The Toleration of Jewish Life in Christian Territory

This position of Jews in the medieval period stood in contrast to their positions under the Visigoth codes in Spain which until the early 8th century had repeatedly stipulated forced conversions and expulsions of Jews residing in their territory. The new policy guaranteed Jews the right to live, to use the Hebrew language, to build synagogues, rabbinical academies, to own property, and to organize themselves into communities known as aljamas in which they were able to exercise extensive judicial control.[1]

Such privileges had their cost, however. As previously mentioned, Jews were regarded as property of the monarchs. They paid the monarchs handsomely through taxes and loans for the privileges they had received. Nevertheless, Jews in the Christian kingdoms of Castile-Leon, Navarre, Aragon, Valencia, Catalonia, and Portugal found an environment which tolerated their existence.  At times, the well being of the Jewish community was guaranteed unequivocally. The Fuero Real (royal statute) of King Alfonso IX who reigned from 1171 to 1230 as king of León and Galicia clearly stipulated the religious guarantees granted to Jewish communities in his domain.

Alfonso IX, King of Leon

“We do not prevent Jews observing their Sabbaths, and the holidays enjoined by their religion. They may practice whatever the holy church and the kings have permitted; and no persons shall oppose or obstruct them. No one shall compel them to appear before a tribunal, nor condemn them, nor seize nor arrest their persons on those days that they may not do anything contrary to their religion. Neither may they summon any other person to justice on those days.”[2]

The tolerance that was extended during the reign of King Alfonso IX was reinforced in during the reign of Alfonso X. In the city of Salamanca, Jews were granted the same rights as Christians as its charter reveals:

“Jews have the same rights as Christians, and any person that kills or wounds them is to suffer for such crime, the same as if it were committed on a Christian, or on an inhabitant of Salamanca. Jews and their heirs are to be treated the same as if they were inhabitants of Salamanca; and their sentences are to be signed by two Jews and a Christian, or two Christians and a Jew.”[3]

[1] Jews in the Iberian Peninsula were affected by the monetary situation they faced. Jewish communities were designated as separate fiscal entities and accordingly paid taxes directly to the Crown.  The Crown also used the Jewish community as a source of loans and subsidies. Taxes were levied on the Jewish community separately than they were on the Christian inhabitants. Their taxes were at considerably higher rates per person though they did receive at least theoretically special protection from the Crown. Royal fiscal obligations through the fourteenth century would leave a large collective debt on the Jewish community that would be transferred to Conversos after the riots of the late 15th century. Natalie Oeltjen, “Crisis and Regeneration: The Conversos of Majorca, 1391 – 1416.” (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 2012), 40-45. The word aljama is an Arabic word found in official documents in Spain and Portugal referring to the self governing communities consisting of Jews and Muslims living under Christian hegemony.

[2] E.H. Lindo, The Jews of Spain and Portugal (London: Longman, Brown, Green, & Longmans, 1848), 77.

[3] Ibid., 90.

Posted by Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez, the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education, and author of What is Kosher?

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