Chapters On Jewish Literature
By Israel Abrahams

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Chapter XX. Travellers’ Tales

     Eldad the Danite.–Benjamin of Tudela.–Petachiah of
     Ratisbon.–Esthori Parchi.–Abraham Farissol.–David Reubeni
     and Molcho.–Antonio de Montesinos and Manasseh ben
     Israel.–Tobiah Cohen.–Wessely.

The voluntary and enforced travels of the Jews produced, from the earliest period after the destruction of the Temple, an extensive, if fragmentary, geographical literature. In the Talmud and later religious books, in the Letters of the Gaonim, in the correspondence of Jewish ambassadors, in the autobiographical narratives interspersed in the works of all Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages, in the Aruch, or Talmudical Lexicon, of Nathan of Rome, in the satirical romances of the poetical globe-trotters, Zabara and Charizi, and, finally, in the Bible commentaries written by Jews, many geographical notes are to be found. But the composition of complete works dedicated to travel and exploration dates only from the twelfth century.

Before that time, however, interest in the whereabouts of the Lost Ten Tribes gave rise to a book which has been well called the Arabian Nights of the Jews. The “Diary of Eldad the Danite,” written in about the year 880, was a popular romance, to which additions and alterations were made at various periods. This diary tells of mighty Israelite empires, especially of the tribe of Moses, the peoples of which were all virtuous, all happy, and long-lived.

      “A river flows round their land for a distance of four
     days’ journey on every side. They dwell in beautiful houses
     provided with handsome towers, which they have built
     themselves. There is nothing unclean among them, neither in
     the case of birds, venison, nor domesticated animals; there
     are no wild beasts, no flies, no foxes, no vermin, no
     serpents, no dogs, and, in general, nothing that does harm;
     they have only sheep and cattle, which bear twice a year.
     They sow and reap, they have all kinds of gardens with all
     kinds of fruits and cereals, beans, melons, gourds,
     onions, garlic, wheat, and barley, and the seed grows a
     hundredfold. They have faith; they know the Law, the
     Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Hagadah.... No child, be it
     son or daughter, dies during the life-time of its parents,
     but they reach a third and fourth generation. They do all
     the field-work themselves, having no male nor female
     servants. They do not close their houses at night, for
     there is no thief or evil-doer among them. They have plenty
     of gold and silver; they sow flax, and cultivate the
     crimson-worm, and make beautiful garments.... The river
     Sambatyon is two hundred yards broad, about as far as a
     bow-shot. It is full of sand and stones, but without water;
     the stones make a great noise, like the waves of the sea
     and a stormy wind, so that in the night the noise is heard
     at a distance of half a day’s journey. There are fish in
     it, and all kinds of clean birds fly round it. And this
     river of stone and sand rolls during the six working-days,
     and rests on the Sabbath day. As soon as the Sabbath
     begins, fire surrounds the river, and the flames remain
     till the next evening, when the Sabbath ends. Thus no human
     being can reach the river for a distance of half a mile on
     either side; the fire consumes all that grows there.”

With wild rapture the Jews of the ninth century heard of these prosperous and powerful kingdoms. Hopes of a restoration to former dignity encouraged them to believe in the mythical narrative of Eldad. It is doubtful whether he was a bona fide traveller. At all events, his book includes much that became the legendary property of all peoples in the Middle Ages, such as the fable of the mighty Christian Emperor of India, Prester John.

Some further account of this semi-mythical monarch is contained in the first real Jewish traveller’s book, the “Itinerary” of Benjamin of Tudela. This Benjamin was a merchant, who, in the year 1160, started on a long journey, which was prompted partly by commercial, partly by scientific motives. He visited a large part of Europe and Asia, went to Jerusalem and Bagdad, and gives in his “Itinerary” some remarkable geographical facts and some equally remarkable fables. He tells, for instance, the story of the pretended Messiah, David Alroy, whom Disraeli made the hero of one of his romances. Benjamin of Tudela’s “Itinerary" was a real contribution to geography.

Soon after Benjamin, another Jew, Petachiah of Ratisbon, set out on a similar but less extended tour, which occupied him during the years 1179 and 1180. His “Travels” are less informing than those of his immediate predecessor, but his descriptions of the real or reputed sepulchres of ancient worthies and his account of the Jewish College in Bagdad are full of romantic interest, which was not lessened for medieval readers because much of Petachiah’s narrative was legendary.

A far more important work was written by the first Jewish explorer of Palestine, Esthori Parchi, a contemporary of Mandeville. His family originated in Florenza, in Andalusia, and the family name Parchi (the Flower) was derived from this circumstance. Esthori was himself born in Provence, and was a student of science as well as of the Talmud. When he, together with the rest of the Jews of France, was exiled in 1306, he wandered to Spain and Egypt until the attraction of the Holy Land proved irresistible. His manner was careful, and his love of accuracy unusual for his day. Hence, he was not content to collect all ancient and contemporary references to the sites of Palestine. For seven years he devoted himself to a personal exploration of the country, two years being passed in Galilee. In 1322 he completed his work, which he called Kaphtor va-Pherach (Bunch and Flower) in allusion to his own name.

