The Journey of the Jew Who “Discovered” Germany in the 10th Century

The exciting journey of Abraham ben Yaacov. There are many who tend to present the Sephardic and Ashkenazi…

The exciting journey of Abraham ben Yaacov.

There are many who tend to present the Sephardic and Ashkenazi worlds as two worlds apart, and without any connection to each other. As if Jews of Spanish origin and Jews of German origin had lived in two bubbles and one culture had nothing to do with the other. Two worlds that lived parallel lives until they met in contemporary Israel. History teaches us just the opposite.

In the 10th century, most Jews lived in the Arab world. From Baghdad and Damascus to Córdoba in Andalusia, the Muslim world developed an important political, religious, and commercial network that favored a deep cultural exchange between the great cities of Baghdad, Alexandria, Qairuán, Fez and Córdoba. The most important Jewish communities of the diaspora were part of that network and like the Muslim world, the Jews of the time created links between the great centers of knowledge of their time.

The founding of the Cordovan caliphate in the year 929 turned the capital of Al-Andalus into a center of power that dominated most of the Iberian Peninsula and part of North Africa. Merchants, musicians, philosophers, poets from all over the Muslim world arrived in Córdoba, as well as great rabbis from the East who founded important Talmudic schools. Peace, economic prosperity, military might, and relative tolerance created the conditions for a unique cultural splendor in Western history.

Córdoba became the most populated city in Europe with a population of around half a million inhabitants. At that time cities such as London or Paris had a census of between 15,000 and 20,000 souls. A cultured and cosmopolitan city, a 10th century New York.

This cultural splendor turned Sepharad into a center that radiated spirituality and knowledge to the entire Jewish world. A reference not only for the great communities of the Mediterranean and the East but also for the Jewish communities of Europe. The Jewish community in Spain created links with all the diaspora communities, including the German communities.

A good example of this link with Germany is Rabbi Yaakob ben Asher, a rabbi born in Cologne in the 14th century who decides to settle in the city of Toledo. Rabbi Yaacob ben Asher was a bridge between Germany and Spain, between the Sephardic world and the Ashkenazi world.

One of the most relevant figures in the study of halacha (Jewish law), author of the Arba Turim, a compendium of rabbinic legislation that will be the basis for the later Shulhan Aruh, a halachic code of reference that continues to govern religious life today. in an important part of the Jewish world.

In establishing this network between Sefarad and Ashkenaz, between Andalusia, Spain and Germany, Abraham ben Yaacob played a fundamental role. Ibrāhīm ibn Yaʿqūb in Arabic, was a Jewish merchant from the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba, a native of Tortosa, who traveled through Central and Eastern Europe during the second half of the 10th century.

In the years 960-970 he traveled, by order of the Caliph of Córdoba, to trade with slaves and create for the caliphate a commercial network with the main European cities of the time, as well as diplomatic relations with Otto the Great, emperor of the Holy Empire. Romano Germanicus.

A long 10-year journey with a hidden mission. The caliph intended to use the commercial and diplomatic skills of Abraham ben Yaacov for another less confessional objective: to gather relevant information on the main political and economic powers of the West. This 10th century Andalusian Jewish traveler and merchant was in turn a spy in the service of the caliphate.

This journey took him to Ireland via Bordeaux and Noirmoutier. He then he crossed the empire from north to south, passing through Utrecht, Mainz and Fulda, visiting the lands of the kingdom of the Czechs and, on the banks of the Vistula, the commercial city of Krakow. He finally left Europe for Sicily.

The report he wrote on his return from his trip is the first written document on the cities of Prague and Krakow, as well as Vineta, as well as recounting in detail the life and customs of the Slavic peoples.

Abraham ben Yaacov’s trip connected Córdoba with Germany, favored mutual knowledge of both empires, the economic and cultural exchange between Al-Andalus and Central Europe, and created a network that connected the communities of the Iberian Peninsula with those of the Sacro Germanic Roman Empire.

The Sephardic and Ashkenazi worlds have not been impervious to each other, and although there are many traditions that differentiate both cultures, we must reclaim everything that unites them. A union in diversity, the result of a cultural dialogue whose origin is found in the exciting journey of an Andalusian Jew to the heart of Germany.

After centuries of inquisition, Spain forgot its Jewish past. However, more and more Spaniards discover than an important part of Spain’s identity roots are Jewish and that we cannot understand today’s Spain without its Jewish history. In the same way, the Jewish world today is not aware that an important part of Jewish culture and spirituality was forged in the Iberian Peninsula and that these were possible thanks to the exchange and cultural dialogue between East and West, between Sefarad and Ashkenaz. Spain and the Jewish world must reconnect with Sepharad.

For years I have been combining my rabbinate with the management of the Alma-Exploring the Soul of Andalusia, an initiative dedicated to cultural tourism in Andalusia. To my work in Alma must be added the one that I carry out as director Makom Sefarad, a cultural project that wants to make this legacy known, promote the encounter between Jews of different origins, and make Córdoba a new meeting place for interreligious dialogue.

For a year he has also directed La Sinagoga Abierta (The Open Synagogue) a platform dedicated to promoting the study and experience of Jewish spirituality through face-to-face and remote activities. From these initiatives we support Jewish life in southern Spain, we welcome Jewish and non-Jewish visitors from all over the world, we organize cultural trips, and guided visits to Andalusian Jewish quarters.

In recent years we have expanded our activities with the organization of Jewish weddings and Bar-Bat Mitzvas in Spain. More and more couples and families want to come to Spain to celebrate their love and commitment to the Torah.

All this makes Spain, after five centuries, once again a place for meeting and celebrating the diversity of Judaism. A beautiful country that little by little recovers its lost memory, and that wants to once again be a meeting point for Jews and non-Jews from around the world to dialogue and build a better world together.

At Alma-Exploring the Soul of Andalusia we see tourism as an instrument to learn about other cultures and facilitate dialogue in a plural society that wishes to live in peace.



Rabbi Haim Houses

Director of Alma


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