The period of approximately 400 years roughly between the years 1000 and 1400 is known to historians as the Middle Ages. A great deal of world-changing events occurred during this time. The Muslim world began its long slow descent towards cultural stagnancy. The Christian world of Europe began its long slow recovery from the 500-year long so-called Dark Ages, and gradually rediscovered the intellectual and cultural achievements of ancient Greece and Rome. The Crusades brought the two great cultures head-to-head in a series of wars that lasted over two centuries and achieved nothing for either party. Finally, the bubonic plague of the mid-14th century brought almost the entire world to a grinding halt which enabled the emergence of a more productive and modern society that eventually resulted in the Renaissance in Europe.
What were the Jews doing during this long period? Jews lived in both the Muslim and Christian worlds and influenced both cultures in varying degrees. Jews suffered with their Moslem and Christian neighbors through the wars and the plagues, and took an active part in the cultural developments that were taking place. As we have already seen, Jews were prominent philosophers in Muslim and Christian Spain and elsewhere. But on the whole, Jewish intellectual energy was concentrated on understanding Torah rather than understanding the world. Increasing Christian oppression forced the Jews to turn inwards and delve ever deeper into their insular world of Judaism.
As we shall see, this period witnessed the birth of Kabbalah - the esoteric but highly influential path of Jewish mysticism. But until the 16th century, Kabbalah was the secret domain of a handful of scholars scattered throughout the Jewish world. The mainstream rabbinic world was engaged in the long and laborious task of explaining the major works of Torah – the Bible, the Mishna, the Talmud, and the Midrash. These were the ‘commentators’, who took on the task of writing intricate commentaries on these earlier texts, dissecting the texts line-by-line or even word-by-word, in order to understand the law and Judaism.
Jewish historians have their own name for this period. They call it the era of the Rishonim, a word that roughly translates as ‘the first ones’. In what regard were they ‘first’? They were the first to write down their commentaries on those core texts. Prior to them, rabbis generally assumed that the written texts (Scripture) could be read and understood and that the Oral Law texts (Mishna, Talmud, Midrash) were supposed to remain oral and not be written down. Any explanations were kept equally unwritten, preserved in the minds of the teachers and their students from one generation to the next. The Rishonim changed all that. The primary texts of the Oral Law were written on long manuscripts in various parts of Europe and the Near East. The commentaries were sometimes written alongside them, but more frequently on a separate manuscript. The commentaries gradually assumed an importance that was almost equal to the primary text itself.
Who wrote these commentaries? Some of the names are already familiar to us. For instance Rav Saadia wrote a commentary/translation of the Chumash. Maimonides wrote a commentary to the Mishna. But there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of others. They are generally grouped according to region. By the beginning of the period of the Rishonim, the Jews of the Western world could be grouped by distinct traditions. The Jews of northwest and central Europe (France, Germany, England, and by the 13th century, Poland) were traditionally called the Ashkenazim, while those of the Mediterranean countries (Spain and North Africa) were called Sefaradim.
The German and French origins of the Ashkenazim can probably be traced to the ancient Jewish community of Italy. In all likelihood, a small contingent of Italian Jews emigrated north from Italy probably around the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, and settled in the Rhine river valley. They formed permanent communities in the villages along the river and spread out from there into France and other parts of Germany. By the 13th century economic opportunities induced some to spread east to Poland and elsewhere. It is possible that in the east they met up with other Jews from Slavic areas who had already settled in those lands.
One of the big questions concerning these early Ashkenazi communities is whether the original immigrants included Jewish women or not. One theory has it that all Ashkenazi Jews can trace their genes to four Jewish women (called the ‘Four Mothers’). Another theory claims that only males immigrated and they took wives from the local non-Jewish population who were converted in some unknown manner. Both theories are current topics of interest in the relatively new science of genetic lineage. Needless to say, the whole topic of Ashkenazi origins is highly controversial.
There is one name that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the Ashkenazi rabbis, similar to the position of Maimonides among the Sefaradim. He lived about two generations after Rabbi Gershom. His name was Shlomo ben Yitzhak, but the Jewish world knows him by his famous acronym, Rashi (Rav Shlomo Yitzhaki). Rashi was the commentator par excellence, contributing vast and immensely influential commentaries on both the Tanakh and the Talmud. For hundreds of years his commentaries have been considered indispensable to understanding these core texts of Judaism. It is almost unheard of to print an edition of either the Chumash or the Talmud without the commentary of Rashi alongside or directly underneath the main text.
Rashi’s methodology didn’t end with his death. His sons-in-law and grandsons founded their own schools in Germany and France. Beginning around the year 1100, they created the Talmudic methodology known by their popular name, the Baalei Tosafot, a phrase that translates literally as ‘Masters of additions’. The name refers to their role as adding on to the commentary of Rashi with their own incisive questions on both the Talmud and Rashi. These schools lasted in one form or another for about 200 years and eventually created the foundations of Ashkenazi custom. For hundreds of years, the commentaries of Rashi and the Baalei Tosafot have shared the honored place of being printed alongside the text of the Talmud in almost all standard printings.
