The Purim of the Philosophers

Languedoc, 1249


      From Moshe ben Nachman to his eldest son Nachman in Toulouse, on the twenty-first day of Adar in the year five thousand and nine, may the blessings of Ribono Shel Olam be with you.

      My dearest son, I pray that you hear the words of your father and do not forsake the teachings of your mother. I write to you from the city of Narbonne, where tonight I am a guest of Meïr ben Isaac the wine-merchant and tomorrow I will take ship for Marseilles.

      It was Purim last night in Narbonne! Not the Purim we celebrated a week ago, not the remembrance of our deliverance from Haman, but the little Purim of this city, the celebration of a little Haman defeated. On this day thirteen years ago, the priests and their flocks rioted against King Roger and the Cathars, and as always, it became a riot against the Jews because we too are under the king’s protection. But the intendant and the consuls of the city had word of the priests’ plan, and so swiftly did they act that none were killed.

      Seeing Jews in the street dancing and singing of their deliverance and remembering the Purim we celebrated seven days ago as a family makes me miss you very much, my son, and I will miss you more when I sail tomorrow. It is early in the season and storms are a danger, but I cannot lose sight of the urgency of the mission King Roger entrusted to me and of the even greater import that it may have for our people. I go to a city under siege, where strife between Jews may breach the wall for Jew and Christian alike. Will there be another Purim this year in Marseilles? I pray that we will not need one…


      Moshe ben Nachman came to Marseilles, as always, by sea. It was March and the seas were stormy, but there were greater dangers on land: bandits, masterless knights, barons with no love for the king of the Languedoc. The lands where the County of Toulouse shaded into Provence were dangerous at the best of times, and all the more so now when war threatened from the east.

      He saw the sea-wall first, and the outlines of the castle and basilica above it; even forty years after Marseilles had joined King Roger’s father in opposing the crusade, there were more Catholics in the city than Cathars. Later, as the ship came inside the fortress islands and turned into the harbor, there were tiled roofs and towers, and along with the sight of the city came its noise and smell. Spices from the market, molten iron from the smithies, and the Roman sewers that emptied into the harbor all combined with the smell of salt water; the odor was overpowering to a man weakened by days of tossing seas, but it held the promise of land.

      Later still, he climbed onto the pier and sought the harbormaster. His first steps were unsteady; he was soon to be fifty-five, and the still earth beneath his feet was as unsettling as the movement of the water had been when he took ship. The stevedores’ shouts buffeted him and the people swirled around him like the waves of the sea, but a path opened before him, and at the end of it was a bearded man with a deep red surcoat and a chain of office. Moshe greeted him, but the greeting was not returned; the harbormaster stood waiting, wondering what reason a Jew might have to take him from his business.

      “I come from the lord king,” Moshe said, “and I need lodging and a horse.”

      The harbormaster looked at him incredulously, and Moshe removed the royal warrant from his pouch and held it for inspection. He wondered for a moment if even that would suffice; it was the custom in Marseilles no less than anywhere in France that Jews didn’t ride horses. As well imagine a Jew with a sword – but slowly, the harbormaster nodded and gestured to the gate.

      “The city stable is just inside,” he said. “Give them this token, and present this one at the guest-house.”

      Moshe walked through the gate, but a moment later, he rode.

      There was little sign within the walls of the war that threatened just outside them: merchants quarreled, blacksmiths hammered out iron, workmen went about their business, sullen priests and proud parfaits hurried to their congregations. Only later did Moshe wonder what was being made in the smithies and how many of the priests might be awaiting Charles of Anjou’s army with anticipation rather than fear, and by then, he was in the first of the Jewish quarters.

      There were two juiveries in Marseilles, one in the upper city and one in the lower; the latter, through which Moshe now rode, was much the larger. Three hundred families had lived there when Moshe was born. Four times that many lived there now. They had come as refugees from northern France, the German cities, even from England; all of them driven out by neighbors who hated them all the more because the Cathars favored them, neighbors such as those who had driven Moshe from his own Girona. They were a seventh of Marseilles’ citizens and they filled the Jewish streets to overflowing; their jerry-built houses rose to four and five stories, and the raucous shouts of women came from the upper floors as the smell of lye and the sound of tools scraping on coral issued from the workshops that fronted the streets.

      They saw Moshe, and where the people in the outer city had looked on him with studied indifference, they saw a Jew in nobleman’s garb riding on horseback and they cheered. “From Moses to Moses,” called the laundresses and soap-makers and cloth-merchants, “there is none like Moses!”

      Moshe had heard that call before. It was the epitaph of another man, one who was so called not because he was a royal emissary but because of his teachings. And that man was at the center of the dispute that had brought Moshe here today.

      A poor omen, he thought, as he reined in at the Minor Synagogue.

      The rabbi emerged and looked, astonished, at the mounted Jew before him; with visible effort, he stayed himself from bowing. “We had no word you were coming,” he said. “I would have prepared…”

      “There was no time to send word. I must see the nasi.”

      “Which one?”

      Now it was Moshe who was astonished. “The nasi, the head of the community. There is more than one?”

      “Ibn Tibbon’s party calls him the nasi. De Lattès’ party gives him the same honor.”

      “And the syndics? They haven’t intervened?”

      “They support de Lattès,” the rabbi said. “But now there is a council, and ibn Tibbon’s party is in the majority. The councilmen and syndics fight like the parlement and the consuls of the city.”

      “And you? Surely you, as teacher, have kept the peace here?”

      The rabbi hung his head, and it was a moment before he spoke. “I am of the syndics’ party, but most of my congregation is not. I am afraid.”

      Moshe drew in his breath and remembered the words of the warrant he carried: we charge you to settle the strife among the Jews of Marseilles before it threatens the peace of the city. If there were rival governments of the Corporation of the Jews, then he was too late; the strife was already in the open, the peace of Marseilles already threatened.

      Then I must restore it. “Where are they now?” he asked. “I must speak with them at once.”

      The rabbi told him.


