Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt: The Origins of the Office of the Head of the Jews, ca. 1065-1126

Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt: The Origins of the Office of the Head of the Jews, ca. 1065-1126

by Mark R. Cohen


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ISBN-13: 9780691615424
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Studies on the Near East Series
Pages: 408
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.90(h) x 1.00(d)

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Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt

The Origins of the Office of the Head of the Jews, ca. 1065-1126

By Mark R. Cohen


Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05307-3


The Problem of Origins

During the early Islamic centuries, as in late antiquity, Egypt maintained its position as a peripheral area of Jewish life. We do not find an institution of Jewish communal administration there after the Arab conquest. Spiritual and administrative guidance emanated from Babylonia (Iraq) and Palestine, where great yeshivas, or Talmudic academies, dating from pre-Islamic times, synthesized, interpreted, and disseminated Talmudic law, dispatched judges to administer this law in the far-flung communities of the caliphate, and appointed leaders of local communities. Iraq was also the seat of the ancient Davidic exilarchate. The caliph recognized the exilarch as head of all the Jews in the diaspora, which included the Jews of Egypt, and confirmed his prerogative to appoint local judges.

Demographic developments fostered Egyptian Jewry's orientation toward Iraq and Palestine. During the first three centuries of Muslim rule, streams of Jews wended their way from eastern Islamic lands to the Mediterranean. Many settled in Egypt, as did Jews from adjacent Palestine. Understandably, these immigrants cherished loyalties toward Jewish leadership in their countries of origin. This allegiance found expression in diverse ways: in the establishment of separate Babylonian and Palestinian synagogues practicing the rites and customs of the yeshivas of the respective countries, in the solicitation of responsa from heads of the yeshivas, known as gaons, and in financial contributions toward the upkeep of the institutions that the gaons directed. The ties to Palestine, dating back to Roman times, survived the Abbasid centralization of imperial authority in Iraq in the middle of the eighth century. This concentration of power helped elevate the two Iraqi yeshivas of Sura and Pumbedita over their Palestinian counterpart, but the academy in Jerusalem continued to exercise influence over Egypt's Jews.

Independent communal leadership over Egyptian Jewry did not emerge until the time of the Fatimids, who conquered Egypt in 969. The Fatimids, whose original power base had been in North Africa, were Isma'ili Smites, adherents of a religio-political theory that denied the legitimacy and supremacy of the orthodox Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad. Their move eastward from al-Mahdiyya, Tunisia, to the newly built imperial capital of Cairo, coming on the heels of careful prior infiltration and dissemination of Isma'ili propaganda, formed part of a sophisticated strategy aimed at challenging the flagging Abbasid caliphate's claim to political and religious hegemony With the subsequent annexation of adjacent territories in Palestine, Syria, and the Hijaz, the Fatimids elevated Egypt to the prestigious position of capital of an empire rivaling that of the Abbasids The caliph al-Mu'izz (reigned 953-975) and his son and successor al-'Aziz (reigned 975-996), aided by astute government servants, many of them Jews or of Jewish origin, endowed Egypt with a substantial level of stability and prosperity and made it an attractive destination for new settlers from the Abbasid domains Buoyed by an influx of immigrants, Jewry under the Fatimids attained economic well-being and a large measure of self-sufficiency. In the Fatimid period, the yeshivas of Iraq and Palestine found themselves increasingly dependent upon the Jews of Egypt for financial support.

