Spanish Jews

Home | Category: Jews in the Middle Ages


main door at the Cordoba synagogue

Although estimates vary, historians believe at least 200,000 Jews lived in Spain before the 1492 expulsion. Before that date they were pushed to convert to Catholicism. Many refused to convert or leave and were burned at the stake. Jews made rich contributions to science, music and literature before they were driven out from the old Jewish quarters in medieval Spanish cities such as Toledo and Seville where they lived among Christians and Muslims. [Source: Daniel Silva, AFP, September 2, 2014]

The Jews of Spain and Portugal are called Sephardim or Sephardic Jews. They and their descendants, most of whom, in the wake of expulsion in 1492, settled in the Ottoman Empire and in North Africa; in the early seventeenth century small groups of descendants of Jews who had remained on the Iberian Peninsula and accepted Christianity settled in the Netherlands, where they reaffirmed their ancestral religion

The Sephardic Jews came mostly from Spain (Sephardic is Hebrew for "of Spain") but also came from Portugal and North Africa. They spoke Ladino, a mixture of medieval Spanish and Hebrew. The arrived in Roman times after the were expelled from Jerusalem for rebelling and flourished in the Middle Ages until they were expelled in 1492.

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: The Christian Reconquista (Reconquest) of Spain in the twelfth century led to the expulsion of the Jews at the end of the fifteenth century. Jews were allowed to remain in Spain only on the condition that they convert to Catholicism. Among the converts, however, were those who secretly maintained allegiance to their ancestral faith and who, as a consequence, later became subject to the Inquisition. Most of those who refused to convert sought refuge in Muslim countries, their descendants becoming known as Sephardic Jews, from the Hebrew name for Spain. Beginning in the late sixteenth century there was a steady stream of Jews from Spain and Portugal, popularly known as Marranos, who settled in the Netherlands, where they returned to Judaism. Members of this community founded the first Jewish settlements in the New World. [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s,]

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ; Bible and Biblical History: ; Biblical Archaeology Society ; Bible History Online Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible ; Jewish History: ; Jewish History Timeline Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook

Golden Age: The Jews in Spain

The years either side of 1000 CE were the golden age of the Jews in Spain. Co-existing happily with the country’s Islamic rulers the Jews developed a flourishing study of Science, Hebrew literature and the Talmud. Despite an attempt to forcibly convert all Jews to Islam in 1086 CE, this golden age continued. At around this time the first Jews are recorded in Britain. [Source: BBC]

20120504-Jewsih area SegoviaPSAndres_21-4-03.JPG
Jewish area in Segovia, Spain
Muslims and Jews lived together in Muslim Spain in relative harmony. Jews had their own legal system and social services but were relatively powerless. They were required to pay special taxes that Muslims didn't pay, forced to wear identifying clothing and were not allowed to open new synagogues. Jews had a strong sense of alienation and were reminded everyday in numerous ways that they were different. There was also the fear of potent waves of persecution. An anti-Jewish riot in Granada claimed 1,500 Jewish families.

Still Jews managed to prosper as craftsmen and traders. They prospered so much in fact that period between 900 and 1200 in Spain and North Africa is known as the Hebrew "golden age," when Jews inspired in part by their Arab counterparts made advances in astronomy, philosophy, science and poetry.

Spanish Jewish Thinkers and Theologians

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) is regarded as the greatest Torah scholar, the most important medieval Jewish philosopher and the most influential rationalist thinker of Judaism. He is the author of “The Guide to the Perplexed” and the Thirteen Articles of Faith and the source of many Talmudist and Rabbinic laws. Both Maimonides and the Muslim philosopher and scientist Averroes were born in the Spanish city of Cordova and it is said that they became good friends.