Access to the Holy Land became easier for Jews in the fourteenth century. Before that time the city of Jerusalem had for a considerable period been barred to Jewish pilgrims. By the laws of Constantine and of Omar no Jew might enter within the precincts of his ancient capital. Even in the centuries subsequent to Omar, such pilgrimages were fraught with danger, but the poems of Jehuda Halevi, the tolerance of Islam, and the reputation of Northern Syria as a centre of the Kabbala, combined to draw many Jews to Palestine. Many letters and narratives were the results. One characteristic specimen must suffice. In 1488 Obadiah of Bertinoro, author of the most popular commentary on the Mishnah, removed from Italy to Jerusalem, where he was appointed Rabbi. In a letter to his father he gives an intensely moving account of his voyage and of the state of Hebron and Zion. The narrative is full of personal detail, and is marked throughout by deep love for his father, which struggles for the mastery with his love for the Holy City.

A more ambitious work was the “Itinera Mundi” of Abraham Farissol, written in the autumn of 1524. This treatise was based upon original researches as well as on the works of Christian and Arabian geographers. He incidentally says a good deal about the condition of the Jews in various parts of the world. Indeed, almost all the geographical writings of Jews are social histories of their brethren in faith. Somewhat later, David Reubeni published some strange stories as to the Jews. He went to Rome, where he made a considerable sensation, and was received by Pope Clement VII (1523-1534). Dwarfish in stature and dark in complexion, David Reubeni was wasted by continual fasting, but his manner, though harsh and forbidding, was intrepid and awe-inspiring. His outrageous falsehoods for a time found ready acceptance with Jews and Christians alike, and his fervid Messianism won over to his cause many Marranos–Jews who had been forced by the Inquisition in Spain to assume the external garb of Christianity. His chief claim on the memory of posterity was his connection with the dramatic career of Solomon Molcho (1501-1532), a youth noble in mind and body, who at Reubeni’s instigation personated the Messiah, and in early manhood died a martyr’s death amid the flames of the Inquisition at Mantua.

The geographical literature of the Jews did not lose its association with Messianic hopes. Antonio de Montesinos, in 1642, imagined that he had discovered in South America the descendants of the Ten Tribes. He had been led abroad by business considerations and love of travel, and in Brazil came across a mestizo Indian, from whose statements he conceived the firm belief that the Ten Tribes resided and thrived in Brazil. Two years later he visited Amsterdam, and, his imagination aflame with the hopes which had not been stifled by several years’ endurance of the prisons and tortures of the Inquisition, persuaded Manasseh ben Israel to accept his statements. On his death-bed in Brazil, Montesinos reiterated his assertions, and Manasseh ben Israel not only founded thereon his noted book, “The Hope of Israel,” but under the inspiration of similar ideas felt impelled to visit London, and win from Cromwell the right of the Jews to resettle in England.

Jewish geographical literature grew apace in the eighteenth century. A famous book, the “Work of Tobiah,” was written at the beginning of this period by Tobiah Cohen, who was born at Metz in 1652, and died in Jerusalem in 1729. It is a medley of science and fiction, an encyclopedia dealing with all branches of knowledge. He had studied at the Universities of Frankfort and Padua, had enjoyed the patronage of the Elector of Brandenburg, and his medical knowledge won him many distinguished patients in Constantinople. Thus his work contains many medical chapters of real value, and he gives one of the earliest accounts of recently discovered drugs and medicinal plants. Among other curiosities he maintained that he had discovered the Pygmies.

From this absorbing but confusing book our survey must turn finally to N.H. Wessely, who in 1782 for the first time maintained the importance of the study of geography in Jewish school education. The works of the past, with their consoling legends and hopes, continued to hold a place in the heart of Jewish readers. But from Wessely’s time onwards a long series of Jewish explorers and travellers have joined the ranks of those who have opened up for modern times a real knowledge of the globe.


Steinschneider.–Jewish Literature, p. 80.

A. Neubauer.–Series of Articles entitled Where are the Ten Tribes, J.Q.R., Vol. I.

Benjamin of Tudela.

A. Asher.–The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (with English translation and appendix by Zunz. London, 1840-1).

Petachiah of Ratisbon.

A. Benisch.–Travels of Petachia of Ratisbon (with English translation. London, 1856).

Abraham Farissol.

Graetz.–IV, p. 413 [440].


Graetz.–IV, p. 491 [523].


Graetz.–V, p. 366 [388].


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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