Skip to main content

Mystery Music

The Tale of Johannes Of Oppido, the Norman Convert

What is the connection between: A Norman nobleman, a converted Archbishop, a lunar eclipse, the First Crusade, a messianic Karaite, and a mysterious piece of music?

The thread that ties them all together is one man: Johannes of Oppido, better known as Ovadia HaGer.


Elkan Nathan Adler (1861–1946)

Elkan Nathan Adler was puzzled.  As the first European to enter the Cairo Genizah, he was in possession of a huge and extremely rare collection: 25,000 ancient manuscript fragments.  One of those fragments appeared to be a strange “marriage” between the Jewish and Christian worlds.  It was a beautifully composed eulogy for Moshe Rabbeinu, named “Mi Al Har Chorev,” written in perfectly formed, elegant Hebrew letters.  It was composed of six rhymed couplets, and Adler supposed that it had been written for either the Yom Tov of Shavuos or Simchas Torah.  Yet strangely, above each delicately inscribed line hovered musical notation that obviously originated with the Italian Church.

Adler dispatched the fragment to the Benedictine Fathers of Quarr Abbey, situated on the Isle of Wight, a tiny island off the coast of Britain, hoping they would be able to identify the notation and shed some light on the rare find.  The decisive response of the priests arrived during April 1918: The music notes were “Lombardic” style neumes (predecessors of today’s notes and staves) of the type in use by European Christians at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth century.

Compounding the mystery of the fragment’s strange synthesis of Jewish and Christian elements was the fact that the style of the scribe’s Hebrew lettering could not be attributed to any location in Europe.  Moreover, the paper used was thick, slightly tan and clearly Egyptian, similar to the type seen in many Genizah manuscripts of the twelfth century.

The manuscript fragment was considered a rare treasure, puzzling scholars and students for centuries.  In 1947, famed musicologist Eric Werner examined it, made a highly accurate transcription of the nuemes and stated:

Its style is closely akin to that of the Gregorian plainsong Church, if we disregard one or two embellishments which seem alien to Gregorian style… Of course, the fact that our manuscript is so similar to Gregorian tunes is not surprising since it is today proved beyond any… doubt that the root of Gregorianism lie in the music of Palestine and Syria…

He then quoted a Catholic musicologist, Father Dechevrens:

Gregorian chant is the music of the Hebrews, and there is for the totality of the Roman Catholic melodies but one modal system – not that of the Greeks, but of the sacred nation of the Hebrews.

Desc.: Quarr Abbey House, Isle of Wight
Date: c. 1910
Source: Pictures in Colour of the Isle of Wight

In short, both Werner and Dechevrens admit that it is not so strange to see Church notations associated with a clearly Jewish piyyut (poem), as their original source was in fact the “sacred nation of the Hebrews.” He seems almost to imply that the fragment proved that Gregorian chant, although used in the church until today, was applied to Jewish Piyyutim and sung in Shuls during the middle-ages independent of any Christian influence!

But there is a more powerful, and more likely, explanation for the odd manuscript.  The answer to the mystery lies in its author.

In November 1964, Professor Norman Golb made a tremendous discovery.  He took it into his head to compare the hand-writing of the mysterious piyyut with that of another piece of parchment from the Genizah.  It matched.  Proving that the author of both fragments was a Jewish convert named Ovadia HaGer, formerly Johannes of Opiddo.1Obadiah the Proselyte: Scribe of a Unique Twelfth-Century Hebrew Manuscript Containing Lombardic Neumes, Norman Golb.

An Unlikely Inspiration

Desc.: Obadiah Musical Compositions, Song 1 Verso

In approximately the year 1070, twin boys were born to Dreux and Maria, residents of Oppido Lucano, Italy.  The elder was named Rogerius, and the younger Johannes.  Dreux was a Norman nobleman, and Rogerius, being the scion of the household, was sent to learn the arts of war and chivalry.  His younger brother was designated as the family scholar and sent to study priesthood.

While he was still a young child, Johannes heard of a mind-boggling occurrence: The Archbishop of Bari (a Roman Catholic archdiocese in southern Italy), Andreas, had converted to Judaism.  Church officials of varying strands of Christianity were astonished at this high-profile conversion.  Johannes writes in his memoirs (the primary source of this information) that “the Greek sages and the sages of Rome were ashamed when they heard the report about him.”