      The difference between the two men, Moshe decided, lay in their studies, in both senses of the word.

      Jehiel de Lattès lived in the upper juiverie near the Synagogue Major, and the open windows of his study looked out on the harbor and the sea. Its walls were lined with books and the desk was covered with maps and ledgers – account books for the buildings de Lattès owned in the lower city and charts of the properties of Viscount Barral of Baux, for whom he was the agent. He wore the emblem of the nasi and that of a consul of the city, and his closely-trimmed beard and rich clothing gave him the appearance of a nobleman. He was a nobleman, Moshe realized: his father and grandfather had held the rank of nasi before him, and he lived as a nobleman did, off the income of his lands.

      “It is ibn Tibbon’s people,” he said, his voice carefully controlled but at the edge of anger. “They are riotous. They speak against the syndics and the rabbis. They are besotted with Maimonides – with philosophy, like the Hellenists in the time of the Hashmonaim…”

      Moshe held up his hand. “In what way are they Hellenists? Do they deny God? Have they uncircumcised themselves like the Jews who the Hashmonaim fought?”

      “No,” said de Lattès. “Of course they do none of those things. But they have taken the Guide for the Perplexed as their Torah. They say that everything is open to question – that even the books of the Tanakh might be allegories and fables. They deny the authority of the sages; they hold that the Creation might be understood through lenses and alembics. They sing of courtly love like the troubadours do! And they claim that ben Maimon has taught them to do so.”

      Moshe stood for a moment in silence. He was here to make peace, but de Lattès’ misgivings answered too easily to his own. “The Guide for the Perplexed has its uses,” he temporized. “It can be a way back to the faith for those who the pagan philosophers have led astray.”

      “Will you ban it, then, except for those people? Will you ban the study of philosophy? Will you proclaim the infallibility of the sages? You proposed that once.”

      “I did propose it once. But it didn’t lead to peace. It didn’t lead to agreement.”

      “The way to reach agreement with heretics is for them to renounce their heresies.”

      At another time, in another place, Moshe ben Nachman might have agreed. But there and then, de Lattès’ words carried echoes of solemn church councils, proclamations against Cathars and Jews, swords unsheathed as bishops preached crusade.

      “The city will be at war. We must speak with one voice now – my lord the king and my lord of Baux would both wish it. I will speak with ibn Tibbon and see if there is a middle path.”

      “He intrigues with the parfaits and the guildsmen – his middle path will lead you straight to them,” de Lattès said as Moshe called for his horse. “There is no middle path with him. You will see.”


      “No,” ibn Tibbon said an hour later, “there is no middle path with that one.” His house was on the edge of the lower Jewish quarter and it was very old, possibly even Roman; its crumbling rooms were built around a courtyard where ibn Tibbon raised the herbs from which he made medicines and where his wife had planted flowers. The earliest of the flowers were already in bloom, and they drove away the fragrance of the streets; behind them, ibn Tibbon’s study was cluttered with star charts, surgical instruments, a Torah that his grandfather had brought from Granada, books of poetry in Hebrew and Arabic and Provençal.

      “If de Lattès had his way, there would be no new knowledge, only commentaries and commentary on the commentaries. There is so much learning in the world, and here we are free to pursue it; wouldn’t turning away from it be slighting God’s creation?”

      “He says that you call the Torah a fable,” Moshe said mildly, “and that your poets sing of courtly love.”

      “Even King Solomon sang of women of valor, no?” But ibn Tibbon looked abashed. “But yes, better for faithful husbands to sing of their wives. Philosophers have their excesses as mystics do” – was that really a veiled reference to Moshe being a student of the Ravad and Isaac the Blind? – “but Maimonides has shown us another way of thinking, another way of doing, and there is holiness in it.”

      Another way of doing. Those words chased away Moshe’s momentary anger at the mention of mysticism. The Ravad had taught him that Judaism was a religion of deeds, not dogmas – not the dogmas of de Lattès, but also not those of Maimonides…

      “Of course not,” ibn Tibbon said, and Moshe realized he had spoken out loud. “Those who treat ben Maimon as infallible are as foolish as those who worship the sages. But he has given us a window on the world, and there is no middle path between opening it and closing it.”

      Moshe put his hands on the examining table to support himself. “If I can’t make peace between you, I will have to judge between you.”

      “Am I afraid of judgment?” ibn Tibbon said, and then he laughed. “Yes, of course I am. Who in his right mind would not be? But I must defend the freedom of my faith as I defend the city.” At the last of those words, he looked up, and Moshe followed his eyes to where a sword hung over the door.

      “You’re going to fight de Lattès?” asked Moshe, horrified.

      “No, I’m going to fight Charles of Anjou. Civis Massilianum sum, Moshe. The doctors have elected me to the city council, and I’ve raised a company to defend the walls as the other guilds do. I go now to drill with them.”

      Moshe looked at him again as if doing so for the first time, and he recalled his thought at the harbor: as well imagine a Jew with a sword. Ibn Tibbon hardly looked a martial hero; he was fifty, overweight, with a doctor’s hands rather than a soldier’s. But there was something about him that did look soldierly. Maybe it was the chain of office he wore as an elected member of the municipal council – an office that Jews held in no other city, and one that gave him power of his own rather than a royal intendant’s reflected glory.

      “Have you read ibn Gabirol?” ibn Tibbon said, and Moshe had an uneasy feeling that the other man was reading his thoughts. “Valor is a virtue of the hands. Practice with your hands, and you can be a brave man or a coward. We’ve practiced the one for so long; shouldn’t we learn the other?”

      Ibn Tibbon turned toward the door. “And I’d watch de Lattès’ virtues if I were you. His master the Viscount pays tribute to the king of France as well as King Roger, and he remembers that his family ruled here once.” He walked out to the marketplace where the regiment of the lower juiverie was assembling, and his sword, freshly made in Marseilles’ smithies, glinted in the fading light.

      It would be by such a sword, in the early hours of the next morning, that the Cathar parfait Guillaume de Mareuil met his death.


