History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Under the Caliphate of Cordova

It was in 711 that the triumphant Arabians entered Spain. Treated at first as a trans-Mediterranean dependency of Northern Africa, it was later governed by Emirs, appointed by the Cahph of Damascus. When a revolution occurred in the East and a new royal house established on the Moslem throne, the dispossessed Ommeyade dynasty migrated to Spain, severed all connections with Damascus, and established the independent Caliphate of Cordova in the year 755. This Western Caliphate endured for four centuries.

From that time the greatness of Moslem Spain began. The Christian forces that had, under the great Martel, checked the northwestern advance of the Mohammedans in the battle at Tours, now suffered reverses at the hands of the new and energetic dynasty, and its first king, Abder-Rahman I, even inflicted a defeat on Charlemagne.

Arabic Scholarship and Civilization.

Remarkable as were their victories in war, — their conquests extending through Asia, Africa and Europe, with a Caliphate in each continent, — far grander were their victories in peace. Their pen was mightier than their sword. They loved learning and under the fostering encouragement of broad-minded Caliphs splendid conquests were made in unmapped realms of scholarship. Science and literature, cultivated by the highest, were also diffused among the masses. No schools excelled theirs. This spread of education reacted favorably on social conditions in general; under Abder-Rahman II (821-852) Moslem Spain was the best governed country in Europe.

His successors followed his enlightened precedent. By the time we reach Abder-Rahman III, we find the government under complete orderly organization. He established a vigilant police system and furthered commerce; great was the volume of exports and imports for those times. Art and science were diligently fostered and already in that early day a scientific method of irrigation was devised for improving the soil.

What a world of difference such an environment meant for the Jews of the Spanish Peninsula!

Under the rule of the Visigoths in the seventh century they had been taxed, banned, mutilated and exiled. Bigoted kings such as Erwig and Egica and still more bigoted bishops had imposed baptism by force and had torn children from parents to insure their complete severance from the Synagogue. All that was over now.

The Moslem hailed the Jews with almost the heartiness that his ancestors had welcomed them in Arabia before Mahomet's day. They were further sought as the possessors of knowledge for which the Arabians thirsted. Jews certainly led the way in natural science. So in addition to those already there, many refugees from inhospitable surroundings found homes in the Peninsula. The blessings of religious liberty, personal security, and social esteem were theirs. Hand in hand the Moor and the Jew made explorations in the realms of knowledge, and their united achievements kindled a light in the Peninsula that shone the more brilliantly in contrast with the sombre background of Europe's Dark Ages.

Of Israel's literary activity in the first hundred years of Moslem rule we hear little or nothing. Periods of persecution are unfavorable to literary culture; and in the generation or two immediately following, all energies were monopolized for material rehabilitation. So it was not till Abder-Rahman III, "Prince of the Faithful," became Caliph in 912 that we begin to hear of the Spanish Jew as scholar. Learned Jews were despatched to distant lands to gather books and to copy manuscripts. Soon the library of Cordova alone had 400,000 volumes. By the end of the tenth century the Spanish schools were famous throughout Europe.

From Babylon to Spain.

Just as this golden era was dawning in Spain the sun was setting in the Babylonian East. Before 950 the School of Sora had closed its doors and the last "Prince of the Exile" had closed his reign.

So the anxious rabbis sent forth four scholars of renown to their brethren west and south to gather funds for the re-establishment of the fallen School. Fate decided that these ambassadors of learning should render a service to Judaism rather than to Babylonia. In the story of their adventures it is difficult to disentangle history from tradition. Their ship being captured they were separated. Providence carried each, so runs the story, to a different land, to plant the seeds of Jewish scholarship. One was carried to Narbonne in France, another to Cairo in Egypt, a third gave a new impetus to learning in the old Jewish settlement of Kairuan in Tunis. But it is with the fourth we are most concerned.

Moses ben Chenoch.

His name was Moses ben Chenoch. The brutal captain endeavored to seize his beautiful wife. Facing the fearful alternative of death or dishonor, she readily obeyed the Jewish injunction to choose the former; and, throwing herself in the sea became a martyr to her faith. Moses and his motherless boy were brought as slaves to Cordova. Ransomed by his brethren — a sacred obligation cheerfully borne by all Jewish communities in the Middle Ages — he found his way to the Jewish Academy already established. How much it tells of the nature of this driven people that a refugee will seek his brethren in the House of Learning! But rabbinic scholarship was still of too early a growth in Spain to have attained distinction. The ragged refugee sat in the background listening to the Talmudic discussion. Modestly suggesting a criticism to the presiding rabbi, the students at once recognized that they were in the presence of a scholar. With noble self-denial the teacher said, "I can no longer be your judge and rabbi; this poor stranger should take my place." Learning was the only aristocracy recognized by the rabbis. So Moses ben Chenoch became the head of the Cordova Academy and he brought new interest to the study of the Law. As Babylonia had now become independent of the teachers of Palestine, so Spain soon became independent of those of Babylonia.

The time was most propitious. The Caliph was not only a patron of letters but a litterateur himself, a poet of no mean order. He was delighted to learn that a scholar had arrived who would give such prestige to the Spanish Academy as to make it independent of the Eastern Gaonate. It meant, among other things, that the Jews would no longer be sending their money out of the country to support foreign academies. They would spend it at home. It recalls a similar policy of Charlemagne over a century earlier.

