The city of
Another episode occurred in 1268, when the University held a procession up St. Aldates in commemoration of Ascension Day, the day Jesus is believed to have ascended to Heaven. Out of respect for their Christian neighbours, members of the
During the procession, it is told that a Jew tore down the cross and trampled on it. As a result King Henry commanded that all the Jews of Oxford be arrested and pay for an ornate marble cross to be erected. The cross was bought and erected in
At the base of the cross, an inscription stated that the Jews bought this cross as a punishment for defacing Christianity. Cecil Roth, Anglo-Jewish Historian, maintains that the cross fell during the parade as a result of religious fervour and the Jews were blamed for unintentionally trampling on it.
Maimonides, R’ Moshe ben Maimon bar Ovadya , was born the day before Passover, 1135 (4995), in
The golden age, under Islamic rule, offered the Jews equality and complete freedom of religious expression. This allowed the Jewish Diaspora community in
This era ended when the radical Almohadim  Muslim sect came to power in
The Jewish community pleaded with the government to be spared from this decree of apostasy, Gezeirat HaShmad, and a compromise was made: the Jewish community was granted the option to flee the country.
in 1148, two years after the Almohadim rose to power in
The Jews, however, who had no homeland of their own, were in despair. While some Jews fled to Christian Spain,
The Spanish Jewish community justified their acceptance of Islam as follows: belief in Islam does not fundamentally contravene Jewish belief, since Jews and Muslims believe in the Oneness of G-d. Furthermore, the Jews assumed that, as with most radical political movements, the state of affairs was merely temporary.
Another important factor was that conversion to Islam only warranted verbal acceptance, declaring belief in Allah and His prophet Muhammad. This did not have any bearing on their practical lives. Even while the Jews were forced to attend prayers in a Mosque and study the Koran, the government allowed Jewish practise at home; many Jews, after attending Mosque, would pray a second time at home, and study Torah as before.
This was indeed in stark contrast to other periods in Jewish history. During the Hellenist period, the Jews were forced to abandon Judaism and were forbidden to close their front doors in suspicion that they might be practising Judaism privately. Similarly, during the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, Jews were burned at the stake for practising Judaism in private.
Maimonides was thirteen years old when the Almohadim came to power. His family fled for eleven years from city to city in
It is intriguing to historians that Maimonides’ family moved to
A possible reason why Maimonides and his family were able to live in
While Maimonides was in
The official was deeply insulted by this remark and took it as a great offence to Islam. Aware of the threat to his life, Maimonides fled
Another reason historians give is that Maimonides was seen to encourage Jews to leave
As time passed, life in
in 1160, discerning the low morale of Spanish Jewry, Rabbi Maimon wrote a letter of comfort, Igeret Nechamah, to the Spanish Jewish community. In the letter he urged the Jews to continue praying to G-d three times daily in Hebrew, despite the difficulty and dangers involved. It was this sense of leadership, responsibility and love for the Jewish people that was passed from Rabbi Maimon to his son, Rabbi Moshe Maimonides.
The impetus for Maimonides to write Igeret HaShmad was a particular rabbi living outside
The rabbi wrote that belief in Islam and its teachings is considered idolatry. Therefore, a Jew who is forced to convert to Islam is first obligated to give up their life rather than convert. Failure to do so renders the person an apostate, excommunicated from the Jewish community, unfit to testify in a Jewish court of law and invalid to be a witness in a marriage or divorce. This is the case even where the person secretly practises Judaism at home.
Furthermore, he writes, if one enters a Mosque, even without praying, the person is considered an apostate. If, after attending prayers in a Mosque, one prays to G-d at home, the prayers are despised, hypocritical and considered a sin. In conclusion, he writes, every Jew is obligated to give up their life rather than accept Islam.
This letter dealt a heavy blow to those Jews who attempted to retain their Jewish identity despite their Islamic conversion. It had a devastating effect on thousands of Spanish Jews and led many to feel that in any event they are condemned and they might as well abandon Judaism all together instead of living a life of duplicity .
To counter this devastating letter, Maimonides, 27, in 1163, wrote a harsh letter, in Judeo-Arabic, called Igeret HaShmad, Letter of Apostasy , or Mamar Kiddush HaShem, Essay on Sanctification of G-d’s name . The purpose of the letter was to refute the opinions of the rabbi and raise the morale of Spanish Jewry.
In the letter writings of Maimonides, there are generally two categories: Teshuvot, responsas, and Igrot, letters. Teshuvot are mostly related to legal, Halachik, issues and Igrot are mostly related to moral, theological or personal issues. In the opening to Teshuvot, the word Teshuva, or in Arabic, Algoib, is written VeKotav Moshe (and Moses wrote) at the end. Thus, the Letter of Apostasy is called Igeret HaShmad, since the point of the letter is primarily moral, though it discusses the Halachic status of forced converts.
The style of Igeret HaShmad is atypical. Most of Maimonides’ writings are written in a collected and calm manner. However, the style of Igeret HaShmad evidently reflects his exasperation at the ignorance and lack of sensitivity of the rabbi.
