Chapters On Jewish Literature
By Israel Abrahams

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Chapter XXI. Historians and Chroniclers

     Order of the Tannaim and Amoraim.–Achimaaz.–Abraham Ibn
     Daud.–Josippon.–Historical Elegies, or Selichoth.–Memorial
     Books.–Abraham Zacuto.–Elijah Kapsali.–Usque.–Ibn
     Verga.–Joseph Cohen.–David Gans.–Gedaliah Ibn
     Yachya.–Azariah di Rossi.

The historical books to be found in the Bible, the Apocrypha, and the Hellenistic literature prove that the Hebrew genius was not unfitted for the presentation of the facts of Jewish life. These older works, as well as the writings of Josephus, also show a faculty for placing local records in relation to the wider facts of general history. After the dispersion of the Jews, however, the local was the only history in which the Jews could bear a part. The Jews read history as a mere commentary on their own fate, and hence they were unable to take the wide outlook into the world required for the compilation of objective histories. Thus, in their aim to find religious consolation for their sufferings in the Middle Ages, the Jewish historians sought rather to trace the hand of Providence than to analyze the human causes of the changes in the affairs of mankind.

But in another sense the Jews were essentially gifted with the historical spirit. The great men of Israel were not local heroes. Just as Plutarch’s Lives were part of the history of the world’s politics, so Jewish biographies of learned men were part of the history of the world’s civilization. With the “Order of the Tannaim and Amoraim" (written about the year 1100) begins a series of such biographical works, in which more appreciation of sober fact is displayed than might have been expected from the period. In the same way the famous Letter of Sherira Gaon on the compilation of the Rabbinical literature (980) marked great progress in the critical examination of historical problems. Later works did not maintain the same level.

In the Middle Ages, Jewish histories mostly took the form of uncritical Chronicles, which included legends and traditions as well as assured facts. Their interest and importance lie in the personal and communal details with which they abound. Sometimes they are confessedly local. This is the case with the “Chronicle of Achimaaz,” written by him in 1055 in rhymed prose. In an entertaining style, he tells of the early settlements of the Jews in Southern Italy, and throws much light on the intercommunication between the scattered Jewish congregations of his time. A larger canvas was filled by Abraham Ibn Daud, the physician and philosopher who was born in Toledo in 1110, and met a martyr’s end at the age of seventy. His “Book of Tradition” (Sefer ha-Kabbalah), written in 1161, was designed to present, in opposition to the Karaites, the chain of Jewish tradition as a series of unbroken links from the age of Moses to Ibn Baud’s own times. Starting with the Creation, his history ends with the anti-Karaitic crusade of Judah Ibn Ezra in Granada (1150). Abraham Ibn Daud shows in this work considerable critical power, but in his two other histories, one dealing with the history of Rome from its foundation to the time of King Reccared in Spain, the other a narrative of the history of the Jews during the Second Temple, the author relied entirely on “Josippon.” This was a medieval concoction which long passed as the original Josephus. “Josippon” was a romance rather than a history. Culled from all sources, from Strabo, Lucian, and Eusebius, as well as from Josephus, this marvellous book exercised strong influence on the Jewish imagination, and supplied an antidote to the tribulations of the present by the consolations of the past and the vivid hopes for the future.

For a long period Abraham Ibn Daud found no imitators. Jewish history was written as part of the Jewish religion. Yet, incidentally, many historical passages were introduced in the works of Jewish scholars and travellers, and the liturgy was enriched by many beautiful historical Elegies, which were a constant call to heroism and fidelity. These Elegies, or Selichoth, were composed throughout the Middle Ages, and their passionate outpourings of lamentation and trust give them a high place in Jewish poetry. They are also important historically, and fully justify the fine utterance with which Zunz introduces them, an utterance which was translated by George Eliot as follows:

     If there are ranks in suffering, Israel takes precedence of
     all the nations–if the duration of sorrows and the patience
     with which they are borne ennoble, the Jews are among the
     aristocracy of every land–if a literature is called rich in
     the possession of a few classic tragedies, what shall we say
     to a National Tragedy lasting for fifteen hundred years, in
     which the poets and the actors were also the heroes?

The story of the medieval section of this pathetic martyrdom is written in the Selichoth and in the more prosaic records known as “Memorial Books” (in German, Memorbücher), which are lists of martyrs and brief eulogies of their careers.

