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Cambridge University Library

Q&A Wednesday: From monk to Jew in 1102 – Obadiah the proselyte, with Gary Rendsburg

T-S K5.41
T-S K5.41 (recto): a musical composition thought to be in Obadiah's hand.
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Gary Rendsburg
Wed 1 Dec 2021

Gary, you’ve recently created a website dedicated to the life of Obadiah/Johannes of Oppido and his conversion to Judaism in the Middle Ages. How did you become interested in the manuscripts associated with Obadiah?

I actually do not recall the specific moment, but I can tell you that several lines converged: a) as I began to read more and more about medieval history, especially in the light of new research, including by my colleague Paola Tartakoff, I realized that conversion from Judaism to Christianity and from Christianity to Judaism was more common than I (or perhaps anyone) had realized; b) my wife is a Jew-by-choice (the term ‘convert’ is less used nowadays, at least here in the U.S.), so that I became attracted to the subject generally, including wishing to learn more as a historian; c) we both love Gregorian chant, so when I learned that Obadiah had composed such music but within a Jewish context, I was especially interested to learn more; and d) Obadiah hailed from the small town of Oppido in southern Italy, which is just 30 km northeast of the town of Potenza, which he mentions in his description of his native land, and to which I have a personal connection: my maternal grandparents survived World War II there; they left Berlin in August 1939 and found refuge in southern Italy, until the U.S. Army arrived in September 1943.

In sum, I have personal connections both to the phenomenon of conversion and to the very place where Johannes was born and grew up. I also should add that my wife and I visited Oppido and Potenza in February 2019, along with other villages in the area mentioned by Obadiah – see our photos posted at the website dedicated to Obadiah.

Which manuscripts connected to Obadiah are found in the Genizah?

The star attraction is the Obadiah Memoir, for which we have 7 folios, hence, 14 pages, written in elegant Hebrew, now divided between Budapest, Cambridge, and New York. Obadiah provides details about his youth, his travels, and much more, including events known to us from other sources, such as the Crusades.

We then have a siddur (prayer book) that he wrote for himself. Unfortunately, only a single folio is extant, though fortunately it is the opening folio, now housed in Cincinnati, and thus it includes the introduction with his name and the date, according to two dating schemes (לשטרות and לבריאת העולם), which we can convert to 1121 C.E.

Next, we have a letter of approbation from R. Barukh of Aleppo, housed at the Bodleian, which Obadiah was to carry with him for the rest of his life, should anyone question the sincerity of his conversion.

And finally, and most uniquely of all, we have three musical compositions, housed in Cambridge and New York, with Hebrew lyrics set to Gregorian chant! Clearly Obadiah applied the musical traditions of his Catholic youth to the Jewish prayers that he had learned – a remarkable combination.

I want to make it clear that I did not engage in any real original research regarding Obadiah, but rather stand on the shoulders of the greats of generations past: Jacob Mann, S. D. Goitein, Alexander Scheiber, and especially Norman Golb, who passed away last year. But our co-developed website, accomplished by myself and my student Peter Shamah, certainly makes it easier for interested parties to access all of the material.

Are the Genizah manuscripts our only sources for Obadiah’s life?

Essentially yes, though there is a single side comment, in the Commentary of Rabbi Shemaria to Proverbs 19:14, as revealed in a manuscript held in Cincinnati (H.U.C. MS 839, fol. 227r). R. Shemaria was born in Rome c. 1275 and served at the court of King Roberto of Naples (r. 1309–1343), so when he refers to “Obadiah the righteous proselyte” in his Proverbs commentary, almost undoubtedly he refers to Johannes/Obadiah who lived in southern Italy one century earlier. This little discovery was made by Philip Miller, retired librarian of H.U.C. (New York), thereby adding one more piece to the puzzle.

By the way, there is great confusion, even among seasoned scholars, who often confuse our Obadiah with the Obadiah who posed a halakhic question to Maimonides later in the 12th century and to which the great sage responded in a famous responsum. The latter almost undoubtedly converted from Islam to Judaism (and not from Christianity to Judaism), and in any case is about one-half century later, and thus cannot be our friend Obadiah. Same name, but two different people who converted to Judaism via different avenues.

The name Obadiah is a common one taken upon conversion, isn’t it? Let’s talk about some of the unusual aspects of Obadiah's story. He’s a twin, born feet first into a Norman Christian family in Southern Italy in the 11th century. He grows up as a bookish young man, and has some kind of nocturnal emission (a crucial detail in anyone’s autobiography!), and eventually decides to circumcise himself and convert to Judaism. How and why does he convert, and is this related to the Crusades?

