Author Archives: Norman Roth

About Norman Roth

Norman Roth is a professor of Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Medieval Jewish-Christian Relations

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Daily Relations–Neighborly but Volatile

One of the most important, and at the same time most misunderstood, aspects of medieval Jewish life is the relations that existed between Jews and their Christian neighbors on a daily basis. It is perhaps not surprising that confusion exists about this, because it was a paradoxical relationship. 

On the positive side, Jews and Christians were in fact neighbors who lived side by side, and normal conditions prevailed between ordinary Jews and their neighbors for the most part. On the negative side, these relations could quickly deteriorate or be disrupted entirely at the slightest provocation.

Did Anti-Semitism Exist in the Middle Ages?

Contrary to popular belief, rarely, if at all, was the source of disruption the Church. With some notable exceptions, for example, the imposition of wearing the distinguishing sign or badge, or the attempt to limit or even eradicate the charging of interest on loans, ecclesiastical authorities rarely intervened in the lives of Jews. Even in the short-lived and in the end impossible attempt to curb interest, they realized that the only punitive action they could take was the threat of excommunication of Christians, who borrowed money from Jews on interest.

This does not, of course, mean that all individual bishops, theologians, or popes were “friendly” toward Jews; many of them were outspoken enemies, and it scarcely matters whether this was a “theological” enmity based on hatred of Jewish “heresy” and blindness to the Christian “truth” or whether it was an actual personal hatred of the Jews as such. Nonetheless, it is true that most of the animosity was directed at “Judaism” (perceived religious beliefs or, more important, the failure to “properly” understand the Bible) and not at the Jews as such; thus, there really was no such thing as anti-Semitism in the medieval period, nor indeed until the nineteenth century when that racist theory was invented. (The one exception to this was precisely the racist anti-semitic theory that attacked conversos, Jewish converts to Christianity in fifteenth century Spain).

Jewish Moneylending

The following article recounts the history of the main commercial occupation of Jews in Christian Europe, moneylending. It is reprinted with permission from Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia (Routledge).

Jewish Law Took an Interest in Interest

General histories of the Middle Ages, and even more specialized ones such as those on medieval commerce, say two things about Jews: they were “usurers” and they engaged in the slave trade. One of the oldest Christian accusations against Jews in the medieval period was, indeed, that of usury. If by “usury” we accept the Canon Law definition of any profit whatever, then Jews were of course usurers; but the modern understanding of the term is rather the taking of excessive interest, and to avoid that argument, and the pejorative connotations of the term, “moneylending” is preferred in this article.Medieval coins. 

Biblical law forbids taking or giving interest to “your brother” (a fellow Jew), whether money or food or “any thing.” The Talmud interpreted this very strictly, so much so that even greeting someone from whom you have borrowed, if such greeting had not previously been the custom, is forbidden. [For Biblical law regarding moneylending, see, for example, Exodus 22:24, Deuteronomy 23:20-21, Leviticus 25:35-37.]

The Bible further permitted lending money on interest to a “stranger”, but prohibited it to a fellow Jew (“your brother”). The Talmud observes that even the borrower transgresses the commandment if he borrows on interest…

Originally, the medieval rabbinical attitude toward lending money on interest to Gentiles was very conservative, restricting it to scholars (not only as a means of income but because it was felt that they would be cautious about such loans and limit the interest charged) or to cases where it was absolutely necessary for livelihood.

Moneylending Yielded High Profits for Little Risk

Ultimately, however, the potential of great profits and the widespread demand for moneylending made it universal among Jews. Mordecai B. Hillel of Germany (b. 1298) wrote that there is no profit in any form of commerce like that to be made in lending money. Ibn Adret in Spain observed that it has become permitted for everyone to charge interest on loans to Gentiles, “and now all have made themselves ‘sages’ in this respect, adding that he heard in the name of Rashi, that this is because taxes have constantly been increased and there is no longer any limit to “because of livelihood” (i.e. in order to meet their tax burden, Jews had no alternative.)

The Church and the Jews

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Popes and Jews

Increasingly in the Middle Ages the popes viewed themselves, or were described as the "vicars" of Christ," or representatives of Christ on Earth. As such, the pope had theoretical jurisdiction over both spiritual and temporal realms and was spiritually responsible for all–Christians, Muslims, Jews and "pagans."

 Though the theological position that there is no salvation outside of the Church was (and is) maintained, the Church also recognized that the "Old Testament" came from God and that its laws were binding upon Jews. Thus, the pope had as part of his responsibility, paradoxically, to ensure that Jews obeyed their laws. Although rarely invoked, it was possible for Jews to be accused of heresy for failure to practice their own traditions. 

