By Dr. Abraham David. Edited by Dr. Gil Dekel.
The closing period of the Middle Ages, from the Spanish Expulsion until the late sixteenth century, saw the appearance of Jewish historiographical compositions of varied length and quality. The majority were written by Iberian exiles or their descendants. One such author is Gedalya Ibn Yahya (1526-1587).
Gedalya, author of Salselet ha-kabbala שלשלת הקבלה, is considered by some scholars as merely simplistic eclectic author, relying on commonplace material from a few well-known chronicles. Yet, Gedalya was not simply an undiscriminating copyist; rather, he was attempting to supplement and enrich the bare facts, providing information based on his understanding of the situation and upon personal observation.
The blossoming of Jewish historiography in the sixteenth century was directly connected to the tragic events affecting Iberian Jewry in the late fifteenth century. Sixteenth century Jewish historiography was characterized by the effects of crises on the one hand, and by intellectual openness on the other. Jewish historiography naturally aspired to find a fitting explanation for the question of Jewish existence in the Diaspora in light of the Jewish people’s distress throughout the ages, an enigma intensified by the terrible catastrophe which struck Iberian Jewry at the turn of the fifteenth century.
Italy served as an historical observation point, since this country saw both the arrival and absorption of Jewish exiles from Spain and Portugal, as well as being the main conduit for Renaissance culture.
Gedalya was the scion of a distinguished Portuguese Jewish family, many of whose sons had served in the courts of the kings and rulers of Spain and Portugal for generations. Gedalya’s grandfather, David ben Joseph Ibn Yahya (1465-1542, listed here under number 87), arrived in Italy with his family circa 1497 at a time of forced mass conversions of Jews in Portugal.
Born at Imola in northern Italy in 1526, Gedalya spent his childhood there; however, for the remainder of his life he wandered about the various towns of northern Italy. From his writings and erudition, it appears that he studied with important Italian Jewish sages. Gedalya, a banker by profession, lost considerable capital when forced to leave the Papal States close to the 1569 expulsion decree. He spent his final years in the city of Alessandria in the Piedmont region, where he served in the rabbinate until his death in 1587.
Of Gedalya’s varied literary work, pertaining mainly to the fields of homiletics, morality, and historiography, only a very small portion is still extant. His writings clearly reflect his spiritual personality, and are outstanding for their integration of authentic Jewish tradition with Italo-Jewish humanism. Although Gedalya composed more than twenty works, only four have survived in printed and/or manuscript form. One known extant work is inaccessible.
The writing of the historiographical treatise Shalshelet ha-kabbala (or ספר יחייא as Gedalya referred to it) lasted several decades. Begun in 1549, it was concluded close to Gedalya’s death in 1587.
This work is extant in two versions: a printed edition, of which there are more than fifteen known editions, and a manuscript version. Gedalya passed away shortly before the publication of the first print edition (published in Venice, 1587). A manuscript of Salselet ha-kabbala with the author’s glosses between the rows and in the margins is in the Russian State Library in Moscow (Ginzburg collection no. 652). Probably copied in the late 1560s, this manuscript version differs substantially from the printed edition.
In his preface (P. 4v) to the printed edition of Salselet ha-kabbala, Gedalya stated his intentions as follows:
I chose to divide this work into three parts: the first part being the chain of Jewish tradition from Adam until the present; the second being to inform you of some of the principles concerning celestial bodies and the heavenly world, the formation of the embryo and its development, and about magic – all this with great brevity … and about coins and measurements in the Mishnah; the third being the chain of Gentile sages, and the persecutions of Israel, and the noteworthy innovations in each generation.
Gedalya devoted the second section of the third part of Salselet ha-kabbala to a special discussion, showing through brief, continual description, the persecution and edicts that were a way of life for diaspora Jewish communities in medieval Europe. In this context, Gedalya attempts to provide an answer to the question of Jewish existence in the Diaspora. This problem engaged the attention of other first and second generation historians following the destruction of the Jewish community in the Iberian peninsula. Some of these historians were Abraham Zacuto, Solomon Ibn Verga, Samuel Usque, and Joseph ha-Kohen, who often added tales of persecution to their chronicles in order to express their intense anger, or used expressions of anguish to show their hatred for Christianity, in whose name such wanton acts were committed.
Salselet ha-kabbala is an important source of information concerning the decisive events affecting the Jewish communities of Spain and Portugal in the last decade of the fifteenth century, especially the forcible mass conversions and the final destruction. For his information regarding the disturbances, Gedalya relied to some extent on other sources, of which only a small portion have been identified. Concerning several events occurring in Spain and Portugal, Gedalya preserved family traditions transmitted by relatives who had previously held high positions at the royal court.
Gedalya describes the founding of the Spanish Royal Inquisition, established in 1481 at Seville. Any conversos suspected of observing Jewish customs or maintaining ties with their fore-fathers’ faith were charged and investigated by the Inquisition, whose jurisdiction was immediately extended over all of Spain. Gedalya adds that during this period, one third of the Spanish Jewish population was baptized to Christianity .
