Barcelona is the second largest city in Spain. It is located on the Mediterranean coast between the mouths of the rivers Llobregat and Besòs. It is the seat of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the country.
According to archeological evidence, there existed a sizeable Jewish community in the province of Catalonia, where Barcelona is located, from as early as the beginning of the Common Era. For centuries thereafter, the Jews of Barcelona managed their own local affairs and lived relatively well while confined to the Juderia (Jewish quarter). It grew in prominence between the end of the Roman Empire and the 9th century.
Amram Gaon sent his version of the prayer book to “the scholars of Barcelona.” In 876/7, a Jew named Judah (Judacot) was the intermediary between the city and the emperor Charles the Bald. Tenth- and eleventh-century sources mention Jews owning land in and around the city.
The prominence of Jews in Barcelona is suggested by the statement of an Arabic chronicler that there were as many Jews as Christians in the city, but a list of 1079 records only 60 Jewish names. The book of Usatges (“Custumal”) of Barcelona (1053–71) defines the Jews’ legal status. Jewish ownership of real estate continued: the site of the ancient Jewish cemetery is still known as Montjuich. A number of Jewish tombstones have been preserved.
From the end of the 11th century, the Jews lived in a special quarter in the heart of the old city, near the main gate and not far from the harbor. The area known as El Call, the name of the Jewish quarter throughout Catalonia, is still echoed in the names of some of its streets that contain the word, such as Carrer del Call. (The word call derives from the Latin callum).
Barcelona’s Jews were subject to the jurisdiction of the counts of Barcelona. The forms of contract used by Jews there from an early date formed the basis of the Sefer ha-Shetarot of Judah b. Barzillai al-Bargeloni, written at the beginning of the 12th century.
In the first half of the 11th century, some Barcelonan Jews were minters, and coins have been found bearing the name of the Jewish goldsmith who minted them. In 1104, four Jews of Barcelona received the monopoly to repatriate Muslim prisoners of war to southern Spain. Shortly afterward, Abraham b. Ḥiyya was using his mathematical knowledge in the service of the king of Aragon and the counts of Barcelona, possibly assisting them to apportion territories conquered from the Muslims.
Abraham’s role in the transmission of Greco-Arabic culture to the Jews north of the Pyrenees who did not know Arabic was crucial. His encyclopedic works in Hebrew presented the scientific and philosophical legacy that was available in Arabic to the Jews of Christian Europe. It was probably due to his residence in Barcelona, a city that was, for a very brief period, under Muslim rule but otherwise, the most important city in Christian Spain in the early stages of the Reconquista, that Abraham b. Hiyya was so appreciative of the need to disseminate in Hebrew the treasures of the Greco-Arabic world.
Documents of the second half of the 11th century contain the first mention of nesi’im (“princes”; see nasi) of the house of Sheshet, who served the counts as suppliers of capital, advisers on Muslim affairs, Arab secretaries, and negotiators. From the middle of the 12th century, the counts would frequently appoint Jews as bailiffs (baile) of the treasury; some of these were also members of the Sheshet family. Christian anti-Jewish propaganda in Barcelona meanwhile increased.
By the early 13th century, the population had grown so much that an additional area, including a synagogue and square, was built. Known as El Call Menor, it was likely located outside the Roman wall, opposite the fortified gate, the Castell Nou.
The Jewish community reached the peak of its prestige in the 13th century, when the Crown of Aragon, under James I, doubled the size of its territories. Besides the important members of the community who served the kings and counts, the community had very distinguished scholars who were among its political, financial, religious, and intellectual leaders. The bailiff and mintmaster of Barcelona at the time was Benveniste de Porta, the last Jew to hold this office.
In 1263, the king convened a religious disputation with the aim of convincing the Jews to convert to Christianity. Nachmanides, the great Jewish sage and bible scholar, was called upon to represent the Jews of Spain against Pablo Christiani. The disputation lasted four days, during which time Nachmanides argued passionately for the validity of Judaism, and the Jewish community of Barcelona waited nervously for the King’s reaction. At the end of the disputation, King James I awarded Nachmanides a large sum of money for his eloquence and famously stated that he had never heard someone argue so well for such an unjust cause. Yet, despite the King’s kind words, Nachmanides was later forced to leave Spain and eventually went on to settle in the Land of Israel.
