History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Jewish Achievements in Christian Spain.

Political and Social Standing.

If the Spanish Jews of the 12th century had been asked whether they preferred living under the Crescent or the Cross, they might have found it difficult to answer. So very different was the Spanish Christian from his co-religionist elsewhere at this time. In Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Leon, which had all passed from Moorish to Christian sway, the Jew was given no reason to regret the change. For religious liberty and civic privileges were continued under the changed regime.

Forty thousand Jews were in the ranks of Alfonso VI's army at the battle of Zallaka in 1085. The engagement was even delayed on their account till the Sabbath was over. Although some of their own brethren were in the Moorish ranks, on neither side did the Jews permit regard for co-religionists to affect their patriotism. This recalls the loyalty of the great Samuel to the Persian King Shabur.

Toledo's twelve thousand Jews possessed beautiful synagogues and some of their sons took rank as knights. Castilian Jews won more renown in poetry and science than in Talmudic law.

Although Alfonso VII showed at first a tendency to curtail the rights of the Jews, he soon followed his father's more liberal example. The learned Joseph Ibn Ezra was high in his favor as court chamberlain and high in his confidence as guardian of the fortress of Calatrava. The next monarch loaded him with honors and permitted Toledo to become a place of refuge for maltreated Jews.

Leon, Castile and Navarre — all in turn — put such trust in Jewish loyalty as to hand over to them the guardianship of fortresses and towns.

Alfonso VIII, who came to the Castilian throne in 1166, met, for a time, a rebuff at the hands of the vigorous Moorish dynasty, the Almohades, of which we shall hear more later. Yet his liberality to the Jews was unabated and they largely furnished the funds for this war. Their Nasi, Joseph ben Solomon, became his treasurer. When finally his triumphant Christian soldiers turned their arms from the Moors to the Jews (a movement quickly quelled) they did not discern here a warning of darker days to come. For when the thirteenth century began their legal status was more assured than ever, safekuarded by royal enactment. Not till Leon became incorporated with Castile did the tide in their favor turn and bigotry begin to show its hand. But we have much to tell before that time arrived.

Benjamin the Explorer.

Let us first turn to Navarre. It produced the famous Jewish traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, who traversed Europe, Asia and Africa. It took a brave man to face the perils of travel in those unsettled days. Although a merchant, it was not with the material aim of the profitable exchange of merchandise that he penetrated into unknown lands, but with the pious resolve of finding "the lost ten tribes." Their whereabouts had always been a subject of serious perplexity both to Jews and Christians,

(There came a time when a theory about them strangely affected the fate of Israel, but it was at a far later day.) Tudela's Hebrew notes on his travels, covering the period from 1160 to 1173, have been worked up into a book by later editors and translated into many tongues. He showed himself a keen observer and looked out upon the world, not only as Jew, but as man. He gives us the state of civilization of the different lands he entered and describes their government. He tells of the beginning of trade and commerce in the large cities as far east as France and as far west as Persia. He tells of the deterioration of the Greeks with their armies of mercenaries and of the steady advance of the Turks into Europe. He describes the republics of Italy, the Byzantine Empire and the status of the Caliphs of Bagdad.

His description of the Jewish communities of Europe and Asia are valuable contributions to our history in the twelfth century. He describes, too, the Karaites and the Samaritans. From him we learn of the exploits of David Alroy, to be told later (chap, xxviii).

Dr. Wilhelm Bacher says of him: "Benjamin of Tudela furnishes important and reliable accounts of the civil occupations of the Jews. . . . Those of Palestine and some other countries extensively practised the art of dyeing. The large Jewish congregation of Thebes in Greece was employed in the manufacture of silk and purple. There were Jewish glassmakers in Antioch and Tyre; in the last-named town also ship owners. Among the Druses of Lebanon, Jewish workmen were domiciled, and in Crissa, at the foot of Parnassus, a large colony of Jewish peasants existed. . . . Benjamin's book, not altogether free from fiction, is preponderatingly marked by sobriety and clearness of narrative."

Chasdai the Translator.

Aragon also produced Jewish scholars, particularly in Barcelona. From that town came Abraham Ibn Chasdai, who lived a century later and was one of the great translators of Arabic works into Hebrew.

