Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt

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

Copyright Date: 1980
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt
    Book Description:

    Under three successive Islamic dynasties--the Fatimids, the Ayyubids, and the Mamluks--the Egyptian Office of the Head of the Jews (also known as the Nagid) became the most powerful representative of medieval Jewish autonomy in the Islamic world. To determine the origins of this institution, Mark Cohen concentrates on the complex web of internal and external circumstances during the latter part of the eleventh century.

    Originally published in 1981.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5358-8
    Subjects: Religion, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
    (pp. viii-viii)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. NOTE
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
    (pp. xix-2)
  7. CHAPTER ONE The Problem of Origins
    (pp. 3-49)

    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...

  8. CHAPTER TWO Fatimid Realities and the Coptic Patriarchate
    (pp. 50-78)

    The emphasis in this study upon Jewish sources from the Cairo Geniza and the acceptance of the periodization for the origins of the office of head of the Jews that the Geniza data dictate do not relieve us of the obligation to search for factors in the Fatimid environment that might have contributed to the rise of this new institution. Unfortunately, the characteristically fragmentary Geniza data fail to disclose what part the Fatimid context might have played in the origins of the headship of the Jews. This is one of the principal reasons why the revisionist hypothesis has met with...

  9. CHAPTER THREE The Rise of the Headship of the Jews: Sociological Considerations
    (pp. 79-156)

    Documentary evidence from the Cairo Geniza reveals a startling change in the structure of Jewish self-government in the Fatimid empire. Up until the latter third of the eleventh century, the Palestinian gaon, head of the yeshiva in Jerusalem, ruled over the Jews of Egypt. By the year 1100, however, the principal prerogative that had defined the sovereignty of the Palestinian gaon—the appointment of judges and local communal officials—rested in the hands of the nagid and head of the Jews, Mevorakh b. Saadya, in the Egyptian capital.

    How and why this change in Jewish administration occurred has not yet...

  10. CHAPTER FOUR The Headship of the Jews: Cautious Beginnings, to 1082
    (pp. 157-177)

    In reconstructing the origins of the office of head of the Jews we have chosen to focus our attention, not on the appearance of the title nagid, but rather on the institutional reality of who administered Jewish affairs in the Fatimid empire. We have seen that until about 1060, the Palestinian yeshiva still had nominal and in large measure actual control over Jewish communal life. Suzerainty over the Jewish communities during the first century of Fatimid rule rested in Jerusalem, not in Cairo. After about 1060, the prestige and authority of the Jerusalem gaonate waned, while a new constellation of...

  11. CHAPTER FIVE The Administration of David b. Daniel, ca. 1082 to 1094
    (pp. 178-212)

    Four or five years after his succession, Mevorakh b. Saadya lost his position as head of the Jews to the challenger from the Babylonian exilarchal family, the nasi David, son of the late nasi and Palestinian gaon, Daniel b. Azarya. Our main source, and the only narrative account of this episode, is the famous Megillat Evyatar (“Scroll of Evyatar”) composed shortly after David’s downfall in the spring of 1094 by Evyatar haKohen b. Elijah, the Palestinian gaon whom the nasi had similarly persecuted.¹ Though the one-sidedness of Evyatar’s embittered account has been widely recognized, modern scholarship has largely accepted his...

  12. CHAPTER SIX The Second Administration of Mevorakh b. Saadya, 1094 to 1111
    (pp. 213-271)

    Megillat Evyatar conveys the following information about the fall of David b. Daniel and the deliverance of Mevorakh b. Saadya and the gaon Evyatar from his “evil” grasp. The event is dated in Iyyar 1405 of the Seleucid Era,¹ and the circumstances leading up to it are described as follows: “By virtue of his learning (zekhut torato), the Nagid of the People of God was saved from the snare of the fowler and the noisome pestilence [cf. Psalm 91:3]. He was forced to go into exile in the province of al-Fayyūm for an entire year and, thereafter, in Alexandria, until...

  13. CHAPTER SEVEN The Administration of Moses b. Mevorakh, 1112 to ca. 1126
    (pp. 272-286)

    In December 1111, when plague ended the life of Mevorakh b. Saadya, his son and chosen successor, Abu ’l-Bayān Moses, was probably about thirty years old.¹ Having come to maturity during his father’s second term, he had been groomed to assume the political role that his father had fashioned for himself after 1094 out of the building blocks laid by his predecessors. Inheritance of communal office had deep roots in the Oriental Jewish world. From the gaon down to the lowest-ranking functionary, fathers trained their sons to take their place.² Mevorakh was simply the first Egyptian head of the Jews...

  14. CHAPTER EIGHT Conclusion: Institutional Innovation in a Medieval Community
    (pp. 287-294)

    The popular theory that the Fatimid conqueror of Egypt created the nagidate in order to serve his own anti-Abbasid political purposes draws its logic from an assumption that the internal political orientation of the Jews occupied a significant place in the thinking of Muslim rulers. Hence, institutional innovation is seen in this case as stemming principally from external causes. In such a construction, internal Jewish factors appear largely irrelevant.

    Our study of the origins of the headship of the Jews has attempted to take account of interacting internal and external forces. Political and social developments in the Fatimid environment have...

  15. APPENDIX 1 The Geniza Corpus
    (pp. 295-308)
  16. APPENDIX 2 Selected Geniza Documents
    (pp. 309-338)
    (pp. 339-360)
    (pp. 361-370)
    (pp. 371-385)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 386-386)