Sunday 21 August 2016



Around 1161, Rabbi Avraham ben David, known as Ibn Daud (1110-1180) wrote a philosophical and historical work entitled Sefer haKaballah, or Book of Tradition (History).[1]

In this book he wrote an account about the Dalet Shevuim or Four Captives:
In 960 C.E. (4720) a ship carrying four great rabbis was apparently sent on a fundraising mission for the Babylonian Yeshiva of Sura[2] to more affluent Western countries around the Mediterranean in order to raise funds.[3]

The rabbis were Rabenu Shemaria, Rabenu Chushiel, Rabeinu Moshe and a fourth ‘whose name,’ says ibn Daud, ’is not known to me.’


After the four greatest rabbis of Babylonia had completed their business in Italy, and after their ship left Bari in southern Italy, it was captured by a Muslim pirate Ibn Rumahis[4] who was on a mission to seize Christian vessels. He soon realized that he could get a huge ransom for these four highly respected rabbis (in addition to the collected money they must already have had on them). 

Subsequently R. Shemaria was ransomed by the Jews of Alexandria and became the Chief Rabbi of Egyptian Jewry. R. Chushiel was ransomed by the community of Kairouan (Tunisia) and headed Tunisian community. (He was the father of Rabbenu Chananel who was the teacher of the Rif.)  And R. Moshe was redeemed in Cordova and led the Spanish Jewish community, creating foundations for the Sefardic communities. Some say that the fourth and nameless rabbi may have been ransomed by the communities of France and Germany, and hence the founding of the communities of Ashkenaz.[5]

This event explains how, around the year 1000, the centers of Torah scholarship dramatically moved from the disintegrating communities of Babylonia, and transferred to North Africa, Europe and particularly Spain. It marked a significant shift of rabbinic authority from old Babylonia to the new West (and hailed the arrival of a new period in Jewish history known as the era of the Rishonim).

The story is embellished with details of how, on the way to Spain, R. Moshe’s wife was threatened by the pirate. She quickly asked her learned husband if she could allow the sea to take her life, rather than submit to the pirate – and would she arise again in the time of messiah? To which he simply replied with the verse; “I will bring back from the depths of the sea.“[6]  His wife understood the message and she immediately jumped overboard and was never seen again.

Letter from R. Chushiel 
Another detail describes how upon landing on Spanish soil, R. Moshe kept his Torah erudition a secret until he was discovered by R. Natan who said; “I can no longer be the dayan of this community.” From R. Moshe’s academy were soon spawned some of the famous rabbis of Spanish origin such as Ibn Ezra, R. Yehuda haLevi and Rambam.


Ibn Daud's story of the Four Captives is taken literally as historic fact by many. But others adopt a different view entirely. We shall attempt to take an impartial look at both interpretations of the story:

Unbelievably, it was only after the discovery of the Cairo Geniza (see previous post) towards the end of the 1800’s, that a letter came to light, written (between 1000 and 1008) by R. Chushiel of Tunisia to R. Shemaria of Egypt. (Imagine finding the handwritten and original letter almost a thousand years later!) 

In this letter - which appears to discredit the story of the Four Captives - R. Chushiel wrote that he was simply travelling from his homeland of Italy visit his colleague R. Shemaria in Egypt, and passed through Kairouan (Tunisia). He never completed his journey to Egypt because the Tunisian community wanted to keep him on as their rabbi. No mention is made whatsoever of any capture by pirates or ransom. The trip was made voluntarily without any coercing at all.[7]


The story of the Four Captives is said to have taken place in 960. (Some say 990.) That would leave a period of about forty years from the piracy event, to the year in which R. Chushiel wrote his letter from Tunisia to R. Shemaria in Egypt.

During this time period, it is feasible that R. Chushiel may have left Tunisia, where he was ransomed, and traveled back to his homeland of Italy and then returned again but uneventfully to Tunisia. Hence his letter, dated somewhere between 1000 and 1008, described his latest uneventful journey and had no need to reference the events surrounding the capture and the trauma of some years before. [8]


1. From other fragments of documents discovered in the Geniza, it is evident that R. Shemaria’s father, R. Elchanan had already been living in, and acting as Chief Rabbi of Fostat (old Cairo) since the mid 900’s! This creates difficulties for the story of R. Shemaria having been ransomed by Egyptian Jewry - as may have already been born and now living in Egypt at the time of the ‘capture’.[9]

2. The Sura Yeshiva in Babylonia closed down in 948, which was twelve years before 960 when the fateful trip was said to have taken place.[10]

3. Many believe that these rabbis were Italian, and not Babylonian. This may be borne out by the fact that soon after their arrival in their respective centers of Tunisia and Egypt, the study of the Talmud Yerushalmi (The Palestinian Talmud) became widespread and popular. 

