized from his voyage, and what’s more, one-eighth of all of the future profits extracted from trading in the lands he discovered.

Ortiz lobbied against the proposed expedition, pointing out its potential expense and how the Portugese treasury was already strained. Ortiz, not a very moral person, proposed that the king should stall for time by pretending to accept the proposal, telling Columbus that the mathematicians needed additional time to study Columbus’ charts and records, but instead recruit another mariner to use Columbus’ data to sail westward. The king, not very moral himself, agreed, but the craft that they sent encountered strong storms after several days at sea and turned back, reporting that the trip was impossible. Meanwhile Columbus had learned of this scheme and was furious, so he sent his brother Bartholomew to England to shop his idea to Henry VII while he departed Portugal to try his luck in Spain.

Figure 56. Atlas of the Cresques.

Figure 57. Zacuto's astronomical tables.

Figure 58. Alphonsine tables.

Spain, as well as Portugal at that time, was quite advanced in navigational arts and science, and it’s interesting to consider that during this period, knowledge of astronomy and map-drawing was virtually exclusive to Jewish scholars. Abraham Cresques (Figure 56) and his son Yehuda of fourteenth-century Majorca were known as the “map Jews,” and their maps were in use by all mariners. The essential navigational instrument, the quadrant, was invented by the Sephardic Jew Jacob ben Machir ibn Tibbon (1236–1307) and was called the quadrans Judaicus. Mariners also used another device invented by a Jew: the cross-staff, known as the “baculus Jacob” (Jacob’s staff), invented by Levi ben Gershon (1288–1344), a biblical commentator as well as a mathematician and astronomer. This simple device enabled mariners to measure the angular separation between two celestial bodies.

Another important instrument was the metal astrolabe which was developed by Abraham Zacuto (c. 1450–1515), a professor at the University of Salamanca and a famous Sephardic scientist, inventor, and astronomer. Zacuto was a practicing Jew and the author of the “Almanac Perpetuum,” the standard astronomical almanac, astronomical tables that gave the exact hours for the rising of the planets and bright stars (Figure 57). Columbus used these tables on his voyages. And the most important tool, a set of astronomical tables called the “Alfonsine Tables,” had been prepared by a team of Jewish and Moorish court astronomers in the court of Alfonso X of Castile in the mid-thirteenth century (Figure 58).

Presented with Columbus’ proposal, the scientists in Spain were initially just as skeptical as those in Portugal, and Columbus spent several years seeking backing for his voyage. His knew that he would eventually need to approach the king and queen, but having scientific support was essential to first convince the king and queen’s advisors of the expedition’s feasibility. Columbus quickly found a receptive audience in the many influential conversos and Jews of the Spanish court, including Seneor, Abrabanel, Gabriel Sanchez (treasurer-general of Aragon), Luis de Santangel (finance minister and a relative of Sanchez), Juan Cabrero (royal chamberlain), and Alfonso de la Caballeria (vice chancellor). How did Columbus establish himself among such a powerful group of men?

First, when he appeared in Spain, Columbus immediately became the protégé of Diego de Deza, a well known theologian at the University of Salamanca, a reputed converso and the tutor of the king’s heir-apparent. When de Deza assembled a group of scientists to listen to Columbus’ plans, they expressed their skepticism, but Abraham Zacuto himself was present and was able to convince the group that Columbus’ plans were sound. It appears that by 1487 Columbus had secured the full backing of Abrabanel and Seneor and was drawing a royal stipend. Columbus got his chance for an audience with the royal couple who were very cool about the plan.

First, Columbus was asking for a lot—the ships, the admiralty, the viceroyship, and his cut of the profits. Also, the war against Granada was sapping the kingdom’s treasury and there was little money available for exploration. And what about Columbus’ credentials? Just who was this unknown stranger? Although it took several additional years, promises of advances of loans against future repayment from the proceeds of any discoveries, and much lobbying, Columbus’ new Jewish and converso friends in the Spanish court eventually persuaded Ferdinand and Isabella to support the exploration. The question here is: how did Columbus win the support of powerful members of the Spanish court so quickly? Was Columbus actually Jewish?

Evidence supporting this idea includes the rapid support he received from prominent conversos and Jews and also from the fact that all his royal contacts appear to be this group of powerful councilors. But other evidence exists: his mother was Susanna Fonterossa, the daughter of Jacobo Fonterossa and granddaughter of Abraham Fonterossa (these were common Jewish names); he had a very strong interest in Jewish matters, far more than any Christian would have, even of those of the clergy, but very understandable for a converso. He occasionally dated his correspondence from the date of the destruction of the second temple, not from the birth of Jesus, stating in one letter “... and from the destruction: the Second Temple according to the Jews to the present day, being the year of the birth of Our Lord 1481, are 1413 years….”

