About a thousand years ago, there lived in Spain a great Jewish scholar and statesman, called Hasdai ibn Shaprut. He was born in Jaen, Spain, about the year 4675 (915). His father, Isaac benEzra, was a man of great learning and wealth. Under the care of his father, the young Hasdai studied the Talmud, and later also the Hebrew, Arabic and Latin languages, in which he became very proficient. Hasdai displayed a special interest in medicine and became a famous physician.
Hasdai's great scholarship, and especially his fame as a physician, attracted the attention of Caliph Abarrahman III, in Cordova. The Caliph appointed Hasdai his court physician. When the Caliph became more closely acquainted with his Jewish physician, and saw that he was also a man gifted with great organizing ability and statesmanship, he appointed Hasdai Inspector General of Customs, and his chief diplomatic adviser. In this capacity, Hasdai continued to serve under the Caliph as well as under his successor, Hakam II, who took over the Caliphate in the year 4721.
Hasdai rendered great service to his land by establishing good diplomatic and commercial relations between the Arab Caliphate and the Christian kingdoms, as far as Byzantium. The foreign diplomats who had occasion to meet Hasdai, thought very highly of him, and praised him to their courts. Emperor Romanus II of Byzantium sent Hasdai a medical text book written in Greek, which Hasdai with the aid of other scholars translated into Arabic.
Owing to his great wealth, wisdom, and high rank, Hasdai was in a position to offer great help to his brethren. He was the Nassi (head) of all the Jews of Spain, and did all he could to improve their economic and cultural position. A great Talmudist himself, Hasdai built schools and academies to spread the knowledge of the Torah, and invited Talmud scholars of renown to teach there, supporting both the schools and the scholars from his own means. Hasdai also supported the great Babylonian academies in Sura and Pumbaditha, and kept up a regular correspondence with the Gaonim (leading Talmud Authorities) in Babylon and North Africa, (notably Kairwan).
Hasdai surrounded himself with many famous Hebrew scholars and poets such as Menachem ben Saruk, and Dunash ben Labrat. Menachem ben Saruk, the famous Hebrew Grammarian, was in charge of Hasdai's Hebrew correspondence. Thus, under Hasdai's influence and with his support, Hebrew poetry and scholarship began to flourish in Spain, marking the beginning of the Golden Era, which produced such outstanding philosophers and poets as Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, Ibn Ezra, Ibn Gabirol, Maimonides, Nachmanides, and others.
It was during the life of this great Jewish leader, that the famous Gaon Rabbi Mosheh ben Enoch one of the "four captives," reached the shores of Spain. Many of our readers may be familiar with the exciting story of the four Gaonim from Babylon, who, by the hand of Divine Providence, were taken prisoner by pirates on the Mediterranean Sea, and subsequently held for ransom in the leading Jewish communities of those days, namely Egypt and Kairwan, Italy and Spain. These famous Jewish scholars were quickly redeemed, and they set up Jewish centers of learning in their new places of refuge. Thus, when the famous Babylonian academies, were eventually destroyed, the Torah had already established itself in four new centers.
When Rabbi Mosheh ben Enoch was brought to Cordova, he was redeemed by the local Jewish community. Discovering that the refugee was the famous Gaon, Mosheh ben Enoch, Hasdai set him up as head of a great Talmudic academy in Cordova. To foster Jewish Talmudic studies, Hasdai procured manuscripts of the Talmud from the Babylonian academies, and gave. them to the students of the Cordova academy for study. For many years, Spain was one of the leading Torah centers in the world.
A very interesting historical document was left by Hasdai in the form of his correspondence with the Jewish King of the Khazars. For hundreds of years, the Khazars were a mighty people who lived on the Steppes between the Don and Volga Rivers. Their realm stretched westward as far as Kiev. The kings of the Khazars were powerful rulers who intermarried with the families of the Byzantian and Arabic monarchies. It is not clear when the Khazars decided to give up their heathen ways and accept Judaism as their faith. The Khazar Jewish kingdom captured the imagination of the Jewish people of those days. Hasdai was eager to learn more about them, for he had only scant reports of the Khazar kingdom which he received through diplomatic channels. Hasdai decided to make personal contact with them. In those days distance made it very difficult to make or maintain contact with remote countries, and being that the Khazar kingdom was at the easternmost end of Europe, it seemed almost an impossible task.
Hasdai, however, was a man of determination. He addressed an affectionate letter in Hebrew to Joseph, the King of the Khazars, and sent it to him with a special emissary, Isaac ben Nathan. When Isaac reached Constantinople, he was detained by the Byzantian authorities, who feared a direct alliance between Spain and the Khazars. On the pretext that the roads were not safe, Hasdai's emissary did not obtain the facilities to continue his journey to the capital of the Khazars.
Hasdai was not discouraged. He sent another emissary, Isaac ben Eliezer, but this time by way of Hungary and Russia. Aided by the Jews of those countries, Hasdai's second emissary made his way to Itil, and delivered Hasdai's warm greetings to Joseph.
King Joseph of the Khazars replied in Hebrew, answering all of Hasdai's questions concerning the history of the Khazars and their acceptance of Judaism. King Joseph told him how his ancestor, Bulan, decided to give up his heathen beliefs in order to accept one of the three leading faiths, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. King Bulan then arranged for theologians of each of the three faiths to participate in a debate in his presence, in which each of them was to prove why his faith was the true one. When the debate was over, Bulan was convinced that the Jewish faith was the true faith; and he, together with his entire family, and four thousand Khazar nobles, formally accepted Judaism. Gradually, the majority of the Khazars followed the example of their king, and accepted the Jewish faith.
Unfortunately, about the time when Hasdai's letter reached King Joseph (about 4710), dark clouds appeared on the horizon of the Khazar kingdom. The Russian and Byzantian rulers combined to destroy the Jewish kingdom of the Khazars, and about 15 years later, Sviatoslav of Russia defeated the Khazars and devastated their land, including their capital of Itil. Nevertheless, the Khazars continued to play an important part in that section of the world for another century. Thereafter, their fortunes waned altogether, until their fate became unknown.
At any rate, the exchange of epistles between Hasdai and King Joseph of the Khazars throws much light on the history of the Khazar kingdom which might have otherwise remained quite obscure.
Hasdai died in Cordova at the age of about sixty, sadly mourned by all Jews, and by all those non-Jewish friends who were privileged to know him.