This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

With Open Arms*

The province of Alberta is enjoying one of its periodic economic booms, a situation that is stimulating a significant wave of immigration from Canada and abroad. With all our wealth and bounty, the newcomers are straining the capacities of the housing market, transportation infrastructure and other essential services.

At this point, the general population explosion in the region does not seem to be echoed in the Jewish community. Insofar as it is possible to calculate by affiliations or membership in synagogues, Jewish schools and other institutions, one might receive the impression that Jews are forsaking Calgary for the established communities in the east faster than the new arrivals can replenish their ranks. At any rate, there is plenty of room to accommodate new arrivals to our community, and as far as I can tell, they will be welcomed with outstretched arms.

The eagerness of Jewish communities to receive and assist newcomers has long been recognized as a virtue of our people, one that was conceded (albeit with reluctance) even by unsympathetic outsiders. A noteworthy illustration of this may be found in The Book of the Covenant, a polemical work composed by Rabbi Joseph Kimhi, a twelfth-century Spanish Jewish scholar who settled in Narbonne, in southern France. Kimhi's treatise took the form of a dialogue between a loyal Jew and an apostate, and likely reflected the kinds of disputes that took place with some frequency in that society.

At one point, the Jewish believer proclaims confidently: I tell you further that whenever a Jews stops at the home of his fellow, whether for a day or two or for a year, he will take no payment for food from him. This is so with all the Jews in the world who act toward their brethren with compassion...You see with your own eyes that the Christian goes out on the highway to meet travelers--not to honor them--but to swindle them and take all their provisions from them. No one can deny that all these good traits which I mentioned are found among the Jews and their opposites among Christians.

The Christian opponent, though quick to deny any praise of Judaism, does not dare to contradict this one. He finds it more convenient to redirect the conversation to theological matters, and retorts, You are right in part. Yet what good are their deeds if they have no faith?

To be sure, the encouragement of hospitality was at times quite altruistic, and reflected values that were advocated in classic Jewish texts. Nevertheless, historians have traced it to specific historical circumstances. In particular, the social turmoil that resulted from the Crusader massacres in the medieval Rhineland and other European localities produced large numbers of homeless Jews who took up the staff of wandering beggars whose survival depended on the magnanimity of their hosts. Customary practice insisted that those indigents be treated in a generous and dignified spirit; and their treatment was vastly improved by the widespread folk belief that any shabby intransigent might really be the prophet Elijah, who was testing the hospitality of the householders, and ready to reward or punish them accordingly.

On the other hand, medieval Jewish societies were more vulnerable than ours to a sudden influx of new arrivals, especially of impoverished souls who strain the community's social welfare infrastructure. Perhaps for this reason, one of the venerable legal foundations of European Jewry was the herem hayyishuv, the authority of the local community to decide whether newcomers should be allowed to reside among them. The need for such a law followed naturally from fact that the existing communities had originally been allowed the privilege of admission into the towns by virtue of charters that required them to contribute generously to the public coffers. Therefore, any weakening of their economic foundations could lead to the eviction of the entire Jewish populace.

Medieval communities and their rabbinical authorities held diverse views about how stringently the restrictions should be applied, and what sort of credentials must be presented by applicants in order to determine their admissibility. Rashi argued that the herem hayyishuv was rooted in talmudic law, and therefore any exemptions must satisfy the strict standards of the Jewish laws of evidence.

Rashi's grandson Rabbi Jacob Tam took a different position, arguing that the talmudic restrictions were only directed against undesirable elements, such as violent men, informers or deadbeats who refused to pay their share of the communal taxes. However, no respectable law-abiding Jew could be denied admission to a Jewish community.

Rabbenu Tam's hospitable approach achieved some influence in France, but was resisted by many authorities in Germany. Some of those opponents argued that the approach had only been proposed as a theoretical interpretation of a talmudic passage. Others insisted that the scope of its authority was confined to France, or to particular localities that had never officially adopted the herem hayyishuv in the first place.

The clash between the traditions of liberal hospitality and civic protectionism came to a head in an incident recorded by Salomon Ibn Verga in his chronicle Shevet Yehudah.

Ibn Verga tells of a group of Spanish Jewish refugees who had arrived in the district surrounding Genoa, Italy, but were subsequently forced to leave on account of a severe famine. When they sought refuge among their coreligionists in Rome, the latter decided that a massive incursion of aliens into their community would be detrimental to their economic welfare.

The Roman Jewish community immediately collected a bribe of a thousand florins to persuade the Pope to bar the entry of the Spanish Jews into his territories. However, when the matter was explained to the pontiff, he responded with indignation. Like Kimhi's interlocutor, he accepted at face value the Jewish reputation for always treating their indigent brethren with compassion. It was decidedly out of character to reject the Spanish Jews so insensitively. Therefore, he issued a command that the veteran Jewish residents of Rome should also be expelled from the Papal territory.

The Jews of Rome were then left with no alternative but to cough up a second bribe, amounting to a sizeable sum of two thousand gold coins, in order to persuade the Pope to leave them be, while conceding to the admission of the newcomers to the city.

I am confident that our own communities, even without fear of retribution, will prove much more charitable when it comes to sharing our material and spiritual riches with new arrivals--that is, at least, as long as those new arrivals don't threaten to take our parking spaces...

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

published by

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: