What was the unhappy fate of a Jewish tax collector in medieval Spain?

A sculpture in Toledo honors a medieval treasurer killed by the king.

 Rosa Hidalgo with the sculpture. (photo credit: ROSA HIDALGO)
Rosa Hidalgo with the sculpture.
(photo credit: ROSA HIDALGO)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Toledo, Spain – There are only three sculptures depicting Jewish historical figures in Spain. Maimonides sits pensively with a book on his lap and a turban on his head in the center of Cordoba. School children touch his foot for good luck. In Malaga, the medieval Hebrew poet Ibn Gabirol is lost in thought, probably composing a verse. But in Toledo, just outside of the Sephardic Museum, visitors stumble across the bust of Samuel Halevi Abulafia, a 14th-century Jewish tax collector who most people have never heard of. Lit up at night, the statue terrifies passersby: it has a long unkempt beard, unsmiling lips and determined eyes. The head seems to float above a Torah scroll.

“There is something rather unpleasant about it, frankly,” said David Abulafia, professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University in the UK, and one of the descendants of the Abulafia family from Spain. “I think what it embodies is a sort of stereotype. He seems like a very alien character with this very long beard; it seems to embody a particular view of the Jews as outsiders.”

Although no visual depictions of Samuel Halevi have survived, historians say the sculpture is not historically appropriate. With a Star of David kippah, it looks more like a Jew from the shtetl than someone Sephardi from the Middle Ages. Also, Sephardi Jews seven centuries ago did not have peyot (sidelocks), notes history professor Jane Gerber, who wrote a book about the Jews of Spain. And it’s bizarre that the head is resting on top of a Torah scroll, observes Clara Estow, professor of medieval Iberian history at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

“That’s offensive,” she said. “The Torah is not a pedestal for anything. Have you seen Shtisel? (The sculpture) looks like the brother, Nuchem.”

Spanish sculptor Rosa Hidalgo, who made Samuel Halevi’s head from bronze in 2002 (the project was presented to the Toledo City Council and paid for by a private company), did not intend to offend anyone. She explained that the long beard symbolizes the rooting of the Jewish people in the Hebrew Bible, and that touching its curls is said to bring “a very positive year economically,” she wrote in an email. “So you understand that no one refuses to touch the beard in case this is something real.”

 The Sephardic Museum. The sculture is displayed on the street near the museum. (credit: JULIE MASIS) The Sephardic Museum. The sculture is displayed on the street near the museum. (credit: JULIE MASIS)

But who was Samuel Halevi, and why is there a statue of him (and also a street named in his honor) in Spain? In fact, he might be one of the best-known secular Jewish residents of medieval Toledo.

Samuel Halevi Abulafia was the treasurer of King Pedro the Cruel, who ruled Castile between 1350 and 1369, and we know quite a bit about him because of a chronicle that was written about the king’s reign. The manuscript describes what happened in the kingdom year by year, and Samuel Halevi’s name comes up 15 times. (By the way, the first English translation of Pero Lopez de Ayala’s 600-year-old chronicle was just published two years ago. It is three volumes and costs $187.)

“It is quite unusual to have the history of a Jewish courtier that goes through the pages of Christian chronicle,” said Gerber.

We also know about Halevi from what he wrote about himself, on the walls of the synagogue that he built for himself. The Synagogue El Transito in Toledo is one of only a handful of Jewish houses of worship that survived to our day. It houses Spain’s Sephardi museum.

“He covers it with self-glorifying inscriptions, which leads us to think that he was a vain man – glorifying himself and glorifying the king,” said Professor Abulafia. “He calls himself a prince, ‘the most glorious Don Samuel.’ It’s all superlatives.”

At the time, Jews in Toledo were not permitted to build synagogues, but Samuel Halevi obtained permission to build his private chapel because of his influence with the king. Archaeologists have found some evidence that the synagogue was at one time directly connected to Samuel Halevi’s home, which some called his palace. It is thought that the mansion that now houses the El Greco Museum near the synagogue (with its Christian-themed paintings on every wall) was once the home of the Jewish tax collector.

