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Time periods in Jewish history - Middle Ages

Time periods in Jewish history
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Time periods in Jewish history
Roman rule in the land of Israel (63 BC - 324)
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Middle Ages

Byzantine period in the land of Israel (324 - 638)

Jews were widespread throughout the Roman Empire, and this carried on to a lesser extent in the period of Byzantine rule in the central and eastern Mediterranean. The militant and exclusive Christianity and caesaropapism of the Byzantine Empire did not treat Jews well, and the condition and influence of diaspora Jews in the Empire declined dramatically.

It was official Christian policy to convert Jews to Christianity, and the Christian leadership used the official power of Rome in their attempts. In 351 the Jews revolted against the added pressures of their Governor, one named Gallus. Gallus put down the revolt and destroyed the major cities in the Galilee where the revolt had started. Tzippori and Lydda (site of two of the major legal academies) never recovered.

Nonetheless it is in this period that the Nasi in Tiberias, Hillel II created an official calendar which needed no monthly sightings of the moon. The months were set, and the calendar needed no further authority from Judea. At about the same time, the Jewish academy at Tiberius began to collate the combined Mishnah, braitot, explanations, and interpretations developed by generations of scholars who studied after the death of Judah HaNasi. The text was organized according to the order of the Mishna: each paragraph of Mishnah was followed by a compilation of all of the interpretations, stories, and responses associated with that Mishnah. This text is called the Jerusalem Talmud.

The Jews of Judea received a brief respite from official persecution during the rule of the Emperor Julian the Apostate. Julian's policy was to return the kingdom to Hellenism and he encouraged the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem. Julian's rule lasted only from 361 to 363, so there was no chance to carry out this promise before Christian rule was restored over the Empire. Beginning in 398 with the consecration of St. John Chrysostom as Patriarch, the Christian rhetoric against Jews continued to rise with a series of sermons such as "Against the Jews" and "On the Statues, Homily 17" where John preaches against "the Jewish sickness". Such heated language would build a climate of distrust and hate of the large Jewish settlements, such as those in Antioch and Constantinople.

In the beginning of the fifth century, the Emperor Theodosius issued a set of decrees which established official prosecution against Jews. Jews were not allowed to own slaves, build new synagogues, hold public office or try cases between a Jew and a non-Jew. Intermarriage between Jew and non-Jew was made a capital offense as was a Christian converting to Judaism. Theodosius, furthermore, did away with the Sanhedrin and abolished the post of Nasi. Under the Emperor Justinian the authorities restricted the civil rights of Jews, and threatened their religious privileges. The emperor also interfered in the internal affairs of the synagogue, and forbade, for instance, the use of the Hebrew language in divine worship. The recalcitrant were menaced with corporal penalties, exile, and loss of property. The Jews at Borium, not far from Syrtis Major, who resisted the Byzantine General Belisarius in his campaign against the Vandals, were forced to embrace Christianity and their synagogue was converted to a church.

Justinian and his successors of course had concerns outside the province of Judea, and there were insufficient troops to enforce these regulations. As a result, ironically, the sixth century saw a wave of new synagogues built with beautiful mosaic floors. Jews assimilated into their lives the rich art forms of the Byzantine culture. There exist mosaics showing people, animals, menorahs, zodiacs, and Biblical characters. Excellent examples of these synagogue floors have been found at Beit Alpha (which includes the scene of Abraham sacrificing a ram instead of his son Isaac along with a gorgeous zodiac), Tiberius, Beit Shean, and Tzippori.

The precarious existence of Jews under Byzantine rule did not long endure, largely for the explosion of the Muslim religion out of the remote Arabian peninsula (where large populations of Jews resided, see History of the Jews under Muslim Rule for more). The Muslim Caliphate ejected the Byzantines from the Holy Land (or the Levant, defined as modern Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) within a few years of their victory at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636. A testament of the cruelty of the Byzantines towards the Jews can be noted in the great number of Jews who fled remaining Byzantine territories in favour of residence in the Caliphate over the subsequent centuries.

Yet, the size of the Jewish community in the Byzantine Empire was not affected by attempts by some emperors (most notably Justinian) to forcibly convert the Jews of Anatolia to Christianity, as these attempts met with very little success. The exact picture of the status of the Jews in Asian Minor during the Byzantine rule is still being researched by historians (for a sample of views, see, for instance, J. Starr "The Jews in the Byzantine Empire, 641-1204", S. Bowman, "The Jews of Byzantium", R. Jenkins "Byzantium", Averil Cameron, "Byzantines and Jews: Recent Work on Early Byzantium," Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 20). Although there is some evidence of occasional hostility by the Byzantine populations and authorities, no systematic persecution of the type endemic at that time in Western Europe (pogroms, the stake, mass expulsions etc.) has been recorded in Byzantium. Much of the Jewish population of Constantinople remained in place after the conquest of the city by Mehmet II.

