DIASPORA : MEDIEVAL SPAIN
The influence of Babylonian Jewry had been very strong on the Jewish communities in Europe: the eastern Diaspora, including Eqypt, tended to be under the influence of what remained of the Eretz Israel centre. This fact is particularly evident in the various prayer rites adopted. As the Babylonian centre declined, the communities in North Africa and Spain blossomed. Flourishing communities developed where voluminous legal discussions of the Talmud began to be edited and codified.
In the fifth and sixth centuries in Spain the Visigoth Christians had persecuted the Jews, but under Muslim rule Jews reached positions of importance in government, in a period known as the Golden Age. Jews were active in the free professions, particularly medicine, and the study of astronomy and philosophy were favoured. Hebrew, poetry of all kinds flowered in an age that produced Ibn Gabirol, Samuel Ha-Nagid and Judah HaLevi. Due to the clash of secular culture with Judaism, the greatest scholar of the 12th century - Maimonedes - wrote his major philosophical work, The guide of the Perplexed, in Arabic, for the perplexed Jews of his generation; most of his monumental works were written in Hebrew. The Golden Age in Spain also saw the development of Jewish mysticism, or Kaballah (the central work of which is the Zohar), that grew to be so important in Jewish life.
During the first stages of the Christian reconquest, early in the eleventh century, the position of the Jews did not deteriorate drastically. But the Christian Church saw an anomaly in the continued existence of Jews in a Christian state, and made every effort to convert them, notably in the persecutions of 1391. This ultimately led to the torture chambers of the Inquisition, and the decree, in 1492, that the Jews either accept the Christian faith or leave the country. For several hundred years thereafter no Jew lived openly in Spain, and it was only in 1967 that a synagogue opened with official recognition.
Following the Expulsion from Spain the refugees spread out over the whole Jewish world - including the Land of Israel, North Africa, Italy, Sicily, Holland and Turkey -establishing their own congregations. The name Sephardi, which describes many diverse communities, is a derivation of the Hebrew name for Spain. Some conversos, Jews who had officially embraced Christianity while secretly remaining true to their own faith, ultimately escaped from Spain, sometimes at great risk. Others remained - and in many Spanish families to this day, vestiges of Jewish observance can be found.
Next Step: Diaspora: Medieval France and Germany
Index to Footsteps through Jewish History