      …It sometimes seems, my son, that Marseilles’ factions are as many as its citizens. The consuls, the great men of the city, contend with a council grown newly combatant; the bourgeois on that council vie against the doctors and knights; the parfaits and the priests use the streets as their battleground; the partisans of King Roger are caught between those of Provence’s great families and those who fiercely defend the city’s chartered liberties.

      Why should there not, then, be parties among the Jews? The Jews’ privileges here are unheard-of in Christendom and rare even for the Languedoc. I am minded of the Arian kings who had to tolerate their Catholic subjects and who tolerated us because they were forced to tolerate all; here, where we are a Cathar king’s bulwark, he must do the same. We are citizens, guildsmen, councilors; is it not only natural that their causes have partisans among us and that our own disputes are enlisted in their service?

      But there cannot be parties in Marseilles now. Charles of Anjou has married Beatrice of Provence and claims the county through her, and though the season is early, his army marches to enforce that claim and the Provençal lords quarrel over whether to support him. He calls his war a crusade; many of the Catholics in the city would welcome him, and it will be some time before King Roger can raise an army to fight him, so the rest of the city must speak as one.

      It is with this war looming that I am called on to give judgment. The dispute I judge is one I have judged in the past, and I know what ruling I should give. But when I gave that ruling before, it brought no peace. Even as I judge, I must learn to think also as a diplomat…

      But I will write more later, my son. The first light will come soon, and outside, they are calling.


      They were calling because Guillaume the parfait was dead, and because he had died on ibn Tibbon’s doorstep.

      “Come quickly!” they cried – twenty of them, thirty, more every minute, many still dressed in their nightclothes. “Come quickly!” they said, helping Moshe dress and mount his horse, not allowing him for a second to refuse their attentions. “Come before the juiverie burns!”

      They sounded terrified, and not for ibn Tibbon alone. Most of the people who’d come calling were from northern French and German families; on the whole, they were more tradition-bound than the Marseillaise Jews, and most were probably of de Lattès’ party. But they remembered massacres when the Crusades were called and burnings when villagers raised the blood libel; a dead parfait in front of a Jew’s house was a danger to all Jews, whatever faction they may be.

      And indeed, when Moshe made his way through streets jammed despite the early hour and reached ibn Tibbon’s house, there were a hundred armed Jews drawn up outside and a crowd of Cathars at the end of the block with torches and stones. Ibn Tibbon’s swordsmen and bowmen had checked them for the moment, but those in front were being urged to courage by those behind, and Moshe knew that when they found it, the thought of armed Jews would make them even angrier. And more than the Jewish quarter would suffer; King Roger’s hold on the city depended on the tacit alliance between Jew and Cathar, and a massacre here would shatter both.

      Moshe had, to his sorrow, seen such massacres before, and he knew he had very little time.

      He guided his horse between house and mob. “Ibn Tibbon, come forth!” he called.

      Ibn Tibbon did come forth, leaving the protection of his regiment to stand at Moshe’s side. He didn’t lack courage, at least.

      “Did you kill this parfait?” asked Moshe. He asked formally, the way a magistrate might do in the law-courts; a sonorous challenge that carried to the Cathars and demanded that the Jew answer under oath.

      “I didn’t kill him. I swear on the Torah I did not.”

      “Did you order his death?”

      “No. I swear it.”

      “Did anyone in the juiverie kill him?”

      “To my knowledge, no. If any did, I know nothing of it.”

      Moshe turned to face the Cathars. “He denies the deed,” he said, “and I will investigate his oath. King Roger has appointed me a judge of the Jews. If he is guilty, I am authorized to punish him, even with death.”

      The thought of passing a death sentence appalled him. Jewish law strongly disfavored it. But there was the law, and there was also the law of necessity. Rabbi Eleazar had said that a Sanhedrin that imposed one death sentence in seventy years was a bloody court, but Simeon ben Shetach, faced with what he called the circumstances of the time, had hanged eighty witches in one day. The circumstances of this time demanded that Moshe exercise his power, if he had it.

      For a moment, he thought it might not be enough. He heard someone mutter about Jews’ oaths and someone else shout “creatures of the demiurge,” and the middle ranks of the mob were still pushing forward. But he was in a nobleman’s clothes and seated on a horse, he had invoked the name of the king who was the Cathars’ bulwark against a hostile world, and behind him, the swords and arrow-points of ibn Tibbon’s men glinted in the torchlight. The mob wavered, and as its members recalled the hundred years in which Cathars and Jews had faced a mutual enemy, first one and then more of them began to disperse.

      Even reflected glory, thought Moshe, can shine brightly.

      “Purim!” cried someone behind him. “Purim! We are delivered!”

      Am I then Esther? flashed through his mind as he remembered the celebrations of a week before in Narbonne – another riot stopped, another massacre prevented – but what he said was, “It isn’t Purim or close to it. The danger is far from over. We will say the morning prayers, and then ibn Tibbon and I will speak.”

      Moshe said shacharit in the courtyard of ibn Tibbon’s house. Outside, some people celebrated in spite of his decree, but ibn Tibbon didn’t; there was clearly something he wasn’t sure he wanted to say. But when the prayers were done, Moshe lost no time asking.

      “Is there a reason why a Cathar parfait would be dead at your door? I will find out from others if not from you.”

      “I…” ibn Tibbon began, but he trailed off and became thoughtful under Moshe’s gaze. “Yes, you would find out from others. Guillaume brought me information.”

      “On what?”

      “The affairs of the city…”

      “Or should I say on who?”

      “Yes, on who. The consuls. The guildmasters. My lord of Baux. The notables…”

      “De Lattès?”

      “De Lattès, yes.”

      Moshe stood, made three steps across the garden, and faced ibn Tibbon from the center. “In other words,” he said, “you have spies.”

      “If you want to call them that.”

      “That’s what they are. Do you see now what taking part in that world” – Moshe spread his arms to take in the archway to the street – “does to us? Politics. Spies. Are we not so threatened already that we need these other threats brought on us?”

