EXPLORING YOUR JEWISH ROOTS
Jews appear to have arrived in Spain well before the beginning of the Christian era. Tarshish, the city to which the prophet Jonah attempted to flee before his encounter with the whale, is believed by some to have been in Spain. There are more than five hundred localities in Spain in which a Jewish presence has been confirmed. There were established and flourishing Jewish communities not only in the large cities, but also in villages and towns throughout the country, even in areas which are today regarded as remote.
Spain, despite its distance from Rome, was an important province of the Roman Empire and produced more than its share of emperors and generals. With the establishment of Christianity in Spain under the Visigoths, one of the Church’s first orders of business was the ruthless oppression of Judaism. As early as 313 AD, a Council of Bishops in Elvira (thought to be near present-day Granada) enacted a series of anti-Jewish laws. Many of the clerics who were later canonized by the Church earned their sainthood as rabid anti-Semites: most notably Isidore of Seville.
Starting in 717, Islamic armies commanded by Tariq ibn Ziyad conquered Spain in only three years, crossing the Pyrenees into France and halting only after they were defeated by Charles Martel at Tours in 732. The Islamic conquest relieved the Jews of Spain, as it had the Jews of Eretz Israel some sixty years earlier, from relentless Church sanctions and antisemitism that was exceeded in its ferocity and cruelty only by the Inquisition that succeeded it seven hundred years later on the same soil.
In Islamic Spain, Jews enjoyed for the most part a better life than did Jews in other parts of Europe, though periods of persecution were not unknown. It was during one of these intervals of forced conversions (under the fanatical Berber Almohad dynasty) that the family of Maimonides fled Cordoba and took refuge in Egypt, after years of wandering through North Africa. Yet on the whole, Islamic rule in Spain was relatively tolerant of minorities, Jews and Christians alike, and Jewish life flourished there.
Christian Europe at the end of Christianity’s first millennium was a savage, barbarous and ignorant place, where an uneasy alliance of illiterate, warlords and (for the most part equally illiterate) clerics held dominion over starving peasants, keeping them satisfied with assurances of eternal salvation in the world to come in exchange for suffering in silence the depravities of their rulers (both secular and clerical) in this world. In contrast, Islamic Spain was (usually) an enlightened center of tolerance and scholarship rivaled only by the Islamic centers in the East, notably Baghdad and Damascus. Strange as it may seem today, Islam was once the very model of tolerance.
Almost immediately after the Islamic conquest, the remaining Christian kingdoms in the remote mountains of the north began the slow process of expansion that came eventually to be known as the reconquista. The Muslims, beset by internal struggles, gradually lost ground over the centuries. In 1085, the Christian King Alfonso VI conquered the strategically important city of Toledo and made it his capital.
In contrast to those who followed him, Alfonso VI was a tolerant king who established Toledo as a center of learning, employing Jewish and Muslim scholars to translate classical works (originally written in Greek, which was then almost unknown in Western Europe) from Arabic to Latin. From Toledo, the translated works spread to the rest of Europe.
In the next centuries, the Christian reconquest spread slowly southward into Andalusia. Cordoba fell in 1236, and Seville in 1248. During the centuries of the reconquista, the idea of a racially and religiously pure Spain became a national goal. The fragile tolerance of minorities that had sometimes characterized Spanish society in the past was its casualty.
The Dominican Order was at the forefront of anti-Semitic agitation. In the north, the Dominican friars had organized, with the help of converts, so-called “disputations” in which the Talmud — which for some reason attracted the greatest part of the Christian antagonism — was invariably condemned to be burned. This was not an exclusively Spanish pastime: in 1225, seventy-five wagonloads of Jewish manuscripts were burned in the Place de Hotel de Ville after Paris’ Jews predictably lost a similar disputation.
In Spain, there was no respite from these persecutions. One incident followed another until in 1391, the fanatically anti-Semitic friar Vincent Ferrer incited a pogrom in Seville in which most of the local Jews were murdered and their synagogues set on fire or converted to churches. Many Jews saved themselves from death only by accepting baptism, and a small minority escaped both fates and continued to live as Jews.
Flush with his success in Seville, Ferrer traveled to the other large cities in the country, inciting rioting, murder, looting and forcing baptisms wherever he went. It is estimated that a hundred thousand Jews lost their lives by the time the pogroms finally subsided, and a similar number accepted forced baptism. Among the dead was the son of Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (בעל הטורים), himself the son of Rabbi Asher (רא”ש). Rabbi Asher had come to Spain only eighty years before to escape persecution in his native Germany. Such was the precarious situation of Jews in medieval Christian Europe. The events of 1391, following so soon after the Black Death of 1348, left Spain’s Jewish community a shell of its former self.
With the fall of Granada on January 2, 1492, the Christian reconquest of Spain was complete.
The Order of Expulsion, signed by Isabella and Ferdinand a few months later in Alhambra on March 31, 1492, marked the end of the more than fifteen centuries of Jewish life in Spain. Muslims were allowed to linger on in Spain a few years longer, but in 1517 the few remaining Muslims were forcibly converted, and many of them were eventually expelled despite their conversion. Spain was pure at last.
Join us on this expedition and learn about the rich Jewish history of Spain.
Monday - Madrid, Segovia
Tuesday - Toledo
Wednesday - Cordoba
Thursday - Granada
Friday - Gibraltar
Shabbat - Gibraltar
The program on Shabbat is appropriate for participants with any level of Shabbat observance. Please contact us with any questions.
Sunday - Seville
The above itinerary is an sample program. If you are interested in a custom made Jewish heritage tour to Spain for your community, family or other group we can design a special itinerary for you. Contact us for more information.