Andreas left Bari, forsaking his homeland, his priesthood, his following, and his glory, and headed to Constantinople (Istanbul) where he underwent a bris milah.  His life from that day onward was dogged with hardship, particularly due to non-Jews who pursued him with violent intent – but Hashem consistently saved him from their designs.  He was pursued not only because he had brought “dishonor” upon the Church, but also likely because of the large number of non-Jews who had converted, following his example.

Andreas eventually left Constantinople and journeyed to Egypt, where he lived out the rest of his days.2The Autograph Memoirs Of Obadiah The Proselyte Of Oppido Lucano And The Epistle Of Barukh B. Isaac Of Aleppo, Norman Golb and Obadiah Memoir, Obadiah the Proselyte aka Megillas Ovadia HaGer Ovadia HaGer. Soon after hearing of the extraordinary events concerning the Archbishop, young Johannes recorded in his memoirs, he had a strange dream.  He envisioned himself serving as a priest in Oppido when he saw a man standing to his right, opposite the altar.  The man in his dream called his name, “Johannes!” The remainder of the dream has been lost to history, since the fragment found in the Cairo Genizah was torn and incomplete.  One may surmise, however, that it had something to do with the previous account of Andreas recorded by Johannes, and possibly, that the man in the dream commanded him to become a Jew as well.

Nevertheless, it was to be twenty years before Johannes himself converted to Judaism.  How he spent those twenty years remains a mystery, but it is assumed that he furthered his studies in the Church.

A Crusade against Judaism

A red moon before and after an ecclipse.

The next fragment of Johannes’ memoirs discusses the First Crusade, which took place when he was approximately 30 years old.

He describes an eclipse which took place in February of 10953A Partial Lunar Eclipse occurred on February 22, 1095: “The Moon was strikingly shadowed in this deep partial eclipse which lasted 3 hours and 7 minutes, with 71% of the Moon in darkness at maximum.”, accessed 7 December 2020. or 10964A Total Lunar Eclipse occurred on February 11, 1096: “A dramatic total eclipse lasting 1 hour and 40 minutes plunged the full Moon into deep darkness, as it passed right through the centre of the Earth’s umbral shadow. While the visual effect of a total eclipse is variable, the Moon may have been stained a deep orange or red colour at maximum eclipse. This was a great spectacle for everyone who saw it. The partial eclipse lasted for 3 hours and 48 minutes in total.” Ibid. as being an important omen of the evil to come.  He quotes the verse from Yoel (4:4):

The Sun shall turn into darkness and the moon into blood before the arrival of the great and awesome day of Hashem.

He describes the Frankish soldiers questioning among themselves why they were bothering to travel to Jerusalem to fight their enemies, when their own hometowns harbored heretical foes.  This kind of sentiment was what spurred the anti-Jewish actions of Crusaders.  Golb writes, “it is clear that he knew of the persecutions and possibly was a witness to some of them.”

A few years later, Johannes converted to Judaism, assuming the name Ovadya.  He may have chosen the name because Ovadya the Navi was reputed to have been a Jewish convert from Edom.5Sanhedrin 39b. His inspiration to proselytize seems to come from a combination of Andreas’ example and his own realization of the falsity of the teachings of the Church in which he’d been immersed for so long.

His disillusionment with the writings of Christianity is confirmed by a letter of recommendation that Rabbi Baruch of Aleppo, Syria, penned on his behalf.  Ovadya described his noble ancestry to the Rabbi, and related how due to “what he read in the books of their error, he returned to the Lord of Israel with all his heart, with all his soul and with all his strength…”

When he arrived at the Beis Din, the dayanim asked him what made him want to join the Jewish nation, since the Jews, after all, were “in sorrow, oppressed, despised and scorned.” The First Crusade should have been more than an adequate deterrent for any potential convert.

Ovadya responded that he knew well enough, but that he had only come out of love for Klal Yisrael.  Having ascertained that his motive was indeed that of “love,” R’ Baruch records how the dayanim warned him about the strict Torah prohibitions he would have to observe — but cushioned them with descriptions of the reward he would accrue for keeping the mitzvos as a Jew.  When he accepted the conditions, they immediately circumcised him, and when he had healed, he completed his conversion by immersing in the mikvah.

The letter concludes with an injunction that the reader should be careful to respect, and refrain from causing harm to, Ovadya, because someone who wounds the feelings of a ger tzedek transgresses three negative commandments, and someone who oppresses him, infringes upon two.  The purpose of the letter is stated as being, “That it might be kept by Ovadya the Ger (for use) in all communities of Israel to which he might go.”6Epistle of R. Barukh of Aleppo, Rabbi Baruch of Aleppo.

This letter was likely put to good use, as Ovadya soon took to the road.  Destination: Baghdad.

