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Attitudes of the Rabbis Toward the Study of Jewish History

Part III

The 16th century saw an unprecedented explosion of Jewish historical writing. According to Yerushalmi, “Within the span of 100 years no less than 10 major historical works were produced by Jews.”

This would seem to contradict Yerushalmi’s previous contention that the rabbis had no more need for Jewish history as “they had all the history they would need.”

Yerushalmi claims that the stimulus to the rise of this literature was the traumatic expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.

Perhaps there is a connection between this and what is commonly referred to as “life review”— something people experience when faced with danger or having survived a traumatic experience.

Yerushalmi shows that this new interest in historiography was not long-lasting. It wouldn’t be seen again until the German Wissenschaft movement of the 19th century.

The learned Sephardi Tam Ibn Yahya published a historical work from the Middle Ages called Yossifon (which was based on the works of Josephus, but the Jews identified this as the product of Flavius Josephus, which of course it was not). Ibn Yahya, who had survived the expulsions, succinctly summed up the mood of the times: The Jews “wanted to understand the meaning of these upheavals…why the enormous wrath?”

The answers were of course sought in a variety of ways, including turning to the historical past.

It is evident from the writings of the Genoa-based 16th-century scholar Joseph Hakohen (who styled himself “the second Josephus”) that the Jewish people had not seen homegrown historians for millennia and this was something regrettable.

Although this was a noble effort it did not succeed in creating longstanding change. Yerushalmi: “Seen in retrospect, we must conclude that it was an attempt that failed.”

“Shebhet Yehuda” by the Sephardi Solomon Ibn Verga became a classic work, popular among Ashkenazim as well as Sephardim. Ibn Verga’s work was a rich litany of Jewish persecutions and suffering throughout the ages. Interestingly, this work was so popular that it was translated into Yiddish and was widely read by Jews in Eastern Europe on the ninth of Av. Rabbi Jacob Emden forbid the reading of this work on the Shabbat, but only because “of the things that sadden and pain the soul of the reader.” However, on regular days, “Every Israelite is obligated to become thoroughly versed in this fine book in order to remember Gods graces with us in all generations,” writes Emden.

To be continued…

By Joel S. Davidi Weisberger


Joel S. Davidi Weisberger is the founder of the Jewish History Channel and an independent researcher. His forthcoming books deal with the history and historiography of the Medieval Karaite movement and the story of the Sephardic Diaspora in Central and Eastern Europe. He resides in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, with his wife Michal and would love to hear from you at [email protected].

 

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