There were many other Ashkenazi Rishonim, some who focused on Talmudic commentary, some of Scripture, some on finalizing Jewish law (Halacha), and some on mysticism. Until the Black Plague years of 1348 -1350 the center of Ashkenazi Jewry remained in Germany and France. Following those fateful years, a major shift occurred in which Ashkenazi Jews moved in large numbers to Eastern Europe. Poland and Lithuania became the primary destinations, but it eventually expanded to Russia, the Ukraine, Hungary, and several other regions. By the beginning of the Holocaust, Jews of Ashkenazi descent comprised about 90% of world Jewry.
Sefaradi history goes back considerably further than Ashkenazi history. There may have been Jews in Spain from the time of the Babylonian exile 2600 years ago. They certainly go back to the time of the second exile (70 CE). During the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Spain (about 750 – 1000) when a Muslim caliphate ruled the Iberian Peninsula, the Jews shared in the economic and intellectual success of their Muslim contemporaries. Jews thrived in almost every aspect of Muslim-ruled Spain. They rose to the top of the political ladder and were at the forefront of the scholarly revolution of the Golden Age.
It was during the period of the Rishonim that the Sefaradim reached the height of their rabbinic influence while undergoing a long and slow decline in terms of security among their Muslim and Christian neighbors. At the end of the Golden Age, the Jews were respected as junior partners with the ruling Muslims. By the year 1500, they had endured over 200 years of persecution under the Christians, ending with exile of all Jews who hadn’t converted, and the unending fear of the Inquisition for those who did. It wasn’t all rosy under the Muslims either. Starting in the 11th century, Muslim tribes invading from North Africa conquered most of the peninsula and spread a fanatical brand of their religion that frequently forced the Jews to either convert or leave. Among those who left were Maimonides and his family. Thousands converted to Islam to save their own lives.
It only got worse as the Christians took over more and more of Spain. The beginning of the end occurred at the end of the 14th century with tens of thousands of forced conversions and countless martyrs. In the late 15th century the Inquisition began its unholy work in Spain. The main victims were the ‘Conversos’ – Jews from families who had been forcibly converted over the previous several decades who were leading Christian lives in public and clandestine Jewish lives in secret. The Church spared no expense in rooting out those they suspected of any activity that might suggest lingering sympathy to Judaism.
It all culminated with the Spanish Expulsion in July of 1492, when hundreds of thousands of Jews and Conversos were hoarded onto ships and exiled too anywhere that would accept them. Thus the Sefaradim left Spain and renewed their wanderings all over the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Wherever they went they carried Sefaradic traditions with them. In many places it became the dominant tradition and these places became known as Sefaradic. Among these was Italy, formerly the birthplace of Ashkenazi Jewry. Many of the exiles continued to lead Christian lives with secret Jewish customs the origins or purpose of which they didn’t understand. To this day, these ‘crypto-Jews’ are still coming out of the woodwork. In Central and South America, in Cuba and New Mexico, in Portugal and Spain, people who have been practicing Christianity for centuries, with some strange custom of lighting candles on Friday night or some other Jewish-sounding quirk, declare themselves to be descendants of these conversos.
But through it all the Sefaradi Torah tradition flourished. Rav Yitzchak al-Fasi in the 11th century, Maimonides in the 12th century, and Nachmanides in the 13th century were just three of the hundreds of Sefaradi rabbis who wrote commentaries to the Tanakh and the Talmud, compendiums of Jewish law, philosophical treatises, or esoteric guides to mystical enlightenment. Maimonides followed this tradition in compiling his Mishna Torah, a compendium on the entire body of Jewish law. He, in turn was succeeded by numerous scholars who combined Sefaradi focus on Halacha with the Ashkenazi focus on Talmudic analysis. Chief among them was Nachmanides, who wrote extensive commentaries on both the Chumash and the Talmud. He set a new course for Sefaradi scholarship through his unique ability to integrate Talmud, Midrash, philosophy, and mysticism into a single commentary.
One of the many places the Sefaradim emigrated to was the Holy Land. While some settled in the growing city of Jerusalem, the destination of choice was the Galilean town of Safed (Tzefat in Hebrew). This mountain village grew from an unknown backwater to a major center of commerce and textile manufacturing during the 16th century. Both Sefaradim and Ashkenazim migrated to this picturesque village. It became a magnet for scholars from all over the Jewish world. More than anything else, it was known for its mystics, and has retained a distinct mystical flavor until today. Jewish mysticism developed in Tzefat with a fervor that was probably unmatched by any other time or place in history.
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