The Book of Delight and Other Papers
Israel Abrahams

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Medieval Wayfaring

Men leave their homes because they must, or because they will. The Hebrew has experienced both motives for travelling. Irresistibly driven on by his own destiny and by the pressure of his fellow-men, the Jew was also gifted with a double share of that curiosity and restlessness which often send men forth of their own free will on long and arduous journeys. He has thus played the part of the Wandering Jew from choice and from necessity. He loved to live in the whole world, and the whole world met him by refusing him a single spot that he might call his very own.

  Tribes of the wandering foot and weary breast,
  How shall ye flee away and be at rest!
  The wild-dove hath her nest, the fox her cave,
  Mankind their country,–Israel but the grave!

A sad chapter of medieval history is filled with the enforced wanderings of the sons of Israel. The lawgiver prophesied well, “There shall be no rest for the sole of thy foot.” But we are not concerned here with the victim of expulsion and persecution. The wayfarer with whom we shall deal is the traveller, and not the exile. He was moved by no caprice but his own. He will excite our admiration, perhaps our sympathy, only rarely our tears.

My subject, be it remembered, is not wayfarers, but wayfaring. Hence I am to tell you not the story of particular travellers, but the manner of their travelling, the conditions under which they moved. Before leaving home, a Jewish wayfarer of the Middle Ages was bound to procure two kinds of passport. In no country in those days was freedom of motion allowed to anyone. The Jew was simply a little more hampered than others. In England, the Jew paid a feudal fine before he might cross the seas. In Spain, the system of exactions was very complete. No Jew could change his residence without a license even within his own town. But in addition to the inflictions of the Government, the Jews enacted voluntary laws of their own, forcing their brethren to obtain a congregational permit before starting.

The reasons for this restriction were simple. In the first place, no Jew could be allowed to depart at will, and leave the whole burden of the royal taxes on the shoulders of those who were left behind. Hence, in many parts of Europe and Asia, no Jew could leave without the express consent of the congregation. Even when he received the consent, it was usually on the understanding that he would continue, in his absence, to pay his share of the communal dues. Sometimes even women were included in this law, as, for instance, if the daughter of a resident Jew married and settled elsewhere, she was forced to contribute to the taxes of her native town a sum proportionate to her dowry, unless she emigrated to Palestine, in which case she was free. A further cause why Jews placed restrictions on free movement was moral and commercial. Announcements had to be made in the synagogue informing the congregation that so-and-so was on the point of departure, and anyone with claims against him could obtain satisfaction. No clandestine or unauthorized departure was permissible. It must not be thought that these communal licenses were of no service to the traveller. On the contrary, they often assured him a welcome in the next town, and in Persia were as good as a safe-conduct. No Mohammedan would have dared defy the travelling order sealed by the Jewish Patriarch.

Having obtained his two licenses, one from the Government and the other from the Synagogue, the traveller would have to consider his costume. “Dress shabbily” was the general Jewish maxim for the tourist. How necessary this rule was, may be seen from what happened to Rabbi Petachiah, who travelled from Prague to Nineveh, in 1175, or thereabouts. At Nineveh he fell sick, and the king’s physicians attended him and pronounced his death certain. Now Petachiah had travelled in most costly attire, and in Persia the rule was that if a Jewish traveller died, the physicians took half his property. Petachiah saw through the real danger that threatened him, so he escaped from the perilous ministrations of the royal doctors, had himself carried across the Tigris on a raft, and soon recovered. Clearly, it was imprudent of a Jewish traveller to excite the rapacity of kings or bandits by wearing rich dresses. But it was also desirable for the Jew, if he could, to evade recognition as such altogether. Jewish opinion was very sensible on this head. It did not forbid a Jew’s disguising himself even as a priest of the Church, joining a caravan, and mumbling Latin hymns. In times of danger, he might, to save his life, don the turban and pass as a Mohammedan even in his home. Most remarkable concession of all, the Jewess on a journey might wear the dress of a man. The law of the land was equally open to reason. In Spain, the Jew was allowed to discard his yellow badge while travelling; in Germany, he had the same privilege, but he had to pay a premium for it. In some parts, the Jewish community as a whole bought the right to travel and to discard the badge on journeys, paying a lump sum for the general privilege, and itself exacting a communal tax to defray the general cost. In Rome, the traveller was allowed to lodge for ten days before resuming his hated badge. But, curiously enough, the legal relaxation concerning the badge was not extended to the markets. The Jew made the medieval markets, yet he was treated as an unwelcome guest, a commodity to be taxed. This was especially so in Germany. In 1226, Bishop Lorenz, of Breslau, ordered Jews who passed through his domain to pay the same toll as slaves brought to market. The visiting Jew paid toll for everything; but he got part of his money back. He received a yellow badge, which he was forced to wear during his whole stay at the market, the finances of which he enriched, indirectly by his trade, and directly by his huge contributions to the local taxes.