A curious historical event did occur as a result of this emigration. Sometime in the 7th or 8th century, the Khazars, a Turkic tribe in what is now the Ukraine, seems to have converted to Judaism. The completeness of this conversion is unclear, but certainly there had been a Jewish population in the Crimea since the Hellenistic era, and these may have been reinforced by Jews leaving the fickle Byzantine governance. Influenced and threatened as they were by both Islam and the Byzantine Empire, and receiving much tangible benefit from their Jewish population, it is speculated that Khazar rulers converted to Judaism in an effort to remain neutral as a safeguard to their independence.

Islamic period in the land of Israel (638 - 1099)

In 638 the Byzantine Empire lost control of the Levant. The Arab Islamic Empire under Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem and the lands of Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. The Jews controlled much of the commerce in Palestine. According to Arab geographer Al-Muqaddasi, the Jews worked as "the assayers of coins, the dyers, the tanners and the bankers in the community." During the Fatimid period, many Jewish officials served in the regime. Professor Moshe Gil documents that at the time of the Arab conquest in 7th century, the majority of the population was Jewish.

Crusaders period in the land of Israel (1099 - 1260)

In 1099, along with the other inhabitants of the land, the Jews vigorously defended Jerusalem against the Crusaders. When the city fell, the Crusaders gathered them in a synagogue and set it alight. In Haifa, the Jews almost single-handedly defended the town against the Crusaders, holding out for a whole month, (June–July 1099). At this time there were Jewish communities scattered all over the country, including Jerusalem, Tiberias, Ramleh, Ashkelon, Caesarea, and Gaza. Jews were not allowed to hold land in the Crusader period but concentrated their efforts on the commerce in the coastal towns during times of quiescence. Most of them were artisans: glassblowers in Sidon, furriers and dyers in Jerusalem.

During this period, the Masoretes of Tiberias established the Hebrew language orthography, or niqqud, a system of diacritical vowel points used in the Hebrew alphabet. A large volume of piyutim and midrashim originated in Palestine at this time.

Maimonides wrote that in 1165 he visited Jerusalem and went up on to the Temple Mount and prayed in the "great, holy house". Maimonides established a yearly holiday for himself and his sons, the 6th of Cheshvan, commemorating the day he went up to pray on the Temple Mount, and another, the 9th of Cheshvan, commemorating the day he merited to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

In 1141 Yehuda Halevi issued a call to the Jews to emigrate to the land of Israel and took on the long journey himself. After a stormy passage from Córdoba, he arrived in Egyptian Alexandria, where he was enthusiastically greeted by friends and admirers. At Damietta, he had to struggle against the promptings of his own heart, and the pleadings of his friend Ḥalfon ha-Levi, that he remain in Egypt; and free from intolerant oppression. He started on the tedious land route, trodden of old by the Israelite wanderers in the desert. Again he is met with, worn-out, with broken heart and whitened hair, in Tyre and Damascus. Jewish legend relates that as he came near Jerusalem, over-powered by the sight of the Holy City, he sang his most beautiful elegy, the celebrated "Zionide," "Zion ha-lo Tish'ali." At that instant, he was ridden down and killed by an Arab, who dashed forth from a gate.

Mamluk period in the land of Israel (1260 - 1517)

In the years 1260-1516, the land of Israel was part of the Empire of the Mamluks who ruled first from Turkey, then from Egypt. War and uprisings, bloodshed and destruction followed Maimonides. Jews suffered persecution and humiliation but the surviving records cite at least 30 Jewish urban and rural communities at the opening of the 16th century.

A notable event during the period was the settlement of Nachmanides in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1267 which since then a continuous Jewish presence existed in Jerusalem until modern day occupation of Jordan in 1948. Nahmanides then settled at Acre, where he was very active in spreading Jewish learning, which was at that time very much neglected in the Holy Land. He gathered a circle of pupils around him, and people came in crowds, even from the district of the Euphrates, to hear him. Karaites were said to have attended his lectures, among them being Aaron ben Joseph the Elder, who later became one of the greatest Karaite authorities. Shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem he addressed a letter to his son Nahman, in which he described the desolation of the Holy City, where there were at that time only two Jewish inhabitants — two brothers, dyers by trade. In a later letter from Acre he counsels his son to cultivate humility, which he considers to be the first of virtues. In another, addressed to his second son, who occupied an official position at the Castilian court, Nahmanides recommends the recitation of the daily prayers and warns above all against immorality. Nahmanides died after having passed the age of seventy-six, and his remains were interred at Haifa, by the grave of Yechiel of Paris. Yechiel emigrated to Acre in 1260, along with his son and a large group of followers. There he established the Tamudic academy Midrash haGadol d'Paris. He is believed to have died there between 1265 and 1268.

