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Jews in Sefarad in the Middle Ages: Through the centuries

The presence of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula can be traced back to the 2nd, maybe even the 1st century AD. Though the communities thrived under the Roman and then the Visigothic rule, the hardship inflicted upon them by the laws passed in the 7th century caused them to welcome the Muslim invaders of Spain as saviours. The Jewish community of Al Andalus prospered dramatically and by the 10th Century, the aljamas, local independent communities of Córdoba, Toledo, Lucena and Granada were renowned and admired.

Hasday ibn Shaprut (ca 910-970), nasí (prince or highest authority) of the Jewish communities of Al Andalus had risen to the position of prime councellor of Abderrahmán III. He leveraged his high station to improve his fellow Jews life conditions and to establish Córdoba as a beacon of culture. The Jewish communities were to live other times of greatness under the Taifas regime. Those times were marked by abundant intellectual contributions of unmatched caliber from great Spanish Jewish thinkers, such as Ibn Gabirol and Ibn Paquda.

The Northern Christian Kingdoms also bestowed fair treatment on the Jews in their areas. The authorities in power in the 11th and 12th centuries granted the Jewish communities (aljamas) full judicial autonomy and the right to self-government. Jews retained their rights, chiefly the right to worship their God and to hold title to properties. However, religious proselytism was prohibited and Jews were not to hold certain government or government-related positions. The interactions they were allowed to have with Christians were defined in great detail and tightly controlled.

King Alfonso VI de Castilla y León (1065-1109) relied on valued Jewish councellors such as Yishaq ibn Salib and Rabí Yoseh ha-Nasí Ferruziel, stalwarts among his courtiers.

In the 12th century, the main Jewish communities dotted the major trading routes. Around the end of that century, the regulation as witnessed by minutes in official local government registries gradually allowed money lending with interest. The second half of the 12th century also saw an inflow of Andaluci Jews who fled the Almohads. That group spectacularly boosted the development of Spanish Jewry. From that moment on, the number of Jewish courtiers grew and so did the number of those who embraced carreers in government, particularly in the field of tax collection.

In Aragón, the Abenmenassé, Ravaya, Portella, Abinafia, Alconstatini and Caballería families made significant marks. In Castile, don Yishaq de la Maleha and don Abraham el Barchilón in the 13th century, and Semuel ha-Leví, Mayr Abenamias and Abraham ibn Çarça in the second half of the 14th century acted as treasurers by royal appointment.

The Jewish communities governed themselves by means of an aljama. The aljama was a public body complete with an incorporation and the right to conduct business. Aljamas interacted with kings and local governments on behalf of the Jewish communities. Jews paid their taxes directly to the royal tax service and thus earned their right to judicial autonomy and freedom of belief. Most of the Jews made a living as craftsmen or shopkeepers and serviced rather small areas. Only a handful of them operated trading on a national scale, even fewer on an international level. Very few were doctors, money lenders, landlords and tax collectors.

By the end of the 13th century, the Jewish population of Castile was spread over more than a hundred towns and cities. The most significant ones were Toledo, Sevilla, Córdoba, Burgos, Valladolid, Medina del Campo, Ávila and Segovia. In the kingdom of Aragón, the largest aljamas were those of Zaragoza, Huesca and Calatayud in the province of Aragón. In Catalonia, the largest aljamas were those of Barcelona, Cervera, Tarragona and Tortosa, those of Valencia, Játiva, Murviedro and Castellón in the region of Valencia, and that of Palma de Mallorca in the Balearic Islands. In the kingdom of Navarra, the aljamas of Tudela, Pamplona and Estella stood out.

Antijudaism plagued other European areas much earlier than it did in Spain. Antijudaism drove its stakes into doctrinal ground and grew into laws as from the middle of the 13th century. The following century was to see antijudaism turn violent and flare: wilful attacks on Jewish quarters resulted in total destruction of some of the most important aljamas and forced very large numbers of Jews to convert to Christianism.

The “convert issue” that hung over the country throughout most of the 15th century, pervading social interaction and religious pursuits, only to fade away with the incipience of Renaissance, originated then.

In the third decade of the 15th century, Castilian judaism was partially rebuilt on the basis of the Taqqanot issued in Valladolid in 1432. Those were a host of nationwide ordinances voted in by a committee of Jewish luminaries chaired by Abraham Bienveniste. The Taqqanot were applicable in all Castilian aljamas.

A few prosperous and constructive decades went by. But in 1492, a royal decree forced the Jews from Castile and Aragón either to convert to Christianism or to leave the country. About fifty thousand Jews, ie half of the total Jewish population in the kingdoms chose to leave and move to Portugal and North Africa. They then moved to the Eastern end of the Mediterranean basin. This is how strong Sefardic communities emerged in the Maghreb, Greece, Turkey and the Near East. Ever since, these have proudly upheld customs and traditions of Sefardic Judaism and still speak 15th century Spanish today. Their loyalty to that distant past cements their very definition of themselves.

Enrique Cantera Montenegro Tenured Professor and Head the Medieval History Department -. UNED