The Jewish traveller mostly left his wife at home. In certain circumstances he could force her to go with him, as, for instance, if he had resolved to settle in Palestine. On the other hand, the wife could prevent her husband from leaving her during the first year after marriage. It also happened that families emigrated together. Mostly, however, the Jewess remained at home, and only rarely did she join even the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This is a striking contrast to the Christian custom, for it was the Christian woman that was the most ardent pilgrim; in fact, pilgrimages to the Holy Land only became popular in Church circles because of the enthusiasm of Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, especially when, in 326, she found the true cross. We, however, read of an aged Jewess who made a pilgrimage to all the cities of Europe, for the purpose of praying in the synagogues on her route.

We now know, from the Chronicle of Achimaaz, that Jews visited Jerusalem in the tenth century. Aronius records a curious incident. Charles the Great, between the years 787 and 813, ordered a Jewish merchant, who often used to visit Palestine and bring precious and unknown commodities thence to the West, to hoax the Archbishop of Mainz, so as to lower the self-conceit of this vain dilettante. The Jew thereupon sold him a mouse at a high price, persuading him that it was a rare animal, which he had brought with him from Judea. Early in the eleventh century there was a fully organized Jewish community with a Beth-Din at Ramleh, some four hours’ drive from Jaffa. But Jews did not visit Palestine in large numbers, until Saladin finally regained the Holy City for Mohammedan rule, towards the end of the twelfth century. From that time pilgrimages of Jews became more frequent; but the real influx of Jews into Palestine dates from 1492, when many of the Spanish exiles settled there, and formed the nucleus of the present Sefardic population.

On the whole, it may be said that in the Middle Ages the journey to Palestine was fraught with so much danger that it was gallantry that induced men to go mostly without their wives. And, generally speaking, the Jew going abroad to earn a living for his family, could not dream of allowing his wife to share the dangers and fatigues of the way. In Ellul, 1146, Rabbi Simeon the Pious returned from England, where he had lived many years, and betook himself to Cologne, thence to take ship home to Trier. On the way, near Cologne, he was slain by Crusaders, because he refused baptism. The Jewish community of Cologne bought the body from the citizens, and buried it in the Jewish cemetery.

No doubt it was often a cruel necessity that separated husband and wife. The Jewish law, even in lands where monogamy was not legally enforced, did not allow the Jew, however, to console himself with one wife at home and another abroad. Josephus, we know, had one wife in Tiberias and another in Alexandria, and the same thing is told us of royal officers in the Roman period; but the Talmudic legislation absolutely forbids such license, even though it did not formally prohibit a man from having more than one wife at home. We hear occasionally of the wife’s growing restive in her husband’s absence and taking another husband. In 1272, Isaac of Erfurt went on a trading journey, and though he was only gone from March 9, 1271, to July, 1272, he found, on his return, that his wife had wearied of waiting for him. Such incidents on the side of the wife were very rare; the number of cases in which wife-desertion occurred was larger. In her husband’s absence, the wife’s lot, at best, was not happy. “Come back,” wrote one wife, “or send me a divorce.” “Nay,” replied the husband, “I can do neither. I have not yet made enough provision for us, so I cannot return. And, before Heaven, I love you, so I cannot divorce you.” The Rabbi advised that he should give her a conditional divorce, a kindly device, which provided that, in case the husband remained away beyond a fixed date, the wife was free to make other matrimonial arrangements. The Rabbis held that travelling diminishes family life, property, and reputation. Move from house to house, and you lose a shirt; go from place to place, and you lose a life–so ran the Rabbinic proverb. This subject might be enlarged upon, but enough has been said to show that this breaking up of the family life was one of the worst effects of the Jewish travels of the Middle Ages, and even more recent times.

Whether his journey was devotional or commercial, the rites of religion formed part of the traveller’s preparations for the start. The Prayer for Wayfarers is Talmudic in origin. It may be found in many prayer books, and I need not quote it. But one part of it puts so well, in a few pregnant words, the whole story of danger, that I must reproduce them. On approaching a town, the Jew prayed, “May it be Thy will, O Lord, to bring me safely to this town.” When he had entered, he prayed, “May it be Thy will, O Lord, to take me safely from this town.” And when he actually left, he uttered similar words, pathetic and painfully significant.

