Golden Haggadah cleaning, from 1320

During the Middle Ages, most Jews lived in Christian Europe. Over time the Jews spread into central and western Europe, especially Spain. After the Norman conquests, they reached England Some immigrated eastward into Asia. Babylon became an important Jewish center. Yemen was actually a Jewish kingdom for much of the 5th and 6th centuries. Small communities reached India and China. Their migration around the world help set up trade and communications links between isolated and far flung places.

Paul Halsall of Fordham University wrote: “Medieval Jewish communities were self-governing entities, generally allowed by secular rulers to govern themselves according to Jewish law, within certain limits which varied over time and between kingdoms. Their autonomy vis a vis other communities was in principle absolute; Jewish political theory did not allow one community authority over another. When it came to decisions about taxation or disputes between members of the community, this autonomy was valued greatly. The drawbacks of autonomy became more obvious, however, in times of crisis, when the advantages of collective action on a larger scale became obvious. [Source:]

Jews were massacred or expelled as part the crusades movement. When Jerusalem was taken in 1099, the banner of Christ was raised above the Temple Mount and Jews were driven into synagogues and burnt. Corpses were reported to be knee-high and bood flowed down the Valley of Kidorn. William of Tyre wrote, "I roused horror in all who looked upon [it]. Muslims and Jews that survived were captured and sold into slavery. During 87 years of Crusader rule Jerusalem Judaism was banned.

In the 9th century the Khazars, a Turkic tribe in Russia, converted en masse to Judaism. The Khazar Khan Turk Bulan underwent a ritual circumcision. Some say the conversion was as much of political move by the Khazars — to distance themselves from the Christian Byzantines and Muslim Arabs — as a religious one. Some attribute the Khazar’s conversion to the influence of the people that became known as Mountain Jews of the Caucasus. There were many Jewish aristocrats, merchants and advisors from the Caucasus in the Khazar court before the Khazars converted.

As for Judaism itself, the Middle Ages were a time when the laws generated in the Biblical and rabbinic period were interpreted and Jews sought to understand their meanings. The process was similar to what occurred in Italy during the Renaissance, when Greek philosophy was rediscovered and applied with rigorousness and enthusiasm. Reasoning and providing rational proof were the objective with Aristotelean thought providing a primary model over the neo-Platonists.

It has been argued that the Middle Ages for Jews continued into the 18th century because persecution and isolation kept them from enjoying the fruits of the Renaissance and the enlightenment.

Websites and Resources: Judaism Judaism101 ; ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ; Chabad,org ; Religious Tolerance ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica,; Virtual Jewish Library ; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ;

Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish ; Holocaust Museum ; Jewish Museum London ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL)

Creation of Judaism

20120504-Torah open ii.jpg
The evolution from Hebraism (a religion based only on the scriptures of the Old Testament) to Judaism (with rabbis and religion doctrine interpreted by these rabbis) was a slow transformation that began in the destruction of the Second Temple (A.D. 70) and the compilation of the “Mishnah” (Judaism’s first major canonical document following the Bible) in the A.D. second century. During this time Judaism absorbed new ideas and faced new problems, many resulting from war and dislocation.

Alexandria was a center of Jewish intellectual life as well as Greek, Roman and Christian intellectual thought. Jewish scholars such as Philo of Alexandria were deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, which helped them find a vocabulary and ideas to address some of the more abstract concepts of their religion especially when it came to God. By contrast scholars that stayed close to their roots in Palestine stayed truer to the Bible and conceptualized God in more human and anthropomorphic terms. The evolution of these two methods of approaching Judaism led to articulation of the more mysterious aspects of Judaism and a codification of its laws. The creation of Judaism was the work of rabbis who reconstructed the religion of the Jews by interpreting the Torah in a world without a Temple based on oral traditions, families and synagogues. The record of these rabbis formed the basis for the Mishnah and the Talmud.

In the Middle Ages there were many Jewish sects. In some cases each had its own Talmud. In time the the Babylonian Talmud predominated over the others. These were later organized into codes of which the code of Maimonides (1135-1204) and Joseph Caro (1488-1575), known as “Shulchan Aruch”, became the most important.

Maimonides and Other Jewish Philosophers

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) is regarded as the greatest Torah scholar, the most important medieval Jewish philosopher and the most influential rationalist thinker of Judaism. He is the author of “The Guide to the Perplexed” and the Thirteen Articles of Faith and the source of many Talmudist and Rabbinic laws. Both Maimonides and the Muslim philosopher and scientist Averroes were born in the Spanish city of Cordova and it is said that they became good friends.

