History: The Middle Ages

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Formative Times (7th to 11th Centuries)
The Crystallization of Jewish Medieval Culture (12th–15th Centuries)
Transition to Modern Times (16th–17th Centuries)

Formative Times (7th to 11th Centuries)

The conquest of the Persian empire by Muslim forces obliterated polytheism as a political force over the entire horizon of Jewish existence. Jews had to accustom themselves to the situation that throughout "the whole world" monotheistic religions claiming the mantle of the Jewish faith were pursuing a consistent policy of derogation and humiliation toward the Jews. To the Christian clergy as a carrier of the inculcation of hatred of the Jews in the masses was now added the Muslim clergy. On the other hand, the conquests of Islam reunified the vast majority of the Jewish people. By 712 Islam ruled from the borders of India to south of the Pyrenees, thus uniting under its sway more than 90% of the existing Jewish population. The success of the Muslims was seen by Jews as divine retribution for the evil and perfidy of Byzantium and Persia. The sudden change in the political order revived hopes for even greater changes that would bring about Redemption and the Messiah. It was not by accident that several militant Jewish *messianic movements followed shortly on Islamic successes. Jerusalem was taken by the Arabs in 638. The Christian prohibitions on the entry of Jews to the Holy City were soon lifted. The attitude of the Muslims to the "People of the Book" was more favorable toward the Jews than that of the Christian rulers (see below). The Muslims had much to learn from the Christian and Jewish infidels, while the existence of many shades of faith other than Islam in the Muslim realm saved Jews living within its borders from the onus of being the main, frequently even the sole, representatives of nonconformists there as they became in Christendom.


The Muslim conquest had far-reaching consequences for Jewish economic and social structures. The first generation of Arab rulers knew little about agriculture, nor cared about it. They imposed a heavy burden on infidel farmers, not being concerned with the disastrous results. On the other hand, they respected trade and regarded the city as a favorable milieu for leading the good Muslim life. The military camps of the conquerors soon developed into cities. All this combined to draw Jews away from the villages and agriculture toward the developing towns and an appreciated occupation in trade. Their links with other Jews along the commercial routes in the vast empire worked in the same direction, as also the opportunities offered by the connections of Jews in Muslim countries for trading with their brethren in the Christian countries. In the lands taken from Byzantium, the new circumstances only completed a process of squeezing out Jews from agriculture that had been begun by the Christian denial of slave manpower to Jewish agricultural undertakings. In the former lands of the Persian Empire this was a relatively new process. By the end of the eighth century it had been more or less accomplished everywhere in the Muslim empire: although some Jewish individuals and groups remained attached to the soil despite unfavorable circumstances, the vast majority of the Jews became townspeople, and retained this structure until the present.

Wherever a new city arose or an old one developed, Jews formed large and enterprising merchant and craftsmen communities, as in *Kufa, *Basra, and *Baghdad (almost from its foundation by the *Abassids) in *Iraq; in *Cairo-Fostat and *Alexandria, in *Egypt; in *Kairouan and *Fez in the Maghreb; and in *Cordoba and *Toledo in Muslim *Spain. Their occupations covered all the varieties found in the towns. Thus the foundation was laid for the variegated structure of Jewish economy and society in the Muslim city, which existed – with spatial and temporal modifications – up to the almost total liquidation of the Jewish communities in Muslim lands after the creation of the State of Israel.

In various regions of the Muslim Empire the lower strata of Jewish society were occupied in every kind of craft. An anti-Jewish writer in the ninth century, in what was certainly a tendentious one-sided view, could even regard certain of the coarser crafts as the main occupation of the Jews in Egypt. The upper stratum of Jewish society in the caliphate engaged in large-scale trade and in money-lending, sometimes even supplying organized and regular loans to the state. In the tenth century certain rich Jewish families were known as the court financiers, their security of tenure deriving to a large degree from the fact, well known to the caliph and his officials, that the huge loans advanced came not only out of the personal fortune of the Jewish banker, but out of amounts lent him by Jewish merchants of lesser means.

In Muslim Spain, as early as the united *Umayad caliphate, the position achieved by *Ḥisdai ibn Shaprut demonstrates the rise of a Jewish official and merchant to political eminence mainly on the basis of his personal abilities and culture. This is even more strikingly exhibited in the 11th century, during the period of the divided Taifa kingdoms, in the person, culture, and career of *Samuel ha-Nagid (Ibn Nagrela), a commander of Muslim armies, vizier of a Muslim king, a great Hebrew poet, eminent talmudist, master of a fine Arabic style, mathematician, philosopher, and statesman – both as a theoretician and in practice – in an absolute state. Muslim Spain gave rise to many similar personalities and families, wholeheartedly Jewish, blending both Jewish and Greek-Arabic culture, and aristocratic in behavior and feeling. Grouped around them and relying heavily on their munificence, were galaxies of poor poets and scholars devoted to their art and the pursuit of philosophy, often highly creative, like Solomon ibn *Gabirol (known by the Latins as the philosopher Avicebron, the author of the Fons Vitae). In Kairouan, Africa, there flourished also under *Fatimid rule a circle of physicians and scholars influential at court and leaders of their communities. In the Mediterranean seaports in the 10th to 12th centuries there was a well organized Jewish trade, relying basically on written communications between merchants as well as on the maintenance of well ordered books of trade and accounts and a well regulated merchant organization that based itself on Jewish law.

The successes of these high dignitaries and influential courtiers naturally ran counter to the basic Islamic attitude toward the Jews, to the legal status it was ready to grant them, and, above all, to popular sentiment. Even the career of the legendary *Paltiel met with intrigue and opposition from Muslim circles. The reality was much harsher. Samuel ha-Nagid was not only bitterly attacked by his political enemies – as he testifies abundantly in his poems – and vilified by scurrilous popular songwriters, but was also sharply assailed by the eminent Muslim philosopher and poet Ibn Ḥazm (Samuel's son *Jehoseph fell victim (1066) to the pent-up hatred of the mob).

The basic Muslim attitude to infidels is set out in the so-called Covenant of *Omar, formally ascribed to the year 637 but almost certainly formulated much later. In regard to the ahl al-dhimma, "the people of protection" (see *Dhimma, Dhimmi) – which comprised both Jews and Christians as deserving of the right to exist under Muslim rule as the *ahl al-kitāb, the "People of the Book" – it provides for security of person and property, and permission to pursue religious worship and codes of behavior according to the law of the faith concerned, on condition of payment of fixed taxes to the caliph's treasury (the jizya and the *kharāj; the kharāj, taken automatically from the field area, did much to drive out Jews from agriculture; and see above) and under a set of rules ensuring the constant humiliation and isolation of the infidels by believers. Many of its humiliating conditions are taken from old anti-Jewish laws of Christian origin, but they also contain certain detailed provisions stemming from conceptions and symbols of social prestige found in Muslim society. Sunni rulers usually tended to apply these rules strictly to the majority of the Jews (and Christians). Shiʿite rulers tended to be more capricious and offensive in their attitude. The Fatimid caliph of Egypt, al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allah (996–1021), embarked on a systematic policy of humiliation of the Jews and Christians in the second half of his reign. Among his inventions can be included the principle of the badge of shame, later taken over by the Church, for he compelled Jews to wear only black robes in public and to carry the wooden image of a calf (in memory of the calf which the Jews had worshiped in the desert; see Jewish *badge). The constancy of the Muslim system of humiliation, coupled with freedom to exercise *autonomy and opportunity to engage in most economic activities in the cities, is illustrated by both the relatively few exceptions made in favor of gifted infidels as well as by the relatively few sharp outbreaks of extreme governmental persecution or mob fury.


Christian society continued to develop, under the guidance of the Church, its pernicious hatred of the Jews. Though the upper ranks of the Church hierarchy accepted, both in theory and in practice, the relatively "mild" attitude toward the Jews of Augustine and Gregory i, the lower ranks tended to be more consistent than their superiors and inclined to question in their sermons the compromise implicit in the Jewish denial of Christianity under Christian rule, thus veering toward the attitude suggested by the legislation of Justinian and Reccared i. Various factors – both general and relating in particular to Jews – helped to shape attitudes toward the Jews in different Christian countries in various times and circumstances. The unifying and directing overall Christian influence was the divided attitude displayed by the Church – less hostile at the top, and increasingly hostile as one proceeded downward. Royalty, the nobility, and the townspeople added elements colored by their own interests to the prevailing temper but always merging with one or the other of the two aspects of the Church attitude.

Seventh-century Visigothic Spain waged a continuous struggle against Jewish existence. A series of laws was promulgated throughout the century to punish Jews for adhering to their faith, to ensure supervision of their behavior as good Christians by local Christian priests, and to take away their children from them in order to educate them in true Christian homes as good Christians. Cruel punishments were threatened to those who would not obey; "the Jews" alluded to in these enactments were evidently forced converts to Christianity who persisted in adhering to the faith of their fathers. The enactment of these measures over the course of a century graphically shows the strength of the devotion to Judaism of communities of Jewish merchants who have left no trace in Jewish literature and culture other than the testimony of persecutory laws to their steadfastness in the face of danger. It was a tragic prelude to the tragedy of the *anusim of Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries. Both in the seventh and the 15th centuries, the Jewish tragedy was the result of a Catholic drive for the unification and uniformization of belief and thought in Spain.

In the Carolingian Empire of the eighth and ninth centuries, trade and mercantile connections were viewed as having a much higher premium than in the declining Visigothic kingdom; hence the treatment of Jews was much better, though always within the framework of the general attitude set by the Church. Emperor *Louis the Pious and his advisers were in particular favorably disposed to Jewish trade, and under him court society treated the Jews well. This incurred the opposition of Archbishop *Agobard of Lyons who bitterly criticized Jewish influence, Jewish culture at Lyons, and the anti-Christian disputations in which the Jews engaged. In particular Agobard opposed the protection accorded to Jewish *slave trading (see also *slaves). The south Italian 11th-century chronicle of Ahimaaz registers the impression made by persecutions instigated by Emperor *Basil i (see *Ahimaaz b. *Paltiel).

During the 10th and 11th centuries the Christianization of the minds, and in particular the emotions and the imaginations, of the peoples in Western Europe proceeded. The importance of Jews as international merchants, and gradually as local merchants too, continued to be appreciated. Jews werealso valued as a colonizing element in the reemerging town life in these countries, as the charter of Bishop Ruediger of *Speyer (1084) offering them attractive concessions clearly shows. In 1190, only six years before the First *Crusade, Emperor Henry iv granted the Jews of Speyer and *Worms charters giving them extensive rights of trade and self-government.


By this time social and religious ferment in Western Europe was nearing its peak. Jews were expelled from *Mainz in 1012. The investiture conflict between the papacy and the emperor, and the propaganda for a Crusade in the 11th century, resulted from the intensification of Christian political theory and the inflamed emotions to a high pitch, leading many Christians to believe it their sacred duty to take revenge for Jesus' passion and death. With the growth of the influence of the monks, the feelings of the lower clergy found a potent and articulate vehicle of expression. All this combined to bring about widespread massacres of the Jews during the First Crusade (1096), in particular of the communities of the Rhine, as well as the Jewish response to this challenge by the acts and the ideology of *kiddush ha-Shem.


The seventh to eleventh centuries were a formative period for a redisposition of Jewish leadership and its social ratification. In the pattern of leadership formed by the institutions of the exilarchate, the geonim and their academies, there emerged an aristocratic hereditary hierarchy consisting of many families of scholars, traditionally devoted to study and assuming leadership in a fixed system of precedence and gradation; another more limited circle was constituted of families of geonim, entitled to succeed to the autocratic leadership of the academies; finally there was the leadership exercised by the Davidic dynasty of the exilarchic house. Over the course of centuries this system tried to combine the principles and practice of intellectual attainment, sanctity of life, hereditary succession, and hierarchic promotion. Despite the tensions and contradictions inherent in this combination, it worked successfully for a remarkably long time. The system was based on centralization, and by example from above induced throughout Jewish society appreciation of aristocratic descent combined with learning and leadership. This structure and set of social values began to break up, not under the attacks of the tenth-century *Karaites, although these were directed expressly and sharply against it, but through the disintegration of the supporting framework of the caliphate, and the appearance of local Jewish leadership which, while remaining aristocratic in attitude and values, was no longer connected with the center at Baghdad and with the hierarchy of the academies. Individualistic tendencies were also at work in this process (see also below).