In the first century of the Christian era, much travelling was entailed by the conveyance of the didrachmon, sent by each Jew to the Temple from almost every part of the known world. Philo says of the Jews beyond the Euphrates: “Every year the sacred messengers are sent to convey large sums of gold and silver to the Temple, which have been collected from all the subordinate Governments. They travel over rugged and difficult and almost impassable roads, which, however, they look upon as level and easy, inasmuch as they serve to conduct them to piety.” And the road was made easy in other ways.

It must often have been shortened to the imagination by the prevalent belief that by supernatural aid the miles could be actually lessened. Rabbi Natronai was reported to be able to convey himself a several days’ journey in a single instant. So Benjamin of Tudela tells how Alroy, who claimed to be the Messiah in the twelfth century, not only could make himself visible or invisible at will, but could cross rivers on his turban, and, by the aid of the Divine Name, could travel a ten days’ journey in ten hours. Another Jewish traveller calmed the sea by naming God, another by writing the sacred Name on a shard, and casting it into the sea. “Have no care,” said he, on another occasion, to his Arab comrade, as the shadows fell on a Friday afternoon, and they were still far from home, “have no care, we shall arrive before nightfall,” and, exercising his wonderworking powers, he was as good as his word. We read in Achimaaz of the exploits of a tenth-century Jew who traversed Italy, working wonders, being received everywhere with popular acclamations. This was Aaron of Bagdad, son of a miller, who, finding that a lion had eaten the mill-mule, caught the lion and made him do the grinding. His father sent him on his travels as a penalty for his dealings with magic: after three years he might return. Fie went on board a ship, and assured the sailors that they need fear neither foe nor storm, for he could use the Name. He landed at Gaeta in Italy, where he restored to human form the son of his host, whom a witch had turned into an ass. This was the beginning of many miracles. But he did not allow one place to monopolize him. Next we find him in Benvenuto. He goes to the synagogue, recognizes that a lad omits the name of God from his prayer, thus showing that he is dead! He goes to Oria, then to Bari, and so forth. Similar marvels were told in the Midrash, of travellers like Father Jacob, and in the lives of Christian saints.

But the Jew had a real means of shortening the way–by profitable and edifying conversation. “Do not travel with an Am ha-Arez,” the olden Rabbis advised. Such a one, they held, was careless of his own safety, and would hardly be more careful of his companion’s life. But, besides, an Am ha-Arez, using the word in its later sense of ignoramus, would be too dull for edifying conversation, and one might as well or as ill journey alone as with a boor. But “thou shalt speak of them by the way,” says Deuteronomy of the commandments, and this (to say nothing of the danger) was one of the reasons why solitary travelling was disapproved. A man walking alone was more likely to turn his mind to idle thoughts, than if he had a congenial partner to converse with, and the Mishnah is severe against him who turns aside from his peripatetic study to admire a tree or a fallow. This does not imply that the Jews were indifferent to the beauties of nature. Jewish travellers often describe the scenery of the parts they visit, and Petachiah literally revels in the beautiful gardens of Persia, which he paints in vivid colors. Then, again, few better descriptions of a storm at sea have been written than those composed by Jehudah Halevi on his fatal voyage to Palestine. Similarly, Charizi, another Jewish wayfarer, who laughed himself over half the world, wrote verses as he walked, to relieve the tedium. He is perhaps the most entertaining of all Jewish travellers. Nothing is more amusing than his conscious habit of judging the characters of the men he saw by their hospitality, or the reverse, to himself. A more serious traveller, Maimonides, must have done a good deal of thinking on horseback, to get through his ordinary day’s work and write his great books. In fact, he himself informs us that he composed part of his Commentary to the Mishnah while journeying by land and sea. In Europe, the Rabbis often had several neighboring congregations under their care, and on their journeys to and fro took their books with them, and read in them at intervals. Maharil, on such journeys, always took note of the Jewish customs observed in different localities. He was also a most skilful and successful Shadchan, or marriage-broker, and his extensive travels placed this famous Rabbi in an excellent position for match-making. Certainly, the marriages he effected were notoriously prosperous, and in his hands the Shadchan system did the most good and the least harm of which it is capable.

