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Notes from New North London Learning Autumn 2005

Toledo: The End of the West

Chaim Weiner

In the previous talk, R. Weiner talked about how by 733 the Moors had conquered almost all of Spain, but crossing the border into France, were driven back by the Christians, such that whilst some of Spain was Muslim for nearly eight hundred years, Cataluña 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 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!)

Toledo is in the centre of Spain - the part that was first Moorish and then Christian. R. Weiner thinks it looks like Jerusalem. Its most famous Jewish son is the poet and philosopher Yehudah haLevi (C10/11), though he was actually born further north: His family wanted to move into Muslim Spain to be free of Christian oppression... but two years later the Christians conquered Toledo, and he spent the rest of his life in Christian Spain anyway.

(This talk did not mention his philosophical works, of which the best known is Kitab al-Ḥujjah wal-Dalil fi Nuṣr al-Din al-Dhalil, aka Sefer Kuzari). Here is his poem לבי במזרח (Hebrew text):

My heart is in the East, and I in the depths of the West
My food has no taste. How can it be sweet?
How can I fulfil my pledges and my vows,
When Zion is in the power of Edom, and I in the fetters of Arabia?
It will be nothing to me to leave all the goodness of Spain
So rich will it be to see the dust of the ruined sanctuary.

Towards the end of his life he set off for Israel (though there is no historical record of his getting further than Egypt). On the way, there was a huge storm at sea for fourteen days, and his boat almost sank. During this period, he wrote fourteen poems about Noah and the Flood. The best known is the זמר (Sabbath table hymn) יונה מצה בו מנוח ("On it [the Sabbath] the dove found rest"), the seventh of these. (His name is spelled acrostically by it.)

Jerusalem (Hebrew text)

Beautiful heights, joy of the world, city of a great king*
For you my soul yearns from the lands of the West
My pity collects and is roused when I remember the past.
Your glory is in exile, and your Temple destroyed
Would that I were on the wings of an eagle,
So that I could water your dust with my mingling tears
I have sought you, although your king is away,
And snakes and scorpions oust Gilead's balm.
How shall I kiss and cherish your stones?
Your earth will be sweeter than honey to my taste.

* A reference. (To what?)


Rabbeinu Asher ben Yehiel, known acronymically as the Rosh, was an Ashkenazi rabbi, from near Maintz, the student of R. Meir Abrotomberg, the most prominent rabbi in Germany, who had the unfortunate experience of being kidnapped by the Christians in Germany. He forbade his community to pay for his release, saying that if they did, Christians would start kidnapping rabbis left, right and centre. As a result, he spent the last thirteen years of his life in prison, and indeed died there. Even then his kidnappers wouldn't let his body go for another fifteen years, until a deal was struck and the Jews were able to buy his body back.

Rabbeinu Asher was the most likely to take the Rosh's place as the leading light of German Jewry. But he decided after the Rosh's experience that it's too dangerous to live in Germany. He thought the Jews were freer in Spain (though as it turned out, his grandchildren were already victims of the Inquisition.) [I'm not sure what R. Weiner meant by this. The Inquisition had no power over Jews, only Christians. Possibly the Rosh's grandchildren were forced converts.]

The Rashba arranged for R. Asher to take up the position of Chief Rabbi of Toledo, the then main city of Spain, the biggest and most important Jewish community in the world - a very prominent position. (Madrid did not exist then; it was built after the unification of Spain as somewhere not associated with any one of the older kingdoms.)

Here are some of his responsa, illustrating what life was like in Jewish Toledo at the time.

Responsa of the Rosh 32:6

When Leah was abducted by Arabs, her mother collected 600 gold ducats for ransom from the surrounding communities and deposited the money with a trustee. Now it has been learned that Leah converted to Islam, married an Arab and had two children with him. Her mother asserts that since Leah has become assimilated among the Arabs, the ransom money she deposited with the trustee should be returned to her. The community wants to use the money to establish a fund for the redemption of captives.

Responsum: ... In this case, since she has become an Arab, got married and bore children, she certainly has no right to this money, for the donor did not intend their money to be enjoyed by an apostate... We must regard this case as if the abducted woman had died and was never redeemed, for what difference does it make whether she died or converted? Therefore she has no legal claim to the money. The correct thing to do would be to return the contributions to the donors. They gave the money for her ransom, and until she has been ransomed the money is legally theirs. Failing that, the money should be used for the benefit of the public, preferably as a fund for the release of captives, as the community suggested. Perhaps, with the passage of time, this captive woman will repent and can then be redeemed with this fund.


