Abu l-Bāyan Moshe ben Mevorakh (Mubārak), Nagid, Raʾīs al-Yahūd al-Fustat

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Abu l-Bāyan Moshe ben Mevorakh (Mubārak), Nagid, Raʾīs al-Yahūd al-Fustat

Death: after circa 1128
Immediate Family:

Son of Abū 'l-Faḍl Mevorakh (Mubārak) ben Saʿadya, Alluf, Nagid, Raʾīs al-Yahūd al-Fustat
Father of Nethan'el ben Moshe HaLevi, Gaon, ha-Shishi al-Fustat
Brother of Sa'adya Abraham ben Mazhir "Mevorakh" (Mubārak) and Abu al-Barakāt Nethan'el ben Mevorakh (Mubārak), Nagid al-Yahudi

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About Abu l-Bāyan Moshe ben Mevorakh (Mubārak), Nagid, Raʾīs al-Yahūd al-Fustat

Moses ben Mevorakh

Moses ben Mevorakh, the scion of a distinguished family of physician-courtiers in Egypt, was the eldest son and successor of the nagid Mevorakh ben Saʿadya and of a mother who also came from a courtier family. Born around 1080, Moses succeeded his father as raʾīs al-yahūd (Ar. head of the Jews) around 1112. Before then, he held the title ʿaṭeret ha-sarim (Heb. crown of the officials), possibly indicating that he was the nagid-designate; certainly his father trained him for the office and arranged for his succession well before his death in early December 1111. Upon succeeding to the post Moses received an investiture as raʾīs al-yahūd from the Fatimid vizier al-Afḍal ibn Badr al-Jamālī.

As raʾīs al-yahūd, Moses ben Mevorakh continued to exercise the judicial and administrative prerogatives his father had established, including the relatively strict regulation of synagogue customs in the provincial Jewish communities of Egypt. He held many of his father’s other titles in addition to that of nagid. He was still alive in 1125 to 1126, but by 1127 had been succeeded by Maṣliaḥ ha-Kohen Gaon ben Solomon in Fustat. Thus unlike his father and uncle, he did not pass his office to someone from the family.

Moses ben Mevorakh had intended to perpetuate the dynasty begun by his father, but both of his sons were still unmarried when he died, and this may mean that they were too young to succeed him. The circumstances under which he left office are unclear: he may have died at the age of roughly forty-five; or perhaps he was driven from office prematurely due to court intrigue. The latter proposition is supported not only by the fact that he did not pass the office to one of his sons, but also by the many intrigues at the Fatimid court and by the fall from grace of the vizier al-Maʾmūn, presumably his chief protector, because of a suspected plot against the caliph al-Āmir.

In 1128, after al-Maʾmūn’s fall and execution, the caliph entrusted Egypt’s fiscal affairs to a brutal and rapacious Coptic courtier named Abū Najāḥ ibn Qannāʾ, who engaged in arbitrary confiscations of property and in other ways terrorized the populace. It may be that Moses was driven from office by Ibn Qannāʾ, as seems also to have been the fate of the Coptic patriarch, to judge by the patriarchal interregnum of three years that began in 1128. According to this scenario, Maṣliaḥ ha-Kohen would have arrived in Fustat from Damascus and assumed office precisely when Egyptian Jewry was suffering under the yoke of Ibn Qannāʾ. Maṣliaḥ may have moved the yeshiva to Egypt in recognition that the future of Fatimid Jewry lay there, not in Syria, which was now largely under Frankish rule and severed from the capital by hostile frontiers.

The Nagid/Raʾīs al-Yahūd in Egypt Survey of the Research

The office of the nagid and other Jewish leadership institutions in Egypt from the Fāṭimid period on have been the subject of extensive research in the past century, much of it focusing on the origins of the office and title. The problem is compounded by the fact that although the Fāṭimid caliphs conferred the office of raʾīs al-yahūd (head of the Jews), it was the geonim who styled the individual holding this office as nagid. The question of whether this office was created early on in the Fāṭimid period or developed in response to changing historical circumstances at the end of the eleventh century is still an open one.