Another type of short-distance traveller was the Bachur, or student. Not that his journeys were always short, but he rarely crossed the sea. In the second century we find Jewish students in Galilee behaving as many Scotch youths did before the days of Carnegie funds. These students would study in Sepphoris in the winter, and work in the fields in summer. After the impoverishment caused by the Bar-Cochba war, the students were glad to dine at the table of the wealthy Patriarch Judah I. In the medieval period there were also such. These Bachurim, who, young as they were, were often married, accomplished enormous journeys on foot. They walked from the Rhine to Vienna, and from North Germany to Italy. Their privations on the road were indescribable. Bad weather was naturally a severe trial. “Hearken not to the prayers of wayfarers,” was the petition of those who stayed at home. This quaint Talmudic saying refers to the selfishness of travellers, who always clamor for fine weather, though the farmer needs rain. Apart from the weather, the Bachurim suffered much on the road. Their ordinary food was raw vegetables culled from the fields; they drank nothing but water. They were often accompanied by their teachers, who underwent the same privations. Unlike their Talmudical precursors, they travelled much by night, because it was safer, and also because they reserved the daylight for study. The dietary laws make Jewish travelling particularly irksome. We do, indeed, find Jews lodging at the ordinary inns, but they could not join the general company at the table d’h˘te. The Sabbath, too, was the cause of some discomfort, though the traveller always exerted his utmost efforts to reach a Jewish congregation by Friday evening, sometimes, as we have seen, with supernatural aid.

We must interrupt this account of the Bachur to record a much earlier instance of the awkward situation in which a pious Jewish traveller might find himself because of the Sabbath regulations. In the very last year of the fourth century, Synesius, of Cyrene, writing to his brother of his voyage from Alexandria to Constantinople, supplies us with a quaint instance of the manner in which the Sabbath affected Jewish travellers. Synesius uses a sarcastic tone, which must not be taken as seriously unfriendly. “His voyage homeward,” says Mr. Glover, “was adventurous.” It is a pity that space cannot be found for a full citation of Synesius’s enthralling narrative. His Jewish steersman is an entertaining character. There were twelve members in the crew, the steersman making the thirteenth. More than half, including the steersman, were Jews. “It was,” says Synesius, “the day which the Jews call the Preparation [Friday], and they reckon the night to the next day, on which they are not allowed to do any work, but they pay it especial honor, and rest on it. So the steersman let go the helm from his hands, when he thought the sun would have set on the land, and threw himself down, and ’What mariner should choose might trample him!’ We did not at first understand the real reason, but took it for despair, and went to him and besought him not to give up all hope yet. For in plain fact the big rollers still kept on, and the sea was at issue with itself. It does this when the wind falls, and the waves it has set going do not fall with it, but, still retaining in full force the impulse that started them, meet the onset of the gale, and to its front oppose their own. Well, when people are sailing in such circumstances, life hangs, as they say, by a slender thread. But if the steersman is a Rabbi into the bargain, what are one’s feelings? When, then, we understood what he meant in leaving the helm,–for when we begged him to save the ship from danger, he went on reading his book,–we despaired of persuasion, and tried force. And a gallant soldier (for we have with us a good few Arabians, who belong to the cavalry) drew his sword, and threatened to cut his head off, if he would not steer the ship. But in a moment he was a genuine Maccabee, and would stick to his dogma. Yet when it was now midnight, he took his place of his own accord, ’for now,’ says he, ’the law allows me, as we are clearly in danger of our lives.’ At that the tumult begins again, moaning of men and screaming of women. Everybody began calling on Heaven, and wailing and remembering their dear ones. Amarantus alone was cheerful, thinking he was on the point of ruling out his creditors.” Amarantus was the captain, who wished to die, because he was deep in debt. What with the devil-may-care captain, the Maccabean steersman, and the critical onlooker, who was a devoted admirer of Hypatia, rarely has wayfaring been conducted under more delightful conditions. As is often the case in life, the humors of the scene almost obscure the fact that the lives of the actors were in real danger. But all ended well. “As for us,” says Synesius further on, “as soon as we reached the land we longed for, we embraced it as if it had been a living mother. Offering, as usual, a hymn of gratitude to God, I added to it the recent misadventure from which we had unexpectedly been saved.”

To return to our travelling Bachur of later centuries than Synesius’s Rabbi-steersman. On the road, the student was often attacked, but, as happened with the son of the great Asheri, who was waylaid by bandits near Toledo, the robbers did not always get the best of the fight. The Bachur could take his own part. One Jew gained much notoriety in 801 by conducting an elephant all the way from Haroun al-Rashid’s court as a present to Charlemagne, the king of the Franks. But the Rabbi suffered considerably from his religion on his journeys. Dr. Schechter tells us how the Gaon Elijah got out of his carriage to say his prayer, and, as the driver knew that the Rabbi would not interrupt his devotions, he promptly made off, carrying away the Gaon’s property.