Not surprisingly, Jewish historians early found evidence suggesting a causal relationship between the Fatimid conquest and the origins of Jewish communal leadership in Egypt. They focused their attention upon the rise of the title of nagid in that country. The epithet "nagid," a Biblical word having royal connotations, was accorded to a number of powerful Jewish communal leaders in Spam and North Africa during the eleventh century. Most famous among these nagids was Samuel ibn Nagrela (d. ca. 1056), the Spanish Hebrew poet and Jewish vizier of Granada. In Egypt, two literary sources place the appearance of the first nagid a century earlier. The principal account of the arrival of the first nagid in Egypt — a Hebrew story preserved in a seventeenth-century Egyptian-Jewish chronicle and, in an abridged form, in a sixteenth-century responsum, or rabbinic legal opinion, from Cairo — states that he was appointed by the Fatimid caliph who ruled shortly after the conquest. A family chronicle completed in the year 1054 reports that an Italian Jew named Palfiel b. Shephajiah, who served as an influential courtier in the entourage of the Fatimid caliph al-Mu'izz, held the title "nagid" and ruled over the Jews in the Fatimid domain. Based upon these two traditions, modern Jewish historians arrived at the hypothesis that the Fatimids created the "nagidate" (negidut in Hebrew) upon the occasion of their conquest of Egypt in 969. From his new capital in Cairo, the Fatimid ruler was believed to have resolved to designate a local sovereign over Jewish affairs. This official would receive the homage formerly paid by Egyptian Jewry to the Babylonian exilarch, an appointee of the Fatimids' rival, the Abbasid caliph.

With the beginning of the scientific study of the documentary treasures of the Cairo Geruza at the end of the nineteenth century, a vast amount of new information about the early history of the office of nagid began to come to light. The Geniza materials, mostly routine letters and documents, have not provided an explanation for the origins of the institution. Rather, they convey disorganized data about the personal and public lives of leaders of the Egyptian Jewish community, including the all-important nagids. Vexingly, however, these sources are totally silent regarding the presence of a nagid or, for that matter, of any Egyptian-Jewish official exercising central authority over Fatimid Jewry, until the beginning of the second century of Fatimid rule. Nonetheless, the original thesis has continued to this day to reign supreme in Jewish historiography. It is worthwhile following the traces of that hypothesis through a century of Jewish scholarship, and seeing how it has resisted modification in spite of compelling counterevidence from the Geniza. Conceived as a histonographical case study, our analysis reveals the tenacity of long-held historical views when faced with challenging new data, and the difficulties that historians encounter when attempting to reconcile narrative literary sources with disparate data of a documentary nature.

The Sambari-Ibn Abi Zimra Tradition

The critical narrative source describing the origins of the nagidate is the well-known passage in the Hebrew chronicle of the Egyptian historian Joseph b. Isaac Sambari (1640-1703), whose history of the Jews, completed in 1672, was first published in excerpt form by Adolf Neubauer in 1887 in volume one of his Mediaeval Jewish Chronicles. As this passage, which occurs at the very beginning of the Neubauer selection, has never before appeared in print in English, we present it here in translation.

In the year 363 according to the Muslim reckoning (A.D. 973/4), the caliph (al-khalifa) T'YY' came to power in Babylonia. He married his daughter to the caliph (melekh) of Egypt, whose name was '$R al-Dawla.

In the year 366 according to the Muslim reckoning (A.D. 976/7), which corresponds to the year 4745 since the creation of the world (A.D. 984/5), the queen arrived in Egypt She asked whether the Jews of Egypt had a king or prince (nasi) as in Babylon (that is, Baghdad), the capital of the Abbasid caliph, the Commander of the Faithful (khalifat amir al-mu'minin al-'abbasi), of the family of the Prophet, c(razed be that) m(an of) the (wind). In that place lives Daniel b. Hisday, who is called resh galutha, and who possesses a document of his genealogy going back as far as King David, peace be upon him. The Muslims call him "our lord, the Son of David" (sayyiduna lbn Da'ud). He has extensive dominion over all the Jewish communities by authority of the Commander of the Faithful. Jews and gentiles alike rise before him and greet him. Whoever does not rise before him receives one hundred lashes, for so the caliph (melekh) has ordered. Whenever he goes to have an audience with the caliph, he is accompanied by Muslim and Jewish horsemen who ride in front announcing in Arabic: "Make way for our lord, the Son of David." He himself is mounted on a horse, and wears an embroidered silk robe and a large turban on his head. From this turban is suspended a white scarf with a chain upon it.

When he reaches the caliph's court, the royal eunuchs come forth to greet him and run ahead of him until he reaches the caliph's court. A servant of the nasi precedes him carrying a purse of gold coins (zehuvim) which he distributes in front of the nasi in honor of the caliph. When the nasi reaches the caliph, he prostrates himself, then stands up on his feet to show that he is humble, as a slave before the caliph. Then the caliph gestures to his eunuchs to seat the nasi on the chair closest to him on the left side, and solicits his petition When the nasi presents his petition, he again stands up on his feet, blesses the caliph with the proper blessing, and departs.