Maimonides was a physicians and polymath. He advocated rationalism and was an admirer of Greek philosophy. He was both a clever Aristotlean thinker and believer that all fundamental truths can be found in the Torah. His ideas however were quite controversial and split Judaism into two camps.

The Thirteen Articles of Faith of Maimonides are regarded as the basic dogma of Judaism. They are: 1) The existence of God, the Creator of All Things; 2) His absolute unity; 3) His incorporeality; 4) His eternity; 5) The obligation to serve and worship him alone; 6) The existence of prophecy; 7) The superiority of the Prophecy of Moses above all others; 8) The “Torah” is God’s revelation to Moses; 9) “The Torah” is immutable; 10) God’s omniscience and foreknowledge; 11) Rewards and punishments according to one’s deeds; 12) The coming of the Messiah; 13) The resurrection of the dead.

Bahya ibn Pakuda (Spain,11th century) was another famous Jewish thinker. In his book “Duties of the Heart” he espoused asceticism, denounced giving into one’s desires and developed a kind of Jewish Sufism and brought it to a large audience.

There was a famous series of theological debates between priests and rabbis in the 13th and 14th century sponsored by the Catholic church. They were a no-win situation for Jews. If they lost they lost if they won they risked being lynched by a mob. A famous duel between a Jewish convert to Christianity named Pablo Christian and Nachmanides of Girona, the most famous Talmudic scholar of his generation, took place in Barcelona in 1283. Nachmanides performed so well he was charged with blasphemy and forced to leave the country.

Yehudah Halevi

Yehudah Halevi (1080-1141?) is a great rabbi-poet and Jewish thinker who approached Judaism from a different perspective and is also considered one of the greatest Jewish poets. Born in Spain, he spent much of life in Palestine. In his work he stressed an intense, deeply personal love of God, fealty to the Jewish community and a desire for divine communion.

Halevi was a outgoing physician and court poet. He wrote religious verse and secular poems and were liked by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Many of his poems dealt with spirituality, alienation and the longing for a homeland. Some of his poems, such as “Ode to Zion”, are still fixtures of Jewish religious services.

Halevi’s philosophical book “Kuzari” is in the form of dialogue with the king of the Khazars. It explored things like the difference between the God of Aristotle (a bloodless abstraction) and the God of Abraham (a living god experienced through personal revelation) and reconciled reason, history, love and religion.

One Halevi poem goes:

“ Lord Where shall I find thee? High and hidden is they place; And where shall I not fond thee? The world is full of thy glory” .


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Kabbalah Tree of Life
from Medieval times
The Kabbalah is the name given to Jewish mystical knowledge passed down orally from generation to generation and hinted at in the Talmud. It is concerned with finding hidden meaning in the Scriptures, reaching elevated planes and ecstatic states, delving into magic, and speculating on the coming of the Messiah. Kabbalah has been compared to Sufism, Islamic mysticism. The word Kabbalah roughly means “esoteric tradition” and more precisely “what is receives,” a reference to Moses receiving the laws of God at Mt. Sinai, and a word widely used on modern Israel to describe the reception desk at hotels, among other things.

Despite claims that Kabbalah is a form of mystical teaching practiced by Moses it in fact has it origins in medieval Europe. In 13th century Spain and southern France, Jewish scholars claimed they possessed secret scriptural knowledge that had originated with Moses and had been passed down orally over the centuries. These scholars and exegetes, later known as kabbalists, were focused primarily on two sections of the Torah that were forbidden by the Talmud to be discussed publically. The first is the description of Creation in Genesis and the second is a description in the Book of Ezekial of Ezekial’s vison of a cosmic chariot.

“The World of Emanations” , a complex organization consisting of ten hierarchically-arranged “sefirot” (variously described as potencies, emanations, arteries. potentialities or foci), was described in the 12th century (See Below). The Zohar, Kabbalah’s main text, was written in the 13th century.

Kabbalah emerged at a time when Judaism was dominated by rabbis who set rigid, detailed laws that all Jews were expected to follow unquestioningly. Judaism at that time was based in moral rationalism and included a code of ethics. It emphasized the primacy of charity and discredited esoteric beliefs and pursuing deep issues such as the meaning of God. Kabbalists sought not only to define and characterize God but also to tap into his spiritual and cosmological power, a pursuit regarded by purists as heretical.

Kabbalists first scrutinized non-Kabbalist Jewish texts and came up with elaborate and complex models of the cosmos based on interpretations of these texts. They described the kingdom of heaven and how humans could transcend their own being and “face God in his glory.”

