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The Rich Intellectual and Cultural Legacy of the Sephardic Jews of Spain
The Sephardic Jews of Muslim Spain produced some of the world’s best intellectuals and thinkers throughout Jewish history.
After the Jewish people were exiled from Israel in 70CE, their journey took them all over the world, including Spain. The Sephardic Jews of Muslim Spain, otherwise known as Al Andalus, experienced a golden age from the second half of the eighth century until the end of the eleventh century. This golden age produced some of the greatest Jewish philosophers, writers, poets, scientists, and doctors. Additionally, during that period of time, Jews thrived in the political sphere, reaching to the heights of power in the Spanish Muslim courts during an era when Jews living under Christian rule were being systematically persecuted. The contributions to world civilization produced by the Jews of Al Andalus were so significant that they influence us to this date.
The medieval Jewish chronicler Abraham Ibn Daud claims that the Jewish Renaissance of Al Andalus can best be summed up by the biographies of two individuals, Hasdai Ibn Sharput and Shmuel Ha-Nagid. Hasdai Ibn Shaprut first caught the attention of the Spanish Muslim courts by discovering an antidote for poisons that was also effective against jaundice, snakebites, impotence and the plague. As a result of this discovery, he became quite a prominent political figure within Al Andalus, since prior to the discovery of that antidote for poison many Muslim princes had fallen victim to various harem intrigues. Hasdai was placed in charge of high level negotiations involving the Muslim government and foreign powers.
Shmuel Ha-Nagid was a gifted Hebrew poet, biblical commentator, philosopher, and Jewish vizier of Al Andalus. He was such an important figure that in his poems, he claimed to be descended from nobility and compared his performance on the medieval battlefield to that of the ancient heroes of Israel in the Tanakh. His poetry is unique in the sense that he was one of the few medieval Jews writing war poems based on his own personal experiences engaging in warfare.
Another great Sephardic Jewish figure of notary is Yehuda Ha-Levi, a court doctor, respected Jewish communal leader, poet, and philosopher. His poetry spoke about the Jewish yearning for Jerusalem. According to Jane Gerber, author of The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience, “themes of exile and redemption are central to Jewish poetry, reaching new heights of poetic expression in the works of the Golden Age of Spain.” One of Ha-Levi’s greatest works, however, was his book The Kuzari, which is a fictionalized story speaking about the correctness of Jewish beliefs compared to Greek philosophy, Islam and Christianity via the decision of the Khazars to convert to Judaism.
Yehuda Ha-Levi, Shmuel Ha-Nagid, and Hasdai ibn Shaprut were merely three of the many great Sephardic intellectuals of the golden age of Spain. Other great figures include the poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who at age 16 composed a 400-verse poem setting forth the rules of Hebrew grammar; and Maimonides, who reconciled the Jewish religion with the logic of Greek philosophy and whose writings are still studied extensively today. Sadly, this beautiful civilization that promoted such rich scholarship was ultimately destroyed by religious fundamentalism, both Muslim and Christian.
This golden age ended when the fanatical Islalmic Almohads from North Africa who took over Spain didn’t tolerate practicing Jews and neither did the Christian fundementalists who followed them. In the end, following the Christian conquest of Spain, the Jews were given the choice of expulsion, conversion or death. Many Sephardic Jews ended up migrating to the Ottoman Empire, while others celebrated Purim and other Jewish holidays in secret, despite the threat of the Spanish Inquisition.
About the Author: Rachel Avraham is a news editor and political analyst for Jerusalem Online News, the English language internet edition of Israel's Channel 2 News. She completed her masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Ben-Gurion University. The subject of her MA thesis was: "Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab media."