How did Jews get from Mesopotamia to Europe?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a while now.

I know that Islam spread from Arabia to northern Africa to Spain as Muslims traded with the native peoples and through some conquest and migration. I know that Christianity spread as the Church sent missionaries throughout Europe and as Byzantine Christians traded with the Far Eastern countries. Buddhism was introduced from India to the Far East through trade.

Which brings me to the question of how Judaism spread from the Middle East to Europe.

So, how did they?


Exile. Relocation due to persecution.

Many Jews, for example, after the destruction of the second Temple, were sent to Rome.

Zev Steinhardt

Well, Jews had spread throughout Europe long before Muhammed preached. There are Jewish artifacts from Sepharad (Spain) from the late Republic (and, sadly, anti-Semitic legislation promulgated by the Visigothic kings).

No doubt Jews had traded with and settled in much, if not all, of the Mediterranean littoral from an early (“Tarshish” is generally considered to be in modern Andalusia, and tradition has Adoniram, a general of Solomon, buried in Spain). The uniting of the Mediterranean littoral could only have facilitated this. Ironically, as Greeks and Phoenicians (the remnants of the Canaanites) were first commercial and then political rivals, Jews would likely have been excluded from Greek-dominated areas.

The connection between Mesopotamia and Spain is not so much physical (although there were travelers between them) as ideological. Since Nebuchadrezzar II conquered Judah, there was a large Jewish population in Mesopotamia (only recently run out by the Iraqi kings and dictators). Although there were certainly exceptions, the Sassanid Persian kings who ruled Mesopotamia were generally less discriminatory than were the Christian emperors of the Roman Dominate period; the great yeshivot (Torah academies) were at Sura and Pumbedita, and remained open and creative until the eve of the Turkish conquest. Since Mesopotamia, together with the rest of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain, were under Muslim rule, the geonim (heads of the Mesopotamian yeshivot) were able to communicate with the Jews in these regions much more easily than with their compatriots in Christian lands.

The Jews in northern and eastern Europe (Ashkenzaim) are undoubtedly descended from Jews who settled in Gaul during the Roman Empire, and who migrated east in times of persecution, seeking better lives; their numbers were no doubt increased by the Khazars, a Turkish people largely (although not entirely) converted to Judaism during the 8th and 9th centuries CE. As communications with the Muslim sphere (including the Mesopotamian yeshivot) were more difficult, they have a largely (but not entirely) independent tradition (although the differences ought not to be exaggerated).

I’ve wondered about this myself. What time frame are we talking about? I would guess that migration to places like Germany-Poland-Russia came relatively late. Was it during the Middle Ages or after the start of the Renaissance?

This really is very interesting. I don’t think we were taught about it in Hebrew school, and I know we didn’t get it in World Civilizations I, although we might in II.



There was a flourishing Jewish community in France at least as early as the eleventh century. The leading Biblical and Talmudic commentator, Rashi (1035-1100) lived in the community in Worms, France.

Zev Steinhardt

That is a controversial topic

addition to questions of medical interest, there are many interesting possibilities concerning the origin of Ashkenazi populations and how they migrated in Europe. It seems likely that Jews began to arrive in Europe perhaps 1,000 to 1,200 years ago, when settlement was already sufficiently developed to provide them with opportunities to make a living.

One theory claims that the Jews of Eastern Europe derive predominantly from Jewish migrants from the Rhineland or from Italy, being fairly direct descendants of the original ancient Jewish/Hebrew populations.

A second theory suggests a northerly migration from the Balkans or from Central Asia, with the possibility of large-scale conversions of Slavs and/or Kuzars to Judaism.

This argument parallels the controversy over the origin and development of Yiddish – the language of Eastern European Jews. One theory proposes that Jews, migrating from the Rhineland and neighboring regions spoke an old form of German which provided the basis of Yiddish.

Other scholars reject the German origin of Yiddish. These linguists see Yiddish grammar as fundamentally Slavonic, with modern Yiddish developed by incorporating large numbers of German and Hebrew words into the context of a basically Slavic grammar and syntax.

There has not been enough historical evidence to decide between such theories. Now, with the newly developed genetic methods, it is possible to test these ideas, for example to see if there was a significant Slavic contribution to modern Ashkenazic Jewry.

Essentially they either came directly from the Middle East primarily from Italy and up the Rhine and spread to Europe(this is how most Askenazic studies teach thier origins) OR they came via the Balkans and people such the Kuzars (a Slavic people who converted to Judism en masse in the 8th Century) make up a great bulk of who the European jews are. (This is very controversial in the Askenazi community but it has gained scholarly credibility over the past decade)

I always thought they spread within the Roman empire.

Were the Jews in Palestine during the Roman control considered Roman citizens? If so were they then allowed to settle or move within Roman territory?

Certainly there were Jewish outposts outside the middle east at least before 2nd temple times - e.g. the Indian (India) jews.

That’s interesting and surprising about the Kuzar conversion. I thought Judaism was pretty much static, in terms, of conversions (not counting individual conversions) since old testament times.

