Dr. Avraham Gross
Ben Gurion University
Spanish translation available here
is quite common in archeology to unearth a small piece of pottery in an
unexpected digging site and after a painstaking work of finding, cleaning, and piecing together
more fragments to assemble a beautifully crafted and ornamented vessel - a
stunning masterpiece of antiquity. Sometimes, the finding of a very small piece
is indeed dramatic, and it ends up as a missing link which enables a full-blown
reconstruction on a big scale of an unknown or a re-discovery of a
long-forgotten city or center of great importance. This is the archaeologist’s
|12th century Menorah in a block of stone at San Idefonso Church, Zamora |
an occurrence is quite rare in the discipline of historiography. This is
certainly true in the study of cultural, intellectual, and learning centers.
Normally, writings such as correspondence, books and tracts - the fruits of the
intellectual efforts - are the building-blocks for the historian’s workshop.
These are, by-and-large, readily available and at our disposal. However, it was
one single piece of new information, the missing link, that allowed us the reconstruction we will
must admit that phrasing the topic of our presentation which puts Zamora unequivocally at the summit of Jewish intellectual
activity in fifteenth
Spain is dramatic and that it was intended to be so! Take a look in standard
historiographical works on the history of the Jews in Spain and you’ll find
virtually nothing that will point to the theses embedded in our topic. This is
true not only of the historiography which was interested more in the last
hundred years of conversion and destruction of Spanish Jewry and which concentrated its
efforts on analyzing the impossible existence of the triangle Jews-New
Christians-Old Christians, Crypto-Judaism (= Marranism) and Inquisition. Even within the field of Jewish intellectual
history you will not find a definition of Zamora in the fashion suggested in
to think of it, the reason is quite simple. Often enough we judge intellectual
achievements by bulk. Specifically, by quantity of publications. Without
gliding into cynical comparisons to, and comments on the main element that
shapes our academic careers, one must admit that quantitative evaluation is not
unimportant, historically speaking, especially when we want to evaluate one’s
influence. However, when we deal with religious education and learning this is
not necessarily so. This is particularly true when we study the history of
Jewish talmudic/rabbinic academies (Hebrew = Yeshivot).
in Jewish tradition is one of the greatest, most important religious
requirements. The Torah already says that one should study it “day and night”
and rabbinic literature - from the Mishnah
and until the present - is full of dictums and exempla of scholars who did just that to the extreme. One might say
that learning is the main trait of rabbinic Judaism to this very day. It is
learning for the sake of learning even if it has no practical relevance to it.
Learning is an end unto itself. Teaching and educating many students is an
imperative, as put very clearly by the Mishnah.
so, on the one hand, rabbinic literature has been written continuously,
especially the halakhic genres (= that is, legal literature), in the shape of
codexes and responsa),
and there were schools that invested much energy in writing novelae
(= new commentaries and insights into talmudic halakhic discussions). On the
other hand not every great scholar saw in writing the ultimate in learning. It
is therefore incorrect methodologically for us to define one’s rabbinic and
intellectual stature by the sheer quantity of his literary production. Having
said all this in a way of introduction, let me turn now to 15th c. Castile, in
general, and then to Zamora, in particular.
unprecedented mass-conversions, death and physical destruction of the Jewish
communities in Castile during 1391, the following waves of anti-Jewish
legislation and conversion campaign orchestrated by Vicente Ferrer, and
finally, the mass conversions in the wake of the Disputation in Tortosa
1412-1414 seemed to have brought to its knees a Jewry which was so proud of its
achievements in virtually every field of Jewish and secular learning, and in
the political realm as well. One of the Jewish writers in the end of the fourteenth century
expresses it in lamenting the present, describing the communities of Castile and Aragon
“which were among [other communities of] our nation as the main organs of the
body in comparison to the secondary ones.”
the above-mentioned string of catastrophes, we read the following internal
criticism of Jewish Torah learning in Spain:
the scholars eat bread of poverty, and even the little they get as payment they
must go around and beg for. And this is the reason why the Torah is downgraded
among them (= the Jews) and is destined to be forgotten […] because when the
people see the shame of the scholars and their poverty they choose to send
their sons to learn the worst of professions rather than see them suffer as
He goes on and compares this situation with the good
living condition on the Christian clergy. This is written
when we read about the status of Torah learning - both quality and quantity -
in the decades prior to the Expulsion, we get the feeling that within half a
century nothing short of a revolution took place in Jewish learning in Spain.
