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The head of the Rabbanite, Karaite and Samaritan Jews: on the history of a title 1

  • Shulamit Sela (a1)

For over a hundred years, scholars of medieval Jewish history have been interested in the history of the headship of the Jews in Egypt. The first among them, relying mostly on literary documents, believed that the ancient accounts about the establishment of the office of the head of the Jews (Nagid) could be traced back to the Fātimid occupation of Egypt (A.D. 969), while recent scholars—having at their disposal a growing stream of historical data from the Cairo Geniza—have ruled out the early establishment of the headship of the Jews (Negidut) because of the silence about this function in the Geniza documents of the first half of the eleventh century.

With the rejection of the early establishment of the headship of the Jews in Egypt, an approach developed which attempted to view the Gaon, head of the Palestinian academy, as the head of the Jews in the Fātimid empire. Now, the rise of the headship of the Jews in Egypt was seen in conjunction with the decline of the Yeshiva of Eretz Israel, at the close of the eleventh century. Lately, scholarship has been enriched by the deciphering of two new Geniza documents related to the office of the headship of the Jews which provide an opportunity for a renewed discussion of two central problems. The first touches upon the old question of putting a date to the establishment of the headship of the Jews in Egypt, and the second, following on from the first, concerns the issue of the status of the Gaon of Eretz Israel during the Fatimid administration.

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2 For the old school of research concerning the headship of the Jews, see the summary by the senior scholar of the historical Geniza, J. Mann, The Jews in Egypt and in Palestine under the Fātimid caliphs (1920–22, repr. New York, 1970), i, 252–5; idem, Texts and studies in Jewish history and literature (1931; repr. New York, 1972), i, 394.Neustadt, D. (Ayalon)'‘Inyenei Negidut be-Mitzrayim bi-mei ha-Benayim’ (’Some problems concerning the “Negidut” in Egypt during the Middle Ages’), Zion, 4, 1938/1939, 127 ff. correctly rules out two literary sources (i.e., the Sambari–Ibn Abi Zimra traditions, which will not be discussed in the present article). Nevertheless (ibid., 141, n. 55) he does not rule out the historical basis for the additional literary sources that narrate the story of Palṭiel Hannagid (to be discussed in section IV of this study). Neustadt (p. 148) even considers the possibility of the early establishment of the Negidut, perhaps even prior to the Fātimid period.

Of the later scholars who place the establishment of the headship at the end of the eleventh century, the leading authority is Goitein, S. D.A Mediterranean society, II (Berkely and Los Angeles, 1971), 23 ff. His conclusion is developed and extended with reference to the sociological processes which developed in Egypt at the same time by Cohen, M. R., Jewish self-government in medieval Egypt (Princeton, 1980). Cohen is of the opinion that the headship of the Jews emerged in the second half of the eleventh century, at the time of Judah b. Saadya, the physician, and became an established office with the reign of his brother Mevorakh, the illustrious scholar and court physician. However, in a later study, Cohen attempts to explain the remnants of the term ‘head of the Jews’ (ra'īs [al-ya]hūd), which has nevertheless been found in the Geniza in a document related to the beginning of that century, as showing an early attempt to set up a selfgoverning institution in Egypt (see also n. 32). On the Hebrew title Nagid (prince or leader) see Goitein's, study ‘The title and office of the Nagid: a re-examination’, JQR, n.s., 53, 1962, 93–119. Goitein concluded that the title Nagid became a synonym for Ra'īs al-Yahūd at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Nevertheless the equation of these two titles in relation to the Head of the Jews is obvious in the very important document JTSL ENA 2697, f. 26, published by Adler, E. N. under the title, ‘The installation of the Egyptian Nagid’, JQR, o.s., 9, 18961997, 712–20. Most scholars agree that this document belongs to the eleventh century; v. Shaked, S., A tentative bibliography of Geniza documents (Paris, 1964), 183, ENA *2. I will offer a new interpretation of the document of the Nagid in my forthcoming article ‘Rashut ha-Yehudim ba-Mamlakha ha-Faṭimit be-Yadayim Qara'iyyot’ (‘The headship of the Jews in the Fāṭimid Empire in Karaite hands’), to be published in the Moshe Gil presentation volume.