Obadiah mentions two factors in his conversion. First, he was inspired by Andreas, the Archbishop of Bari, who had converted to Judaism c. 1070. Most likely the young Johannes did not know Andreas, because the latter died in 1078, while the former’s conversion occurred in 1102. But one can imagine that the story of Andreas’s conversion still circulated in southern Italy several decades later.

Secondly, as you state, on separate occasions, though within close proximity to each other, Johannes had both a dream and a nocturnal emission. In the dream, Johannes was officiating at the altar, when a man said to him, “Johannes!” Alas, that is the last line of Memoir, fol. 1v, housed in Budapest (Kaufmann MS 134) and then the continuation in fol. 2r, housed in your collection (T-S 8.271) is unfortunately not well preserved, so it is unclear what occurred – until we are able to read, “[and] Johannes [awoke] from his sleep, and he was afraid on account of …”

And how often does this occur in Genizah research and in Dead Sea Scrolls research and in other such researches?!?! – just at the point where you need a crucial detail, the text breaks off or is not extant!

As to the nocturnal emission (Hebrew: מקרי לילה), by which, according to his own words, he was defiled: this could be taken literally, though that raises the question why one would mention such in one’s memoir; or it could be taken metaphorically, as Johannes realized that his Christianity was defiling, as opposed to the path of Judaism which he was in the process of pursuing.

As to the Crusades, well, the First Crusade had occurred just a few years earlier, 1096–1099, and in fact Obadiah mentions the Crusaders in Memoir, fol. 2v (the verso of the document just mentioned), but he does not specifically correlate the horrors inflicted by the Crusaders on the European Jewish population with his decision to convert to Judaism.

Why does he end up living in Islamic lands and what does he do there?

One must assume that Obadiah felt it safer and more advisable to live in Muslim lands, with its greater toleration, than to remain in Christendom as a former monk who had converted to Judaism. And thus he begins his travels eastward: Constantinople, Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Banias (in northern Israel), Tyre, and Cairo. Note, by the way, that Obadiah does not visit Jerusalem, no doubt because the city then was under Christian rule, as a result of the success of the First Crusade and the establishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099. Obadiah does not disclose what he did for a living, though from his writings we gain the sense that he studied in Jewish academies and that he was sustained by the charities of the various Jewish communities which he visited.

Are the Genizah manuscripts relating to him thought to be in his own hand? How do we know this is not just a story, but describes an actual individual?

With no evidence to the contrary, I must assume that the Memoir, the siddur, and the musical compositions are written by him in his own hand. I am not a paleographer, but to my untrained eye, they certainly all appear to be written in the same hand. Interestingly, in the Memoir, he consistently refers to himself in the third person, but that just may be a matter of style. We should point out that the writing of a memoir or an autobiography was very rare in the Middle Ages. We have older works such as those of Julius Caesar (The Gallic Wars) and St. Augustine (Confessions), but they are not quite memoirs, with the one more a military history and the latter more a theological treatise – even though both provide important details about the lives of their authors. Closer in time to Obadiah is Peter Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum, a much more substantial work, of course, but note that it is written in 1132, a decade after Obadiah’s memoir.

Should we take Obadiah’s account at face value? What is its use as a historical source?

I see no reason why not to take his account at face value. There is nothing in the Memoir which is fantastical. The occasional references to historical individuals, such as Andreas, but also others, are confirmed by other sources.

To name just one additional person, in Memoir fol. 6r, also housed in Cambridge (T-S Misc. 35.31 = T-S Loan 31), Obadiah refers to Ghazi bin Urtuq as the Turkman ruler of Aleppo, and we know of this individual from Muslim sources, with the dates of his rule established as 1107–1122, hence, a contemporary of Obadiah.

One more example: Obadiah is a virtual eyewitness account to the father-and-son messianic pretenders Solomon ibn al-Ruji and Menaḥem ben Solomon, active in Kurdistan in the early 12th century – the latter better known as David Alroy in later Jewish sources. In fact, when Benjamin of Tudela visited Kurdistan a half-century later, say, c. 1160, the life of David Alroy was still very much the talk, and thus Benjamin provides a detailed account. To repeat, though, Obadiah was there 50 years earlier, when the entire episode of the father Solomon and the son Menaḥem/David was unfolding.

Are there any desiderata? What are potential avenues for further research about Obadiah?

I have two projects to explore. First, I intend to write a grammatical analysis of the Obadiah Memoir, especially since, as I mentioned, memoir writing is so rare. In truth, I cannot think of another such Hebrew text from the Middle Ages, though I would invite people to contact me with further examples, if they exist. But even if other memoirs exist, a grammatical analysis of the Obadiah Memoir, which is sufficiently long to allow such a line of enquiry, remains a desideratum.