Another important Jewish philosopher from was Spain was Avicebron (Solomon Ibn Gabirol, c. 1026–50), who marked the shifting of the focal point of Jewish thought to Spain. According to him all things emanate from God as the first principle, not by necessity but through His loving will. Avicebron's depth may be shown by the climactic stanza of one of his poems: When all Thy face is dark, And Thy just angers rise, From Thee I turn to Thee And find love in Thine eyes. [Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s,]

The first to treat Jewish ethics systematically was Avicebron's contemporary Bahya ibn Paquda (1050–1120). His Duties of the Heart became a guide to the inner life for untold numbers of Jews. He espoused asceticism, denounced giving into one’s desires and developed a kind of Jewish Sufism and brought it to a large audience. Abraham ibn Daud (c. 1110–c. 1180) was a Spanish philosopher whoo wrote in Arabic. In “The Exalted Faith” he systematically sought to harmonize the principles of Judaism with Aristotelian rationalist philosophy. Judah Halevi

Judah Halevi of Toledo (c1080-1145) was a great rabbi-poet and Jewish thinker who approached Judaism from a different perspective and is also considered one of the greatest Jewish poets. Born in Spain, he spent much of life in Palestine. In his work he stressed an intense, deeply personal love of God, fealty to the Jewish community and a desire for divine communion. Halevi was an outgoing physician and court poet. He wrote religious verse and secular poems and were liked by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Many of his poems dealt with spirituality, alienation and the longing for a homeland. Some of his poems, such as “Ode to Zion”, are still fixtures of Jewish religious services.

Muslim Violence against Spanish Jews in the 11th Century

On Samuel Ha-Nagid, Vizier of Granada by Abraham ibn Daud includes an account of first Muslim violence against Spanish Jews. This section of the account reads: “Of all the good traits of his father, Joseph lacked but one. He was not humble like his father because he grew up in riches, and he never had to bear the yoke [of poverty and discipline] in his youth. He was proud to his own hurt, and the Berber princes were jealous of him, with the result that on the Sabbath, on the 9th of Tebet in the year 4827 [Saturday, December 30, 1066], he and the Community of Granada were murdered. [About 150 families were killed. This is the first known massacre of Jews in Spain by Moslems.]

All those who had come from distant lands to see his learning and his greatness mourned for him, and the lament for him spread to all lands and to all cities. Since the days of the ancient rabbis - of blessed memory-who wrote the Scroll of Fasts and decreed that the 9th of Tebet should be a fast, the reason for the decree was never known. But from this incident we know that they were directed by the Holy Spirit to fix this day. After his death his books and treasures were scattered and dispersed throughout the world So also were the disciples whom he had raised up. After his death they became the rabbis of Spain and the leaders of the generation.”

In 1086 unsuccessful efforts were made to convert Spanish Jews to Islam. At that time, The Islamic leadership, the Umayyad caliphate, controlled large areas of Spain.

Politically-Powerful Jew in 11th Century Spain

Mid 20th century Jewish historian Jacob Marcus wrote: One of the most famous of the Jewish notables of Moslem Spain was Samuel Ha―Levi [born 993, died after 1056] , who is also known as Samuel Ha―Nagid. Beginning life as a shopkeeper, Samuel Ha―Levi ultimately became the chief minister at the court of Granada. By virtue of this office he became the political head of the Jews in Granada and probably thus received the title Nagid ("Prince"), his name becoming Samuel Ha―Nagid. He served his community as rabbi and did a great deal to further Jewish learning throughout the world. Samuel was a fine linguist, a scholar, a diplomat, and a distinguished soldier. His reputation in the Middle Ages was based mainly on his excellent poetry, some of which was written even on the battlefield. The following account of his life is taken from Sefer Seder ha-Kabbalah ("The Line of Tradition"), a Hebrew historical work written by Abraham ibn Daud of Toledo in 1161. [Source: Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938), 297-300, later printed Atheneum, 1969, 1972, 1978,]

On Samuel Ha-Nagid, Vizier of Granada by by Abraham ibn Daud reads. “One of the great disciples of Rabbi Enoch [d. 1014], was Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi, the Prince, the son of Joseph, who was known as Ibn Nagrela, of the community of Cordova. He was an unusually fine Talmudic scholar and was also well versed in Arabic literature and language. He was of the type that could occupy a high position in the royal palace.