      “De Lattès takes part in that world too. We all live in it, and we must survive in it.”

      “But it is your spying that threatens our survival. Now I must learn who would want Guillaume dead, and why he would want the blame to fall on you. What information did he give you that would cause such a thing?”

      Ibn Tibbon suddenly barked a laugh. “Looking for causes, Reb Moshe? We’ll make a philosopher of you yet.” He looked deeply into Moshe’s eyes. “But I don’t know. But Guillaume was a troubadour once – can you believe it? – and he lived in a house with other parfaits who once followed that path. Maybe if you speak to them, they will know something of his other connections.”

      “I will. And both you and de Lattès will attend court in a week. You had best hope this is settled by then.”


      The parfaits’ house was in a street of dyers, a street where Moshe had never been on this or prior visits. The smells of vinegar and alum, rose madder and indigo, were overpowering, but from one house came not the smells of dye-stuffs or the shouts of workmen but of voices raised in prayer. One of them was a woman’s voice, and it was this voice that greeted Moshe when he rode up to the door and sought entry.

      The woman facing him was perhaps thirty, dressed in unadorned peasant’s clothing. Moshe had heard that there were women among the parfaits and even among the troubadours, but they were rare in the one calling and vanishingly so in the other; he had never met one, and the sight nonplussed him.

      “Welcome to our house, my lord,” she said.

      “I am no lord, madam…”

      “Then I am no madam, just… a singer.”

      “You still sing?”

      “Of faith, magister. Only of faith. That is why I am so poor. But poverty is my choice, after all” – she swept her hands around to emphasize the plainly furnished dormitory and the equally plain kitchens beyond – “so that must be a good thing.”

      She laughed, and Moshe could hear the troubadour’s echoes in her voice. “But I am Mélisande. Come in and tell me what business you have with the parfaits.”

      He passed through the door – another Cathar had materialized from somewhere to take his horse – and sat on the bench offered to him. Clearly, Mélisande had some authority here, and Moshe wasn’t sure how far his authority ran in this place; perhaps it would be best if he approached as supplicant rather than judge.

      “I come because one of your number has been murdered…”

      “Guillaume de Mareuil,” said Mélisande. It was plain that she had her own sources of information.

      “Yes, de Mareuil. And my people will be blamed for it if his killer isn’t found. I ask your help humbly…”

      “If you’re looking for the one who slaughtered him, magister, you need not be humble. What do you need to know?”

      “His enemies? His friends? Who he informed on?”

      “To the last question, the answer is ‘everyone.’” A trace of amusement once more crossed Mélisande’s face. “Ibn Tibbon is known among us too. And many people might have had Guillaume killed or wanted to blame the juiverie for his death. There isn’t always any love lost between us, you know.”

      Moshe did know. The Cathars equated the God of the Jews with the demiurge, which was a greater calumny than any of the Church’s; they and Jews had become allies against a Church that remained powerful even here, but it wasn’t always a comfortable alliance. There were those – like Mélisande, evidently – who saw Jews as genuine friends, but the others…

      “But I’ll tell you this,” the parfait was saying. “There is a new man Guillaume started seeing a few weeks ago. Tall, red-haired, scarred across the cheek – a man from the Bouches-du-Rhône, by his speech.”

      “What do you know of him, then? Does he have cause to want my people blamed for Guillaume’s death? Does his master have cause?”

      “You are looking for the uncaused cause? The beginning of it all?”

      For the second time that day, someone had confronted Moshe with causation. He had expected it, at least somewhat, at ibn Tibbon’s house, but not here. He thought of parfaits as peasants – people of simple faith, much like the illiterate priests who Rome had forbidden to debate with Jews – but he suspected that if he argued with this one, she would be equal to the occasion. He hadn’t thought Cathars read philosophy either, but perhaps Mélisande was to them as Maimonides was to Jews.

      “No,” he said. “The immediate cause will do.”

      “Is it possible, then,” Mélisande asked, “that if the red-haired one was the killer, he will be the next to visit ibn Tibbon – with a proposal, or a threat?”

      He nodded, acknowledging the point. “That may be.”

      “Then you know what to do.” The parfait motioned to the door. “And don’t fear to return here if there is more I can tell you. You did a good thing this morning – for my people as well as yours, and for God.”

      The door closed behind Moshe almost before he realized that he’d passed through it. He stood a moment in the dyers’ street, watching the shadows become shorter as the hour stretched toward noon, and took stock. He would have to ask ibn Tibbon if the red-haired man had visited – no, he couldn’t ask, because ibn Tibbon might not tell him. He would have to be a spy himself.

      Necessity demanded it.


      Moshe sought word of Guillaume, and ibn Tibbon, in other places too. In the guilds, they greeted him politely but knew little. At the churches, he was dismissed with barely concealed hostility. The priests had little love for Jews and even less so since the failed crusade and the Lateran Council; nor did they have any great love for King Roger. Indeed, part of the reason the Peace of Carcassonne had forced the kings of the Languedoc to tolerate Catholics was to keep them weak; Aragon and the Italian dukes may have opposed the Albigensian Crusade to weaken the Kings of France, but they didn’t want a strong king in Béziers either. And so the priests preached in their churches against the king and his officers, and so the king had to beg his counts and barons and the great cities for men to fight Anjou’s army…

      These thoughts carried Moshe far from the matter before him, and still farther from the judgment between ibn Tibbon and de Lattès that he had come to give. But they carried him, too, to ibn Tibbon’s street, and to a doorway where the evening shadows sheltered him.

      Curfew had passed and there were few people on the streets at this hour, so the approaching visitor was unmistakable, and so was the opening of ibn Tibbon’s window. But the face that emerged was a woman’s – no, a girl’s, twenty years old if that. Ibn Tibbon’s daughter. And her caller had black hair and bore no scars, and in the lamplight that spilled from the window, his face might have been a copy of de Lattès’.

      The visitor had a rebab, a three-stringed lute that was played with a bow, and its strings vibrated as he began a low melody in a minor key, a troubadour’s lament.

