Sunday 3 April 2016



When Rambam arrived in Egypt after fleeing persecution in Spain and Morocco, he came face to face with two very hierarchical systems he had not been exposed to before. The first was the ancient institution of the Reish Galuta (Head of the Diaspora or Exilarch), and the second was the relatively newer system of Gaonim (or Leaders of the Talmudic Academies).

He had some interesting things to say about both styles of leadership, but before we discuss his revolutionary insinuations, let’s begin by looking at both systems separately:


When the last Jewish king Yechonia[1] was exiled to Babylon around the time of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, he and his entourage which comprised the elite of the nation, continued to exercise their authority over the Jewish people even in the Diaspora. With time, the title changed from ‘King’ to Reish Galuta (Head of Diaspora) when the dignity of his office was recognized by the host state and a new form of leadership (referred to as a ‘king without a kingdom’) was born.

This hierarchical system, continued by Yechonia’s descendants, persevered for over one thousand five hundred years. (With a break during the existence of the Second Temple).[2]
Although the position was more honorary than effectual, the Reish Galuta did have the authority to appoint a judge, or av bet din[3]. Sometimes the judge adjudicated according to Jewish law, at other time according to Persian law.[4]  

The Reish Galuta was also tasked with the job of collecting taxes from the Jews.
Great respect, befitting a king, was shown to the Reish Galuta, so that in synagogue for example, while ordinary people were called up to read from the Torah, the Torah scroll was itself brought before him.[5]

Even his aides, known as rabbanan debei Reish Galuta, were revered to the extent that they all wore some form of sign on their garments to show their prestige.[6]

Sometimes the Reish Galuta and his aides abused their authority, like the time a woman came to report to Rav Nachman ben Yaakov that the leadership sat in a sukkah stolen from her.[7]

After Talmudic times, the office of Reish Galuta was restored by the Muslim caliphs (around the seventh century), who had great reverence for the Davidic dynasty. There are accounts of the Reish Galuta riding around in carriages of state, and one particular Reish Galuta, Bustanai, was even offered the hand of the daughter of the former Shah as a wife.

This position was not unique to the Jews as the Catholics also had their version of Exilarch, known as the Catholicos. The Muslim writer Al-Jahiz records that both Reish Galuta and Catholicos did not have the authority to flog or imprison, but they were given the power to excommunicate members of their own faiths when necessary.[8]

After the eleventh century, the Reish Galuta was no longer an active institution in Babylon. However, in 1081, about fifty years before Rambam was born, it emerged for a short period in Egypt.[9]
An interesting feature still prevalent in modern times, is reference to the Reish Galuta in the (Askenazi) Shabbat morning service - in the Yekum Purkan prayer - although the institution has not  been in existence for eight hundred years.


The office of Gaon was a relatively newer institution, and it went hand in hand with the Reish Galuta. The Reish Galuta was more of a secular leader, while the Gaon becames the spiritual leader. Originally the term Gaon applied to the heads of the two Babylonian Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumpedita (now Fallujah).[10]

The Gaonic period began in 589 CE (more than a thousand years after the beginning of the Reish Galuta period), and lasted for about five hundred years.[11] Exiles living all over the Diaspora sent questions on Jewish law to the Gaonin, who were regarded as the highest religious authorities. Two months of the year were set aside for foreign students to attend the academies, Adar and Ellul, and this period of intense study was known as the Yarchei Kallah. During this time, the Gaon would discuss the various questions of law that were sent to him, and they were recorded and then signed by him. This gave rise to much of the Responsa literature - many examples of which have been found relatively recently in the Cairo Geniza around 1896.

After the passing of Hai Gaon in 1038, he was replaced by Chizkiyahu (who also happened to be the last Babylonian Reish Galuta in Pumpedita). Sadly various false charges were brought against him by a fanatical caliphate, and he died in prison two years later in 1040. This concluded the five hundred year period of Geonim.

The title Gaon, however, did remain for some time, and more than a hundred years later was still used to describe Gaon Shmuel ben Ali of Baghdad, and as we shall see, Rambam’s great antagonist.


Ironically, although the Reish Galuta had become a secular appointment endorsed by a non-Jewish government, it still carried the weight of a royal Davidic lineage. For this reason, Rambam was prepared to accept their leadership role (although, historically, they soon ceased to exist).

He was, however, not enamoured of the Gaonim of his day. (Remember, they still went by the tile Gaon, but were no longer officially of the illustrious Gaonic period which had ceased ninety five years before he was born.)

The Gaon in Rambam’s time was Rabbi Shmuel ben Ali, leader of the well known Talmudic academy in Baghdad, and he bore the brunt of Rambams displeasure. He had accused Rambam of heresy regarding his views on the Revival of the Dead (see previous post).