This structure, with its extreme claims to authority, sanctity, and aristocracy, has remained an isolated chapter in the pattern of Jewish institutions of scholarship and leadership. In the 8th to 11th centuries, and in decline up to the 13th century, it represented for Jewish history a singular experiment of centralistic leadership based on aristocratic stratification and individualist intellectual values. The concept "yeshivah" still remains, but, beyond the borders of the caliphate and after the 13th century, there was no attempt to organize it on the lines of family units and as an hierarchic ladder. The term Gaon became understood in Europe to designate "genius," and its original hierarchical meaning was lost, to be rediscovered by modern research. The system was gradually replaced by local leadership, such as that of the *nagid. Alongside there began to emerge, even in Muslim countries, the local community unit, based on cohesion of its members and the needs specific to Jews living together and feeling a common responsibility in a certain locality.

North of the Pyrenees, Jewish community leadership around the beginning of the 11th century shows the influence of the individual predominating, based on personal charisma and learning alone. It is exemplified in the figure of *Gershom b. Judah, "the Light of the Exile," and in the ideals set out by *Simeon b. Isaac of Mainz, reaching its consummation in the personality and leadership of *Rashi and the figures who by their personal qualities and example led their communities to sacrifice themselves in the spirit of kiddush ha-Shem during the persecutions of the First Crusade. The regular organs of local community leadership and the *synods of local community leaders, which convened at fairs and in central commercial towns like Cologne, served in this milieu to support leadership by the individual or by the isolated community or as an alternative to it.

The Jewish leadership used various methods of influence and systems of instruction to exercise authority. The Babylonian geonim and their academies have assumed a somewhat distorted image in the view of later generations because the main source of information on them and their activities derives from the *responsa they sent, on the authority of the academy, to legal questions submitted to them by communities or individuals. In reality, they achieved their goal of establishing the Talmud as the criterion for normative Jewish way of life and thought, not only, and not even mainly, through this legal and exegetical correspondence. Although the responsa literature of the geonim is highly diversified, and has been regarded with high esteem down through the generations, it was only part, and in their estimation only a substitute, for direct methods of exercising centralistic moral and social control of Jewish society, both orally and in writing. Wherever and whenever possible, they preferred direct instruction given to assemblies of scholars either by the gaon and the collegium of his academy (which served both as a supreme judicial court as well as a high academy of learning) in the *kallah months or by sending out an emissary or a representative of the gaon to the communities. The geonim also sent out letters of moral instruction to the Jewish people when assuming office, called by *Saadiah Gaon the "letter on assuming lordship" (Iggeret Tesurah). Several letters of such purport of the 10th and 11th centuries (of Saadiah Gaon in: Dvir, 1 (1923), 183–8; and in: Ginzei Kedem, 2 (1923), 34–35; of Nehemiah Gaon, in: Mann, Texts, 1 (1931), 78–83; of Israel, son of Samuel b. Ḥophni, ibid., 167–77; of Sherira Gaon, ibid., 95–105; of Hai Gaon, in: Ginzei Kedem, 4 (1930), 51–56) evidence an aim to impart instruction to the people in simple and rational language, appealing to their emotions and needs. In his letter Saadiah Gaon repeatedly stresses that it is the duty of his office to teach Jews and to lead and admonish them. He invites questions and appeals. This high conception of geonic office justifies the assumption that many more such pastoral letters were sent out but have been lost in later centuries and places where geonic institutional and moral authority was no longer binding. The geonim extended their influence also by instilling in the people a deeply mystical conception of the sacredness of the academies and their heads. They especially emphasized the value of their blessing and the danger of incurring their *ḥerem.


The productive Jewish cultural and religious life which continued in these centuries was frequently stormy. Almost at the outset of the geonic campaign to establish the Talmud as the book of life for the Jewish people it encountered the revolt of *Anan b. David, and the early *Karaites. These represent in the eighth to ninth centuries an archaistic and rigoristic trend, turning away from talmudic and geonic "modernization" toward a biblical primitive conception of the Jewish way of life, ideals, and duties. The concept of all-pervading holiness, a demand for the reinstatement of harsh old prescriptions, an insistence on adherence to detailed local custom, and a program of self-isolation for the camp of true believers made this movement a throwback to various ancient sectarian tendencies of the Second Temple period. Even in this opposition the strength of talmudic modes of thought is evident, for Anan employs talmudic dialectics frequently and with skill in his writings; what he opposed was reliance on law based on talmudic collective discussion and the alleviations it introduced.

The change in cultural temper and religious mood among the Jews in Muslim countries in these centuries – to a large degree due to the influence of Islamic society and culture, and to the penetration of Greek philosophical ideas to both Muslims and Jews – is evident in the development of Karaism as well as in the fight against it. Whereas Anan was authoritarian to the core and the geonim who opposed him at first rejected his views in the name of the sanctity of tradition and on the basis of the authority of their academies, both Karaite and *Rabbanite conceptions and argumentations had changed very much in the same direction by the tenth century. Both sides were now mainly contending within the framework of religious rationalism, which worked a transformation in the conception of their own stand and that of their opponents. The Karaites of the tenth century (see *Avelei Zion; *Daniel b. Moses al-Qūmisī; *Levi b. Japheth; *Sahl b. Maẓli'aḥ ha-Kohen; *Salmon b. Jeruham; Jacob al-*Kirkisānī) based their strict adherence to the Bible on their conception of individual responsibility, which should not rely on any external authority but only on the individual's reasoning powers. This they considered the sole legitimate means by which to understand properly – i.e., individually – the sacred Scriptures, the Jewish way of life, and the world order.

The writings of the geonim of the 10th and early 11th centuries show a similar application of rationalism. Saadiah Gaon wrote his "Book of Beliefs and Opinions" in the early tenth century to explain Jewish Rabbanite theory and practice on systematic rationalistic philosophical grounds and to defend it against opponents through rationalist argumentation. He opposed the Karaites in the name of religious rationalism, which demands that men should rely on accumulated tradition and binds them to obey the guidance of national collective leadership. Rationalism afforded Saadiah – and, in an even more extreme approach, the Gaon*Samuel b. Hophni – the incentive and the means to combat anthropomorphic interpretations and uphold radical rationalist exegesis of the Bible. On the other hand, to Karaites it furnished weapons for destructive criticism of the Talmud. Although the theoretical and practical consequences were to be widely divergent, they stemmed from a common point of departure based on a rationalist approach.

The divergences and conflicts often divided the Rabbanite and Karaite camps more deeply among themselves than the controversy between the two sides. By its nature Karaite individualist rationalism gave rise to innumerable divisions. The much larger Rabbanite section, united formally, became increasingly diversified with the development of local custom and local culture, which became more important as the centralizing framework of the caliphate and the authority of the exilarchate and Babylonian academies began to decline. Even more decisive was the difference between communities within the Muslim environment and influence and those in the Christian sphere.

The difference is thrown into sharp relief when the world of thought and religion of the Babylonian academies is confronted with that of the Jews of southern Italy. This Jewry was important in its time and for later generations from many aspects. The Jewry of *Ashkenaz was conscious of its cultural roots in southern Italy. The Ashkenazi rite of prayer originated there. In the 12th century Jacob b. Meir *Tam formulated the cultural debt of Ashkenaz to southern Italy by his paraphrase of Isaiah 11:13; "For out of Bari shall go forth the Law and the word of the Lord from Otranto." Mystic circles of the *Ḥasidei Ashkenaz traced nebulous origins of their traditions to semilegendary figures active in southern Italy. The wealth of Jewish traditions and culture there is revealed in the *Josippon chronicle, completed in 953. The *piyyutim composed by Jews of this region during the period are the products of a considerable Hebrew liturgic and poetic activity. In the Ahimaaz chronicle, completed in 1054, the traditions, the venerated figures, and the ideals of the upper circles of this important Jewry emerge in striking contrast to the rationalist world of Babylonian Jewry. The chronicle abounds with miraculous elements. Use of the Divine Name frequently appears, as a formula for keeping the dead alive, for supplying miraculous defense, and as a device for speedy transportation. Vampire-like women are reported to snatch, in the dark of night, children who in turn are snatched away and kept alive by holy sages. In religious outlook this world reveals all the elements that *Hai Gaon despised and warns against in the 11th century (see: Oẓar ha-Geonim ed. by B.M. Levin, 4 (1931), 6, 10–12, 13–27, nos. 7, 16, 20–21 (responsa to Ḥagigah).

In Muslim Spain, at the courts of Jewish grandees, a different cultural trend developed in the 10th and 11th centuries. The clash that occurred between Ḥisdai Ibn Shaprut and his court poet and grammarian, *Menahem b. Jacob ibn Saruq, demonstrates on the one hand the lordly attitude of the maecenas and on the other the proud individuality of the poor intellectual. In the 11th century Samuel ha-Nagid and his son Jehoseph lived in ostentatious luxury and prided themselves on it. According to many opinions, they were among the main builders of the Alhambra palace in Granada. The writings of Samuel ha-Nagid display a rational, highly individualistic and somewhat sensual temper. The responsa of Isaac b. Jacob *Alfasi provide evidence of the trends in Torah learning and communal culture characterizing the middle strata in Jewish society in Muslim Spain.

Archbishop Agobard describes the culture of the Jewish community at Lyons and the literature it possessed as both mystic and talmudic in its conceptions. The Jews in the lands of the Franks in the 10th to 11th centuries are also known from their own works and expressions of opinion. The Jews of Provence described themselves to Ḥisdai Ibn Shaprut in the tenth century as "Your servants, the communities of France." They were in close contact with the Muslim Spanish Jewish courtier and tried to persuade him to influence the authorities at Toulouse to stop the practice of a local custom harming and insulting to the Jews. Their letter is written in flowery Hebrew (Mann, Texts, 1 (1931), 27–30). The community of *Arles had specific ordinances for trade regulation about this time. The *Anjou community recorded, in rich Hebrew, an event that proves Jewish contact with and influence in the Christian environment in the south. It relates to a woman proselyte who "has left her father's house, great riches, in a far land, and has come for the sake of the name of our God to nestle under the wings of the Shekhinah. She has left her brethren and the grandees of her family; she settled in Narbonne. The late rabbi David married her … as he heard that they were looking for her he fled with her to our place." A new place of refuge was now being sought for the noble proselyte widow and her baby child (ibid., 32–33). This type of Jewish culture flourishing in close contact with its environment was to continue in Provence and bear many fruits (see below).

A distinct and productive Jewish culture developed in the 10th and 11th centuries in northern France and on the eastern bank of the Rhine. The mystic traditions of southern Italy were not forgotten here but toned down. This culture flourished in a patrician merchant society regulated according to halakhah, and was based on Torah study and on the conception of the whole of the Jewish heritage as a living integrated force. In the piyyutim of Simeon b. Isaac ideals are set forth and behavior described which were to be typical of the early Jewry of Ashkenaz for many generations. This culture produced the first almost complete commentary on the Bible and the Babylonian Talmud, the work of Rashi, which has remained the basis of traditional Jewish Bible and Talmud study. Through this it also influenced to a considerable extent Christian understanding of the Bible, in particular through the impact on *Nicholas of Lyre.

It was in this northern, Christian environment that Jewish *family structure underwent a revolutionary reformulation. *Monogamy became the pattern of the *Ashkenazi Jewish family by force of the so-called "Takkanot of Rabbenu Gershom b. Judah, the Light of the Exile." This change was reinforced by a complementary one: a ḥerem ascribed to the same authority invalidated a bill of divorce of a woman without her prior consent.


These formative centuries also saw the conversion of a Mongol society to Judaism. The *Khazars – the royal family and court, and their warrior class in particular – accepted Judaism in the eighth century. This created a state ruled by a Jewish aristocracy in the strategically important region between the Volga and the Caspian Sea in the eighth to tenth centuries. The report of this conversion had great influence on contemporary Jews (see *Ḥisdai ibn Shaprut) and on Jewish thought in later generations (see *Judah Halevi). In modern times its memory was to play a certain role in discussions about the origins of the Jews in Poland–Lithuania and Russia. The Khazar state practiced full tolerance toward merchants of various denominations, both those living in it as well as those passing through. It controlled important trade routes and fulfilled a critical function in the history of Christianity in Eastern Europe as it served as a buffer state between a dynamic Islam and the Slav peoples in what is now Russia – by which the Khazar state was later destroyed.


