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Benjamin bar Jonah

11/11/2018 05:00:00 AM


Dr. Mariana Montiel

Benjamin of TudelaBenjamin bar Jonah, known as Benjamin of Tudela, was born around 1130 in Tudela, a city of Navarre, in northern Spain. He possessed a vast culture, mastering several of the romance languages of the Iberian Peninsula, as well as Hebrew, Aramaic, Arab, Latin, and Greek. He is famous for his travel book and he is considered a pioneer of the travel journals as we conceive them today, given that his travels, and his records and impression of them, preceded those of Marco Polo by one hundred years! However, he died before organizing all his materials, and his Travel Book (Sefer Masaot) was published in Hebrew in Constantinople in 1542, almost 400 years after it appearance. Much of what we know today about the Jewish communities of the world during the second half of the twelfth centaury can be attributed to this Spanish rabbi of pre-expulsion Spain.

Benjamin of Tudela’s narrative describes the economical, industrial, and agricultural aspects of the Jewish communities in detail. He depicts the great cities of his times and systematically analyzes the approximate number of travel days from one community to the next as well as the local governments, the natural resources and the most important commercial activities. He situates his narrative around the history of the Jewish people and he kept a registry of the number of habitants of the Jewish communities he visited, the relations they held with the local governments, the religious authorities, etc. He also illustrated the danger and insecurity of the roads and the ocean travel (pirates and bandits).

During the approximately 12 years of his trip he visited 190 medieval European and oriental cities, becoming one of the only demographic sources of that epoch. From Tudela he travelled first to Barcelona, which he described as a beautiful city, full of merchants from Greece, Pisa, and Alexandria among other places. He portrays the Jews of Barcelona as wise and intelligent men, and names some of the outstanding members of that community. Then he continues to Narbonne, where scholars would go to study Torah with Rabbi Calonicos..He continues on to Montpellier and to Lunel, whose Jewish habitants he depicts as wise, scholarly and faithful followers of all the precepts.

From Marseilles he departed by sea to Genoa, and then to Rome, where he found that there were Jews who actually played an important role in Pope Alexander’s court. In particular he mentions Rabbi Yejiel, grandson of Rabbi Nathan, the author of Sefer Hearuj, a monumental lexicographic work about the Talmud and the midrashim.

From Italy he went to Constantinople, where he describes its sumptuous churches covered with gold and silver columns. The Jewish community was rich, influential, and kind, full of wise and scholarly men; however, they were prohibited to live within the city limits or to ride horses, and they were often victims of popular vandalism, encouraged by the authorities. He continued to Rhodes and Cyprus, and finally arrived to Jerusalem. He portrays the Holy Land in detail, and emphasizes the courage of the Jews who maintained the tradition under the extreme circumstances of the Crusades. In Jaffa he found only one Jew, who continued the tradition despite all the odds against him!

From “Palestine” he traveled to Damascus, where he visited many Jewish communities and left for posterity the names of their rabbis, as well as their economical, architectonical, and religious characteristics.

He continued to Persia and then to Baghdad, where he was captivated by the Jewish community, with their 28 active synagogues and their books, many supposedly from the first and second temples.

From the Middle East he continued to the Far East and, although we are not sure if he really arrived, he mentions China and the Jewish merchants established there. He did visit India, and he talks about the spices and silk, mentioning in detail the recollection of pearls, a monopoly of the king, but under the administration of a Jewish official in charge.

In the port city of Quilon (today Kollam), in southern India, he talks about the black-skinned Jews who were very observant of the Torah, and studied some Talmud and Halakha. He describes them as excellent and prosperous merchants.

Benjamin of Tudela describes Egypt on his way back to Europe. He observed the dependence on the Nile’s flood waters as a source of irrigation, and the creative methods used by the fishermen. He recorded his stay in Alexandria, the “lighthouse of Alexandria” and the 3,000 Jewish residents. It is interesting to read how this community had two different rites, those members of Eretz Babel who followed the Sephardic ritual so familiar to Benjamin (and to us!); and those of Eretz Israel, whose custom was to read the Torah in 3-year cycles!

Benjamin of Tudela returned to Europe, arriving to Palermo in southern Italy. He talks about Germany, praising the Jews of Ashkenaz for their erudition, their kindness towards all people and their welcoming treatment to travelers. He then concludes with descriptions of Prague and France (Sarfat), in particular of Paris where he also praises the erudition and friendliness of the Jews. He returned to Navarre in approximately 1172, a year before his death.

He finalizes his book with the phrase “G-d bless us and have mercy on us and on them”.

Now we will finish the three part saga of our post-expulsion protagonist, Gracia Mendes-Nasi.

After having saved, helped, and relocated thousands of her brethren, Gracia Nasi decided to fulfill a dream that could be considered premonitory: to establish an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel. We are talking about 1558!

During the span of 1530-1550 Rabbi Yosef Caro, a Sephardic Jew born in Toledo in 1488, founded an important rabbinical center in Safed that would later be transformed into a center for Kabbalah studies. The inhabitants of Safed were primarily Sephardic Jews, refugees from Spain who had faced difficulties and dangers to finally arrive to the Holy Land.

Safed was in the same vicinity as Tiberias, but the latter city was practically in ruins and total abandonment. Gracia Nasi told the Sultan (Suleiman the Magnificent) that she could develop the city and promised to produce taxes for the royal treasury. In 1558 the Sultan gave the concession to Gracia Nasi under the condition that she would generate 1,000 ingotes of gold annually. She was the equivalent of a governor and was independent as long as she generated the funds.

Gracia Nasi’s idea, which was accepted by the Sultan, was that once constructed the city all the Jews of the world would have a secure place to live, in particular the Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal who were constantly escaping from country to country throughout Europe.

In 1561 Yosef Nasi, Gracia’s nephew and son-in-law together with the Rabbi Yosef Ben Aderet began the construction of the walls of the city. Between the two they bettered the city, planting trees and developing plans for production and trade. One of the species that they planted was the mulberry tree, essential in the breeding of the silk worm, an industry that was implanted in Tiberias.

In 1564 the walls were finished, walls that exist to our days. Yosef Nasi invited important European Jewish merchants and industrialists to move their factories to the city, and ships from the Mendes Company were sent all over Europe to move Jews to Tiberias. Gracia also founded a synagogue and a Bet haMidrash, a school to study Torah.

However, once the walls were constructed in 1564 and the Jews began to move to Tiberias, the city became target of attacks and claims from Christians and Muslims who had initially abandoned it; even the Pope expressed his concerns to the Sultan and the opponents fomented raids, carried out by the Bedoin tribes. Sultan Suleiman continued supporting the project and asked for peace in the area, but his requests fell on deaf ears. Unfortunately, the Sultan had political problems as the time for his succession was approaching and, in 1566, he died during a military expedition to Hungary.

Gracia Nasi, protector of the Jews and Judaism in the turbulent sixteenth century Europe and Middle East, died in Eretz Israel in 1569.

Sat, April 20 2024 12 Nisan 5784