The Golden Age of Spanish Jewry

From 950-1150 CE, under tolerant Arab rule, the Jews of Spain entered into an era of splendor, both spiritually and materially. As the Muslim conquerors needed help in administering their new land, they eagerly sought Jewish expertise in both commerce and governance. In addition, the Arabs shared a love of learning with the Jews, which manifested itself in the fields of philosophy, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and poetry. While Christian Europe sank into the Dark Ages, Muslim Spain developed into a modern, pluralistic society, where all beliefs were tolerated. Sophisticated cities were built featuring paved streets, piped water, and exquisite gardens and palaces. Cordova, Toledo, and Granada became major centers of learning, where mathematicians, scientists, and poets perused scholarly volumes in world-class libraries.

Given both freedom and riches, Spain rapidly became the largest Jewish community in the world. Spanish Jewry produced dazzling Torah scholars, poets who wrote some of the most inspiring sacred pieces of the liturgy, philosophers whose writings remain as classic as when they were written, and grammarians who laid down the basic rules of Hebrew. In the secular realm, Jews became diplomats, generals, prime ministers, scientists, and secular poets. Sadly, the Golden Age came to a halt in 1147, when fanatic Almohad Muslims invaded Spain from North Africa. To avoid being offered a choice between conversion to Islam or death, many Jews fled to the Christian north of Spain. So great was Jewish life in Spain, that such a favorable climate for Jews would not exist again until the 20th Century United States.

Sephardim and Ashkenazim

Although Jewish legend traces the origin of the Ashkenazim to the tribe of Benjamin, and the Sephardim to the tribe of Judah, it appears that the division took place gradually over several hundred years, culminating during the Eighth to 10th Centuries. At that time, world Jewry lived under two great empires — the Muslim Arab-ruled areas of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain; and the Christian-ruled Roman Empire in Europe and Asia Minor, itself divided into the Holy Roman Empire in the west and Byzantium in the east.

Over hundreds of years Jews traveled to all areas of the Roman Empire, both as slaves after Churban Bayis Sheni and the fall of Betar, and as free men seeking economic opportunity. Likewise, Jews under Arab rule were encouraged by the new rulers and traveled throughout the lands conquered by the Arabs, who needed the Jews to help administer the newly occupied lands. By the Ninth Century, the Islamic world had undergone a great transformation, from a concatenation of wild desert tribes to peoples living in sophisticated urban centers of commerce and learning, such as Baghdad and Cordova. Indeed, the growth of a mercantile economy weakened traditional agrarian societies. Many Jews abandoned the fields and farms of Babylonia, which they had tilled for centuries, and went forth to take advantage of many new and exciting opportunities. Thus, the Jews of both the Roman Empire and the Islamic Empire developed into unique Ashkenazic and Sephardic cultures, reflecting the influences of their respective rulers.

Spain became the center of the Sephardic world, influencing communities in North Africa, Eretz Israel,Babylonia, and the Middle East, while Germany, Northern France, and Italy were the bastions of the Ashkenazim. Due to its location, Southern France, or Provence, was the crossroads of the two schools of thought, although Provence tended to follow Sephardic practice. While both groups were loyal to the same Torah, important differences arose between them in three major areas:

Different customs arose between the two groups. Divergent minhagim arose, particularly in the prayer service. Indeed, the origins of today's Nusach Sefard and Nusach Ashkenaz come from this time period.

Methods of learning diverged as well. Ashkenazim employed a unique analytical approach to the Talmud, as embodied in the commentary of the great Tosafists, while the Sephardim usually focused on halachic works, as evinced in the great halacha compendiums of the Rif and Rambam. (Of course, there were Sephardic Talmudic commentators, such as Rashba and Ritva, and Ashkenazic halachists, such as Maharam MiRothenberg.)