On the threshold of the 12th century Jewish history stood at the end of the successful period of the experiment to combine a hierarchical and hereditary social structure with individualist criteria of learning and intellectual attainment; the former experience in leadership and economic development had shown both the importance and dangers in the existence of a gigantic political framework like the caliphate and its breakup; the Jewish sphere was characterized by cultural diversification and the emergence of various systems of leadership. Rationalism was the dominating influence – at least among the upper circles and intellectuals – in the Jewish communities of the Muslim countries. Mystical and even magical leanings were found among the Jews in Christian countries. Great individual leaders were emerging; individualism and local particularism began to assert themselves in the leadership. In regions of cultural and social contacts and transit, like North Africa, southern Italy and Provence, Jewish cultural creativity was due in no small part to these circumstances. The latecomer to the Jewish scene, the budding culture of Ashkenaz, produced great achievements almost at the start and a capacity for expressing revolutionary halakhic and social changes. The upper circles of Jewish society had a fluent command of Hebrew though in everyday life they used the languages of the countries they lived in; in Muslim countries Arabic was used for literary expression, in particular for legal decisions and philosophic deliberations. Rashi found it necessary to intersperse his commentaries with many Old-French terms in order to be understood by his readers. Jews continued along the path that was to lead them from the use of Greek and Latin, as a cultural medium, through adaptation of alien languages to the development of *Yiddish and, later, *Ladino. Hence a trend apparently leading to assimilation became a valuable means of attaining an individual culture and cohesion. Judaism was still attracting individuals in the west of Europe, like the deacon *Bodo, while in the east of Europe it attracted the leading sector of a Mongol nation, ruling its state for over two centuries. The hatred and massacres engendered by the Crusades produced in response the spirit of kiddush ha-Shem, which was described and taught in the early 12th century as representing the Jewish holy war against the enemies of the Lord.

The Crystallization of Jewish Medieval Culture (12th–15th Centuries)


The 12th century continued the series of shocks for Jewish society in Europe and for the Jewish spirit everywhere initiated by the movement and spirit of the Crusades. The Second Crusade (1146–47) and the Third (1189–90) brought massacre, plunder, and terror in their wake to Jews in Western Europe. *Bernard of Clairvaux gave strong popular expression to the old-established conception of the higher Church echelons of combining a policy toward the Jews of humiliation and isolation with defense of their life and property. In his letter to "the English People" sent also to "the Archbishops, Bishops, and all the clergy of eastern France and Bavaria," he states:

The Jews are not to be persecuted, killed, or even put to flight … The Jews are for us the living words of Scripture, for they remind us always of what our Lord suffered. They are dispersed all over the world so that by expiating their crime they may be everywhere the living witness of our redemption … Under Christian princes they endure a hard captivity, but "they only wait for the time of their deliverance"… I will not mention those Christian money-lenders, if they can be called Christian, who, where there are no Jews, act, I grieve to say, in a manner worse than any Jew ….

That his missionary hopes and expectations serve as a main argument in his defense of the Jews is even more evident in another letter to the archbishop of Mainz opposing the incitement to massacre preached by the monk, Raoul. Bernard argues:

Is it not a far better triumph for the Church to convince and convert the Jews than to put them all to the sword? Has that prayer which the Church offers for the Jews, from the rising up of the sun to the going down thereof, that the veil may be taken from their hearts so that they may be led from the darkness of error into the light of truth, been instituted in vain?… (The Letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, transl. by Bruno Scott James (1953), nos. 391, 393).

This was the most that a great Christian mystic and ascetic could say against shedding the blood of Jews to the Western European populace in 1146. These letters were reprinted by anti-Nazi Church circles in Germany immediately after the Holocaust!

Left to their own resources the Jews protected themselves by leaving the towns and moving to castles of the nobility – paying money for the Christians to leave the castle so as to defend it themselves. This policy, successful in most cases, had tragic consequences for the community of *York, England (1190). True to the ideal of kiddush ha-Shem, when the Jews were surrounded in the tower they killed themselves.

Jewish steadfastness to the faith in itself served to forestall some attacks. Those who adopted Christianity when threatened with death in 1096 were permitted by Emperor Henry iv to return to Judaism despite a sharp protest by the pope. Though the religious-fanatical motive for Jew-killing remained among Christians throughout the Middle Ages, it was now becoming interwoven with economic, social, and emotional elements. Bernard of Clairvaux had hinted at hatred for the Jewish usurer as a motive for attacking Jews. The *blood libel from the 12th century onward and the libel of desecration of the *Host from the 13th century created a vicious circle around the Jew. Each accusation presupposed the Jew as treacherous, blood-lusting, sadistic, God-hating, and devil-worshiping. Each libel added darker shades to this conception of the Jew. Dramas on the passion of Christ combined with imagery in Romanesque and Gothic church sculpture, stained glass, and paintings to imbue deep in the thought and imagination of the Christian populace, through the greatest expression of Christian art, the image of the Jew as a horrible and horrifying fiend.

As Christianity encompassed the mental horizon of all Western Europeans in this era, the Jew remained the main – often the only – representative of nonconformity in a conforming society. As in the fourth century, so in the 12th and early 13th century, as well as in the early 15th, an upsurge of heretical movements and social tensions within Christianity (e.g., the *Hussites) intensified the fear of the Jew and hatred of him. In the struggle between papacy and empire, the leaders of the Church became used to demagogic formulas and the deployment of popular forces and violence to serve their own purposes. The attitude and legislation of Pope *Innocent iii express clearly this interpenetration of policy and vulgar enmity of the Church's attitude toward the Jews, even in papal formulations. Mercilessness in enforcing servitude of the Jews, extreme hostility, and debased rhetoric and menaces appear there in a potent and vicious combination. The Augustinian-Gregorian conception of sufferance of the Jews amid Christian society – restated in a missionary vein by Bernard of Clairvaux in the middle of the 12th century – assumes, with Innocent iii in a letter to the king of France of Jan. 16, 1205, the following shape:

Though it does not displease God, but is even acceptable to Him that the Jewish Dispersion should live and serve under Catholic Kings and Christian princes until such time as their remnant shall be saved … nevertheless such [princes] are exceedingly offensive to the sight of the Divine Majesty who prefer the sons of the crucifiers, against whom to this day the blood cries to the Father's ears, to the heirs of the Crucified Christ, and who prefer the Jewish slavery to the freedom of those whom the Son freed, as though the son of a servant could and ought to be an heir along with the son of the free woman … (S. Grayzel, Church and the Jews in the 13th Century (1933), 104–106, no. 14).

This great lawyer relies on and quotes the information that "it has recently been reported that a certain poor scholar had been found murdered in their [the Jews'] latrine" (ibid., 110). He does not hesitate to quote at the beginning of a detailed anti-Jewish letter that the Jews are to be considered "in accordance with the common proverb: 'like the mouse in a pocket, like the snake around one's loins, like the fire in one's bosom'" (ibid., 115, no. 18).

Innocent iii tried to deflect to the Jews his anti-imperialist policy of exploiting popular force and sentiment. In 1198, at the very beginning of his pontificate, he wrote:

To the Archbishop of Narbonne and to his suffragans, and also to the Abbots, Priors, and other prelates of the Church, as well as to the Counts and Barons, and all the people of the Province of Narbonne … We order that the Jews shall be forced by you, my sons the princes, and by the secular powers, to remit the usury to them; and until they remit it, we order that all intercourse with faithful Christians, whether through commerce or other ways, shall be denied the Jews by means of a sentence of excommunication … (ibid., 87, no. 1).

Consistent in his attitude, he carried through this policy as the program of the Church in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 (see *Church Councils). There the representatives of the Catholic Church ordered

by a decree of this Synod, that when in the future a Jew, under any pretext, extorts heavy and immoderate usury from a Christian, all relationship with Christians shall therefore be denied him until he shall have made sufficient amends for his exorbitant exactions. The Christians, moreover, if need be, shall be compelled by ecclesiastical punishment without appeal, to abstain from such commerce. We also impose this upon the princes, not to be aroused against the Christians because of this, but rather to try to keep the Jews from this practice (ibid., 307).

These measures failed, mainly thanks to the opposition of the secular rulers, yet they encouraged anti-Jewish propaganda by the mendicant orders against Jewish usury, in particular by the *Franciscans, especially in Italy of the 15th century (and see *Monte di Pietà).


The Jews in Muslim Spain were profoundly shaken in the 12th century by the successful Christian Reconquista from the north and by the Muslim response in the waves of the *Almohads erupting from North Africa to infuse a new fighting spirit into the Muslim ranks. Many communities were dispersed; many Jews fled, like the family of *Maimonides, to the south, to other Muslim countries. Many Jews, both in North Africa and in the territories in Spain under Muslim rule, were forced to adopt Islam. Others fled northward to the Christian principalities of Spain. At first the Jews experienced a general feeling of crisis and loss, forcefully expressed by the chronicler Abraham *Ibn Daud. Gradually – and relatively soon, in time to be noticed by the same late 12th-century chronicler – Jewish refugees in the Christian principalities found new functions and a new importance within the general society, in the colonizing and economic spheres as well as in the cultural and scientific ones. The Jewish element was entrusted with the colonization of fortified parts of the towns taken by the Christians; they were given many administrative posts especially in the financial field.

Papal protests against the honors and powers conferred on Jews did not prevail in Spain during the 12th to 14th centuries against the needs of the state for the expertise and initiative of the Jews. Jews also became the transmitters of Muslim-Greek philosophy and science to Christians – a role entrusted to them, and to apostates from Judaism, in many other Christian courts and Church circles of the 12th and 13th centuries, as translators of Arabic and Greek texts into Latin (see Jacob *Anatoli; Ibn *Tibbon). Many Jews served as mathematicians, astrologers, field surveyors, and, above all, physicians at the Christian courts. They thus created the courtier circles of Jewish society in the kingdoms of Christian Spain. This paradox of crusading Christian states granting to Jews a major role in colonization, administration, the economy, and science was the basis of the normal Jewish town economy and society there, Jews being found in almost every walk of urban social life and economic activity. This situation continued up to the expulsion from Spain at the end of the 15th century, though it deteriorated from 1391 onward.


In countries north of the Pyrenees, there developed gradually, after the massacres of the First Crusade, a specific Jewish economic and social pattern, more and more Jews being forced by circumstances to engage in one occupation only, mainly *usury. This trend never penetrated Jewish life in Christian Spain or Muslim countries where moneylending was one of many Jewish livelihoods. It was also not continued as the main Jewish occupation in Poland-Lithuania from the 16th century onward. With the 15th century, Jews began to turn increasingly to other occupations in the countries where moneylending had been formerly predominant in Jewish life. In the Middle Ages this function of the Jews was mainly the supply of consumption loans (for commercial loans were supplied by Christian moneylenders despite Church prohibition). It was necessary for the needs of the town population and nobility (a necessity proved by the fact that when Jews were expelled from German towns, as happened in the 14th and 15th centuries, they were returned quickly because the need for loans was felt). However, the high rate of interest stemming from the scarcity of ready money and precious metals in the Middle Ages and the method of taking pawns to ensure repayment – as well as the fact that taking interest was considered immoral and unreasonable in medieval Christian moral and economic theory – added Jewish usury to the score of other evil Jewish practices and trades. The image of the cruel Jewish extortionist and crafty financial trickster was merged with that of the Christ killer and child murderer. Shakespeare created the figure of Shylock, on the basis of Italian influences, more than 300 years after the last Jew had been expelled from England. To the present day, antisemites and apologetic Jews are obsessed by the notion that the "usurious spirit" of the Jews is a trait to be reprehended or explained.

The attitude of Jews toward moneylending on interest in the Middle Ages was governed by the rationale of merchants and townspeople who were out of tune with the agrarian spirit of biblical, mishnaic, talmudic, and Church prohibitions. There do not appear in the writings of Jewish commentators on the Bible and decisors of the Middle Ages the philosophic argumentation as to the barrenness of money and the insensibility to the concept of economic enjoyment from the passage of time which constantly recurs among Christian writers. Except for the few influenced by Christian attitudes, Jewish lawyers and moralists consider the biblical prohibition on lending on interest as "a decree of divine majesty" to be carried out according to the letter, even if not understood in spirit. The Bible forbade lending to "your brother," and the Jews in the medieval cities, who certainly could not perceive any demonstration of a brotherly attitude toward them by their Christian neighbors, interpreted the prohibition at this minimum and saw no reason, either logical or moral, to extend this unreasonable decree toward non-Jews. In fact, Jewish legal authorities tried to find legal formulas allowing the taking of interest by a Jew from a Jew – as Christians did also, despite their theoretical moralistic objections, with regard to the taking of interest by a Christian from a Christian. Among Jews this was formally achieved in 1607 by the *Councils of the Lands of Poland-Lithuania. In 1500 Abraham *Farissol expressed the attitude toward the taking of interest through a theory which assumed the existence of a different social and conceptual order in biblical times and which was in accord with the Greek philosophers who justified the prohibition on the taking of interest. However, as of now, human society was structured on other principles:

A new nature, different obligation, and another order pertains, inherently different from the first. This is: to help your fellow for payment coming from the one who is in need of something. Nothing should be given to another free of charge if he is not a charity case deserving pity.

