Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

30 Nissan 5764 - April 21, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Jewish Sites in Spain Today

by M. Samsonowitz

Part II

The first part discussed Besalu and Gerona.


Barcelona was one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe. Jews are recorded as living in Barcelona in the 800s (around 4500), and Rav Amram Gaon (niftar around 4535) is known to have sent a copy of his siddur to "the scholars of Barcelona."

The Jewish Quarter was in the heart of the Old City, not far from the harbor. The main street of the quarter is still called "Calle del Cal" (the Quarter of the Kahal). The Jews were primarily artisans and merchants, but also attained high positions in the royal retinue. The Jews were led by various Jewish "nesi'im" and had a constitution and administrative system of their own.

Barcelona became a seat of prominent Torah scholarship during the reign of Rav Shlomo ben Aderes, the Rashbo, who was rov for almost 50 years. Born in 1235 (4995), the Rashbo was from a wealthy family and engaged in business for several years. Later he withdrew from business and was unanimously appointed rov of Barcelona. He was known to be a fearless, incorruptible man. He possessed valuable manuscripts of Talmud which had come from the Babylonian academies.

Within a short time, while not yet 40 years old, he was acknowledged as one of his generation's premier leaders, and Pedro II of Aragon appointed him to adjudicate between Jewish communities in Spain. Questions were sent to him from all parts of the Jewish world, including Morocco, Greece, Eretz Yisroel and Algiers. Students came to study under him from all over Europe.

The Rashbo left behind some 3,500 responsa which are authoritative texts in Torah study today, in addition to other halachic and aggadic works. He was known to be proficient in Kabboloh and philosophy like his mentor, the Ramban. He played an important part in the controversy over the Rambam's philosophical teachings, defending the Rambam. As the leading figure of his generation, his opinion upholding the traditional way of learning Torah against the "philosophical" school carried great influence. He instituted a ban against the study of philosophy for those under the age of 25, in 1305. He was niftar in 1310 (5070).

The decline of Barcelona began in 1348, when the local Jews were attacked and killed during the Black Death that ravaged Europe. In 1367, the entire Jewish community was imprisoned for "desecrating the Host," a popular Christian libel.

The end of the community came during the persecutions of 1391, when Christians attacked the Jewish Quarter on August 5. A hundred Jews were killed and others sought refuge in a local castle. Local dock workers and country serfs broke into the castle and murdered Jews in cold blood. At the end of a week of disturbances, 400 Jews had been killed and the remaining Jews were forced to convert. The shul was largely destroyed and after the dissolution of the Jewish community, it passed to the possession of the king. "They murdered and then they inherited."

Although John I condemned the rioters to death and invited the Jewish community back, only a few were willing to return. The reestablishment of a Jewish community in Barcelona was finally prohibited completely in 1401, by the king, in response to the request of the non-Jewish burghers.

Prosperity came to Barcelona through the commercial success of the "conversos," those Jews and their descendants who had been forcibly converted. When Ferdinand decided to introduce the Inquisition to the city in 1486, many of these withdrew their bank deposits and fled the city. Some were caught and put to death. In 1492, many of the Jews expelled from Aragon embarked from the port of Barcelona on their way abroad.

The Ancient Barcelona Shul

Today, Barcelona has a relatively large Jewish community of several thousand Jews including a large Israeli expatriate community, but they are largely assimilated. There is only one functioning shul, that serves both Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

Only in the past decade was an association founded to rehabilitate the ancient Barcelona synagogue. In 1996, the Associacio Call de Barcelona acquired the ancient premises on Marlet street and conducted excavations.

They know that in the 1200s, Barcelona had four shuls. The largest one was called the Great Synagogue, which is the site open to visitors today. They say that the Rashbo was the rov in this shul for over 50 years. This Great Synagogue is one of the oldest known synagogues in Europe.

