History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Toleration Declines in the Peninsula.


We have spoken of the Spanish Peninsula in general, but not of Portugal in particular. Like Castile and Aragon, it was first Moslem and the Jews settled in it about the same time as they settled in the neighboring Peninsular countries. We hear little of the Jews of Portugal till it was conquered by Alfonso Henriques, a Castilian, in 1139 — four years after Maimonides was born. As in the Spanish Christian Kingdoms, the early kings followed the enlightened Moorish precedent in their treatment of the Jews. Here, too, they were appointed to posts of honor, such as Ahmoxarifes, receivers of customs, and farmers of taxes, for which some Jews seemed peculiarly fitted.

Somewhat later fanatic devotees of the Church began to dictate a policy of repression; still toleration lingered here longer than in Spain. Its kings creditably resisted the harsh edicts of Innocent III, Gregory IX and their bigoted followers against the building of synagogues and the appointing of Jews as tax-farmers. They also continued to excuse them from wearing the obnoxious badge, on the payment of tithes.

Alfonso III, who came to the throne in 1246, was a particularly doughty champion of Israel. He regulated their affairs and continued to grant them a more decided autonomy than was conceded by any other European land. Right up to the end of the fourteenth century their affairs were left entirely in their own hands. The head of the community was styled "rahbi mor." His post by royal appointment was civil as well as religious. Within this small realm he had as much power as a Babylonian Resh Gelutha; he administered justice, issued decrees and made an annual circuit to investigate all the communities, accompanied by a large staff of officials and attendants. The rabbi of each of the seven provinces into which Portugal was divided was subject to him. These rabbis, whose appointment was confirmed by the king, were not only religious authorities but were also local Jewish governors, with power to judge and impose punishment in criminal cases'. From this it will be understood that the Jews lived in separate quarters, called "Juderias." But this was true of Spain also.


To return to Spain. The story of the Christian half of Spain, so far told, was carried down to the dawn of the thirteenth century; we saw it for a while even more tolerant than Moslem Spain. For it received refugees from the persecution of the Almohades, which drove the family of Maimonides to Africa.

Castile became the largest and most powerful Spanish State after Ferdinand III had united it with Leon and conquered Cordova and Seville, about 1220. But although the Jews had fought patriotically for this, their country, the clergy were beginning to fan the bigotry of the populace against them. Ferdinand, who would like to have converted them, was yet just and kind. He confirmed all their rights, and they mourned his death in Hebrew elegy.

While Alfonso X was the Infante (heir to the throne), Jews had fought under his banner. As king he was styled "The Wise." He discriminated in favor of the Jews against the Moslems — giving them their mosques for synagogues. The age was hardly broad enough for the Jews to decline them. But, then, both mosques and synagogues were all to become churches in the end. As throughout the Peninsula, Jews were appointed as State secretaries and treasurers, though not without popish rebuke. Such appointments implied probity of character as well as ability in finance.

This learned king desired to foster for his country a literature and to promote natural science. He, therefore, turned to the scholars of his realm — the Jews and their Arab followers.

The Jews' knowledge of Arabic singled them out as Dragomen (interpreters) and as translators. Treatises on the Quadrant, on quicksilver, books on the properties of metals and precious stones were turned into the vernacular; also at Alphonso's request, portions of the Talmud and Kabala. They compiled, too, for him a history of the world. So the development of this Spanish Castilian literature is largely due to the Jews.

But their most notable translations were of works on astronomy. Don Zag, a synagogue reader, who was a famous astronomer, was engaged to draw up astronomical tables. We shall hear of these "Tables of Alfonso" in connection with the discovery of America. Samuel Halevi invented a water-clock for this king. In his reign the Jews of Toledo built the largest and most beautiful synagogue in Spain.

New Laws and New Taxes.

But what is more capricious than the favor of princes? Because Don Zag surrendered the public monies to the Infante Don Sancho, he was executed and the Jewish community fined 12,000 gold marevedis. Next, the persistent nagging of the Church, like continuous dropping of water on a stone, had its ultimate effect in creating discrimination against the Jews. So, in his code of laws, Alfonso, wise though he was, was cajoled into adopting against them laws that carried protection in one clause and menace in another. Here are some provisions:

  • Jews may keep their present synagogues, but may build no new ones.
  • Christianity was not to be forced upon them; but acceptance of Judaism by a Christian was to be punished by death.
  • They were not to be summoned to a court on Jewish festivals; but they must not appear abroad on Christian festivals.

These laws did not go into effect till a later day; but their formulation facilitated their eventual enforcement.

In 1281, three years before his father's death, Sancho IV assumed the throne. By acquiring Andalusia for Castile, the flower of the Jewish community was brought under its sway and was made to feel the burden of heavy taxation.

In the Christian part of the Peninsula, a custom prevailed that found no counterpart in the Moslem half. It was the imposition, in addition to regular taxes, of a special annual payment by each Jew of thirty dineros (a local coin) in remembrance of the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot for the betrayal of Jesus. No custom could better have been instituted to keep alive prejudice and fan fanaticism.