Responsa of the Rosh 18:14

A Jewish blacksmith rented a shop from an Arab, to use as a smith's shop. The shop is adjacent to the house of Shimon, who complains that he is distressed when the earth shakes each time the the hammer strikes the anvil, that the noise does not let him sleep, and that the dust and smoke are harmful to his health. The blacksmith argues that Shimon cannot prevent the Arab from doing in his place anything he wishes, and since he, the blacksmith is the Arab's tenant, Shimon cannot interfere with his activities either.

The Inquisition records talk about crypto-Jews getting up on Yom Kippur and preparing their food and putting the pot on the stove and cooking the food but not eating it - because people lived so close to each other there was no way they could not prepare a meal and not have the neighbours know.

Responsum: ... It is the duty of every Jew not to afflict pain or damage on his fellow Jew. The dust and smoke that rise from the shop are the direct result of the blacksmith's wilful and premeditated actions. Granted, Shimon cannot stop the Arab if he does these things in his own place, but when a Jew who abides by Jewish law does them, he can indeed raise a protest against them.

The Jewish community in Toledo was autonomous - it had its own judges, its own laws, and was not answerable to the town authorities. Talmudic law regulates such zoning issues, and makes it very clear you can't have a smithy in the middle of a residential area. The problem here is that he is renting a house from a non-Jew. Which tells us something about how they lived: it wasn't a ghetto in the sense of those in Germany or Italy.


Here is a case which the chief rabbi of Cordoba sent to the chief rabbi of Toledo, Toledo being a more prominent community.

Responsa of the Rosh, no 17:8, by Asher ben Yehiel.

Let it be known to our teacher, may he be well, that here in Cordoba a very serious incident took place. The ears of all those who hear of it become "singed". A certain debased person was detained on charges by Gentiles. He settled with them by paying money. The way to get out of prison is to bribe someone.
Some of his acquaintances later went to console him. He went out [to welcome them] and stood at the entrance of his yard. They calmed him in this matter, one of them saying, "Blessed is He who frees the imprisoned" [מטיר אסורים*]. Nevertheless he, turning upwards [to heaven], blasphemed and reviled his King and God. For putting him in prison and costing him so much to get out.

About ten of the community notables, men of action, with this honourable Rabbi Judah, and local sages, with the city elders [decided] to do away with him.

Learning of this, relatives of the guilty person went with bribes, it seems, to the great royal dignitary, Don Juan Manuel whom we received in our area as the procurator for his majesty, the king. ... This lord agreed that the guilty one should remain in his prison until the responsum of my teacher, may he be well, will arrive instructing [us] what to do...

Now, Cordoba is a Muslim city, and blasphemy for Muslims is a very serious offence. It's one thing to be embarrassing to the Jewish community internally, it's quite another to be embarrassing to it in the eyes of their neighbours.

* I'd have translated that as "He permits the forbidden", but I've never stopped to think about what this ברכה actually means.

What is R. Asher to do? A difficult conundrum!

Note that the only diaspora community ever to issue death penalties was Spain - a measure of their autonomy. This is one of the things that shocked the Rosh when he came: In Talmudic law, a death penalty cannot be issued without the authority of a Sanhedrin. (On top of which, the Sanhedrin in late Temple times legislated themselves out of the ability to deliver it - they ruled that a death sentence could only be handed down by a Sanhedrin on the Temple Mount, then moved the Sanhedrin off the Temple Mount. As R. Jeremy Gordon put it, the rabbis of the Talmud were passionately in favour of the existence of the death penalty, and passionately opposed to its practice.)

Now, Judaism does deal with the issue of blasphemy - it's right there in the Third Commandment - but it doesn't make an issue of the subject: you never hear rabbis giving sermons on the subject of blasphemy. To be liable for blasphemy in Jewish law a blasphemer has to say "I am going to blaspheme G-d" in the presence of two witnesses, who explain that the Torah forbids it, and then go ahead and do it anyway, in the presence of witnesses. Effectively, it's one of those punishments that got wangled out of the book.