Theologically, too, the witness doctrine demanded that Jews be preserved alive until the end of time. Any attempt to kill Jews, except for proven crimes, was therefore not to be tolerated. All of this, in any event, provided a basis for the popes to intervene to protect the Jews when necessary. (The witness doctrine, as outlined by Augustine in the fourth century, states that Jews are wicked, evil, perverse and damned forever but God wants them to survive because their dispersion serves as testimony to the divine right of Christianity.) 

Sicut Judeis – Just as to the Jews

Gregory I, the same pope who acted against the desecration or destruction of synagogues, used in that decree the words that were to become famous as they were renewed by every subsequent pope in the Middle Ages as the "Sicut Judeis" bull: "Just as, therefore, license ought not be granted to the Jews to presume to do in their synagogues more than law permits them, just so ought they not to suffer curtailment in those (privileges) which have been conceded them." From this introductory formula each pope would then add specifics in each bull as it was needed.

Jewish Education in Muslim Lands

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Subjects Secular and Sacred

Education in Muslim countries, where the majority of Jews lived in the medieval period, included not only Hebrew, Bible, and Talmud but also the whole range of secular learning and even religious subjects (the Koran, at least) studied by Muslim pupils. Jewish children learned either in a school attached to, or part of, the synagogue or in a private schoolwhich was often the house or rented room of a teacher. Parents paid tuition, which was a major ex­pense, and the community paid for the education of orphans and poor children. 

With regard to customs previously mentioned as to the beginning of biblical instruction, age of instruction, and so on, these gen­erally applied also in Jewish communities in Muslim countries. Private letters from the Cairo Genizah show that most common people in Egypt and North Africa had their sons educated at least until the age of thirteen, and Arabic as well as Hebrew reading and writing ability was a standard part of that education. [A genizah is a place where unusable sacred writings were stored in order to preserve them from desecration.] One father wrote to his wife: "We are not honored by the peoples [Gentiles] except by rea­son of knowledge and what has been established in our memories from childhood … except for knowl­edge, a man is not worth a penny, even if he comes from a distinguished family or from heads of the academies … let no one belittle the merit of the teacher for he works very hard".

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

Hebrew writing was also an important part of the educational process, and in fact students wrote “collections”  (mahberot) containing the weekly biblical ­readings that they learned, rather than learning from complete texts of the Bible. Children were

taught first the "alef‑bet” [alphabet] and then reading and writing combinations of letters with vowels. One document [from the genizah] has a writing game for children, in which the letters were given different colors and the teacher wrote the outlines of the letters that the child was to fill in with the correct color (the first coloring book in history?). Another had drawings of snakes with an­imal heads, the Star of David, and other symbols. Later, students in yeshivot [academies] also wrote summaries of what they studied and novellae of their own, just as was the custom in the French and German yeshivot.

The Talmud on Trial

Reprinted with permission from the author.

A Brief History of Disputations

The history of Jewish‑Christian contacts included confrontations and disputations almost from the very beginning of Christianity. This was inevitable for a religion, Christianity, that considered itself not only a “continuation” of Jewish tradition but indeed a replacement of it. Christianity thus is not so much a “branch” grafted onto the root as a new growth that entirely takes over the “rotten” branches of the original tree. Disputations took place already between Paul and Jews to whom he preached in his travels, and for that matter between Paul and the still Jewish disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem, before they acquiesced in his new religion. 

Early written Christian disputations, such as that of Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho), were often a literary fiction, serving merely as a vehicle for the author to express his anti‑Jewish views and Christian doctrines. Church “Fathers” such as Origen and Jerome were personally acquainted with Jews, and both relied especially on rabbis for assistance in un­derstanding the Bible. Jerome, too, referred to the root and branch idea in his commentary on Psalm 77: “We are an offshoot of their root, we the branch, they the root. We ought not to curse the root, but we ought to pray for our root.” However, he was cer­tainly no friend of the Jews, and it is entirely proba­ble that many of his discussions with Jews were de­bates, if not public disputations…

Many Jewish writers confuse disputations with polemical writings, both Christian and Jewish. Indeed, sometimes it is hard to distinguish them be­cause some works pretending to record a disputation are actually literary inventions on both sides, as we shall see. For our purposes, “disputation” refers to either an actual oral debate or a written work that is or purports to be the record of such a confrontation between Jews and Christians.

Barcelona, 1263

The most famous medieval disputation, repeatedly written about but as yet incorrectly understood, was that of Barcelona in 1263. The disputation itself was the result of the preaching campaign of a Jewish apostate, Paul Christiani, appar­ently from Montpellier, who converted sometime after 1236, became a Dominican, and preached missionary sermons to the Jews in Provence, France, and Catalo­nia. He died in 1274.

The Almohads

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Who Were the Almohads?

The generally harmonious relations that prevailed between the Muslims and Jews throughout the Muslim world in the early medieval period were brutally interrupted with the emergence of a fanatical sect in the twelfth century in North Africa: the Almohads (al-Muwahhidun, “unifiers,” i.e. strict believers in the unity of God). 