But the account was not all on one side. If the Bachur suffered for his religion, he received ample compensation. When he arrived at his destination, he was welcomed right heartily. We read how cordially the Sheliach Kolel was received in Algiers in the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. It was a great popular event, as is nowadays the visit of the Alliance inspector. This was not the case with all Jewish travellers, some of whom received a very cold shoulder from their brethren. Why was this? Chiefly because the Jews, as little as the rest of medieval peoples, realized that progress and enlightenment are indissolubly bound up with the right of free movement. They regarded the right to move here and there at will as a selfish privilege of the few, not the just right of all. But more than that. The Jews were forced to live in special and limited Ghettos. It was not easy to find room for newcomers. When a crisis arrived, such as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, then, except here and there, the Jews were generous to a fault in providing for the exiles. Societies all over the Continent and round the coast of the Mediterranean spent their time and money in ransoming the poor victims, who, driven from Spain, were enslaved by the captains of the vessels that carried them, and were then bought back to freedom by their Jewish brethren.

This is a noble fact in Jewish history. But it is nevertheless true that Jewish communities were reluctant in ordinary times to permit new settlements. This was not so in ancient times. Among the Essenes, a newcomer had a perfectly equal right to share everything with the old inhabitants. These Essenes were great travellers, going from city to city, probably with propagandist aims. In the Talmudic law there are very clear rules on the subject of passers through a town or immigrants into it. By that law persons staying in a place for less than thirty days were free from all local dues except special collections for the poor. He who stayed less than a year contributed to the ordinary poor relief, but was not taxed for permanent objects, such as walling the town, defences, etc., nor did he contribute to the salaries of teachers and officials, nor the building and support of synagogues. But as his duties were small, so were his rights. After a twelve months’ stay he became a “son of the city,” a full member of the community. But in the Middle Ages, newcomers, as already said, were not generally welcome. The question of space was one important reason, for all newcomers had to stay in the Ghetto. Secondly, the newcomer was not amenable to discipline. Local custom varied much in the details both of Jewish and general law. The new settler might claim to retain his old customs, and the regard for local custom was so strong that the claim was often allowed, to the destruction of uniformity and the undermining of authority. To give an instance or two: A newcomer would insist that, as he might play cards in his native town, he ought not to be expected to obey puritanical restrictions in the place to which he came. The result was that the resident Jews would clamor against foreigners enjoying special privileges, as in this way all attempts to control gambling might be defeated. Or the newcomer would claim to shave his beard in accordance with his home custom, but to the scandal of the town which he was visiting. The native young men would imitate the foreigner, and then there would be trouble. Or the settler would assert his right to wear colors and fashions and jewelry forbidden to native Jews. Again, the marriage problem was complicated by the arrival of insinuating strangers, who turned out to be married men masquerading as bachelors. Then as to public worship–the congregation was often split into fragments by the independent services organized by foreign groups, and it would become necessary to prohibit its own members from attending the synagogues of foreign settlers. Then as to communal taxes: these were fixed annually on the basis of the population, and the arrival of newcomers seriously disturbed the equilibrium, led to fresh exactions by the Government, which it was by no means certain the new settlers could or would pay, and which, therefore, fell on the shoulders of the old residents.

When we consider all these facts, we can see that the eagerness of the medieval Jews to control the influx of foreign settlers was only in part the result of base motives. And, of course, the exclusion was not permanent or rigid. In Rome, the Sefardic and the Italian Jews fraternally placed their synagogues on different floors of the same building. In some German towns, the foreign synagogue was fixed in the same courtyard as the native. Everywhere foreign Jews abounded, and everywhere a generous welcome awaited the genuine traveller.

As to the travelling beggar, he was a perpetual nuisance. Yet he was treated with much consideration. The policy with regard to him was, “Send the beggar further,” and this suited the tramp, too. He did not wish to settle, he wished to move on. He would be lodged for two days in the communal inn, or if, as usually happened, he arrived on Friday evening, he would be billeted on some hospitable member, or the Shamash would look after him at the public expense. It is not till the thirteenth century that we meet regular envoys sent from Palestine to collect money.

The genuine traveller, however, was an ever-welcome guest. If he came at fair time, his way was smoothed for him. The Jew who visited the fair was only rarely charged local taxes by the Synagogue. He deserved a welcome, for he not only brought wares to sell, but he came laden with new books. The fair was the only book-market At other times the Jews were dependent on the casual visits of travelling venders of volumes. Book-selling does not seem to have been a settled occupation in the Middle Ages. The merchant who came to the fair also fulfilled another function–that of Shadchan. The day of the fair was, in fact, the crisis of the year. Naturally, the letter-carrier was eagerly received. In the early part of the eighteenth century the function of conveying the post was sometimes filled by Jewesses.

