Solomon Ben Formash, Gaon (c.975 - c.1050) MP

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Birthplace: Minya, Minya, Egypt
Death: Died in Ramla, Israel
Managed by: Jaim Harlow
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About Solomon Ben Formash, Gaon

Solomon ben Judah Furmash

Shlomo ibn Furmash is referred to, by Abraham Ibn Daʾūd (in his Sefer ha-Qabbala) as the only one, other than Labrat ben Moshe (Dayyan al-Mahdiyya, Tunisia), who represents the last vestiges of talmudic learning in Africa (Sefer ha-Qabbala, text, p. 58, ll. 188–190).

Solomon ben Judah al-Fāsī was gaon of the Palestinian yeshiva from September 1025 to April 1051, the longest-serving gaon in Jerusalem. Despite war, famine, and major challenges to his leadership, he defended the jurisdiction of the Palestinian gaonate and kept Egypt under his firm hold throughout his tenure in office. Born to a Maghribī family, Solomon ben Judah was a prolific correspondent in both Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic. Although his letters dwell on his bad health to the point of obsession, when he died he was close to eighty years old. He was a Hazzan for Karaites in Ramleh, Palestine, before he assumed post of Gaon. He alternated between Karaite Synagogue and Rabbanite Synagogue.

The period in which Solomon ben Judah acceded to the gaonate was marked by a new and delicate balance of forces in the Jewish communities ruled by the Fatimids. Under Caliph al-Ḥakim (r. 996–1021), a Jewish leadership faction in Fustat had established semi-independent authority over Egyptian Jewry, partly by playing off the geonim of Baghdadand Jerusalem against each other. Solomon ben Judah’s predecessors in the Jerusalem gaonate tolerated this for so long that it is unclear whether they really considered Egyptian Jewry theirs to rule. When Elḥanan ben Shemarya (dated documents: 994–1026) broke with precedent by moving from vassalage to open rebellion, he aroused the ire of Solomon’s two immediate predecessors, Josiah ben Aaron (after 1000–1025) and Solomon ha-Kohen ben Jehoseph (March–August 1025), and precipitated a grave leadership crisis: Elḥanan had been the yeshiva’s main tie to the Fatimid court. The geonim responded to his challenge by realigning themselves with the Karaite grandees of Fustat, whose power at court in Cairo—and neutrality in intra-Rabbanite conflicts—made them useful new allies. Shortly before he acceded to the gaonate, Solomon wrote a letter describing the public humiliation of Elḥanan, who had been forced to declare his loyalty to Jerusalem, and another describing the joint prayer services he led for the Rabbanites and Karaites of Ramla.

Solomon’s first public act as gaon was to write a letter of lavish praise for the Karaite nasi Hezekiah ben David in which he repeatedly expresses the hope of returning from Egypt to Palestine with “an edict from the government, may God defend it, to strengthen my hand against instigators of quarrels,” that is, a rescript of appointment. Solomon was able not only to attain office but to remain in power for so long because of his ability to negotiate the Karaite alliance. He maneuvered with equal skill with respect to the politics of the Palestinian Rabbanites, the caliphal court, and Baghdad, maintaining a delicate balance of power with Pumbedita in particular. At times he complained that Hay (Hayya) Gaon was poaching his followers and soliciting donations that were rightfully his, but he nonetheless sent one of his sons, Yaḥyā, to study with the great master in Baghdad.

The first crisis in Solomon ben Judah’s tenure was the war that broke out between rebellious Bedouins in Palestine under Jarrāḥid leadership and the Fatimids. The ensuing tax burden on the residents of Jerusalem left them destitute and disrupted the pilgrimages. When the fighting ended, the first public convocation in Jerusalem in many years was marred by a Rabbanite attempt to excommunicate the Karaites en masse during the pilgrimage to the Mount of Olives on Hoshana Rabba in 1029, in part to punish their gaon for his association with the Karaite grandees of Fustat and Cairo. Solomon ben Judah attempted to prevent the ban from being declared, but his son Abraham and the two sons of his predecessor as gaon, Elijah and Joseph ben Solomon, appeased the crowd by feigning an excommunication formula, a misdeed for which the latter two spent the following months in prison in Damascus. Solomon secured their release via government channels.

