martes, 19 de febrero de 2019

Zamora - the Foremost Center of Jewish Learning in Fifteenth Century Spain*

Dr. Avraham Gross
Ben Gurion University
Spanish translation available here

It 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 dream.
12th century Menorah in a block of stone at San Idefonso Church, Zamora

Such 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 propose below.

I must admit that phrasing the topic of our presentation which puts Zamora unequivocally at the summit of Jewish intellectual activity in fifteenth century 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 our topic.

Come 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).
Learning 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.

And 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.

The 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.”

After the above-mentioned string of catastrophes, we read the following internal criticism of Jewish Torah learning in Spain:
"And 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 rabbis".  
He goes on and compares this situation with the good living condition on the Christian clergy. This is written around 1416.
Now 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.

Let 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] many yeshivot 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.

It 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

This 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.

There 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.

All 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

The emphasis on the number of students that swelled under his leadership is especially conspicuous.

Representation of a 14th Spanish Jew, carbon copy by Manuel Castellanos, 19th century 

A 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:

Direct 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 haMor [Bundle 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.

Some leading second generation rabbis: Abraham Zacuto, Jacob Ibn Habib, Jacob Berav, Moses Alashqar.
A Saba's family Ketubah from 1447, now at Israel National Library

The 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.

All 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.

That 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!

And so, with the decline or complete disappearance (like in the case of Barcelona) of past centers, Zamora becomes the magnet for students.

Now, throughout the ages, Jewish students wandered from their hometowns to academies far away seeking a certain academy mostly because of its specific character or, specifically, because 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 of 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)

Now 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 from.

Qanpanton 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 as Rashi), the great French scholar from the 11th c., and Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides) of thirteenth century Gerona.

This is a very demanding and challenging method of learning and of hermeneutics. It is also intellectually very rewarding. It is certainly directed to the intellectual elite.

Now 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 with the 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.

In 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 attitude. He 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..


If 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.

Influence of the method

When we survey learning and rabbinic writings in the wake of Qanpanton’s revolution, we see very profound traces of his system.


1. We have a number of super-commentaries on Rashi’s famous commentary on the Torah using the method advocated by Qanpanton.

2. After the Expulsion the occupation in methodology of Talmud study yields a genre of short tracts, following the example of Darkei haTalmud.

3. 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.) 

In 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 Portugal.] 

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