#53 Jewish History – Sephardic Jews in the Middle Ages in Egypt & Spain

#53 Jewish History – Sephardic Jews in the Middle Ages in Egypt & Spain

In this lesson you will learn about the Jewish community in Southern Europe during the Middle Ages, you will meet Moses Maimonides, and you will learn about the Conversos, the secret Jews of Spain. 1000 years ago in Spain was considered the Golden Age for Jewish literature, poetry, philosophy, science, medicine, Jewish music, dance and the visual arts. This was a great era for the Jewish community and you’ll now learn why.

In the 21st Century today, there are primarily two major classifications of Jewish lineage which dates back to the Middle Ages: Ashkenaz and Sepharad. Ashkenazi Jews hail from Central and Eastern Europe and Sephardic Jews come from Spain and the Iberian Peninsula.


The name Sephardi means “Spanish” or “Hispanic”, derived from Sepharad (Hebrew: סְפָרַד,) and describe Jews and the Jewish community that traces it’s heritage to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). 1000 years ago, the Jews of Spain were one of the largest and most thriving communities in the history of Jewish life – second only to modern day Jewish life. In cities like Cordoba, Toledo, and Lucena, Jewish scholars deepened Jewish life and practice.

Judah HaLevi was a poet and a physician. He wrote 100’s of poems which became the basis for our prayerbook. Today, there are several prayers (like the Amidah) which can be traced back to his influence. He also wrote a famous book called, The Kuzari, which he wrote originally in Arabic to describe the tenants of Judaism to the King of Kazar.



Maimonides was born in Córdoba during  the end of the golden age of Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula. At an early age, he developed an interest in sciences and philosophy. He read those Greek philosophers accessible in Arabic translations, and was deeply immersed in the sciences and learning of Islamic culture.[17]

Berber dynasty, the Almohads, conquered Córdoba in 1148, and abolished the dhimma status (i.e., state protection of life and wealth).  Many Jews were forced to convert, but due to suspicion by the authorities of fake conversions, the new converts had to wear identifying clothing that set them apart and made them subject to public scrutiny. Maimonides’s family, along with most other Jews, chose exile. Some say, though, that it is likely that Maimonides feigned a conversion to Islam before escaping. For ten years, Maimonides moved about in southern Spain, eventually settling in Fes in Morocco and then moved to Cairo in Egypt.

In 1171, Maimonides was appointed the leader of the Egyptian Jewish community. Maimonides became physician and gaining widespread recognition, he was appointed court physician to the Grand Vizier Al Qadi al Fadil, then to Sultan Saladin, after whose death he remained a physician to the royal family. He was the author of two highly respected books, Guide to the Perplexed and The Mishneh Torah.

Maimonides died on December 12, 1204. Even today, many doctors take the Maimonidean Oath:

“The eternal providence has appointed me to watch over the life and health of Thy creatures. May the love for my art actuate me at all time; may neither avarice nor miserliness, nor thirst for glory or for a great reputation engage my mind; for the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to Thy children. May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain. Grant me the strength, time and opportunity always to correct what I have acquired, always to extend its domain; for knowledge is immense and the spirit of man can extend indefinitely to enrich itself daily with new requirements. Today he can discover his errors of yesterday and tomorrow he can obtain a new light on what he thinks himself sure of today. Oh, God, Thou has appointed me to watch over the life and death of Thy creatures; here am I ready for my vocation and now I turn unto my calling.”


Immediately following the “Golden Age” of Jews in Iberian Peninsula, things quickly became very hard to live safely as a Jew. New and powerful groups came into power – first the Berbers, next the Crusaders, and in 1469, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon married. She yearned to make Spain an all-Christian nation and force people to convert to Christianity, leave Spain, or lose their lives. Many Jews “faked” their conversations and quietly kept Jewish traditions alive – but in secret. These were called the Coversos – or the Crypto Jews. On August 2, 1492, the final expulsion from Spain of all Jews took place and the Jews were once again forced to live in Exile. However . .

On August 3, 1942, one day after the expulsion, Christopher Columbus set sail across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a sea route to India. Jews who knew the art of map making contributed to his journey and it is said that some of his crew members were Conversos. The expulsion from Spain marked the end of a great era. However, Columbus’ journey was the start of a new birth and centuries later, a new nation that he “discovered” would become the land of freedom for millions of Jews.

# 6 Review and Response

1. What is the name of the Jews who trace their heritage to Spain? And those Jews of Central and Eastern Europe?
2. What is the name of the great Jewish Poet who wrote part of the Jewish prayerbook?
3. Who was Moses Maimonides and what job did he have in Egypt?
4. What happened on August 2, 1942
5. What contribution did Jews make to the journey of Christopher Columbus?
6. Some of this lesson taught you about times in the Middle Ages when Jews were forced to convert to another religion or flee their country. What would you do?

Need some help? We’re here for you. At any time, if you have any questions, please contact one of our teachers so we can help you. Also, at the end of the session, remember to review your responses in your Tamid Workbook so you can get credit for this lesson. Behatzlacha (Hebrew for good luck)! You can reach Sarah at (646)360-0689 or connect@tamidnyc.org