Sunday 23 December 2018


In today’s Jewish world - generally speaking - there is a great ‘administrative’ and ‘associative’ divide between ostensibly religious and secular matters: Rabbis study Talmud and laymen run the geopolitics. [1]
This wasn’t always the case. Many of the great rabbis of the past were far more multifaceted than their contemporary counterparts. They got involved in matters of science and the world in a way that was considered normative and not out of the ordinary.
Binyamin Mitudela (1130-1173) was one such rabbi – an early Rishon[2], who specialised in adventure/travel and exploration. Some of his descriptions preceded those of Marco Polo by about a century.
This Spanish born rabbi mastered many languages but wrote his accounts in Hebrew in what was to become Sefer haMasa’ot[3], or The Book of Travels. His writing was later translated into Latin, then into most European languages, and was an important work for scholars of the Renaissance.
First Latin Edition
No one is quite sure why he became an explorer.
It has been suggested that he simply started out on a pilgrimage from Zaragoza in Spain to the Land of Israel in 1165 and wanted to create a ‘travel guide’ to document his journey to show others - fleeing persecution - where Jewish communities were along the way. This then turned into a much larger journey which included exploration of Arabia, Africa and Asia.
Some suggest he was perhaps a gem trader so his journeys took on a more commercial nature.
Others suggest he wanted to catalogue and document the Jewish communities all around the world for historic and more importantly strategic purposes in a world which was becoming increasingly hostile to the Jew.
According to Marcus Nathan Adler:
“It is not unlikely, therefore, that Benjamin may have undertaken his journey with the object of finding out where his expatriated brethren might find an asylum. It will be noted that Benjamin seems to use every effort to trace and to afford particulars of independent communities of Jews, who had chiefs of their own, and owed no allegiance to the foreigner.”
Or perhaps, by nature, he was just an adventurer rabbi.
A 19th-century engraving of Benjamin of Tudela in the Sahara.n
Either way, he opened up the world, not just to Jews but to Westerners in general who had little or no knowledge of places outside of Europe. He travelled to over 300 cities and was an early discoverer of the Jewish community in what is today Ethiopia.
His journeys included Sura and Pumpedita of Talmudic Babylonia, and he gathered information on places like China and Tibet. He was the first European of modern times to mention China by the present name.
He appears to have been fascinated by various cultures and customs and writes with great respect about Islam and how Jews and Moslems intermingled in those days.
R. Binyamin of Tudela is generally regarded as a trustworthy source by historians as he was particular about citing his sources.
According to the short Introduction to his book:
“In every place which he entered, he made a record of all he saw, or was told by trustworthy persons – matters not previously heard of in the land of Sepharad [Spain]...The said Rabbi Benjamin is a wise and understanding man, learned in the Law and the Halacha, and wherever we have tested his statements we have found them to be accurate, true to fact and consistent; for he is a trustworthy man.”
All along the way he discovers quaint and often thriving Jewish communities and is amazed by the religious leadership he encounters in places many never knew even existed.
This is how he describes the great Torah centre of Narbonne:
“[From Gerona] A three days' journey takes one to Narbonne, which is a city pre-eminent for learning; thence the Torah (Law) goes forth to all countries. Sages, and great and illustrious men abide here. At their head is R. Kalonymos, the son of the great and illustrious R. Todros of the seed of David, whose pedigree is established. He possesses hereditaments and lands given him by the ruler of the city, of which no man can forcibly dispossess him.
Prominent in the community is R. Abraham[4], head of the Academy: also R. Machir and R. Judah, and many other distinguished scholars. At the present day 300 Jews are there.”
He tells of his meeting the famous Raavad[5] (1125-1198), the great critic of the rationalism of Rambam and an important link in the transmission of the mystical tradition:
“From there [Lunel] it is two parasangs to Posquières, which is a large place containing about forty Jews, with an Academy under the auspices of the great Rabbi, R. Abraham, son of David, of blessed memory, an energetic and wise man, great as a talmudical authority.
 People come to him from a distance to learn the Law at his lips, and they find rest in his house, and he teaches them. Of those who are without means he [p.5] also pays the expenses, for he is very rich.”
It is fascinating to see that Raavad presided over a place containing only forty Jews!
When Binyamin arrived at Genoa, he appears to describe some form of pirate activity which took place there:
“From Marseilles one can take ship and in four days reach Genoa, which is also upon the sea. Here live two Jews, R. Samuel, son of Salim, and his brother, from the city of Ceuta, both of them good men.
The city is surrounded by a wall, and the inhabitants are not governed by any king, but by judges whom they appoint at their pleasure. Each [p.7] householder has a tower to his house, and at times of strife they fight from the tops of the towers with each other. They have command of the sea. They build ships which they call galleys, and make predatory attacks upon Edom and Ishmael [both Christians and Moslems] and the land of Greece as far as Sicily, and they bring back to Genoa spoils from all these places.”
When he reached Rome, he wrote of apparent interaction between the rabbinate and the papacy. Surprisingly there were only 200 Jewish inhabitants in the city:
“Rome is the head of the kingdoms of Christendom, and contains about 200 Jews, who occupy an honourable position and pay no tribute, and amongst them are officials of the Pope Alexander, the spiritual head of all Christendom.
Great scholars reside here, at the head of them being R. Daniel, the chief rabbi, and R. Jechiel, an official of the Pope. He is a handsome young man of intelligence and wisdom, and he has the entry of the Pope's palace; for he is the steward of his house and of all that he has.
He is a grandson of R. Nathan, who composed the Aruch and its commentaries...
There are many wonderful structures in the city, [p.9] different from any others in the world. Including both its inhabited and ruined parts, Rome is about twenty-four miles in circumference. In the midst thereof there are eighty palaces belonging to eighty kings who lived there...
There is also a cave in a hill on one bank of the River Tiber where are the graves of the ten martyrs...
Many other edifices are there, and remarkable sights beyond enumeration.”
Here is an interesting description of the Italian village of Amalfi which has 20 Jews and a physician named R. Channanel:
“The inhabitants of the place are merchants engaged in trade, who do not sow or reap, because they dwell upon high hills and lofty crags, but buy everything for money.”
In Greece, R. Binyamin met the strange nation of Wallachians. In Sinon Patamo, at the foothills of Wallachia were 50 Jews headed by R. Shlomo:
“The nation called Wallachians live in those mountains. They are as swift as hinds, and they sweep down from the mountains to despoil and ravage the land of Greece. No man can go up and do battle against them, and no king can rule over them. They do not hold fast to the faith of the Nazarenes [Christians], but give themselves Jewish names. [p.18] Some people say that they are Jews, and, in fact, they call the Jews their brethren, and when they meet with them, though they rob them, they refrain from killing them as they kill the Greeks. They are altogether lawless.”
While still in Greece, he describes the little-known fact that the Jews of Salonica, were oppressed in those times:
“From there it is two days' voyage to the city of Salonica, built by King Seleucus, one of the four successors who followed after King Alexander. It is a very large city, with about 500 Jews, including the chief rabbi R. Samuel and his sons, who are scholars. [p.19]
 He is appointed by the king as head of the Jews...The Jews are oppressed, and live by silk-weaving.”
On he travels to Constantinople (Istanbul today) where he describes unimaginable wealth:
“In Constantinople is the church of Santa Sophia, and the seat of the Pope of the Greeks, since the Greeks do not obey the Pope of Rome...
A quantity of wealth beyond telling is brought hither year by year as tribute...And the like of this wealth is not to be found [p.21] in any other church in the world. And in this church there are pillars of gold and silver, and lamps of silver and gold more than a man can count...
This King Emanuel built a great palace...upon the sea-coast...He overlaid its columns and walls with gold and silver...He also set up a throne of gold and of precious stones, and a golden crown was suspended [p.2]2 by a gold chain over the throne...It was inlaid with jewels of priceless value, and at night time no lights were required, for every one could see by the light which the stones gave forth.
The Greek inhabitants are very rich in gold and precious stones, and they go clothed in garments of silk with gold embroidery, and they ride horses, and look like princes...
[p.23] Wealth like that of Constantinople is not to be found in the whole world.
Notwithstanding all this wealth, R. Binyamin tells us of the oppression experienced by the Jews of Constantinople, and how the Rabbinite Jews are divided from the Karaite Jews:
“No Jews live in the city, for they have been placed behind an inlet of the sea. An arm of the sea of Marmora shuts them in on the one side, and they are unable to go out except by way of the sea, when they want to do business with the inhabitants.
In the Jewish quarter are about 2,000 Rabbanite Jews and about 500 Karaïtes, and a fence divides them...
No Jew there is allowed to ride on horseback.[p.24]
The one exception is R. Solomon Hamitsri, who is the king's physician, and through whom the Jews enjoy considerable alleviation of their oppression.
For their condition is very low, and there is much hatred against them, which is fostered by the tanners, who throw out their dirty water in the streets before the doors of the Jewish houses and defile the Jews' quarter (the Ghetto).
So the Greeks hate the Jews, good and bad alike, and subject them to great oppression, and beat them in the streets, and in every way treat them with rigour.
Yet the Jews are rich and good, kindly and charitable, and bear their lot with cheerfulness. The district inhabited by the Jews is called Pera.”
While still in Constantinople, R. Binyamin offers a very important and telling piece of information about Islam:
“They hire from amongst all nations warriors called Loazim (Barbarians) to fight with the Sultan Masud, King of the Togarmim (Seljuks), who are called Turks; for the natives are not warlike, but are as women who have no strength to fight.”
Adler explains that by the 11th century, the Arabs had lost their “martial spirit” and Islam was on the verge of losing its ascendancy. They were, however, saved by the warlike Seljuk Turks, who came from Central Asia, who became ready converts to Islam and “upheld the failing strength of the Arabs.
After visiting Rhodes Island which had 400 Jews, R. Binyamin voyaged for four days till he arrived in Cypress. In Cypress he found:
“Rabbanite Jews and Karaïtes; there are also some heretical Jews called Epikursin, whom the Israelites have excommunicated in all places. They profane the eve of the sabbath, and observe the first night of the week, which is the termination of the sabbath.”
This is a fascinating reference to some Jews who followed the notion that a Jewish day was measured not from evening to evening but from morning to morning. This was based on an interpretation of Rashbam, for which he himself was severely censured and censored. [See Why was Rashbam so Ruthlessly Attacked and Censored?][6]
