Sunday 21 June 2020


A traditional wooden sailing boat used in the protected waters of the Mediterranean. 


The Torah centres of Babylonia had been home to early rabbinic Judaism for about a thousand years after the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Its roots went back even earlier to the time of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE.

However, around the year 1000 CE, the Babylonian seat of rabbinic power began to disintegrate and made way for a geographical shift to the West.

This was a difficult period historically as besides unseating the geographical location and home of Torah authority and erudition in Babylonia where the Babylonian Talmud was formulated - it was also a time when, in 1038, we transitioned from the rabbinic period of the Gaonim to that of the Rishonim.

All these events culminating together made that period very unsettling.

There are various accounts, and possibly some myths describing just which country in the West came to represent the new seat of western authorized rabbinical authority. Was it North Africa, Spain, Italy, Northern France, Southern France or Germany?

In this article, I have drawn from the research of Professor Avraham Grossman[1] (b. 1936) who specializes in Jewish History and has done manuscript research at the Bodleian Library.


Around 1161, Rabbi Avraham ibn Daud[2] wrote an account of four rabbis who travelled to Europe on a fundraising mission from the declining Babylonian Torah centre of Sura.
These four great rabbis were seized by pirates off the Italian coast and variously sold for ransom to the Jews of Egypt, (Kairouan) Tunisia, Spain and Germany thus establishing venerable Torah centres in each of those locations.

This event became known as the Four Captives and was described as an act of Divine Providence to show how the shift in rabbinic authority - from East to West - was sanctioned from On High, and that henceforth people should obey the rabbis in those counties and no longer look to Babylonia for rabbinic guidance as they had done in the past.

[For more background, the Reader is urged to read an earlier article on The ‘Four Captives’- When Evidence Confronts History.]


Until the 11th-century, there was no question that Babylonia (or Bavel) was the final seat of determination and arbitration of Jewish law. However, after the passing of the last of the Babylonian Gaonic rabbis, Rav Hai Gaon in 1038, it became necessary to establish a correspondingly replacement authoritative seat among the western countries.

This difficulty was intensified, because, as Grossman writes:

“Rivalry between Spain and Ashkenaz [Germany][3] was especially fierce at this time, with each centre striving to outdo the other.”

But it wasn’t just Spain and Ashkenaz that competed for the position of highest rabbinic authority. Fascinating, we shall see how various communities each independently developed accounts of history that placed them at the forefront of the battle for authority.


The rabbis of Spain claimed that the decline of the Babylonian academies were not by accident but by Divine decree that Spain should emerge as the primary home of rabbinic Judaism. Spain was to be the designated successor to Bavel.

They even found a biblical verse from Ovadia to substantiate that claim:

“And that exiled force of Israelites [shall possess] what belongs to the Phoenicians as far as Tzarfat, while the Jerusalemite exile community of Sefarad shall possess the towns of the Negeb.”[4]

The biblical reference to Sefarad was immediately associated with Spain. The Aramaic translation of this verse identified Sefarad as Aspamia (Aramaic for the Latin Hispania). Even Rashi (1040-1105) who lived and died in France, was forced to ‘concede’ the pre-eminence of Spanish authority. He mentions that some of the early First Temple exiles did indeed reach Tzarfat (France) but the more ‘elite’ tribe of Judah reached as far as Sefarad (Spain).

The claim was that Spain had been chosen by G-d because Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem had reached Spanish shores as early as First Temple times. This meant that the Jews of Spain were the descendants of the elite Jerusalem exiles, while those in other parts of Europe and North Africa came from other towns and villages in the Holy land.

In fact - by the Spanish claim that they were the descendants of the elite group of Jerusalem exiles after the destruction of the First Temple - they were showing their pre-eminence even over the Babylonians themselves!


In keeping with this theme, we find statements like that of the Spanish rabbi Shmuel haNagid (993-1056):

“Sefarad has been a place of Torah study from the time of the First Temple and the exile of Jerusalem to this day.”[5]

Significantly, R. Shmuel haNagid was a student of R. Moshe ben Chanoch, one of the Four Captives mentioned above, who was ransomed in Spain.

On the historicity of the claim which placed their ancestors as the elite exiles from Jerusalem, Grossman writes that although it:

“...sought to present Spain as a divinely chosen place from time immemorial, and as one that needed neither Babylonia nor Italy...the historical truth is that the Jewish intellectual centre in Spain underwent rapid growth in the time of R. Hisdai Ibn Shaprut, in the mid-tenth century.”