Rambam was so opposed to the authoritarian gaonic leadership of his day and he was not afraid to say that they...
“fixed for themselves monetary demands from individuals and communities and caused people to think, in utter foolishness, that is obligatory and proper that they should help the sages and scholars and people studying Torah...all this is wrong. There is not a single word either in the Torah or in the sayings of the (Talmudic) sages, to lend credence to it...for as we look into the their sayings we do not find that they ask people for money, nor did they collect money for their honored and cherished academies.”[12]

Elsewhere he continues his challenge against...
“the man whom people are led to believe that there is none like him in his generation. When age, high office and aristocratic descent – and lack of people of discernment in his town – have all combined to create a situation where everyone hangs on each word pronounced from his academy. Can such a man like this love truth enough to acknowledge his weakness? It was not done by better men who preceded him.”[13]

In this extract, amazingly, Rambam not only challenges Gaon Shmuel ben Ali but also seems to decry the institution of authoritarian rabbinic leadership of previous generations!

This is what he says about the Gaon’s respected son-in-law, Rabbi Zechariah...
“He is a very foolish man. He works hard at his Talmudic discussion and its commentaries and thinks he is the greatest of his generation...why should I pay attention to an old man who is really miserable and an ignoramus in every respect?”To my eyes he is like a newborn baby whom one has to care for (much of the rest of this manuscript has been erased).”[14]

These writings can, perhaps, be better understood against the backdrop of Gaon Shmuel ben Ali trying to destroy what was left of his sister movement, the Reish Galuta institution (which Rambam was prepared to accept because of its Davidic line).

Rambam’s dispute with gaonic authoritarianism  was met with by a counter attack by their defenders, who tried to find fault with his code and attempted to portray him as an anti-Talmudist (in that his code was meant to supplant the Talmud).


These writings do show a definite ‘anti-establishment’ side to Rambam the great codifier and philosopher, who wanted no part in a religious system that crossed boundaries of power and politics.

They also point to the ideological angst of those times, and the tension between the various schools of thought that collectively paved the way for the Judaism we have today.

What we do see is that Rambam is clearly opposed to any form of rabbinical monopoly or authoritarianism which, at least in his perception, has no place in Judaism.

[1] Yechonia was the last of the Davidic kings of Yehuda, and only ruled for three months and ten days.
[2] Officially the position of Reish Galuta ended around the 6th century, but was soon restored in the 7th century by the Muslim rulers. This continued right up to the 11th century in Babylon, and then was transferred to Egypt where at around the time of Rambam it saw its demise.
[3] Some say this av bet din also carried the title nasi or president.
[4] The Talmud records an instance when the Reish Galuta, Ukba ben Nechemiah ruled on three issues according to Persian law and this was endorsed by Shmuel. (Bava Batra 55a, see also Bava Kama 58b)
[5] Talmud Yerushalmi Sota 22a.
[6] Shabbat 58a.
[7] Sukkah 31a.
[8] See A Prince Without a Kingdom: The Exilarch in the Sasanian Era, by Geoffrey Herman.
In a fascinating incident recorded by another Muslim writer, the son of one particular Reish Galuta never rode past the Karbala (the shrine outside Baghdad where Imam Hussein is buried). This was because of an old tradition that claimed that on that spot the descendant of a prophet would be killed. He believed that he could a possible victim being that he was a descendant of David. However, once Hussein had been slain in that place, he felt vindicated and was prepared to ride past the area with impunity. Cited by Goldziher 1884.
[9] The period of the Babylonian Reish Galuta lasted till 1040 (with the passing of Hezekiah –who was also the last Babylonian Gaon).

[10]Originally the academy of Sura (225-1033 CE, with a student membership which grew to 1200 members) surpassed that of Pumbedita (259- 900 CE). Pumpedita was known as the ‘city of thieves’ and thus did not attract too many students. Later it did become the dominant academy. Around the year 900 it relocated to Baghdad.
[11] In brief: The Tannaim birthed the Mishnaic period. The Amoraim developed the Talmud. The Savoraim edited the Talmud. And the Gaonim interpreted the Talmud to create a religious legal system. Followed by the Rishonim who codified it.

[12] Rambam’s commentary to Avot 4:5.
Some see this as an attempt to bring down the economic foundation of authoritarian rabbinic leadership. It may have been, but it also seems to be part of Rambam’s pure and altruistic approach to Torah study in general which he believed should be devoid of any traces of institutionalism. This can be seen in many of his other writings. In his Mishneh Torah, for example, he calls it a chillul HaShem or desecration, if one accepts money for Torah study. See KOTZK BLOG 67) PAYING PEOPLE TO STUDY TORAH?

[13] See Iggerot HaRambam, 1946; Letter to Yosef ben Yehudah, 54f.
[14] Ibid 56ff,

No comments:

Post a Comment