About Abiathar ben Elijah haKohen, Final Gaon of Palestine Yeshiva of Tyre
Abiathar ben Elijah ha-Kohen, who was born around 1041, probably in Jerusalem, was the last important gaon of the Palestinian yeshiva. He was the eldest of the four sons of Elijah ha-Kohen Gaon, and in keeping with standard practice, his father put him on an advancement track in the yeshiva. By 1067 he was already signing documents as “fourth in line,” thus making him a member of the ḥavurat ha-qodesh (sacred collegium; i.e., the yeshiva); by 1071 he was co-signing responsa with his father and, apparently as his right hand, went on missions to Egypt on his behalf.
In addition to Geniza documents, the most important source of information about Abiathar’s life is Megillat Evyatar (Heb. The Scroll of Abiathar), a work he wrote in 1094. Abiathar’s account of the bitter struggle for authority over Fatimid Jewry begins in the 1050s, when Solomon Gaon, Abiathar’s grandfather, died and was succeeded as head of the Palestinian yeshiva by a newcomer from Baghdad, Daniel ben Azariah, a nasi of the exilarchic house. Daniel died in 1062 and was succeeded by Abiathar’s father, Elijah, who moved the yeshiva to Tyre after the Seljuq conquest of Jerusalem in 1073. Conflict broke out in the 1080s when Daniel ben Azariah’s young son David ha-Nasi attempted to revive the exilarchate, claiming supreme authority over Egyptian and Palestinian Jewry, and denying the superior status of the yeshiva in exile in Tyre under Elijah Gaon and his son Abiathar.
Abiathar ultimately won the bitter struggle. He wrote and disseminated the Megilla to tell his version of events to Jewries everywhere. His account lambasted David ben Daniel and his associates, repudiated their attacks on him and his family, and condemned David’s regime as dictatorial. The correspondence from the Cairo Geniza that documents the other side of the dispute tells a different tale: massive grass-roots support for David, his moderate and sagacious political conduct, and the legitimacy of his Davidic descent.
The conflict between the two extended over fifteen years. It was not an ordinary struggle for leadership of the yeshiva, but rather a conflict between the yeshiva and a new force seeking to create a exilarchate center based in Egypt. The struggle came about as a result of the already diminished status and power of the Palestinian yeshiva, which had been forced into exile, and had lost much of its prestige. The struggle also involved the nagid in Egypt, Mevorakh ben Saʿadya, who was deposed by David ben Daniel and, when reinstated in 1094, renewed his allegiance to Abiathar Gaon. According to the Megilla, divine intervention on behalf of Abiathar induced the vizier al-Afḍal to dismiss David ben Daniel, restore Mevorakh, and thus bring an end to the conflict.
With the coming of the Crusaders, Abiathar and the yeshiva fled from Tyre in or around 1097 and apparently went to Tripoli in Lebanon , since they were there in 1102. Abiathar is mentioned in several Geniza documents from the early twelfth century. He died sometime before the end of 1112 and was succeeded by his brother Solomon. The yeshiva moved to Damascus, but it had already lost its prominence in the Jewish world.
Megillat Evyatar (Scroll of Abiathar) was written by Abiathar Gaon ben Elijah ha-Kohen in 1094. It mirrors the turmoil and internal conflict in the Jewish communities of the eastern portion of the Mediterranean basin at the end of the eleventh century. In particular, it contains direct reverberations of the disasters that befell the Jewish community in Palestine, and especially in Jerusalem, in the wake of a series of political and military vicissitudes that included the Seljuk invasion and the events leading up to the First Crusade.
Abiathar was apparently born in the fourth decade of the eleventh century and was the right hand of his father, Elijah Gaon. The Jerusalem yeshiva remained in Jerusalem until just before the Seljuk conquest in the summer of 1073, but then moved to Tyre, a seemingly logical destination given the close economic ties between the city’s governor and its Jewish merchants. Megillat Evyatar’s retrospective account of the gaonate of Daniel ben Azariah and subsequent events tells us about the conflict that began on the death of the gaon Solomon ben Judah in 1051 and ended with a compromise in 1052. The scroll is practically the only source that discusses Ben Azariah’s successor, Elijah Ha-Kohen, Abiathar’s father, during the period between his ascendancy to the gaonate and his death.
Megillat Evyatar also provides important details about David ben Daniel, Abiathar’s rival. It recounts David’s arrival in Egypt, his sojourn in Damira and afterwards in Fustat, his relations with the nagid Mevorakh ben Saʿadya and other people, his marriage into a prestigious, wealthy Karaite family, his status and activities in Fustat, and his connections with Ashkelon and other communities. David ben Daniel is described as fanatical and authoritarian, a picture confirmed by several letters from the Cairo Geniza.
The scroll also gives a full account of the process of appointing an exilarch and of the problems of the yeshiva in Tyre resulting partly from the uncertain political situation in the city, but also from the disruption of its connections with the Jewish community of Egypt and the other communities that remained under or returned to Fatimid rule. The difficulties for Abiathar and the other members of the yeshiva peaked during the ten months from June 1093 to April 1094, when Mevorakh ben Saʿadya resumed the post of nagid and his close association with the Fatimid regime, bringing about the removal of David ben Daniel.
The ideological portion of Megillat Evyatar is aimed at proving the legitimacy of the Jerusalem yeshiva and of the ha-Kohen family, its heads, as the leaders of the Jewish Diaspora. The relatively numerous statements in the scroll about the blessing of the new month and the leap year seem to have been made chiefly to provoke the Karaites (see Karaism), with whom David ben Daniel had developed a special relationship. In the final analysis, this work is a bitter polemic against David ben Daniel’s attempt to seize the leadership in the name of the house of the exilarchs on the grounds of its descent from King David. Over a period of more than ten years, David ben Daniel gained the support of many Rabbanite as well as Karaite communities, most likely because he spoke to the messianic hopes and yearnings of the masses.
Megillat Evyatar was distributed to Jewish communities far and wide to commemorate the victory of Abiathar and the house of Ha-Kohen over David ben Daniel and the Davidic dynasty. It may be assumed that the scroll was copied many times. The copy preserved in the Cairo Geniza was evidently made by Judah ha-Levi; it had been in the hands of a relative of Maimonides relatives and influenced his views on the Babylonian/Palestinian issue.
Cohen, Mark R. Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt (Princeton,, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980).
Gil, Moshe. A History of Palestine, 638–1099 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
———. “The Scroll of Evyatar as a Source for the History of the Struggles of the Yeshiva of Jerusalem during the Second Half of the Eleventh Century: A New Reading of the Scroll,” in Chapters on the History of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages, ed. B. Z. Kedar and Z. Baras (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 1979), pp. 39-106 [Hebrew].
Mann, Jacob. The Jews in Egypt and in Palestine under the Fātimid Caliphs, 2 vols. in one (New York: Ktav, 1970, repr. of London, 1920, 1922).
Citation Elinoar Bareket. " Abiathar ben Elijah ha-Kohen." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. Jim Harlow. 11 July 2012 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world/abiathar-ben-elijah-ha-kohen-SIM_0000140>
Elinoar Bareket. " Megillat Evyatar (Scroll of Abiathar)." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2013. Reference. Jim Harlow. 29 January 2013 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world/megillat-evyatar-scroll-of-abiathar-SIM_0015000>