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Rabbi Yehuda Ben Moshe HaKohen

Rabbi Yehuda Ben Moshe HaKohen

The Jewish Physician of Toledo

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Rabbi Yehuda ben Moshe haKohen was the personal physician of King Alfonso X of Castile - one of the first provinces which the Spaniards had recaptured from the Moors (Arabs of North Africa). The king had shown friendship to the Jews even before he ascended to the throne of his kingdom (in the year 1252) and for many years during his long reign (1252-1284) he befriended the Jews and encouraged them to settle in Toledo, Cordova, Seville, and other cities, which had suffered very much during the war against the Moslems.

The king, a scholar and an admirer of learning, welcomed Jewish scholars to his court. He was especially interested in astronomy, and since his Jewish physician was also a great astronomer, they become close friends.

Another prominent Jew of Toledo, Don Yitzchak de la Maleha, a dear friend of Yehuda ben Moshe haKohen, was appointed finance minister, and there were other Jewish officials serving in the Court.

However, like the kings of the other Spanish kingdoms, as of other Christian lands, Alfonso was under the strong influence of the clergy, who were fanatically hostile to the Jews. Yet, knowing the valuable service the Jews were rendering to him and to his land, he protected them. Aside from various restrictions which Jews suffered in all Christian lands, the Jews of Castile were generally free to conduct their Jewish life; their synagogues were not to be desecrated, and Jews were not to be forced into conversion.

At any rate, Yehuda ben Moshe haKohen was ever watchful that the king should not fall completely under the influence of the clergy in his attitude towards the Jews.

One day, when Yehuda haKohen came to the palace to visit with the king, as he often did without requiring a special invitation, he was informed that the king would not see him, as he was busy with important guests. At the same time, the king let him know that he should not come to the palace without an invitation, as in the past.

The change in the king's attitude toward him was evident also in the way the message was delivered to him by the kings' attendant. Gone was the warmth, the smile, and high esteem with which he used to be welcomed at the palace. Yehuda haKohen was filled with anxiety and foreboding.

He left the palace with a heavy heart, but instead of returning home, he went to his friend Yitzchak de la Maleha to discuss with him the new situation.

Yitzchak was not entirely surprised when Yehuda told him what had happened, though he was not less concerned about the situation. Yitzchak told his friend that the king was, indeed, entertaining important guests, two highranking ambassadors of the king of Portugal, Alfonso the Third. What business he had with his namesake, the king of Castile, the Jewish finance minister did not know as yet. "But" - Yitzchak continued - "I have a good friend in the Court of the king of Portugal, and he sends me important information from time to time with a special messenger in strict confidence. So I expect to hear from him any day. As a matter of fact, I have a good contact with one who is usually well informed about what's going on behind the scenes in our Royal Court. I certainly intend to find out what is going on now. Unfortunately, as you know, our king has a changeable character; you can never be sure with him. So we must be on guard..."

The two friends agreed to meet again in three days' time, expecting that by then they would know more about the situation, and what they have to do about it.

But before the three days passed, Yitzchak de Maleha sent word to his friend to come urgently.

When Yehuda haKohen arrived at his friend's house, Yitzchak did not attempt to hide his anxiety about the danger threatening the Jews of Castile as well as the Jews of Portugal.

"I have learned" - Yitzchak began - "that the Crown Prince of Portugal, Diniz, was suffering from some malady which the Portuguese doctors were unable to cure. The prince's illness is being kept secret. In the meantime, the king's priest seized the opportunity to try to persuade the king that he was being punished for employing Jewish officials in his government and being friendly to the Jews...

"Now, as you know" - Yitzchak continued -"the two Alfonsos, though distantly related, have not much affection for one another. On the other hand, our crown prince Sancho - a scheming man and lusting for more power - had suggested some time ago to make a match between his sister Maria and Crown Prince Diniz, and in this way bring the two kingdoms into a close and strong alliance. The Portuguese king was not in favor of this suggested marriage, but now, under the influence of his priest who strongly supported the idea, the king was ready to consider it more favorably...

"So what is so bad about it for the Jews?" Yehuda asked.

"What are you saying, my friend, G-d forbid it!" Yitzchak exclaimed. "One of the basic terms of this alliance is that the two Christian kingdoms change their attitude to the Jews and decree the expulsion from both lands of all Jews who will not convert to the christian faith!"

Yehuda paled and tears appeared in his eyes. "The Guardian of Israel save us," he uttered in a heartfelt prayer. He knew now what the purpose of the Portuguese ambassadors was, and why his king had suddenly become so cold and unfriendly to him.