In 1488 Obadiah ben Abraham, commentator on the Mishnah, arrived in Jerusalem and marked a new epoch for the Jewish community in The Land.

Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East

During the Middle Ages, Jews were generally better treated by Islamic rulers than Christian ones. Despite second-class citizenship, Jews played prominent roles in Muslim courts, and experienced a "Golden Age" in Moorish Spain about 900-1100, though the situation deteriorated after that time. Riots resulting in the deaths of Jews did however occur in North Africa through the centuries and especially in Morocco, Libya and Algeria where eventually Jews were forced to live in ghettos.

The 11th century saw Muslim pogroms against Jews in Spain; those occurred in Cordoba in 1011 and in Granada in 1066. Decrees ordering the destruction of synagogues were enacted in the Middle Ages in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Jews were also forced to convert to Islam or face death in some parts of Yemen, Morocco and Baghdad at certain times. The Almohads, who had taken control of much of Islamic Iberia by 1172, far surpassed the Almoravides in fundamentalist outlook, and they treated the dhimmis harshly. Jews and Christians were expelled from Morocco and Islamic Spain. Faced with the choice of either death or conversion, many Jews emigrated. Some, such as the family of Maimonides, fled south and east to the more tolerant Muslim lands, while others went northward to settle in the growing Christian kingdoms.


Jewish populations had existed in Europe, especially in the area of the former Roman Empire, from very early times, with converts to Judaism joined by traders and later by member of the exodus. There are records of Jewish communities in France (see History of the Jews in France) and Germany (see History of the Jews in Germany) from the 4th century, and substantial Jewish communities in Spain even earlier.

Norman Cantor and other twentieth century historians dispute the conventional idea that the Middle Ages was a uniformly difficult time for Jews. Early medieval society, before the Church became fully organized, was tolerant. Between 800 and 1100 there were 1.5 million Jews in Christian Europe. They were fortunate in not being part of the feudal system as serfs or knights, thus were spared the oppression and constant warfare that made life miserable for most Christians. In relations with the Christian society, they were protected by kings, princes and bishops, because of the crucial services they provided in three areas: financial, administrative and as doctors. Christian scholars interested in the Bible would even consult with Talmudic rabbis. All this changed with the reforms and strengthening of the Roman Catholic Church, especially the creations of the Franciscan and Dominican preaching monks, and the rise of envious and competitive middle-class, town-dwelling Christians. By 1300 the friars and local priests were using the Passion Plays at Easter time, which depicted Jews in contemporary dress killing Christ, to teach the general populace to hate and murder Jews. It was at this point that persecution and exile became endemic. Finally around 1500, Jews found security and a renewal of prosperity in Poland.

By and large, Jews were heavily persecuted in Christian Europe after 1300. Since they were the only people allowed to lend money for interest (forbidden to Catholics by the church), some Jews became prominent moneylenders. Christian rulers gradually saw the advantage of having a class of men like the Jews who could supply capital for their use without being liable to excommunication, and the money trade of western Europe by this means fell into the hands of the Jews. However, in almost every instance where large amounts were acquired by Jews through banking transactions the property thus acquired fell either during their life or upon their death into the hands of the king. Jews thus became imperial "servi cameræ," the property of the King, who might present them and their possessions to princes or cities.

According to James Carroll, "Jews accounted for 10% of the total population of the Roman Empire. By that ratio, if other factors had not intervened, there would be 200 million Jews in the world today, instead of something like 13 million."

Jews were frequently massacred and exiled from various European countries. The persecution hit its first peak during the Crusades. In the First Crusade (1096) flourishing communities on the Rhine and the Danube were utterly destroyed; see German Crusade, 1096. In the Second Crusade (1147) the Jews in France were subject to frequent massacres. The Jews were also subjected to attacks by the Shepherds' Crusades of 1251 and 1320. The Crusades were followed by expulsions, including in, 1290, the banishing of all English Jews; in 1396, 100,000 Jews were expelled from France; and, in 1421 thousands were expelled from Austria. Many of the expelled Jews fled to Poland.