Muslim and Jew playing chess in Muslim-controlled Spain

“Samuel was a merchant, supporting himself with great difficulty until the devastating days in Spain which followed the fall of the Amirid kingdom when the Berbers secured the power. [The civil war, which began in Spain in 1009, reached its climax in 1012 in the sack of Cordova by the Berbers.] It was then that the land of Cordova began to decline and its inhabitants fled. Some of them ran away to Saragossa, where their descendants are even now; some fled to Toledo and their descendants are known there even to this day.

“This Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi fled to Malaga. There he had a shop and was a petty merchant. His shop happened to be near the palace of Ibn al―Arif, the vizier of King Habbus [1019―1038], the son of Maksan, the King of the Berbers, in Granada. At the request of a maid servant of the vizier, Samuel used to write letters for her to her master the vizier, Abu al―Kasim ibn al―Arif. This latter saw his letters and was amazed at his wisdom.

“Some time later this vizier, Ibn al―Arif, got permission of his king, Habbus, to return to his home in Malaga. There he asked the people of his house: "Who used to write those letters that came to me from you?" "A certain Jew," they answered, "who comes from the community of Cordova and lives near your palace-he used to write them for us." Immediately the secretary issued a command and they rushed Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi to him. "It is unbecoming for you to sit in a shop," he said to him. "Stay here with me." He did so and became his secretary and adviser.

“The vizier used to advise the King according to the advice given by Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi, of blessed memory. All his advice was as though it came from God, and the King Habbus prospered through it very much. After some time the vizier, Ibn al―Arif, became mortally ill, and King Habbus, who came to visit him, said to him: "What shall I do? Who will advise me in the wars which encompass me?" "I have never advised you," he answered him, "out of my own mind, but at the suggestion of this Jew, my secretary. Take care of him, and he will be as a father and a minister to you. Do whatever he advises you, and God will help you." So after the death of the vizier, King Habbus took Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi and brought him to his palace and he became his vizier and councillor.”

Jewish Scholarship and Politics in 11th Century Spain

20120504-Maimonides house.JPG
Maimonides house
in Cordoba Spain
Influential and Important Spanish Jews and Their Works
1086-1145 — The greatest Hebrew poet of his time, Judah Halevi.
1135-1204 — Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon; Jewish scholar).
1139 — Judah Halevi completes his influential philosophy of Judaism known as The Kuzari. He is a friend of commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra, who also left Spain for the life of a wandering Jewish scholar.
1194-1270 — Scholar and Jewish leader Moses Ben Nachman (Nachmanides).
1195 — Moses Maimonides completes The Guide to the Perplexed, considered the most important work of medieval Jewish thought.
1240-1292 — Spanish Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia.
1286 — Moses de Leon of Spain completes a commentary of the Torah. The Zohar remains a central text of Jewish mysticism.
1437-1509 — Philosopher, financier and scholar, Don Isaac Abarbanel intercedes many times on behalf of his fellow Jews, including trying to stop Ferdinand from expelling them. This time he was foiled by Torquemada and he followed them into exile. His commentaries cover the major and minor Prophets. Consistent with his belief that the Messiah would come in his lifetime, he also wrote three messianic texts called Migdal Yeshu'ot (Tower of Salvation).

On Samuel Ha-Nagid, Vizier of Granada by Abraham ibn Daud continues: “In the year 4780 [l020] he was in the palace of the King Habbus. [Samuel was already an important official before 1020.] The king had two sons: the name of the elder was Badis, and the younger, Bulukkin. All the Berber princes favored Bulukkin, the younger son, as the successor, but all the rest of the people favored Badis. The Jews, too, and among them Rabbi Joseph ibn Migas, Rabbi Isaac ben Leon, and Rabbi Nehemiah, who was called Escafa, three Granada notables, favored Bulukkin, but Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi favored Badis. On the day that King Habbus died, the Berber princes and their distinguished men rose in the morning to crown his son Bulukkin. Bulukkin, however, immediately went and kissed the hand of his elder brother Badis. Thus Badis was crowned in the year 4787 [1027] and the face of his enemies turned black like the bottom of a pot; and against their will they had to crown Badis. [Badis was really crowned in 1038 and died in 1073.] [Source: Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938), 297-300, later printed Atheneum, 1969, 1972, 1978,]

“After this Bulukkin regretted that he had made his brother king and kept on getting the upper hand over his brother Badis, with the result that King Badis was unable to do a thing, big or small, without his brother's interference. But after this his brother Bulukkin became sick, and the King gave orders to the physician not to cure him. The physician obeyed, and Bulukkin died. Thus was the kingdom established in the hands of Badis. These three distinguished Jews of the city, whom we have mentioned, fled to the land of Seville [then hostile to Granada].

“Rabbi Samuel Ha―Levi was appointed Prince in the year 4787 [1027], and he conferred great benefits on Israel in Spain, in north-eastern and north―central Africa, in the land of Egypt, in Sicily, well as far as the Babylonian academy, and the Holy City, Jerusalem. All the students who lived in those lands benefited by his generosity, for he bought numerous copies of the Holy Scriptures, the Mishnah, and the Talmud-these, too, being holy writings. [Ibn Daud here refutes the Karaites who denied the authority of the Mishnah and the Talmud.]

“To every one-in all the land of Spain and in all the lands that we have mentioned-who wanted to make the study of the Torah his profession, he would give of his money. He had scribes who used to copy Mishnahs and Talmuds, and he would give them as a gift to students, in the academies of Spain or in the lands we have mentioned, who were not able to buy them with their own means. [Printing was not yet invented. Manuscripts were very expensive.] Besides this, he furnished olive oil every year for the lamps of the synagogues in Jerusalem. He spread the knowledge of the Torah [Jewish learning] very widely and died an old man, at a ripe age, after having acquired the four crowns: the crown of the Torah, the crown of high station, the crown of Levitical descent, and what is more than all these, the crown of a good name merited by good deeds. He died in the year 4815 [1055] and his son, Rabbi Joseph Ha―Levi, the Prince, succeeded him. [It is more probable that Samuel died in 1056 or later when Joseph (b. 1035), succeeded him as vizier.]

Ottoman Empire and Sephardic Jews

Maimonides' teaching
About 100,000 of the 150,000 Sephardic Jews kicked out of the Spain were welcomed to Istanbul by the Ottoman Sultan Bayazit II, who dispatched the Ottoman navy to rescue many Jews. "The exiled Sephardim," wrote journalist Melanie Menagh, "brought with them the glories of Spain's golden age and made major contributions to Turkish life. Many were physicians and they introduced modern European medical techniques to the court.”

By the the 16th century a large portion of the population of Istanbul was made up of Spanish-speaking Jews. The first printing press in the Ottoman empire was established by two Spanish-Jewish refugees. Sephardim circumspection was so highly regarded by the sultans that many Ottoman diplomats were Jews. The Sephardim language, Judeo-Spanish or “Ladino” , was thought to be especially melodic and lent itself to poetry and sacred and secular songs. Ancestors of the Sephardim still live in Istanbul and Ladino is still spoken in some neighborhoods.

Jews expelled from Hungary in 1376, from Sicily in the the 15th century, from Bavaria in 1470, from Bohemia in 1542, and from Russia in 1881, 1891, 1897 and 1903 also were provided with sanctuary by the Ottomans. During World War II, Turkey accepted some Jews who were fleeing Nazism.

Expulsion of the Jews from Spain

In 1492 Jews were expelled from Spain. The same thing happened in Portugal in 1497. The Jews did not forsee the expulsion, The victory of the Catholic monarchs over the Muslims in Spain set off a wave of religious intolerance that lead to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. In 1492, the same year Columbus discovered America, 150,000 Jews known as Sephardim were stripped of their possessions during the Spanish Inquisition and kicked out of the Spain.

1479-15 — Isabella's severe anti-Jewish leanings influence Ferdinand and lead to the final expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
1492 — End of Muslim states in Spain.
1492 — Christian expulsion of Muslim Moors from Spain.
1492 — The Alhambra Decree ordered the expulsion of the Jews from Castile and Aragon, Spain. The edict was not formally revoked until December 16, 1968.
1492 — Columbus sets sail.
1492 — Christian expulsion of Jews from Spain, sending over 200,000 Jews fleeing: 137,000 Jews forced to leave Sicily.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, Live Science, Archaeology magazine, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.