History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Jews as Viziers.

Moslem Disunion.

At the end of the tenth century a conflict for the Caliphate led to civil war. The results were disastrous for the future of Moslem power in Spain; for the one Caliphate of Cordova was now split into a dozen. The Moslem had not learned that "in union there is strength." They knew how to conquer lands, but not so well how to hold them.

The chief of these minor Caliphates were Saragossa, Seville, Granada, Murcia and Toledo. (Note these places on the map at end of book). In consequence of the disturbed conditions following the civil war, many Jews left Cordova for these different principalities.

Among those who emigrated to Malaga in Granada was Samuel Ibn Nagdcla, a man on whom fell the mantle of Chasdai and of whom also we may say he was "gifted with a double portion of his spirit." As in Cordova, so here, Jews were admitted to posts of honor in the public service.

Ibn Nagdela Vizier of Granada.

Ibn Nagdela, true to classic Jewish tradition, earned his living not by his learning but by his trade. Yet fidelity to the latter won recognition for the former. Brought to the notice of the Grand Vizier by his excellent penmanship and his knowledge of tongues, he was engaged as secretary. Here in the Vizier's service his greater gifts were revealed. He won his master's confidence, and, like Chasdai, was gradually consulted on all affairs of State. On his deathbed, the vizier confessed to the king of Granada, who was lamenting his irreparable loss, that his great diplomatic success had been due to his humble Jewish secretary. What wonder, then, that the wise king should now appoint him to the vacant office of vizier, in 1027! Here was the shopkeeper raised to the position of prime minister, like Joseph of old. Upon his shoulders more than upon those of the king rested the responsibility of the State. His post was something like that of a premier of England, unlimited by Parliament.

No fact can better demonstrate the social status of the Jews under the rule of the Mohammedan Berbers in Granada than that one of their number should be raised to the highest State office. But some zealous Moslems did not like to see an Israelite placed over them — for average humanity will tolerate minorities only so long as they are kept humbly in the background. But Nagdela's graciousness disarmed his would-be enemies, and his modesty won over his rivals. So he continued in office under the next king with added powers. Here is an instance of his magnanimity: Reviled by a spice dealer in the royal presence, the irate king ordered the offender's tongue cut out. Nagdela interposed and tried the gentler method of overcoming evil with good. "I have removed his evil tongue and put a good one in its place."

On the king's death, Ibn Nagdela risked his life in support of the son, Badis, for the throne, against the rivalry of the younger brother. Since this timely aid helped to secure the kingdom to the rightful though not wholly worthy heir, it immensely increased his prestige. He now became more than ever the power behind the throne of Granada.

Ibn Nagdela as 'Nagid'

Now to consider the man in relation to his co-religionists: From the nature of his office, Nagdela had to use the formula "Mahomet, God's prophet." It is a nice question of moral discrimination as to whether he was justified as a Jew in publicly uttering that which was part of a Moslem's declaration of faith, but which in one sense a Jew could sincerely voice. Great religious teachers of all faiths may be called prophets of God. But granting he had that thought in mind, to the Moslem it meant the one prophet superseding all others.

Certainly, when it came to his practical service, he was as loyal to his co-religionists as Nagid (prince) as he was to the Moslems as vizier. To the Jewish community he was, so to speak, Resh Galutha and Gaon in one without really possessing either of those titles. But his power was exercised not in display of authority but in rendering timely aid. Very valuable was his assistance granted to students, both as patron and scholar. This versatile man found time in the midst of affairs of State to compile a Talmud manual (Mebo) explaining all technical expressions, a Talmud commentary, a treatise on grammar and a psalter for the synagogue. From his pen, too, came proverbs, philosophic essays and songs. Not a great poet, yet he wrote poetry, as did all litterateurs of that time. So, under his fostering direction, Spanish Jewish culture throve and spread.

The "Ethics of the Fathers" (a book of the Mishna) speaks of three crowns — the crown of the Law, of the priesthood and the crown of royalty; but adding that the crown of good deeds excels them all. His grateful co-religionists ascribed something of each of these to Nagdela with yet an added crown of fame. For when he died, in 1055, he left behind him that good name, "better than precious ointment," shedding lustre upon his time and lamented alike by Arab and by Jew.

Distinguished Successors.