3 Goitein, S. D.,‘Rosh Yeshivat Eretz Yisra'el ke-Rosh Hayehudim ba-Mamlakha ha-Faṭimit’ (‘The head of the Palestinian Academy as head of the Jews in the Fāṭimid Empire: Arabic documents on the Palestine Gaonate’), Eretz Israel, 10, 1971, 100–13.

4 The Syrian letter of appointment TS Ar.38.93 was first discovered by Goitein, who mentioned it in Mediterranean society, n, 527, n.41.The letter is also mentioned by my teacher, Professor Gil, Moshe, in his Eretz Yisra'el ba-Tequefa ha-Muslemit ha-Rishona (Palestine during the first Muslim occupation), (Tel Aviv, 1983), i, 421, n.746.I am most grateful to Dr. Khan, G. for letting me read the manuscript of his study of this letter of appointment: ‘A document of appointment of a Jewish leader in Syria issued by al-Malik al-Afdal 'Alī in 589 A.H.,/1193 A.D.’, in Documents de I'Islam médiéval, (ed.) gib, Yūsuf Rā (Institut Fran¸ais d 'Archéologie Orientale du Caire. 1991). o Despite the geographical confinement of the document to Syria and its administrative districts it must nevertheless be strongly associated—both historically and diplomatically—with the Egyptian administration. The document's issuer, al-Afḍal, is the son of the Emperor Saladin, who resided in Egypt, and hence the resemblance between the diplomatic details of this document and those of documents originating in Egypt.

5 I am grateful to the British Library for granting me permission to publish this fragment. The w Geniza, as is known, has not yet been catalogued, and therefore research on one subject often uncovers other materials. In my dissertation ‘Sefer Josippon u-Meqorot Maqbilim ba-'Aravit uva-'Aravit Yehudit’ (‘The Book of Josippon and its parallel versions in Arabic and Judaeo- Arabic’), submitted to the Senate of Tel Aviv University, January 1991, I dealt with a description of the remnants of the Arabic Josippon which were preserved in the Geniza. The present document was found attached to the book's remnants. The document did not escape Professor M. A. Friedman's attention and he investigated it together with Dr. G. Khan. They established its importance and identified its literary genre. I should like to thank these two scholars for I encouraging me to continue the research and for supporting me with constant advice.

6 For the literary qualities of the preliminary matter in appointment documents, see Khan, , ‘A document of appointment’, 108–10.

7 For an analysis of the various kinds, ibid., 110–11.

8 For a comparison with the appointment document from Syria, recto 1, 11. 10–16 see Khan, , 98. There, the previous section is dedicated to a eulogy of the Caliph who always selects the suitable candidates for functions.

9 cf. Khan, 111–12.

