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Jewish history to the middle ages

By Dr. Jessica Hammerman and Dr. Shaina Hammerman
For every period of Jewish history, interactions with non-Jews have been essential to forming Jewish culture and identity. The early Israelites made animal sacrifices at the Holy Temple, and they were distinct from other Levantine peoples, each of whom worshiped their local gods.
Symbolic representation of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem, Beth Shean synagogue floor mosaic, 5th–7th century C.E., stone, 276 x 435 cm (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)
Symbolic representation of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem, Beth Shean synagogue floor mosaic, 5th–7th century C.E., stone, 276 x 435 cm (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

The Diaspora

Although there is no archaeological evidence for it, the Hebrew Bible describes a Temple in Jerusalem erected by
, probably sometime during the tenth century B.C.E. The Bible also describes the Temple’s destruction at the hand of the Babylonians 500 years later. Since the fall of the first Temple, Jews scattered throughout the
and Mesopotamia, creating competing cultures. Rabbinical scholars realized then that it would be necessary to write down oral interpretations—and they set the blueprint for future generations who would debate and reinterpret Jewish laws. The best-known rabbinical scholar was
.  Hillel developed methods for interpreting the Hebrew Bible that were flexible.  Since its inception, Judaism has been subject to community ritual interpretation and context.
A new Temple was constructed a century after the first was destroyed when some Jews returned to the Land of Israel. In 70 C.E., at the Roman siege of Jerusalem, Jews dispersed throughout northern Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. This widespread dispersion of Jews outside of the Land of Israel is called the Diaspora.
Panel from a Torah Shrine from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, 11th century, wood (walnut) with traces of paint and gilt, 87.3 x 36.7 cm (The Walters Art Museum). The patterns of vine scrolls and lozenges shows the influence of Islamic art.
Panel from a Torah Shrine from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, 11th century, wood (walnut) with traces of paint and gilt, 87.3 x 36.7 cm (The Walters Art Museum). The patterns of vine scrolls and lozenges shows the influence of Islamic art.

The Middle Ages

In the Diaspora, Jewish groups lived in both Muslim- and Christian-dominated areas. Local communities had distinct traditions, but the differences between those who came from Muslim areas and those who came from Christian areas was more pronounced. Jews who can trace their ancestry back to Central and Eastern European areas are now known as Ashkenazim, and those who come from the Islamic world are now known as Sephardim. Sephardic Jews technically trace their origins back to the Iberian Peninsula, but Jews from the historically Muslim lands of the Middle East and North Africa (referred to as Mizrahi and Maghrebi, respectively), have been conflated with contemporary Sephardim since they share many of the same customs. These labels did not become widely used until the 1960s, when Jews from Islamic lands emigrated into Europe, the United States, and Israel. On a global scale, these distinctions weren’t relevant until after World War II.
In both Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities, Jews in the Middle Ages had to pay taxes in exchange for communal autonomy. Just as they came to speak the vernacular languages of the non-Jews among whom they lived, they also adopted the architectural, musical, culinary, and literary styles of their neighbors.
Synagogues in Christian-dominated lands are sometimes drab on the exterior but extremely ornate on the inside. Synagogues in Muslim lands have domes  and arches that mimic Islamic architecture, such as the Santa María la Blanca in Toledo, Spain, or the Algiers Grande Synagogue in Algeria.
Ibn Shoshan Synagogue (now Santa María la Blanca), first built 1180, Toledo, Spain (photo: José Luis Filpo Cabana, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ibn Shoshan Synagogue (now Santa María la Blanca), first built 1180, Toledo, Spain (photo: José Luis Filpo Cabana, CC BY-SA 3.0)
In Europe, persecution of Jews began after the Roman Emperor
converted to Christianity. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, crusading mobs massacred Jews throughout Europe. Crusaders blamed Jews for crucifying Jesus, an accusation that was extended in order to claim that Jews were committing the ritual murder of Christian children, known as the blood libel.
Jews who lived in Europe were easy, early targets for Crusaders since the Muslims, from whom they hoped to wrest the Holy Lands, were far from home. Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Jews in Spain were subject to violent forms of anti-Judaism. The
forced conversions and expulsions of the many Jewish residents of the Iberian Peninsula.
Folio from the Sana'a Pentateuch, 1469, illuminated manuscript, Sana'a, Yemen (British Library, MS 2348, fol. 38 verso)
Folio from the Sana'a Pentateuch, 1469, illuminated manuscript, Sana'a, Yemen (British Library, MS 2348, fol. 38 verso)
Life for Jews in Islamic lands was comparatively tranquil. In areas dominated by Muslims, Jews in the Middle Ages were tolerated as a “dhimmi”—a people of the book. Unlike in the Christian world, Jewish people were not the only non-Muslim inhabitants (there were also Christians, ZoroastriansHindus, Buddhists, etc.). Jews were integrated into the economy, and they were allowed to practice their religion freely. Jews conducted business with non-Jews in the Middle Ages and the similarities in art, music, and food traditions speak to Jewish and non-Jewish interaction. But their communal lives remained mostly separate—Jewish dietary laws, or kashrut, meant that Jews had their own butchers, bakers, and even wine producers. The weekly Sabbath meant that Jewish merchants and peasants would refrain from work, while Christian or Muslim commerce might continue. And Jewish law forbid marriage outside of the religion, further solidifying boundaries between Jews and their neighbors—boundaries that in some later instances became walled ghettos within which Jews were forced to live.

