Archive for February, 2018

Joseph’s journal;

16 Iyar 4810 (May, 1061)


My young brother Elyasaf is making good progress in his studies. The whole family is looking forward to his Bar Mitzvah next year. For his age he is already a Talmudic scholar of some accomplishment. He expresses much more interest in the Torah and Talmud than in government service. My son Azeriah is still too young to start grooming for anything. I’m far from certain I want Elyasaf to take on the life’s work my father chose for me.

My mother’s health is still good, although she is now showing her age. I did not realize until recently how close she was to her brother, ben Judah. I also long for his calm and steady personality and the efficiency with which he managed the family’s wealth. This year we are in a drought and the three farm properties we still own are all going to show a loss. I remember my father discussing the uncertainty of agriculture. This year there was a general downturn in the economy and the losses from the farms is more problematic because our other sources of income are also down. I am told that although the harvest will be much less than usual the grape crop will likely result in a very high quality wine, but that will not be realized for at least two to four years.

King Badis seems more and more remote. Following the example set by his father, King Haddus, he has refused to name a successor from among his seven legal sons, or untold numbers of the sons of concubines. The tribal chiefs are beginning to align themselves with the pretenders and it seems clear that a civil war is in the offing when he dies, unless I can do something to prevent it. I have gone to Badis and told him of my concerns. I can repeat his responses verbatim:

“So Vizier, tell me which of my sons you are certain will make the best king and once he is named what will prevent him from getting rid of me to hasten his rise to power?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t had the opportunity to get to know them well enough to make a choice, Sire.”

“Well their mothers are always nagging me to make a choice, inevitably each’s eldest. I don’t know any of them well enough to choose and prefer the company of two or three of my concubines to any of my wives. I consider the lot of them, mothers and sons, a pain in the ass. All the sons are spoiled by their mothers and ignorant of what a king’s responsibilities and duties are.”

“Do you think it might be wise to separate a few of them from their mothers and start grooming them for responsibility? Perhaps that would be a way you can identify those with the necessary level of ability. Have you talked with their teachers about their progress?”

“I have not. That would be an excellent task for you Joseph. I authorize you to hold discussions with their teachers and make an assessment of their learning, willingness to learn and aptitude. Perhaps you can even develop an opinion. You can tell me about which of the worthies you would be willing to serve after I’m gone. Good idea. You do that Vizier, and report back to me in a month. Dismissed.”

So now I have maneuvered myself into another task, to make recommendations about the successor to my king. The only possible way for this to turn out well is that one of the Princes will be so far superior to his brothers that the choice will be obvious. That is most unlikely to happen but it’s the only scenario I can think of likely to gain the support of the tribal chiefs, not to mention the king’s. I have, I fear, made the overall situation worse, especially for myself. My father would never have allowed himself to be trapped into this position.

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Letter from Badis, King of Granada         

20 Ramadan, 447 (1056)

My Dear Joseph ben Ishma’il ibn Nagrela,

Allow me again to offer condolences for the death of your beloved father. I believe I feel his loss as much as you. However, life goes on and I require your services.

You will report to the palace tomorrow morning three hours after dawn to receive your official appointment as Chief Vizier and Finance Vizier.  I know you have been fulfilling the duties of these offices for some time now, while under the supervision of your father.

Be prompt. You may bring along members of your immediate family to witness the ceremony, if you wish.



Joseph’s journal;

8 Adar 4809 (February, 1060)

It is hard to believe my father has been dead for four years. Last year we also lost my Uncle, my mother’s brother, Rabbi ben Judah. It was he who managed the family properties for many years. His heart, weak for some time, stopped while he was sleeping. This has put additional family responsibilities on me and forced me to consider a serious consolidation of the family’s resources. My brother Elyasaf, only eleven years old and eighteen years my junior, is too young to assume the daily oversight of the family’s holdings so I have that additional responsibility.

Many of our most distant properties have been sold, the capital invested in various business opportunities here in Granada. I offered David ben Abraham ownership of the two Ecija farms at a fair price with no down payment and no interest loans, to be paid off over time. He was very pleased. Three of the other properties were sold to the same managers who worked them profitably for many years, on equally generous terms.

My relationship with King Badis is considerably more formal than the one my father had with him. Officially I am still his Chief Vizier, and he does listen when I have something he considers significant to contribute. However, I have not been able to maintain the numbers nor reliability of the spy network my father constructed. The information I have access to regarding the actions and intentions of potential enemies is still significant. Some rivals for the King’s ear are making inroads. I still have a strong hold on the finances of the kingdom and Badis seems pleased with all I continue to accomplish in that regard. The economy continues to grow, the treasury is adequate to meet all needs and whims, and we maintain a strong military capable of responding to all threats.

I am happy to not be involved in the military adventures of the kingdom. Badis has at his disposal capable Generals, of proven ability, who were educated and trained by my father. They conduct his military adventures for him. My father made it clear to Badis I had no talent nor inclination to be a warrior. The king no longer takes the field himself. He is much addicted to his cup.