The nasi levies upon the merchants of the land a fixed annual tax, in addition to the gifts that are brought to him from the ends of the earth. This is the custom that they follow in Babylonia.

When the queen came to Egypt, she assumed that the same custom obtained in Egypt. However, the caliph (of Egypt) told her that the Jews (in his realm) have neither king nor nasi. Therefore she said: "In my father's kingdom there are many Jews. They have a nasi called al-Da'udi — that is, a descendant of David — and my father derives honor from him, and in turn, shows great respect toward him on account of the nasi's royal and prophetic lineage. If, therefore, it pleases the caliph, send a request to bring someone from this family to Egypt."

The matter pleased the caliph, and he sent letters with couriers to the city of Baghdad saying: "I have been informed that in the capital of your kingdom there are Jews descended from King David, peace be upon him. Therefore send me one of them, since your daughter desires this." So they sent him from there a wise and learned master So-and-So (mar peloni) from the family of the nasis in the capital. The caliph of Egypt placed him over the land of Egypt. From that time on the nagidate existed generation after generation in Egypt.

Following a description of the nagid's prerogatives, Samban concludes his "history" of the office with an account of the controversy that led to its abolition some years after the Ottomon conquest of Egypt.

A simplified version of this narrative appears in a responsum of David ibn Abi Zimra (1479-1573), the chief rabbi of Cairo during the first half of the sixteenth century, regarding the juridical authority of the nagid. Ibn Abi Zimra omits names and dates, alluding only to "the king of Egypt whom they call the caliph" and, very vaguely, to a time "about the beginning of Ishmaelite rule." However, in language very similar to Sambari he relates essentially the same story about the Abbasid princess and her dismay over the absence of a royal Jewish personage, and about the Davidic "so-and-so" brought from Iraq to assuage her disappointment.

At least as early as the sixteenth century, then, Egyptian Jewry possessed a tradition that credited the Fatimid dynasty with initiating and establishing the nagidate shortly after its conquest of Egypt in 969. The same tradition incorporated the belief that the nagidate of Cairo, like the exilarchate of Baghdad from which it allegedly had drawn its first incumbent, had originally been a royal dignity.

A cursory reading of the Sambari-Ibn Abi Zimra tradition reveals certain difficulties. Only the name of the Abbasid caliph al-Ta'i' (reigned 974-991) seems to have been correctly reproduced. The name of the Fatimid caliph, whatever way it be deciphered, does not correspond with historical reality. Moreover, Sambari's dates are internally inconsistent. Nonetheless, the story, attested by two witnesses separated by a century and a half, provides a plausible explanation of the origins of the most important institution of Egyptian-Jewish self-government. Indeed, that is why so many modern historians were quick to take the Sambari-Ibn Abi Zimra account at face value.

It is interesting that Heinrich Graetz, addressing himself to the Ibn Abi Zimra version in a note to the first edition of his History of the Jews (written before Neubauer published the Sambari chronicle), exercised his characteristic critical sense and summarily rejected the historicity of the saga. Other scholars, however, evinced less skepticism. Abraham Berliner, who discussed the "nagid dignity," as he called it in an article printed just three years (1890) after the appearance of Neubauer's edition, unabashedly paraphrased the story in order to explain how the nagidate had been established in Egypt Thus, at this early stage, before the first Geniza revelations, the Samban-Ibn Abi Zimra tradition received the stamp of approval by the first Jewish historian to devote a scholarly paper solely to the problem of the early history of the nagidic office

