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Notes from New North London Learning Autumn 2005

Gerona: A Jewish Community on the Border

Chaim Weiner

Also incorporating part of Clive Lawton's session on Great Jewish Trials

R. Weiner is interested in the places where you don't see on the surface how Jewish they are; you have to look in the texts to find out. This talk concerns one such place, Gerona.

In a volume of Talmud, the commentaries written facing the text, Rashi and Tosafot, are all Ashkenazi. The second half of the volume reflects Sephardi scholarship, and a huge percentage of those were written in Gerona: Nachmanides, Rabbi Nissim, etc. [This "etc" was R. Weiner going too fast for me to catch all the names.]

Gerona (or Girona in Catalan [or, apparently from the quotations below, Yironda in Hebrew]) is on the Mediterranean coast of northern Spain. The most important thing about it is that it is located near the French border. In 711 the Moors launched their conquest of Spain, and by 733 crossed the border into France. However, starting at this time, the Christians started trying to get the land back, and drove them back from border region. For nearly eight hundred years some of Spain was Christian, but Catalonia spent less than fifty years under Muslim control, so there was virtually no impact of Islam on the culture.

As a result, there are three different stories of the Jews in Spain: in the north, that of Jews living under Christian influence; in the middle (Toledo) those who lived under both Christian and Muslim influence; and in the south, those who lived under the Moors until the Reconquista was complete. (So if you want to visit Jewish Spain, you have really to make three trips!)

The other significant fact about Gerona is the presence of the Pyrenees, which presents a real impediment to travel at pre-modern tech levels. The Jewish culture that developed in Spain - Sephardi culture - did not cross these, and over the border, you find Ashkenazi culture in France, as exemplified by the likes of Rashi. Because Girona sits on the border, it was the first city to experience the dissonance of these cultures and their moulding into the Judaism we have today.

Until the twelfth century, Girona was very much a Spanish - i.e. Sephardi - town: it's as if they don't know about Ashkenazi Jewry: how they study, their methods, etc. From the thirteenth century, Ashkenazi culture began to seep across the border, brought by travelling traders &c; and it's in Girona that you first begin to see Ashkenazi methods used in Girona. By the fourteenth centuy, the scholars in Girona have thoroughly absorbed Ashkenazi culture: they're using Sephardi knowledge, but Ashkenazi methods, to study Talmud.

The old city of Girona is preserved in its mediaeval aspect. <photograph> Lorenza street: one of the main thoroughfares of the Call - the Jewish quarter - a ghetto: they did not live there by choice. The Jewish quarter was usually central, and near the cathedral: for the Church to keep an eye on them, but also to provide protection. This would be negotiated when the Jews first came to a city and requested a right of abode. They would then be the feudal property of whoever granted that right, and paid taxes to them.


The first of R. Weiner's texts is from the responsa literature. This literature gives insights into people's lives through the ages.

Summary of Responsum no. 48 of Rabbi Nissim Girondi (the Ran) (1290-1380) by Avraham Finkel, in The Responsa Anthology p.31:

Q: Reuven married his wife in France, in a country where the enactment of Rabbeinu Gershom Meor Hagolah against polygamy is accepted as law. Reuven now resides in Castile, Spain, where Rabbeinu Gershom's ban is not accepted, and where it is customary to marry two wives. Is Reuven permitted to take an additional wife?

Responsum: We have a rule that where someone travels from one place to another he must observe the stringencies of both the locality he came from and the place where he now resides (Pesachim 50a). Furthermore, Rabbeinu Gershom's ban was accepted by all the people of the Ashkenazi region as mandatory law for them and their offspring. It is binding on their person, regardless of the locale where they may be situated. However, I am inclined to permit polygamy if the [first] wife gives her consent. For the ban was instituted for the woman's benefit, and if she declares that she does not want the protection offered her by the rabbinical enactment, we should abide by her wishes. But on second thought, I am pondering the question of whether the ban against polygamy was instituted for the benefit of women, or perhaps it was also for the benefit of men, to prevent the plague of constant bickering and recriminations in the home. If that is the case, the ban is not lifted even if the wife gives her consent. And even if we say that it was enacted solely for the benefit of women, I don't think it is enough that the wife give her consent, for there is the danger that the husband will pester her until she agrees to let him marry a second wife. Therefore, I defer to the rabbis of France and Germany, where the enactment orginated. We should therefore follow their directives in this matter.

Note again the relevance here of Gerona sitting on the border. At that time Rabbeinu Gershom's ban had no effect on sephardim, though most now have accepted it upon themselves (with exceptions, such as Yemenites).

