Medieval Jewish History 101

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Under Christianity, Jews were organized as independent self-governing units known as kehillot (communities). Each kehillah was geographically based and supported its own synagogue, courts, and educational system.  

Two great cultural sub-communities of Jews developed. Ashkenazim trace their family roots to the German lands.  Sephardim trace their ancestry to the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Culinary and religious customs differed between them, but both groups looked to Jewish law to shape their religious lives.

Intergroup Relations

medieval history quizWith the exception of the Golden Age in medieval Spain, when Muslims and Jews cohabitated peacefully and productively, the Middle Ages was a time of tense relations between faiths. The crusades to “liberate” the Holy Land from Islam, which commenced in 1095 and lasted for three hundred years, saw marauding crusaders devastate Jewish communities in Europe as they made their way to Palestine.

Intellectual History

Medieval Jewish thought was affected by living as a minority under the rule of other religions. The medieval scholar Joseph Caro authored the Shulkhan Aruch, the most definitive and popular compilation of rabbinic law as a means to guide a confused nation in exile regarding the practices of daily religious life. The work of Moses Maimonides, the most eminent Jewish philosopher of the period, also aimed to synthesize religious law and to demonstrate the compatibility between secular and religious learning. 

Social History

The medieval Jewish household was urban, literate and consisted of one nuclear family. Under Islam, polygamy was not uncommon among Jewish families. Most medieval Jews were engaged in commerce, as merchants or moneylenders; women were also involved in these trades.

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