Isaac of Aachen

(8–9th century)
   Charlemagne’s Jewish envoy. Isaac was the first Jew mentioned by name in German records, and was instrumental in the renewal of relationships between the rulers of the East and the West. Anticipating trouble from the Byzantine rulers over his imminent coronation as Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne resolved to secure some kind of pact with the caliph of Baghdad, the hereditary enemy of Byzantium. Accordingly, in 797 he despatched to Harun al-Rashid a delegation consisting of two Frankish noblemen and one Jew, Isaac. Because they maintained contact with their co- religionists in the East, the Jews knew better than most Franks how to negotiate the intricate travel routes so as to avoid falling into the hands of pirates or the Byzantine fleet. It was no doubt for this skill and for his knowledge of languages that Isaac was one of the ambassadors. The mission was well received by the caliph and loaded with gifts, chief of which was a magnificent elephant. As the two Frankish noblemen died on the return journey, Isaac continued alone and was received in audience by the emperor in Aachen (also known as Aix-la- Chapelle) in the summer of 802.
   Jewish tradition credits Isaac with having met on his mission the Jewish scholars of Babylon and thus established contact between the rabbis of France and the geonim. There may be some truth in this as France does not feature in the responsa of the geonim before 850. Indeed, it is supposed that Isaac’s services to French Jewry went further than this for, according to legend, the caliph’s bounteous gifts included one Makhir, a Babylonian scholar who subsequently established the Jewish academy in Narbonne.

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

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