The Jewish attitude toward secular studies varied as well. Sephardic scholars studied science, literature, and philosophy, and wrote non-sacred poetry, while such practices were completely absent among the Ashkenazim. This difference was due largely to the cultural milieu in which each group lived. In Spain, such studies were in vogue, while in France and Germany these studies did not exist. For their part, Sephardic scholars felt that secular studies were important both to enhance one's understanding of Torah and to gain the respect of the non-Jewish world. Some Sephardic scholars also had creative drives that naturally channeled themselves into secular pursuits. To the contrary, Ashkenazic scholars lived in a world of brute ignorance, where they had very little interaction with gentile society. As such, all of these scholars’ talents were devoted exclusively to Torah. To this day, the issue of what role, if any, secular disciplines should play in understanding Torah, and to what extent Jews should involve themselves with the outside world, has been fiercely debated among Jews.

Spanish Jews in Secular Pursuits

During the Golden Age Spanish Torah scholars rose to prominence in many different fields, becoming ministers, generals, poets, and grammarians. In the 10th Century, Chisdai Ibn Shaprut became the personal physician and prime minister to the Arab caliph of Spain. Ibn Shaprut’s responsibilities included overseeing the collection of custom duties on merchandise entering Spain, and negotiating treaties with foreign countries. Utilizing his international connections, Ibn Shaprut was able to secure more favorable treatment for Jews throughout the civilized world. Utilizing his vast wealth to support Babylonian yeshivas and many other Jewish communities, Ibn Shaprut even redeemed Rabbi Moshe ben Chanoch when that renowned scholar was brought to Spain on a pirate ship. Later Ibn Shaprut encouraged ben Chanoch to set up his own yeshiva, thus building up the quality of Torah study in Spain. Finally, on hearing of the powerful Jewish Khazar kingdom, Ibn Shaprut proposed an alliance and received a positive reply. Unfortunately, the plan never reached fruition.

In the 11th Century, Shmuel Ibn Joseph, a disciple of Rabbi Moshe ben Chanoch, caught the attention of the vizier (prime minister) of the caliph. Shmuel was a master calligrapher and linguist of the Arabic language, and when the vizier saw Shmuel’s masterful work, the vizier appointed Shmuel his personal secretary. On his deathbed, the vizier told the caliph that Shmuel was responsible for all the advice the vizier had given the caliph. Seeing that Shmuel was a suitable replacement, the caliph appointed him vizier, and Shmuel became known to the Jews as Shmuel HaNagid, the prince. Shmuel then became the general of the Arab armies, fighting many successful battles. At home, Shmuel continued in the tradition of Ibn Shaprut, showing concern for Jews everywhere, and supporting Torah scholars with his vast wealth. Himself a Torah scholar of note, Shmuel wrote the Talmudic commentary Mavo HaTalmud. He also was a prolific poet, both in religious and secular realms. In one of his poems, Shmuel takes issue with the practice of loud Talmudic argumentation in the synagogue, comparing it to the braying of animals. (Current practice does not follow this view.)

A brilliant man, Shmuel’s adroitness in dealing with his detractors was legendary. Once, for example, while walking with the caliph, an Arab insulted Shmuel HaNagid. While the caliph ordered Shmuel to cut out the offender's tongue, instead Shmuel befriended the Arab and showered him with gifts. On another occasion, Shmuel and the caliph were taking a stroll, and the same Arab heaped praise on Shmuel. In anger, the caliph asked Shmuel why his order was not carried out. Shmuel's wise reply was that he did indeed cut out the Arab's bad tongue and replaced it with a good one. When Shmuel died, his son Joseph became the new Nagid. Unfortunately, Joseph did not possess his father's wisdom. Joseph’s lavish lifestyle and condescending attitude toward Arabs brought him many enemies. A pogrom broke out in his hometown of Granada, and Joseph and many other Jews were killed.

Jewish Community Life in Spain

During the Golden Age of Spain, and the earlier part of subsequent Christian rule, Spanish Jews enjoyed greater freedoms than did Jews anywhere else in the world. Indeed, along with Christians and Muslims the Spanish Jews were recognized as belonging to separate and distinct religious and national groups whom it suited the monarchs to treat favorably. On the whole, Jews were free to trade or engage in such crafts or professions as they chose, while money lending was never regarded as a typically Jewish occupation. In Spain, then, the Jews were weavers, tailors, furriers, blacksmiths, saddlers, potters, boilermakers, merchants, and shopkeepers. As there were no restrictions on Jews owning land, they cultivated fields and vineyards. Jewish artisans produced elegant filigree silver, with their best customer the Catholic Church. On El Medio Street in Saragossa, where Jewish shops lined both sides of the narrow passage, the Jews crafted leather shoes that were renowned throughout Spain. (This is still a street of shoemakers and repairers, albeit non-Jewish, who work out of tiny shops.) Jews were also famed artists who produced stunning illuminated manuscripts, such as Passover Haggadahs, which possess great value today.

