Sunday, 21 August 2022

396) Which Ovadiah the Ger?


Obadiah the Norman Proselyte who entered the covenant of the God of Israel in the month of Ellul, year 1413 of Documents which is 4862 of Creation

Obadiah the Norman Proselyte and Maimonides - a Case of Non-Intersection

Guest Post by Professor Larry Zamick[1]


I meet such interesting people through this blog. One such personality is Professor Larry Zamick, a distinguished professor of physics at Rutgers University in Piscataway, NJ. Born in Winnipeg, Canada in 1935, he attended the University of Manitoba as an undergraduate and received his PhD in nuclear physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962.

In his own words, Professor Zamick describes himself as “definitely not a Hebrew scholar.” However, his research and findings on the famous twelfth-century Ovadiah the Ger (Convert) contribute towards, if not change the way we understand this chapter of Jewish history. It seems that many confuse two very different Ovadiahs who were both gerim (converts). Some of the errants are distinguished scholars. The first Ovadiah was a former Christian monk born in Oppido Lucano (Southern Italy) as Johannes, the son of a Norman aristocrat named Dreux. He lived just before the second Ovadiah, a former Muslim, who is famous for interacting with Maimonides (when he inquired if, in the prayers, he was permitted to refer to Abraham as his 'father').

Zamick writes:

“Obadiah, the Norman Proselyte [i..e., the convert][2] was perhaps the most famous person to convert from Christianity to Judaism. He was born in 1070 and converted in 1102. In the Cairo Geniza, manuscripts were found in which it was deduced that he added Hebrew words to Gregorian chants. One of the pieces Mi-al Har Horev is often sung today by various choirs.

In another vein, one of Maimonides's famous writings is a Responsa to Obadiah, the Proselyte, where in a nutshell he says that converts to Judaism can pray the same way as other Jews.

But Maimonides was not born until 1135 or 1138 so it is almost impossible that he was responding to  Norman proselyte. The consensus is that he was responding to a later proselyte, probably a Muslim. (By the way, according to the Midrash the original Obadiah, the prophet was a convert from Edom. It could be that most converts in the 12th century were called Obadiah).”[3]

Zamick’s observation should not be regarded as insignificant. He is saying that the famous Normandy convert, Ovadiah the Ger, is not the same person we think Maimonides addressed in his responsa. In fact, according to Zamick so many “distinguished scholars misidentify who the Rambam issued a responsa to.” Some scholars have suggested that Maimonides was addressing the famous Christian convert, Ovadiah from Normandy – but it seems, instead, that he was addressing a less-known Muslim convert.

Zamick writes:

“In a ResearchGate article on Obadiah the Norman Proselyte and Rambam I collected references where it was wrongly stated that Rambam issued a Responsa to Johannes, the Norman. In fact Maimonides never communicated with Obadiah. The timeline is all wrong. Obadiah was born around 1070 and died in 1150. Maimonides was born around 1138 and would have been 13 to 15 when Obadiah died. The Rambam’s Responsa was probably to a later Obadiah - a Moslem.”[4]

Zamick then gives some examples where he suggests that scholars make this mistake:

1) Manfred R.  Lehman

“In an interesting response to Rabbi Ovadiah, a righteous convert—probably the famous Norman Christian convert by that name known from our literature—the Rambam wrote that a convert, like any Jew, may use all the names for G-d: "our Father," "our King," "the G-d of our forefather Abraham," because a convert has taken the G-d of the Jews as his own. However, he should not say "who has taken us out of Egypt," or "who has performed miracles for our forefathers," and the like, because that would be historically incorrect.”[5]

2) Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson

In A History of the Jewish People edited by Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he writes (p.537):

Maimonides was asked by Obadiah, ‘the righteous proselyte, a convert from Normandy, whether he should include himself as one of the elected by referring to ‘Our father Abraham’….”

3) Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

“In a theological sense, we as a people never bothered much about genetics. We always had a certain number, no one can say exactly how many, of other people blending in. There was a proselyte from Sicily, who had been a Norman knight. He wrote a letter to Maimonides asking him a halachic question: “When I pray, do I say, ‘God of my fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?’” And Maimonides wrote back, very warmly—not like most of his letters—saying, ‘Of course! Once you convert you are a child of Abraham, and you can say, ‘My father Abraham, my mother Sarah,’ and so forth.”[6]

4) A further reference which Zamick found is:

“My dear scholarly friend, Ovadiah, the Norman Proselyte:  I received your inquiry asking whether you, as a convert to  Judaism, are entitled to say in your daily prayers, ‘Our God and  God of our Fathers.’ I say to you: Indeed, you may say all of these blessings without changing the wording. You are just like any native born Jew in this regard.”[7]

5) Wikipedia. John of Oppido (Translated from German).

WIKIPEDIA Mistake in “JOHANNES VON OPPIDO”. Rambam did not issue a Responsa to Obadiah the Norman Proselyte. September 2021.

Johannes was born into a noble Norman family at the end of the 11th century. His older twin brother Roger was to become a knight, while Johannes was to become a priest. Last but not least, his studies of the Hebrew Bible brought him close to Judaism, until he finally began to observe Jewish customs as well. The Archbishop of Bari, Andreas II, who had also converted and emigrated to Egypt, served as a model for him. John moved to Constantinople, where he deepened his studies, but also wrote polemical writings against Christianity. Eventually he had to move on and came to Aleppo via Baghdad, where a rabbi confirmed his conversion. From there he moved on via Banyasat the foot of Hermon and Tire to Cairo. Johannes' biography, written after 1122, in which he explains his conversion and the reasons for it, has been preserved in several fragments from the Cairo Geniza. There are several settings by him of Pijyutim in Gregorian notation…”

 See also Johannes of Oppido | Introduction (

“In the year 1102 C.E., a remarkable man known as Johannes of Oppido, a Norman-Italian monk, converted to Judaism. Henceforth he would be known as Obadiah the Proselyte, or in Hebrew, עבדיה הגר. All that we know about his life and career derives from documents discovered in the Cairo Geniza, prime among them his memoir, known in the scholarly world as the Obadiah Memoir. Though we also have other documents either written by him or for him.”

These last two references seem a correct version of Ovadiah the Normandy, but according to Zamick, this is not the Ovadiah that Maimonides was later to respond to.

The problem, though, is that in another Wikipedia article (in German) we find the following with a footnote directing us to Isadore Twersky [(Hrsg.): A Maimonides Reader. Behrman House, New York, 1972, S. 475 f.]:

Moses Maimonides’ Brief an Obadja den Proselyten, der zu dessen frühesten und bekanntesten Briefen überhaupt zählt, beschäftigt sich unter anderem mit der von Johannes gestellten Frage, ob es für ihn statthaft sei, zum „Gott unserer Väter“ zu beten, die ihn offenbar sehr beschäftigt hat. Maimonides antwortet ihm, dass auch er „die Gebete in der üblichen Weise sprechen und kein Wort ändern“ solle, „so wie alle Söhne von Israel“.[8] 

Zamick translates this into English:

Moses Maimonides' letter to Obadiah the Proselyte , which is one of his earliest and best-known letters of all, deals, among other things, with the question asked by John whether it is permissible for him to pray to the "God of our fathers", which he apparently very much has employed. Maimonides replies that he too "should say the prayers in the usual way and not change a word, like all the sons of Israel.

 And Zamick adds:

The names Maimonides and John (aka Johannes) in the same sentence  make it clear this is wrong.


If Zamick is correct, his remarkable observation would be in sharp contradistinction to some of the other references by respectable scholars, who referred to Ovadiah the Normandy as the Ovadiah who interacted with Maimonides. Ovadiah the Norman convert, the former Christian monk, was born in 1070 whilst Maimonides was not born until 1135 or 1138. Maimonides would have only been around 12 or 15 years old when the Norman died. Had the scholars on Zamick’s list just checked the timeline they would have easily avoided making the error of associating Maimonides with this earlier proselyte.

[1] This article is based on Professor Zamick’s previous writings and on his recent communications with me (GM). I also thank Professor Gary Rendsburg, from the Department of Jewish Studies and the Department of History, for his helpful comments.

[2] Parenthesis is mine.

[4] WIKIPEDIA Mistake in “JOHANNES VON OPPIDO”. Rambam did not issue a Responsa to Obadiah the Norman Proselyte. September 2021.

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