His knowledge of languages enabled him to adapt a famous story known as "Barlaam and Josaphat" that was part of the life of Buddha. His Hebrew version was known as "The Prince and the Dervish." This royal prince, in spite of his jealous seclusion, learns of the existence of evil; so renouncing his royal privileges, he goes forth into the world and leads a life of denial and sacrifice.

One of the tales told to the Prince by the Dervish was of an island country that annually chose for its king some stranger shipwrecked on its coast. At the end of the year he was returned to the same spot and in the same condition in which he was found. One more prudent than his predecessors, learning of his ultimate fate, laid up a hidden treasure during his year of office, on which he lived in happiness after his brief rule was over. This one year's reign is earthly life, and the Dervish drew from the picture the obvious moral.

But much is written in a lighter vein. For example:

Go not too frequently thy friends to see,

Lest they grow weary of the sight of thee;

When rain is scanty, then we pray for more,

But love not one continuous downpour.

Let not his humble vesture make thee blind

To one whose greatness is a learned mind:

For pearls may sometimes in the sand be found,

And stores of gold lie buried in the ground.

Be ever meek and humble, nor essay

In path of pride and haughtiness to stray:

The tempest spares the hyssop on the wall,

But 'neath its wrath the proudest cedars fall.

Translated by J. Chotzner.

Ibn Daud, Scientist and Historian.

Toledo {Castile) is to be lastingly remembered in Jewish annals for producing two scholars — the philosopher Ibn Daud and the critic Ibn Ezra.

Of Abraham Ibn Daud, who was born in 1110, we can say — what has become in this narrative almost a monotonous summary of Spanish-Jewish scholars, the average photograph of them all — i.e., he was a Hebraist, a mathematician, an astronomer and a physician. But he won distinction in spheres other than these — first in a field hitherto negelected by Jewish scholars, history. The Jews, who had made so much history, overlooked its systematic study. They did not strongly develop the historic sense.

Ibn Daud does give us a Jewish history, Sepher Hakahala (Book of Tradition), that is particularly valuable for the Spanish era and for the earlier period of the Geonim.

But philosophy was his forte; he deemed it the subject worthiest to occupy the human mind, leading as it does to a knowledge of God. Some may say "that depends upon the philosopher." So it does. But Ibn Daud, blessed with religious faith, took the same ground as Jehuda Halevi in placing Revelation higher than Reason. Indeed his work is called "Sublime Faith." Perhaps Ibn Daud's answer to those who taught that philosophy undermines faith, might have been that it is the little knowledge that is dangerous — to faith as to everthing else. He was right in making the claim that whatever might be the attitude of other creeds towards knowledge, Judaism has ever courted light.

He was the first Jewish follower of that renowned Greek philosopher, Aristotle — the world's first scientist.

Ibn Daud reaches God as the necessary First Cause or Prime Mover of the Universe. As such he must be infinite and therefore cannot be corporeal (for bodies have limits). The First Cause must be wholly independent, therefore God must be alone — One. As to God's nature, we can afiirm no more than His existence, we can say what He is not rather than what He is.

Ibn Baud's explanation of life's apparent imperfection suggests a line in Pope's "Essay on Man," "All partial evil is universal good."

Just as the Bible makes "the beginning of wisdom the fear of the Lord," so Ibn Daud treated philosophy with reverent touch, making virtue its aim. Opposed to Ibn Gabirol in other respects, he agrees with him here.

In subdividing the duties taught by Judaism, he makes an important discrimination between an ethical and a ceremonial precept. So while he ranks faith in God highest and morality next, he places sacrificial and dietary laws lowest. Yet he recognized the ethical aim of ceremonial law, but not with the insistence and enthusiasm of Jehuda Halevi. Among moral teachings he lays emphasis on duties to the family and the state and on humility, in which he includes forgiveness of enemies and conscientiousness in general.

Ibn Daud died a martyr — slain in an anti-Jewish riot in 1180. He deserves to be classed among the band of immortals whose exalted views of God, Life and Destiny vindicate the dignity of man and give inspiration to noble achievement.

Ibn Ezra, the Savant.