me quote shortly a few writers. Joseph Ya’avez, writing right after the
Expulsion: “[…] For since antiquity Spain was not as full of Yeshivot
and students as it was at the time of the Expulsion.” An anonymous chronicler,
a refugee from Spain, writes: “And there were then [i.e. before the Expulsion]
in Spain,” and he goes on to list ten of the largest. Judah Khalaz, who
migrated to Tlemencen, in North Africa, a few years before the Expulsion
writes: “Castile, the land of yeshivot
and Torah students.” In one post-Expulsion elegy the poet mourns the external
richness of the academies and their rich libraries which have been destroyed.
We have information about large personal libraries of the Jews in this period,
and it stands to reason that the ones in the academies were also sizable.
is true that, generally speaking, we can observe a phenomenon of rejuvenation
of Torah learning and Academies after great material disasters, since the
Destruction of the Second Temple and until our own days [i.e. post-Holocaust].
Yet, this does not absolve us from our historiographical duty to locate and
identify the fountain[s] of vitality which gave rise to what can be termed as
an almost intellectual resurrection. The answer in our case is hidden in the
almost mysterious personality of Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob Qanpanton.
|The Ways of Talmud, by Isaac Campantón, Mantua cover edition, 1593|
becomes apparent when we survey short references to Qanpanton’s stature and to
assessments of his achievements as found in post-Expulsion Sefardic writings.
One of the most famous Hispano-Jewish scholars of
that period was Abraham Zacuto, the celebrated
mathematician and astronomer from Salamanca. Zacuto was also a head of a yeshiva
in Salamanca and an important talmudist. Alongside his scientific excellence,
he was also a qabbalist. He is particularly known for his astronomical
calculations and contribution to nautical navigation, and his personal guidance
to Vasco da Gama prior to his voyage to India in 1497. Zacuto was then in
Portugal after leaving Spain in the 1492 Expulsion. His odyssey led him through
North Africa to Jerusalem, where he died.
). In his Book
of Genealogies, generally dedicated to the chronology
of Jewish Oral Law, Zacuto writes:
And the great rabbi, the rabbi of [all]
the people of Israel, the rabbi of the three above-mentioned scholars, the
pious, humble man, who was inspired by the Holy Divine Spirit, the great light,
rabbi Isaac Qanpanton […] who was called a Gaon in Castile (A prestigious term
reserved for the Heads of the famous talmudic academies in Baghdad during the
7th-12th c.). And I saw him! And anyone who saw him experienced something
similar to encountering the Divine Providence. And I was about six or seven
years old when I saw him. And he passed away in Peñafiel in 1463.
is no need for over-dramatization in the reading of this paragraph to feel the
awe-inspiring image that Qanpanton commanded.
Qanpanton died at old age and
according to one source he died at 103. From official Castilian documents we
know that he participated in 1450 in a committee which was charged with the
duty to divide taxes among the Castilian Jewish communities [His name is
spelled there: Çag Canpanton]. At an age of about 90, his contribution was
surely not in his mathematical abilities but rather in lending the decisions of
the committee moral weight, authority, and respectability.
references to him by post-Expulsion chroniclers describe him as the central
intellectual figure of 15th c. Castile;. Thus we read: “[…] the Light of the Exile (again
using a term reserved for an 11th c, Ashkenazic rabbinic authority) […] he
raised again the crown [of Torah] and raised many students”
emphasis on the number of students that swelled under his leadership is
|Representation of a 14th Spanish Jew, carbon copy by Manuel Castellanos, 19th century |
survey of his students who assumes rabbinic and talmudic leadership during the
last generation in Spain prior to the Expulsion, and in the first generation of the Sefardic
Diaspora throughout the Mediterranean Basin
) shows that almost all
Sefardic talmudic learning can be traced to Qanpanton. Let me mention a few of
the more famous names:
students: Isaac Aboab (Guadalajara and Buitrago. Joseph Caro, the greatest
halakhist since Maimonides and until today, relates a mystical revelation he
had where he was promised that his Yeshiva
will be even greater and more famous than Aboab’s.), Isaac Deleon (Toledo),
Samuel Valenci (who succeeded Qanpanton as the head of the yeshiva
in Zamora), Joseph Hayyun (Lisbon).