Persecution in Baghdad

Desc.: Cairo Geniza – Obadiah the Proselyte, Document XVI – letter of Baruch ben Isaac of Aleppo
Author: Baruch ben Isaac of Aleppo
Date: 12th century
Source: Bodleian Library, MS. Heb. a. 3, fol. 1a
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On his way to Baghdad, Ovadya encountered a fleeing army that attempted to harm him, but he escaped with his life.  When he arrived at the city, once again his life was put at risk.  In an era where every day brought news of Crusader success, it was not surprising that the local Muslims wanted to kill the light-skinned, Norman convert on sight.

He eventually escaped and reached the Jewish community, where he waited at the door of one of the synagogues.  He was given a room to board in a Shul and provided with food.  After some time, Rabbi Yitzchak, one of the Roshei Yeshiva, instructed him, like the legendary Rabbi Akiva, to sit at the back of the cheder to begin by learning the aleph-beis.

During the time Ovadya spent in their community, the Baghdadi Jews endured much suffering at the hands of their overlord, a Vizier named Ibn al-Shuja.  After his numerous attempts to kill them failed, he imposed an edict requiring special headgear, a lead necklace and a belt to be worn by every Jewish man.  Every Jewish woman had to wear unmatched shoes – one red and one black – and a small brass bell, either around her neck or on her feet.

He appointed gentile male and female oppressors to concoct ways to afflict them further.  He levied taxes upon them, and if a Jew were to die without having paid his tax, he would not be released for burial until they had been paid.  If a Jew died penniless, he would have to be redeemed by his brethren, otherwise, the local non-Jews would have him cremated.

During the course of his Baghdad memoirs, Ovadya also discusses the antics of the false Mashiach, Shlomo ibn Ruji and his son Menachem.7See  “An Ancient Duo of False Mashiachs”, Kankan, issue 16 for further details.

Ovadya’s Travels

After a sojourn of several years in Baghdad, Ovadya decided to return to Syria.  He described arriving in Aleppo during the siege of Roger of Antioch (circa 1118 CE).  He also relates how, to his deep gratification, the Jewish community of Damascus put up a collection for him and supported him while he remained with them.  In 1121, Ovadya left Damascus for Banias, in the north of Eretz Yisrael.  There he engaged in a fascinating discussion with an apparently eccentric Karaite named Shlomo, who claimed to be the Mashiach.  Shlomo predicted that Jerusalem, then in the hands of the Crusaders, would be liberated in two and half months! The astute Ovdaya asked him the following incisive question:

“I have heard that you are a descendent of Aharon the Kohen.  Now, today it is 19 years since I converted, but I have never heard that the Jews are seeking salvation through a Kohen or Levi, but rather through Eliyahu Hanavi and the Melech Hamashiach, who descends from David Hamelech,” Ovadya informed him.  He then asked Shlomo to give him a sign that proves his claim.

The imposter casually responded, “I do not eat bread, nor do I drink water!”

Ovadya did not stop there.  He pressed him, “So, what do you eat?”

Shlomo proceeded to outline a generous diet! “Pomegranates, figs, almonds, nuts, sycamore-fruit, dates and apples which grow from trees and shrubs, and I also drink milk.”

Ovadya must have revealed his plans of continuing to Egypt, because Shlomo tried to persuade him to head to Eretz Yisrael instead and await the “kibbutz galuyos” (ingathering of the exiles).  Ovadya declined, informing Shlomo that he would proceed to Egypt and return to Eretz Yisrael with the Egyptian Jews.  To that, Shlomo had no rejoinder.

Considering the paper upon which he wrote his memoirs, which is clearly of Egyptian origin, and the fact that they were eventually found in the Cairo Genizah, it is evident that Ovadya did indeed arrive in Egypt.  In addition to his fascinating diary, he recorded a number of beautiful piyyutim: “Mi Al Har Chorev,” –‘Who on Mount Sinai,’ a praise of Moshe Rabbeinu, “Baruch HaGever Asher Yivtach B’Hashem”–‘Praised is the man who trusts in G-d’ and “V’aida mah” – ‘That I might know!’ – a plea that he should “know what to speak within the gates… teach me!”

All of these poems have Lombardic musical notation, a facet which puzzled numerous scholars.  But knowing who Ovadya was, immediately solves the riddle: An Italian monk, familiar with the classic Church musical notation, who converted to Judaism.  And when he wrote his beautiful Judaic poetry, he knew of only one method of recording the melody to accompany it – the notation of his youth.

%d bloggers like this: