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Catalonia — A distinct Torah culture

Spain was never part of that unique blend: Sefardic tradition, Tosafist methodology, and Provencal talmudic influence

The ongoing drama surrounding the Catalan independence referendum raises the question of the historical relationship between the Catalan region and the rest of the Iberian Peninsula.

The Teaching of the Arizal

R. Yeshaya Horowitz (the Shelah Ha-Kadosh; Prague, d. 1630) quotes from the Arizal (R. Yitzchak Luria; Safed, d. 1572) that just as the Jewish nation encamped in four groups — arba degalim — so too there are four main halachic traditions: Sefard, Ashkenaz, Catalonia, and Italy. Each tradition, the Arizal writes, should maintain its unique masorah, for they are “all the words of the living God.”

איש על דגלו באותות לבית אבותם (במדבר ב, ב). האר”י ז”ל היה אומר, כמו שיש ד’ דגלים, כך יש ד’ כתות בישראל חלוקים באיזה מנהגים, ספרד אשכנז קטלוניא אטליא, וכל אחד ישאר בדגלו לנהוג מנהגו. ואלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים (דרך חיים תוכחות מוסר פרשת במדבר)

From the words of the Arizal we learn that Catalonia had its own halachic tradition, distinct from that of Spain and the rest of Europe.

The Torah of Spain in the Period of the Rishonim

During the time period of the Rishonim, Catalonia played an important role in the transmission of Torah.  In the early years of the Rishonim, great Torah luminaries led the Sefardic Torah culture, which was centered in Muslim-controlled North Africa and southern Spain.  Rabbenu Chananel (North Africa, d. 11th century), the Rif (R. Yitzchak Alfasi; North Africa, d. 1103), the Ri Migash (R. Yitzchak ibn Migash; Spain, d. 1141), and the Rambam (Maimonides; Spain-Egypt, d. 1205) are some of the more well-known talmudists that flourished at this time. However, their Torah culture came to a tragic end in the beginning of the 12th century when a different sect of tribal Muslims overran North Africa and southern Spain, eventually extended their rule into central Spain. In response, many of the Jews fled northward toward northern Spain, Catalonia and southern France.

Towards the middle of the 12th century, the Christians of northern Spain began to retake control of the Iberian Peninsula in a series of military campaigns known as the Reconquista. With the successful reconquest of Spain by Christian forces, Torah returned to the Iberian Peninsula.

From this point forward, Torah flourished in Spain for many generations. However, unlike the Spanish talmudists from the earlier period of the Rishonim who lived under Muslim rule, the talmudists of Spain after the Reconquista generally lived under Christian rule. The result was that these later Spanish talmudists were much more influenced by the Ashkenazic Torah culture of Christian France and Germany than the earlier Spanish talmudists who flourished under Muslim rule. Many of them ostensibly still saw themselves as the followers of the early Sefardic talmudists — the Rif, Ri Migash, and Rambam — and as heirs to their pure Sefardic tradition. Yet at the same time they also studied the Torah of the Ashkenazim, and looked to the Ashkenazic talmudists, and their style of learning, for direction and inspiration. This phenomenon was especially true of the sages who operated in the Catalonian region of north-eastern Spain, abutting southern France and Provence.


The medieval province of Catalonia was located in north-western Spain. The province, and especially its capital city Barcelona, was an important region in the Kingdom of Aragon, and a major Torah center in Christian Spain during the period of the later Rishonim.[1]

Some of the main Jewish cities of the kingdom of Aragon (which includes Catalonia) were Girona, Barcelona, and Zaragoza. Rabbenu Yonah (d. 1264) and the Ramban (Nachmanides, d. 1270) were from Girona, the Ra’ah (d. 1303) and Rashba (d. 1310) from Barcelona, and the Ritva (d. 1330) from Zaragoza.[2] They are some of the most well-known talmudists from the Catalonian Beit Midrash during the period of the Rishonim.  While many refer to this Beit Midrash as the “Chachmei Sefarad,” it would probably be more accurate to refer to them as the “Chachmei Catalonia,” for their tradition was distinct from that of the pure Sefardic tradition.

Rabbenu Yonah and the Ramban studied under talmudists from France, and their learning — both in terms of content and style — drew heavily from the Tosafists of Northern France and Germany and from the teachings of the talmudists of Provance in south-eastern France.   Most telling is the Ramban’s introduction to his Dina de-Grami, where he writes about the French rabbis, “They are the teachers, they are the instructors, they are the ones who reveal that which is hidden,” and in his commentary on Chullin 94a, Ramban attributes great honor to the Tosafists and writes, “Our Torah is theirs.”

While some talmudists from this time, such as R. Meir Abulafia (Remah; Toledo, Spain, d. 1244) likely identified more with the classic Sefardic tradition, many seemingly saw their new culture as distinct from the Sefardic tradition.  Interestingly, the Ramban in his talmudic writings refers to the Rambam as “Rabbi Moshe, the Spaniard (ha-Sefaradi).” Apparently, from the Ramban’s vantage point, it was the Rambam — not himself — who was truly “Sefardic.”[3]

Indeed, much of the talmudic writings of the Catalonian scholars address the same questions raised by the French Tosafists, an indication of the Catalonian posture towards the French rabbis and their Torah teachings. But at the same time, the Catalonian scholars also saw themselves as the inheritors of the rich Sefardic tradition of early Spain. Their inclusion of halachic decisions into their writings, something not found regularly by the Tosafists, and other Sefardic influences are sensed in the writings of the Catalonian talmudists.


The Beit Midrash of Catalonia assumed an important and unique role in the transmission of Torah. Their tradition (mesorah) was influenced by three major Torah cultures. They were the heirs of the great Sefardic tradition, they were influenced by the teachings and dialectic methods of the Tosafists of northern France, and they studied by the great Provençal talmudists of southern France.  At least in regard to the transmission of Torah in the times of the Rishonim, Catalonia was a distinct entity, independent from Spain.

[1] The region had been conquered by the Muslim Moors in the early 8th century, but Muslim rule only lasted until the end of the century.  By the year 801, Catalonia returned to Christian hands and served as the southern border of Christian Europe.  Catalonia served as a feudal fiefdom of France until 1137 when it became part of the Kingdom of Aragon.  In 1469 Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille married and from this point forward Catalonia was part of the Spanish Empire.

[2] Rabbenu Bechaye (d. 1340), the Torah commentator, flourished in Zaragoza at this time

[3] I heard this last point from Dr. Haym Soloveitchik.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Leibowitz is a Ra"m in Yeshivat Sha’alvim and the author of a number of books and articles in English and Hebrew, including Hashgachah Pratis: An Exploration of Divine Providence and Free Will (Targum Press, 2009) and The Early Rishonim: A Talmud Student’s Guide to the Rishonim (2015). His new book, The Human Soul: An Exploration of the Neshamah is due out in the next few months.
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