Ḥisdai (Ḥasdai) Ibn Shaprut

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ḤISDAI (Ḥasdai ) IBN SHAPRUT (c. 915–c. 970), the first of the Jewish dignitaries in the service of Spanish rulers on whom information is extant. The family originated in the city of Jaen in eastern Andalusia. From there, Ḥisdai's father, who was a wealthy man, came to Cordoba, the capital of the Umayyad caliphate. Ḥisdai studied primarily medicine, entering the service of the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Raḥmān iii (912–961). He was a practicing physician who also engaged in medical research. In the late 940s, when a diplomatic delegation from Byzantium arrived in Cordoba, bringing as a gift a manuscript of the famous pharmaceutical work of Dioscorides, Ḥisdai was a member of the group which translated it from Greek into Arabic. After the fashion of the Muslim rulers who also entrusted their physicians with administrative and political responsibilities, Abd al-Raḥmān appointed Ḥisdai director of the customs department, one of the most important positions in the country's administration. His talents were also applied to various diplomatic activities. When the abbot Johannes of Goerz (Gorizia) was in Cordoba in 953 as emissary of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto i, the negotiations were carried on through Ḥisdai. In 956 he was sent, together with a Muslim emissary, to the court of the king of Leon in order to negotiate a peace treaty with him. The culminating point of his diplomatic activity was his mission to the royal court of Navarre in 958. He was at first sent there in order to cure Sancho, a Navarre prince who had been crowned king of Leon and then had been expelled. Ḥisdai succeeded in persuading the Christian king and his grandmother Toda to travel to Cordoba in order to conclude a peace treaty with the caliph. The appearance of the two Christian rulers in Muslim Cordoba was widely hailed, and justly considered as an important diplomatic achievement. After Ḥisdai had become an important dignitary in the court of the caliph, he was also appointed leader of the Jewish population in Muslim Spain.

He is rightly considered the founder of Sephardi Jewry in laying the foundations of the cultural and religious efflorescence that came to be known as "The Golden Age." He wisely used the antagonism that existed between Umayyad Spain and Abbasid Babylon to create the conditions that would enable Spanish Jewry to establish its religious independence from the geonim of Babylon. Abd al-Raḥmān was obviously interested in putting an end to the Babylonian tutelage over Spanish Jews. Ḥisdai embarked on a project that made Spain a major center of Jewish culture. He acquired the best manuscripts, offered opportunities to scholars from Spain and elsewhere, and acted as their patron. His activities were most beneficial to his coreligionists. He supported scholars and intellectuals such as *Menahem b. Saruq, who acted as his Hebrew secretary for a long time – until he lost favor – and naturally bestowed presents on poets, as was the custom of the Spanish magnates of that period. *Dunash ibn Labrat, the most outstanding of the Jewish poets living in Spain at that time, wrote poems dedicated to him. It was Ḥisdai who had appointed the refugee *Moses b. Ḥanokh, who appears to have arrived from southern Italy, to the rabbinical seat of Cordoba. The appointment of this eminent rabbi in Cordoba was of great historical importance for the development of the Jewish community of Spain. It brought about a loosening of the ties between Spanish Jews and the Jewish center in Babylonia; Spanish Jewry thus became independent of the guidance of the Babylonian geonim. After the death of R. Moses b. Ḥanokh, Ḥisdai supported the candidacy of his son *Ḥanokh (ben Moses) who was rivaled by Joseph ibn Abitur. Due to Ḥisdai's influence, Ḥanokh was elected rabbi in succession to his father. Ḥisdai is especially well known for his (alleged) letter to Joseph, king of the *Khazars, and the (alleged) reply sent by the latter. In his letter Ḥisdai describes the Umayyad kingdom in Spain and his own status therein, and asks many questions about the Khazar kingdom, while the letter of reply contains a detailed report of the Khazars' conversion to Judaism. There is a divergence of opinion among scholars as to the authenticity of these letters. A text found in the Cairo Genizah consisting of a letter sent to Ḥisdai Ibn Shaprut, describing the war conducted by a Christian army in Sicily and the great suffering of the community of Palermo, was published by A. Scheiber and Z. Malachi, in: spaafjr, 41–42 (1973–74), 207–218.


Ashtor, Korot, 1 (19662), 103–72; Ph. Luzzatto, Notice sur Abou-Iousouf Ḥasdai Ibn-Schaprout (1852); Mann, Texts, index; A.N. Pollak, Kazaryah (19511), 18–21; D.M. Dunlop, The History of the Jewish Khazars (1954), index; Baron, Social, index to volumes 1–8 (1960), 62; Abraham ibn Daud, Sefer ha-QabbalahThe Book of Tradition, ed. by G.D. Cohen (1969), index. add. bibliography: "The Epistle of R. Ḥasdai, Son of Isaac to the King of the Khazars," in: C. Leviant (ed.), Masterpieces of Hebrew Literature: A Treasury of 2000 Years of Jewish Creativity (1969), 158–69; A. Scheiber & Z. Malachi, in: Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 41/42 (1973–74), 207–18; N. Golb & O. Pritsak, Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century (1982); J. Peláez del Rosal, in: The Jews in Cordoba (x–xii Centuries) (1987), 61–77.

[Eliyahu Ashtor]