1370 BC to 1390 BC, Psalm 116: Temptations.

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This generation of the 1370s and 1380s.

According to our count, this generation is the 116th generation associated with Psalm 116. It is in this Psalm 116 that we therefore find an illustration of the facts of this generation.

This generation seems to be a pause – quite relative – for the Jews of Europe for whom the fourteenth century was a succession of massacres that has nothing to envy the generations of the Crusades.

However, while the massacres and pogroms perpetrated against the Jews represent an obvious danger to their physical survival, other more insidious threats point in the land of Spain for the Jews. On the eve of the Renaissance, some Jews, especially among the elites, were ready to give up the alliance in order to better integrate into an increasingly attractive Christian world.

In 1380, the judicial autonomy of the Aljamas (Jewish communities in Christian Spain) was suppressed. A few years later the principle of separate housing of the Jews, that is, of the ghetto, was established, a principle which was soon to be applied. At the same time, frequent cancellations of interest on debts took place, or partial cancellations of the debts themselves, for the benefit of Christian bourgeois, large or small, and to the detriment of Jewish creditors.

Faced with these humiliations and these non-fatal miseries, Spanish Judaism did not turn in on itself. He did not transform the wall of the ghettos into which he was relegated into an impassable barrier. Far from leading to a fanatic religious zeal, the persecutions had the result of softening him among the greatest number. For many Jewish intellectuals rooted in the country, security was well worth a mass. Everything would help to orient them towards the convenient solution of baptism.


Relative break

It seems to be a pause – quite relative – for the Jews of Europe for whom the fourteenth century is a succession of massacres that has nothing to envy to the generations of the Crusades.


The papacy exiled since 1309 in Avignon tries a return to Rome in 1377 with Pope Gregory XI who dies immediately. This will be the beginning of a great schism that will lead to the coexistence of two popes: Urban VI in Rome and Clement VII in Avignon, who will share the support of the kingdoms of Europe. The papacy of Avignon will eventually abdicate in 1418.

In France, following [1] the outbreak of the Hundred Years War, the King of France, John II, the good, had recalled in 1361 the Jews for a limited period. He granted them protection for a period of 20 years. Returned Jews are often lenders, and with the taxes they pay, are an important source of income for the sovereign. During the reign of Charles V in France (1364-1380), the situation of the Jews stabilized, partly thanks to the personal affection carried by the king to the head of French Judaism, Rabbi Mattathias Ben Yossef. The latter can thus revive the community and reopen Yeshivot. This break in France will be short-lived since a new expulsion will occur in the next generation in 1394 that will last several centuries.

In Germany, the Jews have trouble recovering from the consequences of the Black Death.

The Hundred Years War also marks a pause, after the French took the lead over the English:

  • Charles V [2] maintains a few but excellent troops, led by seasoned leaders like Du Guesclin (who also accompanied in Spain the victory of Henry Trastamare on Peter the Cruel). […] In 1380, when Charles V dies, the conflicts stop on all the fronts, the war seems almost finished. […] In 1389, the two young sovereigns, Richard II, grandson of Edward III, and Charles VI, successor of Charles V, conclude a truce that will last until around 1415: Calais, Guyenne and Gascogne except , the French have taken over all English conquests

The beginning of the psalm of this generation evokes this temporary pause in the history of the Jews on Christian soil without failing to recall the hardships suffered until then and particularly during this fourteenth century appalling for more than one reason for the Jews (hence the evocation of “boundaries of the grave, “ trouble and grief” ):

  1. I wished that the Lord would hear my voice [in] my supplications.
  2. For He extended His ear to me, and I shall call out in my days.
  3. [When] bands of death surrounded me and the boundaries of the grave befell me, and I found trouble and grief,
  4. And I called out in the name of the Lord, « Please, O Lord, save my soul!
  5. The Lord is gracious and righteous, and our God is merciful.
  6. The Lord protects the simple; when I was poor, He saved me.

The choice of comfort

But if the massacres and pogroms perpetrated against the Jews represent an obvious danger for their physical survival, other more insidious threats point to the land of Spain for the Jews.

Danger is no longer just material, it is not a matter of life or death. Even if the following generations will suffer new massacres, this time the danger is spiritual. After living in serene coexistence with Muslims and Christians in Muslim Spain and for some generations in Christian Spain, Jews enjoy a certain material and spiritual comfort.

On the eve of the Renaissance, some Jews, especially among the elite are ready to give up the alliance to better integrate into an increasingly attractive Christian world. With the arrival of Henri de Trastamare and through some intrigues, the position of these Jewish elites becomes more and more untenable. Although Henry of Trastamare reproached the Jews for their support of Peter the Great, he trusted one of them Joseph Pichon. But this choice was undermined by internal rivalries within the Jewish community:

  • Joseph Pichon [3], the Jew of Seville named treasurer by Henry II of Trastamare, was accused of embezzlement by other Jews. He was imprisoned and tried by the Jewish court of Burgos. The aljamas, or qahal (Jewish communities of Burgos), had the privilege of a court and could sue their whistleblowers. The internal vengeance that swept Pichon helped to upset the legal framework that had hitherto been granted to the Jews and inaugurated sad persecution. Taking advantage of this institutionally delicate moment, the death of Henry II and the rise to the throne of Jean 1st in 1379, exactly during his coronation in Burgos, some Jews obtained with the complicity of the police chief the sentence of Pichon, without revealing the identity of famous accused. When John I realized that he had been played and that his father’s old collaborator had been murdered by a conspiracy, he sent the guilty to death, deprived the Hebrew courts of their power of intervention, ordered further restrictive measures against proselytizing. Then in 1385, he made arrangements then unusual: no Christian nannies, no Christian slaves in Jewish homes.
  • Such affairs, in fact commonplace power struggles, nevertheless show the political importance of Spanish Judaism and its profound role in the life of the peninsula. Marginalized elsewhere, the Jews enjoyed enviable living conditions in many ways. The shock was all the more terrible when the worst happened.