The question is similar to the issue today of Israelis keeping one day of Yom Tov, and Diaspora Jews two days: what should one do if one travels between these regions?

Clive Lawton cited a similar responsum (possibly of the Ramban (see below); my notes aren't clear on this), about a women who left Spain and went to North Africa leaving behind her husband who had converted to Christianity. The witnesses at their wedding had also both converted. So: is she married or is she not?

A big problem there. Nobody wanted to condemn the converts for what they had done, but nobody wanted to condone them either.


One of the most important Jews to come from Girona was Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, a.k.a. Moses Nachmanides, a.ka. the Ramban. His house today has been turned into a Jewish museum (with money from his descendants).

The Ramban is one of those people it is difficult to tell what they are best known for: he was a poet, physician, philosopher, codifier of the law, Cabbalist, and, when he was in his sixties wrote a commentary on the Bible. R. Weiner counts him as one of the top five Jewish scholars of all time.

He lived in the time of the Disputations, when Jews were forced to have a public debate on the value of Judaism. These were very dangerous, because if the Jews won, there would be a pogrom because they were blaspheming against the Church, and if they lost, there would frequently be a pogrom too.

In 1263 King James I of Aragón was persuaded by Pablo Christiani - a Jewish convert to first Karaism and then Christianity - that it would help in the conversion of the Jews if there were to be a public debate demonstrating the inferiority of Judaism. He had become a significant Church leader.

This was twenty or thirty years after the first Disputation, in France - which, having "proved" that the Talmud was wrong and blasphemous - had led to the burnings of tens of thousands of Talmuds. (This too was called by a Jewish convert to Christianity.)

To the merit of King James, this Disputation was to feature equal and free speech on both sides, and a guarantee that neither side would be punished regardless of what they said.

Nachmanides, head and shoulders above the rest of Spanish Judaism, led the Jewish side. By the account (his own!) he trounced Pablo Christiani. That said, he could not insult his host utterly. He equivocated by saying that he was not saying that Jesis was not the Messiah, but that he has not yet manifested himself as the Messiah; in the same way that Moses did not manifest himself until he came to Pharaoh and said "Let my people go." As Clive Lawton put it, it's the challenge of a multicultural society: coping with conflicting truth claims? (And even if you go for the "these and these are the words of the living G-d" problem, you get the Chief Rabbi's problem. But that's another story.)

Nachmanides had demonstrated that the Talmud was not blasphemous but demonstrated great devotion to G-d. Pablo Christianity, of course, wished to demonstrate the Talmud was wrong - he was rehearsing in public his own religious journey from Rabbinic Judaism to Karaism. And he couldn't stand far enough back from it to make the general points.

To be sure what happened was not misrepresented, Nachmanides wrote an account of the Disputation and sent it out across the realm.

Churchmen across Spain made selective extracts from this document and took them to the king prostesting at what he had said. So, very reluctantly, it would seem, James exiled Nachmanides from Spain. At the age of seventy, he packed up and left, and went to Jerusalem, where he tried to marshal the community and revitalise it. Most probably the community he left had now put down roots such as to enable the Cabbalistic flourishing a few centuries later.

Nachmanides was one of the few mediaeval commentators to have actually seen the land of Israel, and rewrote part of his commentary as a result.

Here is the poetical introduction he wrote (in Hebrew) to his commentary. It's not well-known, normally being printed in sufficiently small type to deter all bar the most zealous, in Hebrew editions of his commentary.

In the name of the great G-d, and the fearful,
I will begin to write novel interpretations
On the Explanation of the Torah,
With terror, with fear, with dread,
Praying and confessing,
With a humble heart and a broken spirit,
Asking forgiveness, He is so fearful because of
Seeking pardon and atonement, the responsibility: how does he have the
With bowing to the ground, chutzpah to know what G-d meant?
With kneeling with prostration,
Until all the veterbrae of the spin
Seem to be loosened.
And that my soul knoweth right well,
In a clear awareness,
That the egg of the ant is not as small
In comparison to the outermost sphere Refers to the crystal spheres
As is my little wisdom of Aristotelian cosmology
And brief knowledge
Against the hidden matter of the Torah.
That lie in her house,
Concealed in her room;
For every precious thing and every wonder,
Every profound myster and all glorious wisdom
Are stored up with her,
Sealed up in her treasure
By hint, by a word,
In writing and in speaking
Just as the prophet - who was adorned
With royal garments and a crown
The anointed of the G-d of Jacob,
The author of the sweetest of songs - said: Psalms 119:96
    I have seen an end
    To every purpose;
    But Thy commandment
    Is exceedingly broad.
And it is said: Psalms 119:129
    Thy testimonies are wonderful:
    Therefore doth my soul keep them.
 
