Rabban Nissim ben Ya'qub ibn Shahin, Gaon al-Qayrawan

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Nissim ben Jacob ben Nissim ibn Shahin al-Qairouan

Birthplace: Al-Qayrawan, Kairouan North, Kairouan, Tunisia
Death: Died in Mahdia, Tunisia
Immediate Family:

Son of Ya'qub ben Nissim ibn Shahin al-Qairouan and unkbown bat Dunash ben Labrat
Husband of Unknown #2 bat Barhūn al-Taherti
Father of Abū Yaḥyā Nahray "Nehorai" ben Nissim, Nagid; Rahel bat Rabi Nissim ben Yakob al-Qairouan and ???? bat Rabbi Nissim Ben Yacov

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About Rabban Nissim ben Ya'qub ibn Shahin, Gaon al-Qayrawan

Nissim ben Jacob ben Nissim ibn Shāhīn was one of the foremost Jewish scholars of the eleventh century and the leader of the North African Jewish community. He was born in 990 in Qayrawan, where he spent most of his life. His family name (Shāhīn) indicates Persian origins. His father, Jacob, was head of the local academy (Heb. bet midrash) and in 987 wrote to Sherira Gaon in Babylonia in the name of “the holy congregation of Qayrawan,” asking him how the Mishna was written. The famous response is known as the Epistle (Heb. Iggeret) of Sherira Gaon. In it Sherira refers to Jacob as mari (my teacher) and rabbana (our mentor).

By the end of the tenth century, the academy in Qayrawan had become the most important scholarly institution of North African Jewry. Nissim studied with his father, Jacob, then with Rav Ḥushiel, who became head of the academy when Jacob passed away in 1006, and with Ḥushiel’s son Ḥananel. Even at a relatively early age Nissim was called gaon in recognition of his outstanding scholarship and leadership. After Ḥushiel’s death, even though he was younger than Ḥananel, Nissim became head of the academy, a post for which he had been groomed since childhood by his father and the senior members of the Qayrawan community. Following the destruction of Qayrawan in 1057, Rav Nissim lived in several coastal towns, including Sousse and al-Mahdiya (Almeria), where he died in 1062. His death was mourned by Jews throughout the Maghreb.

Nissim ibn Shāhīn, known by the honorific “Renewer of the Faith,” was a great scholar, well versed in the religious and philosophical literature of the time, as well as in Muslim religious literature. He corresponded with Hay Gaon in Babylon and with Samuel ha-Nagid in Spain, and was considered a halakhic authority of the same stature as the Babylonian geonim. His authority enabled the transplantation of Babylonian legal traditions in the West. He visited Spain often, taught at the Granada academy, and married his daughter to Jehoseph ibn Naghrella. Nissim was also a poet; in fact, according to Samuel ha-Nagid, Ibn Shāhīn’s poems were superior to his own. Isaac al-Fāsī studied with him, but never mentioned him as a mentor and often disagreed with him. Nissim visited Granada and taught there. Of importance during his time was the disturbed political situation in North Africa, since the local Zīrid dynasty there was in conflict with the Fāṭimids, and when the Bedouin of the Banū Hilāl [q.v.] and the Sulaym attacked Ifrīḳiya, and the Zīrid ruler had to leave al-Ḳayrawān in 449/1057 and take refuge in al-Mahdiyya, Rabbi Nissīm fled to Sūsa [q.v.], where he died in 454/1062 after a serious illness.

Nissim’s commentary on the Talmud was the first systematic work on the Talmud. Written mostly in Hebrew, it fully paraphrased the talmudic text so as to enable detailed study without any need to consult the text directly. This approach differed substantially from the one favored in Ashkenaz.  Nissim’s commentary apparently antedated  Ḥananel’s. Since the latter gives a more literal paraphrase, it eventually supplanted  Nissim’s commentary, which was rarely quoted by later scholars and was mostly lost. Both works were meant to make it possible for students to learn independently without dependence on external sources. Rav Nissim held that the editing of the Talmud was a one-time act, whereas in Sherira’s view, as presented in the Epistle,  the redaction of the Talmud was a continuous process.