In this new Spanish situation, the steadfastness of the Jewish faith began to crack:

  • Henry of Trastamare [4] relied on the Christian bourgeoisie, to whom he multiplied concessions. Is it any wonder that the classical anti-Jewish dispositions were part of it? Particularly heavy consequences for the aljamas was the suppression of their judicial autonomy (in 1380); the royal edict recalled that captivity was the natural lot of the Jews, since with the coming of Jesus Christ they had lost their sovereignty; the liberties granted to them in Castile were described as sin and scandal. The right of high and low justice over their co-religionists was thus withdrawn from the Jewish communities; the keystone of their power was collapsing. A few years later, the Council of Palencia, sitting in the presence of the Cortes, posited the principle of the separate dwelling of the Jews, that is to say the ghetto, a principle whose application was soon to come. At the same time frequent cancellation of the interests of the debts, or partial cancellations of the debts themselves, for the benefit of the big or small Christian bourgeois, and to the detriment of the Jewish creditors.
  • Faced with these humiliations and miseries, Spanish Judaism reacts quite differently from that of the other Pyrenees. He did not turn back on himself, he did not transform into an impassable barrier the wall of ghettos in which he was relegated. Far from leading to a fanatic religious zeal, persecutions had the effect of weakening it in the greatest number. The rooting of the Jews in the country, their familiarity with the prevailing mores and culture, and also the latent skepticism of many intellectuals, for whom security was worth a Mass, all would help to direct them to the convenient solution of baptism. The knowledge of Christian and Muslim dogma contributed as much as the practice of a philosophical reflection which taught the relativity of everything. […]
  • Ultimately, promiscuity between Christians and infidels who rebelled so the Spanish clergy now facilitate his missionary work. For the moment, these are still individual cases rather than a mass movement. But these cases became more and more frequent; the converters, mostly converted Jews themselves, did not preach in the desert. The most effective of them was Abner de Burgos, a learned physician who had long practiced philosophical disbelief, before becoming sacristan of the Cathedral of Valladolid. In his many writings, he was able to assemble the most appropriate arguments to make an impression on his contemporaries, proofs based on the philosophical doctrines of time, or concordances drawn from the Cabal; he was « the ideologue master of apostasy », both a schoolmaster and a prototype.
  • The first successes of Christian propaganda are attested by various testimonies. In Castile, during the civil war, « many people left the ranks of our community, as a result of the suffering they endured … », noted Rabbi Samuel Sarsa. In 1380, a petition of the Cortes reported the « many Jews who turned to the true faith of God » … it was to protect against the bullying of their elders or their new co-religionists. In the same year, Rabbi Chemtov Chaprout sadly noted: « Many of our fellow believers are abandoning our ranks, and are pursuing their polemics, trying to prove to us the truth of their (new) faith with the help of Scripture verses. Holy and Talmud … « It is also certain that these apostates were recruited especially among the cultured or rich Jews, while the simple and the small, that is to say, the majority, still kept intact their faith of charcoal. But the knowledge and social prestige of the first converts threatened to make their example contagious.

Thus the sequel to the psalm of this generation does not fail to point to this paradox that allows the comfort of exile to shake the Jewish faith. Faith that had resisted for many generations to all the other attacks.

The psalmist does not fail to point out the responsibility (« All men are liars« ) of these elites who turn to Christianity opening the path of conversion to many fellow religionists.

This is the object of the sequel to the psalm:

  1. Return, my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
  2. For You have rescued my soul from death, my eye from tears, and my foot from stumbling.
  3. I shall walk before the Lord in the lands of the living.
  4. I believed so that I spoke; I humble myself exceedingly.
  5. I said in my haste, « All men are liars. »

Unfortunately the continuation of the Spanish history will also be in the blood, and at the end of this generation (in 1391) new massacres take place with a simple choice for the Jews: conversion or death.

For the psalmist, the answer is obvious and it is given in this psalm. « The death of His pious ones«  (rather than conversion) is the only acceptable one:

  1. How can I repay the Lord for all His favors upon me?
  2. I shall lift up a cup of salvations, and I shall call out in the name of the Lord.
  3. I shall pay my vows to the Lord now in the presence of all His people.
  4. Difficult in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His pious ones.

The psalmist can only conclude with regard to what threatens Spanish Judaism that there is no real salvation for the Jews outside his land, the land of Israel:

  1. Please, O Lord, for I am Your servant; I am Your servant the son of Your maidservant; You have loosed my thongs.
  2. To You I shall slaughter a thanksgiving offering, and I shall call out in the name of the Lord.
  3. I shall pay my vows to the Lord now in the presence of all His people,
  4. In the courtyards of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Hallelujah!

[1] According to: www.histoiredesjuifs.com, « chronology ».

[2] (preface by) Georges Duby: « A history of the medieval world ». Chapter: « A Hundred Years Conflict, 1337-1453 ». (French: « Une histoire du monde médiéval ». Chapitre : « Un conflit de cent ans, 1337-1453 ». (p. 350-351) ).

[3] Riccardo Calimani: « The Jewish Wandering ». Chapter: « Discrimination, Persecution, Survival ». (French: « L’Errance juive ». Chapitre : « La discrimination, la persécution, la survie ». (p. 201,202) ).

[4] Léon Poliakov: « History of anti-Semitism: 1. The age of faith ». Chapter: « The Spain of the Three Religions » (French: Léon Poliakov : « Histoire de l’antisémitisme : 1. L’âge de la foi ». Chapitre : « L’Espagne des trois religions » (p. 144 à 146) ).