Additional resources
Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
Elisheva Carlebach, Divided Souls, 1500–1750 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).
Robert Chazan, The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom: 1000–1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
Mark R. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

Essay by Dr. Jessica Hammerman and Dr. Shaina Hammerman

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  • blobby green style avatar for user yossi beckerman
    In the second paragraph, it notes that the first temple was destroyed approx. 500 years later, what I heard from my childhood was that the first temple lasted an accurate 410 years later, followed by a 'brief' Babylonian exile of 70 years, and King Darius ii gave permission to rebuild the second temple which hereby lasted 420 years
    (11 votes)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user amateur
    "Jews that lived in Europe were easy, early targets for Crusaders since the Muslims,from whom they hoped to wrest the Holy Lands, were far from home.." Double period at the end of the sentence, and no space after the comma following Muslims.

    "And Jewish law forbid marriage outside of the religion, further solidifying boundaries between Jews and their neighbors—boundaries that in some later instances became walled ghettos within which Jews were forced to live." Should read: "Jewish law forbade etc"
    (6 votes)
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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user LizzieJew
    "Although there is no archaeological evidence for it, the Hebrew Bible describes a Temple in Jerusalem erected by King Solomon, probably sometime during the tenth century B.C.E."

    Whoa whoa whoa, wait. The Temple built by King Solomon during his reign was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar, that's true, but the second Temple was built on the original site, so it stands to reason that some of the original groundwork or SOMETHING was left, as it had only been a hundred years after the destruction of the first, thus making it archaeological evidence.
    (5 votes)
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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user RebekahLee
    I am a bit perplexed on this subject; Is this the same as the American Christians today? It makes references to the Bible and books of the Bible, that is indeed true but other things don't correspond from my knowledge.
    (3 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user AzulC
    Why is it saying that there is no archaeological evidence there being no temple built by King Solomon when there is? Many cultures speak about the temple, many cultures speak about King Solomon and what he did, 3 religions speak of it, in Arabic it is known as Beit al-Maqdis, and that the second temple was built during the era of Cyrus the great and finished during the time of Darius the Great. The Qur'an also straight up says that the Dome of the Rock is built directly on top of Solomons Temple. The person that built the Dome of the Rock is Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattāb.

    With all of this why say it never existed?

    Philip E. Goble, ed. (February 2003). The Orthodox Jewish Bible: Tanakh and Orthodox Jewish Brit Chadasha. AFI International Publishers. p. 751. ISBN 978-0-939341-04-7.

    Simha Assaf, Meqorot u-Meḥqarim be-Toldot Yisrael, Jerusalem 1946, pp. 20–21 (Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic)

    The History of al-Tabari, vol. XII, Albany: State University of New York Press 2007, pp. 194–195
    (3 votes)
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user lanitajones
    Who came up with all of these different religions centuries ago?
    and Why does people in general belive in so many Gods?
    (2 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Jay
      I'm not entirely sure how specific or vague this question is, I don't believe any one person developed the multitude of religions you are probably somewhat familiar with today.

      I don't have a way to quantify this just yet historically, but I am of the opinion religion has simply evolved in different cultures under different terms and names mostly, but in many ways they are remarkably similar.
      I'll provide one example here and hope its enough to spark further independent research :

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orphism_%28religion%29
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionysus#Parallels_with_Christianity

      The cult of Orpheus (Orphism) was in ancient greece before the time of christ. You might notice the shadowing story of Dionysus (who is a diety that does things like turn water into wine) involves being consumed by titans, and that men descended from titans are only saved because they had a piece of his divinity in him. ((Catholics and christians today practice consuming the body and blood in rituals))
      (6 votes)
  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user yeyeroso
    To summarise so far: so first there was the Hebrew Bible, which is also known as the Old Testament (comprising the Torah, Prophets, and Writings). Then came the Talmud as the Romans destroyed the Jewish temple and forced Judaism to adapt. Then the Jews fled in the Diaspora, split between Europe and West Asia.

    Jews in the Islamic world were relatively better off than those in Europe, who were easy scapegoats and targets once Constantine converted.

    Am I correct?
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf blue style avatar for user BuckeyeBoy
    Jews in Spain were subject to violent forms of anti-Judaism. The Spanish Inquisition forced conversions and expulsions of the many Jewish residents of
    the Iberian Peninsula. Now history repeats itself after the recent vandalism attacksw
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    "A new Temple was constructed a century after the first was destroyed when some Jews returned to the Land of Israel. In 70 C.E., at the Roman siege of Jerusalem, Jews dispersed throughout northern Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. This widespread dispersion of Jews outside of the Land of Israel is called the Diaspora."

    If Jews came back to Israel to construct the second temple one hundred years after the destruction of the first, how come they did not come back again and construct a third temple? Also, what was the cause of this exodus of people in the first place? Sure war and destruction, but other countries around the world are ravaged at times and do not lose the entirety of their population to a diaspora.

    P.S.

    I am not accounting for the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Given that only one hundred years passed between the first and second temples, but seemingly thousands of years have passed (and continue to pass due to the Dome of the Rocks location) between the second and third temple (if a third is ever constructed...).
    (0 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Jessica Hammerman
      No, I do not think that the Islamic presence answers the question, because Islam did not begin for another 500 years! In 330 AD, when Constantine converted the Roman empire to Christianity, it became illegal for Jews to proselytize.
      But there is another more internal reason: the Israelites re-configured the religion after the Temple was destroyed-- some scholars even say that this was the moment when Judaism was created. As we write above, "Rabbinical scholars realized [after the Temple's destruction] that it would be necessary to write down oral interpretations—and they set the blueprint for future generations who would debate and reinterpret Jewish laws. The best-known rabbinical scholar was Hillel (70 B.C.E. to 10 C.E.). Hillel developed the methods for interpreting the Hebrew Bible that were flexible. Since its inception, Judaism has been subject to community ritual interpretation and context."
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user sydneykollm98
    Why would jews make it hard for christians would make it harder to live with?
    (0 votes)
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