He lists payment for work, rent for accommodation, and hire of work-animals as cases to prove this point. He considers it a logical consequence to pay for the use of the capital of another man,

for a money loan is sometimes much more important than the loaning of an animal or a house, hence it is natural, logical and legal to give some payment to the owner of the money who gives a loan in the same way as people pay rent for houses and cattle, which come to one through money … the first natural order has been abolished and no one helps another person for nothing, but everything is done for payment (from his Magen Avraham, in: Ha-Ẓofeh le-Ḥokhmat Yisrael, 12 (1928), 292–3).

This foreshadowing of modern theorists about capital and gain is the end result of the Jewish attitude toward money and interest throughout the Middle Ages.


The catastrophe of the *Black Death persecutions and massacres of 1348–49 was both the culmination of the suspicion and distrust of the Jew which made it conceivable to see him as the natural perpetrator of the crime of well-poisoning, and, in Germany, the culmination of over 50 years of almost uninterrupted anti-Jewish attacks, libels, and massacres. Yet Jewish society showed its great resilience in reconstructing its communities and rebuilding its economic activity and ties only a few after these persecutions in the very places where they had been killed as dangerous beasts. Even in Christian Spain and Poland-Lithuania this catastrophe had its impact, though it was not to be so destructive as in Central Europe.

The Jews were expelled from *England in 1290 – 16,000 persons approximately – to return there only in the 17th century. They were expelled almost totally from most of France in 1306. After these expulsions, in 1348, there remained the shocked and reorganized cluster of Jewish communities in the German lands; the Jewish center in Christian Spain was still intact, though signs of danger were not lacking. In Muslim lands, the Mongolian incursions brought the devastation of population and cultural difficulties for Muslims and Jews alike, but the status, *economy, and *demography of the Jews remained relatively the same as before, for better or worse. The new Jewish center in Poland recovered speedily after 1348, and continued to develop economically, moving out of moneylending activity toward trade and crafts; demographically and socially, there were already signs of the future dynamism and expansion of this Jewish center.


The legal status of the Jews and their security remained unstable as the result of the First Crusade. The old system of granting charters and imperial episcopal protection and defense was found totally wanting in the face of popular incitement and attack. The state, as well as the Jews, was searching for a new formula and new guarantees for safety. This search went on in a situation in which even the would-be protectors were liable to be the deadly enemies of the Jews, as for example, *Louis ix of France, who considered that the right way to speak to a Jew was with a sword in his belly. The Holy Roman Empire tried at first to include Jews in the Landfrieden protection (1103) along with other defenseless Christian people. This did not work out well because of the very nature of the concept Treuga Dei ("Truce of God"), which was intended as a Christian measure for the protection of Christian folk. Gradually, there began to crystallize, during the 12th and 13th centuries, a new conception of the status of the Jew. The complex of ideas underlying this new attitude toward the Jew in the Christian body politic came from two different, though parallel, sources – from imperial legalistic conceptions of the rights of ownership of the sovereign over certain elements of the population and his obligations toward such chattels on the one hand, and, on the other, out of papal and ecclesiastical conceptions of the sovereignty of the vicar of Christ over those who crucified him and the right and duty of the pontiff to instruct Christian rulers how to behave in a Christian way. Legendary influences, legal notions, and fiscal hopes of the chance to exact maximum extortion in taxes and contributions from Jews merged with old imperial conceptions of the duty to protect and safeguard all the inhabitants of the realm. From early formulations that the Jews "belong to our chamber" (attineant ad cameram nostram, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, in 1182), through the final legal conception of Emperor Frederick ii expressed in 1237, that "imperial authority has from ancient times condemned the Jews to eternal servitude for their sins" (cum imperialis auctoritas a priscis temporibus ad perpetrati iudaici sceleris ultionem eisdem Iudeis indixerit perpetuam servitutem) in his charter granted to the city of *Vienna, emerged the term given currency by the same emperor that the Jews were "*servi camerae nostrae, sub imperiali protectione" – "serfs of our chamber, under imperial protection." King Henry iii of England formulated with Christian candor in 1253, "that no Jew remain in England unless he do the King service, and that from the hour of birth every Jew, whether male or female, serve Us in some way" (in his Mandatum Regis; Select Pleas, Starrs … of the Exchequer of the Jews, edited by J.M. Rigg (1902), xlviii). This legal conception served in many cases as a license for the capricious extortion of money from Jews. Duke Albert Achill of Brandenburg declared in 1463 that each new Holy Roman emperor had the right to burn the Jews on his accession, to expel them, or to take a third of their property; the last he was actually going to do as the emissary of the emperor.

"The servitude of the Jews" did not always work to their detriment. Considered as royal chattel, they usually enjoyed royal protection. Neither the emperor nor other rulers drew from this concept of Jewish servitude the consequence of taking away from Jews their right of free movement, nor were they barred from inheriting the property of their fathers. Jews expressly appreciated the implications of these positive and negative aspects to their servitude. On the basis of this concept of servitude, very different legal structures and practices could be and were sanctioned. Up to 1391 Christian Spain drew very few consequences that operated to the detriment of the Jews. But, on the pattern of an Austrian charter issued in 1244 (see *Frederick ii of Babenberg, duke of Austria), a system that gave rise to many such consequences was constructed in Central and Eastern Europe.

Jews in the Middle Ages often expressed their attitude to the legal and political framework in which they were living in their discussions of the conception that "the law of the government is law" (*dina de-malkhuta dina), as applying to Jews. Their deliberations on these themes show their estimate of and preference for differing political systems and legal structures. On the whole they were pro-royalist and against disruptive forces. They were for "the old," "the customary and hallowed law," and against arbitrary innovation.


At the end of the 14th century, as the Reconquista was almost accomplished, when Christian society in Spain no longer felt the need for Jewish tutelage in colonization, administration, or culture, the paradox of a favorable Jewish existence within a fanatical Christian society began to disintegrate. Preceded by inimical propaganda, in 1391, many communities there were attacked. Thousands of Jews accepted Christianity under compulsion, thus creating in Christian Spain, as well as in Jewish society, the phenomenon and problem of the *Marranos, the anusim, and later on, the creation of the Spanish *Inquisition (1480). A century of pressure exercised by forcing the Jews to listen to missionary *sermons, the holding of religious *disputations (and see disputation of *Tortosa), and constant social and mental stress followed. In the end, the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. They were again cruelly forced into *apostasy, their children being taken away from them, in *Portugal in 1497. As the Jews in large tracts of southern Italy were forced into apostasy or expelled by 1292, and were expelled from *Sicily in 1492–93, there were almost no Jews left in Western Europe by 1500, from the north of the British Isles to the tip of Sicily, except for isolated communities in France and for the remnant of the Jews in central and northern Italy. At the time that *Columbus discovered a new continent and made the Atlantic a highway for transport and trade, the Jews were not permitted to cross the Atlantic, though not for long. Many of those expelled from Spain went directly to the Muslim countries of northern Africa or to the territories of the *Ottoman Empire, which received them favorably; others arrived in these lands via Portugal and Italy, and many remained in Italy. There also began a movement away from Spain into the Spanish *Netherlands, which formed the nucleus of the later Jewish return to the shores of the Atlantic.


The leadership of Jewish autonomy and communal life had been developing during these centuries toward the complete disappearance of the old geonic hierarchy, which vanished by the end of the 13th century. Maimonides and *Samuel b. Ali Gaon clashed sharply about this in the late 12th century. Samuel was sure that the Gaon and his academy were the only feasible leaders for the Jewish people and the custodians of Orthodoxy. Maimonides considered that the system of a publicly supported hierarchic structure of scholars was wrongful and sinful; he asserted that the hereditary office of the gaon was corrupting by its very nature. This was a confrontation between the claim to leadership by the nascent individualist charisma and old-established hierarchy and institution. Maimonides did not oppose the exilarchate; his descendants, and possibly he himself, carried the title and office of nagid in Egypt. His "Letter to Yemen" as well as many of his responsa are in the great tradition of the epistles of instruction and legal leadership of the geonim. There were signs of a resurgence of local communal leadership among Jews throughout the Muslim lands during these centuries.


In the kingdoms of Christian Spain, communal life was much more involved, tense, and diverse than in the countries to the north and south. Tension between the various social classes to which the variegated economic structure and relatively large numbers in these communities gave rise was aggravated by disputes over the mode of election to, and composition of, the community institutions as well as by acute differences of opinion over the mode of tax assessment, the composition of the assessory bodies of the community, and actual justice or injustice in distribution of the tax burden. These causes of social friction operated with particular intensity in the 13th and 14th centuries, as in the community of *Barcelona. They sometimes gave rise to "political parties" along the lines of division between the rich and poor members of the Jewish community, like those in *Saragossa about 1264. Such divisions and parties became intertwined with, and often focused on, ideological and social controversies; the latter mainly reflected the disparities between the leanings of the well-to-do and courtiers in Jewish society toward rationalism – and, as their enemies accused them, often also toward hedonism – and the inclinations of the lower middle classes, the poor, and a minority of the upper classes toward *Kabbalah mysticism, and moral reform of an ascetic type. These elements were central in particular during the great storms aroused in Jewry by the *Maimonidean controversy (in the 1230s and around the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th century). These theoretical and practical conflicts also related to questions of the study of general culture and of the correct attitude toward mixing in gentile society. The vortices of social, economic, political, and religious problems complicated as well as enriched the social and communal life and thought of the Jewry of Christian Spain. The phenomenon of the anusim further aggravated as well as deepened the problems of division and unity among Jews and influenced their fate and nation.

The actual leadership of Jewish society and the communities was generally in the hands of the great courtier aristocratic families which claimed it as their birthright – like the families of *Benveniste; Perfet; *Alconstantini; *Ibn Ezra; *Ibn Waqar; and *Ibn Shoshan. From the end of the 12th century their claims were challenged frequently and vigorously, and often with success, by the supporters and leaders of anti-aristocratic and anti-rationalist trends. These leaders often came from the great families and were a product of their type of culture, such as Nahmanides, Solomon b. Abraham *Adret, Joseph Abu Omar *Ibn Shoshan, *Isaac b. Sheshet Perfet, and Hasdai *Crecas. The Jewish leadership in Christian Spain defended the communities they represented and the legal and social status of the Jews not only through their contacts and influence at court, but also through their intimate acquaintance with the cultural and legal complex of Christian social and judicial attitudes toward the Jews – both of the Church as well as of the state rulers – as the ideas expressed by the general council of the Aragon communities held in Barcelona in 1354 show (Baer, Urkunden, 1 (1929), 348–58, no. 253). Despite its political sagacity, this council failed in its attempt to create a central body for the Jewry of Aragon where local particularism was strong. Castile Jewry, on the other hand, had a centralizing institution in the office of the *rab de la corte, which helped to promote cohesion among the Jewish communities in the kingdom. This enabled the Castile communities to hold the great synod of *Valladolid in 1432 with its comprehensive program of reform and restoration (ibid., 2 (1936), 280–97, no. 217).