See Separate Section on the Kabbalah

Rabbinic Judaism and Development of the Talmud

Maimonides' teaching
Rabbinic Period from A.D. 66 to 500
66-73: First Jewish Revolt against Rome.
69: Vespasian gives Yochanan ben Zakkai permission to establish a Jewish center for study at Yavneh that will become the hub for rabbinic Judaism.
70: Destruction of Jerusalem and the second Temple,
73: Last stand of Jews at Masada.
ca. 90-100: Gamaliel II excludes sectarians (including Christians) from the synagogues.
ca. 90-150: Writings (third and last division of Jewish Scriptures) discussed and accepted as sacred scripture.
114-117: Jewish Revolts against Rome in Cyprus, Egypt and Cyrene. The Great Synagogue and the Great Library in Alexandria are destroyed as well as the entire Jeiwsh community of Cyprus. Afterwards, Jews were forbidden on Cyprus.
120-135: Rabbi Akiva active in consolidating Rabbinic Judaism.
132-135: Bar Kokhba rebellion (Second Jewish Revolt). Roman forces kill an estimated half a million Jews and destroy 985 villages and 50 fortresses.
136: Hadrian renames Jerusalem Aelia Capatolina and builds a Pagan temple over the site of the Second Temple. He also forbids Jews to dwell there. Judea (the southern portion of what is now called the West Bank) was renamed Palaestina in an attempt to minimize Jewish identification with the land of Israel.
[Source: Fordham University,]

138-161: Antoninus Pius, Hadrian's sucessor, repeals many of the previously instituted harsh policies towards Jews.
193-211: Roman emperor Lucious Septimus Severus treats Jews relatively well, allowing them to participate in public offices and be exempt from formalities contrary to Judaism. However, he did not allow the Jews to convert anyone
ca. 200: Mishnah (Jewish oral law) compiled/edited under Judah the Prince.
203: Because of his health, Judah HaNasi relocates the center of Jewish learning from Beth Shearim to Sepphoris.
212: Roman Emperor Caracalla allows free Jews within the empire to become full Roman citizens.
220: Babylonian Jewish Academy founded at Sura by Rab.
Amoraim, or Mishna scholars, flourish. The Amoraim's commentary, along with the Mishna, comprises the Talmud.
222-235: Emperor Alexander Severus allowed for a revival of Jewish rights, including permission to visit Jerusalem.

ca. 250: Babylonian Jews flourish (as does Manichaeism) under Persian King Shapur I.
306: One of the first Christian councils, the Council of Elvira, forbids intermarriage and social interaction with Jews.
315: Code of Constantine limits rights of non-Christians, is Constantine's first anti-Jewish act.
359: Hillel creates a new calendar based on the lunar year to replace the dispersed Sanhedrin, which previously announced the festivals.
368: Jerusalem Talmud compiled.
370-425: Hillel founds Beit Hillel, a school emphasizing tolerance and patience. Hillel, a descendant of King David, is one of the first scholars to devise rules to interpret the Torah.
410: Rome sacked by Visigoths.
425: Jewish office of Nasi/Prince abolished by Rome.
426: Babylonian Talmud compiled.
439: Theodosis enacts a code prohibiting Jews from holding important positions involving money. He also reenacts a law forbidding the building of new synagogues.
Babylonian Talmud recorded. After conquering Italy in 493, Ostrogoth king Theodoric issues an edict safeguarding the Jews and ensuring their right to determine civil disputes and freedom of worship.


Rabbinic Judaism (A.D. 1 - 70): According to the BBC: “The Rabbis encouraged the Jewish people to observe ethical laws in all aspects of life, and observe a cycle of prayer and festivals in the home and at synagogues. This involved a major rethink of Jewish life. Although the Temple still stood, its unique place as the focus of Jewish prayer and practice was diminished. Many synagogues had been founded in Palestine and right around the Jewish Diaspora. Great teaching academies were founded in the first century BCE with scholars discussing and debating God's laws. The most well known of the early teachers were Hillel, and his contemporary Shammai. [Source: BBC |::|]

“Mishna and Talmud (A.D. 200 - 700): Between 200 and 700 CE Judaism developed rapidly. Following the twin religious and political traumas, the academies moved to new centres both in Palestine and in the Diaspora. A sense of urgency had taken hold and it was considered vital to write down the teachings of the Rabbis so that Judaism could continue. Around 200 CE, scholars compiled the Mishna, the collection of teachings, sayings and interpretations of the early Rabbis. The academies continued their work and several generations of Rabbis followed. Their teachings were compiled in the Talmud which expands on the interpretations of the Mishna and established an all-encompassing guide to life.|::|

“The Talmud exists in two forms. The first was finalised around the 3rd century CE in Palestine, and the second and superior version was completed during the 5th century CE in Babylon. During this period Jews were allowed to become Roman citizens, but later were forbidden to own Christian slaves or to marry Christians. In 439 CE the Romans banned synagogue building, and barred Jews from official jobs.”