Even the ordinary traveller, who had no business to transact, would often choose fair time for visiting new places, for he would be sure to meet interesting people then. He, too, would mostly arrive on a Friday evening, and would beguile the Sabbath with reports of the wonders he had seen. In the great synagogue of Sepphoris, Jochanan was discoursing of the great pearl, so gigantic in size that the Eastern gates of the Temple were to be built of the single gem. “Ay, ay,” assented an auditor, who had been a notorious skeptic until he had become a shipwrecked sailor, “had not mine own eyes beheld such a pearl in the ocean-bed, I should not have believed it.” And so the medieval traveller would tell his enthralling tales. He would speak of a mighty Jewish kingdom in the East, existing in idyllic peace and prosperity; he would excite his auditors with news of the latest Messiah; he would describe the river Sambatyon, which keeps the Sabbath, and, mingling truth with fiction, with one breath would truly relate how he crossed a river on an inflated skin, and with the next breath romance about Hillel’s tomb, how he had been there, and how he had seen a large hollow stone, which remains empty if a bad fellow enters, but at the approach of a pious visitor fills up with sweet, pure water, with which he washes, uttering a wish at the same time, sure that it will come true. It is impossible even to hint at all the wonders of the tombs. Jews were ardent believers in the supernatural power of sepulchres; they made pilgrimages to them to pray and to beg favors. Jewish travellers’ tales of the Middle Ages are heavily laden with these legends. Of course, the traveller would also bring genuine news about his brethren in distant parts, and sober information about foreign countries, their ways, their physical conformation, and their strange birds and beasts. These stories were in the main true. For instance, Petachiah tells of a flying camel, which runs fifteen times as fast as the fleetest horse. He must have seen an ostrich, which is still called the flying camel by Arabs. But we cannot linger over this matter. Suffice it to say that, as soon as Sabbath was over, the traveller’s narrative would be written out by the local scribe, and treasured as one of the communal prizes. The traveller, on his part, often kept a diary, and himself compiled a description of his adventures. In some congregations there was kept a Communal Note-Book, in which were entered decisions brought by visiting Rabbis from other communities.

The most welcome of guests, even more welcome than long-distance travellers, or globe-trotters, were the Bachurim and travelling Rabbis. The Talmudic Rabbis were most of them travellers. Akiba’s extensive journeys were, some think, designed to rouse the Jews of Asia Minor generally to participate in the insurrection against Hadrian. But my narrative must be at this point confined to the medieval students. For the Bachurim, or students, there was a special house in many communities, and they lived together with their teachers. In the twelfth century, the great academy of Narbonne, under Abraham ibn Daud, attracted crowds of foreign students. These, as Benjamin of Tudela tells us, were fed and clothed at the communal cost. At Beaucaire, the students were housed and supported at the teacher’s expense. In the seventeenth century, the students not only were paid small bursaries, but every household entertained one or more of them at table. In these circumstances their life was by no means dull or monotonous. A Jewish student endures much, but he knows how to get the best out of life. This optimism, this quickness of humor, saved the Rabbi and his pupil from many a melancholy hour. Take Abraham ibn Ezra, for instance. If ever a man was marked out to be a bitter reviler of fate, it was he. But he laughed at fate. He gaily wandered from his native Spain over many lands penniless, travelled with no baggage but his thoughts, visited Italy and France, and even reached London, where, perhaps, he died. Fortune ill-treated him, but he found many joys. Wherever he went, patrons held out their hand.

Travelling students found many such generous lovers of learning, who, with their wealth, encouraged their guests to write original works or copy out older books, which the patrons then passed on to poor scholars in want of a library. The legend is told, how the prophet Elijah visited Hebron, and was not “called up” in the synagogue. Receiving no Aliyah on earth, he returned to his elevation in Heaven. It was thus imprudent to deny honor to angels unawares. Usually the scholar was treated as such a possible angel. When he arrived, the whole congregation would turn out to meet him. He would be taken in procession to the synagogue, where he would say the benediction ha-Gomel, in thanks for his safety on the road. Perhaps he would address the congregation, though he would do that rather in the school than in the synagogue. Then a banquet would be spread for him. This banquet was called one of the Seudoth Mitzvah, i.e. “commandment meals,” to which it was a duty of all pious men to contribute their money and their own attendance. It would be held in the communal hall, used mostly for marriage feasts. When a wedding party came from afar, similar steps for general enjoyment were taken. Men mounted on horseback went forth to welcome the bride, mimic tournaments were fought en route, torch-light processions were made if it were night time, processions by boats if it were in Italy or by the Rhine, a band of communal musicians, retained at general cost, played merry marches, and everyone danced and joined in the choruses. These musicians often went from town to town, and the Jewish players were hired for Gentile parties, just as Jews employed Christian or Arab musicians to help make merry on the Jewish Sabbaths and festivals.

