Jewish communities existed in the Byzantine Empire throughout its history, from the foundation of Constantinople in 330 to the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453. The centers of Jewish population and the status of the Jews there underwent drastic changes throughout this long period and shifted under the impact of events within and outside the empire. The history of the Jews in the Byzantine Empire can therefore be divided into three major sections.
From Constantine to the Iconoclastic Period (c. 720)
From the Iconoclastic Period to the Fourth Crusade (1204)
From the Fourth Crusade to the Capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453
Social and Cultural Life
LEGAL AND SOCIAL STATUS
Numerous Jewish communities were located in the eastern Mediterranean region, including the Balkans, present-day Greece, Asia Minor, Constantinople, Syria, Ereẓ Israel (which alone had 43 communities), and Egypt. The legal status accorded to the Jewish faith within the Roman Empire as a religio licita (a religion permitted by law) was not changed explicitly. However, the attitude of the Byzantine rulers and society in practice, the methods employed by the Church, the language of official documents and legislation on details combined to humiliate the Jews and narrow the confines of Jewish society and religion and the opportunities open to Jews. Almost at the beginning of his legislative activity Constantine described the Jewish religion as "baleful," and warned Jews, under threat of capital punishment, not to molest converts to Christianity. The second part of the law containing this injunction made it a crime to become a Jew: a Jew who circumcised his slave forfeited ownership of the slave (Cod. Theod. 16:8 (4, 1, 5)). Constantine and his mother Helena inspired a movement to Christianize Ereẓ Israel. His son Constantius added to his father's legislation a prohibition on marriage between Jews and Christians. An abortive revolt by the Jews in Ereẓ Israel against the provincial commander Gallus during his reign was suppressed in 351. The benign interlude of the reign of Emperor Julian the Apostate only resulted in increased enmity on the Christian side and disappointment to the Jews.
The failure of Julian's plans to revive the pagan empire and its tolerance of the Jewish religion contributed to the breakdown of the old concepts and existent attitudes among religions and people. The consistent fanaticism prevailing in Byzantine Christendom covers the long span from Julian's death until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Emperor Theodosius I revived missionary activity and prohibited Jewish parents from disinheriting children who had apostatized to Christianity. However, the burning of the synagogue in Callinicum (Mesopotamia) in 388 led to a clash between the imperial traditions and the aims of the Church. The emperor still tried to uphold the imperial tradition of law and order for all, including the Jews. He therefore ordered that the perpetrators of the outrage in Callinicum should be punished and the synagogue reconstructed at their expense. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, viewed the emperor's order as sacrilegious and succeeded in compelling him to annul it. Thus toward the end of the fourth century the humiliation of the Jews and ascendancy of ecclesiastical ideas in regulating their affairs became established in the Byzantine Empire in both theory and practice. The temporary expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria by the patriarch Cyril in 415 also marked a victory for the hatred stirred up by the Church among the populace with assistance from the authorities. The code of Theodosius II (438) summed up the former anti-Jewish legislation, and included a prohibition on building new synagogues, permitting structural repairs only if absolutely necessary. Certain Purim celebrations were forbidden. In spirit and language this fifth-century codification crystallizes the atmosphere prevailing in the Byzantine Empire in the fourth century. A Church rent by internal struggles, bent on heresy hunting with the help of the imperial authority, and using increasingly violent and uncouth language toward its Christian adversaries, developed over the fourth century a vitriolic anti-Jewish polemic literature. Both writers and preachers seemingly vied with one another in their acrimony toward, and vilification of, the Jews and Judaism. In the eight sermons delivered by John Chrysostom from his pulpit in Antioch in 387, every imaginable evil is ascribed to the Jews. The venom embodied in these writings and sermons to a large degree lies at the root of medieval Jew-hatred, spreading beyond the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire and its culture.
In the sixth century the reign of Justinian I inaugurated a hardening of attitudes toward the Jews and a departure for the worse in their treatment. The Jewish-Arab kingdom of Ḥimyar in southern Arabia was destroyed on Byzantine instigation. Justinian attempted to regulate internal Jewish life and modes of worship in accordance with what he considered necessary and right from a Christian point of view through a number of laws and practical actions. In his famous novella 146, of the year 553, he even attempted to dictate to the Jews concerning their divine worship and forbade the use of the deuterosis (Mishnah) for understanding the Torah; he also took it upon himself to lay down which biblical translation (Targum) they might use. This gross interference in Jewish religious practice is justified in the novella by hints that there was a division within Jewish society on these matters. However, while it is known that Greek was then beginning to be used in the Byzantine communities, which developed the "Romaniot" rite of prayer, it is also certain that no professing Jews would have asked for an imperial order to use translations which were mainly Christological. Justinian's tendency to resort to coercion found its severest expression in his novella 37, of 535, prohibiting the practice of Judaism in the reconquered territories in North Africa. All these measures were included in his Corpus juris civilis, with other anti-Jewish legislation. The first half of the sixth century saw a severely enforced but short-lived attempt by the emperor to abolish formally the last shreds left to Judaism of its status as a religio licita. Under assault from enemies from both within and without, the emperors of the weak empire of the second half of the sixth and first half of the seventh centuries permitted anti-Jewish riots and forced conversions of the Jews, such as ordered by Emperor Phocas in 608. The Jews reacted by revolts in self-defense. In the uprising near Antioch in 608 the patriarch was killed. The clashes of opposing forces and violence came to a head under Emperor Heraclius, when the Jews, notable among them Benjamin of Tiberias, allied themselves with the invading Persians during their capture of Jerusalem. On its recapture in 629, Heraclius avenged himself on the Jewish population by a series of massacres.