Consolidation & Dominance of Christianity (A.D. 325-590)

Consolidation & Dominance of Christianity (A.D. 325-590)
325: Christian First Ecumenical Council, at Nicea (Asia Minor), changes the date of Easter from Passover and forbids Jews from owning Christian slaves or converting pagans to Judaism.
330: Jerusalem becomes part of Constantine's Byzantine Empire.
ca. 325-420: Jerome (Christian author, translator).
339: Constantine forbids intermarriage with Jews and the circumcision of heathen or Christian slaves, declaring death as the punishment.
354-430: Augustine (Christian author in North Africa).
359: Hillel creates a new calendar based on the lunar year to replace the dispersed Sanhedrin, which previously announced the festivals.
[Source: Fordham University,]

368: Jerusalem Talmud compiled.
370-425: Hillel founds Beit Hillel, a school emphasizing tolerance and patience. Hillel, a descendant of King David, is one of the first scholars to devise rules to interpret the Torah.
380/391: Christianity becomes THE religion of Roman Empire.
401: Christianity takes root in Gaza thanks to Bishop Porphyry.
410: Rome sacked by Visigoths.
415: St. Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, champions violence against the city's Jews and incites the Greeks to kill or expel them. Some Jews return within a few years, but many return only after the Muslims conquer Egypt.
425: Jewish office of Nasi/Prince abolished by Rome.
426: Babylonian Talmud compiled.
439: Theodosis enacts a code prohibiting Jews from holding important positions involving money. He also reenacts a law forbidding the building of new synagogues.

451: Christian Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.
500: After conquering Italy in 493, Ostrogoth king Theodoric issues an edict safeguarding the Jews and ensuring their right to determine civil disputes and freedom of worship.
501: An earthquake hits Israel, partially destroying Acre and incuring damage as far east as Jersusalem.
511: Rebellion leader Mar Zutra usurps power from Kobad the Zenduk, establishing an independant Jewish state in Babylon that would last for seven years, until Zutra's forces defeated Zutra's army, killing him and instituted a harsh policy toward the remaining Jews.
516: Southern Arabian king Ohu Nuwas adopts Judaism, possibly as a rampart against the spread of Christianity. King Eleboas of Abyssinia, with the help of Justin I, later defeated Nuwas.
519: After Ravenna residents burnt down local synagogues, Ostrogoth ruler Theodoric orders the Italian town to rebuild the synagogues at their own expense.
587: Recared of Spain adopts Catholicism, banning Jews from slave ownership, intermarriage and holding positions of authority. Recared also declares that children of mixed marriages be raised Christian.
570: Birth of Prophet Muhammad, Makkah.
590: Pope Gregory the Great formulates the official Papal policy towards Jews, objecting to forced baptism and tolerating them according to the previous council's regulations.

Jews in the Medieval Period in Europe (A.D. 600-1500)

Jews in the Medieval Period in the West (A.D. 600-1500)
610: Visigothic ruler Sesbut prohibits Judaism after several anti-Jewish edicts are ignored. Exiled Jews return to Byzantine Spain under Sesbut's successor, Swintilla.
614: Persian General Romizanes captures Jerusalem and allows Jews to run the city. At this time, aproximately 150,000 Jews are living in 43 settlements in Eretz-Israel.
617: The Persians renege on their promises and forbid Jews to settle within a three mile radius of Jerusalem.
638: Although Chintilla decrees that only Catholics are permitted to live in Visogoth Spain, many Jews continue to live there.
638: Islamic conquest of Jerusalem.
682: Visigoth King Erwig continues oppression of Jews, making it illegal to practice any Jewish rites and pressing for the conversion or emigration of the remaining Jews.
691: First account of Jews in England.

712: Jews help Muslim invaders capture Spain, ending Visogoth rule and beginning a 150 year period of relative peace, in which Jews were free to study and practice religion as they wished.
722: In the wake of a narrow military defeat over Muslim forces, Leo III of Constantinople decided his nation's weakness lay in its heterogenious population, and began the forcible conversion of the Jews, as well as the "New Christians." Most converted under Leo III clandestinely continued their Jewish practices.
1040: Birth of Rashi.
1066: In the wake of the Norman conquest of England, Jews left Normandy and settled in London and later in York, Norwich, Oxford, Bristol and Lincoln.
1078: Pope Gregory VII prohibited Jews from holding offices in Christendom.
1086-1145: The greatest Hebrew poet of his time, Judah Halevi.
1090: Iban Iashufin, King of the Almoravides, captured Granada and destroyed the Jewish community, the survivors fled to Toledo.
1095: Henry IV of Germany, who granted Jews favorable conditions whenever possible, issued a charter to the Jews and a decree against forced baptism.
1131: Birth of Rambam.

Marror artichoke from the Sarajevo Haggadah

1171: In the town of Blois, southwest of Paris, Jews are falsely accused of committing ritual murder ( (killing of a Christian child) and blood libel. The adult Jews of the city are arrested and most are executed after refusing to convert. Thirty-one or 32 of the Jews are killed. The Jewish children are forcibly baptized.
1210: Group of 300 French and English rabbis make aliyah and settle in Israel.
1215: The Church's Fourth Lateran Council decrees that Jews be differentiated from others by their type of clothing to avoid intercourse between Jews and Christians. Jews are sometimes required to wear a badge; sometimes a pointed hat.
1227-1274: Christian theologian, who called for the slavery of all Jews, Saint Thomas Aquinas.
1229: King Henry III of England forced Jews to pay half the value of thier property in taxes.

1242: Burning of the Talmud in Paris.
1244: Tartars capture Jerusalem.
1253: King Henry III of England ordered Jewish worship in synagogue to be held quietly so that Christians passing by do not have to hear it. e also ordered that Jews may not employ Christian nurses or maids, nor may any Jew prevent another from converting to Christianity.
1254: French King Louis IX expelled the Jews from France, ending the Tosaphists period. Most Jews went to Germany and further east.
1255: Seeing himself as the "master of the Jews," King Henry II of England transferred his rights to the Jews to his brother, Richard, for 5,000 marks.
1267: In a special session, the Vienna city council forced Jews to wear the Pileum cornutum, a cone-shaped headress prevelent in many medieval woodcuts illustrating Jews. This form of distinctive dress was an additon to badge Jews were forced to wear.
1267: Ramban (Nachmanides) arrives 1275: King Edward of England banned usury and unsuccessfully encouraged Jews in agriculture, crafts and local trades. He also forced Jews over the age of seven to wear an indentifying badge.
1282: The Archbishop of Canterbury, John Pectin, ordered all London synagogues to closed and prohibited Jewish physicians from practicing on Christians.
1285: Blood libel in Munich, Germany results in the death of 68 Jews. An additional 180 Jews are burned alive at the synagogue.
1287: A mob in Oberwesel, Germany kills 40 Jewish men, women and children after a ritual murder accusation.
1290: Bowing political pressure, English King Edward I expels the Jews from England. They were only allowed to take what they could carry and most went to France, paying for thier passage only to be robbed and cast overboard by the ship captains.
1306: Philip IV orders all Jews expelled from France, with their property to be sold at public auction. Some 125,000 Jews are forced to leave.

1321: Similar to accusations made during the Black Plague, Jews were accused of encouraging lepers to poison Christian wells in France. An estimated five thousand Jews were killed before the king, Philip the Tall, admitted the Jews were innocent.
1321: Henry II of Castile forces Jews to wear yellow badges.
1322: Charles IV of France expels all French Jews without the one year period he had promised them.
1348-1349: Much of Europe blames the Black Plague on the Jews and tortured to confess that they poisoned the wells. Despite the pleas of innocence of Pope Clement VI, the accusations resulted in the destruction of over 60 large and 150 small Jewish communities.
1348: Basle burns 600 Jews at the stake and forcibly baptizes 140 children, expelling the city's other Jews. The city's Christian residents convert the synagogue into a church and destroy the Jewish cemetery.
1348: Pope Clement VI issues an edict repudiating the libel against Jews, saying that they too were suffering from the Plague.

Jews accused of poisoning wells during the Great Plague

1360: Samuel ben Meir Abulafia is arrested and tortured to death by King Pedro without any explination. The king also confiscated his great wealth. 1385-1386: German Emperor Wenceslaus arrests Jews living in the Swabian League, a group of free cities in S. Germany, and confiscates their books. Later, he expelled the Jews of Strassburg after a community debate.
1386: Emperor Wenceslaus expelles the Jews from Strassbourg and confiscate their property.
1389: After a priest was hit with some sand from a few small Jewish boys playing in the street, he insisted that the Jewish community was plotting against him and began a virulent campaign against the city's Jews, resulting in the massacre of thousands and the destruction of the city's synagogue and Jewish cemetery. King Wenceslaus refused to condemn the act, insisting that the responsibility lay with the Jews for going outside during the Holy Week.
1389: Pope Boniface continues the policy of Clement VI, forbidding the Christians to harm Jews, destroy their cemeteries or forcibly baptize them.