On Thursdays, market days, Jews exhibited their wares in open-air markets. One market sold grain, another silk, famed for its high quality, and a third market sold general wares, including kosher meat, which, as today, was prized by non-Jews.

Jews lived in their own quarters, known as juderias, a number of which have been preserved in Spain and can be seen today. The streets were a maze of narrow alleyways, with hygiene primitive by today's standards. Stinking garbage was piled high at every turn of the road. Latrines were nonexistent, except among the rich, whose palaces sometimes bordered rivers, where elementary piping systems dumped waste directly into the water. Rats were at home everywhere.

The aljamas, Jewish communities, possessed extensive powers of self-government. In some communities, there were officers whose job it was to watch for and apprehend individuals found violating halacha. The Jewish courts were empowered to impose bans of excommunication, corporal punishment, and in some cases the death penalty, which was usually carried out by the king. Disputes between Jews and non-Jews were handled fairly by courts composed of representatives of both faiths. In all, although there was discrimination from time to time, Jewish life in Spain during this period was generally peaceful and prosperous.

Shlomo Ibn Gabriol

One of the most famous poets of the Golden Age, Shlomo Ibn Gabirol composed the immortal Adon Olam, which compares G‑d's omniscient glory with His benevolent, personal concern for all people. Ibn Gabirol’s Keser Malchus, a classic of Hebrew language and belief, is recited in some congregations on Yom Kippur. In fact, Ibn Gabirol was universally recognized as great – so much so that the great commentator Ibn Ezracalled Ibn Gabirol "the master of verse." In addition, Ibn Gabirol wrote a book discussing such elemental issues as G‑d and the human condition, employing a strictly philosophical viewpoint and not resorting to Scripture or other traditional sources. The book, written in Arabic under a pen name, was translated into Latin. The Catholic Church, unaware of the book's Jewish origins, adopted it as a religious primer — while at the same time some Jewish sages attacked the book. Sadly, Ibn Gabirol had many enemies, and had to wander from place to place. According to legend, an Arab poet killed him out of jealousy for Ibn Gabirol’s great poetic acumen.


The study of Hebrew grammar (dikduk) became very popular during the Golden Age. Among the most famous grammarians are Menachem Ibn Saruk, his student Yehuda Ibn Chiyug, and Donash Ibn Labrat. A protégé of Ibn Shaprut, Menachem wrote the Machberes, the first book exclusively devoted to rules of dikduk. This landmark work posited that Hebrew words can have roots (shoroshim) of one to five letters, an idea to which Ibn Chiyug strenuously objected, claiming that all words possess a three-letter root. (Popular Hebrew grammar adheres to this position, although some scholars prefer a one- to four-root idea.)

Despite disagreeing with Menachem, Ibn Chiyug defended his teacher against the attacks of Donash Ibn Labrat, who wrote a competing Hebrew grammar text. Indeed, the conflict became so acrimonious that at one point supporters of Donash accused Menachem of harboring Karaite beliefs because he explained words in the Torah according to their simple meaning and not following rabbinic tradition. (For example, they took issue with Menachem's translation of melikah, the nipping of the head of a bird sacrifice, as a form of ritual slaughter.) Ibn Shaprut cut off Menachem's financial support, and Menachem was even physically attacked. Despite all the acrimony, Jewish tradition regards both disputants as legitimate, and Rashi quotes both Menachem and Donash in his commentary on the Torah. Donash is the author of the Sabbath song "Dror Yikra" and the introduction to Birkas HaMazon recited during the wedding week (sheva berachos), "Devai Hosair."