Spain produced many renowned Ibn Ezras — Moses Ibn Ezra, the poet; the four Ibn Ezra brothers, who flourished in Granada; Jehuda Ibn Ezra, the Nasi. But when we mention the surname alone we mean Abraham Ibn Ezra.

He was born in Toledo in 1092, six years after Jehuda Halevi, and absorbed all the Jewish culture of Spain. He stood out keenly intellectual, even in this intellectual environment — he was critical, witty, versatile and yet profound. He lacked the exalted earnestness of Ibn Daud and the religious fervor of Jehuda Halevi, yet his influence on Jewish literature was as great as either.

His life suggests strange contrasts. He wrote poems but lacked the poet's temperament. Though a rationalist, he tolerated no deviation from authority in others. He was tinged with mysticism, yet he ridiculed the mystics. An astronomer, he half believed in its counterpart and counterfeit, astrology. His experience was pessimistic, but his belief optimistic. In pointed epigram he was a master. Was not his own life the best epigram of all?

His genius was of the erratic order. He turned from one study to another and his life reflected his changeability of interest. He gives us suggestive notes on many themes rather than exhaustive treatises on few. He traveled from land to land, not with a set purpose like Benjamin of Tudela, but simply because he could not long content himself in one place. Like the proverbial "rolling stone," he barely gathered the means of subsistence. He crossed the Mediterranean into Africa, going to Egypt and the Holy Land and reaching as far as Babylonia. Then he turned from the East to Europe once more, and in Italy exercised the greatest influence of his life. In Rome he wrote many of his works and succeeded in creating a scholarly revival among his brethren. Indeed, wherever he went he left a literary impression.

It must be remembered that all the great works on the science of Judaism were produced in Mohammedan lands and therefore in the Arabic tongue. While travelling in Christian Europe, where Arabic was not understood by Jews resident there, he wrote his works in Hebrew, so that he was able to spread Jewish culture among them. (His grammar was the first of its kind in Hebrew.) Thus, through his roving spirit he was in a position to render his greatest service.

From Italy he went to England, where he wrote his "Sabbath Epistle." Returning through France, he reached Spain, the fatherland he loved, only in time to die. Ibn Daud, who survived him, calls him "the last of the great men who formed the pride of Spanish Judaism"; but greater men were yet to follow.

Ibn Ezra as Critic.

In all his diverse capacities, as grammarian, mathematician, philosopher, on each of which he left renowned writings, his true motif was the role of critic. His commentary on the Scriptures, particularly of the Pentateuch, is his most valuable and most lasting contribution to Jewish literature. He was the first — not even excluding Saadyah — to treat Scripture exegesis in a thoroughly scientific spirit. He clarified obscure passages by critical analysis instead of further obscuring them by fantastic notions, according to the prevailing practice among both Christian and Jewish theologians. He uses his commentary as a medium to express his philosophic views. He was a subtle thinker, restricted by the limited scientific knowledge of his time.

Here is a digest of some of his opinions on the questions which most concerned thinkers of his day and throws some light on the mediaeval point of view.

God is known to us only through His works. He is in all things. At one time, Ibn Ezra approached very near to pantheism in saying, "God is all things."

Angels are immovable beings, who none the less carry out the will of God even as light can cast its beams to a distance.

The stars. Like so many mediaeval thinkers, he believes that the stars have souls and influence the affairs of earth, hence the wide vogue of astrology. He erroneously supposes that they are of different elements than those contained in the earth. The heavenly bodies form a "middle world" between the earth and "the heaven of heavens."

Revelation is granted first through nature, second through the intuitions of the heart, and thirdly (revelation proper) through the direct communication of God.

The Bible. Only the spirit of Scripture is divinely inspired, not its actual words — i.e., its sense, not its language. This was daring for the time. He does not deny miracles, but preferably seeks a natural explanation. Next to the Pentateuch in his appreciation, came the Psalms.

He is in accord with Ibn Gabirol in saying that man's greatest happiness lies in fullest knowledge of God and also in his belief in the pre-existence of the soul.

He sanely objects to celibacy while condemning sensuality. (The Catholic Church has forbidden its priests to marry since the decree of Pope Gregory VII.)

He has not a high opinion of woman and certainly regards her as inferior to man.

He discerns in the lower animals instinct and sensibility, but finds mind only in human beings.

