Tag Archives: Raavad

Jew of the Week: Benjamin of Tudela

The Jew Who Inspired Marco Polo

A 19th century engraving of ‘Benjamin of Tudela in the Sahara’

Binyamin MiTudela (1130-1173) was born to a religious Sephardic family in the town of Tudela, now in Spain. In 1165, he set out for what is believed to be a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He had a larger objective in mind as well, since this was at the height of the Crusades and a perilous time for anyone to make a pilgrimage, especially Jews. Binyamin wanted to explore all the Jewish communities along the way and to create a detailed map showing the route one should take and where a Jew can find safe refuge on his journey. This would open the door for more Jews to take a trip to their beloved Holy Land. A lover of history and geography, he also wished to leave a record of what the Jewish (and non-Jewish) world looked like in the 12th century. Binyamin recorded all that he saw in his Sefer haMasa’at, “Book of Travels”, also known as Masa’aot Binyamin. His adventures were so popular they were soon translated into just about every European language. Today, the book is among the most important historical documents for scholars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as of Jewish and Muslim history. A great deal of what we know about that era, including the daily lives of simple people, comes from his book. Some believe that it was this book that may have inspired another, more famous, adventurer about a century later: Marco Polo. Binyamin’s travels took him to France and the Italian Peninsula, then to Greece and across what is today Turkey to the Near East, then to Persia, back around the Arabian Peninsula, to Egypt, and returning to Iberia by way of North Africa. While in Ethiopia, he describes a large Jewish community, which was a key source of information allowing modern-day Ethiopian Jews to be accepted by the State of Israel and the rabbinate. He is possibly the first writer to detail the community of Al-Hashishin, better known as “Assassins”, as well as among the first to describe the Druze. In Posquières, he meets and describes the great Raavad. In Rome, he sees a Rabbi Yechiel, who is an advisor to the Pope, and has “free access to the Pope’s palace”! While in Baghdad, he writes of the Caliph, who is “like a Pope” for Muslims, and that the Caliph is fluent in Hebrew and knows Torah law extensively, though he rules with an iron fist. All in all, Benjamin of Tudela visited and wrote about some 300 cities. Today, there are streets named after him in Jerusalem and in Tudela, Spain, where there is also a high school bearing his name.

Words of the Week

One day I learned that dreams exist to come true, and since that day I do not sleep for rest. I sleep just to dream.
– Walt Disney

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Abraham ben David

The Ravad

Tree of Life, depicting the Kabbalistic Sefirot

Avraham ben David (1125-1198) also known as the “RaAVaD” (a title derived from the initials of his name, as is common with many Jewish sages) was one of the greatest scholars in history. Born in Provence, France to a Sephardic family, the Raavad was the chief rabbi of Montpellier and Nimes (where Denim fabric, “De Nimes” was invented). During his tenure as the head of the yeshiva, Nimes gained a reputation as one of the greatest places of Jewish learning in the world. Rabbi Avraham spent most of his life in Posquieres. He was incredibly wealthy, financing the construction of schools with his own funds, and supporting the poor. Because of this, he was once imprisoned by the lord of Posquieres, before a count who knew of the Raavad’s greatness freed him and banished the lord. The Raavad wrote hundreds of different works, including a penetrating commentary on the entire Talmud. More importantly, he is often regarded as the “father of Kabbalah”, revealing ancient Jewish mystical teachings and clearly elucidating them. The famous diagram of the mystical Sefirot arranged in a “Tree of Life” is attributed to him. The Raavad was also a noted astronomer, philologist, and philosopher. Spanish government records reveal that his descendants were important advisers to the Spanish monarchy. Meticulous in his analysis, highly critical, and opposed to dogma, he was a man that cared only for Truth. His impact on the depository of Jewish wisdom, and on the Jewish people, is unparalleled.

Words of the Week

Because each life form, even fruit, is entrusted to a specific angel. By saying a blessing over a fruit, we empower that angel to reproduce more of that fruit. One who refrains from partaking of a fruit deprives the world of the spiritual influence that the blessing would have provided.
– Chemdat Yamim