10 For the three known letters, see n. 4 and n. 35. On the dispositio, see Khan, , 112

11 For a list of documents representing the method of authority conferral, see Gil, , Palestine, i, 420–1

12 Khan, , 114–16.

13 The keyword sijill appears frequently in the Fātimid documents. For a discussion of the Greek origin of the word, see Gil, , Palestine, n, 526, n. 12, and elsewhere, according to the index in the third volume. With regard to our document b, 13 I would like to mention the combination (khurūj al-amr) in the documents published by Stern, S. M., REJ, 128, 1969, 216,1. 7; 1. 23; cf. 220–1 (versions of a letter from the supporters of Solomon b. Judah to the Caliph); and cf. Gil, , Eretz Yisra'el, II, 346, 1. 11. Cf. with the parallel vocabulary and the identical syntax in Qalqashandī, xi, 62, 1. 3, which Khan, , ‘A document of appointment’, 111, n. 43 dates in the Fātimid period. Especially interesting are those words which have a particular significance in the t documents connected with an appointment, as Gil, (Eretz Yisra'el n, 571, n. 23) remarked about I the word (dhikr) in the document ENA 4020, f. 65 (and cf. our document b, 6) whose meaning is related to the conferral of a title; it also seems to me that the word (ni'mah, i.e. benefaction) which appears frequently in these documents has a similar meaning and points to the honour of being granted the title; and cf. Gil, , n, 570, 1 5 and our document b, 7; and it would seem that this meaning of the word is based on the Qur'ān, cf. Qalqashandī, xi, 388, 11. 4–5 which alludes to Qur'ān 14:14; 16: 18.

14 Cohen, , Jewish self-government, 171/–7; 213–71.

15 Goitein, , Mediterranean society, II, 33.

16 ibid., II, 32; 528, n. 46.

17 ibid., 32 and 528, n. 45; for the pretension to the medical profession, see Neubauer, A., ‘Egyptian fragments’, JQR, 8, 1896, 548, 1. 2.

18 Wüstenfeld, F.Geschichte der Fatimiden-Chalifen nach dem arabischen Quellen (Gottingen, 1881), 306–7, and cf. Lane-Poole, S., A history of Egypt in the Middle Ages (London, 1914), 168. Neither of these historians provide their texts with a detailed apparatus. The story shows up in variants in Arabic chronicles: al-Athīr, Ibn, al-Kāmil fi'l-tar'īkh, xi (Beirut, 1966), 22–3: the physician is not a Christian but a Muslim, but according to Ibn-Muyassar, , Akhbār Miṣr, ed. Massé, ; (Cairo, 1919), 78, the physician who administers the poison is, indeed, a Christian. See also Ibn-Khaldūn, Kitāb al-'Ibar, iv (Beirut, 1958), 1534.Wüstenfeld, , Geschichte, loc. cit., gave place indicators for the variants of the name of the Christian physician: Ibn Qirqah; Ibn Firqah. It is well known that the Arabic letters Qāf and Fā are often confused by copyists because they differ only in diacritical points.

19 Mann, , The Jews in Egypt, I, 222; 228–9.

20 Schirmann, H., ‘Ḥayyei Yehuda ha-Levi’, Tarbiz, 9, 1938, 300, n. 76 which also includes evidence from Judah Ha-levi's poetry that Samuel was a physician like his father.

21 On Nathan the ‘Diadem’ (Nezer), son of Samuel, see the résumé (accompanied by an extensive bibliography) by Ben-Sasson, M. in his article ‘The structure, goals, and content of the story of Nathan Ha-Babli’, in H. L. Ben-Sasson Mem. Vol. (Jerusalem, 1989), 166–7. I am grateful to Professor M. Ben-Sasson for his help in identifying the script. Nathan's handwriting is related to that of Hillel b. Eli, a scribe who was active in Fusṭāṭ in the second half of the eleventh century. On him, see Cohen, M., Jewish self-government, especially pp. 113–15 and the photostat on the title page of the book.

22 Goitein, , Mediterranean society, n, 7–8 and in the Notes, p. 520, n. 5. What is interesting with regard to this discussion is a request from a Samaritan carpenter of ‘’(the prominent elder/leader) to provide him with a j o b with the ‘’ (the chief carpenter), published by Cowley, A. E., JQR, 16, 1904, 479. Perhaps what we have here is an example of a request from a Samaritan to the most senior person he can address, that is, the head of Israel's congregations in the broad sense of the word—the bearer himself of the title studied in this paper.