For the next formal history we must pass to Abraham Zacuto. In his old age he employed some years of comparative quiet, after a stormy and unhappy life, in writing a “Book of Genealogies” (Yuchasin). He had been exiled from Spain in 1492, and twelve years later composed his historical work in Tunis. Like Abraham Ibn Baud’s book, it opens with the Creation, and ends with the author’s own day. Though Zacuto’s work is more celebrated than historical, it nevertheless had an important share in reawaking the dormant interest of Jews in historical research. Thus we find Elijah Kapsali of Candia writing, in 1523, a “History of the Ottoman Empire,” and Joseph Cohen, of Avignon, a “History of France and Turkey,” in 1554, in which he included an account of the rebellion of Fiesco in Genoa, where the author was then residing.

The sixteenth century witnessed the production of several popular Jewish histories. At that epoch the horizon of the world was extending under new geographical and intellectual discoveries. Israel, on the other hand, seemed to be sinking deeper and deeper into the slough of despond. Some of the men who had themselves been the victims of persecution saw that the only hope lay in rousing the historical consciousness of their brethren. History became the consolation of the exiles from Spain who found themselves pent up within the walls of the Ghettos, which were first built in the sixteenth century. Samuel Usque was a fugitive from the Inquisition, and his dialogues, “Consolations for the Tribulations of Israel” (written in Portuguese, in 1553), are a long drawn-out sigh of pain passing into a sigh of relief. Usque opens with a passionate idyl in which the history of Israel in the near past is told by the shepherd Icabo. To him Numeo and Zicareo offer consolation, and they pour balm into his wounded heart. The vividness of Usque’s style, his historical insight, his sturdy optimism, his poetical force in interpreting suffering as the means of attaining the highest life in God, raise his book above the other works of its class and age.

Usque’s poem did not win the same popularity as two other elegiac histories of the same period. These were the “Rod of Judah” (Shebet Jehudah) and the “Valley of Tears” (Emek ha-Bachah). The former was the work of three generations of the Ibn Verga family. Judah died before the expulsion from Spain, but his son Solomon participated in the final troubles of the Spanish Jews, and was even forced to join the ranks of the Marranos. The grandson, Joseph Ibn Verga, became Rabbi in Adrianople, and was cultured in classical as well as Jewish lore. Their composite work, “The Rod of Judah,” was completed in 1554. It is a well-written but badly arranged martyrology, and over all its pages might be inscribed the Talmudical motto, that God’s chastisements of Israel are chastisements of love. The other work referred to is Joseph Cohen’s “Valley of Tears,” completed in 1575. The author was born in Avignon in 1496, four years after his father had shared in the exile from Spain. He himself suffered expatriation, for, though a distinguished physician and the private doctor of the Doge Andrea Doria, he was expelled with the rest of the Jews from Genoa in 1550. Settled in the little town of Voltaggio, he devoted himself to writing the annals of European and Jewish history. His style is clear and forcible, and recalls the lucid simplicity of the historical books of the Bible.

The only other histories that need be critically mentioned here are the “Branch of David” (Zemach David), the “Chain of Tradition" (Shalsheleth ha-Kabbalah), and the “Light of the Eyes” (Meör Enayim). Abraham de Porta Leone’s “Shields of the Mighty” (Shilte ha-Gibborim, printed in Mantua in 1612); Leon da Modena’s “Ceremonies and Customs of the Jews,” (printed in Paris in 1637); David Conforte’s “Call of the Generations” (Kore ha-Doroth, written in Palestine in about 1670); Yechiel Heilprin’s “Order of Generations” (Seder ha-Doroth, written in Poland in 1725); and Chayim Azulai’s “Name of the Great Ones” (written in Leghorn in 1774), can receive only a bare mention.