The ancient shul opens only in the afternoon, at around 4. There are no signs outside identifying the building, because all over Europe today, Jewish sites are kept inconspicuous and unmarked. (There was antisemitic graffiti scribbled on the door when we arrived.) After unlocking the door, the guide hung a small sign outside announcing that it was the ancient shul.

Walking in requires one to descend six steps under an arch where the name Rav Shlomo ben Aderes (the Rashbo) is inscribed. I tried to imagine walking on the same stone floors that the holy Rashbo had walked on, but the huge time difference between us blunted the sensation.

The shul is divided into two sections, both small. One contains a glass floor which shows the excavations underneath, and the second was restored to be used as an occasional prayer hall. It has a lectern and sefer Torah.

Since opening hours are right before nightfall, a number of religious tourists who were there utilized the opportunity to daven minchah. One mentioned that he hoped the spirit of the Rashbo was still hovering over the place and would inspire his prayers.

The original synagogue looked different 800 years ago. The entrance was originally at the back of the prayer-room, and part of the shul is now the kitchen of an adjoining restaurant.

The original building was also six feet lower than it is today and some of its walls go back to the third century, the time of the amoraim.

We still see the dyeing vats used by the d'Arguens family, Marranos who fled to France in 1477 when they were accused of being practicing Jews. One of the advantages of Barcelona is that it was situated near the border, at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains that separate the Iberian Peninsula from Europe. So when Jews in Barcelona had to flee, it was only a relatively short trip to make it over the border.

The guide told us that an ancient French shul heralding from the 1300s was around the corner, and recently an underground chamber had been discovered there as well, which was probably a mikveh. With some religious tourists from Givat Zeev, we walked around the corner to the Sevillo gift shop and the salesladies graciously let us enter the store.

Walking inside the store, we were able to see the original walls and arch of the French shul, but alas nothing else is left. We were shown the spot in the floor where the alleged mikveh is located; it was covered up with several cardboards and a vase containing artificial flowers for sale. The area surrounding the two ancient shuls is today a downtown shopping district, and so far no one is interested in disturbing the stores to create a new Jewish tourist site.

We spent the afternoon checking out Barcelona's Diagonal promenade. This main artery has a large promenade in the center of the street running for miles, where kiosks, artists, peddlers and everyone imaginable peddles their wares. Barcelona's open market is located off of it; it's a treat for the eyes to see the dazzling variety of colors and foods available.

Ten different varieties of sharp peppers hang like mobiles from the roofs of the kiosks. There were many varieties of tropical fruits. We bought a few rambutans, tamarindos, sranadillas, zapotes, pitays, chirimoyas and makgustans to bring home, so our children could enjoy these wonders which the Borei Olam has bestowed upon His creations.

The Active Shul

That night we visited the active Barcelona synagogue. There were about 25, mostly middle-aged to elderly, men present. A lecture had been featured that night. I don't know if the turnout was unusually high because of the lecture, or if this was the typical number of worshipers. This is in a city with several thousand Jewish inhabitants. Here, too, there is no identification on the outside of the shul to indicate that it is a Jewish place of worship.

The Spanish are Apathetic about their Religion

By the end of our stay in Barcelona, I was shocked to make a discovery about the level of non-Jewish religiosity in Spain today.

Spain is known to be a strictly Catholic country. Indeed, from what I could see in Barcelona, there were churches everywhere. Right in front of our hotel was a famous church designed by Gaudi, Barcelona's famous architect, and it was surrounded by 50 kiosks selling church knickknacks and souvenirs. It seemed that people in this country took their religion very seriously.

But Angel (one of a small group of non-Jews who are studying Judaism in Barcelona, who had kindly offered to serve as our guide) disabused me of that illusion. He told me that very few people in Spain are religious today. The churches are vacant on Sundays, and monasteries and convents are being closed in record numbers. The country only keeps the churches in good shape for tourism purposes.