In 1283, as a result of the French invasion following the conquest of Sicily by Pedro I, “the Great,” the Catalan noblemen, joined by their Aragonese and Valencian counterparts, forced Pedro to give up his Jewish civil servants who had occupied numerous positions throughout the Kingdom of Aragon. The Jews were subsequently replaced by Christian aristocrats, burghers, and Jews from families whose ancestors had formerly acquired wealth in the service of the counts now turned to commerce and moneylending. Many of them returned to the communal political arena and aspired to hold important positions in the community leadership. However, learned Jews such as Judah Bonsenyor continued to perform literary services for the sovereign. In 1294, Jaime II gave him the monopoly on all Hebrew and Arabic documents drawn up in the territory of Barcelona.
By the beginning of the 13th century, a number of Jewish merchants and financiers had become sufficiently influential to displace the nesi’im in the conduct of communal affairs. In 1241, James I granted Barcelona’s Jewish community a constitution to be administered by a group of ne’emanim (secretarii, or “administrative officers”) – all drawn from among the wealthy, who were empowered to enforce discipline in religious and social matters and to try monetary suits. James further extended the powers of these officials in 1272.
Conflict with Muslims
The Jews of Barcelona owned extensive property in the city and its surroundings. In the 13th century, they held quite a substantial part of the real estate in the region. This property was mostly in the hands of the wealthy class. The Jews were mainly occupied as artisans and merchants, some of them engaging in overseas trade. They played an important role in maritime trade thanks to their international connections with Jewish merchants throughout the Mediterranean basin, their easy communication in Hebrew, which was universally used by Jews, and their ability to have partners, agents, and hosts in many localities. They overcame some of the difficulties that Christian and Muslim merchants encountered in trade between their two worlds. Sources from the Archivo Capitular of Barcelona show the extent of the participation of the Jews of the city in the trade between Catalonia and Muslim countries in the eastern Mediterranean. The Catalans spared no effort in putting an end to the predominance of Jewish merchants from Barcelona in trade with Muslim countries. They turned to the law prohibiting the trade of certain merchandise with the Muslims. When this failed, they used the Papal Inquisition to make trade with the East risky and costly. Many Jews returning from the east found themselves arrested and charged as soon as they landed in Barcelona. The king yielded to the demands of the Christian merchants of Barcelona and practically put an end to the commercial activities of the Jews overseas, particularly in Egypt and Syria
The class struggle within the Jewish community that erupted in 1263 in Saragossa and spread throughout the communities in the Kingdom of Aragon did not greatly affect the political regime in Barcelona. Nevertheless, one of the institutions that served as the community’s parliament, the Council of Thirty or Eẓat ha-Sheloshim, was established on the model of the municipal Council of the Hundred or Concell de Trente. Solomon b. Abraham Adret was now the leading halakhic authority and public figure in Barcelona, a position he enjoyed for about 50 years. Under his guidance, the Barcelonan Jewish community became foremost in Spain in scholarship, wealth, and public esteem. He and his sons were among the seven ne’emanim, and he must have favored the new constitution. The ne’emanim did not admit to their number of either intellectuals whose beliefs were suspect or shopkeepers and artisans. When the controversy over the study of sciences and philosophy took place in the years 1303–5 at the end of Adret’s life, the intellectuals of Barcelona did not therefore dare to voice their opinions. In 1305, Adret prohibited, under ban, youth under 25 years of age from studying sciences and philosophy (except medicine): This provision was also signed by the ne’emanim and the 30 members of the Community Council.
By the beginning of the 14th century, Jews no longer played an important role in the trade with Muslims. The elimination of Jewish competition in maritime trade was considered a vital goal that was finally achieved. In another field of economic activity where there was much criticism of the Jews but no alternative was found, the Jewish moneylenders continued their credit transactions. Most of the Jews in Barcelona were engaged in crafts and other professions. We know that the Jewish bookbinders of Barcelona had their own confraternity. There were also some professionals, such as physicians, translators, and interpreters.