MSRobyn – I think you are right. I don’t remember this ever being discussed in my West Civilization or World History courses. At most it must have been a one-liner that I don’t remember. Jews in Spain was given more play.

The surprising thing is that my World Civ professor is big on transitions; stuff like how the Roman slaves in the outer provinces became feudal serfs. We’ve learned how other religions spread. Heck, I can tell you who Sts. Cyril and Methodius were and what they were doing in Kiev in the 10th century. (They were Byzantine missionaries who went to Kiev and converted Prince Vladimir to Christianity and established the Russian Orthodox Church and the Cyrillic alphabet.) I honestly had no idea how my own religion made it from the Middle East to Europe. It was like the Underpants Gnomes. Step One: Jews in the Middle East. Step Two: ??? Step Three: Jews in Europe!

Thanks for the education. :slight_smile:


The either/or in my 1st post meant “mainly either/or” not “either this OR that” exclusively which is completely unclear and fragmented in my post (per ususal)

Jews in Palestine were not Roman citizens en masse until until in A.D. 212 when Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to the entire freeborn population of the empire. Individual jews (like Paul/Saul Of Tarsus) could and did become citizens.

of course they were all subjects of the Empire.

It’s worth noting that “citizen” (civis) had a completely different meaning in the early Empire than it does today. Individual Jews would have been actual citizens (vide Saul/Paul of Tarsus and the “Herod” Agrippas), and all Jews who were subjects of the Empire would have been given citizenship by the Edict of Caracalla in 212 CE (although by that time citizenship had essentially lost any meaning). Whether or not citizens, however, Jews would generally have been allowed (and, as zev_steinhardt notes, in some cases forced) to move and/or settle within the Empire. There were presecutions, of course; Tacitus notes that Claudius I forced the Jews out of Rome (although he doesn’t seem entirely clear on the distinction between Jews and Christians), and Hadrian persecuted the Jews both before and after the Bar Kokhba revolt.

It should be noted that the Talmud Bavli gives the impression that movement between Palestine and Mesopotamia was fairly unrestricted until the time of the Christian Neo-Flavians (Constantine I and his relatives) about the middle of the 4th century CE.

Step four: Jews in Spaaaaaaaaaaace. :slight_smile: (Thank you Mel Brooks).

Zev Steinhardt

Lovely reference work on this topic: Eli Barnavi, A historical atlas of the Jewish people, published by Schocken. P. 37 shows a map of diasporas from 4th c. BCE (sadly, labeled “BC”) through 2nd c. CE. This shows movement of Jews from the area we’d think of today as Israel to what looks like contemporary Turkey and Greece, with a later wave to Rome (I’m omitting non-European or gateway countries). P. 44 shows widespread 1st c. Jewish communities in Spain, Gaul, London, Vienna, etc. Byzantine Jews are distributed into Bulgaria and Serbia by the 10th-12th c. (pp. 70-71). Your specifiv question is addressed on p. 78:

“…cannot be thought of as a linear and continuous development.”
“The earliest recorded presence of Jews in Medieval Europe is that of colonies of oriental of ‘Syrian’ merchants in towns north of the Loire or in southern Gaul in the fifth and sixth centuries.”
“After an interruption of over 150 years, we encounter another group of Jewish merchants, new arrivals from … Palestine and Babylon.”

If anybody has a good cite for the work on Jewish mitochondrian DNA (the studies showing that the African Jews are Jews, e.g.), I’d love to see it.

Michener indicates in * the Source * that Jews began to emigrate throughout the known world since the Babylonians conquered them around 560 BCE, destroyed the first temple, and moved them to Babylonia. But you can’t believe everything that Michener writes is factually accurate.

In this case, though, he’s correct. After the Babylonian conquest, small Jewish settlements are known to have existed in Egypt (specifically in Alexandria) and elsewhere.

And after the Ptolmaic conquest of Judea, there was a large migration of Jews to Alexandria, which led to the development of a large and prosperous community there. It included such notables as Philo of Alexandria, as well as, (with more noteriety, Tiberius Julius Alexander) and the Jews in Alexandria went so far as to build their own Temple (which got them condemned by the rest of the Jewish world).

I 'unno. Internet?

[sub]Thus fullfilling my daily Simpsons quote quota[/sub]

remember that Israelites were scattered among varied internment camps during the Assyrian captivity circa 721 BCE & moved around as the Assyrian empire fell to the Babylonian fell to the Meda-Persian fell to the Grecian fell to the Roman empire. While some may well have assimilated (the “lost tribes”), some others kept their identity & reintegrated with their Judaic siblings.

The Spanish Jewish community pretty much came with the Muslims across North Africa, as independent businessmen following the money, and also as “court Jews” to the expanding Muslim empire.

The Jews of the Rhineland (France and Germany) also came as businessmen within the Roman Empire. However, the great Jewish communities in that area weren’t really founded until the time of Charlemagne, who encouraged Jewish immigration in order to make his new empire a center of learning.