Abu Sahl Nathan ben Abraham, Nasi

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About Abu Sahl Nathan ben Abraham, Nasi

Nathan ben Abraham - a student of Ḥushiel ben Elḥanan

Abū Sahl Nathan ben Abraham ben Saul, a scion of a gaonic family on his mother’s side, was born in Palestine in the last quarter of the tenth century. He went to Qayrawan around 1011 in connection with an inheritance left by his father, but remained there to study under Ḥushiel ben Ḥananel. In Qayrawan, and later in Fustat, he engaged in commerce and made many important friends. His wife was the daughter of Mevorakh ben Eli, one of Fustat’s wealthier citizens. Around age forty, he returned to Palestine, where he was warmly received by the gaon, Solomon ben Judah. Nathan demanded to be appointed av bet din (president of the court), the number-two position in the yeshiva, a post held by his recently deceased uncle. The rightful heir to the post was Tuvia, the “third” in the yeshiva, but he relinquished his claim in Nathan’s favor in order to preserve harmony, despite the gaon’s displeasure with this breach of tradition.

This incident marked the eruption of a rivalry involving the descendants of the three families that had valid claims to the Palestinian gaonate, with Joseph and Elijah ha-Kohen, the sons of Solomon ha-Kohen—Solomon ben Judah’s predecessor in the gaonate—also joining the fray. There was already some bitterness toward Solomon ben Judah, and questions had been raised about his integrity, especially with respect to appointments he had made. As a result, Nathan ben Abraham’s supporters declared him gaon in place of Solomon ben Judah.

Serious dissension broke out in Tishre 1038 during the Hoshana Rabba ceremony on the Mount of Olives and at the assembly in the great synagogue of Ramle, where each faction sat on a different side and declared its leader gaon. By the summer of 1039, the Jewish communities along the Mediterranean littoral were in a state of turmoil. Jerusalem, Ramle, Fustat, Qayrawan, and undoubtedly many other communities were torn into factions. In Fustat, verbal disputes led to physical assaults, and the Fatimid police closed the Jerusalemite synagogue for two years. The two sides vied for the support of the Fatimid government, and finally, after the conflict had dragged on for more than four years, government intervention brought it to an end.

On Hoshana Rabba 1042, the two sides arrived at an agreement stipulating that Solomon ben Judah would continue as gaon and Nathan ben Abraham would be the av bet din, but under the strict supervision of the sons of the late gaon Solomon ha-Kohen, the “fourth” and “fifth” in the yeshiva. Tuvia ben Daniel continued as “third.” The agreement was signed by all the members of the yeshiva, as well as the Karaite nesi’im, who had sided with Nathan ben Abraham. Although Nathan became av bet din, he died three years later and never became gaon, whereas Solomon ben Judah continued to occupy the post for many years to come.

Cohen, Mark R. Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press), pp. 121–123, n. 75.

———. “New Light on the Conflict over the Palestinian Gaonate, 1038–1042, and on Daniel b. ʿAzarya: A Pair of Letters to the Nagid of Qayrawan,” AJS Review 1 (1976): 1–39.

Gil, Moshe. A History of Palestine, 638–1099 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Elinoar Bareket. " Nathan ben Abraham." 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-...>

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.

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 1020s, Ismāʿīl ben Barhūn al-Tāhertī organized an appeal for the Jerusalem yeshiva in Qayrawan at the request of Solomon ben Judah. Mūsā ben Barhūn al-Tāhertī was also a loyal supporter of the Jerusalem yeshiva and was granted the title ḥaver around 1020; in his later years he settled in Jerusalem, where he died. The Tāhertīs formed part of a tightly knit network of traders who transported money and queries to and responsa from the yeshivot in Baghdad. The Berekhiah brothers and the Tāhertīs collected the Qayrawan Jewish community’s donations to the Baghdad yeshivot and passed them on to Joseph ibn ʿAwkal or Ismāʿīl ben Barhūn al-Tāhertī in Fustat, who forwarded them on to Baghdad, in some cases via the Tustarīs; the responsa received in return were carried back to Qayrawan using the same methods. Al-Tāhertī is known to have had gaonic responsa copied in Fustat at least once before conveying them to Qayrawan.

The Tāhertī brothers also maintained links with the Zirids of Qayrawan, the dynasty of amīrs who governed Ifrīqiya (on behalf of the Fatimids until ca. 1040, thereafter independently until 1148). One brother, probably Mūsā, was granted a ceremonial robe and mantle by a Zirid princess (al-sayyida al-jalīla). The brothers’ high rank in the Jewish community and their connections at court made them prime targets for ambitious upstarts such as Nathan ben Abraham. After usurping the Jerusalem gaonate from Solomon ben Judah in 1038, Nathan granted the title ḥemdat ha-yeshiva to Ismāʿīl ben Barhūn al-Tāhertī, a self-serving move aimed at capitalizing not only on Ismāʿīl’s standing among the Jews of Qayrawan but also on his status in the eyes of the Zirids.