A third constitution was adopted in 1327, by which time the community had been augmented, in 1306, by 60 families of French exiles. The privileges, such as exemption from taxes, enjoyed by Jews close to the court were now abolished, and, alongside the body of ne’emanim, legal status was accorded to the “Council of Thirty,” an institution that had begun to develop early in the 14th century. The new regulations helped to strengthen the governing body. Several Spanish Jewish communities used this constitution as a model. Berurei averot (“magistrates for misdemeanors”) were appointed for the first time in 1338 to punish offenders against religion and the accepted code of conduct. In the following year, berurei tevi’ot (“magistrates for claims”) were elected to try monetary suits. The communal jurisdiction of Barcelona, which at times acted on behalf of all the communities of the Crown of Aragon, that is, Catalonia, Aragon, Valencia, Majorca, and Roussillon, extended to several communities, both small and large, which were included in its collecta. The collecta was an inter-communal organization originally created to facilitate the collection of royal taxes but subsequently served other purposes as well. The collecta of Barcelona was headed by the community of Barcelona and included the communities of Tarragona, Montblanch, Villafranca, and Cervera. The other Catalan collectas were those of Gerona-Besalú, Léida (Lleida), and Tortosa. A nationwide body consisting of seven members acting on behalf of Catalan Jewry, operated under the leadership of the community of Barcelona.
The community of Barcelona, called Aljama, as in the rest of the peninsula, had a number of institutions that were found in most communities throughout the medieval Jewish world. It had several synagogues, some of which had special characteristics. The Sinagoga Mayor was the Great Synagogue that was visited by James I during the Barcelona Disputation. This synagogue has recently been restored. Another synagogue was the Sinagoga de les Dones (The Ladies’ Synagogue), probably so-called because it had special sections for women. The Sinagoga de los Franceses (The Synagogue of the French) was founded by the 60 Jewish families that were absorbed in Barcelona after the expulsion of 1306. The Jewish cemetery was situated on Montjuich (the Mountain of the Jews), where some tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions were found. An interesting inscription was discovered in a building in the call indicating that it was donated by the famous Rabbi Samuel ha-Sardi, probably to serve as a talmud torah.
Decline and Expulsion
The community suffered severely during the Black Death of 1348. Most of the “thirty” and the ne’emanim perished in the plague, and the Jewish quarter was attacked by the mob. Despite protection extended by the municipality, several Jews were killed. In December 1354, delegates for the communities of Catalonia and the province of Valencia convened in Barcelona with the intention of establishing a national roof organization for the Jewish communities of the kingdom in order to rehabilitate them after the devastations of the plague. In the second half of the century, R. Nissim Gerondi restored the yeshivah of Barcelona to its former preeminence. Among his disciples were R. Isaac b. Sheshet and R. Ḥasdai Crescas, both members of old, esteemed Barcelonan families who took part in the community administration after the late 1360s.
By the fourteenth century, the situation of the Jews of Barcelona and all of Spain had worsened significantly. Numerous anti-Semitic decrees were enacted by the monarchy and Catholic Church, and many Jews converted to Christianity while secretly adhering to Judaism to escape persecution.
Around 1367, the Jews were charged with desecrating the Host, several community leaders being among the accused. Three Jews were put to death, and for three days, the entire community, men, women, and children, were detained in the synagogue without food. Since they did not confess, the king ordered their release. However, Nissim Gerondi, Isaac b. Sheshet, Ḥasdai Crescas, and several other dignitaries were imprisoned for a brief period.
The community gradually recovered after these misfortunes. Jewish goldsmiths, physicians, and merchants were again employed at court. After Isaac b. Sheshet’s departure from Barcelona and Nissim Gerondi’s death, Ḥasdai Crescas was almost the sole remaining notable; he led the community for about 20 years. The main element in the Barcelona community was now the artisans – weavers, dyers, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and coral workers. These were organized into confraternities and demanded their share in the communal administration. After the long period in which the ruling oligarchy had been exercising their authority to their own advantage, the 1327 charter was abolished by royal edict in 1386. A new charter was approved by which representatives of the two lower estates, the merchants and artisans, shared in the administration.
