Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

9 Nissan 5764 - March 31, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Jewish Sites in Spain Today

by M. Samsonowitz

Part I

An unexpected opportunity fell into our laps when my husband and I were invited to attend an affair of the local Jewish community in Spain. It was a rare opportunity to have a look at famous Jewish historical sites in Spain as well as to have a look at the Jewish community there today.

Jewish settlement in Spain is among the oldest in Europe. Jews have been living in Spain since Roman times -- and longer than in Germany, England, Central and Eastern Europe, although some say the German settlement is just as old.

Because of the barbaric Expulsion of 1492, the pogroms and forced conversions that led up to it, and Spanish laws that forbade Jewish residence almost up to modern times, contemporary Jews tend to view the Jewish experience in Spain as either bleak or dim. But for 500 years, Spain was the center of Jewry and the seat of one of the most prolific eras in Jewish history.

Two hundred years ago, Vilna was renowned as the Jerusalem of Lita. But who knows today that Barcelona and Toledo were the "Jerusalem" of Catalonia and Castille?

The Spanish era spawned great creativity among Jews in nearly every endeavor -- Torah commentary, Hebrew grammar, piyut, Talmud exegesis, halochoh and even, lehavdil, the sciences. Many great Torah figures were also leading courtiers in the Arabic and Christian courts that ruled Spain.

Beginnings of the Spanish Jewish Settlement

Spanish Jewry's flowering began when the great Torah centers in Bovel declined, around the year 1000 CE (4760). The famous story of the "Four Captives" occurred, in which four premier Torah scholars from Babylonia were captured and redeemed in different centers in the Mediterranean Basin, where they became the leaders of important communities.

The four set sail from southern Italy to raise money for poor brides. They were set upon by pirates, who offered them to various communities. Three of the four are known. HaRav Shmaryohu ben Elchonon was redeemed in Alexandria, Egypt; HaRav Chushiel was redeemed in Tunisia; Rabbeinu Moshe ben Chanoch and his son Chanoch were redeemed in Cordoba, Spain.

They were first sold as slaves there and later redeemed by the community. Rabbeinu Moshe became rov of Cordoba, and was succeeded in this position by his son after he was niftar in about 965 (4725). His halachic rulings were considered to be on the level of the geonei Bovel of his time, as were Rabbeinu Chanoch's. They established Spain as a center of Torah. Rabbeinu Chanoch's main talmid was Shmuel Hanoggid.

A renowned early Spanish scholar was HaRav Yitzchak Alfasi, known as the RIF. He was born in 1013 (4773). Although he lived most of his life in Fez, Morocco ("Alfasi"), when he was around 75 he was denounced by his enemies and forced to flee to Spain. He settled in Lucena where he became head of the yeshiva and had many talmidim. His main pupil was HaRav Yosef ibn Migash (the Ri Migash) whom he designated to take over his yeshiva, even though his son was a scholar.

For a long period beginning in about 718 (4478), southern and western Spain was controlled by Muslims, while the European side in the north and east was controlled by Christians. In Muslim Spain, famous Jewish leaders and scholars included Rav Chasdai Ibn Shaprut, Rav Shmuel Hanoggid, the Rambam and his father, Rav Yehuda Halevi, Bachya ibn Pekuda, and many others.

In the north, the part controlled by Christian rulers and in much closer contact with the rest of Europe, lived such notables as Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (Gerondi), the Ramban, and the Rashbo who were in steady contact with the Jewish scholars of Provence and France. The recognized leader of Spanish Jewry in the beginning of the 1300's, the Rosh, actually moved to Spain from Germany.

Many of the most important Jewish works which are studied down to today were composed during this period. These include the Yad Hachazokoh, Sefer Hamitzvos, Peirush HaRamban, Chovos Halevovos, Sefer Kuzari, Sifrei HaRosh, Haturim, Shaalos Uteshuvos HaRashbo, and many more.

The most important Jewish period in Spain was in the 13th and 14th centuries, when Jewish scholarship flourished on all levels. Spain, at the time, was one of the largest Jewish centers in the world. The country had hundreds of Jewish communities in it, and many hundreds of Jewish institutions -- shuls, botei midrash, mikvahs, yeshivos and chadorim. It is a testimony to the ruthlessness and thoroughness of the later Spanish Inquisition -- comparable to the Holocaust -- that so little remains of all this today.