In one of his letters preserved in the Archives of the Indies in Seville, he wrote, “I am not the first admiral of my family, let them give me whatever name they please; for when all is done, David, that most prudent king, was first a shepherd and afterward chosen King of Jerusalem, and I am a servant of that same Lord who raised him to such a dignity.”

Figure 59. Full-scale replicas of Columbus’ three tiny boats
moored below the Convent of Rabidain Andalucia.

Every one of his letters to his son Diego contains a cryptic mark that resembles the Hebrew H”B (b’ezrat haShem, “with the help of God”) commonly used in Jewish correspondence—with one exception: a letter that he requested Diego to show to Queen Isabella does not contain the mark. His letters and logs about the voyage contain frequent allusions to Hebrew Bible, mentioning Jerusalem, Moses, David, Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac; Christians would have far more familiarity with the Christian Bible which Columbus never quoted. And records of the expedition show that at least six conversos were included among the members. More might have been present but most conversos were very careful to conceal their Jewish background for fear of the Inquisition. Despite all of this evidence, there is also equally convincing evidence that argues against the theory that Columbus had a Jewish background. So does any of this evidence indicate that Columbus was Jewish? Intriguing though these facts may be, they prove nothing about his Jewish background—but we’ll never know, especially since Columbus’ heirs destroyed much of his private papers.

Columbus obviously did finally succeed in gaining royal backing for the expedition, greatly facilitated by the financial support of men like Seneor, Abrabanel, Sanchez, and especially Luis de Santangel, who became Columbus’ major benefactor. It was he who ultimately convinced the monarchs to allow the expedition to proceed through persuasion and promises of private financing. Columbus received the royal order to prepare his fleet to sail on the same day that the announcement of the Jews’ expulsion was made—and the little fleet left Spain one day after the fateful date that the expulsion became effective, August 3, 1492.


Figure 60. Voyages of Columbus.


Eliyahu Ashtor, The Jews of Moslem Spain, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1973, ISBN 0827600178.

Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, Vol. 1, 2, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1961, ISBN 0827604319.

Eli Barnavi (ed.), A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, Schocken Books, 1994, ISBN 0805241272.

Nicholas DeLange (ed), The Illustrated History of the Jewish People, Key Porter, 1997, ISBN 1550139282.

Jane S. Gerber, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience. The Free Press/Macmillan, Inc. 1992. ISBN 0029115736.

Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam, Princeton University Press, 1984, ISBN 0691054193.

James Reston, Jr., Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors, Anchor/Doubleday, 2006, ISBN 1400031915.

Howard M. Sachar, Farewell España: The World of the Sephardim Remembered, Vintage Books Random House, 1994, ISBN 0679409602.


1. Source: iGENEA (accessed 4 Apr. 2011 from

2. Susan M. Adams et al, “The Genetic Legacy of Religious Diversity and Intolerance: Paternal Lineages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula,” American Journal of Human Genetics, 83:6, Dec. 2008, pp. 725–736. See also Nicholas Wade, "Gene Test Shows Spain’s Jewish and Muslim Mix," The New York Times, Dec. 4, 2008 (accessed 15 Feb. 2011 from

3. G. Robert Gair, Geographical Environment and Race Movements, 1932, contains the statement, “Migration ... was responsible for the emigration of a great mass of Dan, Asher, Zebulon and Naphthali, who thus evaded the captivity under Assyria [762–676 B.C.].”

4. W. P. Bowers, “Jewish Communities in Spain in the Time of Paul the Apostle,” Journal of Theological Studies 26:2, Oct. 1975, p. 396.

5. Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews: From the Revolt against the Zendik (511 C.E.) to the Capture of St. Jean d’Acreby by the Mahometans (1291 C.E.) , Vol. III. The Jewish Publication Society of America. 1894. (accessed 20 Feb. 2011 from: p.42.

6. Yom Tov Assis, The Jews of Spain: From Settlement to Expulsion. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 1988. p. 9.

7. Emil Hübner, Inscriptiones Hispaniae christianae, Berolini apud G. Reimerum (Latin), 1871. p. 60.

8. According to James Finn, Sephardim, or the History of the Jews in Spain and Portugal, J.G.F.& J. Rivington, 1841, pp. 3–4, in 1480 a gravesite was found at Saguotum, near Valencia, in which was found the embalmed body of a man with a stone inscribed in Hebrew characters: “This is the tomb of Adoniram, servant of King Solomon, who came to collect tribute and died on the day....” (basing this statement on a report in Juan Bautista Villalpando’s Commentary on Ezekiel, vol. ii, ch. lviii. (1596–1604) p. 544). The discovery of the tomb was also mentioned by Isaac Abrabanel in the late fifteenth century, and the writings of Iberian Jews of earlier times imply that they must have been aware of the existence of this tomb.

