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Obadiah, The Norman Proselyte

OBADIAH, THE NORMAN PROSELYTE (third quarter 11th century–first half 12th century). Catholic priest who converted to Judaism. Obadiah later wrote religious works and became a prominent figure in the Near Eastern Jewish communities. He was born in Oppido Lucano (Italy) as Johannes, the son of a Norman aristocrat named Dreux (Dreu, Drogo, Droco); his twin Roger was destined for knighthood. As a youth he was influenced by the conversion of Andreas, archbishop of Bari, who adopted Judaism in Constantinople and subsequently departed for Egypt. Obadiah's conversion (c. 1102) was inspired by a dream shortly after he took priestly vows and was influenced by the study of the Bible and the persecutions of Jews in Europe by precursors of the Crusaders. He left for Constantinople, where he probably began his studies, and was wounded by Crusaders. Obadiah subsequently moved to Baghdad, where he lived in a hekdesh ("poorhouse") in the synagogue and studied Hebrew, the Pentateuch, and the Prophets. There he became acquainted with the poverty and the desperate circumstances of Baghdad Jewry and the tragic end of two recent pseudo-messianic movements. In 1113 he left for Aleppo, where he received a letter of recommendation from R. Baruch b. Isaac, head of the yeshivah, verifying the details of his conversion. Later he traveled to northern Palestine and met the Karaite Solomon ha-Kohen, a false messiah, in Banias (Dan) in 1121. The latter invited him to Jerusalem. Obadiah, however, departed for Egypt by way of Tyre and settled in Fostat. The main source of information concerning Obadiah is his autobiography, the so-called "Obadiah Scroll," written in biblical Hebrew. All writings related to him have been found in the Cairo Genizah. Only the following fragments are extant:

(1) a chronicle (seven leaves);

(2) a prayer book (one leaf);

(3) music notes (three leaves);

(4) religious poems (one leaf); and

(5) the letter of recommendation by Baruch b. Isaac, part of it in Obadiah's handwriting (one leaf).


The record of the discovery of Obadiah's existence and works dates from the early 20th century. The beginning of the letter by Baruch b. Isaac was published by S.A. Wertheimer in Ginzei Yerushalayim (2 (1901), 16a–17a) and the first page of Obadiah's diary was printed by E.N. Adler (REJ, 69 (1919), 129–34). Two fragments discovered in Cambridge and a page of a prayer book written by Obadiah, found in Cincinnati, were presented by J. Mann (REJ, 89 (1930), 245–59). S.D. Goitein published another fragment containing Obadiah's original name, Johannes (JJS, 4 (1953), 74–84) and A. Scheiber, a piece of Obadiah's diary (KS, 30 (1954/55), 93–98). A piyyut with musical notation in Obadiah's handwriting is included in the Adler collection. Its discovery was made independently by A. Scheiber (Tarbiz, 34 (1964/65), 366–71) and by N. Golb (JR, 45 (1965), 153–6). The continuation of the booklet of music notes was published by N. Allony in Sinai (57 (1965), nos. 1–2, 43–55). A. Scheiber also published a piyyut, an acrostic of the name Obadiah (Tarbiz, 35 (1965/66), 269–73), and the original of a Hebrew fragment (HUCA, 39 (1968), 168–75, Ger.). See also: Prawer, Ẓalbanim, 1 (1963), 423–5 and J. Mann, in: Ha-Tekufah, 24 (1928), 335–58.