On Ash Wednesday, 1391, a series of Church-led riots broke out across the country. The riots reached Barcelona in early August, during which time thousands of Jews were murdered or forcibly converted. The city fathers and even the artisans of Barcelona tried to protect the Jews of the city but without success. The violence in Barcelona was instigated by a band of Castilians, who had taken part in the massacres in Seville and Valencia and arrived in Barcelona by boat.
News of the onslaught on the Jewish quarter in Majorca set off the attack on Saturday, August 5. About 100 Jews were killed, and a similar number sought refuge in the “New Castle” in the newer and second Jewish quarter. The gate of El Call and the notarial archives were set on fire, and looting continued throughout that day and night. The Castilians were arrested, and ten were sentenced to the gallows. The following Monday, however, the “little people” (populus minutus), mostly dock workers and fishermen, broke down the prison doors and stormed the castle. Many Jews were killed. At the same time, serfs from the surrounding countryside attacked the city, burned the court records of the bailiff, seized the fortress of the royal vicar, and gave the Jews who had taken refuge there the alternative of death or conversion. The plundering and looting continued throughout that week. Altogether about 400 Jews were killed; the rest were converted. Only a few of them (including Ḥasdai Crescas, whose son, newly married, was among the martyrs) escaped to the territories owned by the nobility or to North Africa. At the end of the year, John I condemned 26 of the rioters to death but acquitted the rest.
In 1393, John took measures to rehabilitate the Jewish community in Barcelona. He allotted the Jews a new residential quarter and ordered the return of the old cemetery. All their former privileges were restored, and a tax exemption was granted for a certain period, as well as a moratorium on debts. Ḥasdai was authorized to transfer Jews from other places to resettle in Barcelona, but only a few were willing to move. The project failed. The reestablishment of a Jewish community in Barcelona was finally prohibited in 1401 by Martin I in response to the request of the burghers. Thus the Jewish community of Barcelona ceased to exist a hundred years before the expulsion from Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492.
While Jews no longer resided in the city, the Conversos, those forcibly converted during the massacres, continued to live there. The renewed prosperity of Barcelona during the 15th century should be credited in part to the Conversos, who developed wide-ranging commercial and industrial activities. Despite protests by the city fathers, in 1486, Ferdinand decided to introduce the Inquisition on the Castilian model in Barcelona. At the outset of the discussions on procedure, the Conversos began to withdraw their deposits from the municipal bank and to leave the city. The most prosperous merchants fled, credit and commerce declined, the artisans suffered, and economic disaster threatened. The inquisitors entered Barcelona in July 1487. Some ships with refugees on board were detained in the harbor. Subsequently, several high-ranking officials of Converso descent were charged with observing Jewish religious rites and put to death. In 1492, many of the Jews expelled from Aragon embarked from Barcelona on their way abroad.
Barcelona remained devoid of any Jewish presence for more than 500 years until several Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews came from North Africa and Eastern Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century.
After Salonika came under Greek rule in 1912 and the announcement by the Spanish government of its willingness to encourage the settlement of Sephardi Jews on its territory (1931), Jews from Turkey, Greece, and other Balkan countries migrated to Barcelona. Other Jews arrived from Poland during World War I, followed by immigrants from North Africa and by artisans – tailors, cobblers, and hatmakers – from Poland and Romania.
There were over 100 Jews in Barcelona in 1918, while in 1932, the figure rose to more than 3,000, mostly of Sephardi origin. After 1933, some German Jews established ribbon, leather, and candy industries. By 1935, Barcelonan Jewry numbered over 5,000, the Sephardim by now being a minority. During the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), many left for France and Palestine. Some of the German Jews left the city after the Republican defeat in 1939, but during and after World War II, Barcelona served as a center for refugees, maintained by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and others returned to resettle.