Till then it was only the Talmud Bavli (The Babylonian Talmud) that was studied in those locations. This may have been because the Talmud Yerushalmi was commonly used in Italy already for centuries – but was, until then, something apparently unknown to most Babylonian scholars.[11]

[In a similar vein, R. Chushiel's son, Rabenu Chananel often cited the (more practical) Talmud Yerushalmi. This is in keeping with classical Sefardic ideology which emphasizes the practical over the theoretical, as opposed to Ashkenazic thought which generally leans more towards the theoretical and analytical aspects of Torah learning. 

Rabenu Chananel's student the Rif is also known for his teachings which are predominantly on the more practical sections of the Talmud, and similarly draws extensively from the Yerushalmi. 

In fact, some early Yeshivot at that time focused almost exclusively on the Rif and used his teachings as the primary text, to the exclusion of the Talmud Bavli. This is evidenced by the fact that the printed format, even in our modern day editions of the Talmud, has the Rif text presented as identical to the text of the Talmud itself!
This may add weight to the view that the Talmud Yerushalmi was brought from Italy to North Africa, by Italian not Babylonian rabbis.]

4. There is also the rather critical view that Ibn Daud wanted to cement the relatively new Spanish Torah community within the overall picture of Torah transmission beginning at from Sinai - to Israel - to Babylonia - and now to the West (and particularly to Spain). On this view, he told his epic story of almost Biblical proportions, of the transference of rabbinic authority from Babylonia to the West. 

Some go so far as to infer that Ibn Daud needed to create an aura of great importance around the new West so that Western rabbinic authority would never again be regarded as secondary to Babylonian rabbinic authority. Thus through this story he was able to show how the mantle of rabbinic leadership was ‘legitimately’ transferred from East to West. And as a result, it would also end the dependence of Spanish Jewry on Babylonian leadership. Now Spain could, and indeed did, stand as an independent bastion of Torah scholarship.[12]

In the actual Ibn Daud text it is stated that the dayan or judge of Cordova at that time, R. Natan, was; "righteous, but the Spanish people were not familiar with the words of the rabbis."

However, once R. Moshe was firmly installed in Spain, Ibn Daud wrote that; “all questions which had previously been directed to the Babylonian academies were now directed to him (R. Moshe).” Now halachik questions could be asked and answered in Spain, without having to wait a year for an answer from Babylonia.

As a further consequence of the ‘sanctioning’ of the Spanish rabbinic community, much needed funds could remain in Spain as the community began to withdraw their financial support of the Babylonian communities – because now; “the Spanish scholars had many disciples and the knowledge of Talmud spread (through them) throughout the world.”[13]

We know that fundraising for Babylonia must have been a major issue at the time because the story frames the reason for the journey as a ‘fundraising mission’. But now the funds could ‘legitimately’ remain is Spain.

To back this view, it is further suggested that Ibn Daud's story, which doesn’t appear in any other writings of that time, borrowed motifs from common themes in previous Jewish history, to make it more palatable for the burgeoning community of Spanish Jews.

One motif was the earlier Talmudic account of Jewish women and girls, who rather than await a ghastly alternative, chose drowning at sea while en route to enslavement in Rome after the conquest of Jerusalem. This was notably also carried out on the basis of the selfsame verse; “I will bring back from the depths of the sea.” (See Gittin 57b)

Another ‘borrowed’ theme was R. Moshe arriving in Spain as an unknown and humble captive rising rapidly to fame - which has much in common with the well known Hillel story of the Talmud.[14] (See  Pesachim 66a, where Hillel haBavli suddenly rose to Nasi and Rosh.)

Interestingly, even the non-Jewish Spanish community felt a similar need to create a sense of worth and dignity for themselves by; “consciously imitating Baghdad” and by; “importing talented architects and scientists from the East” to bolster their standing as a new, emerging and independent culture.[15]

5. It should also be borne in mind that one of the reasons why Ibn Daud wrote his Sefer haKaballah was as a response to attacks by the Karaites who questioned the historic legitimacy of rabbinic Judaism. Thus, in a sense, he was mandated to present an account of the seamless passing of the rabbinic baton from generation to generation, and particularly from East to West.

6. It's interesting to see how differently two contemporary Jewish historians interpret the story of the Four Captives:

a) Rabbi Nissan Mindel of Chabad writes; "By divine providence, these great Jewish centers received great spiritual leaders in a most amazing and unprecedented way..." (Emphasis mine.)

b) On the other hand, Rabbi Berel Wein of The Destiny Foundation, refers to; “The Legend of the Four Captives” - and heads the article with an interesting and unusual title; “Abraham Ibn Daud Recorded the Legend of the Four Captives as a True Event.”[16] (Italics mine.)