The personal charisma of the individual scholar, in conjunction with local particularized community organization, continued to dominate Jewish leadership north of the Pyrenees, and, with the emigration of Jews to western Slavic countries, was transplanted to Poland-Lithuania. Attempts to achieve a centralized leadership by synods in the first part of this period (up to 1348) in the West were essentially linked either with the great figures of revered scholars, like Jacob b. Meir Tam for the area of present-day France, in the 12th century, or with the authority of old and important communities like Rome in Italy or *Troyes in Champagne. These councils exerted authority through a system whereby their original decisions were sent for approval and support to the main communities and important scholars and leaders who did not attend the synod. The center of gravity of Jewish leadership would thus tend to move from place to place or from scholar to scholar, though for most of the time Rome held a central position, in a curious parallel to its position in the Catholic world. Individual leaders and single communities, as well as the synods and their written missives, dealt with variegated problems arising out of Jewish religious, economic, and social life, and the opposition by the outside world. An extreme example of the devotion of the leader to his people attained in those tense centuries is that of *Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg in Germany at the end of the 13th century who refused to permit the Jewish communities to ransom him from the dungeon to which he had been arbitrarily confined, in case this set a precedent for exacting similar extortion through the persons of other leaders. The trend to elevate the position of the woman in Jewish society, expressed in these regions by the imposition of monogamy, continued. *Pereẓ b. Elijah of Corbeil at the end of the 13th century writes:

Who has given a husband the authority to beat his wife? Is he not rather forbidden to strike any person in Israel? Moreover R. I[saac] has written in a responsum that he has it on the authority of three great sages, namely, R. Samuel, R. Jacob Tam, and R. I[saac], the sons of R. Meir, that one who beats his wife is in the same category as one who beats a stranger … We have therefore decreed that any Jew may be compelled, on application of his wife or one of her near relatives, by a ḥerem to undertake not to beat his wife in anger or cruelty or so as to disgrace her … If they, our masters, the great sages of the land agree to this ordinance it shall be established (Finkelstein, Middle Ages, 216–7; and G.G. Coulton, Medieval Panorama (1955), 614–5).

This is also an example of how an individual scholar would turn his personal decision into synodal takkanah.

From a legal demand for unanimity in communal decisions voiced in France in the 12th century, Jewish leadership in these countries came to accept the binding force of the vote of the majority against the minority, as formulated in the 13th century in Germany. This marks a changeover from Germanic and primitive notions of decision-making to Roman and more developed systems, again parallel to developments in gentile society. Thus, for the first time elements of democratic decision-making entered Jewish social leadership. In its *takkanot and institutions, such as *ḥerem bet din or *ḥerem ha-yishuv (ḥezkat ha-yishuv), Jewish society expressed its share in the general trend prevailing in the cities where they were living to regard the city within its walls as an independent separate entity taking everything it could under its own authority; on the other hand, dissatisfaction caused by these innovations, and the opposition of many prominent rabbis to this self-sufficiency of the town community expressed an opposing trend of regarding the Jewish community as a cell in a living and united, though dispersed, body politic and nation. These aspects of Jewish social policy found their clear-cut expression in the community of Ashkenaz owing to the absence of the other diversifying problems and causes of tension encountered in the communities of Christian Spain.

After the catastrophe of the Black Death persecutions, the need for a single guiding and comforting hand made the position of the influential scholar in the Ashkenaz community much more formalized and institutionalized than previously or as it continued in the communities of Spain. Concomitantly with the local community organs and the sporadic councils and synods, there is evidence in the regions of Ashkenaz, in particular in the southeast, of the emergence of a salaried and officially accepted single rabbi of the community. In *Austria there is first clear mention of the conception of *semikhah as a rabbinical diploma. Such accepted rabbis constantly used the title manhig ("leader") which fell in disuse in the 16th century. Demands were made, and are still being put forward to the present day, claiming the exclusive right of the "mara de-atra" ("the lord of the locality") to the jurisdiction and control of religious functions in his locality. Both the growing authority of the institutionalized rabbi and the wish of the secular powers to exploit this authority for fiscal purposes led to the appointment (from the 13th century) of a Hochmeister or Judenmeister for the whole of the German empire, or for large parts of it. This practice was transposed at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century to Poland-Lithuania, in the appointment of seniores and chief rabbis to lead the Jews and help in the collection of taxes.


The 12th century was a very creative period in the history of Jewish culture. A series of great personalities and literary works expressed and countered the trauma of the Crusades and Almohad disturbances. They responded to this challenge of suffering and deterioration by adding new spiritual layers, by shaping new patterns of culture, by forming new theories about the nature of the Jewish people, the meaning of its history and fate, and its place in the divine purpose and general history, and by framing different legal and moral formulations to meet the social and religious needs of the suffering people. The chronicles of the First Crusade and instances of kiddush ha-Shem (A.M. Habermann (ed.), Gezerot Ashkenaz ve-Ẓarefat (1946), 19–104), as well as the general chronicles of Abraham ibn Daud in Spain of the 12th century, affirm – though expressed in different ways and on different subjects – a basic conviction envisaging the Jewish people as God's militia on earth that has to carry His banner proudly, courageously, and defiantly, whether in open knightly encounter, or in the bitter choice of suicide rather than surrender of its principles. This merges with the Maimonidean depiction of the history of the Jewish people as that of the beleaguered camp of truth, which withstands all the attacks and stratagems of its enemies (see his Iggeret Teiman). This was the opinion of the majority of Jewish thinkers at the time. Judah Halevi gave expression to the different view that humiliation and suffering are the direct road to fulfilling the Divine Will; that all that was lacking in Jewish humiliation and sufering was the full and willing acceptance of this position by Jews, though they have accepted it "midway between compulsion and willing submission," for they could join Christianity or Islam by making a verbal declaration of faith. Opinions also differed in the nature of the election of the Jewish people. Judah Halevi considered this an election of the natural Israel continuing lineally through the generations. Blood will tell; even if a Jew is bad in one generation, the good is still latent in him and will come out in his descendants: "Israel amongst the nations is like the heart amongst the members of the body." As the central life-giving force, it therefore suffers from and is contaminated by everything that is found in the subsidiary members. Gentiles may join the Jewish faith but proselytes will never attain to the prophecy reserved for deserving pure-blooded Jews (see, e.g., Kuzari I:95). Maimonides represents a diametrically opposed school on these matters. For him the criterion for Jewish election rests on joining the Jewish faith and on acceptance of Jewish cohesion out of conviction. In a letter to a Norman proselyte he summed up his view, which is inherent in many of his other writings. To the proselyte's question if he might pray in the first person plural when speaking about the fate of the Jewish people and the miracles performed for it, Maimonides gave a categorical "yes":

The core of this matter is that it was our father Abraham who taught the whole people, educated them, and let them know true faith and divine unity. He rebelled against idolatry and made away with its worship; he brought in many under the wings of the Shekhinah; he taught and instructed them and he commanded his children and his family after him to follow the Divine path … therefore, everyone who becomes a proselyte to the end of all generations and everyone who worships the name of God only according to what is written in the Torah is a pupil of Abraham, they all are members of his family … hence Abraham is the father of the righteous ones of his descendants who follow his ways and a father to his pupils and to each and every one of the proselytes … There is no difference at all between you and us in any aspect …. Know, that the majority of our fathers who left Egypt were idolators in Egypt, they mixed with the gentiles and were influenced by their deeds, until God sent Moses … separated us from the gentiles and brought us under the wings of the Shekhinah – for us and for all proselytes – and gave us all one law. Do not make light of your descent. If we relate ourselves to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you are related to the Creator of the world … Abraham is your father and ours and of all the righteous who follow his ways (Responsa, ed. J. Blau (1960), 548–50, no. 293).

Maimonides thus considers that all Israel are elected twice as "a nation of proselytes," once through Abraham, and secondly, through Moses. This is in tune with his theory that Christianity and Islam are devices to educate the gentiles toward eventually accepting Jewish law. They now occupy themselves with the law – as either a figurative pattern, according to Christianity, or an earlier dispensation only, according to Islam – and will be acquainted with it and ready to accept it fully when the truth dawns on them with the coming of the Messiah (Yad ha-Ḥazakah, Hilkhot Melakhim, Constantinople version, chapter 11).

The 12th century also produced a flowering of biblical exegesis both in France (see Joseph *Kara; *Menahem b. Ḥelbo;*Eliezer of Beaugency; *Samuel b. Meir (Rashbam); this school influenced the Christian St. Victorine school of Bible exegesis in France), and in Christian Spain (see Abraham *Ibn Ezra; Joseph *Kimḥi). The 12th century also inaugurated the school of the *tosafists in France, which continued its activity well into the 14th century and whose influence spread first to Germany and later to Jewish scholarship everywhere. Their system of incisive analysis and subtle dialectics make the work of this long line of scholars in reality a new "Talmud of France."

Maimonides attempted in the 12th century to codify talmudic law and views in a systematic presentation according to Greek principles of structure and division, leaving out all talmudic dialectics and discussion (in his Yad ha-Ḥazakah). He also attempted the synthesis of Jewish revealed faith and creed with Aristotelian Arabic philosophy (in his Guide of the Perplexed). These attempts, as well as his opposition to institutionalized leadership, were at the heart of the Maimonidean controversy which raged at varying pitch throughout this period.

The Jewry of Christian Spain continued both the tradition of biblical exegesis (for example, David *Kimḥi), of philosophic thought (for example, Shem-Tov *Falaquera; Abraham *Bibago), and of talmudic learning, expressed in novellae, in responsa, and in codification (for example, Solomon b. Abraham Adret; Naḥmanides; *Asher b. Jehiel (originally from Germany); Jacob b. Asher; Isaac b. Sheshet Perfet). Valuable poetry based on Arabic models was written in most of these centuries there (see Abraham *Ibn Ezra; Moses *Ibn Ezra; *Judah Halevi; Meshullam *Da Piera).

Provence formed a separate Jewish cultural province up to the expulsions of 1306. Its great communities were most active in the Maimonidean controversy. The writings of the Ibn *Tibbon family, of Jacob *Anatoli, of Menahem *Meiri, and of Abraham of Béziers, show throughout the high level of Jewish culture, much creativity in many fields, as well as a high level of general culture. Provence was to a certain degree a meeting place, and therefore also a battleground, for the influences of Jewish culture in Spain from the south and of Ashkenazi culture in France from the north, though many specific ingredients gave it an additional individual tinge of its own.

It was in Provence and Christian Spain that the influential circles of the *Kabbalah and its variegated literature gave a new lease of life to mysticism and had a growing influence in this direction among Jews and on Judaism. The 13th-century *Zohar literature, as well as the 14th-century Sefer ha-Kanah (first printed 1784; see *Kanah, Book of), express much social criticism and opposition to rationalism and the aristocratic circles. In particular the "Ra'aya Meheimna" part of the Zohar literature contains many images and ideas related in symbolism, tendency, and character to those of the Franciscan Fraticelli. The 14th-century works contain skillful satirical sketches of situations, modes of behavior, and types of leaders and leadership, which had incurred the odium of the extreme mystic opposition.

In Germany – around Regensburg and Worms – there arose the élite *Ḥasidei Ashkenaz movement of the 12th and 13th centuries. It demanded total sincerity and moral behavior beyond and above the "Torah law" given to ordinary men according to their conventions, and compliance with "the law of Heaven" (Din Shamayim) which binds people who have willingly taken this law upon themselves. This ideal made its adherents and their literature both vehicles of Jewish solidarity and Orthodox devotion as well as the carriers of extreme social and moral criticism and the cause of much tension in the communities. Some of the later tosafists joined their circles; some opposed their extreme ideas. From the end of the 13th century they were highly esteemed and looked at as an example but had ceased to be a living force.


In Poland-Lithuania there are many indications that the 15th and early 16th century saw not only the transposition of the characteristic Ashkenazi culture there but also the expression of considerable rationalist elements that were in the main suppressed by the end of the 16th century. There also appeared popular elements reflecting the life of the masses and expressing a more vulgar trend with less respect for learning. This reached quite extreme proportions, in particular in the southeastern districts of this realm, and developed and spread among later generations.


The level of general *education was relatively high in all the communities of this period. It was typical of Jewish life in 12th-century Egypt that a woman on her deathbed should write to her sister:

My lady, if God, exalted be He, ordains my death, my greatest last wish to you is that you should take care of my little daughter and make an effort that she should learn. I am very well aware that I am putting a heavy burden on you, for we have not even what is necessary for her upkeep, let alone for the expenses of teaching, but we have before us the example of our mother, the servant of God (S.D. Goitein, Sidrei Ḥinnukh … (1962), 66).

Blind teachers were at a premium in those regions, for girls could sit before them without problems. A responsum of Maimonides (ed. J. Blau (1960), 71–73, no. 45) mentions a female teacher of boys in 12th-century Egypt, who made her living from this profession. Various references show the widespread extent of learning and knowledge among almost all Jewish men and many Jewish women in Europe. A late-12th-century monk contrasts the education usual among the Jews with the ignorance among the Christians of his own acquaintance:

But the Jews, out of zeal for God and love of the law, put as many sons as they have to letters, that each may understand God's law … A Jew, however poor, if he had ten sons would put them all to letters, not for gain, as the Christians do, but for the understanding of God's law, and not only his sons, but his daughters (in B. Smalley, Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (1952), 78).

