Tag Archives: Spain

Jew of the Week: Abraham Seneor

The Crown Rabbi Who Built Spain

A Castilian maravedi gold coin issued in 1191

Abraham Seneor (1412-1493) was born in Segovia, Castile, into a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family who served as treasurers and accountants for Spanish monarchs. Seneor himself served the Castilian crown. In 1469, he was the key negotiator that arranged the marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon, resulting in the eventual birth of the new Kingdom of Spain. Seneor became Isabella’s main advisor and confidante. In 1480, Isabella decreed that Seneor would receive a lifetime pension of a whopping 100,000 maravedi coins per year for his invaluable services. He was also appointed the Jewish chief justice and “crown rabbi”. In this role, he worked together with his close friend and fellow rabbi-treasurer, Don Isaac Abarbanel. Between the two of them, they were able to raise the sums needed for the Spanish to defeat the Moors in the War of Grenada. They were also the ones that got crown support and funding for Christopher Columbus’ first trip to America. Seneor often intervened on behalf of the Jews, and saved countless Jewish lives by ransoming those that had been captured by pirates. In 1492, the Spanish decreed the Edict of Expulsion to exile all Jews who did not convert to Christianity. Seneor was 80 years old, and knew he wouldn’t survive exile and expulsion. While the younger Abarbanel refused to stay in Spain (although he was given an exemption), the older Seneor decided to convert, at least publicly, in order to keep his influential role and try to ease the plight of the Jews as much as possible. He helped secure temporary refugee for the Jews in Portugal, then did whatever he could to make sure the Jewish exiles did not lose all of their wealth. Still, he was unable to survive the stress of the ordeal and passed away just months after the Expulsion. Seneor had taken on the new name Fernando Coronel, starting a new lineage of Spanish nobility. The Coronel children continued to play important roles in Spanish affairs for decades to come. Many of them were arrested by the Inquisition for continuing to practice Judaism in secret; some were executed and others deported. A great number ultimately returned to Judaism in Holland and the Americas.

Words of the Week

Israel was extraordinary in being the one socially revolutionary people in the Near East to produce a literature and to survive as a distinctive cultural and religious entity.
Norman Gottwald, renowned professor of Biblical studies and political activist

Jew of the Week: Avraham bar Chiya haNasi

The Rabbi Who Discovered the Quadratic Formula

Avraham bar Chiya (c. 1070-1145) was born in Barcelona to a Sephardic Jewish family. It appears that his family was persecuted by its Christian rulers, so they fled to the neighbouring Arab kingdom of Zaragoza. Bar Chiya came from a long line of rabbis, and was also extensively trained in science, math, and astronomy. Famed for his wisdom, he became the court astronomer of Al-Musta’in II. Eventually, he was appointed minister of police and given the title sahib al-shurtah, “city governor”. This is why he was known in the Jewish community as HaNasi, “the prince” or “the president”. Al-Musta’in II was unable to defend his domain from the Christians, who soon took over. Bar Chiya moved to southern France for a while and lived in Narbonne and Provence. There he composed some of the most important scientific texts of the Medieval era. He translated a number of Arabic works into Latin, opening their study for Europeans, and played a key role in introducing the Hindu numerals we use today (by way of Arabia) to Europe, and thus to the rest of the world. Bar Chiya also synthesized ancient Greek wisdom with contemporary Arabic knowledge, and published new discoveries in number theory, arithmetic, geometry, optics, astronomy, and music theory. His Treatise on Measurement and Calculation inspired later greats like Plato of Tivoli and the world-famous Fibonacci. Meanwhile, Bar Chiya also served as the chief rabbi of the Jewish communities he presided over, and composed two important Jewish commentaries and texts. He is credited with being the first person to write a scientific book in Hebrew, and played an instrumental role in the development of the Hebrew language. His disciples included both Jews and non-Jews, among them the great Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, and the Flemish astronomer Rudolf of Bruges. The first historical appearance of the quadratic equation (with a complete solution of x2 – ax + b = c) appears in one of Bar Chiya’s works! He is also referenced in many philosophical works as “Abraham Judaeus”. All in all, his impact on the development of science, mathematics, and human history is unparalleled.

Jew of the Week Turns 10 Years Old Today!

What I Learned from 10 Years of Writing Jew of the Week

Words of the Week

The mind of man plans his way, but God directs his steps.
King Solomon (Proverbs 16:9)

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