9. Amnon Linder, The Jews in the Legal Sources of the Early Middle Ages, Wayne State University Press, 1998. ISBN 0814324037. pp. 482–4.

10. Assis, op. cit., p. 9.

11. Alfredo Jiménez, “Spain: From Its Beginnings to the Fifteenth Century,” in Handbook of Hispanic Cultures in the United States: History, A. Jiménez (ed.), Arte Publico Press, U.S., 1993, p. 58.

12. Linder, op. cit., p. 485.

13. Assis, op. cit., p.10.

14. Linder, op. cit., p. 486.

15. Alberto Ferreiro, The Visigoths: Studies in Culture and Society, Brill Academic Publishers. 1998. ISBN 9004112065. p. 137.

16. Steven T. Katz (ed), The Cambridge History of Judaism, Vol. 4: The Late Roman-Rabbinic Period. Cambridge University Press. 2006. ISBN 0521772486. pp. 514–16.

17. Jane S. Gerber, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience. The Free Press/Macmillan, Inc. 1992. ISBN 0029115736. p. 16.

18. Assis, op. cit., pp. 44–45.

19. Eli Barnavi (ed), A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, Knopf (Schocken Books), 1992, p. 1.

20. Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, Harper & Row, 1987, p. 171.

21. Gerber, op. cit., p. 29.

22. Nahum M. Sarna, “Hebrew and Bible Studies in Medieval Spain” in Sephardi Heritage, Vol. 1, R. D. Barnett (ed). Ktav Publishing House, Inc. 1971. p. 324.

23. Assis, op. cit., pp. 13, 47.

24. Sarna, op. cit., p. 327.

25. Sarah Pessin, “Solomon Ibn Gabirol [Avicebron],” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Spring 2011 Edition. (accessed 26 Mar. 2011 from

26. Shlomo D. Goitein (ed), A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, Vol. I: Economic Foundations, University of California Press. (reprint of 1967 work) 2000. ISBN 0520221583.

27. Elkan Adler, Jewish Travellers in the Middle Ages, Dover Publications, 1987. pp. 2–3.

28. Assis, op. cit., pp. 13–14.

29. Assis, op. cit., p. 14.

30. Assis, op. cit., p. 14.

31. Assis, op. cit., p. 16.

32. Assis, op. cit., p. 17.

33. Richard Gottheil, Meyer Kayserling, and Joseph Jacobs, “Spain,” in Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.

34. Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, Vol. 1, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1961, p. 190–91.

35. Gerber, op.cit., p. 95.

36. Frank E. Talmage (ed.), Disputation and Dialogue: Readings in the Jewish-Christian Encounter, Ktav Publishers, 1975, p. 86–87.

37. Baer, op. cit., p. 195.

38. Baer, op. cit., p. 193.

39. According to Solomon ibn Verga (15–16 cent.), “Shebet Yehudah.”

40. Nathaniel Weisenberg, The Unraveling: Seville, The Jews of Castile, and the Road to the Riots of 1391, Thesis, Georgetown University, Spring 2010, p. 109. (accessed 28 Mar. 2011 from

41. Weisenberg, op. cit., pp. 105–07.

42. Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, Vol. 2, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1961, p. 101.

43. Unrealistically large population numbers are present in many sources; for example, see:
Gerber, op.cit., p. 113. and
Melvin Ember, Carol R. Ember, and Ian Skoggard (eds), Encyclopedia of Diasporas: Immigrant and Refugee Cultures Around the World. Volume II: Diaspora Communities, Springer, 2004. p. 166.

44. Edward Peters, “Jewish History and Gentile Memory: The Expulsion of 1492” in Jewish History, 9:1 (Spring 1995), p. 9.

45. Baer, Vol. 2, op. cit., p. 245.

46. Peters, op. cit., p. 24.

47. Juan de Mariana (1536–1624), in Historiae de rebus Hispaniae, claims as many as 800,000 emigrees, a quite unlikely number. Isidore Loeb (1839–1892), in Revue des Études Juives, cites 165,000 emigrees, 50,000 baptized, and 20,000 died en route. Andrés Bernáldez (1450–1513) gives details that total about 203,000. Abraham Zacuto (c. 1450–1515) reports those who went to Portugal alone at 120,000. In contrast, Henry Kamen, in The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (1997), estimates that of a total of 80,000 Jews in both kingdoms about 40,000 chose exile and Baer, Vol. 2 (op.cit.), pp. 245–6, reports that the Jewish population in Aragon was about 6,000 families and in Castile, about 30,000 families or about one or one-and-a-half percent of the total population.

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