Certainly, times of trouble, expulsions, and the difficulties of colonialization in distant regions and places must have led to some diminution of knowledge and education among Jews, but in the main, this testimony is a reliable indicator of the general level of Jewish culture everywhere in this period.

Throughout the Jewish Diaspora of this time the scholar and student was the ideal of individual perfection, and learning the greatest social asset among Jews. Freed from the fetters of the hereditary family structure of the gaonate, while based on the same conception of the supreme sacredness and values attached to it, the position and image of the student and sage again attained the stature they had in late Second Temple days and talmudic times. In Spain as in Germany, in Persia as in Poland, the more learned a Jew, the higher the esteem in which he was held. This attitude emerges sharply in the critical disquisition of the leader of the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, *Eleazar b. Judah of Worms, on the subject of learning and merits:

For in life there may exist one who is not God-fearing but is more proficient in dialectics, more keen-witted and more skillful to explain problems than one who is God-fearing. For in this world it is customary to honor one man above his fellow; like one who is rich and has everything that he wants, but he does not do the will of God in accordance with his riches, for it has been decreed that he should enjoy this world through the honor of his riches so that the grandchildren of the great scholars shall intermarry with him. So is it the same with Torah study – one who does not deserve it is honored with it because they so desire in heaven. And as riches were given to the one who does not deserve it, in order to cast him into hell, so the same applies to a scholar who is not deserving, who causes others to sin, who judges falsely, despising the good ones, enjoying and hating them; and he has superiority over them – for the righteous one falls before the evil-doer; and he is successful, for his pronouncements are obeyed, and he has pupils who help him; time is favorable to him and he is victorious over his enemies who are superior to him. But in the world of the souls, the righteous one shall be given abundant wisdom. As he [the righteous one] is profound and God-fearing, in the same measure in that world of the souls, they will give the righteous one abundant wisdom to be victorious, and also ability in dialectics to ask and answer, and his pronouncements shall give law to this world (Ḥokhmat ha-Nefesh, 1876, folio 20a, repr. 1968).

Both social tension and a cultural tradition are expressed here through appreciation of intellectual achievement as the supreme ideal of human attainment, while, at the same time, perceiving its mundane aspects as an economic and social asset given by God to undeserving men to serve as a temporary reward and a pitfall. The elements in Jewish society of social preferment of the rich as well as of the learned, the custom of intermarrying, and the social authority they enjoyed are stressed. In bitter opposition, R. Eleazar envisages an otherworldly, spiritualized, image of the sage and Torah study. Dialectics in argument and victorious achievement are part of his spiritual attributes too. The sage is the ideal for all, for the established leadership as well as for its determined critics, whether accepted as he is in life or viewed as an embodiment of supreme virtues.


The Church, during the 13th century, made a sustained effort to belittle and, ultimately, to eliminate, the main Jewish intellectual preoccupation of that time, the Talmud. Pope Gregory ix was suddenly amazed, at the quite late date in Jewish-Christian relations of June 9, 1239, at what had come to his attention. He wrote:

to the archbishops throughout the Kingdom of France, whom these letters may reach: … If what is said about the Jews of France and of the other lands is true, no punishment would be sufficiently great or sufficiently worthy of their crime. For they, so we have heard, are not content with the old Law which God gave to Moses in writing: they even ignore it completely, and affirm that God gave another law which is called 'Talmud' … (in S. Grayzel, Church and the Jews in the 13th Century (1933), 241, no. 96).

He therefore initiated the confiscation and burning of the Talmud. This policy was continued at first – though successful initially only in some of the Christian countries – by Pope Innocent iv, who discovered on May 9, 1244, that Jews "rear and nurture their children" on the Talmud, which "is a big book among them, exceeding in size the texts of the Bible. In it are found blasphemies against God and His Christ, and obviously entangled fables about the Blessed Virgin, and abusive errors, and unheard of follies …" (ibid., 251, no. 104). All these endeavors had no effect. Jewish learning continued to flourish. The Talmud remained its basic book. Pope Innocent iv himself was convinced in the end that the Jews would not live as Jews without the Talmud. Thus this attempt to change for Jews the content of their own culture failed in the 13th century as it had failed in the sixth. In Christian Spain, where the meeting of culture and minds was much closer, the main attempt against the Talmud aimed on the one hand to discredit it, and on the other to use its aggadic elements for christological purposes. This trend is expressed in the Pugio Fidei Adversus Mauros Et Judaeos, completed c. 1280 by the Dominican Raymond *Martini, as well as by the efforts of the apostate Pablo *Christiani in his disputation with Nahmanides in 1263 at Barcelona, where he tried to prove from the aggadah that Jesus was the Messiah (see *Barcelona, Disputation of). These, as well as subsequent polemical works and disputations, did not eliminate the Talmud from Jewish education, and influenced only certain Jews in Christian Spain in the late 14th and 15th century who were already driven toward Christianity by the combined pressures of terror and the sight of Christian successes in life.


The end of the 15th century appeared a time of final liquidation of Jewry not only in Christian Spain and Portugal but also throughout Europe. The blood libel of *Trent, Italy, in 1475; subsequent libels, litigations, and expulsions in and from German cities and principalities that began then and continued well into the 16th century; and the expulsion of Jews from *Cracow in 1495, as well as from Lithuania, seemed to presage that sooner or later all Christian principalities would follow in the steps of Spain. Yet the expulsions in Germany remained piecemeal because of the fragmentation of the empire. In many cases Jews attained through the expulsions a wider dispersion around or near the cities from which they had been expelled, and new and better means of livelihood. In Poland-Lithuania the trend to expulsion was reversed.


By the time of the great expulsions the Ashkenazi culture of the communities of France, Germany, Bohemia-Moravia, and Poland-Lithuania on the one hand, and the *Sephardi culture of those of Spain – to be developed and diversified in the new places of settlement – on the other had already crystallized in an individual form of prayer rite, in customs, in content of education and culture, in social composition, and in differing modes of contact with, and attitudes to, the gentile environment. There were meetings of minds and persons, and cross-currents of cultural influence and exchange between the Jews of Ashkenaz and Sefarad before the expulsions. Naḥmanides esteemed Ashkenazi Jewish culture and prayed that it would strike roots in Spain. Asher b. Jehiel and his sons brought this influence with them there. The works of Rashi and the tosafists were diligently studied in Spain. *Moses b. Jacob of Coucy in France went to preach in Spain and according to his own testimony was influential there. On the other hand, the influence of Maimonides, of the rationalist biblical exegesis typical of Abraham ibn Ezra's work, and the influence of Kabbalah were strongly felt in Ashkenaz. Yet, in sum, these remained random encounters and influences at book level only. When the link with Provence was broken in 1306, contacts between Ashkenaz and Sefarad became even fewer. The exodus of about 300,000 Spanish Jews to the Mediterranean lands in North Africa and Asia, but also to Italy, to the Balkans, and gradually to the Netherlands (still under Spanish rule), and from thence to northwestern Germany, brought the gradual, and, in some cases even swift, breakdown of the old partitions. Ashkenazim and Sephardim met in the context of actual social and cultural life. They did not always like what they saw. But the result strengthened mutual acquaintance and influence, while creating much more clearly defined and specific contours in Ashkenazi and Sephardi culture. The Sephardi Jews considered that they had been uprooted by expulsion from their beloved fatherland in Spain and from a culture which they considered superior to all other gentile cultures. They were also wholeheartedly devoted to their specific form of Jewish culture. This was the reason for the remarkable cultural takeover by the Sephardi refugees of many of the communities they came to.

Transition to Modern Times (16th–17th Centuries)

Five main processes may be considered as causing the breakup of medieval configurations and bringing about the changeover to modern ones.

The expulsion from Spain ultimately created a much larger and better equipped, economically and culturally, Jewish society in the cities of the Ottoman Empire. It renovated and invigorated the Jewish settlement in Ereẓ Israel and Jewish messianic hopes. By making possible the emergence of a community of openly professing Jews in the Protestant Netherlands, as well as generating movement to northwestern Germany and to England, it gave rise to a whole network of Jewish "capitalist" occupations and activities, in close and fruitful contact with the new Christian churches and sects, and with the colonial activity of the Dutch and the English. It sent Jews across the oceans: the first Jewish settlements in the New World came under Dutch rule as did the first settlement in present-day *New York (then New Amsterdam) in 1654.

The second main process took place in Poland-Lithuania. The colonizing and economic activities of Jews there until the *Chmielnicki massacres of 1648 created a Jewry that formed, to all intents and purposes, the predominating element of "the third estate" in this kingdom. Demographically and ecologically this community underwent a great expansion that created the nucleus of the mass Ashkenazi Jewish population of modern times. Close touch with village life and economy improved the conditions of Jewish life and changed habits. In the cities owned by the Polish nobles the predominantly Jewish townships of Eastern Europe grew up which later produced the *shtetl of the *Pale of Settlement in czarist Russia and of *Galicia in Austria. As a result of these population movements, by the end of the 17th century, out of approximately a million Jews in the world, about half were Sephardi and half Ashkenazi, mainly concentrated in the Ottoman Empire and Poland-Lithuania, respectively.

The *Reformation in Christianity from 1517 broke up the unitary and constricted frame of Catholic uniformity surrounding the Jew in most of Europe. He was now no longer the only nonconformist in a culture of total agreement. The failure of both the Reformation camp and the Catholic Church to achieve decisive victory in their common bid to reestablish Christian uniformity created the first hesitant appearance of tolerance. Jews were as yet not thought of in this connection, but the very notion was to create, later on, modern conditions for their existence. On the other hand, the Reformation – in particular, in the style set by the German Martin *Luther – unleashed popular furies and made mass passion and violence the main instrument of religious innovation. This raised the problem of the status of the Jews, not only for change toward betterment of their lot, as Luther intended in his missionary zeal and hopes in 1523; it also opened roads toward exacerbating the lot of Jews and radical vulgar propaganda to extirpate their existence, as the disappointed rancorous ex-monk proposed in 1543:

What then shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews? Since they live among us and we know about their lying and blasphemy and cursing, we cannot tolerate them if we do not wish to share in their lies, curses, and blasphemy … We must prayerfully and reverentially practice a merciful severity … Let me give you my honest advice …

There follows a detailed seven-point program of arson, expropriation, abject humiliation of, and hard physical labor for, the Jews.

If, however, we are afraid that they might harm us personally … then let us apply … [expulsion] … and settle with them for that which they have extorted usurously from us, and after having divided it up fairly, let us drive them out of the country for all time (from his Von den Juden und Iren Luegen, 1543).

Short of the Auschwitz oven and extermination, the whole Nazi Holocaust is pre-outlined here. The Reformation had unleashed situations and attitudes with regard to the Jews as well as many other matters, open in all directions and for all comers, toward human relations with and better treatment of the Jews, as well as toward increased enmity and destruction. This openness and this struggle between extremes were to become later one of the hallmarks of the "Jewish question" in modern history.

In Jewry, the great messianic movement of 1665–66, like the Reformation, was medieval in aspect while pointing toward ultra-modernism at the same time. *Shabbetai Ẓevi and his enthusiastic followers put to test the belief in a miraculous redeemer, although arriving in the end at apostasy to Islam. They felt during this great upsurge of faith and ecstasy inwardly liberated and on the threshold of political glory. Within the space of three years, all of them lost any hope of soon reaching the splendor and most of them lost the last shreds of any sense of liberation. The movement reflected the unconscious crisis of medievalism, which burned out in the flame of miraculously borne messianism. Its prophet, *Nathan of Gaza, deemed that God was now free from exile but His people was not. From this it was but a step – even if a gigantic and revolutionary one – toward a program of secularization: the people must seek its freedom and redemption through its own, human, powers, employing the ways and means of the world.