23 See Futūh, al-Balādhurī (Leiden, 1866), 158, and cf. Dinur, B., Yisra'el ba-gola, v, part 1, 25. The Egyptian chronicler Ibn Iyās (born 1488) still calls the Samaritans, Samaritan Jews. See Polak, A., ‘ha-Yehudim u-Vet ha-Maṭbe'ot be-Mitzrayim’, Zion, 1, 1936, 33

24 Gottheil, R., ‘An eleventh-century document concerning a Cairo synagogue’, JQR, o.s., 19, 19061907, 467 ff.

25 Translation by Gottheil, ibid., 485.

26 Lewis, B., ‘Paltiel: a note’, BSOAS, xxx, 1, 1967, 177.I should like to a d d a few more cases of similarity with Lewis's, findings. With regard to names: in Megillat Ahima'as, ed. Klar, B. (Jerusalem, 1941), 13, mention is made of El'āzār, who is described as a n astrologer (and this is, as is mentioned above, also the profession of Paltiel according to the Megilla), as one of the fathers of the family, but he is mysteriously absent from the rest of t he story; Paltiel's son was called Samuel and Mūsā's son Ismā'īl (Lewis, 181) a n d this last name is a common Arabic translation of Samuel in this period; see, for example, under ‘Samuel’ in the general index of Goitein, Mediterranean society, in. In terms of t he events, the intrigues against Mūsā the physician at the Fātimid court (cf. Mann, , The Jews in Egypt, I, 17; Lewis, ‘Paltiel’, 189) very much resemble what is described in the Megillat Ahima'as, 45. For a different identification of Palṭiel, see Gil, , Eretz Yisra'el, I, 299–301.

27 See n. 2.

28 Klar, , Megillat, 46–7.

29 ibid., 47–8; and cf. Neubauer's, A. edition of Megillat Ahima'as in his Mediaeval Jewish chronicles (repr. Amsterdam, 1970), I, 130–1.

30 This obscurity is for instance evidenced by the peculiar document TS 8 J 7, f. 13 in which is mentioned the intervention of one Ibn 'Imrān with the commander of the faithful on behalf of the appointment of Elḥanan b. Shemarya (for details on whom, see n. 32) to the post of judge. The name 'Imrān, as will be remembered, is the epithet of Mūsā in the ḥujjah, but there we find Abū (father of) and here Ibn (son of), and so far we have not learnt any details about Ibn 'Imrān nor about another person close to the court who is also mentioned in the document. The document was found by Goitein and published by Gil, , Eretz Yisra'el, i, 474–5, par. 797; see Gil's, additional remarks on the document in the supplement to this book, ‘Millu'im’, Teuda, 7, 1991, 295.

31 The alternative reading might also elucidate the casual formulation of the additional mention of the headship, Gottheil, ‘An eleventh-century document’, 476,1. 36, transl. 487,1. 36: ‘ authority in respect to it devolved upon whomsoever should be chief of the Jewish Communities.’ This line suggests the possibility of distinguishing between Mūsā and the headship and certainly makes it plausible that people unrelated to the physician's dynasty could have served in this function.

32 On Shemaryah, his son Elḥanan and on their wide-ranging community activities, see Bareket, Elinoar, ‘Manhigei ha-Qahal be-Fusṭāṭ ba-Mahatzit ha-Rishona shel ha-Me'a ha-Ahat-‘esre’ (‘The leaders of the Jews in Fusṭāṭ during the first half of the eleventh century’), unpublished thesis, submitted to the Senate of Tel Aviv University, 1987, 107–32. See especially the discussion of Shemaryah's titles, ibid., I, 109; n, 322; n. 106 (Bareket, 113, expresses surprise that Shemaryah, head of the Babylonian Jewish community in Fusṭāṭ, should have been responsible for the maintenance of the synagogue of the Palestinian community in the city; however, if he carried the title and responsibilities of head of the Jews, then the Jerusalemite community in Fusṭāṭ, too, would have fallen under his responsibility).