Ibn Tumart, the founder of the sect, objected to the moral laxity of the Berbers of North Africa and declared war against the Almoravid dynasty then in control of the Maghreb (North Africa and Muslim Spain). During these battles he became ill and died (1130). He was succeeded by ‘Abd al-Mu’min ibn Ali, who by 1147 had managed to capture Fez and Marrakesh, the capital of the Almoravids. In that year he also sent an expedition to al-Andalus (Spain), but the Almohads did not firmly established themselves there until 1163.

The Almohads’ condemnation of the popular Malikite theological-legal school [a Sunni school of thought named for Malik ibn Anas who lived in Medina in the eight century] led to rebellion against them [the Almohads} throughout southern Morocco and along the coast. This rebellion was crushed and thousands of people, even followers of  ‘Abd al Mu’min, were executed.

When Marrakesh was captured, according to one source, the Christian church there was destroyed and a great number of Jews and Christian militia were killed. When ‘Abd al-Mu’min conquered Ifriqiya (Tunisia) in 1151, he gave the Jews and Christians there the option of conversion to Islam or death.

Abu Ya’qub Yusuf was the first Almohad ruler of al-Andalus [Andalusia) (1153-1184), establishing a dynasty that lasted there until 1227. As may be seen from a letter of Maimon (father of Maimonides), a religious judge (dayyan) of the Jewish community of Cordoba, persecution of the Jews had begun by 1160. For the most part, however, this consisted of pressuring the Jews to formally convert to Islam, which necessitated merely the recital of the Muslim creed. In his letter, Maimon urged Jews to perform what they can of the commandments of the Torah. Meanwhile, however, many Jews were fleeing the cities held by the Almohads…

Jewish Commerce in Christendom

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Jews in European Commerce: Not A Decisive Role

There is little doubt that Jews played an important role in commerce, perhaps particularly in international trade, in Christian Europe; yet it is an exaggeration to claim that they played a “decisive” role, for surely the Venetian and Genoese Christian merchants were far more important, as were later the Lombards and Frisians.

jewish commerce in christendomNevertheless, Jews did have certain definite advantages, such as sharing a common language (thus Jewish merchants from France and Germany were able to converse in Hebrew at least with their colleagues in eastern Europe, and in Muslim counties or in Sicily, where Greek and then Arabic were the spoken languages), and also through the use of such things as letters of credit and checks, recognized by Jewish “bankers” (to the extent that these, essentially money changers and lenders, could be called bankers).

In point of fact, however, aside from some isolated cases we hear next to nothing about such Jewish traders. The major instance of Jewish involvement in trade with Muslim countries was slaves, but even here Jews served as middlemen in the ultimate sale of Scandinavian and other as yet non-Christian slaves to Muslim purchasers.

Travel Restrictions Curtail Trade

Another factor that no doubt inhibited any significant involvement of European Jews in international trade would have been the reluctance, indeed the refusal, on the part of rulers to allow them to travel outside of the borders of their countries… There were, nevertheless, some exceptions to this that show certain merchants must have received special privileges for such trade. Thus, a man from Germany went to North Africa and entered into a partnership with another Jew to sell merchandise, and he went from one country (or city) to another but was unable to sell anything, and therefore gave the merchandise to another to take to “the city of the king” where it could easily be sold. He then told his partner that he would received his profits when that man returned, but Rashi said that this was not proper, in case the other man never returned…[Rashi (1040-1105) was the foremost French talmudic commentator of his time.]

Jewish Hats

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Hats Were In by The 12th Century

In general, Jews in European countries did not wear any clothing that was distinctive or different from that worn by their Christian neighbors, though perhaps they dressed somewhat more lavishly, particularly the women. The one exception to this, peculiarly, was the so‑called Jewish hat. Much ink has been spilled in attempts to explain this curious phenomenon and to give fanciful, and wrong, explanations and descriptions.

Jewish custom, which only in the early modern era became law, and only then for Ashkenazic Jews, was that males should cover their heads, especially at synagogue services and often (though not universally) while studying. At some period it became customary to wear a cap or hat at all times, at least outdoors. We do not know when this custom developed, but Isaac B. Moses Or zarua of Vienna (ca. 1180-ca.1250) already mentioned the hat of the Jews.

Lacking iconographic or other evidence for an earlier period, all that we can say with certainty is that by the mid‑thirteenth century Jews were wearing hats, often simply a soft cap with a peak, but also what appears (in manuscript illuminations) to be a hat of stiff material with a distinctive point on the top.

jewish hatWe have already noted the pointed caps worn by Babylonian (Persian) Jews*, and it is not unlikely that this custom survived among northern European Jews; however, the “harder” hat version may have been the result of special legislation, certainly in Germany, and probably in England and France, requiring Jewish men to wear such hats. Drawings in 13th‑century German law codes show Jews bearded and wearing such hats, and these early laws specifically mentioned that they must wear them on leaving the synagogue and when taking oaths.