We need not wonder, then, that a traveller like Ibn Ezra was no croaker, but a genial critic of life. He suffered, but he was light-hearted enough to compose witty epigrams and improvise rollicking wine songs. He was an accomplished chess player, and no doubt did something to spread the Eastern game in Europe. Another service rendered by such travellers was the spread of learning by their translations. Their wanderings made them great linguists, and they were thus able to translate medical, astronomical, and scientific works wherever they went. They were also sent by kings on missions to collect new nautical instruments. Thus, the baculus, which helped Columbus to discover America, was taken to Portugal by Jews, and a French Jew was its inventor. They were much in demand as travelling doctors, being summoned from afar to effect specific cures. But they also carried other delights with them. Not only were they among the troubadours, but they were also the most famous of the travelling conteurs. It was the Jews, like Berechiah, Charizi, Zabara, Abraham ibn Chasdai, and other incessant travellers, who helped to bring to Europe Ăsop, Bidpai, the Buddhist legends, who “translated them from the Indian,” and were partly responsible for this rich poetical gift to the Western world.

Looking back on such a life, Ibn Ezra might well detect a Divine Providence in his own pains and sorrows. So, Jew-like, he retained his hope to the last, and after his buffetings on the troubled seas of life, remembering the beneficent results of his travels to others, if not to himself, he could write in this faithful strain:

  My hope God knoweth well,
  My life He made full sweet;
  Whene’er His servant fell,
  God raised him to his feet.
  Within the garment of His grace,
  My faults He did enfold,
  Hiding my sin, His kindly face
  My God did ne’er withhold.
  Requiting with fresh good,
  My black ingratitude.

There remain the great merchant travellers to be told about. They sailed over all the world, and brought to Europe the wares, the products, the luxuries of the East. They had their own peculiar dangers. Shipwreck was the fate of others besides themselves, but they were peculiarly liable to capture and sale as slaves. Foremost among their more normal hardships I should place the bridge laws of the Middle Ages. The bridges were sometimes practically maintained by the Jewish tolls. In England, before 1290, a Jew paid a toll of a halfpenny on foot and a full penny on horseback–large sums in those days. A “dead Jew” paid eightpence. Burial was for a long time lawful only in London, and the total toll paid for bringing a dead Jew to London over the various bridges must have been considerable. In the Kurpfalz, for instance, the Jewish traveller had to pay the usual “white penny” for every mile, but also a heavy general fee for the whole journey. If he was found without his ticket of leave, he was at once arrested. But it was when he came to a bridge that the exactions grew insufferable. The regulations were somewhat tricky, for the Jew was specially taxed only on Sundays and the Festivals of the Church. But every other day was some Saint’s Festival, and while, in Mannheim, even on those days the Christian traveller paid one kreuzer if he crossed the bridge on foot, and two if on horseback, the Jew was charged four kreuzer if on foot, twelve if on a horse, and for every beast of burden he, unlike the Christian wayfarer, paid a further toll of eight kreuzer. The Jewish quarter often lay near the river, and Jews had great occasion for crossing the bridges, even for local needs. In Venice, the Jewish quarter was naturally intersected by bridges; in Rome there was the pons Judeorum, which, no doubt, the Jews had to maintain in repair. It must be remembered that many local Jewish communities paid a regular bridge tax which was not exacted from Christians, and when all this is considered, it will be seen that the Jewish merchant needed to work hard and go far afield, if he was to get any profit from his enterprises.

Nevertheless, these Jews owned horses and caravans, and sailed their own ships long before the time when great merchants, like the English Jew Antonio Fernandes Carvajal, traded in their own vessels between London and the Canaries. We hear of Palestinian Jews in the third century and of Italian Jews in the fifth century with ships of their own. Jewish sailors abounded on the Mediterranean, which tended to become a Jewish lake. The trade routes of the Jews were chiefly two. “By one route,” says Beazley, “they sailed from the ports of France and Italy to the Isthmus of Suez, and thence down the Red Sea to India and Farther Asia. By another course, they transported the goods of the West to the Syrian coast; up the Orontes to Antioch; down the Euphrates to Bassora; and so along the Persian Gulf to Oman and the Southern Ocean.” Further, there were two chief overland routes. On the one side merchants left Spain, traversed the straits of Gibraltar, went by caravan from Tangier along the northern fringe of the desert, to Egypt, Syria, and Persia. This was the southern route. Then there was the northern route, through Germany, across the country of the Slavs to the Lower Volga; thence, descending the river, they sailed across the Caspian. Then the traveller proceeded along the Oxus valley to Balkh, and, turning north-east, traversed the country of the Tagazgaz Turks, and found himself at last on the frontier of China. When one realizes the extent of such a journey, it is not surprising to hear that the greatest authorities are agreed that in the Middle Ages, before the rise of the Italian trading republics, the Jews were the chief middlemen between Europe and Asia. Their vast commercial undertakings were productive of much good. Not only did the Jews bring to Europe new articles of food and luxury, but they served the various States as envoys and as intelligencers. The great Anglo-Jewish merchant Carvajal provided Cromwell with valuable information, as other Jewish merchants had done to other rulers of whom they were loyal servants. In the fifteenth century Henry of Portugal applied to Jews for intelligence respecting the interior of Africa, and a little later John, king of the same land, derived accurate information respecting India from two Jewish travellers that had spent many years at Ormuz and Calcutta. But it is unnecessary to add more facts of this type. The Jewish merchant traveller was no mere tradesman. He observed the country, especially did he note the numbers and occupations of the Jews, their synagogues, their schools, their vices, and their virtues.