      No wonder that courtly love was one of de Lattès’ charges against ibn Tibbon’s party, Moshe thought with sudden amusement, and no wonder ibn Tibbon was abashed by it. Of course, the traditional object of courtly love was a married woman and ibn Tibbon’s daughter was yet a maiden, but surely this union could safely be called a forbidden one…

      The visitor sang – softly, lest anyone but his intended hear, but his words were plain.

                  I see an orchard

                  where the time has come

                  for harvesting,

                  But I do not see

                  a gardener reaching out a hand

                  towards its fruits.

                  Youth goes, vanishing;

                  I wait alone

                  for somebody I do not wish to name.

      He sang in Provençal and, in the troubadour fashion, his song never mentioned his beloved’s name, but Moshe realized with astonishment that he had heard those words before in Arabic, written by a poet of al-Andalus. This was a song of Qasmuna, Shmuel ha-Nagid’s daughter – a song of a woman’s love.

      Was that what courtly love was? A man yearning as a woman might? Moshe thought of his own Iggeret ha-Kodesh, the Holy Letter, and what he had said there about the marital bond: when husband and wife were one, the Shekhinah was with them. God’s female presence.

      Maimonides had scorned marital relations, and so did the Cathar parfaits. That, to Moshe, was one of their greatest mistakes; the body was holy and so were all its functions. Surely even ibn Tibbon would agree with him on that – but had the troubadours touched on something that neither philosophers nor parfaits understood?

      He suddenly felt that he was in very deep water – deeper, somehow, than he had been in even this morning. Somehow, he was sure, the two nasis’ children might be the key to it all. The words they had exchanged were far from their parents’ quarrels, but Moshe felt a connection – one that seemed to come from nowhere, the way that all things were connected in the Ayn Sof. And the song itself – Jews wrote Provençal in the Hebrew alphabet here, and the words seemed in the starlight to be as pregnant with the sefirot as those of the Torah.

      This was a mystic notion, and he remembered ibn Tibbon taunting him about how mystics could go too far; was he doing that now? Were there fruits here to harvest, and could this path lead to someone who nobody wished to name? But he realized that de Lattès’ son had finished his song, and without conscious thought, he followed. If the Ayn Sof cast its shadow here, if this was the kind of dream that Isaac the Blind had taught him to recognize, then he would go where it led.

      The young de Lattès hurried toward the upper city, seemingly oblivious to Moshe behind him. To the older man’s surprise, he passed the turning to his father’s house and took another path instead, down an alley and out to a street that led up to the cemetery on the Mont-Juif. There, at the gates, another shadow loomed, and de Lattès’ son greeted him.

      The moon emerged from behind a cloud, and in its light, Moshe could see that the second man’s hair was red and his cheek was scarred. And among the indistinct words that flowed past him in his hiding place came the clear sound of a name: “my lord Barral of Baux.”


      He didn’t visit de Lattès or ibn Tibbon again the next morning; he summoned them to his own lodgings and made them stand in his presence. He was learning to behave as a royal envoy, he realized – learning to behave as a lord. Necessity demanded.

      “Ibn Tibbon, de Lattès accused you of intriguing with the parfaits and guildsmen,” he said, “and de Lattès, ibn Tibbon said that your master the Viscount had intrigues of his own, and both of you were right. Is it both of you, then, who have brought this on the Jewish quarter?”

      Ibn Tibbon, as he had on Moshe’s first day in the city, looked abashed. “I am a citizen of Marseilles,” he said again. “I would do nothing to endanger it.”

      “And you, de Lattès? Is your quarrel with this man so great that you would order a man killed to spite him and risk the blame falling on all the Jews?”

      “Yes, my quarrel with him is great. Our quarrel is over the heart of our faith and traditions, and over the orderly government of the juiveries. But I would have no reason to kill, and no reason to take such a risk. His party is riotous, but the majority of the Jews in the city are with me. The scholars will give judgment against him, and his followers will disappear like the mice they are.”

      Ibn Tibbon bristled at the arrogance in de Lattès’ voice, but Moshe heard something more: something knowing.

      “Tell me, then,” he said. “Why does your son meet with my lord Baux’ man in darkness? You are the Viscount’s agent in the city; surely there is no need for such secrecy.”

      “A man’s sons may do things without his knowledge – as may his daughters.”

      Ibn Tibbon knew what that meant, and he bristled again. “In matters of the heart, maybe,” he said, “but not in that.”

      Moshe held up a hand. “It may be that both of you believe that you are acting for the good of the city,” he said. “But we have spoken about causes. Until the day Moshiach comes, every cause has an endless chain of effects, and some effects are unintended. And right now, we have a city to defend, and we are at a time when an unintended effect might cause it to fall and the juiveries to burn.

      “The king sent me here to give judgment, and I will give it. Until Charles of Anjou has been beaten, until there is a true Purim in this city, your deeds shall be your faith. Ibn Tibbon, you will not send out spies. De Lattès, you will have no one meet with Baux’ men except at your home before witnesses. And until the war is over, neither of your parties will provoke the other. If you talk of philosophy and call the Tanakh a book of fables, you will do so in private. If you proclaim the sages infallible, you will do it where no one of the opposing party can hear. You and the syndics of the Jewish Corporation and the councilmen of the city will cooperate in its defense…”

      But whatever he planned to say next was interrupted by a soap-maker who ran breathlessly into the room, wearing the armband of ibn Tibbon’s Jewish regiment and bearing a sword. “Anjou has come!” he cried. “His army is outside the wall!”

      Ibn Tibbon rose. “As you said, Reb Moshe, we have a city to defend,” he said, and followed his man from the room.

      De Lattès, again, looked knowing.


      My son, I rejoice that you are safe in Toulouse and I pray that you know only blessings. I cannot claim such safety. Charles of Anjou has besieged Marseilles for a week, and many of the barons of Provence are with him. News has come that the Count of Toulouse and the lords and cities of the Languedoc – at least those whose prices were met and who could set aside their quarrels – are finally sending men to King Roger’s aid, but it will still be weeks before the army can assemble and weeks more before it can reach us. Until then, the people of Marseilles must hold.

