History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Castile's Gathering Storm.

Before the close of the thirteenth century Castile was much the largest country in the Peninsula. We find the bulk of the Spanish Jews, perhaps as many as half a million, settled in Castile and in its newly-acquired provinces. The historian Kayserling enumerates about one hundred and twenty Jewish communities here.

Jews in State Offices.

Taking up the thread of the history where we last laid it down, we see Alphonso X, known as "the Wise," partly because of his Jewish astronomical tables, succeeded successively by Sancho IV, whose reign was kindly, but, alas brief; and he by Ferdinand IV. The latter protected the Jews against oppression of the clergy in his day and continued his father's policy of choosing a Jew as his treasurer—Samuel. But Samuel was a good deal more than that. He had a decided voice in the affairs of State. Indeed, this diplomat awakened the antagonism of Maria de Molina, that clever woman who became regent from 1312 to 1319. Her opposition to Samuel was wholly personal, for she also engaged a Jewish treasurer as well as a Jewish tax-collector, and a Jewish steward. The Kabalist, Todros Abulafia, had been both her physician and financier. Her good will was further demonstrated in the defense of her Israelitish subjects against new canonical laws, and though she lowered the legal rate of interest, she would not permit the abolition of Jewish debts, though a popish bull sanctioned it.

But the growing antagonism of the Cortes of Castile was only too apparent, both in the restrictive laws they tried to pass as well as in those they succeeded in passing. Even this queen-regent found it prudent to discourage close intimacy between Jew and Gentile and endorsed the new law that Jewish men must no longer assume pretentious Christian names, nor Jewish women wear ornaments on their person. Such practices should not have been prohibited by the government nor desired by the Jews.

Prosperity had mnde the Jews indiscreet; prosperity was to hasten their downfall. The old security was gone. Foreseeing trouble in the distance, Jews began emigrating both from Castile and Aragon during the whole of the fourteenth century.

When Alphonso XI came to the throne in 1325 there was a surface improvement in Jewish conditions. Already as Infante he had chosen as treasurer Jehuda Ibn Wakhar, at whose request the right to punish their own offenders was still allowed to the rabbinate. It was not always wisely used by Ibn Wakhar, for he was under the severe and gloomy influence of Asheri. With this rabbi's endorsement, a blasphemous tongue was removed and the face of an immoral woman disfigured.

Even Alphonso's protection of the Jews against the spreading antagonism was ultimately disastrous. When he chose Joseph Benveniste as his treasurer, it simply deepened the jealous hatred against a people who had become so successful. It looks as though Israel's success would mean their disaster. When the Christians had been few and weak in Spain and the Moors many and strong, the former had been friendly enough to the Jews; but as the Moors steadily receded under the triumphant advance of Christian arms, the clergy made no effort to conceal their hatred of the Jews and began openly to foment the passions of the populace against the wealth and influence of these "enemies of Christ." When a quarrel arose between Joseph Benveniste, the royal treasurer, and Samuel Ibn Wakhar, the royal physician, both were accused of enriching themselves at the royal expense. The former died in prison, the latter under torture.

Although the timely financial aid of Jews in a war with Granada retained them in the royal favor, and Gonzalo Martinez, a later Haman, who would have wiped out all Israel, met Haman's fate and was executed, still—even Alphonso favored their conversion, cancelled a quarter of their outstanding debts, and forbade their practice of lending money at high rates of interest.

Pedro the Cruel.

Alphonso XI died of the black plague and was succeeded by his son, Pedro, in the year 1350, at the early age of sixteen. He was called "the Cruel," though the Jews found him kind. Nicknames were often given then for accidental reasons that were not always a reflex of true character. Pedro's was a sad story of neglected childhood, a struggle against the conspiracies of his half-brother and the arrogant grandees of the realm, which ultimately broke out into civil war. Forced into an uncongenial marriage with a Bourbon princess, he neglected her and thus earned the enmity of her house.