In the city of Antioch are to be found 10 Jews[7] who are involved in glass-making. The city is close to a huge mountain:
“At the top of the mountain is a well, from which a man appointed for that purpose directs the water by means of twenty subterranean passages to the houses of the great men of the city.”
Ten miles from Sidon are to be found the ‘Druses’. This is how R. Binyamin describes them, and it very different from how Jews view the Druze of today:
“...they are called Druses, and are pagans of a lawless character. They inhabit the mountains and the clefts of the rocks; they have no king or ruler, but dwell independent in these high places, and their border extends to Mount Hermon, which is a three days' journey.
They are steeped in vice, brothers marrying their sisters, and fathers their daughters. They have one feast-day in the year, when they all collect, both men and women, to eat and drink together, and they then interchange their wives.
They say that at the time when the soul leaves the body it passes in the case of a good man into the body of a newborn child, and in the case of a bad man into the body of a dog or an ass. Such are their foolish beliefs.
There are no resident Jews among them, but a certain number of Jewish handicraftsmen and dyers come among them for the sake of trade, and then return, the people being favourable to the Jews. [p.30] They roam over the mountains and hills, and no man can do battle with them.”
R. Binyamin was most impressed with the ‘fine city’ of New Tyre in Lebanon, particularly its safe harbour:
“At night-time those that levy dues throw iron chains from tower to tower, so that no man can go forth by boat or in any other way to rob the ships by night. There is no harbour like this in the whole world. Tyre is a beautiful city.
It contains about 500 Jews, some of them scholars of the Talmud, at their head being R. Ephraim of Tyre, the Dayan, R. Meir from Carcassonne, and R. Abraham, head of the congregation. The Jews own sea-going vessels, and there are glass-makers amongst them who make that fine Tyrian glass-ware which is prized in all countries.”
In the Holy Land, R. Binyamin found a number of places where there was little or no Jewish habitation, and sometimes a strong ‘Jewish Samaritan’ presence:
“[In] Caesarea...there are about 200 Jews and 200 Cuthim. These are the Jews of Shomron, who are called Samaritans. The city is fair and beautiful, and lies by the sea. It was built by Caesar, and called after him Caesarea.
[In] Kako...There are no Jews here.
Thence it is half a day's journey to St. George, which is Ludd, where there lives one Jew, who is a dyer.
[In] Sebastiya... still a land of brooks of water, gardens, orchards, vineyards, and olive groves, but no Jews dwell here.
Thence it is two parasangs to Nablous, which is Shechem on Mount Ephraim, where there are no Jews...[but]about 1,000 Cuthim, who observe the written law of Moses alone, and are called Samaritans.
They have priests [p.33] of the seed (of Aaron), and they call them Aaronim, who do not intermarry with Cuthim, but wed only amongst themselves. These priests offer sacrifices, and bring burnt-offerings in their place of assembly on Mount Gerizim, as it is written in their law—"And thou shalt set the blessing on Mount Gerizim."
They say that this is the proper site of the Temple. On Passover and the other festivals they offer up burnt-offerings on the altar which they have built on Mount Gerizim, as it is written in their law—"Ye shall set up the stones upon Mount Gerizim, of the stones which Joshua and the children of Israel set up at the Jordan."
They say that they are descended from the tribe of Ephraim. And in the midst of them is the grave of Joseph, the son of Jacob our father, as it is written—"and the bones of Joseph buried they in Shechem...
And from there it is five ...[manuscript defective]... a village where there are no Jews...
At a distance of one parasang is...Gibeon... it contains no Jews.”
As R. Binyamin moves on to places like Aleppo in Syria, the numbers of Jews increase dramatically with 5000 Jewish families reportedly living in that city alone. In Kalat Jabar, a two and a half day journey away, there are 2000 Jewish families. Interestingly in Rakka (which is often in the news today):
“...there are 700 Jews, at their head being...R. Nedib, who is blind...There is a synagogue here, erected by Ezra when he went forth from Babylon to Jerusalem.
At two days' distance lies ancient Harrān, where twenty Jews live. Here is another synagogue erected by Ezra, and in this place stood the house of Terah and Abraham his son. The ground is not covered by any building, and the Mohammedans honour the site and come thither to pray.”
R. Binyamin writes about what he believed was the Ark of Noah:
“Thence it is two days to Geziret Ibn the foot of the mountains of Ararat.
It is a distance of four miles to the place where Noah's Ark rested, but Omar ben al Khataab took the ark from the two mountains and made it into a mosque for the Mohammedans.
Near the ark is the Synagogue of Ezra to this day, and on the ninth of Ab the Jews come thither from the city to pray.
In the city of Geziret Omar are 4,000 Jews...
Thence it is two days to Mosul and here dwell about 7,000 Jews...Mosul is the frontier town of the land of Persia.”
The numbers of Jewish families are also very high. Rahbah has 2,000 Jews. Hadara has 15,000 Jewish families. Okbara has 10,000 Jews.
El-Anbar, which is the Talmudic town of Pumbedita has: “3,000 Jews, and amongst them are learned men...” It is interesting to see that that town seemed to always have attracted scholars. R. Bimyamin also discovered the graves of Rav Yehudah and Shmuel in Pumbedita, and tells that
“ front of the graves of each of them are the synagogues which they built in their lifetime.
Here is also the grave of Bostanai the Nasi, the head of the Captivity, and of R. Nathan and Rab Nachman the son of Papa.[p.54]”