In truth, the Jewish traveller, as he got farther from home, was more at home than many of his contemporaries of other faiths when they were at home. He kept alive that sense of the oneness of Judaism which could be most strongly and completely achieved because there was no political bias to separate it into hostile camps.

But the interest between the traveller and his home was maintained by another bond. A striking feature of Jewish wayfaring life was the writing of letters home. The “Book of the Pious,” composed about 1200, says: “He that departs from the city where his father and mother live, and travels to a place of danger, and his father and mother are anxious on account of him; it is the bounden duty of the son to hire a messenger as soon as he can and despatch a letter to his father and mother, telling them when he departs from the place of danger, that their anxiety may be allayed.” Twice a year all Jews wrote family letters, at the New Year and the Passover, and they sent special greetings on birthdays. But the traveller was the chief letter-writer. “O my father,” wrote the famous Obadiah of Bertinoro, in 1488, “my departure from thee has caused thee sorrow and suffering, and I am inconsolable that I was forced to leave at the time when age was creeping on thee. When I think of thy grey hairs, which I no longer see, my eyes flow over with tears. But if the happiness of serving thee in person is denied to me, yet I can at least serve thee as thou desirest, by writing to thee of my journey, by pouring my soul out to thee, by a full narrative of what I have seen and of the state and manners of the Jews in all the places where I have dwelt.” After a long and valuable narrative, he concludes in this loving strain: “I have taken me a house in Jerusalem near the synagogue, and my window overlooks it. In the court where my house is, there live five women, and only one other man besides myself. He is blind, and his wife attends to my needs. God be thanked, I have escaped the sickness which affects nearly all travellers here. And I entreat you, weep not at my absence, but rejoice in my joy, that I am in the Holy City. I take God to witness that here the thought of all my sufferings vanishes, and but one image is before my eyes, thy dear face, O my father. Let me feel that I can picture that face to me, not clouded with tears, but lit with joy. You have other children around you; make them your joy, and let my letters, which I will ever and anon renew, bring solace to your age, as your letters bring solace to me.”

Much more numerous than the epistles of sons to fathers are the letters of fathers to their families. When these come from Palestine, there is the same mingling of pious joy and human sorrow–joy to be in the Holy Land, sorrow to be separated from home. Another source of grief was the desolation of Palestine.

One such letter-writer tells sadly how he walked through the market at Zion, thought of the past, and only kept back his tears lest the Arab onlookers should see and ridicule his sorrow. Yet another medieval letter-writer, Nachmanides, reaches the summit of sentiment in these lines, which I take from Dr. Schechter’s translation: “I was exiled by force from home, I left my sons and daughters; and with the dear and sweet ones whom I brought up on my knees, I left my soul behind me. My heart and my eyes will dwell with them forever. But O! the joy of a day in thy courts, O Jerusalem! visiting the ruins of the Temple and crying over the desolate Sanctuary; where I am permitted to caress thy stones, to fondle thy dust, and to weep over thy ruins. I wept bitterly, but found joy in my tears.”

And with this thought in our mind we will take leave of our subject. It is the traveller who can best discern, amid the ruins wrought by man, the hope of a Divine rebuilding. Over the heavy hills of strife, he sees the coming dawn of peace. The world must still pass through much tribulation before the new Jerusalem shall arise, to enfold in its loving embrace all countries and all men. But the traveller, more than any other, hastens the good time. He overbridges seas, he draws nations nearer; he shows men that there are many ways of living and of loving. He teaches them to be tolerant; he humanizes them by presenting their brothers to them. The traveller it is who prepares a way in the wilderness, who makes straight in the desert a highway for the Lord.

Continue...

Preface  •  “The Book of Delight”  •  A Visit to Hebron  •  The Solace of Books  •  Medieval Wayfaring  •  The Fox’s Heart  •  “Marriages Are Made in Heaven”  •  Hebrew Love Songs  •  A Handful of Curiosities  •  Notes