Evil. He taught that nothing in creation is absolutely bad. The evil that we find results from man's perverse choice — even then it is always counter-balanced by good.

Prayer. He strongly pleads for short prayers as against long ones and condemns the payyetanim (writers of Piyuttim, prayer-poems, p. 28) for couching them in obscure diction. Prayer for him must be both brief and simple.

The Future. The fate of the wicked after death is not hell, but oblivion, the soul unworthy to perpetuate itself. The future life of the good is wholly spiritual and exalted.


Ibn Ezra:—The following is a characteristic introduction to his commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes:

"Hear pleasant words, written by Abraham, the scribe, for intelligent readers.
"He is called the son of Meir, surnamed Ben Ezra, and from his Rock his soul seeketh help {Ezra — help).
"To illumine him in darkness, to cause his way to prosper, for hitherto his has been as a withered leaf.
"He roved far away from his native land, from Spain, and went to Rome with a troubled soul.
"And here he intendeth to expound the Scriptures, and he prayeth to the Almighty, in whom alone is his hope.
"To increase his strength, grant him wisdom and pardon any of his shortcomings in the commentary on Ecclesiastes."

Biblical Criticism:—As Bible critic Ibn Ezra was much in advance of his time, In his day and long afterwards all accepted the tradition that Moses wrote the first five Bible books. Ibn Ezra points out phrases that must have been written after his day. He discerns, too, that all the sixty-six chapters of Isaiah are not by one author — that there were two Isaiahs. But he conveys all this information in very guarded language.

For those who would like to obtain a closer insight into Ibn Ezra's intellectual make-up, we recommend "Ibn Ezra Literature," Dr. M. Friedlander, particularly the Essays on Ibn Ezra, London, Scribner & Co., from which these summaries have been made.

For a complete list of his works and translations extant, see Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. vi. Some of his poems have been translated by Alice Lucas — see The Jewish Year, Macmillan.

Plato V. Aristotle:—As Jewish thought centered around the two schools, of Plato and Aristotle, an explanatory word of contrast is here added. Plato gives us an idealistic, Aristotle a realistic view of things. While Plato argued from ideas to things — deduction, Aristotle argued from known things and phenomena to general concepts — induction. As a further distinction, the philosophy of Aristotle had a more universal scope, covering all knowledge. Finally, Aristotle appeals to our reason, he was essentially the rationalist. Plato appeals to our emotions, he was something of a mystic.

Ihn Daud:—More will be said of Aristotle when Maimonides is reached. He accepted many of Ibn Daud's conclusions; among others, that prophecy is the highest stage of reason. Ibn Ezra shares something of this view also.

Jewish Travelers—When Jews of the Middle Ages traveled voluntarily and were not forced into exile, their motives were either material (to follow the route of trade as merchant) or ideal, to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as devotees. Sometimes the student traveled to other lands to sit at the feet of a scholar. Only a few wandered then to see other lands and other people; for the means of safe and swift transportation is man's most modern achievement.

Indeed, the right to leave one's home was severely restricted and heavily taxed. Crossing each bridge meant a toll. Furthermore, no Jew could go abroad without the consent of the congregation, whose burdens, while at home, he shared. On the other hand, to be hospitable to travelers was a pious act especially mentioned in the Prayer Book.

Medieval travel was beset with diverse dangers — shipwreck, robbery, or seizure of one's person to be sold as a slave. Rich dress excited the cupidity of those one met on the way. For obvious reasons the Jew found it wise to keep his racial identity undisclosed. Sometimes the traveler was discouraged, bringing new cares on the community; at times welcomed, bringing wares and books and accounts of other Jewish settlements. The traveler told stories of strange sights and bold adventures where truth was tinged with romance. Some, made linguists by their travels, were enabled to translate scientific books. They transported famous stories from land to land.

The best known Jewish travelers were Berachya, Charisi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Ibn Chasdai and Benjamin of Tudela.

As to the last, there is marked distinction between his reports of what he saw and what he heard. For example: He saw two copper pillars in Rome. He heard that they had been constructed by King Solomon and that they perspired annually on the 9th of Ab.

Theme for Discussion:—Someone has said that everyone is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian, the average Jew being the latter.