After some hard thinking, Yehuda haKohen broke the silence, saying: "These things are not done in a hurry; royal matchmaking takes time. In the meantime we may be able to take steps with G-d's help to avert the danger."

"When it come to marriages of political convenience, even mental illness is no problem," Don Yitzchak said. "I do not believe that our scheming Crown Prince Sancho, nor even the king himself, would consider this an obstacle; on the contrary, it might even occur to them that a feebleminded Portuguese king would make it easier for the Spanish king to extend his power over neighboring Portugal.

"However," continued Don Yitzchak, "I think I have a better idea, but the success of failure of it is in G-d's hands..."

"Everything is in G-d's hands," Rabbi Yehuda interjected.

"Of course, of course! What I mean is that we will need special Divine help to succeed. But at this point, we need your help!"

"My help? What do you mean?"

"I mean that you will have to travel to Lisbon to cure the Crown Prince of Portugal..."

The two friends discussed the plan at length, and the grave risks it involved for Rabbi Moshe haKohen and for the Jews of both Spain and Portugal if the plan should fail, G-d forbid. But there was no alternative.

Taking his medical kit, packed with instruments and medicines, Yehuda haKohen secretly left Toledo for the Portuguese capital. In the meantime, de la Maleha's friend at the Portuguese Court was to make sure that the king of Portugal would get to know of the arrival of a great doctor from Spain.

As soon as the king heard of this, he immediately invited the doctor to examine his beloved son, the Crown Prince. He promised to reward him with anything his heart desired, if only he would be able to heal the Crown Prince - something that all the royal doctors had, so far, failed to do.

II

After examining the Crown Prince, Yehuda haKohen came to the conclusion that the ailing prince was suffering from a blood-clot on his brain. This called for a very delicate and dangerous operation. He informed the king of his conclusion, and stressed the importance of performing the operation without undue delay. "If your Majesty agrees," he said, "I would perform this delicate operation, which could take place in about a week's time. In the meantime the Crown Prince would be under my personal care and I would prepare him for the operation. With G-d's help, I am confident your son will be well."

The king readily agreed, and arrangements were made accordingly.

On the day before the operation, Yehuda haKohen suddenly received a royal order to leave the country within 24 hours! The order came to him unexpectedly, like a thunderbolt from a clear blue sky. He could not even guess the reason for this strange order. But, as was his usual philosophy, he said to himself: "This, too, is for the good."

Yehuda haKohen packed his things, and set off on his way. He travelled slowly, deeply lost in his thoughts.

After a few hours riding, a royal carriage caught up with him and, to his great astonishment, the king himself stepped out and invited him to enter the royal carriage which turned around to go back.

"The priest has cooked up a nasty dish," the king said angrily. "I shall banish him from the palace. What do I care if you are a Jew, as long as you are a good doctor. Only you can help my son."

The king then told Yehuda haKohen what had happened.

It appears that the priest was eager to discredit Yehuda haKohen and watched him like a hawk. He noticed that the doctor avoided drinking wine when with the king, and always had a ready excuse for refusing to accept an invitation to have a meal with the king.

The priest had engaged some of his friends in Toledo to report to him anything which would bolster his suspicions that the doctor was a Jew. He was then convinced that the doctor was none other than the Jewish doctor of the King of Castile whom the king had no doubt fired.

The priest then came to his king with a calumny, saying that the Jews had decided to kill the Crown Prince with the help of the Jewish doctor, so that the marriage should not take place. In this way, the planned decree of deporting the Jews from both countries would not come to pass.

"In a moment of weakness," continued the king, "I allowed myself to be influenced by the priest. However, I absolutely refused his demand to have you arrested and put on trial. Instead I decided to expel you immediately from my land. When my Crown Prince learned about the calumny put forth by the priest, he labelled it ridiculous. He threatened that, if the Jewish doctor would not be permitted to treat him, he would commit suicide. My son has the fullest confidence in you, and you are his last hope. I have come in person to apologize to you. Have pity on my son and save him."

"I will do all I can," answered Yehuda haKohen, "but the true doctor is the Almighty - the Healer of all flesh."

Yehuda haKohen performed the operation, with a prayer in his heart that the Almighty would help in the merit of the Jews who were in danger. The Almighty did help, and the operation was successful.

Yehuda haKohen watched over his patient till the crisis was over. The Crown Prince began to feel better and stronger each day.

The king and the Crown Prince were filled with gratitude and joy when the patient recovered his health; and, loaded with gifts, Yehuda ben Moshe haKohen, returned home.

His greatest reward was, naturally, that he succeeded in averting the threatened deportation of the Jews from Spain and Portugal, thus enabling them to continue to live there - for the most part peacefully - for the next two hundred years.

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