R. Binyamin has some fascinating things to say about the Islam of his day under the Caliph of Baghdad:
“Thence it is two days to Bagdad, the great city and the royal residence of the Caliph Emir al Muminin al Abbasi of the family of Mohammed. He is at the head of the Mohammedan religion, and all the kings of Islam obey him; he occupies a similar position to that held by the Pope over the Christians...
There [in Baghdad] the great king, Al Abbasi the Caliph...[p.55] holds his court, and he is kind unto Israel, and many belonging to the people of Israel are his attendants;
...he knows all languages, and is well versed in the law of Israel.
He reads and writes the holy language (Hebrew).
He will not partake of anything unless he has earned it by the work of his own hands.
He makes coverlets to which he attaches his seal; his courtiers sell them in the market, and the great ones of the land purchase them, and the proceeds thereof provide his sustenance.
He is truthful and trusty, speaking peace to all men...”
Then R. Binyamin tells us how the Caliph maintains his strong political power:
“Each of his brothers and the members of his family has an abode in his palace, but they are all fettered in chains of iron, and guards are placed over each of their houses so that they may not rise against the great Caliph. For once it happened to a predecessor that his brothers rose up against him and proclaimed one of themselves as Caliph; then it was decreed that all the members of his family should be bound, that they might not rise up against the ruling Caliph. Each one of them resides in his palace in great splendour, and they own villages and towns, and their stewards bring them the tribute thereof, and they eat and drink and rejoice all the days of their life.”


The synopsis presented here, has only covered a section of R. Binyamin of Tudela's long adventure.

Besides his insight into the Popes and the Calif and his explanation for the continued ascendancy of Islam - his census of the Jews is most astounding:

The famous Raavad presided over 40 Jewish families (obviously his wider influence was far greater). Rome had 200 hundred families - but places like Aleppo, Okbara and Hadara with 5,000, 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish families was far more populated by Jews than places in the West! And very small numbers of Jews lived in Eretz Yisrael at that time! 

I have never fully understood why the modern State of Israel adopted Middle Eastern cultural norms (including general lifestyle, food etc.) as opposed to Western norms, when so much immigration to Israel came from Europe and the West. 

But by looking at the numbers of Jews 800 years ago alone, one has to come to the conclusion that Jews - certainly around R. Binyamin of Tudela's time - were far more Middle Eastern than Western.


The  Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela; A Critical Text, Translation and Commentary, by Marcus Nathan Adler, M.A. (1907) [With thanks to the wonderful work of Project Gutenberg].

Jewish Virtual Library.

[1] This would exclude ‘daas Torah’ where certain rabbis do pronounce on such secular matters. See Daas Torah.
[2] As rabbis from the Period of the ‘Rishonim’ (1038-1500) are known.
[3] Also entitled Masa’ot Binyamin.
[4] Adler explains in a footnote: “R. Abraham ben Isaac (Rabad II) was the author of the Rabbinic code; Ha-Eshkol, and was one of the intermediaries between the Talmudists of France and the Scholars of Spain. He died 1178.”
[5] Technically he was Raavad III. He was the son-in-law of Avraham ben Yitzchak of Narbonne (known as the Rabad II), of Narbonne, mentioned above. Raavad III was the father of Rabbeinu Yitzchak the Blind, an important Jewish mystical thinker.
 [6] Ibn Ezra was so incensed by Rashbam’s interpretation that he composed his Iggeret haShabbat, in defence of Shabbat which had to be observed from ‘evening to evening’. It is known that Ibn Ezra visited Cypress before his arrival in London in 1158, and he may have witnessed the Shabbat observance from ‘morning to morning’ as recorded by R. Binyamin.
[7] Adler points out that it is likely in these instances that R. Binyamin is referring to heads of families and not to the total number of Jews.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating, as always.

    However one should not be surprised at the antisemitic opinions in Europe at the time, nor the lack of Jews in the Holy Land.

    Benjamin was travelling just after the time of the Second Crusade. The first crusade had massacred virtually every Jew in Jerusalem. It is said that the Jews led the battle against the Christians in Jerusalem, rather than the Muslims. Most of the others Jews in the rest of the land were killed or fled. Sentiment for the Christ-killing Jews,( and allies of the non-believing Muslims- who now held Jerusalem) having fought against both the Western and Eastern centres of Christianity was poorer then than even at the time of the First Crusade. Antisemitism was pervasive throughout Europe at the time (although it doesn't really seem to have stopped)

    Benjamin wrote a secular travelogue in the Holy Tongue.Strange? Maybe Benjamin was writing a travel guide for the Jews about which cities were safe for Jews to live and whether they could earn a living there or not.Europe then, was only slightly more dangerous for Jews than it is now. The book was not aimed at the general population or else it would probably have been written in Latin