      I am in no immediate danger, rest assured; I shelter behind strong walls, ships still come to the harbors to bring food and carry away this letter, and Anjou has not yet attacked. His envoys are traveling among the counties of the north and proclaiming that he will finish the Unfinished Crusade, and he hopes that their words will bring him more men. He is content for now to conduct the siege in a leisurely fashion. But he also knows that King Roger is coming and that his knights are impatient, so he will try our defenses sooner or later.

      In the meantime, life in the Jewish quarters is much the same. With refugees in from the countryside, newcomers crowd the upper stories and worry over their vineyards and olive-groves, but it is always crowded. The parties of ibn Tibbon and de Lattès have kept to their truce, at least in public. And I, as always, try to fulfill the charge given me by the king – to work toward judgment, though what I have given thus far is no judgment at all.

      I spend my nights consulting the sages and pondering the two men’s arguments, and I find myself strangely turning to philosophy. It is a tool that can work against faith, but considering its precepts has helped me to order and arrange my thoughts, to make connections between the works of our forefathers. I wonder if ibn Tibbon might not be right, at least on that score; that philosophy, as a way of thinking, can also be a guide for the faithful mind. A guide, if you will, for the perplexed…


      The day Anjou attacked the city, Moshe ben Nachman was on the wall. “Ibn Tibbon? He’s up there,” the people in the juiverie told him. “You want to talk to him, go find him with his men.” The guards had let him climb the stairs to the ramparts – he was no longer a stranger in the city, not a person to be kept from things – and he caught sight of Ibn Tibbon just as the first arrow flew.

      In fifty-five years of life, Moshe had never seen battle firsthand – massacres, yes, but not battle. Kings fought wars and lords fought them when kings didn’t – the Languedoc was never free of warfare even when it was free of invasion – but they came to the Jewish quarter only in times of siege and sack. Girona in the years when Moshe had lived there, and Toulouse in the days of his exile, had thankfully been spared such calamities. Marseilles, here and now, was less fortunate.

      War and massacre, he decided, might be cousins, but they were not twins. Massacre was chaos, the feral force of rage directed against the helpless. Battle was cold, purposeful, ordered – ordered, at least, in a way that made sense to soldiers.

      It made little sense to him. Later, Moshe would remember the attack not as an event but a series of sensations. The smell of burning pitch mixed with blood. The shaking of the walls as Anjou’s ram battered at the gates. The hiss of arrows. Orders, shouts of anger, screams of pain. Ladders slamming against the ramparts, men running to meet them, clashing swords, blood streaming from a fallen man’s head.

      Ibn Tibbon seemed to know what he was doing. Valor might be a virtue of the hands, but tactics were a skill of the mind, a learning that, like any other, came from study. Knights and soldiers studied war all their lives, and ibn Tibbon hadn’t done that, but Moshe suddenly remembered that one of the books in his study had been a treatise on defending city walls. He didn’t need to know all of war, just one part of it, and as yet another assault failed to gain a foothold, it seemed he’d learned that part well enough.

      And then there were no more assaults. Moshe looked down, heedless of the risk, and saw that Anjou’s soldiers were falling back all along the wall, shields held high to protect them from the arrows that saluted their retreat. The rich tents of their camp, bright with the flags of Anjou and the Provençal barons – but not, Moshe realized, that of the Viscounts of Baux – swallowed them. A moment later, it seemed that the battle might not have happened at all – at least, it would have seemed that way but for the cries of the wounded, the dead men lying where they fell, and the stink of blood and smoke that lingered on the walls.

      Moshe never spoke to ibn Tibbon that afternoon. He wouldn’t have known what to say. He felt lost, beyond logic, almost beyond faith. He wandered down from the wall, alone in thought amid the crowds of the city, and he hardly registered when he reached the lower juiverie.

      He did notice the thanksgiving. He wouldn’t have thought of giving thanks for what had just happened, but it wasn’t his home that had been saved from burning; it wasn’t his loved ones that had been delivered, at least for the day, from even greater horror than had been enacted on the wall. Jews, some still armed and wearing shirts bloodied and torn from the battle, gathered in a small market square, filling it end to end, and they danced as they prayed.

      “Purim!” they cried as they had done when the Cathar mob retreated, and they sang songs of deliverance. People from both juiveries sang together, people from both parties; de Lattès hadn’t fought as ibn Tibbon had, but he’d opened his coffers, and he’d paid for many of the swords that the men on the walls had carried. Now Ibn Tibbon led the men in prayer, now de Lattès did, now one of the rabbis – and at the other end of the square, ibn Tibbon’s daughter, accompanied by de Lattès’ son on the rebab, led the women.

      She wore tefillin. Moshe hadn’t seen her do so in her father’s house, but this, evidently, was a different place. He was surprised but not shocked; even if the story about Rashi’s daughters wasn’t true, other women had worn them. Rabbenu Tam hadn’t decreed against doing so; he’d simply ruled that a woman doing a man’s mitzvah had to say the blessing that went with it, and even de Lattès hadn’t named this among his rival’s catalog of sins.

      They were stern and faithful in the north, and a woman there might wear tefillin from her stern faith. Here, one might wear them out of Miriam’s joy, the joy of eluding the pursuer.

But I am not Miriam, she sang, and I rejoice not over the fallen. I rejoice for what is not fallen, I rejoice for the houses that stand and the men who have returned…

      She was Miriam, she was not Miriam – was this what came of seeing the Torah as a fable? This song, this rejoicing in Ribono Shel Olam? I need to learn her name, Moshe realized, and then, suddenly, young de Lattès has surely met his match. The shock and sorrow of an hour before met the fierce joy that filled the city now; they whipsawed him, and from nowhere, he looked up to the heavens and burst out in wild laughter.

      Then, two things happened.

