Although the name Zamora is not as familiar as those of Toledo, Cordoba,
Granada and others, this northern city, capital of the province of the same name
– bordering Portugal and Spanish Galicia – was unequivocally at the summit of
Jewish intellectual activity in 15th century Spain.
mass conversions, death and physical destruction of the Jewish communities in
Castile during 1391, the following waves of anti-Jewish legislation, the
conversion campaign orchestrated by “San” Vicente Ferrer, and finally, the mass
conversions in the wake of the Disputation in Tortosa (1412-1414) seemed to have
brought to its knees a Jewry proud of its achievements in virtually every field
of Jewish and secular learning, and in the political realm as well.
of the Jewish writers in the end of the 14th century expresses it in lamenting
the great fall, describing the communities of Castile and Aragon “which were
among [other communities of] our nation as the main organs of the body in
comparison to the secondary ones.”
After the above-mentioned string of
catastrophes, we read the following internal criticism of Jewish Torah learning
in Spain: And the scholars eat bread of poverty, and even the little they get as
payment they must go around and beg for. And this is the reason why the Torah is
downgraded among them [the Jews] and is destined to be forgotten […] because
when the people see the shame of the scholars and their poverty they choose to
send their sons to learn the worst of professions rather than see them suffer as
rabbis” (circa 1416).
WHEN WE read about the status of Torah learning –
both quality and quantity – in the decades prior to the Expulsion, we get the
feeling that within half a century nothing short of a revolution took place in
Jewish learning in Spain.
Joseph Ya’avez wrote, right after the
Expulsion: “[…] For since antiquity Spain was not as full of yeshivot and
students as it was at the time of the Expulsion.”
chronicler, a refugee from Spain, writes: “And there were then [before the
Expulsion] many yeshivot in Spain,” and he goes on to list 10 of the
Judah Khalaz, who migrated to Tlemcen, in North Africa, a few
years before the Expulsion writes: “Castile, the land of yeshivot and Torah
students.” In one post-Expulsion elegy the poet mourns the destroyed richness of
the academies and their libraries. There is information about large personal
libraries of the Jews in this period, and it stands to reason that the ones in
the academies were also sizable.
THE CLUE to unraveling the dimensions of
Jewish learning at that time is hidden in the almost mysterious personality of
Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob Qanpanton.
This becomes apparent when we survey
short references to Qanpanton’s stature and to assessments of his achievements
as found in post-Expulsion Sephardi writings.
One of the most famous
Hispano-Jewish scholars of that period was Abraham Zacuto, the celebrated
mathematician and astronomer from Salamanca. He was also a head of a yeshiva in
Salamanca and an important talmudist.
Alongside his scientific
excellence, he was also a kabbalist. He is particularly known for his
astronomical calculations and contribution to nautical navigation, and his
personal guidance to name Vasco da Gama prior to his voyage to India in 1497.
Zacuto was then in Portugal after leaving Spain in the 1492 Expulsion. His
odyssey led him through North Africa to Jerusalem, where he died. In his Book of
Genealogies, generally dedicated to the chronology of Jewish Oral Law, Zacuto
writes: “And the great rabbi, the rabbi of [all] the people of Israel, the rabbi
of the three above-mentioned scholars, the pious, humble man, who was inspired
by the Holy Divine Spirit, the great light, Rabbi Isaac Qanpanton […] who was
called a Gaon in Castile [a prestigious term reserved for the Heads of the
famous talmudic academies in Baghdad during the seventh to 12th centuries]. And
I saw him!And anyone who saw him experienced something similar to encountering the Divine Providence. And I was about six or seven years old when I
And he passed away in Peñafiel [near Valladolid] in
Qanpanton died of old age, according to one source at 103. From
official Castilian documents we know that in 1450, at around 90, he was part of
a committee charged with dividing taxes among the Castilian Jewish communities
(His name is spelled Çag Canpanton in the documents).
All references to
Qanpanton by post-Expulsion chroniclers describe him as the central intellectual
figure of 15th century Castile.
Thus we read: “[…] the Light of the Exile
[a term reserved for an 11th century Ashkenazic rabbinic authority] […] he
raised again the crown [of Torah] and raised many students.”
on the number of students that swelled under his leadership is especially
conspicuous. A survey of his students who assumed rabbinic and talmudic
leadership during the last generation in Spain prior to the Expulsion, and in
the first generation of the Sephardi diaspora throughout the Mediterranean Basin
shows that almost all Sephardi talmudic learning can be traced to
His direct students were Isaac Deleon (Toledo), Samuel Valenci
(who succeeded Qanpanton as the head of the yeshiva in Zamora), Joseph Hayyun
(Lisbon) and Isaac Aboab (Guadalajara and Buitrago).
Of the latter’s
students, Joseph Caro, the greatest halachist since Maimonides and until today,
relates a mystical revelation in which he was promised that his yeshiva would be
greater and better known even than Aboab’s.
Two influential figures in
the field of biblical exegesis and preaching came out of Zamora.
Arama wrote Akedat Yitzhak (“Binding of Isaac”), a voluminous book of
philosophical sermons on the Pentateuch. This important work has been
influential much beyond the Sephardi world. In his introduction he refers
nostalgically to his hometown as “Zamora, beautiful in situation in the far
north,” using an expression referring to the glory of Jerusalem in Psalms
Abraham Saba is known primarily for his Tzror Hamor (“Bundle of
Myrrh”) homiletical commentary on the Pentateuch which incorporates kabbalistic
passages from the Zohar.