On the titles of Elḥanan ben Shemaryah, see Bareket, , I, 110–19; n, 330–1. With regard to the authority and extent of the activities of Shemaryah and his son Elḥanan, what is said by M. Cohen in his later study is of great importance: he notes that father and son enjoyed the support of the Egyptian authorities, while-keeping to his method regarding the rise of the headship in the second half of the eleventh century-Cohen believes that the attempt to establish a competing centre to the Palestinian Gaonate is limited to the lifetime of these two personalities. I am grateful to Professor Cohen for drawing my attention to his article ‘Administrative relations between Palestinian and Egyptian Jewry’, in Egypt and Palestine, (ed.) Cohen, A. and Baer, G. (Jerusalem: Ben Zvi Institute, 1984), see especially p. 126 and n. 47.

33 Khan, has published the document in Arabic legal and administrative documents in the Cambridge Genizah Collections (Cambridge, 1993), document 115

34 The Egyptian Scroll’ published by Mann, (The Jews, II, 433) supplies us with a literary hint as to the reduction of functions in its description of al-Hākim as the one who needed no deputy or counsellor, but appointed judges in the country.

35 al-Qalqashandī, , Subh al-a'shā (Cairo, 1913), xi, 385 (the date is in Khan, , ‘A document of appointment’, 103; cf. Gottheil, , ‘An eleventh-century document’, 528); see also the additional document, al-Qalqashandī, ibid., 388. See, for a discussion of the documents, Astor, E. (Strauss) Toledot ha- Yehudim be-Mitzrayim uve-Suriya tahat Shilton ha-Mamlūkim (A history of the Jews in Egypt and Syria under the rule of the Mamlūks), (Jerusalem, 1951), II, 240.

36 M. E.Artomand A.David, ‘Rabbi 'Ovadya Yare mi-Bertinoro ve-Iggerotav’, in Beinart, H. (ed.), Yehudim be-Italia (Jerusalem, 1988), 71.

37 Massa' Meshullam mi-Volterra (The journey of Meshullam of Volterra), ed. Yaari, A., (Jerusalem, 1949), 57.

38 And cf. Sambari, , in Neubauer, I, 135.

39 Mann, , Texts and Studies, i, 394.

40 Eretz Israel, 10, 1971, 103, see n. 3 above; Goitein, published an English synopsis of the document in Mediterranean society, II, 16–17.

41 Eretz Israel, 10, 1971, 100, n. 2; Goitein relies on Gottheil, ‘A n eleventh-century document’, who published the al-Qalqashandī documents, and cf. data in n. 35 above.

42 Eretz Israel, 10, 1971, 103, first in line 3 and further in line 12 and line 14 of the Dropsie document. (My emphasis.)

43 Goitein noted this in his translation and exegesis to the English synopsis of the document: ‘to the exclusion of the Karaites and Samaritans’, Mediterranean society, II, 16.

44 The present article will be followed by a study dedicated to the Karaite courtiers of the second quarter of the eleventh century (details at the end of n. 2). Geniza documents teach us that the real political power in the period under discussion was in their hands, and it is possible that al-Ḥākim's decree is evidence of a process at the beginning of which the Karaites were released from their dependence on the Rabbanites and that ended with the temporary transferal of the Jewish administration to the Karaites. I am concentrating on the Karaite David b. Isaac ha-Levi for whom I find growing evidence that he served, both de facto and de jure, as Ra'īs al-Yahūd. The Geniza informs us that this Karaite minister looked after both the Karaites and the Rabbanites and was appointed by the Caliph—see Stern, , REJ, 128 1969, 215 (details in n. 13); Gil, , Eretz Yisra'el, II, 353, and passim. It would seem that when the Karaites lost their power at the court the headship of the Jews returned to the Rabbanites and perhaps the word ‘’ (Jamī' i.e., ‘all’) which alone precedes, in our document 15 b, the term ‘Israelite denominations’, reflects the movement of the office between the communities. On the sons of Saadya see n. 2.

1 This article has its origins in a paper I presented to the fifth International Conference of the Society for Judaeo-Arabic Studies, New York and Princeton, in August 1991.

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