The historical record at the time of the Expulsion in 1492 (5252) indicates that 150-300,000 Jews preferred the tribulations of leaving Spain to parts unknown as penniless refugees rather than give up Judaism, while another 300,000 buckled under the pressures and converted at least outwardly.


We arrived Tuesday night in Barcelona and went straight to our aparthotel.

Here is the place to mention that there are virtually no kosher facilities in Spain, and a religious Jew who comes had better bring his own bread, knife, opener, pot, silverware and tuna cans. We were to discover that pork is such a pervasive ingredient in the food that one cannot even order a bowl of salad without having pieces of bacon thrown in.

Barcelona is located on the northeastern Mediterranean coast of Spain, around 150 kilometers and a three-hour ride from the south of France. The proximity to France explains the considerable interaction and exchange between the Jewish communities in Provence and Lunel (southern France) and those in these parts of northern Spain. When the French expelled the Jews in the 14th century, many Jews went to Spain. A century later, at the Spanish Expulsion, the Spanish refugees could only head for the Netherlands, Hamburg and the Mediterranean basin, although over the next centuries many Marranos did escape through France.

The weather in Barcelona is typically Mediterranean: very similar to Israel, with cold and rain in the winter when we went, but rarely snow. The landscape is beautiful, lush, and green. Within a day, I could already discern what a beautiful country Spain is, and how hard it must have been for the Spanish Jews to be forced to leave this paradise.

The next day, we prepared salami sandwiches for our day's outing to Gerona and Besalu. Angel (Pronounced "Anchel" since in Spanish a "g" is a guttural "ches"), one of a small group of non-Jews who are studying Judaism in Barcelona, had kindly offered to take us to see the Jewish sites in the area.

We left at 8 in the morning for the 1.5 hour trip to Besalu, about 100 kilometers to the north, in the direction of the Pyrenees Mountains. When we arrived, we found a small, sleepy Spanish village, with narrow roads and cobblestone streets. It was close to 10, but half of the streets were still closed. Angel made some inquiries and discovered that the city had just celebrated two weeks of festivities and, having made their fortune, everyone was out on permanent "siesta" until further notice. Luckily, the small tourist office was due to open at 10:30, so we found a small grocery and bought a few vegetables to cook into a soup that night.

At 10:30 am, we were provided with our personal tour guide who walked with us ten minutes to reach the ancient mikvah in Besalu. The mikvah was discovered by accident when a factory located above it decided to dig a well in its floor in 1964, and in the process discovered a hollow cavity with steps leading to a smaller cavity. Archaeologists who were called in realized that the strange structure was a Jewish mikvah.

In 1966, they declared Besalu a national historic site partly due to the mikvah. They claim that it is in fact the oldest known mikvah in Europe, going back at least to the twelfth century, which I believe is what they claim about the Worms mikvah too.

The city claims to possess documentation that Besalu's shul stood at that site. The shul was built on a hill above the confluence of the Fluvia and Capellades Rivers, and the mikvah was underneath the shul. Thirty-six stairs lead from the shul level down to the mikvah. It reminded me very much of the Worms mikvah with its many stairs going deep into the ground. Today there is still a small amount of water covering the bottom of the mikvah. I couldn't imagine how people entered this freezing place in the winter or how it was warmed.

The explanatory information which they distribute about the mikvah explains that on the third step from the bottom, there is an orifice which controls the level of water. There's plenty of nonsense in the brochure. For example, it describes the mikvah as "a place for purification ceremonies when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans . . . People believed it was absolutely essential to give G-d's consent through the contract with water . . ." I guess such gross errors are inevitable in remote places, far away from an established Jewish settlement.

The guide explained that documentation exists showing that the shul was built in 1264 (5024), after King James gave his permission. The Jewish community in Besalu, the county capital, was approximately a quarter of its 1,000 residents.

In 1415 (5175), the Spanish king built walls around the Jewish Quarter, to separate the Jews from the non-Jews. By 1436, oppression and discrimination had caused the Jews to leave for other Jewish communities.

