Ibn Verga, Solomon

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IBN VERGA, SOLOMON

IBN VERGA, SOLOMON (second half of 15th–first quarter of 16th century), Spanish-Jewish historiographer. In addition to his extensive rabbinical and philosophical learning, Ibn Verga had a wide knowledge of the non-Jewish literature of his time, and while in Spain also devoted himself to community affairs. After the conquest of Málaga in 1487 by Ferdinand and Isabella, Ibn Verga was sent by the Spanish communities to raise funds for ransoming the Jews taken captive there, and also received official authorization to proceed with this undertaking. On the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, Ibn Verga settled in Lisbon, Portugal. From 1497, when a large number of the Jews in Portugal were forcibly baptized, he was compelled to live as a Converso but apparently was one of those "who did not come under the waters" (Resp. Radbaz no. 1137). When in 1506 the Conversos were permitted to leave Portugal, he went on to Italy, evidently staying some time in Rome.

During the 1520s, Ibn Verga wrote his Shevet Yehudah, a compilation of accounts of the persecutions undergone by the Jews from the destruction of the Second Temple until his own day. At times, the author intersperses the historical account with disputations and deliberations, of which some are authentic and others imaginary. By means of these, he tried to clarify the problem of the hatred against the Jews, to examine their special destiny, to offer answers to the claims of their enemies, to rebuke his people for their social and moral faults, and to voice his objection against certain philosophical opinions. After concluding with a description of the misfortunes which had overtaken his people in his time, Ibn Verga devoted a lengthy chapter to a description of the Temple and the service for Passover and the Day of Atonement. He had intended to complete his work at this point, but then added further chapters. His son Joseph *Ibn Verga, who took care of its publication, also introduced supplements. The work was first published in 1554, perhaps in Adrianople.

The name of the work, Shevet Yehudah, may be explained in several ways. Shevet may either mean a "staff " or is the term applied to one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Yehudah can equally be explained as indicating Spanish Jewry, which claimed its origin from the tribe of Judah, or R. Judah ibn Verga, a relative or the uncle of the author, in whose work Solomon found some of the "persecutions and decrees" which he sought to commemorate in his own work.

The author drew his historical material from *Josippon, the Sefer ha-Kabbalah of Abraham *Ibn Daud, from the narrative of *Nathan ha-Bavli, and from *Maimonides' letters including Iggeret Teiman. He also utilized a brief Hebrew chronicle dealing with the general expulsions and religious persecutions, probably that of Profiat *Duran, which was widely known in various versions, and consulted the writings of Isaac *Abrabanel. In addition to all these, he gathered information from sources now unknown; some may be of his own creation. For his own period, he mentions some of the events which he heard of or witnessed and for which he is sometimes the only source.

The work has special importance in the annals of Jewish historical thought. The thoughts and reflections which the author interweaves in his imaginary discussions, that is in the literary and not the historical section of the work, reflect his dissatisfaction with the traditional outlook and opinions of the Middle Ages. He treats the galut in general and the problem of expulsion as natural phenomena subject to the laws of causation, is dissatisfied with traditional answers concerning the relationship between Israel and the Creator and the Will which determines history, and does not willingly accept suffering, refusing to consider it exclusively as a sign of the Jews' superiority. He offers the opinion that hatred of the Jews is simply a popular inheritance, due principally to religious fanaticism and the jealousy of the populace, both of which stem from lack of education. His conclusion, partly explicit and partly implied, is that the Jews should remove the causes of jealousy and fanaticism by modest and humble behavior toward their non-Jewish neighbors, and try to break down some of the barriers separating them by preaching religious tolerance and similar efforts. But the author realizes in advance that all his remedies and opinions are of no avail: "It is in the nature of Creation that the evil exist beside the good." The root of all this evil is in the exile itself. However, his faith has lost its naïveté. He does not believe that Redemption is near at hand and derides the "messiahs," without suggesting an alternative Redemption. All he is finally left with is hope for the mercy of Heaven. The loss of simple faith leads him to seek the natural causes of the original downfall, i.e., the beginning of exile with the destruction of the Second Temple. The conclusion is that with respect to the Second Temple, faith was a negative factor. This postulate concerning the negative role of faith was an innovation of contemporary Italian political thinkers.

In the style of the humanists who scorned theological tradition and the learning of the schoolmen, Ibn Verga also derides, either openly or covertly, the philosophical opinions of the scholars of his own people. He parodies the philosophy of *Judah Halevi and treats the teachings of Maimonides in a fashion not far removed from mockery. Ibn Verga challenges medieval allegorical exegesis and natural science, as if intending to demolish the whole medieval spiritual edifice. He also sometimes attacks the Talmud and is thus a forerunner of the anti-talmudic movement which erupted about a century later among the Conversos.

Ibn Verga's critical and empirical approach to the phenomena of history makes him a herald of a new era in Jewish history. Nevertheless there is definite evidence that the author remained a loyal Jew. He thus expresses his sympathy for Jewish martyrs; when mentioning the persecutions which overtook German Jewry, he concludes: "They nevertheless stood firm for the sanctity of God and His Torah and did not abandon their honor," which might imply a silent criticism of Spanish Jewry which did not reach such a standard. His sympathy also goes out to those Conversos who endanger their lives in observing the Torah and its precepts. He is proud of the fact "that they have a heart sufficiently courageous to accept death by burning without changing their religion."

Shevet Yehudah is one of the outstanding achievements of the Hebrew literature of the Renaissance. Some of its imaginary dialogues show exceptional literary gifts; the narrative is interspersed with ideological argumentation by means of dialogue, a device apparently forced upon Ibn Verga because he did not dare openly express some of his radical ideas. He therefore invented situations occurring in the court of a Christian where the majority of the debaters were Christians, attributing to them statements on Judaism which he could not put into the mouth of a Jew. However, the work was written in Hebrew and was clearly intended to promote internal reforms; indeed it was highly esteemed by Jews and many read it. The text was published by M. Wiener (1855) and by A. Shochat (1947).

bibliography:

Baer, Spain, index s.v.Solomon ibn Verga; idem, Galut (1947), 77–82; idem, in: Tarbiz, 6 (1935), 152–79; idem, Untersuchungen ueber Quellen und Komposition des Schebet Jehuda (1923); Neuman, in: L. Ginzberg Jubilee Volume (1945), 253–73; Ḥorev, in: ks, 24 (1947/48), 173–8; B. Netanyahu, Don Isaac Abravanel (Eng., 1953), 266, 271.

[Azriel Shochat]