Although I have considerable influence in the Jewish community of Granada I am not able to exert the level of control over the ethical attitudes and practices that my father was. During the last three years the economic situation here continued to improve and the number of people moving into Granada has multiplied. Many Jews have also arrived, looking for opportunity to invest capital in a more robust economy than existed where they previously lived. Some of these individuals have been loaning money at interest, growing their capital. There has also been a large increase in the Arab and Berber populations and this has attracted Imams of less tolerant beliefs.

The inevitable happened. Borrowers defaulted and lenders look for legal, and sometimes extralegal, activities to recoup their capital. The result has been hard feelings, hard words, and an increase in anti-Jewish rhetoric and incidents. Gangs of men beat up two Jews in the streets, in broad daylight, last month. Both those attacked were money lenders. I appealed to Badis and he appointed one of his Zanhadja tribal chiefs to investigate, but there doesn’t seem to have been a serious attempt to identify the perpetrators or bring them to justice. If this situation persists I will be hard pressed to suggest a solution.

This morning I had a conversation with Amar, an Arab with whom I have been friends since we were children.

“My friend, I think something is happening that you need to be aware of.”

“Yes, what is it?”

“Last week I attended services at the new mosque built two streets away from my house, you know it?”


“The Imam preached a sermon with the same old arguments about Infidels having power over True Believers. He did not name you but it was clear, from what he said, he is not happy that any of his followers are paying taxes to a Jew, or that one particular Jew has great power and influence in this Taifa, as well as being very wealthy himself.”

“This is a problem my father had to face all his life. I cannot respond to this Imam’s words but perhaps we can make it known if his words incite his followers to action there will be consequences.”

“What kind of consequences, and how would you prove he was responsible?”

“Ah, that is the problem I wrestle with, Amar. Thank you for telling me. I have always been thankful you are my friend.”


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Joseph’s journal;

4 Tevelt 4808 (December 1059) 

It seems that early each spring, we receive intelligence of an uprising, an invasion, raiding, or some sort of incident that demands a military response. These crises seem to require that Ha Nagid put on his armor and depart on a campaign. Sometimes circumstances dictate a large army, sometimes just a token force. In the spring of 1056, word arrived that in Linares, a town north of Jaen, one of Father’s tax collectors had been murdered. One of the Zenata Berber tribes was responsible for the murder and the same tribe was raiding the nearby villages of Carboneros and La Carolina. This was not a new scenario it was often repeated in different places by different perpetrators, but it was not something that could be tolerated.

“You are fully capable of dealing with things here in Granada, Joseph. I will take a small force, maybe two companies of light cavalry, one of heavy, two units of mounted archers and slingers, and two units of infantry and go deal with these rebels. Take care to keep the king happy while I’m gone.”

“Of course, Papa, but there is no need for you to lead the force in person. You have more than one general capable of accomplishing the task.”

“No, I must do this myself. The man who was murdered was a friend of long-standing, Shlomo ben Yitzhak. Everyone knew he was my man, so this was meant to be a challenge to my authority. I will deal with it.”

Colonel Samuel ben Yehuda, a Jew commanded a company of heavy cavalry. He was one of my childhood friends. Ben Yehuda is a full two meters tall, heavily muscled and has proven to be very brave and resourceful in battle. His men know he is always solicitous of their wellbeing but determined to do whatever is necessary to be victorious. He is destined to be a general. I called on him in his home.

“I am worried about Ha Nagid,” I told him. “He is acting more and more like an old man, but he insists this latest policing action is personal for him. I’m afraid he is planning to do something foolish. I think he intends to personally fight if the opportunity presents itself. Last night, I watched as he sharpened the blades of his sword and knives. He was reciting some of King David’s poems as he sharpened his weapons. He has also inspected his own armor, and that of his horse. He ordered the repair of some very minor weaknesses in the chaining. He is too old to be engaging in combat.”

“Do not worry, Joseph. I will glue myself to his side. If there is any fighting, I will protect him. I know this Zenata Chief. He is a blowhard. If and when he sees our forces he will either run to the mountains or surrender. In either case he will beg your father for forgiveness with some lame excuse for what he has done.”

“Thank you, Samuel. I will count on you to keep Ha Nagid safe. Also, please watch to make certain he does not tire himself and become ill again. He is not nearly so strong as he once was.”

“Of course. Please do not worry. I will make certain he is returned home in better shape than when we leave. Time in the field, in the open air, will rejuvenate him.”

They were gone for a little over two months and returned to Granada with only two wounded. Father looked stronger and healthier than I had seen him for four years.

Colonel ben Yehuda and I were strolling along my favorite path next to the river the day after they returned home. The day was clear, a few white clouds scuttling across the late morning sky. On that stretch of river, the water flows gently and I watched as a leaf got trapped in an eddy next to the bank.

“My father appears to be in much better health than when you left on your camping trip. He told me last night everything went well.”

“Yes, being outside in the fresh air, and the healthy exercise, agreed with him. I don’t know how he does it. After travelling all day, he stayed up almost all night studying his books or writing. Every day he sent a messenger loaded with documents to deliver back here to you, or to the palace, or to send on their way to the diaspora. One or two messengers caught up with us with their dispatches every day. How many Rabbis and officials do you think he communicates with?”