I suddenly realized that I had been in the country for three days and hadn't seen one priest or nun. What retribution! In the place where thousands were murdered and burned in the name of Christianity, the Spaniards' own descendants were scorning Christianity. No wonder the Catholic Church is talking today about canonizing Queen Isabella, the queen who had established the Inquisition throughout the country. They must long for a ruler like her to bring back the ancient days of glory.

Our next stop was Madrid, located in the center of the country. The flight was only a short 45 minutes.

Madrid Shul

On our first night in Madrid, we attended a community affair in the local main shul, Sinagoga Bait Yaakov, located on 3 Balmes street. The door of the main Madrid shul is surrounded with Menora and Magen Dovid symbols, but without an identifying plaque. Graffiti were scribbled on the wall nearby. By now it was clear why a police car was parked at the corner 24 hours a day.

The center is several floors tall, and contains everything a self-sufficient community needs -- prayer hall, chapel, mikveh, shiur rooms, rabbi's study, dining hall, kitchen and auditorium. The security is very tight, with the guard demanding to see the passport of each visitor, and copying it for their records.

We asked Rabbi Moshe Ben-Dehan, the rabbi of the shul, to find us someone to take us to Toledo the next day. He had noticed Jose in the crowd, called him aside and asked him to do us this favor. Jose was agreeable, and we set up a time the following day. Rav Ben-Dehan explained to us that Jose was one of a large group of chassidei umos olam in Madrid who were studying Judaism and thinking of converting.

"If I wanted to," Rav Ben-Dehan told us with a sigh, "I could have a whole second community just composed of geirim."

He is in the ironical situation which occurs not infrequently in small out-of- the-way Jewish communities: the rabbi has to run after the Jews to get them to keep mitzvos, while the non- Jews run after him to teach them about Judaism.

After the affair, we were invited by friends to join them in Madrid's only kosher restaurant, which has been in operation for a year. A visitor shouldn't expect kosher restaurants in such out-of-the-way places to approximate the kosher supervision we are used to in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. In such small communities, a person has to do his own personal checking concerning the hechsher and the standard of kashrus that is applied.

I was surprised to see the restaurant packed with people who were just beginning their meal at 11 at night. I discovered that Spaniards run on a different time schedule than the rest of Europe. The early-risers get out of bed at 8, lunch is held at 2, and you just think of taking supper at 10 in the evening. The average hour to go to sleep is midnight or even one o' clock. Because of this, the effective time difference between Israel and Spain is not the one-hour difference you would expect from the time zones, but it is actually three hours due to the unusual Spanish lifestyle.

One morning my husband rose at 6 o' clock for vosikin prayers and wanted a cup of coffee. Upon hearing his request at such an unearthly hour, the concierge gave him a stunned look. The man recommended that he go down the block where he could find a cafe open. He discovered it was an all- night pub where the people were just finishing their night of partying.

The next day we set out for Toledo -- about 60 kilometers southwest of Madrid -- with Jose and two friends.

History of Toledo Jews

Jewish tradition claims that the oldest Jewish settlement in Spain was in Toledo. The Abarbanel claims (in his commentary to Melochim and Ovadia 1:20) that Jewish exiles from the Churban Bayis Rishon (!) settled there. In fact, the Jewish name for Toledo -- Tuletula -- is said to have come from the Hebrew word "taltelah," referring to the Jews' exile and wanderings.

When the Visigoth kings accepted Christianity at the Second Toledo Church Council in 586, they instituted many anti- Jewish decrees. A sizable Jewish community existed already in 712, when the city was captured by the Muslims.

Toledo contained separate quarters where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived. The Jewish Quarter was located in the west of the city, and the main street running through it was called Calle de la Juderia. (Today, Calle del Angel). A fortress in the quarter protected the Jews in times of pogroms.

Toledo had one of the largest Jewish communities in Spain. During the Berber period in the eleventh century, 4,000 Jews were living in it. At the height of its prosperity during the 12-13th century, Jews were reputed to be about a third of its total population of 40,000.

