Hisdai (or Hasdai) ben-Isaac ibn-Shaprut

(c. 915–c. 970)
   Spanish physician and diplomat. Hisdai’s father was a wealthy and learned man in Cordova, the capital of the Umayyad caliphate in Spain. Hisdai himself studied medicine and entered the service of the caliph, ‘Abd al-Rahman. This was the great era of Jewish life in Moslem Spain. Gifted Jews were welcomed in public service and many rose to positions of considerable power. Hisdai, in addition to practising as a physician, was appointed director of the customs department. He also served as a diplomat and interpreter, receiving the ambassadors from the emperor of Byzantium in 944 and Emperor Otto I of Germany in 953. He was sent as envoy to the rulers of Leon and Navarre in Christian Spain in 958, and succeeded in bringing these two Christian kings to Moslem Cordova to negotiate a peace treaty. While he was in Navarre the queen, knowing of his medical skill, entreated him to cure her grandson Sancho of his gross corpulence, and it appears that the treatment was successful. Knowing how influential he was, Jews in other Christian countries turned to him to intercede on their behalf. In two recently discovered letters he pleads the cause of religious liberty with the Byzantine empress and her husband, Constantine VII. Hisdai was mindful of the needs of his fellow Jews in Cordova. He introduced the study of the Talmud by enabling Rabbi Moses ben-Hanoch to open an academy, and he invited the grammarian Menachem ben-Saruk from Tortosa in northern Spain to come to Cordova as his secretary. While filling this position Menachem published his famous and controversial Hebrew dictionary. Hisdai was perhaps best known for his attempt to contact JOSEPH, king of the Khazars. Tales of the kingdom where a Jewish king ruled on the shores of the Caspian Sea were first spread in southern Spain by an adventurer who called himself ELDAD THE DANITE. When this seeming fable was confirmed by the Byzantine ambassadors, Hisdai wrote Joseph a letter ‘to ascertain… whether there indeed exists a place where the dispersed of Israel have retained a remnant of royal power, and where the gentiles do not govern and oppress them’. Asking Joseph for information about his kingdom, Hisdai described Andalusia, a land that ‘is fruitful, rich in springs, rivers and cisterns. It is a land of grain, wine and oil… Merchants from all lands stream to our realm from the distant islands, from Egypt and other great kingdoms.’ Hisdai ends his letter with the plea that he might learn that the Jews indeed have a kingdom, as scorn was frequently vented on the Jews by Christians and Moslems alike over their lack of a temporal kingdom. The absence of a Jewish realm was seen as proof that the sceptre had indeed passed from Judah and the Jews were no longer the chosen people of God. The letter was carried by Jewish travellers via Hungary and Russia, and years later, in 955, Hisdai received a reply from Joseph, in which he confirmed the existence of his kingdom.
   The authenticity of these two letters has been the subject of scholarly controversy and opinions remain divided. However, although Hisdai’s letter has not been completely authenticated, an acrostic poem which serves as a preface to the letter reads, ‘I, Hisdai, son of Isaac, son of Ezra ben-Shaprut.’ Hisdai died in Cordova around the year 970 and his memory was honoured by Jewish and Arabic chroniclers alike.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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