Rightly regarded as a true «city within a city», the madinat al-Yahud, or city of the Jews, constitutes a broad urban space which occupies almost ten per cent of walled Toledo. Divided, in turn, into different districts which correspond to the different stages of its expansion, the Jewish quarter of Toledo is an intricate maze that contains a real overview of what the Jews of Toledo were like and how they lived for at least eleven centuries.
According to a Jewish tradition dating from the period of Muslim rule, the Jewish settlement in Toledo was the most ancient in the Iberian Peninsula. This tradition was accepted by Isaac Abrabanel who states that the first settlers in Toledo were exiles from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Jews probably established themselves there when the town became the capital of the Visigoths, or during the fourth to fifth centuries.
Toledo is one of the few towns of Spain where remnants of Jewish edifices have been well preserved. Toledo also has many remnants of Jewish tombstones, some of which are preserved in the archaeological museum of the town.
During the 11th century, when Toledo was ruled by the Muslims, it had a large Jewish population of about 4,000. Jewish occupations in Toledo included textile manufacture, tanning, and dyeing, military professions and commerce. Toledo became a center of Jewish scholarship, translation, and science; the astronomer Zarkal (Abu Ishaq Ibrahim Ben Yachya) lived there for a time in the mid-11th century, and the biblical commentator Judah Ben Samuel Ibn Bal’am was born and educated in Toledo in this period. The situation of the Jews in Toledo remained unchanged after the town was conquered by Alfonso VI in 1085. During the 12th century it continued a center of learning and Jews and apostates were among those who translated works of mathematics, astronomy, and other subjects from Arabic into the spoken vernacular and from that language into Latin. From then on, the community developed until it became the most prominent in the kingdom of Castile and one of the most important in Spain. During this period some of the most distinguished who apparently left the town in 1119; Moses Ibn Ezra who stayed there; and Joseph Ibn Kamaniel, the physician, one of the wealthiest members of the community who was entrusted with an important diplomatic mission to the king of Portugal. The language spoken by the Jews of Toledo and employed in their documents during the 11th to 13th centuries was partly Arabic; they customarily wrote their documents in Arabic with Hebrew characters. These sources reveal a well-developed economic life. Jews of Toledo are recorded as having sold or purchased land, as lenders and borrowers, and are also found in partnerships with Christians in real estate transactions and in commerce.