But what shall I do If he is so fearful, why write a commentary.
Since my soul craves for Torah He justifies this here.
And she is in my heart
As a consuming, burning fire
In my kidneys restrained; In mediaeval and Biblical anatomy, the
To go forth in the steps kidneys were the seat of feeling
Of the former ones, (and the heart of thinking).
The lions of the group,
The exalted of the generations,
The men of might;
To enter with them
The thickest part of the beam
To write as they did
Explanation of the verses,
And Midrashic interpretations
On the precepts
And the Agada
Ordered in all things and sure.
 
I will place as an illumination before me
The lights of the pure candelabrum,
The commentaries of our Rabbi Shlomo, I.e. Rashi. Just two generations
A crown of glory, and a diadem of beauty beforehand, Spanish Jews didn't know
Adorned in his ways, about Rashi, who was Ashkenazi.
In Scripture, Mishna and Gemara.
The right of the first-born is his.
In his words will I meditate,
And in their love I will ravish,
And with them we will have,
Discussions, investigations and examinations,
In his plain explanations
And Midrashic interpretations,
And every difficult Agadah
Which is mentioned in his commentaries.
And with Abraham the son of Ezra
We shall have open rebuke and hidden love. Nachmanides' open rebuke of Ibn Ezra
  is very open, and his hidden love
And G-d Whom alone I shall fear very hidden, in his commentary!
He shall save me from the day of wrath.
He shall keep me for mistakes
And from all sin and transgression,
And He shall lead me in the straight way
And open for us the gates of light,
And shall deem us worthy
To see the day of tidings,
As it is written: Isaiah 52:7
   How beautiful upon the mountains
   Are the feet of the messenger of good tidings
   That announceth peace,
   The harbinger of good tidings
   That announceth salvation,
   That saith to Zion:
   Thy G-d reigneth.
 
   Thy word is tried to the uttermost, Psalms 119:140, 142, 144
   And Thy servant loveth it.
   Thy righteousness,
   Is an everlasting righteousness,
   And Thy law is truth.
   Thy testimonies are righteous forever;
   Give me understanding,
   And I shall live.

In Nachmanides' interpretion, the blessing Ahavat Olam is the mitzvah blessing for saying the Shema. But one of the things about them is that you shouldn't break between the blessing and the commandment.

Ramban, commentary to Berachot 11b:

It is the long established custom in the villages, to say between אהבת עולם and the שמע the words א־ל מלך נאמן ("G-d, faithful king"). And in my childhood this puzzled me greatly. For it is well known that אהבת עולם is the Mitzvah blessing* for the reading of the שמע. For all the commandments require that one recites the blessings and immediately does the action. This is the case with Hallel, and the Megillah and the Reading of the Torah. This is the meaning of the statement: If he rose early, after he has read he is not required to bless, for he has exempted himself by reciting אהבת רבה—for this is the blessing of studying Torah. [...]

And since this is a Mitzvah blessing, it is clear that just as one who says a blessing over a Mitzvah or over fruit and said Amen after himself between the blessing and the action is completely mistaken. This has already been specifically mentioned in the Yerushalmi. We have been taught: One who leads the שמע, or leads the prayer, or lifts his hands, or reads from the Torah, or reads from the Prophets or who recites any one of the blessings which is mentioned in the Torah—must not say Amen after himself. I do not even have to explain this matter, which is obvious to the ראשונים [the sages of the early mediaeval period]. It therefore appears that the law is that such a person needs to go back and say the blessing again. ... However, as this is the custom I went and asked Rabbi Meir HaLevy, and he said to me that it is obvious that this is a mistake, and is not the custom of Spain, but rather of the Land of Israel, and we have abolished this blunder from our place.

Later I saw the French scholars question, and then say that they have a Midrash Aggadah that the שמע has 248 words, as comparsed to the organs of a person's body. But when they counted, they found only 239. To this add ברוך שם כבוד מלכתו לעולם ועד which the Rabbis have obligated us to say, and א־ל מלך נאמן and they complete them. And cretainly we find in the Midrash Yelamdeinu, in פרשת קדושים: R. Mani said in the name of Rabbi: The שמע should not be light in your eyes, for it has in it 248 words, as compared to the organs in a person's body. The Holy One said: If you learn it and keep it read it properly, He will guide and protect you...