Which means that in Jewish Law, there is nothing R. Asher can say in this case other than pleading for the man's innocence. But OTOH he can't ask to let him off: it would be embarrassing to the Jewish community, and made a fool of the rabbis of Cordoba and Toledo. This shows both the extent and fragility of the Jewish autonomy here.

Here's how Rabbeinu Asher actually responded.

Responsum: May the delightful pious and charming notables accept [the blessing of] abundant peace. That's the way rabbis say "You're an idiot". :o)

Your asking me concerning capital cases is rather strange. In all of the lands that I have heard of they do not try capital cases except in this land of Spain. When I came here I was very astonished. How were they able to try capital cases without the Sanhedrin? They replied that is is by royal authority. The assembly [of judges] also judges in order to save [lives], since greater amounts of blood would have been spilled if they were tried by the Gentiles. I permitted them to continue with their practice. However, I never agreed with them on any loss of life.

Neverthless, I see that all of you are of the opinion to remove this evil from your midst.

I.e. you are of this opinion, not me!
He certainly did desecrate the name of heaven in public and it was already heard by the Gentiles, who view with seriousness anyone who speaks against their religion and beliefs. The desecration would be increased if no act of vengeance would be taken against him. We do find that in order to sanctify the name of G-d they raised their hands against princes on behalf of proselytes [2 Sam 21:8-9] and let their [the princes'] corpses hang overnight. [We also find] that in order to check lawlessness they stoned to death a person who had ridden a horse on the Sabbath [Talmud, Yevamot 90b]. It is also proper that G-d's name should be sanctified by the loss of this wicked person, and so as you see fit. He gives cases from the Bible where very severe punishments are given for desecrating the name of G-d - trying to justify the Cordobans' views.

If I were present at your contemplations, my opinion would have been that they should pull out his tongue and cut off the major portion necessary for speech thereby silencing his lips. In this way they would mete out [punishment] to him according to his deed. This is a well known vengeance which is witnessed daily.

You do, however, according to what seems proper in your eyes. I do realise that your intentions are that G-d's name should be sanctified.

The opinion of the writer, Asher ben Rabbi Yehiel of Blessed Memory

Rabbeinu Asher is going to have problems as the chief rabbi of Spain, because he's Ashkenazi! These fall into two categories. First, he doesn't really know the customs of Spain. He can learn them, and experience them, but in many ways he's not really at home with the customs of the Spanish Jews. Related to that, he is an outsider, no two ways about it. People will have suspicions about him, that he doesn't understand them. This puts him in a tricky position, because he has to weigh both the community's position and his own position on every political question he is asked.


Responsa of the Rosh 5:2

When praying, Moslems use a small prayer rug, called sagada in Arabic, that is decorated with black designs. Is it permitted to hang such prayer rugs on either side of the Holy Ark for ornamental purposes, and of course not as an object of worship?

*boggle* You wouldn't find Jews in Christian countries asking to hang crosses either side of the Ark!

Responsum: I researched this matter and I found out that here in Toledo it has been the custom to forbid sitting on such rugs in the synagogue, and certainly to bar displaying them alongside the Holy Ark. People say that the black design on the rugs represents the place in Mecca where Moslems worship. Other say that it represents Mercury, and thay it is forbidden to bow down to this idol. They also explained to me that in Arabic it is called sagada, a term related to the Aramaic saga, to prostrate, because they use the rug to bow down on*. In view of this, it seems to me that it is forbidden to display these rugs in the synagogue ... they should be removed ... articles intended to be used in Moslem worship have no place in our synagogue.

* Linguistic trivium: There was an article about a festival unique to the Ethiopian Jews in the Jewish News a few weeks ago; it mentioned that there word for "synagogue" was mesgid, but failed to point out that this was a dialectal variant on standard Arabic masjid, mangled into English as "mosque". I find this astonishing in the light of the above, responsum, which suggests that "masjid" actually means "place for prostrating": there's no prostration, except on the High Holydays, in Judaism. I wonder whether the Ethiopian Jews' ritual is different.


Responsa of the Rosh 15:4

A father told his son not to speak to a certain Jew and not to forgive him for what he had done. The son would like to make peace, but he is concerned about his father's command. What should he do?

Responsum: Let me make it clear that it is forbidden to hate a Jew. ... The father who told his son to hate this Jew had no right to tell his son to violate a Torah decree. The verse "Every person must respect his father and mother" concludes with the words "I am the Lord your G-d" indicating that G-d's law must be obeyed even if a parent tells you to violate it. Besides, by giving such an order, the father was acting in an un-Jewish manner. This being so, the son is not required to obey him.