The author of the “Branch of David,” David Cans, was born in Westphalia in about 1540. He was the first German Jew of his age to take real interest in the study of history. He was a man of scientific culture, corresponded with Kepler, and was a personal friend of Tycho Brahe. For the latter Cans made a German translation of parts of the Hebrew version of the Tables of Alfonso, originally compiled in 1260. Cans wrote works on mathematical and physical geography, and treatises on arithmetic and geometry. His history, “Branch of David,” was extremely popular. For a man of his scientific training it shows less critical power than might have been expected, but the German Jews did not begin to apply criticism to history till after the age of Mendelssohn. In one respect, however, the “Branch of David” displays the width of the author’s culture. Not only does he tell the history of the Jews, but in the second part of his work he gives an account of many lands and cities, especially of Bohemia and Prague, and adds a striking description of the secret courts (Vehmgerichte) of Westphalia.

It is hard to think that the authors of the “Chain of Tradition” and of the “Light of the Eyes” were contemporaries. Azariah di Rossi (1514-1588), the writer of the last mentioned book, was the founder of historical criticism among the Jews. Elias del Medigo (1463-1498) had led in the direction, but di Rossi’s work anticipated the methods, of the German school of “scientific” Jewish writers, who, at the beginning of the present century, applied scientific principles to the study of Jewish traditions. On the other hand, Gedaliah Ibn Yachya (1515-1587) was so utterly uncritical that his “Chain of Tradition” was nicknamed by Joseph Delmedigo the “Chain of Lies.” Gedaliah was a man of wealth, and he expended his means in the acquisition of books and in making journeys in search of sacred and profane knowledge. Yet Gedaliah made up in style for his lack of historical method. The “Chain of Tradition” is a picturesque and enthralling book, it is a warm and cheery retrospect, and even deserves to be called a prose epic. Besides, many of his statements that were wont to be treated as altogether unauthentic have been vindicated by later research. Azariah di Rossi, on the other hand, is immortalized by his spirit rather than his actual contributions to historical literature. He came of an ancient family said to have been carried to Rome by Titus, and lived in Ferrara, where, in 1574, he produced his “Light of the Eyes.” This is divided into three parts, the first devoted to general history, the second to the Letter of Aristeas, the third to the solution of several historical problems, all of which had been neglected by Jews and Christians alike. Azariah di Rossi was the first critic to open up true lines of research into the Hellenistic literature of the Jews of Alexandria. With him the true historical spirit once more descended on the Jewish genius.


Steinschneider.–Jewish Literature, p. 75, seq., 250
A. Neubauer.–Introductions to Medieval Jewish Chronicles,
  Vols. I and II (Oxford, 1882, etc.).


Zunz.–Sufferings of the Jews in the Middle Ages (translated by
  A. Löwy, Miscellany of the Society of Hebrew Literature,
  Vol. I). See also J.Q.R., VIII, pp. 78, 426, 611.

Abraham Ibn Daud.

Graetz.–III, p. 363 [373].


Graetz.–IV, pp. 366, 367, 391 [393].


Graetz.–IV, p. 406 [435].


Graetz.–IV, p. 555 [590].

Chronicle of Joseph ben Joshua the Priest (English translation by Bialoblotzky. London, 1835-6).

Elia Delmedigo.

Graetz.–IV, p. 290 [312].


Graetz.–IV, p. 638 [679].


Graetz.–IV, p. 609 [655].


Graetz.–IV, p. 614 [653].


Preface  •  Chapter I. The “Vineyard” At Jamnia  •  Chapter II. Flavius Josephus and the Jewish Sibyl  •  Chapter III. The Talmud  •  Chapter IV. The Midrash and Its Poetry  •  Chapter V. The Letters of the Gaonim  •  Chapter VI. The Karaitic Literature  •  Chapter VII. The New-Hebrew Piyut  •  Chapter IX. Dawn of the Spanish Era  •  Chapter X. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (I)  •  Chapter XI. Rashi and Alfassi  •  Chapter XII. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (II)  •  Chapter XIII. Moses Maimonides  •  Chapter XIV. The Diffusion of Science  •  Chapter XV. The Diffusion of Folk-Tales  •  Chapter XVI. Moses Nachmanides  •  Chapter XVII. The Zohar and Later Mysticism  •  Chapter XVIII. Italian Jewish Poetry  •  Chapter XIX. Ethical Literature  •  Chapter XX. Travellers’ Tales  •  Chapter XXI. Historians and Chroniclers  •  Chapter XXII. Isaac Abarbanel  •  Chapter XXIII. The Shulchan Aruch  •  Chapter XXIV. Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century  •  Chapter XXV. Moses Mendelssohn

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