Abu Husain Joseph Ibn Nagdela succeeded his father as vizier of Granada, and, as Nagid of the Jewish community. He, too, was a scholar and a patron of scholars but did not inherit his father's modesty. Whether it was his too marked preference for his co-religionists in his appointments or the somewhat ostentatious splendor surrounding him, he certainly aroused the antagonism of the upper classes. They even fabricated against him a charge of poisoning the prince. Humanely frustrating a project of King Badis to massacre the Arabs (opponents of the later arrived Moors), he fell still further from favor. Accused of conspiring with the enemies of Granada, he was cruelly slain, and some fifteen families shared his fate; in other towns, many were exiled. This was the first persecution in Moslem Spain.

In others of these independent Spanish provinces Jews continued to be received with favor. The Granada outbreak was but a passing wave; still such waves, revealing occasional jealousy or bigotry, might pass again and did. Saragossa also chose Jewish viziers. One, Jekuthiel Hassan, whose untimely death was immortalized in an elegy of Solomon Gabirol, the subject of the next chapter. Another, Abu-Fadhl, to tell of whom that he was a poet is almost to recount a platitude. In powerful Seville, Albalia, rabbi of the community, was court astronomer and astrologer! Astrology had not yet been expelled from the family of the sciences.

Other provinces followed the example of Seville and Saragossa. To such congenial surroundings came Isaac Alfassi of Fez to become rabbi of Lucena. He will always be remembered for his digest of Talmudic law, appropriately styled Halachoth (the term applied to Talmudic legal decisions as distinct from Agadath — the narrative portion. In this digest, more famous than any of its predecessors, he wisely omits all laws that had lost practical application.

Decline of the Moors.

Yes, all went well for Israel in Moorish Spain. But its break-up into petty principalities marks the decline of its power. So far, the advance of the resolute forces of Christendom had held back at the Pyrenees; but they were not slow to watch their advantage, while the Moors were weakening their own power by fighting among themselves.

Unfortunately for their permanent possession of Spain, the Moors contemptuously disregarded their northern neighbors in the mountains. It is always dangerous to slight an enemy. Step by step the Christian was creeping southward. When we reach the middle of the twelfth century, we will see he had acquired three kingdoms in the Peninsula — Castile, Aragon and Navarre.

For the time being the Jews also saw no alarm in these advances. The enlightened liberality of the Moslem favorably affected their northern neighbors and the three Christian nations of Spain followed the tolerant example of the Moors. But we shall later see that as their sway increased their liberality decreased.

In Christian Castile.

Alfonso VI of Castile was the most enterprising of these Christian kings. He conquered Toledo and tried to take Seville. He was broad-minded and enlightened. Finding the great capacity of the Jews so well fitted them for offices of state and the delicate diplomacy of ambassadors, he entrusted posts of honor and responsibility to them. It is true the powerful pope, Gregory VII, thundered his objections, writing that "to allow Christians to be subordinate to the Jews is the same as oppressing God's church and exalting Satan's synagogue." But Alfonso paid small heed and tried to institute equality among all his subjects.

Alarmed, at Alfonso's conquests, the Sevillian monarch. called in the aid of his Mohammedan hrethren across the Mediterranean in Africa — the Almoravides. In 1086 the Christian army was routed at Zallaka, patriotic Jews fighting on hoth sides, each group loyal to the particular government under which they were living. The Almoravides now became the ruling power in southern Spain and for a time restored Moslem prestige. Though less tolerant than the Berbers, they appointed Jews to high posts of trust. So Christendom's advance was checked; but only for a time.


Ibn Janach and Ibn Migash—Ibn Janach (990-1050), one of the exiles of Saragossa, something of a poet, notable as a physician and likewise as a biblical exegete, won renown as a master in grammatical structure of Hebrew. He went beyond the conclusions of Chayuj, his revered teacher. The science of Hebrew syntax was his creation — and the theme of his greatest work, "The Critique."

Joseph Ibn Migash (1067-1141) was a pupil and worthy successor of Alfassi.

Jewish Viziers—One critic considers that the so-called Jewish viziersand treasurers of Spain were not very dissimilar to the Hof-Juden, court Jews, of whom we hear in the eighteenth century, Graetz places them much higher.

Theme for Discussion:—In contrast with Ibn Nagdela, David Salomons and Baron Rothschild in 1848 refused to take the oath "on the true faith of a Christian" and preferred to resign their seats to which they had been elected in the English Parliament.