Now I will explain to them where this custom originates. In the early generations the community would not say the blessings themselves; rather the leaders would come before the Ark; they would say all the blessings and they would answer after them Amen. Therefore the חזן [prayer leader] would say אהבת עולם and the community would answer Amen. They would then say the שמע, which is a commandment that is incumbent upon each and every individual to recite by himself... and to follow the Midrash they would say א־ל מלך נאמן in order to make up the number of words. ...

And I explain to you, that all whose custom is that the חזן says the blessing out loud for the community, in order to exempt them of their obligation, and they have no further obligation but to say after him Amen. And all whose custom is that each and every individual says it... it is an obvious thing that one who says אהבת עולם by himself does not answer Amen after himself, and if he does so he is an ignoramus and completely wrong.

Note the custom is not actually from Israel. The custom is an Ashkenazi custom... and Nachmanides is a Sephardi rabbi. (A different talk could be given from the France perspective, justifying the Ashkenazi side!)

Why is this practice reported as happening in the villages and not the cities? Because both get the visitors from other places bringing new customs, but in only the cities are there rabbis to tell them what is right and what is wrong! There is no learning in the villages.


Rabbi Shmuel ben Aderet, the Rashba, was a student of Nachmanides. (After his time, the centre of Jewish life moved from Gerona to Barcelona.) He wrote:

You asked regarding a communal decree which they had established to prevent the decay of the faith, and you questioned whether the courtyard of the synagogue counts as a synagogue itself for this purpose, since more people gather in the courtyard on a weekday but in the synagogue itself. But not only that, but the birurim [heads of the community] themselves sit in the courtyard, and people bring their concerns before them, depite what is written in the decree itself.

The decree referred to ordained that every male over fifteen had to come to the synagogue at least once a week, or pay a fine. This tells us something about the community - people were coming to shul but sitting outside rather than making up a minyan!

The answer the Rashba gives is that you have to look at the words. If the original ban said you have to come to the synagogue to pray, you have to come to the synagogue to pray; but if it just said you had to come, it's enough to come!


Gerona is surrounded by walls, and in the highest point of the city there is a castle. The background to the fourth text is that at one point in the fourteenth century there was a huge series of pogroms, and the Jews fled into the castle where they stayed for several weeks before they were able to make their way into the countryside.

From the responsa of the Rashba:

He also responded concerning the exiles, that each and every one of them needs to rewrite their Ketubah [marriage contract]. And this is what the community of Gerona did when they were exiled from their city. And even if armed robbers have not taken the Ketubah away, and there is a chance that it will be found in the future, for we follow the opinion of Rebbi. And the reason is that a woman is afraid that her husband will divorce her, and make their relationship a casual relationship. How much more those who are under the King of France. And even those who are under the King of Majorca, where they may return tomorrow, since they have plundered all of their possessions, they are like a hart in a trap. And this is what the sages instructed the community of Gerona.

שו״ת רשב״א א/תרלד

עוד השיב בענין הגולים שצריך כל אחד לחדש כתובה׃ וכן עשו קהל ירונדה כשיצאו מעירם׃ ואפילו לא תפס כתובה ליסטים מזוין ושמא ימצאוה למחר דקיימא לן כרבי׃ וטעמא משום דאשה חוששת שמא בעלה יגרשנה ועושה בעילתו בעילת זנות׃ כל שכן אלו שתחת מלך צרפת׃ ואפילו אלו שתחת מלך מיורק״א דשמא ישובו למחר כיון שבזבזו לאשר להם הרי הם כתוא מכמר׃ וכן הורו החכמים לאנשי ירונדה ע״כ׃

So, what does it mean? Is it a riddle? R. Jacobs explains (says R. Weiner):

Because of the haste in which they had to leave their homes, the fugitives from Girona did not take their possessions with them. However, there is a specific halachic prohibition that men and women should not reside together unless they have their ketubah. So perhaps it should be rewritten? But there is also a general prohibition against rewriting a contract, particularly an IOU, which is what a ketubah legally is!

The Rashba ruled that everyone needs to rewrite their ketubah. Even if armed robbers had not taken them away from the homes they have fled - i.e. there was a chance they could retrieve them - they should still rewrite them.

No opinion of Rebbi is recorded on this matter; R. Jacobs thinks it is a printing error and should be the opinion of Rav. In re "casual relationship" (for which the term used is "prostitutional", for those who read my post on the subject), he is saying the ketubah is the proof that there was a marriage, in case the husband should say they were never married.

[As a linguistic aside, I have no idea why there's a גרשיים in the name of Majorca, as if it's an acronym. Can anyone answer this for me?]

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