Gedalya recounts that following the expulsion edict, issued on 31 March 1492, the authorities made determined efforts to avoid deporting those Jewish notables who held high positions in the monarchic administration and economy, by applying extreme pressure upon them to convert to Christianity. By these acts the rulers hoped to prevent significant economic damage to the Spanish crown:
Even though they [the Spanish authorities] exiled the Jews, they closed their borders [to prevent their emigration] so that the kingdom would not remain empty. Because many of the Jews were rich and clever, they were forced to convert. Many met their death as martyrs.
We know from other sources that some Jews succumbed to this pressure, and converted to Christianity. Others refused to undergo baptism, for example, the prominent Jewish philosopher, Don Isaac Abrabanel, who was the kingdom’s treasurer on the eve of the Expulsion. He threw his lot in with the exiles, eventually finding his way to Naples, Italy.
Gedalya proceeds one step further, piecing together stories from written Jewish sources and from oral traditions on the hardships suffered by the Spanish exiles in their search for a haven in Europe, North Africa, and the Orient. Many did not survive these hardships, and perished in the course of their wanderings by land and sea.
Gedalya describes how the king of Portugal, John II, allowed the Spanish exiles to enter his country upon payment of a special head tax. However, Gedalya reports that shortly after the exiles’ arrival in Portugal, this monarch’s attitude underwent a radical change. Since not all the Spanish exiles could pay the tax, he began to persecute them. Gedalya also hints at the king’s most extreme deed – the kidnapping and deportation of young Jewish children to Sao Thome, a desolate island in western Africa.
Emanuel I reigned in Portugal between 1495-1521. Initially quite tolerant of the Jews, even cancelling his predecessor’s brutal edicts. Yet, at the end of 1496, having contracted a marriage with the daughter of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Emanuel’s attitude went a radical change. One of the nuptial conditions was the total expulsion of the Portuguese Jews. On 24 December 1496, the king issued an edict requiring the Jews to convert to Christianity, or leave Portugal within eleven months. Upon realizing that most Jews preferred to leave the country and that only a minority would accept Christianity, Emanuel decided to close the borders to prevent their mass flight. Moreover, he assembled all the Portuguese Jews in the royal court in Lisbon, where he forcibly baptized them.
A turning point in the history of the converso community in Portugal was the establishment of the Royal Inquisition in 1531. Like its Spanish counterpart established fifty years earlier, its function was to investigate New Christians suspected of observing Jewish customs. Consequently, many conversos fled Portugal to Europe and the Orient, a fact clearly reflected in Jewish and Portuguese sources. Gedalya, who very briefly records this event  appends some important details to his account. He notes that from the inception of the Portuguese persecutions until 1540, more than twenty thousand conversos left Portugal and returned to their original faith, mainly in Muslim countries, in the Ottoman empire.
We have no evidence confirming or contradicting Gedalya’s numerical estimate. But, indeed, we do know that many Portuguese conversos did find their way to the Orient. Gedalya also indicates the existence of an important contemporary converso centre in Ferrara (northern Italy), where conversos could openly return to their forefathers’ faith, even though the town was under Christian hegemony.
We have some information about the Mendes-Nasi family, Dona Gracia and her son-in-law, Don Joseph Nasi, who transferred their financial activities from Antwerp to Venice and afterwards to Ferrara, where they openly returned to Judaism. We also have information about the Usque family who actively assisted the conversos and ex-conversos arriving in Ferrara. Two of its outstanding members were the ex-converso Samuel Usque, the well-known historian mentioned earlier, and his brother Abraham Usque, who founded a press in Ferrara in order to publish Jewish literary material for the Portuguese ex-conversos. Both families played a prominent role in helping conversos return to Judaism.
In conclusion, it seems that Gedalya cannot be viewed merely as a simplistic eclectic. Gedalya used material gathered from existing chronicles, attempting to supplement them and to enrich the bare facts with new information. Gedalya’s aim was to provide information based upon his understanding of the situation and upon personal observation. It is these aspects that establish his place in sixteenth century Jewish historiography.
21 May 2021.
Text © Dr. Abraham David, and Dr. Gil Dekel. Images: © Gil Dekel.
This article was edited by Gil Dekel from the article “The Spanish Expulsion and the Portuguese Persecution Through the Eyes of the Historian R. Gedalya ibn Yahya”, by Abraham David, Sefarad, Vol 56, Fasc. 1. (1996). Edited and published here by permission of Abraham David.
- 115v. This information has been confirmed in a paper by Prof. H. Beinart, “The Records of the Inquisition – A Source of Jewish and Converso History”, Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 2 (1967) 211-227.
- Gedalya relied on Usque, chap. 30; G. I. Gelbart, A Consolation, pp. 370-374.