By the way, while on the subject of language, I also should add that at one point (Memoir, fol. 2r = T-S 8.271) Obadiah quotes the Vulgate of Joel 3:4, in Hebrew letters! Shall we call this Judaeo-Latin? Well, not quite, but close to it. At which point he then quotes the verse in the Hebrew original.

There are also two lines in Judeo-Arabic at the start of the siddur:

צלוה לילה אלסבת            ‘the prayer for the eve of the Sabbath’

יג̇לס אלפראד ויקול          ‘the one (praying privately) sits and recites’

This informs us that the siddur is for Obadiah’s private use during his peregrinations, especially since the siddur omits the ברכו lines, which may be recited only with a minyan (prayer quorum).

I trust you are getting the picture: there is something for everyone here!

The second project is a much broader one and much more significant one. Towards the end of the Memoir, fol. 7v (J.T.S. ENA 3098.7) – or better I should say at the end of the last extant folio, before the text breaks off, as our friend is on his way from Tyre to Egypt – Obadiah describes his encounter with a Karaite kohen (priest) named Solomon, who informs him that he is the Messiah for whom the Jews have been yearning. Well, as you know, and as Obadiah himself says to Solomon, the Messiah must come from the tribe of Judah, so that a priest from the tribe of Levi is therefore automatically disqualified from any such notion.

Now, this is where the longue durée of Jewish history is important, because we know of a priestly Messiah from Qumran. And of course there are other connections between the Essene community who authored the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Karaites of the Middle Ages, as expounded first by Naphtali Wieder of Jews College and nowadays by Yoram Erder of Tel-Aviv University. Most prominently, note the presence of the Aramaic Levi Document found in both collections, about which Stefan Reif has written.

Most scholars believe that the Karaites arose as a new faction within Judaism in the early Middle Ages, but I agree with Wieder and Erder in understanding them as the continuation of the non-Pharisaic/non-Rabbinic stream of Judaism known from late antiquity. We may not have all the dots on the timeline to establish the precise avenues of continuity, nor the requisite data points to ascertain the precise contacts and connections between the two groups, but to my mind this pathway needs to be explored more fully.

I do not want to state categorically that the medieval Karaites are latter-day Essenes or latter-day Sadducees or Zadokites (call them what you will), but I do believe that ‘sectarian ideas’ (for lack of a better term, we seem stuck with the word ‘sectarian’ in such discussions) did not simply disappear after the year 70 C.E., but rather continued to inform Judaism for centuries later, until we reach the blossoming of the Karaite movement.

To be sure, I do not believe that the significance of Solomon the Karaite priest-Messiah, whom Obadiah encountered in Banias c. 1120 has been noticed by scholars, not even the ones referenced above. This Q&A may be the first place where such has been noted, beyond my own classroom teaching.

Thanks very much, Gary!

Gary Rendsburg holds the Blanche and Irving Chair in Jewish History at Rutgers University.

Listen to what the musical composition found in T-S K5.41 might have sounded like here.


Here is is part of a document I wrote with considerable guidance from Dr. Gary Rendsburg and Peter Moshe Shama concerning Obadiah the Norman Proselyte and Maimonides.

Larry Zamick

Obadiah, the Norman Proselyte was perhaps the most famous person to convert from Christianity to Judaism. He was born in 1070 and converted in 1102. In the Cairo Geniza manuscripts were found in which it was deduced that he added Hebrew words to Gregorian chants. One of the pieces Mi-al Har Horev is often sung today by various choirs.

In another vein one of Maimonides famous writings is a Responsa to Obadiah, the Proselyte, where in a nutshell he says that converts to Judaism can pray the same way as other Jews. It is a beautiful piece.