Otherwise all seemed well. The clergy was sullen but restrained. The Dominicans bided their time. In the security of the hour, Israel continued to take heart in furthering literary and religious culture. They were thoroughly Spanish in language and custom. They held important posts. They were rich in money and land; nor did they hide their wealth. But they did not see the cloud, "no bigger than a man's hand," forming on the horizon of Castile.


Aragon took a step nearer to the less tolerant standards of the rest of Christendom. Its monarchs, following the German precedent, came to regard the Jews as theirs, with right to mulct at pleasure, though it was rarely indulged. In some towns they were confined to the leper quarter. Yet here as in Castile, they thoroughly identified themselves with the country, spoke its language and followed its customs. Their occupations were varied. For while a few distinguished themselves in finance, the bulk were engaged in agriculture, viticulture and general handicrafts.

While Ferdinand III was reigning in Castile, James I was reigning in Aragon. Both were contemporaries of Pope Innocent III, but it was only James who yielded to his demand to impose the badge, ordered by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The Jews protested, but in vain. No doubt this was due to Raymond de Penyaforte, general of the Dominican order, and the king's confessor, who induced his royal master to do penance for his sins by the humiliation of the official enemies of the Church. Yet the Jews could not have regarded James I as an unkind king, for they mourned his death, which occurred in 1276. His successor, Pedro III, exempted some Jews from wearing the badge and also confirmed the rights the Jews still retained.

Solomon ben Adret.

The Spanish outlook then was not as bright in external relations. How fared their internal relations among themselves? They were changing, too.

It was in Barcelona that Rabbi Solomon ben Adret, known by his initials Rashba, was born, in the year 1235. He was not the type of Spanish scholar we have so far been accustomed to meet. He was not a philosopher, scientist or poet, but a Talmudist. Yet a man of broader culture than the average German rabbinic scholar. Still Germany would have been his more congenial atmosphere.

He came to be regarded as the official head in Jewry and a leading authority on Jewish law. Questions came to him from the length and breadth of the Jewish world — from Italy, Africa and from distant Asia Minor. His replies to these, i.e., his Responsa, numbering some three thousand, show breadth of view, wide reading and deep thought, as well as Talmudic erudition. They became important additions to the steadily growing code of Jewish law and practise. All communities gladly accepted his suggestions, and throngs of disciples from distant lands came to sit at his feet. That Spain should become the centre of rabbinic learning shows the gradual modification in their literary and theological interests.

This "rabbi of Spain," as he was called, was a man of irreproachable integrity and strong personality. His popularity was also due to his being such a staunch champion of Israel maligned. For example, some Dominican monks studied Hebrew only that they might better attack Judaism — so painstaking is antagonism sometimes. One of these, Raymond Martin, wrote two books to prove Christianity from Jewish Scripture and Talmud. Rashba was ready with dignified and temperate replies. None the less later enemies of Israel made eager use of Martin's arguments and ignored Rashba.

He also defended Judaism against a Mohammedan criticism.

Maimonides had now been dead half a century, but the conflict still raged around his philosophy of Judaism. It was now no longer a conflict against the "Guide to the Perplexed" in particular, but against all secular study in general and especially philosophy. Rashba entered the struggle and sought peace through compromise, but his sympathies were not with the rationalists. So in 1305, a century after Maimonides' death, Rashba issued a ban against all (except medical students) who studied science and philosophy before their thirtieth year.

Verily, rationalism within as well as toleration without were steadily receding tides in Spain.


Tax-farmng:—It was an ancient custom and one still prevalent in the East, where taxes are hard and, at times, impossible to collect, to single out a man able and reliable to undertake the task, giving him military aid and full power. He guarantees a sum to the king, who troubles himself about the matter no further, and then proceeds to collect the taxes as best he can. If successful the profits are large. Jews were often engaged for the purpose, but the wealth acquired was occasionally a menace rather than an advantage.

Navarre:—Navarre, classed as a Spanish province, really belonged to France, and was permeated by the French spirit of persecution; a Jewish massacre occurred in 1328. When it became a separate kingdom, the Jewish status was somewhat improved.

Rationalists and Obscurantists:—Solomon Petit of Accho, who led the anti-Maimunist party of Germany and France, put the Moreh under the ban, and persuaded the Rabbi of Accho to burn it as a heretical work. Nor was he moved from his position by the Jews of the East, who endorsed Maimonides, and who had re-established the office of Resh Gclutha for a while. With the further opposition of Italy under the leadership of Hillel of Verona, Petit's project was defeated. But the cause was again taken up by one Abba Mari of Montpelier, the home of the less liberal, and the opponents of rationalism gained the day.

Theme for Discussion:—Was the diversion of Spanish interest from poetry and philosophy to theology and law progressive or retrogressive?