7. As an aside, to illustrate the need throughout the ages to show that Jewish migration is always 'sanctified', there is the legend concerning the more recent movement  of Jews westward into Europe. They were unsure where to settle until 'a piece of paper fell from the skies' inscribed with the words poh lin (stay here). And that is how the Jews named Poland and made it their home...

8. The Chazon Ish, although ironically a staunch believer in a very literal interpretation of the tradition or mesorah concept see here  (and may therefore not have paid heed to R. Chushiel's newly discovered old letter - since it was out of the 'line of transmission' for so long), had this to say about recording history in general:

"History informs the path of the wise man. However, it is the nature of people to innovate and embellish (history) when presenting it at the public arena. This compounds distortion instead of accurately recording facts. And for the most part, people relish these distortions and imaginings. Thus a concerted effort must always be made to establish historical facts."

(Loose translation of Emuna uBitachon, Ch. 1, 8)


Had R. Chushiel’s letter in his own handwriting (and the other documents) never been discovered, we may never have had validation to question Ibn Daud's account of the Four Captives.

What is interesting, though, is that it is not just the latter generations who have posed such challenging questions to Ibn Daud's account - but it is the very letter written by R. Chushiel, himself an alleged player in the very drama, who preceded Ibn Daud by almost two hundred years - that may be the biggest obstacle to his version of this chapter of our history.

It is on our interpretation and understanding of R. Chushiel's letter - a 65 x 23cm strip of parchment - that the ‘history’ or ‘legend’ of the Four Captives either stands or falls.


Sefer haKaballah le Rav Avraham ben David.

Jewish History and Thought: An Introduction, by Menahem Mansoor.

Destiny Foundation, Init 2 - The Legend of the Four Captives, by Rabbi Berel Wein.

The Four Captives, by Nissan Mindel, Published by Kehot.

Fustat on the Nile: The Jewish Exile in Medieval Egypt, by Elinoar Bareket.

Solomon Schechter: A Bibliography, 1938, by Adolph S. Oko.

[1] Kaballah in this instance should not be confused with Mysticism, as here it rather connotes tradition or history. Ibn Daud (sometimes known as Rabad) is not to be confused with Raavad (1125-1198) although they both have the same names and lived at the same time. Ibn Daud lived in Spain while Raavad lived in France. Ibn Daud is mentioned in Avodah Zara 38 and appears to have been one of the Baalei haTosefot.
[2]There is also a contrary view that one of the Four Captives R. Shemaria was sent from Fostat (old Cairo), where he was born, to study in the Babylonian academy of Pumpedita, under Rav Sherira Gaon and Rav Hai Gaon, from whom he receives his ordination.  On this view, he would have been sent by the Academy of Pumpedita and not by the Academy of Sura. (See Fustat on the Nile, by Elinoar Bareket.) - This difference may have some bearing later on in the story, as the Sura Academy was closed in 948, whereas the Pumpedita Academy survived almost a hundred years longer until 1040.
[3] Some say this was a mission to raise money for poor brides, others say it was to attend a rabbinical conference known as a kallah (which also means bride).
[4] Some say it was Ibn Rumhas. According to Sefer haKaballah he was the Admiral of all the Spanish fleets.
[5] See The Destiny Foundation – The Legend of the Four Captives by Rabbi Berel Wein.
[6] Ps 68:23 - ‘ashiv mimetzulot yam.’
[7] This letter was published by Solomon Schechter, J.Q. R. Xi. 643.
[8] Some put the date of the piracy event at 990 (which lessens the window period for the ‘second trip’ following the capture till the letter of 1000/8). But it would still be feasible for a second trip to have been made during those ten to eighteen years.  It is interesting, however, to see that apparently R. Chushiel’s colleague R. Shemaria was reluctant to travel again by sea after his traumatic capture episode.
[9] One could, however, still argue that he went from Egypt to Pumpedita to study and from there he was sent on his failed mission. (As per a version mentioned in Fustat on the Nile, by Elinoar Bareket. See note 2.)
[10] See Note 2 above.
[11] Jewish History and Thought: An Introduction, by Menachem Mansoor, p. 212.
[12] See The Story of the Four Captives, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 29 (1960-1961), pp. 55-131, by Gerson D. Cohen.
[13] Rabad, Sefer haKaballah, pp. 66, 71.
[14] This style of writing was not necessarily ‘devious’ as it represented much of the writings of the day. Even R. Chushiel’s letter is described as being; ‘ “poetanic” to a degree, the Hebrew being full of allusions to Biblical and Talmudical passages.” (See Geniza Specimens. A Letter of Chushiel by S. Schechter, JQR 1899)
[15]Jews of Spain, by Jane Gerber. P. 29
[16] The Destiny Foundation, Init 2, The Legend of the Four Captives

Text from Sefer haKaballah:

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