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THE REAL JEWS

Revelation 2:9

I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.

SOURCES OF TRUTH

Table of Contents

 

 This descriptive work, written in an easy, fluent Hebrew, is compiled, as the preface states, from notes made by the traveler on the spot and brought back by him in 1173 to Castile. The unknown author of the preface probably compiled the account for Benjamin from these notes, retaining the traveler's own words in the first person, but omitting much. Benjamin, for instance, claims to have noted down everything that he saw and all that he heard from the mouths of men of established reputation in Spain. His notes, therefore, may have contained at the same time the names of his informants; but in the book as published only Abraham the Pious is mentioned by name as having given information in Jerusalem.

Travels Occupy Thirteen Years.

 

Benjamin, who probably traveled as a merchant, evinced keen interest in all things, and possessed a clear insight into the conditions and history of the countries he traversed. His journey occupied thirteen years: setting out from Saragossa in 1160, he was back again in Spain in 1173. He made long stays everywhere, taking plenty of time to collect his information and to verify or disprove accounts given him. Being an intelligent Spanish Jew, he took an appreciative interest not only in Jewish affairs in the lands he visited, but also in the general conditions prevailing and in the various historical and educational facts related to him. His account contains numerous valuable details of the political history and internal development of countries and nations; and the history of commerce must always count Benjamin's itinerary as one of its earliest and most valued sources. The commercial importance of Barcelona and Montpellier, of Constantinople and Alexandria, as centers of international trade is vividly depicted. The situation of some cities—as, for instance, Amalfi—is described in terse but graphic words. He gives a clear picture of the peculiarities of the republics of Genoa and Pisa, in which every house was a fortress. His characterization of the Greeks is accurate: waging war by means of mercenaries, he says, they had come to have no warlike spirit themselves and had become women. He is struck by the significance of the victorious progress in Europe of the Seljuks, whom he calls Turks.

 

His Accuracy and Shrewdness.

He treats of the Assassins and Druses with great shrewdness, as well as of the Wallachians, who were invading Greece by way of the Balkan passes. He made the intimate acquaintance of the most important functionaries of the Byzantine empire, and has much to say likewise about the calif in Bagdad, whom he compares to the Christian pope. Many more of these little details of information could be adduced to show Benjamin's acuteness of observation and critical understanding of affairs, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

 

But Benjamin's chief interest undoubtedly centered in the conditions of the Jewish congregations of the countries he visited, and about which he has registered so many and such important and reliable accounts that his "Travels" are considered a source of the first importance for the history of the Jews in the twelfth century. With the sole exception of the "Sefer ha-Ḳabbalah," written about the same time by Abraham ibn Daud of Toledo, there is no work which compares with Benjamin's in value. His accounts, moreover, cover the majority of the countries then inhabited by Jews. In a species of panoramic view, he gives full descriptions of the Jews living in all those lands, with accurate data about them, their civil standing, their occupations, their schools, and their leading men.

Benjamin's route to the East took him through Catalonia, southern France, Italy, Greece, the islands of the Levant, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia, to Bagdad. Arrived at that city, which was then again the residence of a Jewish exilarch, he gathered information concerning countries which laystill farther east and north, and concerning the large Jewish congregations of Persia and of the countries beyond the Oxus.

His homeward journey lay through Khuzistan, the Indian ocean, and Yemen, to Egypt, where he stayed a long time; thence by way of Sicily back to Spain. Some remarkable notes are given at the end of the book concerning the Jews of Germany, as also those of the Slavonic lands east of Prague. Likewise northern France, with its incomparable scholars, hospitality, and fraternal feeling, is not forgotten. Benjamin did not himself visit these latter countries, and so was not personally acquainted with any of their leading men. In other places Benjamin—probably not a scholar himself, but possessing a profound respect for scholarship—always enumerates the principal men and the heads of the Jewish communities. His book thus contains the names of no less than 248 of those he knew, among them many well known to history.

 

His Statistical Data.

Of especial importance are his statistical data; and it is from his accounts that the first accurate representation of the density of the Jewish population in certain districts and cities is obtained. He furnishes also important and reliable accounts of the civil occupations of the Jews. From him it is learned, for instance, that the Jews of Palestine and of some other countries extensively practised the art of dyeing; that the large Jewish congregation of Thebes, in Greece, was employed in the manufacture of silk and purple; that there were Jewish glass-makers in Antioch and Tyre; that in the last-named town there were also Jewish shipowners; that among the Druses of Lebanon, Jewish workmen were domiciled; and that in Crissa, at the foot of Parnassus, a large colony of Jewish peasants existed.

Jewish Sects.

Benjamin also gives valuable particulars concerning Jewish sects. He tells of the Karaites in Constantinople, Ashkelon, and Damascus; of a peculiar sect upon the island of Cyprus which fixed the beginning of the Sabbath not on Friday evening, but on Saturday morning; of the Samaritans in Cæsarea, Sebaste, Ashkelon, Damascus, and espe cially in Nablus (Shechem). He calls the Samaritans "Samaritan Jews," and describes peculiarities of their worship and language. His accounts of the Jews in Bagdad and other cities of the East are very full; and most interesting is his description of the grave of Ezekiel the prophet, and the solemn ceremonies there. His account of the pseudo-Messiah, David Alroy, who appeared shortly before Benjamin's journey, is the chief source of information concerning that remarkable episode of Jewish history.

 

A Very Reliable Source

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His Account of the Israelites "Black Jews"

Thence it is seven days' journey to Khulam which is the beginning of the country of the Sun-worshippers[172]. These are the sons of Cush, who read the stars, and are all black in colour. They are honest in commerce. When merchants come to them from distant lands and enter the harbour, three of the King's secretaries go down to them and record their names, and then bring them before the King, whereupon the King makes himself responsible even for their property which they leave in the open, unprotected. There is an official who sits in his office, and the owner of any lost property has only to describe it to him when he hands it back. This custom prevails in all that country. From Passover to New Year, that is all during the summer, no man can go out of his house because of the sun, for the heat in that country is intense, and from the third hour of the day onward, everybody remains in his house till the evening. Then they go forth and kindle lights in all the market places and all the streets, and then do their work and business atp.91 night-time. For they have to turn night into day in consequence of the great heat of the sun. Pepper is found there. They plant the trees thereof in the fields, and each man of the city knows his own plantation. The trees are small, and the pepper is as white as snow. And when they have collected it, they place it in saucepans and pour boiling water over it, so that it may become strong. They then take it out of the water and dry it in the sun, and it turns black. Calamus and ginger and many other kinds of spice are found in this land.

The people of this country do not bury their dead, but embalm them by means of various spices, after which they place them on chairs and cover them with fine linen. And each family has a house where it preserves the embalmed remains of its ancestors and relations. The flesh hardens on the bones, and the embalmed bodies look like living beings, so that every man can recognize his parents, and the members of his family for many years. They worship the sun, and they have high places everywhere outside the city at a distance of p. 92 about half a mile. And every morning they run forth to greet the sun, for on every high place a solar disc is made of cunning workmanship and as the sun rises the disc rotates with thundering noise, and all, both men and women, offer incense to the sun with censers in their hands. Such are their superstitious practices. And throughout the island, including all the towns there, live several thousand Israelites. The inhabitants are all black, and the Jews also. The latter are good and benevolent. They know the law of Moses and the prophets, and to a small extent the Talmud and Halacha.

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