1391: Ferrand Martinez, archdeacon of Ecija, begins a campaign against Spanish Jewry, killing over 10,000 and destroying the Jewish quarter in Barcelona. The campaign quickly spreads throughout Spain, except for Granada, and destroys Jewish communities in Valencia and Palma De Majorca.
1391: King Pedro I orders Spain not to harm the remaining Jews and decrees that synagogues not be converted into churches.
1392: King Pedro I announces his compliance with the Bull of Pope Boniface IX, protecting Jews from baptism. He extends this edict to Spanish Jewish refugees.
1415: Benedict XIII bans the study of the Talmud in any form, institutes forced Christian sermons and tries to restrict Jewish life completely.
1420: Pope Martin V favorably reinstates old privleges of the Jews and orders that no child under the age of 12 can be forcibly baptized without parental consent.
1420: All Jews are expelled from Lyons, including the refugees from Paris who were expelled 20 years earliers. Jews now only remain in Provence (until 1500) and in the possessions of the Holy See.
1422: Pope Martin V issues a bull reminding Christians that Christianity was derived from Judaism and warns the Friars not to incite against the Jews. The Bull was withdrawn the following year, alleging that the Jews of Rome attained the Bull by fraud.
1480: Inquisition established in Spain.

Jews in Medieval Europe

Most Jews in Medieval Europe lived in segregated ghettos in the fortified towns. They spoke local languages although they often wrote it using Hebrew letters and made their living like most Christians as craftsmen. Because making money from interest was viewed as a sin by most Christians many Jews were also employed as moneychangers, pawnbrokers and moneylenders. Jews were not restricted from charging high interest by church rules against usury. Moneylenders sometimes charged interest rates as high as 40 percent a year.

14th century Spanish haggadah reading

Jews were protected the same laws as Christians and Pope Innocent III ruled "no one shall disturb them by beating them with clubs" or exhuming their bodies from Jewish cemeteries. Occasionally, however, Jews were expelled from towns by greedy lords so their goods were seized. As a consequence the Jewish moneylenders often charged high interest rates to cover the risks of simply being a Jew. ["Life in a Medieval City" by Joseph and Frances Gies, Harper Perennial]

Many Jews also also doctors. Medieval medicine was essentially Greek medicine introduced by way of Arabs texts through Spain. Since more Jews understood Arabic than Christians, they were believed to more knowledgeable about medicine. [Ibid]

Services in synagogues were more casual than the services in the Christian churches. People wandered in and out, children ran around. Their were fines for striking other worshippers during a service. Jews were required to attend services during the Sabbath and many came everyday to read scriptures and light wax candles. [Ibid]

The Jews were welcomed by feudal lords because of the knowledge of trade and science. They rose to high positions and established themselves as doctors, bankers and merchants in the Court of Charlemagne and began settling France and the Rhineland in the 8th century, and among the Moors in Spain.

Jews in the Mediterranean in Middle Ages

The were large Jewish communities in southern Spain, southern Italy and Sicily around Venice, Verona, Naples and Syracuse and southern France in Provence. The Jew sin southern Italy are believed to be the ancestors of the earliest Jewish settlers in northern and eastern Europe.

Jews played a vital role in trade in the Mediterranean. By the end of the A.D. 4th century they dominated commerce in many towns and were even important political and community leaders. The Jews in Italy seem to have been fairly well assimilated and spoke largely Latin and Greek. Indications of their wealth include land records of large, luxurious villas owned by Jews, elaborate ritual baths and catacombs with artwork painted in gold.


The Black Death of 1348 was blamed on the Jews. Looking for scapegoats, Europeans massacred Jews, suspected of poisoning the water. In Geneva Jews were tortured until they confessed to poisoning wells.When news of this spread around Europe Jews were forced to into house were they either starved to death or had their houses set on fire. Across Germany the Flagellants slaughtered thousands of Jews.

Charlemagne: Capitulary for the Jews, 814

Charlemagne: Capitulary for the Jews, 814 reads: 1. Let no Jew presume to take in pledge or for any debt any of the goods of the Church in gold, silver, or other form, from any Christian. But if he presume to do so, which God forbid, let all his goods be seized and let his right hand be cut off. [Source: J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologiae Cursus Completus, (Paris, 1862), Vol. XCVII, pp. 369-370, reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 172-173,]

  1. Let no Jew presume to take any Christian in pledge for any Jew or Christian, nor let him do anything worse; but if he presume to do so, let him make reparation according to his law, and at the same time he shall lose both pledge and debt.
    3. Let no Jew presume to have a money-changer's table in his house, nor shall he presume to sell wine, grain, or other commodities there. But if it be discovered that he has done so all his goods shall be taken away from him, and he shall be imprisoned until he is brought into our presence.