The last, but not least, of these processes occurred in the great community of anusim origin at *Amsterdam. People who had been brought up in the traditions of the Jewish underground in Spain found that the Jewish community with which they now came in contact, its strict regulations and exacting authorities, were not at all the antithesis of the Church and its dogmatics that they had been formerly taught to see in Judaism. The atmosphere of sectarianism and religious discussion in the Netherlands, of comfortable burgher life and its easy theology, of friendly contact between cultured gentiles and individual Jews added to the disappointment which the anusim experienced with actual Jewish society and led to revolt and revulsion against it. From this aspect, Baruch *Spinoza is both the end result of a line of development of Maimonidean trends in Sephardi Jewry as well as the first representative of a type of modern non-Orthodox Jew. The life and tragedy of Uriel da *Costa expressed this in a different way. The activities of Hamburg Sephardi Jews, who helped to engineer a revolt in Portugal in the 17th century, and served as consuls and financial representatives of the country in which they were not allowed to set foot on pain of death, represented yet another component in the same mosaic of modernization. Figures like Leone *Modena and Simone *Luzzatto in Italy, each in his own way, were an articulate expression of the unformulated change toward modernization and alleviation of the Orthodox way of life. The historiography and historiosophy of Azariah dei *Rossi express, in a less extreme but more thorough way, the readiness for questioning and change that began to appear at this time.

Most of the results of the last three processes described above still lay in the near or distant future by the end of the 17th century, while the first two were at work and wielding an influence throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.


The refugees from Spain organized themselves almost everywhere they arrived, and as soon as they could, into separate "synagogue-communities," mainly formed by groups coming from the same community, district, or domain. In this way they broke up the framework of the existing local community, rejecting the cohesion it represented through settlement in the same place. Such a situation was a reversion to a time in the 10th to 12th centuries when many places in the Near East had both a synagogue "of Ereẓ Israelites" and one "of the Babylonians." They set a pattern for similar organizational behavior in other Jewish immigrant groups, sentimentally attached to each other and to the memory of their place of origin, and as yet without ties to their new place of settlement. It was to emerge in modern times in the behavior and organization of the *Landsmannschaften and of synagogues named after places of origin in the United States and other countries.


Within a relatively short time the Spanish refugees achieved the feat of becoming the tone-setters and social leaders of the native Jews in territories embracing the Balkans and large parts of the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. Economically, too, the refugees achieved great progress. In the Ottoman Empire some of them became courtiers of the sultan, physicians (Joseph and Moses *Hamon, his son; Baroda, Abraham ibn Megas), bankers, and diplomats (Don Joseph *Nasi; Solomon *Abenaes). In these surroundings, where the harem played an influental role, Jewish women also became prominent (like Dona Gracia *Nasi). Sometimes there arose a combination of Jewish physician and diplomat (Solomon *Ashkenazi). All these Jews were active in the customary Spanish manner in their new and strange settings. The mass of the refugees turned to commerce and crafts with considerable success. The economy of *Safed in the 16th century was based on a broad and stable occupational structure of clothweaving, shopkeeping, and peddling. Many engaged in international trade. Some used the land routes, through the southeastern parts of Poland-Lithuania to the center and west of Europe; some traded by sea routes, in the Mediterranean and on the European shores of the Atlantic, linking up in this way with the northeastern wing of the Sephardi dispersion in the Netherlands and northwest Germany, and toward the end of the period, with Jews in England too. In this manner, economic activity brought association and cooperation to the three great dynamic centers of Jewish social and economic life – the Ottoman Empire, Poland-Lithuania, and the northwest of Europe. The Jews of Poland-Lithuania, for their part, carried on a large-scale export and import trade both with Central and northwestern Europe, and with the Ottoman Empire, in particular, its Black Sea shore and Balkan districts. Jews in the *Netherlands and northwestern Germany dealt on a considerable scale, frequently in colonial goods and diamonds, with Central European Jews (who bought these luxury goods mainly for the local upper nobility or for export to the east). They similarly traded with the Jews of Poland-Lithuania, buying colonial produce on a large scale and selling them luxury goods, cloths, and printed books. Thus this vast configuration of Jewish economic activity created a multiple network of commercial traffic on the threshold of modern times.

The Jews of Central Europe were the weakest link, demographically and economically, in this chain of Jewish activity. Yet they were to profit greatly from it. The combination of connections and supplies created by the export trade of luxury goods and diamonds from northwest Europe and the Ottoman east, and the import of vast quantities of agricultural produce, cattle fodder, cattle, and horses from Poland-Lithuania, enabled the Jews of the German Empire, few and weak at this time and therefore pliable and reliable tools of the princes, to become, at the end of the 17th century in increasing numbers, the agents (Hoffaktoren) and Hofjuden to royal courts and royal armies (see also *Court Jews).


Apart from the fragmentation of local cohesion through synagogue membership, the whole trend of communal organization outside the Ottoman Empire lay toward centralization and strong leadership. This was the time when the Councils of the Lands of Poland-Lithuania and of *Bohemia-*Moravia showed their greatest achievements. An attempt was made, unsuccessfully, to set up a similar organization in fragmented Germany at *Frankfurt on the Main in 1603. Numerous similar attempts were made among the Italian Jewish communities. The *Mahamad of northwestern Sephardi Jewry aroused opposition by its strict Orthodoxy and authoritarianism. An attempt in 1538 to reinstitute the ancient sacred authority of semikhah as a preparation and precondition for the creation of a Sanhedrin was another expression of the tendency toward overall leadership and centralization. The great and successful codification activity of Joseph *Caro in Safed, and Mordecai *Jaffe, Solomon *Luria, and above all Moses *Isserles in Poland, again expresses – by literary extension of the possibilities inherent in semikhah – the trend toward central and authoritative instruction and leadership.


Jewish cultural and religious life showed considerable activity in these centuries. Safed became a short-lived but very important center of Jewish mysticism and learning in the 16th and early 17th centuries. It became a dynamic community of great mystics (Isaac *Luria; Moses *Cordovero; Hayyim *Vital; and a galaxy of others), of talmudic scholars (Jacob *Berab; Joseph Caro), and of lesser visionaries (such as *Abraham b. Eliezer ha-Levi Berukhim). Their societies and groups developed customs that later were to be widely accepted in Jewish communities. Kabbalah spread from Safed throughout the Jewish world; the moral teachings of the Safed school were formulated and propagated in the writings of Elijah de *Vidas; the poetry of Solomon *Alkabeẓ and the sermons and visions of Solomon *Molcho express and teach the trend it represented. This was not only mystic and esthetic in mood, but also bore the stamp of highly developed, proud, and self-conscious individal personalities. The movement of Shabbetai Ẓevi expresses both the power and the fragility of this mood and of such individuals. Safed also witnessed the birth, in the 16th century, of the *Shulḥan Arukh code, and of halakhic activity of many other types.


In this period there emerged also the first sharp and systematic criticism of Ashkenazi Jewish education. *Judah Loew b. Bezalel of Prague, and the circle around him, which had adherents not only in Bohemia-Moravia, but in Germany and Poland-Lithuania as well, strongly criticized the lack of didactic methods, the exaggeration in the teaching and use of dialectics, in particular with young students, and the unsystematic and unequal teaching of various components of Jewish traditional culture. They demanded a return to plain logic, to the Mishnah as the core for talmudic study, to proper attention to Torah, and to didactic progression from the easy to the difficult portions and subjects. With some of them, like Jacob *Horowitz, this criticism demanded a return to the Bible. The criticism was heard but failed to achieve its aim. Jewish society in Central and Eastern Europe was unwilling to take up either the new curriculum or the new methods. These pedagogues and critics had to wait for modern times to achieve a positive appreciation.

Traditional Torah study and the central position of the student in Jewish society continued throughout this period. Although encountering tensions and dangers in the materially successful societies of the Ottoman Empire, Poland-Lithuania, and northwestern Europe, the importance of learning remained undiminished in Jewish life. Jewish communities everywhere had numerous yeshivot and scholars, naturally of unequal stature. The takkanot issued by communities and synods provide instruction and advice on the spread of learning. Even if much of this reflects more of the ideal than the reality, it still expresses the scale of values of Jewish society of the 16th and 17th centuries.


Political and ideological thought was alive in particular in the 16th century. Chronicle writing (see also *Historiography) received a new impetus under the impact of the expulsion from Spain and the needs for reappraisal in the constantly changing situation (resettlement in the Ottoman Empire and other countries) and developed in light of the changes in Jewish outlook brought about by the Reformation. Solomon *Ibn Verga in his Shevet Yehudah refers to the problems of relations between Jews and gentiles, and of the Jewish fate, out of a feeling of danger and weakness. In his chronicle the Christian view of the problem, as Ibn Verga understood it, is given prominence alongside the Jewish view. The weakness of the Jews in history is explained by the Christian "Thomas" to the Spanish king as:

That originally while the Jews found favor in the eyes of God, he would fight their wars, as it is known to all …. Therefore they did not learn the ways of war for they did not need them … and when they sinned God turned away his face from them and they thus remained losers on all counts – they were ignorant of weapons of war and its invention, and the will of God was not with them; they remained naked and fell like sheep without a shepherd (Shevet Yehudah, ed. by A. Schochet (1947), 44).

Samuel *Usque in his Consolaçam … ((1952); Eng.: Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel (1965)) regards the tribulations and hopes of the exiles within a broad view of world history and divine providence. *Joseph ha-Kohen not only describes Jewish history and fate in his various volumes but also gives separately the history of the Ottoman Empire and of the French. His stand is consistently pro-Reformation, vehemently anti-papal, and throughout imbued with the spirit of the late Renaissance world-view and appreciation of history. He hopes that the wars of religion will result in the birth of toleration for all. David *Gans provides in his Ẓemaḥ David (1592) a separate treatment of Jewish and general history, quoting in extenso from German chronicles and citing the name of author and page, thus revealing an assumption that his Jewish readers might refer back to his sources. Throughout he is revealed as a patriot of Bohemia, an admirer of Prague and of Bohemian achievements in the past. This is the first systematic expression of attachment by Ashkenazi Jews to the land in which they are living and to the past of their environment. Many lesser chroniclers, mainly in Italy, relate themselves to Jewish troubles in the 16th century generally, taking into account the views of the host society. Elijah *Capsali in his extensive chronicles (the greater part at present in Ms.) shows an absorption with the ways of governments and the ideas of the reigning circles both in the Ottoman Empire and in Venice. His description of the fate of the exiles from Spain and their welcome in the Ottoman Empire has additional value as an expression of the attitude of the native Jewish communities where the exiles were received and as evidence of the spell that Sephardi culture rapidly cast over them.

Political and historiosophic thought finds deep if sometimes involved expression in the ideas of Judah Loew b. Bezalel of Prague. In his Be'er ha-Golah, in the part entitled the "seventh well," he antedates by 50 years at least the protest of John Milton against the censorship of printed books. Most of the arguments of these two thinkers run in parallel, of course each expressing the writer's own mood. The rabbi of Prague, unlike the poet of England, also stresses the knightly concept that one has to regard discussion in printed books as a kind of duel where an honorable opponent must ensure that his adversary is armed in the best way possible, so that victory will be an act of valor and not an overwhelming triumph achieved by brute force. Throughout his many works, didactics and the methodology of preaching and learning are a main concern of Judah Loew. He devoted much thought to the problems of the organismic character of national cohesion, seeing a divine guarantee, through the nature of nationality, that Jewish exile and humiliation cannot be eternal:

From blackness one can know whiteness which is the opposite, … exile in itself is clear evidence and proof of redemption for there can be no doubt that exile is a change and a break in the order whereby God set every nation in the place fitting for it, and he settled Israel in the place fitting for it, which is Ereẓ Israel …. Now everything that leaves its natural place and is outside of it cannot establish a hold in a place unnatural to it. They return to their natural place. For if they had remained in the place which is unnatural to them, then the unnatural would become natural, and this is impossible …. The place fitting for them [the Jews] according to the order of reality is to be in Ereẓ Israel, to be under their own rule, not under the rule of others, for every thing of the natural entities, each one of them, has a place for itself … as everything returns to its place, so do the separated and dispersed parts return to become one generality …. Therefore every dispersion tends to join up again. Hence the dispersion of Israel among the nations is unnatural, for as they are one nation it is fitting that they should be together and be a unity, as you will find that all natural entities are not divided into two … What is more, according to the law of reality it is not fitting that one nation shall rule over another nation, to subdue it, for God has created each nation unto itself …. If this state should remain for ever? … this would not be according to the order of reality and would be a permanent change in the world order. This is impossible. Therefore, we can know of redemption through exile (Neẓaḥ Yisrael (Prague, 1599), 2a).