R. Shmuel haNagid also tied to show a direct line of communication between Babylonia and Spain. He wrote about Rav Natronai Gaon (d. 878) of Babylonia:
 “It was he who wrote down the Talmud for the scholars of Spain without consulting a book.”[6]

The Talmud in Spain, accordingly, was handed over directly to the Spanish rabbis from Babylonia, inferring an official transferral of the mantle of leadership to Spain.


Another similar teaching was promoted by R. Yehuda al-Barceloni[7] (11th to 12th-centuries):

“A well-known tradition in Spain, handed down by their fathers, is that R. Natronai Gaon...came to them from Babylonia by ’shortening the way’ [kefitsat haderekh]. He taught them Torah and then he returned [magically to Babylonia][8]; he came not by convoy nor was he seen along the way.”[9]

By bringing in the miraculous component of kefitsat hadereckh, again we see the how Divine Providence was said to have endorsed the pre-eminence of Spain over the other centres.

The Spanish Jews thus had three precedents to their claim of representing the most accurate tradition, the verse from Ovadia, the story of the Four Captives and the direct transferral of Torah literature from Babylonia to Spain.


The sages of Italy also claimed they were descendant from Jerusalem exiles. According to the Scroll of Achima’atz, also known as Megillat Yuchasin, written by Achima’atz ben Paltiel  (1017-1060), his family descended from the captives taken by Titus to Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. [For more on Achima’atz see A Window into Pre-Zoharic Mystical Literature.]

Achima’atz writes that these elite exiles were “Torah scholars...wise and learned” and they were mystics who composed many of the prayers found in our prayer books to this day.


The Tosafists of Northern France and Germany (who were influenced by Chasidei Ashkenaz [See Mystical Forays of the Tosafists.]) were also known to have respected the rabbis of Italy.

The French Tosafist, Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171) even adapted the verse “The Torah will go out from Zion, and the word of G-d from Jerusalem [10] to read “The Torah will go out from Bari[11], and the word of G-d from Otranto.

The Tosafists had great admiration for Rabbeinu Chananel (990-1053) of North Africa because he was trained by Italian rabbis.


The German mystical movement known as Chasidei Ashkenaz or German Pietists of the 12th and 13th-centuries also had much respect for the Italian rabbis. They spoke about the transmission of ‘secrets’ within the prayer liturgy. One of the leaders of Chasidei Ashkenaz, R. Eleazar of Worms claimed that the early founder of the mystical movement, Abu Aharon[12] (from the earlier Gaonic Period) transmitted his secret knowledge in Lucca[13]

Abu Aharon is said to have established a Yeshiva in Italy, called the Sanhedrin Yeshiva from where his teachings spread throughout Italy.

R. Eleazer of Worms wrote that Abu Aharon had met with his (R. Eleazar’s) ancestor Moshe haPaytan (R. Moshe ben Kalonymus, the ‘poet’) who was “the first [Jew] to emigrate to from Italy” to Mainz in Germany. This move to Germany was allegedly arranged by Charlemagne (or Charles the Great 742-814).

It is significant that Abu Aharon is said to have entrusted his Babylonian mystical tradition to the Rabbis of Italy before any of the other centres in North Africa and Europe. And, importantly, the connection between Italy and Germany was quickly established through Abu Aharon and Moshe haPaytan.


The Chasidei Ashkenaz and the German Jews bolstered their claim to the authenticity of being the rightful heirs to the Babylonian tradition by suggesting that the famed Rabbeinu Gershom (known as the Meor haGolah or Light of the Exile) who lived in Mainz, had been taught by the last of the Babylonian Gaonim, Rav Hai Gaon.[14]

However, as Grossman points out:

“There is no hint of this claim in any of R. Gershom’s own writings; [whose][15] teacher and mentor, he clearly states, was R. Leontine.”[16]

Another claim was that Rabbeinu Gershom had married the sister of Rav Hai Gaon.[17]


There is a further claim that after the Islamic conquest of Persia (Babylonia) there was a mass immigration of Jews to Germany, thereby effectively becoming the new Babylonia on German soil - but as Grossman confirms, this event lacks historical truth.


In yet another tradition, R. Meshulam of Ashkenaz (Germany) visited Babylonia and met the head of the Babylonian academy. At the meeting, it soon transpired that R. Meshulam was far more learned and erudite than his Babylonian counterpart who offered his daughter’s hand to him in marriage. R. Meshulam declined the offer and returned to Germany to head the Ashkenaz community.[18]


Northern France and Germany are together regarded as Ashkenaz. The Jews of northern France also developed their own traditions which showed them as the natural successors to Babylonian rabbinic authority.

