Light of the Exile

The mysterious personality of Rabbi Isaac Qanpanton is key to understanding Jewish life and learning in Spain during the last century before the Explusion.

Graphics used in the Cervera Bible composed in Cervera 521 (photo credit: Biblioteca de Lisboa)
Graphics used in the Cervera Bible composed in Cervera 521
(photo credit: Biblioteca de Lisboa)
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.
The unprecedented 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.
One 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.”
An anonymous 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 largest.
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 saw him.
And he passed away in Peñafiel [near Valladolid] in 1463.”
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.”
The emphasis 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 Qanpanton.
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.
Isaac 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 48:3.
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 Lisbon.
Some leading second-generation rabbis from Zamora are Abraham Zacuto, Jacob Ibn Habib, Jacob Berav and Moses Alashqar.
THE GEOGRAPHICAL 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 major cities.
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 quarter).
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 Jerusalem, 1981.
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.
In 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 Gerona.
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.
This 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 kabbalistic tendencies.
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, created by Prof. Jesus Jambrina of Viterbo University, Wisconsin.