      The laughter released him, brought him back to himself, and as he saw again with dispassionate eyes – with a philosopher’s eyes – he noticed that the older de Lattès was no longer in the square. And an instant later, a man in the rough clothes of a Cathar parfait came breathless through the crowd.

      To see a Cathar in this place, among rejoicing Jews, was the last thing Moshe had expected, and it took a moment for him to understand the young parfait’s words. “Mélisande told me to find you,” he said. “The red-haired man is in the city! A washerwoman saw him.”

      “Where?” asked Moshe, remembering where he’d seen the man before. “Mont-Juif? The cemetery?”

      “No. Coming from there, toward the lower gate.”

      The lower gate. Mont-Juif. De Lattès. Barral of Baux, whose banner hadn’t been on today’s battlefield. The red-haired man, absent since Anjou’s army invested the walls, reappearing on the day of his failed assault. The battle, the song, the joy – the unguarded joy…

      It all seemed to fit together somehow. Moshe was sure of it, sure as he had been when he’d felt that ibn Tibbon’s and de Lattès’ children were the key to it all – sure, with a certainty unshaken even by the sight of young de Lattès still playing the rebab at his beloved’s side. Were these thoughts, these words, again connected in the Ayn Sof, or had an unconscious corner of his mind made a chain of causes? Was it faith or philosophy? Maybe it was both – ibn Gabirol flashed through his mind again, and he remembered that the great Andalusian poet had said that the natural and supernatural were made of the same substance.

      The next saying to appear in his consciousness came not from any Jew at all but from the Imam Shafi’i: knowledge without action is arrogance.

      “To the gate!” he called, making his voice carry through the dancing, praying Jews. “To the lower gate! Follow me!”

      The people were startled, but on a day when so many things had happened, they didn’t question Moshe’s voice. A few followed and then a hundred, breaking into a run as they left the marketplace.

      Moshe soon found that he was the one who was following. He was almost fifty-five and he didn’t have his horse; his lungs hurt, his heart pounded, his breath came short. One of ibn Tibbon’s men took his left arm and one his right, and they half ran with him and half carried him through narrow shadowed streets.

      The lower gate came in sight and Moshe’s eyes strained in the darkness; a man was there, large and bearded, showing a pass to the guards, and again the torchlight illuminated his scar. “Seize him!” Moshe cried with what voice he had left. “Don’t let him leave the city!”

      The man turned to face the sudden commotion, and then turned back to the guards. “I have a pass from my lord of Baux, and another from a consul of this city,” he said. “A bunch of Jews has no power over him or over me. I have urgent news for my lord and it will go badly with you if you prevent me from delivering it.”

      The guards hesitated an instant, and an instant was enough. Ibn Tibbon’s men were upon the stranger, one parrying his hastily-drawn sword as others pinioned him and forced him against the wall.

      “His pouch,” Moshe said, and someone handed it to him. He trembled as he opened it; what might happen to the Jews of this city, or to him, if he were wrong? But Guillaume’s ring was inside, and so was a letter, and the letter bore de Lattès’ seal.

      “King Roger has appointed me a judge of the Jews,” he said, “and I have the power to open this seal. You are witnesses.” He took the proffered knife and cut the wax from the parchment, and slowly, still fearfully, he unrolled it.

      What he saw was beyond faith, but it wasn’t beyond philosophy.


      He showed the letter to no one; “I am your judge,” he said when one of ibn Tibbon’s men asked, “and you are not mine.” At the guest house, he wrote a letter of his own and dispatched it to de Lattès. “Meet me in the house on the dyers’ street,” it said, “and come alone.”

      And now, in the parfaits’ kitchen, the two of them sat across a table, with Mélisande silent and impassive at its head and the letter in the space between.

      “Do you deny,” Moshe said, “that this letter is in your hand? Do you deny that it bears your seal?”

      De Lattès was silent for a moment, but when he spoke, his voice was clear. “No. I do not deny it.”

      “Then you do not deny that, tomorrow, you would have opened the gates to my lord the Viscount’s men?”

      “I do…” He swallowed visibly. “There… there was more to it than that.”

      “What more? Was it a ruse? A trick?”

      De Lattès shook his head quietly and the silence lengthened. Moshe said nothing and wondered how long de Lattès could hold against his gaze and Mélisande’s quiet anger. He didn’t have to wonder for long; he felt the would-be nasi’s words an instant before they were said.

      “Charles of Anjou will win – or if not him, some other crusader. How long can we stand against the whole world? It is our fate to be conquered, so should we not let it be at a time of our choosing? My lord of Baux promised that if I opened the gates, the Jews would be spared and that we would have the privileges we had when his family ruled the city.”

      Now Mélisande half-rose from her chair, moved to speech for the first time. “Spared, de Lattès? Spared? Anjou has declared that he is fighting the crusade. Would your master’s men be able to stop his master’s men from running wild in the juiverie? Would he be able to stop the priests? And even if you were spared, what of us?”

      Moshe held up a hand. Maybe de Lattès really had believed that an agreement with Barral of Baux would save the Jews of the city. Maybe even Baux believed that. His family had protected the Jews once, and if he ruled Marseilles again, he would need Jewish craftsmen and Jewish taxes. But the parfait was right: he would never be able to stop the rest of Anjou’s army. And it was plain on de Lattès face that he had never considered what might happen to the Cathars.

      “You told us there was more to it,” Moshe said. “Was there more still? Baux offered you gold, didn’t he? And the title of nasi as your own?”

      De Lattès’ answer, when it came, was surprisingly firm. “I didn’t seek these things for myself, Reb Moshe. I sought them so I could return this city to the faith, cleanse it of ibn Tibbon’s heresies.”

      That, Moshe did believe. In his own way, de Lattès was as much of a crusader as Anjou was.

      “And for that, you were a traitor to the city and the king…”

      “But not to my lord or my God…”

      “… and you led your son into treason with you.”

      “No!” For the first time, de Lattès’ voice held genuine fear. “My son is innocent. I sent him to meet with Baux’ man, but he thought he was negotiating an alliance against Anjou. He is no traitor – I swear it.”