The appearance of Islam and the Muslim conquests deprived the Byzantine Empire of Ereẓ Israel and Egypt among other territories and awakened messianic expectations among the Jews (see Messianic movements). In the remnant left to the Byzantine Empire the prevailing attitude toward the Jews was not relaxed. A council presided over by Emperor Justinian II in 692 prohibited Jews and Christians from bathing together in public places, and Christians from consulting Jewish physicians.
SOCIAL AND CULTURAL LIFE
At the beginning of this period, the Jews formed part and parcel of civic life in the towns. Like others, they refused to serve in the decurionate; Constantine's enforcement of their obligation to do so reflected the general reluctance of the citizenry to undertake this onerous municipal function and a specifically anti-Jewish bias on the part of the emperor. The Jews gradually withdrew from, or were forced out of, civic life, although they still continued to be active in the circus parties for a long time. The abolition of the Jewish patriarchate (see Nasi) in Ereẓ Israel in 425 threw back Jewish communal life onto the local leadership, already well established before this troubled time. The community's elders (presbyteroi), archipherecites, and leaders with other titles led Jewish society in the various localities in all aspects of life. Apparently birth and wealth, in addition to scholarship, were major factors in attaining these leading positions. In the economic sphere, the Jews were only gradually ousted from their professions and positions of wealth, and from their places of residence in the cities (see Constantinople). Many of them engaged in overland and maritime commerce. In a number of areas, such as Ereẓ Israel and Egypt, there was still a solid Jewish peasant population. In the sixth century dyeing is mentioned as a major Jewish industry, remaining so down to the end of the Byzantine Empire.
In the cultural sphere, the center in Ereẓ Israel and its institutions led creative endeavor within the Byzantine communities in every field, even after the Arab incursions. Ereẓ Israel was the main source of Hebrew liturgical poetry, its leading poets including Yose b. Yose, Yannai, and Eleazar Kallir. The monk Romanos, an apostate from Judaism, had a formative influence on Byzantine hymnology, transposing the mode of religious expression and worship used by the paytanim to the Byzantine liturgy and cultural expression. The violent changes at the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth centuries aroused visions of an apocalyptic nature among Byzantine Jewry.
LEGAL AND SOCIAL STATUS
Throughout this period Jews were living in the major cities in the territories still remaining under Byzantine rule. The situation of the Jews in the Byzantine domains of southern Italy is well documented through the contacts they had with Ereẓ Israel as well as with countries under Christian rule, and by information given in the chronicle of Ahimaaz. Main centers were Bari, Oria, and Otranto. Benjamin of Tudela in the mid-12th century describes many communities in the Balkans and Asia Minor, and in Constantinople, with their varied economy. The very nature of the Iconoclastic movement made its adherents suspicious of possible Jewish influences. The actual degree of such influence, if any, on the emperors and priests who rejected icon worship is still very much in dispute. Their opponents, the icon worshipers, regarded this influence as a certainty, and the iconoclasts were branded in sermons and tales circulating at the time as "Jews." The final restoration of icon worship in 843 was accompanied by renewed violent anti-Jewish manifestations. Basil I issued a decree ordering the forcible conversion of his Jewish subjects in 873–74, and in the Ahimaaz chronicle he is depicted as the archenemy of Judaism and the Jews. The decree was rescinded by Leo VI. In 943 Romanus I Lecapenus made another attempt at forcible conversion. There are reports of Jews who fled to Khazaria from these persecutions. Byzantine Jewry in the 11th and 12th centuries apparently lived under a regime of absolute humiliation although assured of relative safety for their lives and property.