Today, an estimated 8,000 Jews reside in Barcelona, making it the largest concentration of Jews in Spain. The community is also the best organized in Spain. In addition to its four functioning synagogues, the Barcelona Jewish community also has a Jewish day school, an old age home, a Chabad house, and an annual Jewish film festival. In 2016, the first Jewish Literature Festival was held. The University of Barcelona offers courses in Jewish studies.
Every year, hundreds of schools bring their students to the synagogue, where they are taught about Judaism and the history of the Barcelona Jewish community. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated annually in the Catalan Parliament.
The main synagogues are the Synagogue of the Israeli Sephardic Community of Barcelona (24, C/Avenir), the Ashkenazi Chabad Synagogue of Barcelona (14, C/Montnegre), and the Bet David Barcelona Orthodox Synagogue (2, Pl. de Ramon Berenguer el Gran). The city also has a mikveh, Barcelona Mikve (25, C/Burdeos).
What remains in Barcelona today is but a remnant of the rich Jewish culture that existed during the Golden Age of Spain. One of the main attractions that is still in existence is the ancient El Call (Juderia, or ghetto). Once home to schools, baths, and hospitals, today, only a few houses are left standing. The area was surrounded by the city walls and stood on the boundary of the former Roman settlement.
Another site is the Sinagoga Mayor of Barcelona. Originally built during the fifth century, a new synagogue was later built on top of it in the fourteenth century, and additional floors were added to the building in subsequent centuries. Despite perhaps being the oldest synagogue in Europe, the Sinagoga Mayor was forgotten and abandoned until the twentieth century, until which point it was used for many purposes, including a storage house and dry cleaner.
Following the expulsion, the synagogue in El Call Menor was demolished. Today, the church of Sant Jaume stands on the site.
The Museu d’Història de Barcelona is in the El Call district. It is housed inside a medieval building that was the former home of the veil weaver, Jucef Bonhiac, and retains some of its original 13th- and 14th-century features.
The Casa Adret, in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, is the Barcelona headquarters of the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage. In addition, documents and books related to Jewish history in Barcelona can also be found in the Chapter Archive of the Cathedral of Barcelona.
Lying just outside Barcelona proper are two other ancient Jewish sites. The first is the ancient Jewish cemetery of Montjuic (lit. Jewish mountain), located on the western edge of the city. The ancient cemetery houses the last remains of some of the most notable members of the pre-expulsion Spanish community and is officially a city park.
The second site of interest is the old city of Gerona, which is located approximately 60 miles northeast of Barcelona. While there are few, if any, Jews currently residing in Gerona, this small city was once the home of the great Jewish sage Nachmanides who defended the Jews of Spain in the thirteenth century at the Disputation of Barcelona. The Jewish Museum and Study Center in Gerona is a place to discover Catalan’s Jewish medieval history.
Terror Comes to Barcelona
A van was driven into pedestrians on La Rambla on August 17, 2017, killing 13 and injuring at least 130 people. The driver of the van fled the attack on foot, then killed a 14th victim to steal his car and escape. The terrorist was found and killed by police a few days later. Afterward, Victor Sorenssen, the director of Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona (the Barcelona Jewish Community), declared:
The Jewish community here is not afraid. This cowardly act of violence will only make us stronger in our resolve to stay and grow the Jewish community of this amazing city. We Jews of Barcelona have been proudly living in our revived community for 100 years. We aren’t leaving.
Ada Colau, Barcelona’s liberal mayor, angered Jews around the world when she unilaterally ended the 25-year “sister cities” relationship between Barcelona and Tel Aviv in February 2023, citing what she said was Israel’s “flagrant and systematic violation of human rights.” Jaume Collboni, who became mayor in June, reversed the decision.
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Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
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Alan Tigay, The Jewish Traveler, (NJ: Jason Aaronson, 1995).
Victor Sorennsen, “The Barcelona Jewish community is not doomed,” JTA, (August 21, 2017).
Orge Castellano, “Barcelona Resumes ‘Sister City’ Relationship With Tel Aviv,” Haaretz, (September 5, 2023).
Photos courtesy of Lisa Fishman and Wikipedia.