The common people and the Jews were his staunch friends. For them he was Pedro the Just. A Jewish poet, Santob de Carrion, wrote in his honor some dedicatory verses, "Counsels and Lessons." Pedro made Samuel Levi his treasurer, advisor and confidential companion. Levi succeeded in increasing the royal revenues and acquired immense power. He built a synagogue in Toledo, still existing—as a church. Pedro also chose a Jewish physician and astrologer and would not listen to those who asked him to abolish the right of Jewish jurisdiction in their own affairs. Surrounding himself by Jews, the Spanish spoke derisively of his "Jewish court." Turn of fortune brought Samuel Levi's downfall, but the Jews remained loyal to their king. This meant that his enemies became theirs. Pedro's imprisonment of his wife alienated much sympathy and his relatives became his most bitter opponents. As his friendliness to the Jews was regarded as an offence in itself, they became involved in the tragedy of his home.

Civil War and Jewish Massacre.

In the civil war that followed, Don Henry, his illegitimate brother and conspirator for the throne, was supported by the "White Company," under Bertrand de Guesclin—a band of mercenaries. But most fighting was done by hired mercenaries in those days. Savagely did they glut their lust for Jewish blood when in 1355 they invaded the Juderia (Jewish quarter) of Toledo. For the moment Henry was conqueror and Pedro routed; but his cause was endorsed by the "Black Prince" of England, and it became Henry's turn to flee, only to return again with the departure of the "Black Prince" and become the final conqueror.

The Jews were loyal to Pedro to the last and had to pay dearly for their staunch allegiance both in money and blood—for the insurgents on both sides indiscriminately destroyed many of their communities. Henry, particularly, wreaked his enmity on them just because they were the royal favorites, putting two or three communities to the sword. Samuel Levi died on the rack, his vast fortune confiscated. In the siege, the Jews of Toledo suffered all the unspeakable horrors of famine. Nearly eight thousand perished. The tax imposed upon the survivors was practically spoliation, and Toledo, the Jerusalem, of the West, did not contain as many hundred souls at the end of the reign of Henry as it had contained thousands at the beginning of the reign of Pedro. Those of Burgos had to sell the Torah ornaments to pay the fine imposed by Don Henry. The Jewish massacres continued till 1366. The hapless Pedro was slain. At his death the Pope said: "The Church must rejoice at the death of such a tyrant, ally of Jews and Moors." What a picture of the times that kind of condemnation reveals!

Alas, the golden age of Spain was over. Henry II, the fratricide, became king in 1369. From this time on intermittent persecution marks the history of Israel in Spain till its close. The usurper taxed the already plundered Jews to pay his mercenaries. They were to be imprisoned and tortured until they paid. Loyalty to Pedro came high! Yet, how strange that even King Henry found it advisable to engage some of the very people he had spurned and slain as financial advisers and tax-collectors—so valuable was their expert service to the State. Aye, he who had begun this war largely as a campaign against the Jews, later expressed his admiration for their fidelity. So, while following his own wishes, Joseph Pichon was made the chief tax-collector and Samuel Abarbanel was appointed to another financial post; yet, yielding to the clergy, he forced the Jews into religious "disputations," and yielding to the Cortes, he imposed the hated badge, which they had resisted since its first institution in 1215.

Later Scholars.

The intellectual decline of Castilian Israel was almost as sad as that of their fallen fortunes. It was due in part to the crusade against science and philosophy by the anti-Maimunistic school from within the fold and in part to the social and political difficulties from without. Yet Spain produced a few great scholars before the night shut down on Jewry. It is pleasing to turn for a while from these scenes of hostility and rapine to the scholarly quiet of the study. Here the Jew found his truer function.

Two scholars in particular were Isaac ben Sheshet and Chasdai Crescas, both of whom were born in Aragon. They were recognized as the Jewish authorities of their times in Spain, France and adjacent lands.

Isaac ben Sheshet belonged in spirit to the circle of Ben Adret, of whom he was a disciple, though he was not an opponent of secular study or of broad culture. He was an authority on rabbinic law first and last. He was rabbi of Saragossa till 1391 and rabbi of Algiers, his place of refuge, after that fatal year. From this severely rigid, but thoroughly upright man, we have a collection of 417 Responsa, many of which were incorporated in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Law) of a later day.

Chasdai Crescas, by far the greater scholar, was born in Barcelona in the year 1340. Socially he was a man of wealth in close relation with the Court, and was consulted by the grandees of the State. A man of deep faith, he wrote a polemic against Christianity, really an apologia (defense) for Judaism. We have seen Jewish scholars for the most part fall into two groups—interpreters of the Law and expounders of philosophy. Crescas, like Maimonides, was both. It was rather remarkable at that time when the lines between the traditional and rationalistic schools were being so tightly drawn, to find a man a great Talmudist and at the same time a great philosopher. His chief work was Or Adonai ("Light of the Lord").

We have space here only to outline the six fundamental doctrines of Judaism that he regards as presupposed by revealed faith: Divine omniscience; Providence; divine omnipotence; prophecy; freedom of will; purpose of the world's creation:—

  1. God's Omniscience: His knowledge differs in kind as well as degree from that of man, so that we cannot draw inference one from the other. (We might quote here the words of Isaiah, "as high as the heavens are above the earth so are the ways [knowledge] of God above the ways of man.") But, declares Crescas, God's knowledge of the future does not affect human free-will.
  2. Providence reaches all God's creatures. It involves rewards and punishments and a hereafter. Even punishment shows God's love, for it is salutary.
  3. Omnipotence: God's power is infinite, even to the extent of being unhampered by natural law. Hence Crescas found no difficulty in believing in miracles. He with all Jewish philosophers accepts the doctrine "creatio ex nihilo" (creating all things out of nothing). This was, as already pointed out, distinctly opposed to the teaching of Aristotle of the eternity of matter.
  4. Prophecy: Prophecy was the highest degree of human intellectuality. Communion with God is reached by love rather than by knowledge. He makes the same statement with regard to immortality and human perfection.
  5. Freedom of will is limited by the law of causation which we can never escape. Yet we are responsible creatures. Freedom of choice is ours to a degree. The will operates as a free agent when considered alone, but in relation to remote causes acts by necessity.
  6. Creation's purpose: The recognition of purpose and final aim in the universe is not philosophy's concern, but it is the supreme concern of religion. Crescas declares that the purpose of the world's creation is human happiness. It is the soul's striving after union with God, which continues with still deeper intensity in the life beyond.

Chasdai Crescas was a kind and loyal friend in times of need. When the dark days came, the weak found in him a staunch defender. All his energies were devoted to mitigate the disasters of 1391. Of these disasters he was an eye witness and chronicler, and in them he lost his son. To their sad narration we shall presently come.

We may pass quickly over the series of events that culminated in that black year, of which we may say with Job, "may it be blotted from the calendar; let the darkness of the shadow of death claim it for its own."

The Censure of Alami.

The steady decline of the secure position of the Jews and the introduction of repressive laws under clerical compulsion grew more rapid as they advanced. Possibly opposition to the Jews was not wholly sectarian. Their wealth awakened jealousy and the ostentation of some may have deepened a popular aversion already there. A moralist of the time, one Solomon Alami, speaks scathingly of these failings of Spanish Israel. He tells of their palaces, their gorgeous equipages, their rich apparel, their singers and their dancers, the idleness of their leisure classes, their neglect of Jewish study, and the avoidance of the rabbinate in the choice of careers for their children.

It is true that this kind of denunciation can be brought with more or less truth against the leisure classes in society of all ages. It is also true that the wealthy and ostentatious were the few while the humble were the many, none the less it would indicate that prosperity had not left the Spanish Jews unspoiled, and that these mild frailties exaggerated by clerical slander into grave sins, might easily apply the explosive spark to a smouldering animosity. When we turn to the domestic life of the Spanish Jews, they stand in favorable comparison with their surroundings. Certainly the rabbis of the synagogue were pure-minded men while, according to its own chroniclers, the priests of the Church were venal and their corrupting influence was dangerously affecting the masses.

Deprived of Criminal Jurisdiction.

An unfortunate instance now occurred showing that the Jews occasionally abused the criminal jurisdiction granted them, which included the carrying out, with the royal sanction, of the death penalty. This power had once or twice before been taken from them, perhaps because not impartially used. In 1379, Joseph Pichon, of Seville, became embroiled in a dispute with some Jewish courtiers jealous of his power. The Jewish court obtained consent from the new king for his execution as a traitor, but without mentioning his name. He was accordingly put to death. Although the charge may have been true, the high-handed procedure created a bad impression in Seville and awakened the indignation of the king. The parties concerned were executed; criminal jurisdiction was taken from the Jewish courts, never more to be restored.