Enter the Geniza

A few years later (1896), the very same Adolf Neubauer who had edited Samban brought some "Egyptian Fragments," as the Geniza documents were then called, to bear on a discussion of the problem. He published the now well-known "Scroll of Zutta," a polemical treatise describing the illegitimate purchase of the office of nagid by a despotic evildoer named Zutta. To this interesting text Neubauer attached a short appendix of nine pages on the "Origin and Growth of the Nagid Dignity" From the point of view of future research, the most consequential portion of this appendix was its five edited Geniza documents: two poems, a letter, a poetic preamble to a marriage contract (ketubba), and a liturgical fragment. These contained valuable new information about various nagids, including two not previously known and hence omitted from Berliner's list They were Judah, a physician, thought by Neubauer to have functioned in the eleventh century, and Mevorakh b Saadya the physician, whose period of activity Neubauer was able to fix at around the beginning of the twelfth century, with the aid of another Geniza document that he published the following year. An apparent reference in the Zufta scroll to a nagid named Mordecai (text: mordekhai ha-zeman, lit, "the Mordecai of Our Time") was soon shown by David Kaufmann to be merely the flowery epithet of Zutta's first victim, the nagid Samuel b. Hananya. The latter was identical with the well-known Egyptian friend of the poet Judah ha-Levi.

By demonstrating the relevance of the Cairo Gemza documents to the nagidate problem at a very early stage of Gemza research, Neubauer's article constituted an important step forward in the reconstruction of the history of this institution. On the other hand, he introduced a new factor from outside the Gemza which, in the long run, proved to be an impediment to the objective evaluation of the emerging Gemza evidence. He had just published, in the second volume of his Mediaeval Jewish Chronicles (1895), the manuscript of the "Chronicle of Ahimaas" (Megillat Ahimaas). This was a panegyric history of an illustrious southern Italian Jewish family, written by one of its descendants, Ahimaas b. Paltiel, in 1054. In the extravagant portrayal of his tenth-century forbear Paltiel b. Shephatiah as a powerful personage in the entourage of the Fatimid caliph al-Mu'izz (reigned 953-975) and as a participant in the conquest of Egypt, Ahimaas. employed the epithet "nagid" in three places. This philological detail, coupled with Ahimaas's general description of Paltiel's lofty position at the Fatimid court and m the Jewish community, compelled Neubauer to conclude in the appendix to his "Egyptian Fragments" article that Palfiel was the first, anonymous nagid who, according to Samban, had been appointed by the Fatimid caliph at about that time. Independently, David Kaufmann expressed the same opinion in his long analysis of the Ahimaas chronicle that appeared the same year.

Notwithstanding the fact that Ahimaas's distinguished ancestor lacked two basic qualities of Samban-Ibn Abi Zimra's "so-and-so" — Davidic lineage and Babylonian provenance — the equation of Palpel with the first Egyptian nagid appointed by the Fatimids quickly became part of the Jewish historical consensus. Dissenting voices were heard only from those quarters where Paltiel's identification with the Muslim general, Jawhar, the Fatimid conqueror of Egypt, was advocated.

In the year following the appearance of Neubauer's article, Elkan N. Adler published a Hebrew Geniza fragment that he imprecisely titled "The Installation of the Egyptian Nagid." Through a mistranslation, Adler made the unnamed author of the narrative refer to "my father the nagid," identified the latter with Paltiel, and, in turn, identified Samuel, the son of Ahimaas's celebrated forbear, as the direct dynastic successor to the office founded by Paltiel.


Excerpted from Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt by Mark R. Cohen. Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • List Of Tables And Figure, pg. viii
  • Preface, pg. xi
  • Note, pg. xvii
  • Abbreviations, pg. xix
  • Chapter One. The Problem of Origins, pg. 1
  • Chapter Two. Fatimid Realities and the Coptic Patriarchate, pg. 50
  • Chapter Three. The Rise of the Headship of the Jews: Sociological Considerations, pg. 79
  • Chapter Four. The Headship of the Jews: Cautious Beginnings, to 1082, pg. 157
  • Chapter Five. The Administration of David B. Daniel, Ca. 1082 to 1094, pg. 178
  • Chapter Six. The Second Administration of Mevorakh B. Saadya, 1094 to 1111, pg. 213
  • Chapter Seven. The Administration of Moses B. Mevorakh, 1112 to Ca. 1126, pg. 272
  • Chapter Eight. Conclusion: Institutional Innovation in a Medieval Community, pg. 287
  • Appendix 1. The Geniza Corpus, pg. 295
  • Appendix 2. Selected Geniza Documents, pg. 309
  • Works Cited, pg. 339
  • Index of Geniza Texts, pg. 361
  • General Index, pg. 371

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