Two important Jews who lived in this town included Avrohom Discasla, who was the doctor of King Peter IV, and Dendit Losgar, another doctor who was sent here around the time of the Black Plague (1348).

After viewing the mikvah, we went to a local cafe and outrageously asked the owner if we could eat our sandwiches at his premises. To our good fortune, Angel was from these parts and he knew how to speak Catalonian (a dialect of Spanish) with them, which had the effect of opening doors that would otherwise remain shut. We ate our sandwiches together with a Spanish tinta.

(Tintas are served all over Spain. I personally found these small cups of bitter coffee unpalatable. I finally figured out how to get a palatable cup of coffee in Spain -- by ordering an extra cup of hot water and mixing the two.)


On to Gerona (pronounced Cherona, with a ches, and sometimes spelled "Girona"), located southward, on the way back to Barcelona. Gerona was a large Jewish community during the 1200s and 1300s. Its Jewish Quarter, located in Gerona's old "Call" (a corruption of the word "kehal") quarter, goes back at least to the year 890, although some say that the Jewish settlement in the area started shortly after the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdosh.

The Jewish Quarter was called "Aljama," and at its peak, it included more than 300 individuals -- not very large by modern standards. The main artery of the Jewish Quarter was Carrer de la Foreca, which rises from the Onyar River which divides the city, and leads to several other steep alleys and cul-de-sacs.

The Jews in Gerona came under the direct supervision of the King of Catalonia and Aragon. The king appointed a Jewish mayor who ruled over the Jews with the help of several parnessim and was only accountable to the king. The gentile City Fathers of Gerona were obligated to protect the Jews from harassment.

The city was famous for being a center of Torah scholarship. Many of Gerona's Jews were wealthy dealers in stocks, bonds and securities, moneylenders, rent collectors and real estate owners.

The Ramban

The most famous son of the community was Rabbeinu Moshe ben Nachman, the Ramban, who was born in Gerona in 1194 (4954). He was a talmid of R' Yehuda ben Yakar who had received the traditions of the Tosafists of northern France, and R' Meir ben Yitzchok of Trinquetaille, who had studied in the yeshivos of Provence in southern France. Although the Ramban worked as a physician, his fame spread throughout Spain until he became universally known as "the Rav."

He assumed the position of rav in Gerona until he was forced into exile by King James of Catalonia after besting the apostate Pablo Christiani in the infamous Barcelona public disputation of 1263 (5023).

He set his sights on Eretz Yisroel, and on 9 Elul 1267 arrived in Yerushalayim, where he found the city in utter desolation after the Tatar invasion. He organized the remains of the Jewish community and erected a shul in a derelict house. Encouraged by his activities, many Jews streamed to Jerusalem, and a place of tefilloh was consecrated next to the Har Habayis walls (which is known today as the Kosel Hama'arovi).

In 1268, he succeeded HaRav Yechiel of Paris, one of the Tosafists, as the leader of the Acco Jewish community, which he headed until his death in 1270.

The Ramban was one of the most spectacular personalities in Jewish history. His literary prowess was rarely paralleled and encompassed commentaries on Tanach, responsa, halacha, philosophy, sermons, Kabboloh and chiddushim -- totaling over 50 known works. His extensive commentary on the Torah is perhaps the most famous commentary after Rashi, and is studied avidly down to our times. He was the leading mentor of the next generation's Torah sages in Spain, most prominent among them the Rashbo. He was also the harbinger of the Jewish return to Jerusalem, and founded houses of prayer which are used down to our times. He also uniquely synthesized the botei midrash of both the German, Spanish and French Talmudic schools.

Rabbeinu Yonah

Another famous son of Gerona was the Ramban's cousin, Rabbeinu Yonah. He studied under the French Tosafists and then returned to assume the rabbinate in Gerona. He was famous as a baal mussar, and he wrote and lectured constantly on this.

After his tenure in the Gerona rabbinate, he became rov in Barcelona and pupils flocked to him from all over Spain. Towards the end of his life, he sought to move to Eretz Yisroel, but on his way south, he was implored by the Jews of Toledo to become their rav. He established a large yeshiva in Toledo and served as rav until close to his death in 1263.

His popular works include Shaarei Teshuvoh, commentaries on Ovos and Mishlei, chiddushim and responsa on gemora, and Igeres Hateshuvoh.