There were eleven huge synagogues in Toledo, two of which survive to today, turned into churches after the expulsion. (There is, today, one remaining mosque in the city.) In the Transito synagogue, the Hebrew letters around the Moorish-style frieze still exist. (In the other synagogue, (today) Santa Maria La Blanca, there were probably inscriptions too, but they are not there any more.)

The Christians had no shame (said R. Weiner); they turned the synagogues into churches and didn't even try and hide it. Toledo is beautiful and proud and unrepentant of its past. One of the greatest of Jewish communities ever, and there's nothing left of it. But its echoes carry down through history.


And finally, another poem of Yehudah haLevi to close with.

Longing for Zion (Hebrew text)

Zion, will you not ask after your imprisoned ones,
The remnant of your flocks, who seek your peace?
From west and east, and north and south,
From far and near, take greetings, from all sides,
And peace from the captive of desire, whose tears fall
Like Hermon's dew, while he longs to shed them on you
I am a jackal mourning your affliction, and when I dream
On the return of your captives I am a lyre accompanying your songs.*

* Some readers may recognise this line: This is where the line from Naomi Shemer's song ירושלים של זהב (Jerusalem of Gold) comes from (all the other references in it are Biblical and Talmudic).

Date: 2005-12-18 04:11 pm (UTC)
liv: A woman with a long plait drinks a cup of tea (teapot)
From: [personal profile] liv
Have you been to Toledo? I have, with Spanish M. It's a really lovely city, and fascinating historically for the sort of reasons you're discussing here, and also a deeply sad place. I wonder if I'd have a similar reaction to some of the central European cities.

The first time I went there, the Transito synagogue was incredibly depressing; it was presented as, there used to be this religion called Judaism that died out 500 years ago, and this is what historians think it was probably like. That freaked me the hell out, but thankfully when I went back there a few years ago they'd sorted it out. It's now a normal Jewish museum, put together by people who know something about Judaism and mentioning that the religion still exists in contemporary times.

Date: 2005-12-18 04:33 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Have you been to Toledo?

Nope; never been to any of the Jewish sites in Spain (unless you count looking at Palma cathedral from the outside).

The first time I went there, the Transito synagogue was incredibly depressing; it was presented as, there used to be this religion called Judaism that died out 500 years ago, and this is what historians think it was probably like. That freaked me the hell out,

I can imagine! I think you mentioned this to me before, but the name would have meant nothing to me at the time.

Date: 2005-12-18 04:15 pm (UTC)
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
From: [personal profile] liv
The stuff about the Ashkenazi chief rabbi in the middle of Sephardi community is really fascinating! And those examples of trying to reconcile Talmudic precepts with what was practical in a generally non-Jewish society are among the most accessible and interesting responsa I've ever seen.

Date: 2005-12-18 04:17 pm (UTC)
liv: alternating calligraphed and modern letters (letters)
From: [personal profile] liv
I'm not convinced you're right about the words related to masjid. It's possible that the name for synagogues among the Ethiopian community is simply "Jewish mosque", and doesn't have any connection to the etymology of the word.

Date: 2005-12-18 04:30 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Good point, given that they aren't speaking Arabic.

"Noboy expects the Spanish inquisition"

Date: 2005-12-20 11:20 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I am surprised that you said that Jewish people were in general not affected by the Spanish inquisition. I know for sure they arrested and tortured Jews who officially converted but practised Judaism in secret as it was a crime for the church.
I think they were very much involved in forcing Jews to convert by threating them with torture.
They always found some reason to turn up and arrest people when they liked to. So I don't think Jews were not victims even if they did not want to convert. They tortured and when they still resist killed them. It was the most horrible time.

S.O

Re: "Noboy expects the Spanish inquisition"

Date: 2006-01-07 07:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
As far as the Inquisition was concerned, overt Jews were out of its jurisdiction; it only had jursidiction over Christians. Of course, these included conversos who continued to practice their Judaism in secret, but from the Inquisition's perspective, these were not Jews but Christians. That is what I meant by my comment. Jews who converted did so because of pogroms carried out, not torture from the Inquisition.

See further my notes from Limmud (http://www.livejournal.com/users/lethargic_man/44587.html) on the subject.

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