The second challenge to his rule arose in the early 1030s, when Yūsuf al-Sijilmāsī, head of the Babylonian-rite synagogue in Ramla, supported by the Iraqis living in Palestine, attempted to secede from the Jerusalem yeshiva’s jurisdiction by asking Caliph al-Ẓāhir to invest him as leader of an independent Iraqi community. This posed an even graver threat than Egypt’s attempted secession because it entailed an erosion of the gaon’s power over Palestine, thus challenging the system of territorial rule over the Jews of the entire Fatimid realm that Solomon and his immediate predecessors had cultivated with great success. Again Solomon ben Judah withstood the challenge, this time through a counter-petition to al-Ẓāhir, a copy of which survived in the Geniza in Hebrew script.

When al-Mustanṣir became caliph in 1036, Solomon again petitioned the chancery for official recognition; the surviving Arabic draft of the petition contains the most complete statement known of gaonic legal and administrative prerogatives. One of them is the exclusive power to appoint Jewish judges in the Fatimid realm, but curiously, that same year a petition reached the chancery requesting reinvestiture of an Alexandrian judge whom Solomon ben Judah had previously appointed. That the caliph had to confirm the judge’s appointment suggests that Solomon’s rule over Egypt was still fragile and depended closely on backing from the chancery.

The third crisis came in 1038, when a high-ranking member of the Jerusalem yeshiva, Nathan ben Abraham, manipulated Karaite support to usurp the gaonic chair. Over the next four years, from Hoshana Rabba in 1038 until the same festival in 1042, both Solomon ben Judah and Nathan ben Abraham claimed the Palestinian gaonate and exercised its prerogatives, while their followers competed for control of the synagogue in Ramla. The affair eventually embroiled the Jews of Qayrawān, Damascus, and Tripoli (Lebanon). In Palestine and Egypt, the resolution of the conflict depended on which of the two gaonic claimants had better access to the Karaite grandees in Cairo and the Fatimid chancery. Nathan ben Abraham obtained the support of the Tustarī brothers, who were now, respectively, chief Fatimid financier and kātib amīr al-juyūsh (secretary of the military commander) in Palestine; but Solomon prevailed by approaching the chancery from two different directions: circuitously via the nagid of Qayrawān, Jacob ben Amram, and the Zīrid governors of Ifrīqiya; and directly via a coterie of notables in Cairo, including the Karaite David ha-Levi ben Isaac. The remaining nine years of his tenure were unmarked by strife.

Solomon ben Judah’s literary remains consist of letters, liturgical poetry (Heb. piyyuṭim), and responsa. Some of his poems were found in the Cairo Geniza. Only one responsum is intact, dealing with inheritance, and two others have survived in fragmentary form. Ephraim ben Shemarya,Solomon’s faithful supporter in Fustat, to whom the vast majority of his letters are addressed, composed a seliḥa (penitential poem) on his death.

Marina Rustow

Bibliography

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 and New York: Ben-Zvi Institute and St. Martin's Press, 1984), pp. 113–135.

Gil, Moshe. A History of Palestine, 634–1099 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Goitein, S. D. Palestinian Jewry in Early Islamic and Crusader Times in Light of Geniza Documents, ed. Joseph Hacker (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 1980) [Hebrew].

Mann, Jacob. The Jews in Egypt and in Palestine under the Fā ṭ imid Caliphs, 2 vols. in 1 (New York: Ktav, 1970).

Rustow, Marina. Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2008).

Citation Marina Rustow. " Solomon ben Judah." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. Jim Harlow. 05 July 2012 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world/solomon-ben-judah-SIM_0020450>

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Solomon Ben Formash, Gaon's Timeline

975
975
Minya, Minya, Egypt
992
992
Age 17
993
993
Age 18
Nasir, Bani Sweif Governorate, Egypt
1050
1050
Age 75
Ramla, Israel