      Silence. “And if he is innocent… there is another matter here. The murder of Guillaume de Mareuil. Are you innocent in that matter, de Lattès? Did you order his death?”

      “No. Baux’s man killed Guillaume because he was going to tell ibn Tibbon what we had agreed. He told me afterward. But he killed the parfait without any orders from me, and I would have forbidden it.”

      “Very well,” Moshe said. “I think we have come to the end of this. I will give my lord the Viscount’s man to the parfaits for judgment” – they will bury him silently, they have no need for spectacle – “and you… I should try you in the market square. How do you think your own party would react to that letter? Many of them are from the north, and they remember the crusaders’ massacres. They would call for your death as loudly as the Cathars would.”

      He let the white-faced de Lattès absorb that for a long moment. “But that would cause war in the city, and we can’t afford war in the city. Let the Jews see you, let the Cathars see you, as the man whose gold strengthened the walls and bought the soldiers’ swords.

      “Here, then, is my judgment. You will make restitution to this house, on behalf of your master, for the death of Guillaume. And the truce I have decreed between your party and ibn Tibbon’s will continue for ten years. You may speak and write as you wish, but you will not speak ill of each other or act against each other. And the Corporation of the Jews shall have five syndics from each party, and both of you shall share the title of nasi.”

      Speaking those words made Moshe feel soiled. As he had written to his son, this was no judgment at all, no pronouncement of right; it was a treaty, and a treaty forced by blackmail. Treaties should not settle matters of faith, matters of morals, even matters of philosophy. And it was far more than de Lattès deserved after the way he had endangered the city. But there was law and then there was necessity, and Moshe’s ultimate charge from King Roger was not to decide who understood God better but to keep the peace.

      “Very merciful,” de Lattès said. “But how can you know I will keep this judgment?”

      “Ibn Tibbon will know. The parfaits will know. And I will give the letter into the trust of this house for them to keep in confidence… as long as you keep the truce. Will you do that, honored parfait?”

      “Yes,” Mélisande said. She, too, knew how delicate the peace was in Marseilles, and how important the trust between Jews and Cathars was to keeping it. “Yes, we will do that. My lord.”

      “And,” finished Moshe, “to seal the pact, your son and ibn Tibbon’s daughter will marry.”

      All at once, de Lattès barked laughter. “Yesterday, I would have said no. But today… today, I will agree.” Again, his thoughts were plain: if ibn Tibbon were to remain nasi, his family was worth cultivating. De Lattès was a nobleman at the end of the day. “But will he agree? Whatever lies between my son and his daughter, he has no love for me.”

      “I think he will. I am his judge too, and he too endangered the peace by involving a Cathar parfait in Jewish affairs. But I may not need to tell him that.”

      There would be many things to add later, but he said nothing further as he rose from the table.

      “Yesterday, I would have said no,” ibn Tibbon said. “But today, in my daughter’s sight, how can I disagree?”

      They were standing in ibn Tibbon’s courtyard, the place of herbs mixed with early flowers. “I would force you if you disagreed. But I wouldn’t blame you if you made me force you. This judgment isn’t worthy of philosophy or of faith.”

      “But it is. Your judgment is the only fair one. Let no study be banned, and the right will prevail…”

      “No.” It was ibn Tibbon’s daughter who spoke. “Valor may be a virtue of the hands, but love and hate, mercy and cruelty – these come from hearing. From listening. When they praise tradition and revere the sages, we will listen” – she looked sharply at her father – “we will have no choice but to listen. When we speak of new ways of learning and new ways of faith, they will listen. And maybe we will find that both are made of the same substance. We have learned hate and cruelty for so long – shouldn’t we practice the others?”

      The passions she spoke of, Moshe knew, were far from courtly, far from the yearning of which Qasmuna sang. “There is a Cathar parfait who was once a troubadour,” he said all the same, “and who, I think, would approve. But there is another thing I must know. You will have to consent to this too – what is your name?”

      “Miriam,” she answered. “I truly am Miriam.”

      When he left, the pact bore the signatures of ibn Tibbon and Miriam just above the place where King Roger would affix his seal. But that would be two months later, when the king’s army came to lift the siege of Marseilles and found Anjou still outside the walls. Moshe ben Nachman wouldn’t be there to see the triumphant royal entry into the city; by then, with his task finished and his family sorely missed, he had gone.

      He left, as always, by sea.


      My son, the captain tells me that we will be in Narbonne tomorrow morning. I will post this letter as soon as I land. If it reaches you before I do, consider my words.

      I was sent to Marseilles to resolve a dispute between Jews, and I ended up resolving an affair of state. And as I consider this time and place, where we are uniquely privileged, I realize that it could not be otherwise. Since the Hashmonaim fell, a Jew could be a subject of the state or, as I am, a servant of the state, but only here and now are Jews part of the state in their own right. If I were a philosopher, I might say that we are changing from one part of the state’s substance to another, and that the way the state acts on us – and the way we make use of it to act on each other – is changing with us. We face a new chain of causes, and the uncaused cause is ourselves.

      What will we do if we become rulers? There are commandments for rulers and virtues to which they alone can give effect, but rulers must face the dictates of necessity, and there are vices that tempt them above all others. Will we burn heretics? Will we fight holy wars? Did we very nearly fight one in Marseilles just now?

      Maybe it is Purim after all, as much as it can be Purim when no one can know how near we were to catastrophe.

      This will be our dilemma, my son, until we are in Jerusalem again, until there is no more fear and no more need for Purims. May it happen speedily and in our days, and if not in our days, then in the days of our children.

      Amen. Selah.

About the Author

Jonathan Edelstein

Jonathan Edelstein was born in 1971, is married with cat, and lives in New York City.  His work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and elsewhere. He counts Ursula Le Guin, Bernard Cornwell, Chinua Achebe and Charles R. Saunders among his literary heroes, and when he isn’t writing, he practices law and hopes someday to get it right.

Find more by Jonathan Edelstein

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