“4. Concerning the oath of the Jews against the Christians. Place sorrel twice around his body from head to feet; he ought to stand when he takes his oath, and he should have in his right hand the five books of Moses according to his law, and if he cannot have them in Hebrew he shall have them in Latin. "May the God who gave the law to Moses on Mount Sinai help me, and may the leprosy of Naamon the Syrian come upon me as it came upon him, and may the earth swallow me as it swallowed Dathan and Abiron, I have not committed evil against you in this cause."

Golden Age: The Jews in Spain

The years either side of 1000 CE were the golden age of the Jews in Spain. Co-existing happily with the country’s Islamic rulers the Jews developed a flourishing study of Science, Hebrew literature and the Talmud. Despite an attempt to forcibly convert all Jews to Islam in 1086 CE, this golden age continued. At around this time the first Jews are recorded in Britain. [Source: BBC]

20120504-Jewsih area SegoviaPSAndres_21-4-03.JPG
Jewish area in Segovia, Spain
The Sephardic Jews associated with Spain came mostly from Spain (Sephardic is Hebrew for "of Spain") but also came from Portugal and North Africa. They spoke Ladino, a mixture of medieval Spanish and Hebrew. The arrived in Roman times after the were expelled from Jerusalem for rebelling and flourished in the Middle Ages until they were expelled in 1492.

Muslims and Jews lived together in Muslim Spain in relative harmony. Jews had their own legal system and social services but were relatively powerless. They were required to pay special taxes that Muslims didn't pay, forced to wear identifying clothing and were not allowed to open new synagogues. Jews had a strong sense of alienation and were reminded everyday in numerous ways that they were different. There was also the fear of potent waves of persecution. An anti-Jewish riot in Granada claimed 1,500 Jewish families.

Still Jews managed to prosper as craftsmen and traders. They prospered so much in fact that period between 900 and 1200 in Spain and North Africa is known as the Hebrew "golden age," when Jews inspired in part by their Arab counterparts made advances in astronomy, philosophy, science and poetry.

Yehudah ha-Levi was one of the greatest Spanish Jewish poets. He was born circa 1080 in Toledo, Spain, while it was under Islamic rule. He was a prolific writer of both Arabic and Hebrew poetry. From 1120 to 1140, ha-Levi wrote the famous 5-chapter book known as The Kuzari, which bases its storyline upon the Khazars' conversion to Judaism. [Source: Kevin Alan Brook,]

Politically-Powerful Jew in 11th Century Spain

Mid 20th century Jewish historian Jacob Marcus wrote: One of the most famous of the Jewish notables of Moslem Spain was Samuel Ha―Levi [born 993, died after 1056] , who is also known as Samuel Ha―Nagid. Beginning life as a shopkeeper, Samuel Ha―Levi ultimately became the chief minister at the court of Granada. By virtue of this office he became the political head of the Jews in Granada and probably thus received the title Nagid ("Prince"), his name becoming Samuel Ha―Nagid. He served his community as rabbi and did a great deal to further Jewish learning throughout the world. Samuel was a fine linguist, a scholar, a diplomat, and a distinguished soldier. His reputation in the Middle Ages was based mainly on his excellent poetry, some of which was written even on the battlefield. The following account of his life is taken from Sefer Seder ha-Kabbalah ("The Line of Tradition"), a Hebrew historical work written by Abraham ibn Daud of Toledo in 1161. [Source: Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938), 297-300, later printed Atheneum, 1969, 1972, 1978,]

On Samuel Ha-Nagid, Vizier of Granada by by Abraham ibn Daud reads. “One of the great disciples of Rabbi Enoch [d. 1014], was Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi, the Prince, the son of Joseph, who was known as Ibn Nagrela, of the community of Cordova. He was an unusually fine Talmudic scholar and was also well versed in Arabic literature and language. He was of the type that could occupy a high position in the royal palace.

scene from the Sarajevo Haggadah produced in Spain around 1350

“Samuel was a merchant, supporting himself with great difficulty until the devastating days in Spain which followed the fall of the Amirid kingdom when the Berbers secured the power. [The civil war, which began in Spain in 1009, reached its climax in 1012 in the sack of Cordova by the Berbers.] It was then that the land of Cordova began to decline and its inhabitants fled. Some of them ran away to Saragossa, where their descendants are even now; some fled to Toledo and their descendants are known there even to this day.