Points, Horns and Straps

The provincial council of Breslau enacted a provision (1267) requiring Jews to wear “the horned hat” that they earlier had been accustomed to wear, but that they had “presumed in their temerity” to stop wearing (this law applied also to Poland). In some manuscript drawings a cap, unpointed, may be seen secured around the chin with cloth or a strap (a clear example of such a strap may be seen in the late‑13th‑century seal of a Jew of Regensburg). The explanation for this seems to be found in a responsum of Meir B. Barukh of Rothenburg (ca. 1220‑1293), who ruled that it is permissible to go out in the street on the Sabbath wearing tall hats that cannot be blown off by the wind, even though the brim protrudes in order to cover the wearer from sun or rain (it is nonetheless not considered a “tent” which would be forbidden), but those that are not so secure on the head must be attached with a strap. [Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg was the foremost Ashkenazic talmudic and legal authority of his time.]

Jewish Clothing in the Middle Ages

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Muslim Style: Fancy Duds, Paper Restrictions

Under the spread of Islam (seventh‑-eighth centuries), when the majority of the Jews of the world came under its cultural influence and political con­trol, Jews easily adopted the new styles of dress and were in no way distinguishable from their Muslim neighbors…There is, however, evidence for a require­ment that Christians (Jews are not mentioned) wear a distinctive sash (zunnar) and distinctive sign or mark on their headgear and that of their animals. In 850 the caliph al‑Mutawakkil did, in fact, order both Christians and Jews to wear the taylasin, a shawl‑like head covering, and the zunnar. 

In Muslim Spain, however, such restrictions were not generally en­forced. A particularly fanatical Muslim judge in Seville in the twelfth century attempted to enforce regulations that included, among other things, that Jews and Christians may not dress in the clothing of people of position and must wear a distinguishing sign “by which they are to be recognized to their shame.” Nevertheless, we have certain contemporary evidence from Seville that indicates that these regula­tions remained theoretical.

In fact, people of the upper classes (and this included most Jews) dressed elegantly in fine silk and linen clothes. These in­cluded the jubba, a flowing robe with large sleeves and of various colors depending on taste, such as green, orange, or rose. Women as well as men wore this, and women also wore the qamis, a fine tunic of transparent gauze.

Veils were not common for women, and in fact in the early Muslim period were worn more by men. This is incidentally confirmed by ibn Ezra, who wrote that the veil is a long, thin piece of cloth covering the head and is worn by women only in a few places; “for in the land of Ish­mael [Arabia], Spain, Africa, Egypt, Babylon and Baghdad [!] it is worn on the head by distinguished men and not by women” (commentary on Ex. 29.36). [Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) was a Spanish poet, philosopher and biblical exegete.]

Jewish Education in Christian Countries

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Learning Started Out Sweet

As in other aspects of Jewish culture, there was a sig­nificant difference between education in Muslim lands and in Europe, particularly Germany and France. There, the concern was of course entirely with “sacred” learning. When a boy reached the age of five or six, he was prepared for a public celebration that traditionally took place on the holiday of Shavuot (commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai), at which time he was dressed in special clothes and brought to the synagogue, where he stood before the Torah while the Ten Commandments were read. 

Afterward, he was presented to the teacher, who was supposed to carry him in his arms, in reference to a biblical passage (Num. 11. 12) and then present the child with a tablet, on which were inscribed the first and last four letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the verse “Moses commanded us the Torah; inheri­tance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33.4) and other verses. The child (presumably more than one, since all boys who attained the proper age during the year participated in the same holiday ceremony) then repeated the letters of the alphabet and the verses after the teacher.

More than a little of a superstitious nature was involved in all this, such as the repetition backwards of the last four letters, and other things. The tablet on which the letters were written was adorned with honey, which the child tasted in order to associate “sweetness” with learning. Special cakes were also prepared, or sometimes loaves of holiday bread, on which yet other biblical verses were writ­ten. The child was also given an egg to eat, again in­scribed with verses (this appears to have been an imi­tation of a Gentile custom prevalent in Germany).

Bilingual Immersion, Medieval Style

Actual learning began, usually, with rote repeti­tion of the opening chapter of Leviticus, dealing with “pure” matters that were deemed appropriate for “pure” children to read. Learning of the Bible was done aloud, to a special tune (whether or not the same as used in the reading of the Torah in the syna­gogue is not clear from the sources). Eventually not only the Torah but also the Prophets and Writings (Hagiographa) were learned, each with its own melody. (In most cases the entire Bible was not learned, merely segments of it.)

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