About Shemariah ben Elchanen, ḥaver b'Sanhedrin haGedola
Abū ʾl-Khayr Shemariah ben Elhanan was the leader of the Jews of Fustat from the 990s until his death in December 1011. He first became known to scholarship as one of the four captives in Abraham ibn Daʾud’s Book of Tradition (Heb. Sefer ha-Qabbala), three of whom established new centers of Torah study in Egypt, al-Andalus, and Ifrīqiya. According to Ibn Daʾud’s account, Shemariah was ransomed in Alexandria and later settled in Fustat, but in fact he was born there into a family of leaders of the local Babylonian Jewish community. Ibn Daʾud paints Shemariah as a link binding the Iraqi yeshivot to the Egyptian periphery, and this is borne out by documents from the Cairo Geniza, but as his leadership role expanded, he began to spearhead an Egyptian drive for independence from the yeshivot of Baghdad and Jerusalem that eventually culminated in the career of his son, Elhanan ben Shemariah .
Shemariah ben Elhanan studied in Baghdad under Sherira Gaon at Pumbedita, and on his return to Fustat rose within the Iraqi community, becoming head of the same Babylonian congregation his father had led and chief Jewish justice in Egypt. Like the other two named “captives” in Ibn Daʾud’s romanticized account, Shemariah founded his own academy, one reason why letters addressed to him call him “head” (Ar. rayyis). The letters include one from Ṣemaḥ ben Isaac Gaon of Sura (ca. 987–999), who called him raʾīs al-yahūd (head of the Jews), a title that has led some to believe that the office of raʾīs al-yahūd (see nagid), was founded by Shemariah, and not in the late eleventh century as is commonly believed. Ṣemaḥ seems to have used the phrase descriptively rather than as a title of office.
Shemariah personified the problem of the ties between the gaonic center and the rabbinic periphery during the early years of Egyptian independence under Fatimid rule. He helped transplant the authority of the Babylonian yeshivot onto Egyptian soil, quite concretely by forwarding queries eastward from Qayrawan to both Sura and Pumbedita, and responsa and donations in the opposite direction. But the more powerfully he represented Baghdad in Egypt, the more he threatened to throw off the authority of the geonim. He sustained the fragile balance between vassalage and independence to the satisfaction of the geonim partly through gestures of symbolic allegiance, such as proclaiming loyalty to his teacher, Sherira, and to the latter’s son and successor, Hay Gaon. He also refrained from calling his academy in Fustat a yeshiva, terming it a midrash instead in deference to the yeshivot in Baghdad and Jerusalem. But Shemariah also arrogated titles and other formal phrases normally reserved for the geonim, such as the conventional epistolary preface containing blessings and greetings from the head of the yeshiva to his disciples.
Nor was his drive for independence merely an effect of living in the realm of the Fatimids, independent of Baghdad. His attitude toward the prerogatives of the Jerusalem geonim was even less delicate. But the Jerusalem curia of the late tenth century did not object to his status. Instead it carried on a regular correspondence with him in which he is styled av bet din (chief justice of the Jewish court), and appointed his son Elhanan to the yeshiva’s six-man governing board. Either the Jerusalem gaon during this period was particularly weak, or else he did not consider Fustat Jewry his to rule. But when Shemariah’s son Elhanan tipped the balance his father had delicately maintained by attempting to engineer Egyptian Jewry’s secession from Babylonian and Palestinian authority, a new generation of stronger geonim decisively rebuffed him, thus ending Egyptian Jewry’s brief interlude of independence from Jerusalem—until the establishment of the office of raʾīs al-yahūd in the 1060s.
During his lifetime, Shemariah was renowned from al-Andalus to Iraq as head of his own academy in Fustat and received encomia, titles, and requests for responsa, protection, patronage, and intervention. He authored numerous responsa to followers in Egypt and as far away as Qayrawān, and sent many queries to the geonim in Baghdad. He also copied gaonic epistles and responsa.
Bareket, Elinoar. Fustat on the Nile: The Jewish Elite in Medieval Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 1999).
———. The Jewish Leadership in Fustat in the First Half of the Eleventh Century (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 1995) [Hebrew].
Cohen, Mark R. “Administrative Relations between Palestinian and Egyptian Jewry during the Fatimid Period,” in Egypt and Palestine: A Millennium of Association (868–1948),ed. Amnon Cohen and Gabriel Baer (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), pp. 113–135.
Gil, Moshe. In the Kingdom of Ishmael, 4 vols. (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 1997) [Hebrew].
Goitein, S. D. “Shemarya b. Elḥanan; with Two New Autographs,” Tarbiẓ 32 (1962–63): 266–272 [Hebrew].
Ibn Daʾud, Abraham. The Book of Tradition (Sefer ha-Qabbalah), trans. Gerson D. Cohen (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1967).
Rustow, Marina. Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2008).
Marina Rustow. " Shemariah ben Elhanan." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. Jim Harlow. 16 July 2012 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world/shemariah-ben-elhanan-SIM_0020110>