Abulafia said that in the El Greco Museum building, “archaeologists discovered some 14th-century remains with similar types of decorations that you find in the synagogue,” leading experts to believe that “there was a connecting corridor. It’s a little bit speculative.”

Most of the information about “Don Samuel” and his life comes from the aforementioned three-volume chronicle. The manuscript describes, for instance, the tactics that Halevi used to collect taxes from the nobility.

According to Abulafia, he would tell the nobility “I’ll give you a tax break: if you pay 50% now, then we will write off the rest. If you don’t pay, you will be liable for the whole thing. It worked quite well. The king trusted him for a time.”

There is even a record of a conversation he had with the king. Estow, who wrote a book about the reign of King Pedro the Cruel, describes a scene in the chronicle when “they were outside playing dice, King Pedro was bemoaning the size of his fortune. [And Samuel Halevi said to him:] ‘This is only a temporary setback, I will make sure your wealth is back where it should be.’ The treasurer pledged all his resources so the king could get his wealth back.”

The chronicle tells us that the Jewish treasurer collected taxes not only in Toledo, but also traveled to Granada because the Muslims were paying tribute to Toledo at the time, according to Gerber.

And from the chronicle we find out how Samuel Halevi died: he was arrested together with his family and sent to Seville, where he died under torture at age 40 in November 1360. Some historians say that he accumulated too much wealth, and the king became suspicious. A plaque in Toledo says that he “preferred to die by torture than confess where he hid his treasures.”

Allegedly, a very large sum of money, as well as 20 chests of precious objects, silk and gold-embroidered cloth and 80 Muslim slaves, were seized from him at the time of his arrest. However, the chronicle also seems to say that Halevi lost his life because he got himself entangled in the extramarital affairs of the king, that he made the mistake of supporting the king’s mistress instead of the queen in a royal political dispute, according to Abulafia.

Exactly how Halevi was killed was not recorded. But Abulafia says he used to hear the legend that the Jewish treasurer was skinned alive.

“It was a sort of family story, but I think it does not have any real foundation,” he said.

In any case, the unhappy fate of the Jewish tax collector was not unusual, according to Gerber.

“We know of a few Jewish treasurers who were executed,” she said. “It was a perfect scapegoat – no one likes the person collecting taxes. He collected from the nobility, so he made a lot of enemies. There were other Jewish treasurers of Spanish kings because the Jewish curriculum in schools always included math. So it was desirable to have a Jewish treasurer.”

As for the modern statue, the professors said that the Spanish put it up to expand the Jewish footprint of their city’s history and attract more tourists.

“I don’t want to offend them for trying to celebrate a Jewish character,” Estow said. “I think this is an example of appeal to tourists, especially Jewish tourists, who make a substantial number of middle-class people who are able to afford traveling in Europe.”

But Abulafia called the statue “hideous,” saying it should be removed because it looks nothing like a Sephardi Jew from the 14th century.

“On aesthetic grounds, I would remove it,” he said. “My worry is that it’s very easy for tourists who are not well informed to think that it might have some legitimacy.” ■

A Jewish slave owner?

The chronicle of the reign of King Pedro the Cruel states that when the Jewish treasurer Samuel Halevi Abulafia was arrested, 80 Muslim slaves (men, women and youngsters) were seized from him.

Why did Halevi have so many slaves?

Professor Clara Estow, who wrote a book about the reign of King Pedro, said that Muslim slaves might have been brought to help build the Synagogue El Transito because Muslims were skilled builders. It is also possible that Halevi was involved in the Mediterranean slave trade, she said. Estow also considers the possibility that the number of slaves might have been an exaggeration or even a fabrication.

“The number might represent a deliberate exaggeration aimed at exposing the treasurer’s ‘greed,’ with exaggeration and hearsay as a narrative technique used by Ayala (the author of the chronicle) to denigrate individuals he wished to discredit,” she wrote in an email.

Jews were not allowed to own Christian slaves, although Muslims and Christians could own Jewish slaves, the professor said.