“This Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi fled to Malaga. There he had a shop and was a petty merchant. His shop happened to be near the palace of Ibn al―Arif, the vizier of King Habbus [1019―1038], the son of Maksan, the King of the Berbers, in Granada. At the request of a maid servant of the vizier, Samuel used to write letters for her to her master the vizier, Abu al―Kasim ibn al―Arif. This latter saw his letters and was amazed at his wisdom.

“Some time later this vizier, Ibn al―Arif, got permission of his king, Habbus, to return to his home in Malaga. There he asked the people of his house: "Who used to write those letters that came to me from you?" "A certain Jew," they answered, "who comes from the community of Cordova and lives near your palace-he used to write them for us." Immediately the secretary issued a command and they rushed Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi to him. "It is unbecoming for you to sit in a shop," he said to him. "Stay here with me." He did so and became his secretary and adviser.

“The vizier used to advise the King according to the advice given by Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi, of blessed memory. All his advice was as though it came from God, and the King Habbus prospered through it very much. After some time the vizier, Ibn al―Arif, became mortally ill, and King Habbus, who came to visit him, said to him: "What shall I do? Who will advise me in the wars which encompass me?" "I have never advised you," he answered him, "out of my own mind, but at the suggestion of this Jew, my secretary. Take care of him, and he will be as a father and a minister to you. Do whatever he advises you, and God will help you." So after the death of the vizier, King Habbus took Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi and brought him to his palace and he became his vizier and councillor.”

Jewish Scholarship and Politics in 11th Century Spain

On Samuel Ha-Nagid, Vizier of Granada by Abraham ibn Daud continues: “In the year 4780 [l020] he was in the palace of the King Habbus. [Samuel was already an important official before 1020.] The king had two sons: the name of the elder was Badis, and the younger, Bulukkin. All the Berber princes favored Bulukkin, the younger son, as the successor, but all the rest of the people favored Badis. The Jews, too, and among them Rabbi Joseph ibn Migas, Rabbi Isaac ben Leon, and Rabbi Nehemiah, who was called Escafa, three Granada notables, favored Bulukkin, but Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi favored Badis. On the day that King Habbus died, the Berber princes and their distinguished men rose in the morning to crown his son Bulukkin. Bulukkin, however, immediately went and kissed the hand of his elder brother Badis. Thus Badis was crowned in the year 4787 [1027] and the face of his enemies turned black like the bottom of a pot; and against their will they had to crown Badis. [Badis was really crowned in 1038 and died in 1073.] [Source: Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938), 297-300, later printed Atheneum, 1969, 1972, 1978,]

“After this Bulukkin regretted that he had made his brother king and kept on getting the upper hand over his brother Badis, with the result that King Badis was unable to do a thing, big or small, without his brother's interference. But after this his brother Bulukkin became sick, and the King gave orders to the physician not to cure him. The physician obeyed, and Bulukkin died. Thus was the kingdom established in the hands of Badis. These three distinguished Jews of the city, whom we have mentioned, fled to the land of Seville [then hostile to Granada].

“Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi was appointed Prince in the year 4787 [1027], and he conferred great benefits on Israel in Spain, in north-eastern and north―central Africa, in the land of Egypt, in Sicily, well as far as the Babylonian academy, and the Holy City, Jerusalem. All the students who lived in those lands benefited by his generosity, for he bought numerous copies of the Holy Scriptures, the Mishnah, and the Talmud-these, too, being holy writings. [Ibn Daud here refutes the Karaites who denied the authority of the Mishnah and the Talmud.]

French Jews in the 18th century

“To every one-in all the land of Spain and in all the lands that we have mentioned-who wanted to make the study of the Torah his profession, he would give of his money. He had scribes who used to copy Mishnahs and Talmuds, and he would give them as a gift to students, in the academies of Spain or in the lands we have mentioned, who were not able to buy them with their own means. [Printing was not yet invented. Manuscripts were very expensive.] Besides this, he furnished olive oil every year for the lamps of the synagogues in Jerusalem. He spread the knowledge of the Torah [Jewish learning] very widely and died an old man, at a ripe age, after having acquired the four crowns: the crown of the Torah, the crown of high station, the crown of Levitical descent, and what is more than all these, the crown of a good name merited by good deeds. He died in the year 4815 [1055] and his son, Rabbi Joseph Ha―Levi, the Prince, succeeded him. [It is more probable that Samuel died in 1056 or later when Joseph (b. 1035), succeeded him as vizier.]

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, King James Version of the Bible,, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, , Metropolitan Museum of Art “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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