STRUCTURED EXERCISE ON PRIMARY SOURCES
1. Identify a primary source
mentioned explicitly in one of your textbooks, or anthologized in a textbook,
resource or even on the web.
2. Find out more about the primary source document from which the passage you have selected is taken. Begin with the usual W’s Who What When Where and Why—but remember that you are trying to find out not only the W’s of the event or person described by the document but also of the author of the document, and the Why is both why he or she or they wrote it, and why it is significant to us today.
3. Use the Rubric as the basis of your report, to the extent that your findings allow. The Rubric organizes the most frequent questions to ask; you may not have findings for each “C” but you should always be able to discuss the context of the document and its “consequence” or significance.
Definitions: For our purposes, a “primary source document” can include a document written by one of the persons or institutions studied in the course, a literary work (such as a legal, poetic or philosophical text), and works by historians who were near contemporaries, even if they were not exactly eyewitnesses, or who are primary sources because we have no better or earlier sources and they wrote up what may be considered oral traditions or preserved otherwise lost previous writers’ works about their subject. Josephus is a good example of this: he was an eyewitness for the Jewish Revolt of 67-73 CE but is still a “primary source” for just about everything he wrote about. So too, Abraham Ibn Daud is considered something of primary source for Spanish Jewish history, even though he wrote about events in the 10th and 11th centuries that happened many years before he was born. But he is the earliest source we have—everything else is usually based on his writings, so Ibn Daud is primary and everyone else is a secondary source.
This exercise is both about a passage you have selected, and the primary source document from which it is taken. Please consider the following questions for your research:
a. Where did it first appear? When or in what context was it first published? What language(s) was it written in? In many cases, the resource in which you find your primary source retrieved this material from another anthology and you will have to identify the “primary source of the primary source.” For example, Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz’s excellent anthology The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History (
b. What were the circumstances providing the background and context of this document?
c. What do historians say about the document in general, and the passage you have selected? Find a comment made by a secondary source (e.g. in a textbook or in the introduction attached to the text cited, in an online source, encyclopedia article, etc.). Find at least five secondary sources—these can be online, encyclopedias, etc.
Context: Place the passage in its proper context: who wrote it, what language was it written in originally, if you can tell; when did it first appear, is it part of a larger work, what was the religion, ideology or personal history of the author(s) and what role do these factors play in the reason for writing the work.
Content: review, summarize and/or describe briefly the contents of the passage. Describe in a very general way the contents and overall scope of the source from which it is taken.
Comment: comment on the passage itself. Identify persons, events, ideas, places etc. mentioned to the extent this may be necessary. Discuss how any ideas in the passage relate to Jewish history, Islamic history, or whatever the topic of your course is. Sometimes it will be necessary to clarify potentially misleading phrases. Comment on things in the text which are mentioned in our textbook, and make any other comments you feel are relevant, including identifying terms which need further clarification. You should be prepared to identify persons, places, books, foreign words, etc., mentioned in the text. Often, it is important to see how your document uses literary sources and references that would have been familiar to the original readers, even if they are not always familiar to us today. Internet search engines make this somewhat easier than in the past, although it is often hardly easy. Still, you should try to check out references to Bible, Mishnah, Talmud; Qur’an, Hadith, etc.
Controversy/Compare—Contrast: Does this text maintain a controversial position vis-a-vis any issues? Can it be compared with other texts on related subjects? Is it mentioned by textbooks or other readings assigned in your class, or can it be compared with items that are, or put into context of items that are?
Consequence: Why is it important? What was the significance of the primary source document from which the passage is taken? What do we learn that might be important for our course? What is important to the author and what perspective, if any, does that provide?