Jewish Culture of Medieval Europe Outline

Jewish Culture of Medieval Europe

What were the characteristic modes of Judaism and Jewish life in Sepharad and Ashkenaz? How were the Sepharadic and Ashkenazic culture indicative of the Muslim and Christian environment, respectively?

Jewish culture of medieval period in Christian and Muslim worlds was different mainly because of religious tolerance common for Eastern world. Domination of two major religions: Christianity and Islam had a direct influence on the attitude towards Jews in the time when clerical ideas were of higher importance then laws and social norms. Even that both religions Christianity and Islam have origins in Judaism, attitude towards Jews were different.

Jews in Medieval Muslim world had more rights as an autonomous nation than in Medieval Europe. In fact Jews lived in the Arabic world since Ancient times and had a high level of interaction with states of Babylon and Persia. Because Jews in Muslim world experienced less persecution and were welcomed in the society of Arabs, they had much more chances for their cultural development and interaction with native dominant culture of the country they lived in. In addition, Jews executed the role of bridge between Christian and Muslim world, which they used in controlling trade of these antagonistic worlds. In fact we should mention that Muslim rulers during the golden age of Islam encouraged cultural and scientific legacy of different origins, especially legacy of Antique period. This gave favorable conditions for cultural and social assimilation of Jews into different spheres of Muslim world, at the same time it gave them a chance to save their identity, as they experienced no pressure from Muslim officials. Dr. Zion Zohar outlines the following characteristic features of Sepharadi Jews:

a) their desire for and attainment of secular political positions; b) their ability to appreciate and harmonize religion and secular aspects of culture; c) their skill at mastering both religious works (like the study of the Bible and Talmud) and more secular subjects (such as poetry and philosophy); and d) their multicultural proficiency, which enabled them to converse and publish in both Hebrew and Arabic.” (Zion Zohar,6) Such opportunities allowed Jews not only to participate actively in trade, economics and receive education, but also allowed them to obtain high political positions up to the title of vizier (advisor or minister of Muslim ruler), being talented physicians, philosophers and scientists. Because Jews were accepted in Muslim culture, Sepharadi culture transformed also to an open culture, which could easily take challenges and which was more tolerant to differences and modernization.

Ashkenazi culture developed under different circumstances as Jews in medieval Europe lived under domination of Catholic clericalism and religious intolerance promoted by Catholic Church. Such oppressive attitudes towards Judaism and Jewish Diaspora in Europe resulted with isolationism and alienation of Jews from the native cultures of the countries they lived in. Ashkenazi developed a certain set of attitudes towards Christian culture, which had to protect their identity and preserve them from assimilation. All religious and philosophic activities of rabbi were limited to study of Talmud and Bible, as Ashkenazi did not accept other sources of religious and philosophical thought. A bright historical fact is attitude to philosophy of Barucca Espinoza (Portugal Jewish philosopher), which was banned by rabbis all over Europe. The reason for Espinoza’s excommunication was very trivial- he went to official court in order to open a case against other Jew, but not to the court of Jewish community, which was independent. Ashkenazi rabies were also considered to be stricter and more fundamentalist in the issues of religion, morality and observations. Ashkenazi rabies didn’t interact with Sepharadi culture and Sepharadi rabies, considering their secular views to be seditious. For example Rabi Asher ben Jehiel wrote the following about Sepharadi rabies: “Although I know nothing of their secular wisdom,” referring to those who held rationalistic views among the Sephardic political and rabbinic leadership, “blessed be the Merciful God who spared me from it. For examples and evidences come along for the purpose of diverting man from the fear of God and His Torah.”

In modern time, different experiences of Sepharadic and Ashkenazi Jews influenced their views on self-identity and resulted in certain cultural particularities. Sepharadi Jews, especially those who live in the Muslim world today do not support Zionism and are more likely to assimilate and interact with other ethnicities. Ashkenazi Jews are considered to be the founders of Zionism and they are more conservative even under today’s liberal realities. Sepharadi Jews also saved tradition, which is common in Muslim world to name children after the name of grandparents, and which is uncommon for Ashkenazi Jews.

How would you assess the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the two societies? How, if at all, did a medieval form of anti-Semitism manifest in one as opposed to the other?

In Muslim world Jews were considered to be an alien nation, since they observed a different religion from Islam. Together with other religious minorities of Zoroastrians and Christians, Jews belonged to a certain legal status of “dhimmi.” They were protected by the state from religious intolerance and prosecution, but were never treated as equal. Jews could not hold certain positions, were put aside from politics and could not hold military positions. Jews in the Muslim worlds were paying a special poll tax called jizya, which exempted them from military service. In addition Jews were limited in the right to marry to Muslim women, and were deprived of a number of legal rights. Since there was a confessional division in communities of Muslim world, Jews lived autonomous life in their communities, regulated by their own laws and managed by community leaders. Even though that it’s generally agreed that condition of Jews in Muslim world was better than in Medieval Europe, there always existed intolerance from the side of Muslim fundamentalists and fanatics, which was sometimes supported by official government and caliphs.

In medieval Europe persecution of Jews was supported by the policies of Catholic Church, as they were accused in “crucifixion of Jesus Christ” and this argument was considered to exhaustive for any legal actions against them. Unlike natives of the lands where they lived, Jews didn’t have any formal status in the feudal hierarchy of Medieval Europe, as they were not allowed to own property, they were not allowed to serve in military, etc. Under such status there were no legal regulations between Jews and state, as they didn’t have any status and no one knew what to do with their commodities: ” It took about 500 years, but a relationship was finally worked out. The agreement was that Jews belonged to the King and were called Serfs of the Chamber. Therefore, the King could do what he wanted with them. He could take their property, could kick them out, and could decide if Jews could have slaves. The King had all the rights, the Jews had only those which they managed to bargain for with the King.” As Jews were deprived not only of having civil rights but also of all economic activities, they succeeded in trade, banking and usering: “During the third crusade, in 1188 the Jews were tithed 25% of their total property. Remarkably, this meant that 2400 Jews raised 60,000 pounds while the other 99% of the people in England raised 70,000. Jews controlled much of the liquid wealth in England about 250,000 pounds at a time when the total liquid wealth was about 900,000 lbs.”

The accumulation of wealth which was typical for the most of Jewish communities became the main issue of Medieval anti-Semitism which often turned into national policies especially in the time of inquisition and Crusades: “Between 1182 and 1486 Jews were expelled from all the Christian countries of Europe except Germany. Thus, a pattern was unfolding. The kings or other powers manifest anti-Jewish feelings, but they did not murder the Jews. They had a Christian solution: expulsion; in France in 1290, in England in 1306 and other times, in Spain in 1492, in Portugal in 1496 and in the Papal States of Italy in the mid 16th century.”

What were the characteristic responses of Sepharadic and Ashkenazic Jews to persecution? Contrasting the response of Ashkenazic Jews to the Crusades with the Sephardic response to the Spanish Inquisition, how were those responses conditioned by the historical experience of each group?

The most tragic periods in medieval history for Jewish nation were times of inquisition and Crusades, when anti-Semitism was catalyzed by simple financial need from the side of either Catholic Church or local rulers. Jews sufferings during the crusades were not only limited to expropriations and eviction from the most of European cities, they also suffered murders and even massacres. The response of Jews to these persecutions was demonstrated in adaptations to life in new countries, as they could not show any considerable resistance either to Catholic Church or to local communities. In order to survive they used different practices, which mostly include bribery of local bishops and feudal lords. In addition, the times of Crusades increased the level of interaction between Ashkenazi communities in order to act against persecutions in cooperation. Their escape from persecutions was always organized, which strengthened relations of community members and later turned into a duty of mutual aid and assistance, typical for members of Jewish Diaspora today. These times of horror and deprivations molded spirit and will of Jews, influenced the growth of cooperation of different communities all over Europe and resulted in moving to Eastern Europe, where they peacefully coexisted with local population up until 17th century. Unlike other nations it was already typical in the Middle Ages for Ashkenazi Jews to receive universal education, which was not only limited to Talmud and Torah studying. Sinful activities of money loaning, which were shameful for Catholics, were mostly occupied by Jews who achieved considerable success in finances all over Europe and gave them reputation of successful financiers and bankers.

Sepharadi Jews suffered persecution after the end of Reconquista in Iberian Peninsula. The main goal of queen Isabella was to convert Moor and Jewish population of former Cordoba caliphate into Christianity, so Jews had two options: either to leave the country or to adopt Catholicism. A small portion of Sepharadic Jews adopted Catholicism, secretly observing Judaism for the next several centuries. But in majority Sepharadi Jews left to Spanish colonies of South America, Southern Europe, Turkey and Holland (Amsterdam). Nevertheless, even those who adopted Christianity saved cultural particularities and language, enriching Spain culture, art and literature by original Jewish elements,.

Making a conclusion it’s important to note that Jews are nearly the only nation, which was able to preserve its self-identity and culture under centuries of persecutions. They have adapted to the world they lived in and nearly always succeeded because of the strength of their communities, belief in God and education.


Jewish Life in Medieval Europe, available at

Zion Zohar A Global Perspective on Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry, pp.1-20 available at

Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984

Jane Gerber, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience (New York: Free Press, 1992), 89.

Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, The History of the Jewish People Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976

Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1961), 319

Jewish Life in Medieval Europe

Jewish culture of medieval Europe

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