This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Obadiah the Proselyte*

The festival of Shavu'ot which we celebrated last week is the day on which Judaism honours its converts. This theme is most pronounced in the reading of the book of Ruth, which relates the story of how a Moabite woman chose to cast her lot in with the Jewish people and was destined to become the great-grandmother of King David.

We do not usually think of ourselves as a missionizing people. During the Middle Ages, when Jews lived precariously under the heavy yokes of Christianity and Islam, the seeking of converts could be a perilous undertaking. And yet, in spite of the severe penalties that were sometimes inflicted upon both the converts and the communities which accepted them, Judaism never ceased to attract a small but steady stream of proselytes.

In this article I would like to speak of one such proselyte, a figure who lived in Italy during the eleventh century. The individual in question only came to the attention of scholars during the last generations, as fragments of a detailed biographical chronicle were pieced together from the tattered manuscripts of the Cairo "Genizah."

The chronicle tells of a young Norman priest named Johannes whose study of the Bible gradually convinced him that it was the Jews who faithfully continued the ways of the ancient Hebrews. Johannes was also an eyewitness to the First Crusade and was impressed at how heroically Jews faced the murderous attacks of the rampaging Crusaders. He had heard of the Italian archbishop Andreas of Bari who had adopted Judaism, a decison which forced him to flee to Constantinople to to escape the wrath of his former coreligionists. Inspired by Andreas' deeds, Johannes took on the Hebrew name Obadiah and set to wandering among the Jewish communities of the Middle East.

The name Obadiah seems to have been reserved for proselytes. This accords with the talmudic tradition which states that the biblical prophet of that name had been a convert. A different "Obadiah the Proselyte," who lived somewhat later, was the recipiant of a famous responsum by Maimonides.

Obadiah's chronicle is a source of extraordinary glimpses of events of the time. He describes the battles of the crusaders and the sufferings of the civilians in besieged cities. He tells of the beginnings of the first discriminatory laws which were imposed on the Jews of of Aden (including heavy taxes and distinguishing dress regulations).

One theme which recurs constantly in Obadiah's chronicle is the intense messianic fervour that pervaded the times. No fewer than three self-styled Jewish messiahs are mentioned in the brief fragment. The Jews of the time, no doubt sensing that the war between the Christians and the Muslims must have cosmic significance, placed their complete faith in these pretenders, and after the hoped-for redemption failed to materialize they became a laughingstock to their Muslim neighbours.

One of Obadiah's writings holds a special fascination for us. It preserves a set of liturgical poems which he had heard in the synagogues, and which he had recorded according to the precise system of musical notation that was in use among Christian Europeans, but which was as yet unknown to Jews. It is perhaps more than coincidental that one of these poems was composed for the Shavu'ot. Several years ago I had occasion to hear it performed in concert in Jerusalem, and it was a powerful feeling to hear these lost voices chanting from out of the Jewish past.

No less impressive is the glimpse which Obadiah gives us into daily lives of the Jewish communities among which he lived. Whether in Baghdad or Damascus, Israel or Egypt, the new convert was invariably welcomed by the local Jews, who would give him food, shelter and religious schooling, in spite of the difficult circumstances to which they were subjected.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers


Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, June 17 1992.

Bibliography:

  • N. Golb, "Megillat Ovadiah Ha-Ger," in: S. Morag and N. Stillman, eds., Studies in Genizah and Sepharadi Heritage, Jerusalem, 1981.