The Terrible 1391 Pogroms

Antisemitic violence broke out sporadically in Spain from the eleventh century until the Expulsion at the end of the 15th. Jewish homes, properties, lands and cemeteries were vandalized in 1276, 1278, 1285, 1331, 1348, 1391, 1413, and 1418.

In August 10, 1391, in the wave of violence that swept over Spain due to the agitation of church leaders, forty Jews were slaughtered in Gerona before the City Fathers intervened and confined the Jews to a Roman fortress on a summit overlooking Gerona. Although most Jews died al kiddush Hashem, a small number converted to save their lives.

Jews lived in fear of their lives and remained in the ghetto without leaving, whenever possible. A wave of new discriminatory measures were instituted in 1442 and 1445, and Jews were forced to wear distinct clothing marking them as Jews. Mounting antisemitic legislation forced Jews to sell their property and imposed on them discriminatory treatment for debts. Evangelical campaigns were held wherein the Jews were forced to listen to priests' sermons to entice them to convert.

Gerona was finally emptied of its Jews when the Expulsion edict was passed in March 31, 1492. After selling their possessions at bargain prices, the last Jews left the Call on July 31.

The Jews who sought to escape the brutal fate of the expulsion by converting to Christianity gained little by it. From 1491 to 1505, 84 Gerona residents were put on trial and four Auto-da-fes were staged in which several complete Jewish family-lines were burned to death at the stake. The sole Jewish remnant that remained in Gerona was the Jewish cemetery located in Montjuic, from which monuments marking the Jewish dead could be viewed in the following centuries.

Gerona Today

A mere ten years ago, Gerona was still a small town, but it has grown immensely since. A river cuts through the town, and we had to cross one of the four pedestrian bridges to reach the old city of Gerona where the old Jewish Call is located.

The Bonastruc ca Porta Center (named after the Ramban's Spanish name) is located on Forca Street inside the Call, and contains a Museum of the History of the Jews, and a documentation and research center also named after the Ramban. No Jews live in Gerona today.

The museum displays some Jewish artifacts about life in Jewish Catalonia, including some quite bizarre explanations of Jewish life (i.e. those taken from Christian sources). This is basically the kind of "Jewish" museum created by non- Jews or secular Jews which "explains" basic Jewish concepts to non-Jewish visitors. It totally ignores the great role that Gerona had in Jewish life, the great yeshiva that had existed, and the accomplishments of the leading Torah sages who lived there. A large part of the displays are grave monuments taken from the ancient Montjuic cemetery nearby, some of which go back 1000 years.

The research and documentation center was relatively small, and the large building in which it was located appeared partly empty. It contained books on Jewish topics in several languages, whose views ranged from Orthodox to lehavdil, non-Orthodox and Christian.

I couldn't help but reflect what a great place the center would be to arrange Shabbatonim to introduce lost Spanish- speaking Jews to Judaism.

Before we left, I took a look at the narrow pathways and the ancient houses in the Call. Like many other places in Spain, the landscaping is impressive and the buildings are beautifully designed. It must have been hard to leave this place. We should appreciate that the determination of the Jews who stood steadfast against the enticing attempts to convert them and their willingness to face exile and the unknown for the sake of the Torah should be viewed in the light of what they were giving up.

We traveled back the short distance to Barcelona, where we headed to see the ancient shul of Barcelona.

End of Part I

Spain During World War II

Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the dictator of Spain, was officially on good terms with Jews, although close confidants say he was clearly Judeophobic. He said to the German ambassador on December 3, 1943, "Thanks to G-d and the clear appreciation of the danger by our Catholic kings, we have for centuries been relieved of that nauseating burden [Jewish population]."

Nevertheless, during World War II he protected the Jews living in Spain and Spanish Morocco, and also issued passports to more than ten thousand Sephardic Jews in Nazi- occupied Europe, and even permitted a further forty thousand Jews to pass through Spain to other destinations. Spain's diplomatic representative in Budapest during World War II, Angel Sanz Briz, saved almost one thousand Jews who claimed Spanish origin, from deportation in 1944, by issuing them protective passports.

On the other hand, Spain provided Nazi collaborators with shelter after the war.


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