But Maimonides was not born until 1135 or 1138 so it is almost impossible that he was responding to the Norman proselyte. The consensus is that he was responding to a later proselyte, probably a Muslim.
(By the way , according to the Midrash the original Obadiah, the prophet was a convert from Edom. It could be that most converts in the 12th century were called Obadiah). .
Many people, including initially me, made the mistake associating the Responsa of Maimonides (Rambam) with Obadiah , the Norman Proselyte. This is not surprising. What is surprising is that error was made also by distinguished scholars, some even legendary. I include the names of a few of them who are now deceased and their quotes. I also include quotes but not names of others. These included professors of Jewish studies , rabbis , laymen and a few Christian sources.
I gratefully acknowledge correspondence and advice from Gary Rendsburg ,distinguished professor in the Jewish studies department at Rutgers ,who , along with Peter Moshe Shamah created the website,
where all of the Johannes/Obadiah material is available for public inspection.
I also cite the work of Joel Kraemer, Maimoindes (2008), pp. 311-313 — where the Obadiah confusion is discussed.
Update-1 Here is an example where the original article is correct , or at least not obviously wrong but the correction i.e. corrigendum makes both the original article and the corrigendum wrong. It pertains to Rabbi Shemaria who mentioned Obadiah the Norman Proselyte. If one ignores the corrigendum we have here a valuable article on this otherwise obscure rabbi and on the rare mention Obadiah.
“At the head of leaf 227a the legend reads "This verse Rabbi Shemaria commented upon," the subsequent commentary on Proverbs 19:14 filling leaves 227 and 228. No further identification of Rabbi Shemaria is given, although a cursory reading of the text would seem to indicate that he was a Rabbanite and not a Karaite. The reference, however, to a proselyte named Obadiah, the style of the Hebrew, and more importantly, the genre, form and style of the exegesis and the Maimonidean cast of the philosophical language, make it likely that the author is Shemaria b. Elijah b. Jacob Ikriti (1275-1355), a Rabbanite scholar.”
“Other than the mention of Obadiah, who, one must assume, is Obadiah the Norman Proselyte (late llth-early 12th centuries), the text contains no surprises; it is an otherwise unknown bit of exegesis by a relatively minor scholar.”
CORRIGENDUM“In regard to my article, "Rabbi Shemaria's Commentary on Proverbs 19:14," which appeared in JQR 73.2 (1982), in my zeal to find something novel in the text I neglected to utilize a resource which no researcher in this field can afford to overlook, the Responsa of Moses Maimonides. See his Responsum 436 (ed. by Yehoshua Blau in 3 volumes, Jerusalem: 1957-61), volume 2, page 714 and following. The 'Gaon' in question is without a doubt Maimonides.”
This last sentence is unfortunately not consistent with the statement in the original article that Obadiah was the Norman proselyte.…/1454587…
Update-2 Here we don’t know who gave the answer but we know who asked the question.…/responsa/new_name_required_for_converts.pdf
Update-3 World Faiths Encounter - Issues 13-18 - Page 41 › books › books
1996 - Snippet view
Ask a Jew about the mission question and she always thinks you mean missionaries. Stands to reason ... For that reason, the letters of Maimonides to the Norman scholar, Obadiah the proselyte, make particularly moving reading. In them …
World faiths encounter.
Read the last article on Page 170 about 2 Obadiahs by Nosan Roth.
“ If we discount Mann’s hypothesis that Obadiah the Norman came with the First Crusade can we indeed be sure that the two Obadiahs were not really one. Only time can tell.
Update -5
The conservative movement. (Mazorti ) has it wrong.
: his birth name had been Jean and his family name was Dreux. He came from an ancient Norman family which had migrated to a Norman kingdom in Italy and had settled in the town of Oppido. Jean had become a monk and in his monastery he was in charge of the choir and the music. But the more he studied the scriptures the more he became enthused with Jewish teachings. When he heard that the archbishop of Bari had converted to Judaism Jean found his own courage to convert.
After his conversion he travelled to Kushta (now Istanbul), then to Eretz-Israel and finally to Egypt where he settled. He attached himself to a rabbi (and thank God we are ignorant of his name) to continue his Jewish learning at the same time composing religious songs. He came to the attention of Rambam, the greatest rabbi in Egypt of that time (and probably of all times!) when he wrote to Rambam asking him to settle a dispute between himself and his teacher.
Update 6. Ruth Birnbaum.

In another letter written to a proselyte, Rambam's compassion shines through:
My dear scholarly friend, Ovadiah, the Norman Proselyte:
I received your inquiry asking whether you, as a convert to
Judaism, are entitled to say in your daily prayers, "Our God and God of our Fathers." I say to you: Indeed, you may say all of these …..
Update 7. Haim Hillel Ben Sasson. In ENCYCLOPEDIA JUDAICA.

Vol 9- Her-Int. Page 219. (2007) Fred Skolnik, editor

I acknowledge guidance from Gary Rendsburg and Peter Moshe Sharma.

Obadiah, the Norman proselyte was born in 1070 and died in 1150.

Maimonides was born in 1035 to 1140 and died in 1204.
Many scholars and Rabbis say that Maimonides issued a Responsa to this Norman Re whether converts could pray like Jews.
But Maimonides would have been 15 years old or less when he issued the Responsa. This makes it very unlikely.

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