They were divided into communities by their origins: the Cordobans, the Barcelonese, the Khazars. The city had over a dozen synagogues, including its Great Synagogue, the Ben Ziza synagogue and the Ibn Shushan synagogue. The destruction by fire of the Great Synagogue and its renovation in 1107 (4867) was honored by Rav Yehuda Halevi in a poem.

When the Christians regained the town from the Muslims in 1085, they permitted the Jewish and Muslim inhabitants unmolested residence. Christian oppression began in 1235, at the Council of Tarragonna, when restrictions were applied against the Jews.

Following the example of France, the kingdom of Aragon initiated a large-scale campaign to convert the Jews. In 1250 (5010), a blood libel was launched in Saragossa, about 300 kilometers to the northeast. After the 1391 pogroms, Pope Clement IV encouraged Inquisitors to pursue converted Jews who had reverted to Judaism, and a new conversion campaign picked up steam. Weak and opportunist Jews agreed to convert, hoping thereby to succeed in Christian society. These greedy converts bedeviled the local Jewish community with their power and influence. Nevertheless, the Spanish rulers were reluctant to press too heavily on the Jews, because a full 22 percent of their revenue came from taxing them.

Toledo was a center of Torah scholarship, beginning in the eleventh century. Although individuals such as the Ramban had a kabboloh in Toras Hanistar, after the Zohar was publicized around 1280 many more people began to study it. The Zohar began to be studied throughout Spain.

The revolt of Crown Prince Sancho against his father in 1280- 81 devastated the community. After it failed, the king imprisoned many Jews in their synagogues, until the community paid him a tax. Notables remained in jail for many months, and some were executed. The leaders of the community called for wide-scale teshuva in the wake of the sufferings. There was a big his'orerus among the whole community, and special charomim were instituted against unethical business practices and marrying non-Jewish women.

The Rosh

Toledo entered a new era with the arrival of Rav Asher ben Yechiel, the Rosh, who reached Spain after fleeing imprisonment in his native Germany. When his mentor, the Maharam of Rottenberg, was imprisoned by the German ruler and held for ransom, the Rosh had become the acknowledged leader of German Jewry. Several years later, fearing the same fate, he fled Germany with his family in 1303 (5063) at the age of 53.

In the introduction to the sefer Arba Turim (composed by the Rosh's son HaRav Yaakov in Toledo), the author tells of what happened to them after fleeing Germany:

"They wandered from one country to another, and were received with honor in each place. They passed through Barcelona and tarried there eight days with Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Aderes, the Rashbo, the nossi of the entire Spanish diaspora, with whom they spent their time in pleasant discussion of divrei Torah. [In Tur Orach Chaim 458, he mentions a custom he saw in Barcelona.] They continued until they reached the famous Tulitula [Toledo] in the center of Spain, where they were received with princely honor.

"The Jews received the Rosh and crowned him over them as the head in place of Rabbeinu Aharon Halevi. At that time, the agitation against Greek and external wisdom had reached its peak, and the Rosh arrived in time to make order."

After the death of the Rashbo in 1310, the Rosh was the uncontested leader of Spanish Jewry. Virtually all the communities of Spain referred their problems to him and students flocked to his yeshiva from all Europe, including Russia.

The Rosh introduced to Spain the system of study of the Tosafists and German halachic rulings, which is why some Sephardim today keep halachic rulings which are closer to those of the Rema than of the Mechaber. For instance, the Spanish sefer Torah appears like the Ashkenaz one, a parchment on two wooden scrolls, instead of like Oriental sifrei Torah which are enclosed in a small ark.

The Rosh's halachic works include Piskei HaRosh, which sums up the decisions of the earlier codifiers; over 1,000 Shaalos Uteshuvos; his commentaries on the mishnayos to Seder Zeroim, Taharos, Sota, Middos, Tomid and Kinnim; and his abridgment of Tosafos, covering the entire Babylonian Talmud, with the inclusion of chiddushim from Maharam Rottenberg and the opinions of Spanish scholars. The Rosh put the final seal to the work of the German and French codifiers, joining to it the Spanish halacha.

The Rosh passed away in Toledo in 1327 (5087), and his son HaRav Yehuda assumed his position as rav. The Rosh's family remained in Toledo, and over 15 descendants of his family were buried there. His great-grandsons were among the martyrs of the 1391 pogroms in Toledo.

Another Jewish scholar who lived at that time in Toledo was Rav Israel Ibn Nakawa, author of Menoras HaMo'or.

While world Jewry has made immense efforts to rehabilitate the graves of gedolim in Eastern Europe, no one has yet redeemed the graves of the many giants of our nation who are buried in Spain, such as the Rosh and the Baal Haturim.

Last Days of Toledo

Toledo's decline began in 1348, when many died during the Black Death. A Spanish succession war between 1366-69 resulted in the city changing hands several times, with the Jews suffering the most. Over 8,000 Jews died during the insurgency.

The worst blow of all was during the pogroms of 1391, which utterly destroyed the community. The grandchildren and talmidim of the Rosh, and many distinguished Jews were martyred. Almost all the shuls were set on fire or destroyed. To save their lives, many Jews agreed to convert, and the city became filled with these crypto-conversos.

In 1411, a rabid priest entered Toledo and converted the beautiful Ibn Shushan synagogue into a church.

The Jewish community never recovered its numbers and influence, from 1391, although for a short period, Queen Isabella had several prominent Jews serving as her leasees and courtiers.

The royal family saw that forced conversion didn't produce faithful Christians but rather a new class of privileged citizens many of whom were keeping Judaism secretly. Attacks against Conversos occurred in 1452 and 1454, numerous Conversos were put on trial for heresy, and a campaign was launched throughout Spain disputing the place of Conversos in Spanish society.

The government promulgated laws discriminating against the "new" Christians. Riots broke out against Conversos, and many Converso leaders were arrested and executed. In 1481, the Inquisition was founded to ferret out heretical Conversos.

In 1485, the rabbis of Toledo were ordered to proclaim a cheirem against Jews who refused to testify before the Inquisition if they knew of Conversos who observed Judaism. In 1486 alone, 4,000 inhabitants of the town and vicinity were involved in 5 auto-da-fes, and many Conversos were burned at the stake.

The blood libel of La Guardia, the "holy martyr boy" in 1491, whipped up the masses against the Jewish population. (This blood libel was to assume epic proportions as each generation embellished the details and as playwrights in every century immortalized it anew in plays.)

It was becoming increasingly clear to the Christian leaders of the country that as long as a sizable Jewish population existed in the country, the Conversos would never fully adapt and assimilate their new beliefs. After Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand conquered the last Muslim outpost in Granada, they ordered the expulsion of all Jews in 1492 (5252).

After this date, many hundreds of thousands of Conversos remained in the country, providing grist for the Inquisition torture chambers for years to come. Many were to discover that their conversion to Christianity, to save their life, only conferred a short and temporary respite from Spanish cruelty.

Even generations later, Conversos were always the victims of a Spanish "purity" obsession, and were derogatorily called Marranos (swine). Their descendants were forbidden to occupy public office, to belong to corporations, colleges, orders, and even to reside in certain towns. Until 1860, "purity of blood" was a prerequisite to being accepted into the Military Academy. The most prestigious of Spanish colleges, San Bartolome of Salamanca, boasted that they rejected any candidate against whom the slightest rumor existed of Jewish ancestry.

History shows that even two centuries later, Conversos were escaping from Spain and returning to Judaism. Amsterdam and Hamburg were the two largest European communities of former Conversos on the Atlantic coast, but other communities existed throughout the Mediterranean Basin in Italy, North Africa and Turkey.

End of Part II


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.