“I can’t keep a count. The last time I tried to make a list, it was well over two dozen.”

“He’s a remarkable man, but I must tell you he gave me a huge scare.”

I stopped short and took hold of his arm. “What did he do?”

“After two weeks, our scouts located their camp. We managed to get within a kilometer before they knew we were coming. They reacted quickly, grabbed what they could, armed themselves, and scrambled to saddle their horses and flee. Your father ordered me to attack immediately, then spurred his stallion, drawing his sword as he galloped towards the camp. I shouted to my captains to attack and gave chase, just managing to catch up to him as he encountered one of the rebels.”

“I thought you were going to keep him out of danger.”

“I’m sorry. I never expected him to rush in as he did. He was possessed. He was smiling and shouting a prayer to God. I couldn’t understand all of what he was shouting. He crashed into the first man he encountered, knocking him off his horse and slashing the man’s sword arm. Then he jerked his horse to the side, attempting to engage a group of three. I managed to get between him and them, joined by six of my men. We wounded and captured ten and killed three before they scattered into the mountains. This happened in the foothills north of Navas de Tolosa. I split up our forces and we pursued their small bands, but only managed to find and capture another dozen before the rest of them crossed over into Castile-La Mancha. Ha Nagid didn’t want to invade the Christian territory with an armed force, so we turned back and spent time in La Carolina, Carbones, El Altico, and Guarromain before going to Linares.”

“In each of those places, your father held council with my officers and me. We selected two, sometime three platoons, with a lieutenant in charge. They were left as a garrison to prevent further raids. He also met with the leaders of each community and appointed new administrators to replace those killed by the rebels.”

We continued walking then reached a bench under an overhanging weeping willow tree. I nodded at the bench and we sat. I needed to find out more about my father’s actions.

“We left two companies to garrison Linares and your father made certain there was a fast response system in place with remount stations. He ordered that messengers must be able to get a fresh horse every ten-kilometers, or less. He insists that we be able to respond quickly to any attacks or raiding parties. He summoned my brother David to bring his family to Linares and assume the positions of tax collector and sub-governor of the northern territories. He will report to the governor of Jaen province. All of this took the better part of a month in Linares alone.”

“Do you think your brother will do well there?”

“He seemed quite happy with the opportunity, although I think he will miss the interaction with family and the Jewish community here. Time will tell.”

“His financial situation will certainly improve.”


Late that same fall, my father was again ill and depressed. He rarely left his bed, even to go to his study. He seemed content to lay propped up with many cushions while he read, disinclined to occupy his time with writing. One morning, as I sat at his bedside going over the tasks for the day, he handed me two folded sheets of paper.

“Joseph, keep these but do not open them until I am gone. I doubt I will last through this winter.”

His complexion was pasty, his breathing labored. His right hand was shaking slightly and he grabbed it with his left hand to hold it steady. He started coughing and was unable to speak for some minutes before he coughed up phlegm into a square of soft cotton cloth. I took the fabric from him and handed him a clean cloth from a stack on the table next to his bed.

“This is not good, Papa. I am sending for your physicians. There must be something they can do.”

“All three of them will be here this afternoon, Joseph, we agreed to that when they were here two days ago. They are giving me treatments for the congestion in my chest, but they tell me much of the pus is accumulating in my lungs. There is nothing to be done more than inhaling the steam with eucalyptus oil that they treat me with.”

“I will bring in some other physicians. They will have other treatments to try.”

“No, Joseph, they will want to bleed me and do other invasive things to my old body. I am tired and you are ready to take over. No more physicians, no more treatments. I have lived a long life, more years than I deserved. God has been my protector and my champion. It’s enough.”

Three weeks after that conversation, he died in his sleep. The entire Jewish population of Granada and representatives from all of the communities capable of arriving within twenty-four hours of the news of his death attended his burial. King Badis came, as did his entire family. All of the government officials and administrators, all of the generals and colonels of the army attended. We buried him in a plain, white cotton shroud in the Jewish cemetery just outside the Elvira gate to the city. Memorial services honoring him were conducted in every town with an organized Jewish community throughout Andalusia and in many other communities throughout the diaspora.

All of the Jews who attended his burial wore white cotton cloaks, which they tore during the keriah. The family and visitors to our home crowded the meeting room and jammed the courtyard for each of the mandated seven days of the daily shiva service. On the eighth day, alone and lonely in the study, I unfolded the two sheets of paper he gave me just before dying.

The first said; “I have not always been faithful to the one with whom you were conceived. King Badis gave me a young Jewish maiden whom I loved in a way completely different from the way I loved your mother. For ten years I loved her and then she died from the same pox that took your sister from us. This is a poem I wrote for her:”

The poem brought tears to my eyes and is too personal to share with anyone.

The second sheet of paper held his final instructions to me.

“When you deal with the King, you must use all of the wisdom and experience that the two of us together brought to him. You must convince him that all the ideas he embraces were in actuality his own. The largest threat to our Jewish community is disunity. I charge you with the responsibility and obligation to do everything necessary to protect our people. When I am gone dear Joseph, my son, you must take extraordinary care to avoid any action that can or might corrode your relationship with the King or with the Jewish community.”


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