SOCIAL AND CULTURAL LIFE
The economic structure of the Jews in the Byzantine Empire remained substantially the same in this period. Benjamin of Tudela found Jews in the Balkans engaged in agriculture, besides being occupied in the silk weaving and cloth dyeing industries which were widespread Jewish occupations throughout the Byzantine communities. According to his descriptions of the communal leadership, the smaller communities were headed by two elders and the larger by five. He seems to indicate that the Karaites had a separate communal organization and leadership. The most flourishing area of Byzantine Jewish cultural life at the time was to be found in southern Italy. The stories in the Ahimaaz chronicle describe the strong ties of the Jews there with the center of learning in Ereẓ Israel and denote that a good knowledge of Hebrew was widespread, as well as showing the imprint of mystical and even magical elements on Jewish society in this area. Members of the upper circles of Jewish society are pictured as living a warm and diversified family life. The Josippon chronicle, which was compiled in southern Italy in this period, reflects in many places the influence of Byzantine views and chronographical techniques. Southern Italy in the 9th to 11th centuries produced a considerable number of paytanim. Through its contacts with the north, it became the fountainhead of the Jewish culture of Ashkenaz and the matrix of the Ashkenazi prayer rite. The Karaite communities also had a rich and variegated cultural life from the second half of the 11th century, centering around Constantinople. Prominent Karaite scholars of Byzantium were Jacob b. Reuben, Judah Hadassi, and Tobias b. Moses. In some of the writings of this period apocalyptic ideas continue to find expression, as in the Vision of Daniel. The First Crusade of 1096 gave rise to a messianic movement in Salonika.
LEGAL AND SOCIAL STATUS
The Fourth Crusade (1204) disrupted the Byzantine Empire and placed its Jewish communities under the various administrations set up by the Latin (i.e., Western European) countries which had taken part in the crusade. The Jewish quarter in Constantinople, Pera, was burned down and pillaged during the sack of the city by the Latins. After the Latin rule ended in 1261 Jews lived both in Pera and outside the area, including parts of the city where the Venetians had been given special rights and commercial privileges. The existence of a Jewish quarter outside Pera elicited a complaint from the patriarch Athanasius to Emperor Andronicus II (1282–1328), who before 1319 assigned the Jews a quarter near that of the Venetians, although they were not restricted to that area. Many engaged in tanning, and the majority apparently were wealthy. Neither the native dynasty nor the Latin rulers made basic changes in the status of the Jews. In the parts of Greece and the Balkans, however, which fell to various Greek rulers and minor royalty (often referred to as "despots"), proscriptions of Judaism were issued at times, as in Epirus and Salonika under Theodore I Angelus (1214–1230), and in Nicaea under John III Vatatzes (1222–1254). Other former imperial lands, such as Chalcis, Rhodes, Patras, and Cyprus, were ruled by the Genoese, the Venetians, the Knights of Malta, the Veronese, and the Turks. The Jews continued to pursue their previous occupations, particularly the silk trade and commerce.
Jews in all these areas continued to follow the Romaniot rite which developed specific features. Among the Karaites there was extensive cultural activity, represented by such scholars as Aaron b. Joseph ha-Rofe, the Bashyazi family, and Caleb b. Elijah Afendopolo. The year 1453 marked the end of the Byzantine Empire. For the Jews its downfall, after a short period of disruption, brought a renewed lease on life in the Ottoman Empire in much improved conditions. Less than half a century later, the Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal found communities in the former Byzantine Empire ready and able to shoulder the burden of absorbing the refugees economically, and capable of integrating their social and cultural life. Although little information is available about conditions in the communities in this period, scholars and leaders of the stature of Elijah b. Abraham Mizraḥi and Moses b. Elijah Capsali, with their diversified scholarship, creative abilities, and well-developed methods of leadership, could not have arisen out of a void. That the conditions existed in which they were able to flourish shows that in the period before the Ottoman conquest, Byzantine Romaniot Jewry had large reserves of intellectual ability and social cohesion, continuing a situation which still prevailed after the troubles of 1204.
J. Starr, The Jews in the Byzantine Empire 641–1204 (1939, repr. 1969); idem, Romania: The Jewries of the Levant after the Fourth Crusade (1949); idem, in: Speculum 8 (1933), 500–3; idem, in: JPOS, 15 (1935), 280–93; idem, in: HTR, 29 (1936), 93–107; idem, in: REJ, 102 (1937), 81–92; idem, in: Byzantinisch-neugriechische Jahrbuecher, 16 (1940), 192–6; A. Scharf, Jews in Byzantium (1970); H. Lewy, Olamot Nifgashim (1962), 221f.; Baron, Social2, index; Hirschberg, Afrikah, 1 (1965), 30–39; K. Hilkowitz, in: Zion, 4 (1939), 307–16; Y. Even-Shemuel (Kaufmann), Midreshei Ge'ullah (1957), 16–252; Juster, Juifs, index; Z. Ankori, Karaites in Byzantium (1959); S. Assaf, in: Sefer ha-Yovel… S. Krauss (1937), 169–77; A. Galanté, Les Juifs de Constantinople sous Byzance (1940); R.S. Lopez, in: Speculum, 20 (1945), 22ff.; M.N. Adler (ed.), Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (1907); B. Klar (ed.), Megillat Aḥima'aẓ (1944); M. Salzman (ed. and tr.), Chronicle of Ahimaaz (1924); D. Flusser, in: Zion, 18 (1953), 109–26; Alon, Toledot2, 1 (1958), 19–24; S. Simonsohn, in: Dat ve-Ḥevrah, ed. by Ha-Ḥevrah ha-Historit ha-Yisre'elit (1964), 81–92. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: S. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium: 1204–1453 (1985), 277.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.