This work was published in Italy and Poland in
the 16th century, and again recently. We know much about his wanderings after
the Expulsion from Spain through Portugal and North Africa and about his
personal tragedies and loss of his family, which was forcibly baptized in
Some leading second-generation rabbis from Zamora are Abraham
Zacuto, Jacob Ibn Habib, Jacob Berav and Moses Alashqar.
map of the talmudic learning centers in 15th-century Castile known to us shows
that, if we take Avila as the pivot point, all of them were in a radius of about
200 km. (Leon, Fromista, Valladolid, Medina del Campo, Salamanca, Segovia,
Buitrago, Avila, Guadalajara, Plasencia and Toledo). The fact that most of the
places, not noteworthy in terms of size, are not known to us as Jewish centers
from previous centuries, and that they are relatively small towns, goes well
with the observation that Jewish life in post-1391 Castile moved away from the
FOR ABOUT 40 years Qanpanton’s yeshiva was located in
Zamora. That this town had a relatively thriving Jewish community in the 15th
century is evident from the additional northern juderia nueva (new Jewish
We also know that the share of the tax levied from it for the
war against Granada was sizable.
An incidental compliment to the Jewish
community of Zamora comes from the pen of the converso poet Juan Alfonso de
Baena who writes, as early as the 1440s, sarcastically against a certain Gonsalo
de Quadros, whose true faith is not clear, “it is notorious that you live in
Zamora / and others tell me that you believe in the Torah.” And so we learn that
Zamora was notorious for its Jewish community.
With the decline or
complete disappearance (as in the case of Barcelona) of past centers, Zamora
became a magnet for students.
Now what was it that Qanpanton had to offer
those students? He wrote one very thin didactic tract called Darchei Hatalmud
(“The Ways of the Talmud”). The work was published at Constantinople, ca. 1520;
in Venice, 1565; Mantua, 1593; Amsterdam, 1706, 1711, 1754; Vienna, 1891, and
The essence of it is that one should approach the study
of the Talmud with technical tools of Logic, because literature of great
individuals must be approached with the utmost respect, and the Talmud certainly
qualifies as such. Practically, he is saying: There must be an explanation for
every single written word because redundancy is not an option.
language there are no two words which have the exact identical meaning, and
therefore there are no real synonyms.
In other words one must put a
finger, so to speak, over each word and check whether the sentence could have
been written without it. If this is the case, one must find the reason why the
extra word has been included. What was it that the author tried to warn us
about? What potential wrong interpretation did he try to save us from? Qanpanton
details his method and extends it to the analysis of some of the great medieval
talmudic commentators, namely Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi), the 11th-century
French scholar, and 13th-century Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides) of
In 1432 representatives of the Castilian Jewish communities
composed the Valladolid Ordinances with one chapter devoted to the
reconstruction of Jewish Torah education.
Abraham Benvenist, the Rab de
la Corte (court rabbi) was involved in formulating the document, and knowing his
financial abilities (he loaned money to the Crown) and testimonies about his
charitable nature, we can assume that he was involved personally in the
financial aspects of restoration.
Qanpanton complemented him by being
involved in the educational process.
How does all this connect to
Qanpanton’s methodology? The answer lies in the centuries-long Sephardi struggle
between philosophy and religion, or faith and reason, symbolized best by
Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed.
Qanpanton did not reject
non-Jewish wisdom; after all he was raised by a father who wrote books on
mathematics and astronomy.
Instead, he offered Jewish youth a method by
which the Talmud’s status is raised by showing that philosophical thinking is a
“maidservant” (to borrow a term from Maimonides), a prerequisite for a proper
understanding of profound Jewish legal thinking and wisdom.
understanding of Qanpanton’s strategy is expressed by chroniclers in the early
16th century. The profile of the rabbis associated with this school, including
Qanpanton, indicates that a majority were knowledgeable in philosophy, but with
DESPITE THE dearth of 15th-century writing – of
Qanpanton’s students, Aboab was the only one to write – there are a number of
super-commentaries on Rashi’s famous commentary on the Torah using the method
advocated by Qanpanton. After the Expulsion the occupation in methodology of
Talmud study yields a genre of short tracts, following the example of Darchei
Hatalmud. Joseph Hayyun, too, the major rabbinic figure in Lisbon, wrote
commentaries on the Bible based clearly on the premise that there are no
synonyms, even in biblical poetry such as Psalms.
Witness to the
importance of 15th century Castile and Portugal – with Zamora midway between the
two – is a 17th-century Ladino proverb. “Ley de Castilla; Hizun y Sephrud de
Portugal” (“The Law of the Torah shall come out from Castile and liturgical
singing and calligraphy from Portugal.”)
The writer is a professor at the
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and received his PhD from Harvard. He
lectures on the History of Jews in the Middle Ages and more specifically, the
history of the Jews in Spain. The text of this article is part a presentation he
made in July at a conference titled: Zamora Sephardi: Encounters and
Reencounters with the Jewish Ghetto.
Following the conference, the city
of Zamora has agreed to commemorate places of Jewish interest and to assist in
the creation of a center named after Qanpanton. More information about the rabbi
can be found at www.campanton.com, created by Prof. Jesus Jambrina of
Viterbo University, Wisconsin.