The Jews of Spain

Crash Course in Jewish History Part 44: The Jews of Spain  The land of opportunity for Jews—from the 8th to the 12th century—was Spain.

As the armies of Islam conquered larger and larger swaths of Europe, the Jews of the Middle East saw new opportunities opening up for them in Muslim Europe.

One of the best opportunities proved to be Spain, starting with the Muslim conquest of 711. Indeed, things were so good for Jews there, that to this day, half the Jewish world is known as Sephardi meaning “Spanish.” (The other half would later become known as Ashkenazi, meaning “German.”) (1)

In the Muslim Spain, Jews found a symbiotic relationship emerging between them and the non-Jewish world that surrounded them.

So for one thing, the Muslims impacted on the Jews. Some of the greatest Jewish scholars wrote in Arabic. But the impact was much greater the other way around. Indeed there can be no question that the Islamic world, especially in Spain, did remarkably well because of the large number of Jews who were allowed to operate freely there. The positive impact of the Jews of Moslem Spain is yet another example of the fulfillment of the prophecy in Genesis: “I will bless you and make your name great. You shall be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. (Genesis 12:2-3) To quote the great Jewish historian Cecil Roth:

The essential contribution of the Jews, as Jews, to the cultural life of the medieval world, and of medieval Europe in particular depended basically upon two factors. They were literate: and they were international….Their work as intermediaries between the two mutually-exclusive cultural worlds [Moslem and Christian] was without any doubt the characteristic Jewish function in the Middle Ages: it was a function that they performed by virtue of their specific position and circumstances as Jews. That did not however preclude them from making memorable contributions to European civilization as individuals(2)


The Jewish contributions came in every sphere—whether economic or intellectual. For example:

  • Jews excelled in skilled crafts.     Jews were excellent tanners, metalworkers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, and jewelers. (We see some of these skills surviving today. Yemenite Jews continue their reputation as silversmiths and Jewish diamond merchants are famous the world over.)
  • Jews excelled in the sciences, particularly in medicine.     Jewish doctors were everywhere, among the most famous was Maimonides (who we will speak about later) and Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the 10th century physician to two caliphs who was considered one of the most influential people in Spain.
  • Jews excelled in trade.     Jews were the middlemen between the Muslim and Christian worlds, which at this time were engaged in huge rivalry and were not communicating directly with each other. As a result Jews became traders who covered the Far East, the Middle East, and Europe.
  • Jews excelled in scholarship.     The Muslims were fascinated by classical knowledge, but since they did not know either Greek or Latin, the Jews came in to fill the gap translating these works into Arabic. The Jews also helped to disseminate Arabic scholarship and much of the classical scholarship of the ancient world (much of which had been lost after the collapse of the Roman Empire) to Christian Europe translating Arabic texts first into Hebrew, then sending these translated texts to Europe, where other Jews translated the Hebrew into Latin—the language of the Roman Empire that was still the language of scholarship in Western Europe.


Some of the greatest Jewish writers and philosophers came from this time period. Three deserve special mention:

  • Abraham ibn Ezra, the famed scientist, philosopher, astronomer, and biblical commentator. Bachya ibn Pakuda, the famed moralist who authored Duties of the Heart (a book that continues to be a highly popular text in Jewish ethical studies today), examining the obligations of one’s inner life and presenting a system to assess one’s true religious commitment.
  • Judah HaLevi, the famed author of The Kuzari, a philosophical novel based on the story of the king of Khazaria, a kingdom located between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. (In the 8th century the king of Khazaria, undecided whether he should affiliate with the Christians or Muslims, had great scholars argue before him the merits of the world’s religions, and as a result of this debate converted to Judaism as eventually did a goodly portion of his country; the history of Khazaria ended in 11th century when it was destroyed by a Byzantine/Russian coalition.) Basing himself on this reportedly true story, Judah HaLevi imaginatively recreated the debate before the king in his novel, which continues to be popular to this day.

The Jewish paradise in Spain ended abruptly when a cruel Muslim Berber Dynasty—Almohades—came to power in the 12th century. When Almohades seized southern Spain, they gave the Jews three choices: covert to Islam, leave, or die.

Of the many Jews fleeing Spain at this time was none other than the famed Maimonides (often known as Rambam, the acronym of his full name, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, Moses the son of Maimom).

(Incidentally, you may have noticed that so many of the famous Jews were known by their acronyms. This is because Jews up until this time did not have last names. While Sephardic Jews started taking last names more than 500 years ago most Ashkenazi Jews did not use last names until forced to by Christian authorities around the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Jews were traditionally known by their first names and their father’s names, sometimes by their tribal names, such as Cohen or Levi, or places of their origin (i.e. Toledano from Toledo in Spain), and therefore, it was easier to shorten so many words to an acronym.)


Maimonides was born Moses ben Maimon on the eve of Passover in 1135 in Cordoba, Spain, to a prominent rabbinical family. In his family tree figured King David and Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi, who had compiled the Mishnah (as we saw in Part 39).

His primary teacher was his father, Rabbi Maimon ben Joseph, a Jewish judge, who taught him not only the Talmud, but also the fundamentals of mathematics, astronomy and philosophy.

Maimonides was only 13 when his family was forced to leave Spain. After wandering homeless for many years—wanderings during which his father died—Maimonides and his brother David finally settled in Fustat near Cairo, Egypt. There Maimonides continued his Torah studies, while his brother David, a dealer in gems, supported the family. When David perished in a sea voyage in 1166, the burden fell on Maimonides.

Maimonides refused to make money from his Torah knowledge, and therefore, in order to earn a living, he became a physician having begun his study of medicine years earlier while living in Fez. Within a short time, he was so famous as a healer that he was appointed physician to the Court of Sultan Saladin in Cairo. He was also appointed the chief rabbi of Cairo.

In addition to being a famous doctor and healer, Maimonides was a prolific writer. Of his voluminous works—most of which were composed in Arabic but written with Hebrew characters—four stand out as perhaps the most famous:

  • Commentary on the Mishnah—his explanation of the Mishnah
  • Mishneh Torah - His greatest accomplishment-A monumental compendium covering all of the Oral Law and Halacha (it’s also known as Yad Hazakah)
  • Guide to the Perplexed -written in Arabic . The Guide is philosophical treatise which discusses both traditional Jewish thought in comparison to classical Greek philosophy. It is considered the single greatest philosophical work ever produced by a Jew.
  • Discourse on the World to Come—his explanation of the Messianic Age which includes the 13 Principles of Faith (this discourse is contained in his introduction to Tractate Sanhedrin 10:1)

(For translations of key excerpts from Maimonides’ seminal works see The Essential Maimonides by Avraham Yaakov Finkel.)

During his time some of the writings of Maimonides proved highly controversial. Some of his statements were deemed too radical, others were simply misunderstood. At one point, his works were banned, and after his death in 1204, burned at the instigation of the rabbis.

However, when nine years later, the French king Louis IX ordered the Talmud burned, Jews interpreted this as a “measure-for-measure” punishment from God for the burning of the works of Maimonides. Indeed, the rabbi who instigated the ban and burning, Rabbi Jonah Gerondi, subsequently repented for doing so and authored the book Sha’arei Teshuva, “Gates of Repentance,” as a form of atonement for his derogatory statements about Maimonides.

Today the works of Maimonides are universally accepted and revered. Indeed, Maimonides is known in the Jewish world as one of most important of the Rishonim or “the First Ones.”

This group of Jewish sages follows those we have previously discussed: the Tanaim or “Teachers” (200 BCE to 100 CE) who are quoted in the Mishnah; the Amoraim or “Explainers” (200 to 500), who are quoted in the Gemara; and the Gaonim or “Geniuses” (500 to 1038) who were the masters of the post-Talmudic Babylonian academies. The Rishonim (1038 to 1440) added significantly to Jewish scholarship.

In addition to Maimonides, among the most famous of the Rishonim was the French rabbi, Solomon ben Isaac, known the world over by his acronym—Rashi.


A question may be asked here, how did Jews end up in France? First of all, some Jews settled already some 1,000 years earlier in the far-flung outposts of the Roman Empire. But for a long time these Jewish settlements were small. The expansion came through some interesting quirks of fate.

Jewish tradition has it that in the 8th century Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, seeing how helpful Jews were to the Muslims, asked the caliph to send him a few rabbis, knowing that once he had rabbis more Jews would follow.

Additionally, Jews were frequently kidnapped by pirates who knew that their fellow Jews would pay handsomely to redeem them. There is the legend of the four captives, rabbis from the Babylonian community, each of whom was ransomed by a different Jewish community. According to the legend a small group of French Jews put up a lot of money to redeem Rabbi Nosson HaBavli in just such circumstances on the condition that he come and start a yeshiva in their community in France—which he did.(3)

Rashi, the most famous of the French rabbis was born Solomon Ben Isaac in 1040 in France, though he was sent to study in a yeshiva in Germany.

After he completed his studies, Rashi returned to France and settled in his hometown of Troyes. Just like Maimonides, he refused to make money from his Torah knowledge, earning a living instead from several vineyards that he owned.

Rashi had an absolutely encyclopedic knowledge of the Oral and Written Law. He took it upon himself to answer some of the most obvious questions that come up when reading the text of the Tanach (the 24 Books of the Hebrew Bible). This is why today so many editions of the Torah include his explanations alongside the text.

Another thing that Rashi did was to write a commentary on the entire Babylonian Talmud. Today this commentary appears on the “inner” margin of virtually every Talmudic page. We find his explanations indispensable because as we move further and further away from Mount Sinai, it becomes harder and harder to understand the nuances of Jewish law.

Rashi did not have sons, but he did have two very famous daughters, Miriam and Yocheved, whom he educated in the Talmud. Rashi’s daughters married great scholars and fathered great scholars. Rashi’s sons-in-law, his students, and his descendants became part of a group of scholars that is known as the Ba’alei HaTosefot, meaning “Masters of Addition.” The Ba’alei HaTosefot added commentary to the Talmud which is featured on the “outer” margin of every Talmudic page. The best known of this group is Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Jacob ben Meir, also known as Rabbeinu Ta’am.

Rashi lived until 1105 and he survived the first Crusade, which saw the slaughter of about 30% of the Jews of Europe.

According to Jewish tradition, he met one of the leaders of the Crusade, the Norman nobleman Godfrey de Bouillon. As Godfrey embarked on the Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims, Rashi told him that he would succeed but that he would come back home with only two horses. In response, Godfrey vowed that if Rashi’s prediction was wrong, he’d kill him upon his return.

As it happened, Godfrey came back home from the Crusade with only three horses, but as he entered the archway to the city of Troyes, the center stone of the arch fell and killed one of them.

Next we will see just what role Godfrey de Bouillon played in the Crusades and how this shameful period in history came about.

It is far beyond the scope of this overview to discuss the dozens of great Rabbinic personalities who lived between the 11th and 15th centuries. Despite this being one of the most difficult periods of time in Jewish history, the 400 year period of the Rishonim (which more of less corresponds to the late Middle Ages) was one of the greatest periods of Torah scholarship. The impact of the Rishonim was monumental and, together with the Rabbis who created the Talmud, they played a pivotal role in the transmitting the Torah and shaping the law and practice of Diaspora Judaism.

1) While the term Sephardi is often used to categorize all Jews who came from the Middle East/Moslem world, the term is not really accurate. Many of these communities have little or no connection historically with the Jews of Spain i.e. Persian Jews, Yemenite Jews etc. The more accurate term would be Edot HaMizrach or “communities of the East” which would cover all non-Ashkenazi Jewish communities.
2) Dagobert D. Runes ed., The Hebrew Impact on Civilization. (New York, 1951), pp. 349-356.
3) The story is assumed to a legend and the actual creator of the first Yeshiva in France was probably Rabbeinu Gershom Me’or HaGaolah (965-1040). While this actual story may not be factually accurate, it does reflect the grim reality of kidnap and ransom which was an unfortunate feature of Jewish life during this period.

#44 of 70 in the Jewish History Series
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Part 43: The Jews of Babylon
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Part 45: The Crusades

by  Ken Spiro
Posted in: Jewish History