Like their Arabian ancestors, the Moors regarded the poetic gift as the hallmark of a gentleman. So almost an ideal status was attained in so far that scholars were appointed to the highest public offices. Under such a stimulating environment the Spanish period became the classic epoch of Jewish poetry.

Seeking men of literary culture for positions of eminence, it is not surprising that under this broad-minded regime many Jews should be welcomed in the service of the State. While in Christendom they were being shut out of all public office, we shall see them taking a steadily larger part in public administration in Spain. Here was a new outlet for their intellectual capacity. The Jew as statesman had not been heard of since the Temple's fall.

Chasdai as Statesman.

The first thus chosen, who attained lasting eminence was Chasdai Ibn Shaprut. We may say he was the first Jew who made his presence felt in Europe. For in the past, distinction so far had been attained only in Asia (Palestine) and in Africa (Egypt). Chasdai was the first of a long line of Jewish litterateurs, scientists and statesmen, appearing in one European land or another in almost unbroken succession to the present day.

Chasdai was born about the year 915, twenty-three years after Saadyah saw the light in Egypt (p. 39). He was an all-round scholar. Among other things he wrote on botany "as it had never been treated before." He was first brought to the notice of Abder-Rahman II as a physician. Later his value was discovered as a linguist, for among other languages he also knew Latin — a rare acquisition for Jew or Moor then. This meant that he could act as interpreter to ambassadors from Christian lands. Then his capacity as a diplomat became evident: so with growing reliance on his ability he became not only the interpreter of the Caliph's emissaries, but one of them. This trust of the Caliph went further yet and he became confidential counselor. He was in fact an untitled vizier. He really fulfilled the cabinet functions that would now be styled Secretary of Foreign afifairs, Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was also given control of the customs. But his greater services were in the realm of diplomacy. He strengthened the relations with both Leon and Navarre. His tact saved friction between the Caliph and the German Empire.

Chasdai as Jew.

Splendid as were his services to the Moslem state, equally valuable were his services to the Jewish community. He was their representative to the State, their advocate in the hour of need — for not every Moslem was free from anti-Jewish prejudice. He corresponded with Jewish scholars in other lands and through foreign ambassadors was able to aid his brethren afar. Like many in our midst today, he believed that a religion needs a national background and that the possession of a State would give further stability and prestige to Judaism.

Hearing of the Jewish kingdom of the Chazars, he entered into correspondence with their king. It is to this correspondence that we are largely indebted for more intimate knowledge of this proselyte people. (See ch. v.)

Chasdai was largely responsible for the appointment of Moses ben Chenoch and for the importance given to the Talmudic academy. From his own purse he purchased many of its books and supported many of its scholars.

It was due to his enthusiasm and to the encouragement he rendered in all fields of learning that culture spread from Cordova through the whole province of Andalusia. The critical study of Hebrew grammar to which the Karaites had given the impetus in the Orient was transplanted to this more favorable environment. Chasdai encouraged the writing of poetry, too. Imbibing the Arabian love of verse, the Spanish Jews entered eagerly into this field, at first, but following Arabian models. Then Dunash ben Labrat introduced metre. They did not confine themselves to the Synagogue liturgy as Kalir and his school, but branched out into secular themes. So the way was prepared for the great poets yet to come.

Lucena and Granada also had their academies. The translation of the Mishna into Arabic shows that it was becoming their native tongue here as well as in the land of Saadyah; and that the Arabic version was asked for by the reigning Caliph, shows the interest of the Moors in Jewish literature.

The name Chasdai deserves to be given to this first Spanish epoch. It is worthy of notice that the spread of general culture did not lead to religious negligence — as it sometimes does — but rather to religious exaltation. It broadened the Jewish outlook without in any way lessening their spiritual earnestness.


Moslem Spain included Arabs, Berbers, also styled Moors, Egyptians and Syrians.

Caliph Alhakin II, who asked for an Arabic translation of the Bible, was a great patron of learning. He collected, it is said, a library of 400,000 volumes.

Kairnan Academy.—Kairuan (Northern Africa), whither one of the four scholars from Babylonia was said to have drifted, had already established a Jewish academy. Just as Moses ben Chenoch had been placed at the head of the Cordova school, so the refugee scholar Chushicl was made Rosh (Head) of the Kairuan academy. In this school was trained the all-round scholar Dunash, born in year 9J0. To Dunash, Kairuan owed a scientific comprehension of Judaism. This community revived the study of the Palestinian Talmud, which had been neglected for the Babylonian. But this environment was not favorable for its long maintenance as a Jewish seat of yearning.

Hewbrew Grammar.—To this period also belong Chayuj, father of Hebrew grammar, the first to grasp in its completeness the genius of the Hebrew tongue. His knowledge of Arabic enabled him to make it a comparative study.

Menachem ben Saruk, one of Chasdai's proteges, compiled a dictionary and grammar, superseding previous works of its kind.

Theme for Discussion:—Was the need for a Jewish nation greater in Chasdai's day than in ours?