In the Kitāb Miftāḥ Maghalīq al-Talmūdh (Ar. Key to the Locks of the Talmud), a prototype of the Massoret ha-Shas genre, Nissim provided a further aid to Talmud study. This work, a reference tool, organized tractate by tractate in the standard sequence, enabled access to all the sources mentioned in the Talmud and taught that a full understanding of any specific talmudic matter requires familiarity with parallel matters in other parts of the Talmud or in other sources. The work also treats aggada, principles of faith, and interfaith discussions, occasionally mentions Sherira and Hay Gaon, the Sheʾiltot and Halakhot Gedolot, and once even Ḥushiel, and uses both the Palestinian Talmud and the Tosefta. The goal of this work, as Nissim explains in a long introduction, was to strengthen Jewish faith and explicate the holiness of the Torah. A Hebrew translation of tractates Berakhot, Shabbat, and ʿEruvin has come down to us, and Arabic segments of tractate Shabbat were found in the Geniza (see Cairo Geniza). The book was often quoted by scholars who were well versed in Arabic.

Megillat Setarim (Heb. Scroll of Secrets), Nissim’s most famous book, consists of 250 items on questions pertaining to halakha, aggada, Bible, and Talmud, religious customs, religious opinions, and issues of faith. Its title derives from the circumstance that many of the matters it explicates had been unclear until it appeared. The phrase Megillat Setarim first appears in Rav Nissim’s commentary on Tractate Shabbat, but there it refers to a private notebook not meant for publication. This work circulated throughout the Jewish world and until the fourteenth century was used by all the major scholars both east and west, including France and Ashkenaz. It was written mostly in Hebrew, which facilitated its wide circulation. Nowadays, only some collected selections are left. The book’s original content was revealed by an early index discovered by Simha Assaf in the Geniza.

Also worthy of mention is Nissim’s Kitāb al-Faraj baʿd al-Shidda wa-ʾl-Saʿa baʿd al-Ḍīqa (Ar. The Book of Relief after Adversity and Ease after Anguish; known in its Hebrew version as Ḥibbur Yafe meha-Yeshuʿa -- An Elegant Composition about Deliverance). Only in the past hundred years has it become clear that Nissim Ibn Shāhīn was the author of this book on “salvation after distress and comfort after trouble,” written in response to a request by his father-in-law after his son’s death. It consists of sixty stories and tales from talmudic, gaonic, and foreign sources. Some of the adaptations from the Talmud include significant changes indicating that Rav Nissim used other sources; some of the stories are of unknown origin. The book is based on the Arabic genre of al-faraj baʿd al-shidda, anthologies of stories about rescues from great trouble or severe need. The work was translated into English by Brinner (1977).

Shraga Abramson has established that additional compositions attributed to Rav Nissim are included in Megillat Setarim. Most of his works were copied in his lifetime. Hence even the ones that did not survive were quoted by authors in Spain, Ashkenaz, Provence, Egypt and Palestine.

Naḥem Ilan


Abramson, Shraga (ed.). Rav Nissim Gaon: Five Books; Remnants from His Compositions (Jerusalem, 1965) [Hebrew].

Baneth, David Ṣvi. “The Robe of the Scholars, ‘ Ḥ ibbur Yafe Mehayeshuʿa’ and an Islamic Tradition,” Tarbi ṣ 25 (1956): 331–336 [Hebrew].

Ben-Sasson, Menahem. The Emergence of the Local Jewish Community in the Muslim World, Qayrawan, 800–1057 (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1997) [Hebrew].

Blau, Joshua. Judaeo-Arabic Literature: Selected Texts (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1980), pp. 166–181 [Hebrew].

———. “R. Nissim’s Book of Comfort and the Problem of Script in Judeo-Arabic Manuscripts,” Jewish Quarterly Review 67, no. 4 (1977): 185–194.

Nissim Ibn Shāhīn. An Elegant Composition Concerning Relief after Adversity, trans. William M. Brinner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

Citation Naḥem Ilan. " Ibn Shāhīn, Nissim ben Jacob." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2013. <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world/ibn-shahin-nissim-ben-jacob-COM_0011110>

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Rabban Nissim ben Ya'qub ibn Shahin, Gaon al-Qayrawan's Timeline

Al-Qayrawan, Kairouan North, Kairouan, Tunisia
Age 35
Al-Qayrawan, Kairouan North, Kairouan, Tunisia
Age 47
Al-Qayrawan, Kairouan North, Kairouan, Tunisia
Age 72
Mahdia, Tunisia
Age 72