Among the early scholars, Jacob Mann concluded, primarily on the basis of literary works, that the title raʾīs al-yahūd was granted by the Fāṭimid authorities to a wealthy Jew of high standing at the caliphal court. Mann assumed that the position had been created to shift Jewish allegiance away from the exilarch in Baghdad, the capital of the Fāṭimids’ ʿAbbāsid rivals. A twelfth-century Syrian letter of appointment reveals that a Jew had been given general leadership over all the Jews living in the Fāṭimid domains, whether Rabbanites, Karaites, or Samaritans. The idea of a general headship comports with the broad Islamic approach of ignoring factional differences and appointing a single individual to represent Jews to the regime, and similarly one person to represent Christians. Other sources, including the mid-eleventh-century Megillat Aḥimaʿaṣ from southern Italy and a responsum of David Ibn Abi Zimra (d. 1573), reveal that Jews recognized a raʾīs al-yahūd and referred to him as nagid. Mann concluded that the office of raʾīs al-yahūd and the title of nagid developed in parallel in the early years of the Fāṭimid regime, but became more firmly established when Maimonides and his descendants held the office in the twelfth century.

In the 1950s, several scholars challenged this view. David Ayalon cast doubt on the reliability of the literary sources without offering an alternative hypothesis. Ayalon’s criticism was subsequently accepted by S. D. Goitein and Mark Cohen, who both marshaled dozens of Geniza documents to demonstrate that the terms nagid and raʾīs al-yahūd appeared only from the end of the eleventh century, when the title nagid was conferred upon the two brothers and court physicians Judah and Mevorakh ben Saʿadya. A letter of appointment very similar to that of the Nestorian catholicos in the ʿAbbāsid caliphate was found in the Geniza, issued to the gaon of the Palestinian yeshiva. Enumerating the gaon’s powers and his authority over the Rabbanite Jews of the Fāṭimid Empire, the letter reveals that the gaon alone was the raʾīs al-yahūd. Goitein and Cohen were later joined by Moshe Gil, who argued that appointment as nagid was an internal Jewish matter by which the role of the gaon was recognized, and the Fāṭimid regime simply gave its stamp of approval.

With the expulsion of the Palestinian yeshiva from Jerusalem in the wake of the Seljuq and Crusader conquests, and the concomitant weakening of the authority of the Palestinian gaon, court Jews in Egypt began to ascend to the office of raʾīs al-yahūd, filling a political and spiritual void previously filled by the gaon. The geonim, struggling to maintain some status in the face of the calamities that had befallen them, awarded the title nagid to their distant brethren to secure support for themselves.

Recently discovered evidence seems to support Mann’s original analysis. Both reinterpreting extant evidence and introducing new documents, Shulamit Sela resurrected the hypothesis that the Fāṭimids appointed a raʾīs al-yahūd over Rabbanites, Karaites, and Samaritans from the very beginning of their rule. The incumbent of this office was recognized and styled nagid by the Jews. Sela argued that Karaites held the post in the second and perhaps the third quarter of the eleventh century. This approach viewed the gaon as the prime Rabbanite judicial and legal authority, as was also recorded in the official letter stipulating the gaon’s powers. Thus, Jewish notables in Egypt were subordinate to the halakhic authority of the gaon, who was himself subordinate to the raʾīs al-yahūd, a high-ranking courtier (such as a physician or treasury official) who was appointed by the imam. The post only became firmly established in the twelfth century, when it was held by members of the Maimonides family, and was well documented for the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Thus, the titles of raʾīs al-yahūd and nagid did not overlap at first, and the gaon did not necessarily grant the title of nagid to everyone who was appointed raʾīs al-yahūd. Sela’s findings have been received with mixed enthusiasm in the scholarly community.

Marina Rustow


Cohen, Mark R. Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt : The Origins of the Office of Head of the Jews, ca. 1065–1126 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980).

Citation Marina Rustow. " Moses ben Mevorakh." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2013. Reference. Jim Harlow. 15 January 2013 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-...>

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