From Golden to Grim: Jewish Life in Muslim Spain

The complex political situation in Muslim Spain impacted Jewish social and cultural life there.

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For all its political unrest, Muslim Iberia [Spain and Portugal] sustained its economic vitality well into the twelfth century. The Jews shared in that affluence. Heavily concentrated in Granada, they earned their livelihoods as distributors of the region’s sugarcane and cotton; as exporters of marble, gold, silver, iron, and copper; as retail tradesmen, artisans, and physicians.

Beyond Granada, Jewish enclaves were still to be found in Cordoba, the focus of the Jews’ original settlement, and in Lucena and Seville. During periods of civil instability, additional thousands also migrated northward to the Christian kingdoms of Asturias, Leon, Castile, Navarre, Coimbra. Yet even in the north, Spanish Jews by and large preserved their Arabic language and nomenclature, and remained extensively integrated into the Arab cultural terrain.

Wherever they settled, too, the Jews continued to operate as a state within a state, exercising the widest measure of fiscal and judicial autonomy. For them, within that insular world, it was the synagogue that functioned as the communal omnium‑gatherum [all-purpose gathering place]. There were many hundreds of these, from public synagogues to synagogues erected by guilds of artisans to private synagogues attached to the homes of wealthy families, Cordoba and Granada, each with five or six thousand Jews, maintained­ at least two dozen synagogues. In Toledo, with barely four thousand Jews, there were eleven.

Characteristically, Iberian (and North African) synagogues shared most of the architectural and decorative features of the mosque. Construction was in the shape of a rectangle. The Ark of the Torah, positioned in the center of the sanctuary, was encircled by­ cushions and mats. Inasmuch as Jews were forbidden to employ human likenesses, the synagogue, like the mosque, was adorned with the carvings of­ animals and vegetation, with plaster lobes, horseshoe bows, rosettes, and sacred­ verses filigreed in Hebrew lettering.

Plainly, the synagogue, in common with the mosque and the church, was first and foremost a house of prayer. For all of Andalusia’s pleasures, worship was a serious concern for its heterogeneity of Arabs, Moors, Jews, Slavs, Visigoths, and Lusitanians. But for Jews as well as for the others, the day of rest was also a convivial delight.

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Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.

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