Maimonides begins by suggesting that a person should not speak in public before revising the content three or four times and before publishing a thousand times. He admonishes the rabbi for writing on a sensitive subject to which he cannot relate, and judging a community without standing in its place. Maimonides continues systematically to refute all the opinions written in the letter regarding the status of forced converts to Islam and the laws of self-sacrifice.
Two central dilemmas Igeret HaShmad addresses are as follows: should one give up ones life when faced with forced conversion to Islam? The question has immense implications. By sacrificing their life, they allow their children to become orphans who will almost definitely be abandoned to Islam. Conversely, by submitting to Islam in public, the Jewish identity of the children can be retained for generations to come.
Another question is whether a person can be considered a hypocrite in Judaism. If the person converts to Islam but continues to observe some commandments and pray the Hebrew liturgy of the Siddur, is this hypocrisy?
Maimonides, as in the Mishne Torah , explains the Jewish law related to abandonment of Jewish practise under duress :
A person who is forced to commit one of the three cardinal sins - idolatry, adultery, and murder - in any circumstances should rather die than capitulate. This applies whether the threat was to transgress in private or in public, during a time of oppression or freedom, and whether the threat is for personal motive or in spite of Jewish belief.
If the sin, however, is other than the three mentioned above, there is a difference as to whether the oppressor is out for personal benefit, or acting out of spite towards Judaism. This is one of the reasons why Esther was permitted under duress to marry the Persian king, Achashverosh, against Jewish law, since the motive of the king was for personal benefit, rather than out of spite .
If the oppressor has religious motives, there is a difference whether it is a time of persecution or peace. If the circumstances took place during a period of peace for the Jews, one is only permitted to transgress if it is done in private.
In addition to the laws of keeping the Jewish faith when threatened by death in certain circumstances, Maimonides discusses the need for a Jewish person to live to a high moral standard. A person who behaves in an anti - social manner causes a desecration of G-d’s name. If a person is held in high esteem, they are expected to live up to an even higher moral standard . It is more problematic when someone abandons Judaism when not under duress, but for reasons of indulgence.
On the other hand when a person behaves in a manner that is of a high moral standard, this sanctifies G-d’s name: A person who is genuine, altruistic, commands respect, has a good reputation and is disciplined, sanctifies G-d’s name. These qualities, according to Maimonides, sanctify
G-d’s name more than religious practice.
When a Jew is indeed killed for being unwavering to the Jewish faith, it is the highest virtue in Judaism, as was merited by Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, who were killed by the Romans . Even one who is not actually killed but was prepared to die and was miraculously saved, is also called a Martyr. The four Jewish advisors to Nebuchadnezzar, Chananya, Mishael, Azarya and Daniel experienced this. They were thrown in the lion’s den for not prostrating themselves before Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, and miraculously survived .
Similarly, the seven sons of Hannah refused to prostrate before the Greek ruler, Antiochus, and as a result were all put to death in front of their mother .
Maimonides writes, even one who is not observant but was killed for maintaining faith in Judaism merits a portion in the World to Come. This is illustrated in the story related in the Talmud, when the entireJewish population of the city of
Returning to the subject of Spanish Jewry, Maimonides maintains that it is not incumbent upon a Jewish person to sacrifice their life not to convert to Islam. This is because conversion to Islam is purely a verbal declaration. One who does give up life, however, receives great reward and is indeed considered a martyr.
Conversely, Maimonides concludes, even one who is obligated to sacrifice life not to convert to Islam, but does not rise to the challenge of martyrdom, and abandons Judaism under duress, is not considered an apostate and does not deserve any degradation or punishment. This is similar to a woman who is betrothed to a man and is raped by another. The woman is not held accountable although she could have given her life and been spared the act of adultery .
This is very different to the Talmudic discussion concerning idolaters who abandon the Jewish faith willingly. The Jews of Spain are all in the category of forced converts and are not considered responsible for their actions. They are permitted to testify in a Jewish court of law and may be a witness in a marriage or on a bill of divorce.
Maimonides proceeds to enter into a diatribe towards the rabbi. He writes that the rabbi is sinful by expressing his opinion that Jews in
With regard to keeping Judaism under such difficult circumstances, Maimonides says, there is no reason for concerns of hypocrisy. If when under duress, certain Jewish practises are abandoned and others retained, it should not be said that the transgression overwhelms the observance. This rule only applies in a civil court of law; however, G-d rewards a person for each individual action notwithstanding other conduct. Therefore, a person should endeavour to keep the Mitzvot as much as circumstances permit and will be rewarded for what is kept. Furthermore, a person should realise that a Mitzvah is of great value when done under difficult and life threatening conditions
. Although Maimonides defends Spanish Jewry for converting to Islam under duress, he nevertheless considers Jews who remain in
 In Arabic he was called Ibn Maimon bin Ovad Alelah
 Meaning believers in the unity of G-d
 According to the Riva”sh, R’ Itzchak bar
 According to Tashba”tz, Teshuvos R’ Shimon bar Tzemach, colleague of Riva”sh
 Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah
 Talmud, Sanhedrin, 74a2255
 Book of Esther
 See Talmud Sanhedrin 74b for other reasons
 Sanhedrin 110b
 Hasmoneans Vol. 2
 Pesachim 50a
 Deuteronomy 22:25