Two influential figures in the field of biblical
exegesis and preaching came out of Zamora. Isaac Arama wrote Aqedat Yitz’haq [Binding of Isaac], a voluminous book of philosophical sermons on the
Pentateuch. This important work has been published many times and its influence
extended much beyond the Sefardic world. In his introduction he refers
nostalgically to his hometown as “Zamora in the far north,” using an expression
referring to the glory of Jerusalem in Psalms 48:3. Abraham Saba is known
primarily for his Tzeror
of Myrrh] homiletical commentary on the Pentateuch which incorporates
qabbalistic passages from the Zohar. This work was published Italy and Poland
in the sixteenth century, and again in few editions very recently. We know much
about his wanderings after the Expulsion from Spain through Portugal and North
Africa and about his personal tragedies and loss of his family which was
forcibly baptized in Lisbon.
leading second generation rabbis: Abraham Zacuto, Jacob Ibn Habib, Jacob Berav,
|A Saba's family Ketubah from 1447, now at Israel National Library|
geographical map of the talmudic learning centers in fifteenth century Castile
known to us, shows that if we take Avila as the pivot point we can say that all
of them were in a radius of about 200 km. (Locations: Leon, Fromista, Valladolid, Medina del Campo,
Salamanca, Segovia, Buitrago, Avila, Guadalajara, Plasencia, Toledo). The
fact that most of the places, not noteworthy in terms of size, are not known to us
as Jewish centers from previous centuries, and that they are
relatively small towns goes well with the observation that Jewish life in
post-1391 Castile moved away from the major cities.
the above would have been very interesting, but not particularly for the present paper, if not for a small
fact discovered about 40 years ago (and to that I referred in my analogy to
archaeology in my introduction): Qanpanton’s yeshiva
was located in Zamora.
this town had a 15th c. thriving Jewish community, in terms of Castilian
shrunken Jewish communities, is evident from the additional northern juderia
nueva (Ladero-Quesada, pp. 34-40). Also we know that the share of
the tax levied from it for the war against Granada
was sizable. An incidental compliment to the Jewish community of Zamora comes
from the pen of the converso
poet Juan Alfonso de Baena who writes as early as the 1440s’ sarcastically
against a certain Gonsalo de Quadros whose true faith is not clear, that
although he lived in various countries “it is notorious that you live in Zamora
/ and others tell me that you believe in the Torah.”. And so, we learn that
Zamora was notorious for its Jewish community!
so, with the decline or complete disappearance (like in the case of Barcelona)
of past centers, Zamora becomes the magnet for students.
throughout the ages, Jewish students wandered from their hometowns to academies
far away seeking a certain academy mostly because of its specific character or,
of the rabbi who was at its head. This is true to this day.
Moreover, it was true also for medieval universities, and, indeed,
to for universities to this very day, that
graduate students seek to get accepted to a specific university because
an outstanding expert who teaches there.
A central intellectual or spiritual figure is the crucial factor in the
development of a center. (One can see it, for example, in Spain since
the Moslem period in 10th c. Cordoba (Moses ben Hanokh), 11th c. Granada (Samuel haNaggid), 12th c. Lucena (Isaac Alfassi)
what was it that Qanpanton had to offer those students? Qanpanton himself wrote
one very thin didactic tract called Darkei
ha-Talmud (The Ways of the Talmud).
The essence of it is that one should approach the study of the Talmud with
technical tools of Logic,
because literature of great
people individuals must be dealt with the utmost respect,
and the Talmud certainly qualifies as such. Practically, he is saying; there
must be an explanation for every single written word because redundancy is not
an option! In language there are no two words which have the exact identical
meaning, and therefore there are no real synonyms! In other words, one must put a finger,
so to speak, over each word and
check whether the sentence could have been written without it. If this is the
case, then one must find the reason why the extra word has been included .:
What was it that the author tried to warn us from, what possible pitfall
(misunderstanding, a potential wrong interpretation etc.) did he try to save us
details his method over some 20-30 pages,and extends it also to the analysis of
some of the great medieval talmudic commentators, namely, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (known in his abbreviation
the great French scholar from the 11th c., and Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides) of
thirteenth century Gerona.
is a very demanding and challenging method of learning and of hermeneutics. It
is also intellectually very rewarding. It is certainly directed to the
we are in position to assess Qanpanton’s restoration plan of Torah learning. In 1432 representatives of the Castilian Jewish communities convened and came up
Valladolid Ordinances, where one chapter is devoted to the reconstruction of Jewish Torah
education. Abraham Benvenist, the Rab de
la Corte was involved in formulating the document, and knowing his
financial abilities (He loaned money to the Crown), and testimonies about his
charitable nature, we can assume that he was involved personally in the
financial aspects of restoration. Qanpanton, complemented him by being involved
in the educational process. How does all this connect to his new methodology?
The answer lies in the centuries long Sefardic haunting issue, indeed struggle,
between Philosophy and Religion or Faith and Reason, symbolized best by Maimonides’
effort in his Guide for the Perplexed.
order to understand Qanpanton’s attitude, we should contrast it with that of
Asher ben Yehiel, (abbreviation:
ROSH), a german rabbi who arrived in Toledo in the beginning of the 14th c.. To
the charge that he does not
know arabic and philosophy, he answered that Torah and philosophy are
inherently contradictory and that there is no possibility for a compromise
between them. This represented
a head-on collision between Ashkenazi fundamentalistic religiosity and Sefardi
complex spirituality. This attitude could not appeal to young men who have been
exposed to, and enchanted by “Greek wisdom” of the Aristotelian tradition. This
is where Qanpanton came with a different
did not reject [non-Jewish] wisdom (after all he was raised by a father who
wrote books in mathematics and astronomy
), - but offered Jewish youth a
method by which the Talmud status is raised by showing that philosophical
thinking is a “maid-servant” (to use a Maimonides term), a pre-requisite for a
proper understanding of profound Jewish legal thinking and wisdom. This understanding of Qanpanton’s
strategy is expressed already by chroniclers in early 16th c..
we survey the spiritual portrait of the rabbis associated with this school,
we’ll discover that most of them were knowledgable of philosophy but with
positive tendency to Qabbalah. This is what we know also about Qanpanton
himself. And so, one reaches the conclusion that he bears also some
responsibility for the spiritual leanings of Sefardic leadership in the
following two generations. Not everyone
was happy, and one can find some criticism of the educational methods in the
academies prior to the Expulsion
,. Thus we read the better words of Joseph Ya’avez about the young students
who enter the yeshivot, “ of the great rabbis, sharpen their minds like razor
blades,” and then turn to the study of philosophy.
Yet, it seems that this Jewry emerged out
of its struggle for survival during the 15th c. as a strengthened community
which eventually followed its spiritual leaders in large numbers into Exile.
of the method
we survey learning and rabbinic writings in the wake of Qanpanton’s revolution,
we see very profound traces of his system.
We have a number of super-commentaries on Rashi’s famous commentary on the
Torah using the method advocated by Qanpanton.
After the Expulsion the occupation in methodology of Talmud study yields a
genre of short tracts, following the example of Darkei
Joseph Hayyun, the major rabbinic figure in Lisbon, wrote commentaries on the Bible based clearly of the
premise that there are no synonyms, even in biblical poetry such as Psalms.
(Qanpanton does not discuss the Torah but, of course, if one needs to interpret
every word of the Talmud and even
some of medieval commentators, this should certainly be the case with God’s own
given books.) This exegesis, I would stress, goes against the grain of medieval
Sephardic assumption (Abraham
Ibn Ezra, David
Qimhi etc.) that the Bible does repeat the same idea in different words and
there is no need to explain such cases.
Finally, the fact that the
15th c. is very poor in talmudic writings might be partially due to the example
set by Qanpanton who served as the role-model for his students. (Of his
students, only, Isaac Aboab, wrote extensively.)
the 17th c. there survived the following Ladino saying: “Ley
de Castilla; Hizun y Sephrud de Portugal.” [From
Castile shall the Law come forth and liturgical singing and caligraphy from
It was a nostalgic memory from pre-Expulsion Iberia, probably formulated in the
end of the 15th c. It is “Castile,”
which had been so rich with Torah learning, in general. But we now know that the major spiritual and
intellectual word which shaped the intellectual image of Spanish Jewry in the
second half of 15th c. sprang out of a source located in
Zamora, which became a significant milestone on the glorious historical route
of Sephardic cultural history.
* Keynote address at the I International Congress on the Jewish Sephardic Legacy of Zamora, Spain