Ben-Sasson, Menahem. The Emergence of the Local Jewish Community in the Muslim World: Qayrawan, 800–1057 (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1996) [Hebrew].

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

———. In the Kingdom of Ishmael, 4 vols. (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University; Jerusalem: Ministry of Defense and Bialik Institute, 1997).

———. “The Jewish Merchants in the Light of Eleventh-Century Geniza Documents,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 46 (2003): 273–319.

Goitein, S. D. “Medieval Tunisia: The Hub of the Mediterranean,” in Studies in Islamic History and Institutions, new ed. (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 308–328.

———. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, 6 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967–93).

Stillman, Norman A. “East-West Relations in the Islamic Mediterranean in the Early Eleventh Century: A Study of the Geniza Correspondence of the House of Ibn ‘Awkal” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1970).

Marina Rustow. " Tāhertī Family." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. Jim Harlow. 09 July 2012 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-...>

Sijilmasa (Ar. Sijilmāsa) was a town in the Mahgreb near the present-day Moroccan town of Rissani in the Tafilalet oasis, approximately 300 kilometers (190 miles) southeast of Fez, along the chain of North African Jewish settlements in the border region between the settled country and the Sahara. The chain of settlements lay along a caravan route which probably dated to antiquity, and medieval sources such as the geographer al-Bakrī report that Sijilmasa was founded by Berbers in the mid-eighth century. At various times, both the town and the oasis which surrounded it were walled. Sources allude to a Jewish community in Sijilmasa from at least the tenth century until the twelfth, at which time persecution by the Almohads put the community under a great deal of pressure. In his famous elegy Aha Yarad (Alas, There Befell!), Abraham Ibn Ezra laments the destruction of the Sijilmasan Jewish community and refers to it as “the city of geonim.” Nonetheless, the town was a center of rabbinical learning both before and after the early Almohad persecutions, and learned Jews of Sijilmasan descent are known through at least the fourteenth century. However, a safe-conduct issued by Jaime I of Aragon in 1247 suggests that at least some of the Jewish populace left for Majorca or other points in Spain.

Gaonic responsa and many documents from the Cairo Geniza reveal th e involvement of the Sijilmasan Jewish community in commerce, the importance of the town as an outpost to the western Sudan, Mauritania, and Ghana, and its connections with the Babylonian center, often by way of Qayrawan. The Geniza documents show Jews from Sijilmasa traveling as far east as Baghdad. The head of the Babylonian/Iraqi Jewish community in Fustat, Egypt, Sahlān ben Abraham, was married to the daughter of the av bet din (chief judge) of the rabbinical court of Sijilmasa in 1037, and a Sijilmasan Jew, Abū Zikrī Judah Kohen, was active in minting and the Saharan gold trade; other Jews seem to have also been involved in the latter. A surviving gaonic responsum to the community of Sijilmāsa concerns the eating of locusts. A Sijilmasan scholar, Solomon ben Nathan, compiled a Judeo-Arabic siddur (prayerbook) with halakhic notes and composed a commentary, also in Judeo-Arabic, entitled Pereq Qinyan Torah (A Chapter on Possession of the Torah).

Although it was visited by the famous Arab traveler Ibn Baṭṭūṭa in 1351, the town of Sijilmasa disappeared in 1393, victim to the unstable economy and politics of the Marinid Empire. In the late twentieth century, a small geniza was found in the Jewish cemetery in Sijilmasa, but its contents seem not to have survived.

Phillip Ackerman-Lieberman


al-Bakrī, Abū ʿUbayd Allāh. Description de l’Afrique Septentrionale: Texte arabe, ed. M. de Slane (Algiers: Imprimerie du Gouvernement, 1857), pp. 148–150 et passim.

Goitein, S. D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, 6 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).

Hirschberg, Haim Z. A History of the Jews in North Africa, 2d rev. ed., 2 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1974).

———. “The Problem of the Judaized Berbers,” Journal of African History 4 (1963): 313–339.

Lightfoot, Dale R., and James A. Miller. “Sijilmasa: The Rise and Fall of a Walled Oasis in Medieval Morocco,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 86, no. 1 (1996): 78–101.

Tobi, Yosef. “The Siddur of Rabbi Shelomo Ben Nathan of Sijilmasa: A Preliminary Study,” in Communautés juives des marges aharienne du Maghreb, ed. Michel Abitbol (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 1982), pp. 407–429.

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Abu Sahl Nathan ben Abraham, Nasi's Timeline

Ramla, Israel
Al-Qayrawan, Kairouan North, Kairouan, Tunisia
Al-Qayrawan, Kairouan North, Kairouan, Tunisia
Al-Qayrawan, Kairouan North, Kairouan, Tunisia
Al-Qayrawan, Kairouan North, Kairouan, Tunisia