His writings, like the writings of many other scholars of Poland-Lithuania, Bohemia-Moravia, and Germany in this period, contain many allusions to and proposed solutions for social problems. The tension that existed between the lay leaders of the communities and the rabbis arose largely because both came from the same families, were usually related by marriage, and, above all, received the same education in yeshivot. Hence, there was an inclination among community leaders to assume rabbinical authority and functions and among rabbis to see themselves as leaders. The claims were not mutually exclusive. In most communities and periods an unstable harmony was worked out, but the tension was part of the arrangement.

In prospering Poland-Lithuania much thought was also given to the economic effort, to the correct attitude of rich to poor, and to the proper structure for Jewish society. At one extreme the great decisor Moses *Isserles asserted that riches and material success are generally the just reward given by God to the deserving Jew. Poverty proves either that the poor man is undeserving, or, if his merits are evident, that there is some hidden blemish in his character which would have been revealed with riches: he is not given riches so that he may remain unblemished. At the other extreme stood the great preacher *Ephraim Solomon b. Aaron of Luntschitz (Lęczyce). In his ideology riches are usually evil. Drawing a kind of dual comparison he tells rich Jews that they cannot prove their merits from their worldly state for then they would also have to admit the righteousness of the gentiles from their success. Similarly, he considers that the gentiles cannot bring arguments against the Jews from their worldly success, for they would also then have to admit the righteousness of patently evil persons among Christians who have been materially successful. Riches in his metaphor are spoiled meat desired unwisely by the foolish child but thrown by a prudent father to the dogs. This preacher was also much concerned about religious and moral sincerity in a society which admired devotion, study, and charity and thus made these moral values also preeminently social assets. In his opinion social reward for and recognition of good deeds endangered the foundations of spiritual worship and Torah study in what seemed to him a society that tended to materialism, in particular among the upper strata.

In the emerging great centers of Jewish life, considerable tension resulted from the meeting of divergent traditions and the confrontation of the old-established society and ways of life with the force and vitality of new and inviting circumstances. The type of thought and hegemony provided by men like Elijah and Moses *Capsali, Elijah *Mizraḥi, and other representatives of the leadership structure of the old communities of the Ottoman Empire and North Africa, and the attitudes and aims of new leaders of the Sephardi type, like Gracia and Joseph Nasi, or the great Sephardi rabbis of the Balkan peninsula, such as Joseph *Taitaẓak, clashed, penetrated, and fructified each side in the 16th and 17th centuries. This process of confrontation and mutual influence took place in a Jewish culture and society which combined the old Romaniot customs and ways of life of the Byzantine environment in the Balkans and Asia Minor, and the Muslim environment, elements of the old Babylonian Jewish culture, and the social and cultural traditions of the great centers of Jewish life in Egypt, Kairouan, Fez, and other communities in North Africa. It encountered representatives of the Sephardi Jewish culture which had developed in close contact with Christian culture in Spain who were conscious of the value in and greatness of their historical experience and mode of leadership. Within a relatively short space of time, both the Romaniot and North African were either put aside or submerged by the Sephardi influence. To a scholar of the stature of Samuel b. Moses de *Medina, it was self-evident that the Sephardi prayer rites and order of worship should be preferred in Balkan communities because of their intrinsic superiority.


On occasion the travail of readjustment took the shape of a clear-cut issue of Jewish foreign policy. A dispute over this arose within Jewry in the 16th century, when an attempt was made to use Jewish economic activity as a defensive punitive weapon in extreme cases of insult and injury to Jews. It was opposed by considerations of caution and the hope that part of the aims could be achieved by less dangerous means. The same dilemma was to return much later, in deliberations over initiating a boycott of Nazi Germany. When Pope *Paul iv ordered that a number of anusim who had escaped to *Ancona from Spain should be burned at the stake, the circle around Dona Gracia Nasi and other Sephardi groups in the Ottoman Empire attempted to use Jewish commercial power in the Mediterranean both to put pressure on the pope and to reward the duke of Pesaro, who had given asylum to those who had escaped from Ancona. As Joseph ibn Lev, a contemporary Sephardi rabbi, described it:

Several people arose who wanted a great revenge for the holocaust of these just men … they demanded from the sages and the holy [Jewish] communities that they should assent to and put in force a valid agreement that no Jew among those living in the Ottoman Empire shall be permitted to trade in Ancona, since the Divine Name has been defiled by this pope, the lord of this place. Moreover, some of those who lived in Ancona have escaped the mortal danger of this destruction, and have come to the city of Pesaro where they have been welcomed by the duke, the ruler of this land, who thought that the Jews of the Ottoman Empire would come to trade there and would boycott the city of the pope who did evil to their brethren as well as actions that have never been done previously to burn the Talmud in contempt. The above-mentioned duke will also spend much money to improve the seaport of this city, so that ships may lie there in safety. Now, if he sees that the Jews will pay him evil for good, it is almost certain that he will extradite the men, women and children who escaped from Ancona … to the pope, who demands them in order to put them to death (Responsa, 1 (Constantinople, 1556, 19592) 140a).

This closely reasoned argumentation, which combined feelings of national pride, perception of the political use of trade opportunities, and an open-eyed appreciation of the motives of the Christian rulers, was opposed by what may be called the Italian Jewish party. These did not deny the strength and possibilities attaching to Jewish trade in the Mediterranean in the 16th century but argued against the boycott because it would endanger the Jews living in the Papal States. They also considered that "even if this agreement is not made, the duke of Urbino will not cause any harm to those he has accepted; for he is a considerate and sagacious man who knows that this miserable people cannot compel all the Jews. Moreover, he is overjoyed at their settling in his land because they, of necessity, cannot trade in Ancona, and will trade in his city." The Italian party also put forward the argument that the anusim from Spain could have been more careful and should have avoided settling under the rule of the head of the Catholic Church (Joshua *Soncino, Naḥalah li-Yhoshu'a, no. 39).

In Poland-Lithuania also there arose a question of overall Jewish policy with economic implications. The question of Jews contracting for customs duties and customs stations was differently decided in the late 16th and early 17th centuries by the councils of Poland and Lithuania. The first decided to direct Jews to avoid these lucrative posts because of the enmity they provoked in the Polish middle and lesser nobility; the Lithuanian council expressly decided later to assist Jews to lease and retain them out of a clearly stated policy that, despite the dangers to the community they involved, if the customs were managed by Jews, this would benefit the whole of Jewish trade and improve the Jewish position in general (see *Councils of the Lands).


Jewish policy and aims were being put forward after the invention of printing and the spread of printed books, not only in memoranda to rulers and Church leaders, but also in works published to bring Jewish views before the Christian public. Simone Luzzatto published his Discorso circa il stato degl' Hebrei … in Italian in 1638. This work of a rabbi and leader of a Jewish community is addressed to the Venetians as an apologetical argument for the existence of the Jews in Venice (see also *Apologetics). In it Luzzatto stresses the economic and social usefulness to the civic society of Venice of a commercially and financially active minority which had no other focus for its loyalty, or a better place to look to, than the city of its residence. He even explains at some length that there are "Catholic" trends in the Jewish faith and behavior, which are inherently opposed to "Protestant" ones. Luzzatto emphasizes the basic honesty of the Jews and their obedience to law. After listing some of the faults which are to be found among Jews, he enumerates traits:

worthy of some consideration: steadfastness, and unimaginable consistency in their faith and in the keeping of their law; unity in the dogmas of their faith although they have been dispersed throughout the world for 1,550 years; admirable courage, if not in going to meet dangers, then at least, in the strength to suffer troubles; a unique knowledge of their holy Scriptures and of their commentaries; charity and good will toward all, as well as help to each and every one of their nation, even if he is a stranger and an alien. A Persian Jew cares about the problems of an Italian Jew and tries to help him; distance of place does not cause separation among them, for their religion is one. In matters of sexual passion, they behave with considerable abstinence; they are loyal and careful about the purity of the race, that it should be without admixture; many of them show considerable sagacity and know how to carry through the most complicated business; they behave with submission and respect toward any man who is not of their religion; their transgressions and sins have in them almost always more of the lowly and ugly than of cruelty and evil (ibid., Consideration 11).

This work was to have much influence in mercantilist centers and among Christians who were beginning to advocate better behavior toward Jews. *Manasseh Ben Israel continued this line of argument, though in a very different and more upstanding manner, in his various writings and, in particular, in his efforts to obtain the readmission of Jews into England. He stressed the advantages that had accrued to the Netherlands by the admission of Jews into that country and by their active participation in colonial trade there, and compared this position with the decline of Spain and the disadvantages it had encountered after the expulsion of the Jews. He formulated a petition for the readmission of the Jews to England. In common with many English sectarians who supported his case, he regarded the settlement of Jews at "the end of the earth" [i.e., Angleterre] as a necessary precondition to the coming of the Messiah.


The 16th and 17th centuries brought the first stirrings of a change in attitudes toward the Jews. The Jewish chronicler Joseph ha-Kohen discerned in the wars of religion in France a hope for an emerging permissiveness enabling each man to live according to his own religion. In the Calvinist Netherlands an attitude of toleration of Jews, and even respect for them and their way of life, developed without granting them political rights or formulating a fully expressed theory for their toleration. This came about not only through day-to-day peaceful contacts with the highly cultured Jewish circles in Amsterdam and other cities of this country, but also through the respect of the Calvinists for the Law and their efforts to create a Christian society based partly on biblical foundations. Some sectarians expressed "the desire … to raise the Old Testament to the position of natural law" which Hugo *Grotius opposed in his De Jure Belli ac Pacis (1735, Prolegomena, para. 48). Against this position, he stresses that many of the laws of the Old Testament had been abolished by the New, but he does so in a respectful tone. When asked about the proper behavior to adopt toward the Jews, he advised in his Remonstrantie (of 1615), that the canon law relating to Jews should be kept in principle, but that in practical economic terms they should be allowed "liberty to trade, do business and manufacture, and enjoy in freedom exemptions and privileges in the same way as the other burghers and citizens." In France, Jean *Bodin, in his Heptaplomeres, was so emphatic in affirming the superiority of the Judaic trend of religion over the Christian that it is arguable whether he was Jewish or Christian at heart. Extreme sects and leaders of the Reformation, like Andreas *Osiander and Sebastian Franck in Germany, through the spiritualization of the Christian teaching and their almost anarchistic attitude to authority, arrived at an individualistic approach to each man which was favorable even to the toleration of Jews and Muslims.

Gradually there began to emerge the conception of separation of Church and State, which was to be the main road to toleration, even of Jews. Roger Williams, of New England, advocated this attitude from a Christian point of departure in The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience Disgust (1644). He asserted that "true civility and Christianity may both flourish in a state or kingdom, notwithstanding the permission of the diverse and contrary conscience either of Jew or of Gentile" (ibid., 2). John Locke was to make this conception the mainspring of change and revolution in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), published in Latin, and immediately translated into Dutch, French, and English. Locke differentiates sharply between Church and State, considering that civil rights should be granted to all. Limitations and humiliations do not change either the character or the standing of a religion. He wrote concerning the Jews: "is their doctrine more false, their worship more abominable, or is the civil peace more endangered by their meeting in public than in their private houses[?]" (J. Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. by M. Montuori (1963), 103). Various lawyers – the foremost being John *Selden in England and Johannes *Buxtorf in Germany – developed interest in Jewish law as a basic element in the European legal system. A man like Johann Christoph *Wagenseil, though drawing attention to Jewish attacks on Christianity in his Tela Ignea Satanae (1681), still supported a limited toleration of the Jews, mainly out of missionary zeal. In this atmosphere, even a man like the English economist, Sir William Petty, showed considerable interest in various trades of the Jews and their characteristics. His opposition to them, and the even sharper opposition of Johann Becher in Germany, was largely based on a different interpretation of the data given by Luzzatto and Manasseh Ben Israel.

By the end of the 17th century much of the old medieval structure had gone. The distribution of the Jews in the world was totally different from that at the end of the 15th century. Spain had vanished from the Jewish horizon, as well as its dependencies overseas. France was also almost in the same category. On the other hand, England again had a flourishing and well connected Jewish community from 1655. The Jews of the Netherlands were already an integral and respected element of the economic life of this country in the cities; to some extent also they were attached to it socially, though they did not enter its political structure. The Jews of Poland-Lithuania, despite the sufferings and deprivations they underwent between approximately 1648 and 1660, had become economically, and to a considerable degree socially, an integral and predominant part of the third estate in this realm. In the Ottoman Empire members of an invigorated Jewish society occupied important positions in economic and social life, though the old conceptions of political and social humiliation of the Jew still predominated.

[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]

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