Some of the old Visigothic restrictions of pre-Moslem days were now revived and imposed. With their institution the change of the status of the Spanish Jew from one of honor and security to one of humiliation and danger was rapid. By the latter part of the fourteenth century their condition in Castile was hardly better than that of their brethren in Germany; but with this important difference. The status of the German Jews never had been enviable. It was always one of sufferance and subjection. They expected repression and adapted themselves to it. But the best of the Spanish Jews were the social and political leaders—an aristocracy, people of means, culture and commanding position. To strip them of all public prestige, to keep them at arm's length, by law, to put a badge upon them, to bait them in the streets, to speak of them contemptuously in the pulpits—meant humiliation almost insupportable. Not only that, but even their lives were no longer secure in the public highways. Lawless attacks upon Jews and their property came to be the order of the day. Kings could no longer engage them as their treasurers, even if they would.

The Year 1391.

The climax of catastrophe came with the frenzied anti-Jewish preachings of a bigoted priest, Ferdinand Martinez, who soon had a mob behind him, thirsting for Jewish blood. At the death of Juan in 1390, a mere boy became king, and a condition of disorder consequently prevailed. The demagogue took advantage of the unsettled situation to launch his most terrific onslaught. It was on March 15, 1391, that he openly urged the mob to attack the Jews. The Council of Regents appealed to, could do little to quell passions so inflamed—they could but delay the attack some three months. Then the storm burst.

The Jewish quarter of Seville was burnt, four thousand souls were slain, and the majority spared only by baptism. Cordova became a shambles and fanatic hatred turned men into brutes. Women and children were sold into slavery, and synagogues were turned into churches. The robbery and plunder spread through Spain from Jaen to Toledo, from Ecija, whose archbishop was chief instigator to Burgos—seventy communities in all. Only fear of armed reprisal prevented a similar massacre of the Moors, that had been contemplated.

The contagion of fanaticism soon spread and the same fate was meted out to Jews in Valencia, Navarre, Catalonia, Majorca and Aragon, and the same story repeated—the minority was slain, the majority saved by conversion. Many were spared by the sacrifice of their wealth. In Barcelona, Chasdai's son was one of the martyrs. For three months savagery wielded the sword. Portugal alone was spared by the energy of the king.

So the proud Spanish Jews were brought down to the dust, and all anti-Jewish laws were now carried out with new severity. It is true that Aragon punished some marauders, but Castile canonized the instigator. Some Jews took refuge in Moorish Spain, in Malaga, Almeria and Granada.

But this was not the worst. Those Jews, now forced to a life of disguise and known as Neo-Christians or Maranos, became a menace to the Church as well as to the Synagogue, and were the indirect cause of the ultimate expulsion of the Jews from Spain.


Jewish Influence:—The power of the Jews of the Peninsula prior to this time is indicated by the fact that a king lost the Portuguese crown by refusing to appoint as the chief rabbi of Castile a candidate of the queen-regent, Leonora.

Crescas:—Crescas was neglected by the Jews generally, but a popularization of his work by Joseph Albo was largely studied. The acceptance of the imitation and the neglect of the original master recalls the similar experience of Ibn Janach as against Kimchi.

Jewish Astronomers:—Just as Alfonso X's "wisdom" was due to Don Zag's astronomical tables, so his royal nephew, Juan Manuel, reaped the credit of another Jew's wisdom—Moses Zacuto.

"Light of the Lord":—The aim of this work was to liberate Judaism from bondage to the Aristotelian School. In this respect Crescas is an ally of conservatism as against Maimonides and Gersonides. But unlike the anti-Maimunists, who condemned philosophy as such, he met his opponents on their own ground and fought them with their own philosophic weapons. We might compare him to Saadyah, who also defended the conservative point of view on philosophic grounds in the days when the Karaites were the rationalists.

Theme for Discussion:—Contrast the opinions of Gersonides and Crescas on Omniscience, Providence and Prophecy.