One tradition tells of R. Eliyahu ben Menachem of Le Mans[19] being chosen by G-d as the natural successor to Rav Hai Gaon of Babylonia. Interestingly, this tradition was written by R. Eliyahu himself and he explained that every generation needs a special leader. Historically, R. Eliyahu did indeed visit Rav Hai Gaon in Babylonia who gave R. Eliyahu the title aluf (leader).

Another tradition has R. Eliyahu also marrying the sister of Rav Hai Gaon.

For some reason, the northern French literature of succession from Babylonia is not as elaborate as that of the other counties. And Rashi, as mentioned, seems to have conceded that Spain (and not his home country France) was the ‘chosen’ successor.


The Jews of Provence[20] in southern France also claimed that their connection to Babylonia went back as far as the times of Charlemagne. During his reign, Charlemagne managed to unite most of western and central Europe. According to their tradition, Charlemagne asked the king of Babylonia “to send a Jew from among the Jews in his land of royal blood, of the House of David” to head the Jewish community of Provence. 

The person who met the requirements was a certain R. Machir and his descendants continued to lead that community for generations. In fact, they did not just lead Provence but were regarded as “lawmakers and judges all over the [Jewish][21] world, just like exilarchs.

Grossman says that it is “difficult to find even a slim historical basis” for this event[22] but he shows that there were prominent families in Provence with the title “Nasi”. He also points out, interestingly, that the Jews of Provence - unlike all the other communities - chose rather to claim authorization from the Exilarchs and not from the Gaonim of Babylonia.

This was because the Exilarch claimed decadency from Jewish Kings and the royal Davidic line. Thus the Babylonian roots of Provence Jewry were depicted as more prestigious than those of the other countries.

In Babylonia, the Reish Galuta or Exilarch operated in a form of partnership with the Gaon, where the Exilarch was in charge of political affairs while the Gaon had had jurisdiction over religious matters. [For more on this, see Rambam’s ‘Anti-Establishment' Writings on the ‘Gedolim’ of his Day.]

R. Menachem haMeiri (d. 1316) lent some credence to the claim of Provence Jewry when he wrote:

“Pre-eminence passed from one generation to the next ... this tradition is upheld by the greatest of our princes in Narbonne.”


A similar story to that of Provence is told of the pre-eminence of the Jews of Egypt. According to the Divrei Yosef [23] the Egyptian queen encouraged the king to:

“send forth messengers to the land of Babylon with the message: ‘I have heard that in your kingdom there are Jews from the house of David ... send me one of them.’ They sent him a wise man, a descendant of the princes in that land; the king appointed him over Egypt; henceforth he was the negidut [leadership] established in Egypt.”[24]

The similarities between the stories of how Jews came to Provence and Egypt show how they often shared the same themes.

On a similar note, the Jews of Provence tell a story of a Jew who once saved the life of Charlemagne – and the German Jews tell of how one of their Jews once saved the life of Emperor Otto II.[25]


The very overt similarities between all these foundational accounts from the various centres in Europe and North Africa are either coincidental or the result of a desperate attempt at re-establishing rabbinic authority after Babylonia lost its hold on the Torah world. The correctness of the line of authority is crucial to Judaism and is known as the Mesora. The Mesora is presented to us today as a very simple traceable line without any dispute. -But why, then, are there so many different accounts of this line of Mesora?

The problem is compounded by the fact that our study only concerned the period of around the 11th and 12th –centuries. Back then, they had no idea that almost a thousand years later we would have a very different Judaism with new movements unheard of at that time. 

These include Chassidism and its different branches which would arrive on the scene in the 1700s, Religious Zionism, Modern Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox movement which was established in 1885 (a year before Coca Cola was established). [See Reforms of the ultra-Orthodox] -All of these new groups also claimed to have the correct Mesora.

This insistence on having the authorized version of the Mesora is important for obvious reasons and, as we have seen, always has been.

However, a point is reached when insistence that one version of the Mesora can exclude another becomes disingenuous.

When some of the lost Meiri texts were discovered in the 1800s, much the ultra-Orthodox world would have nothing to do with the texts, although the Meiri (1249-1306) was an important Rishon. And the reason was simple: The Meiri had not been part of the accepted Mesora for so many centuries so he can never rejoin it. [See The Meiri Texts – Lost or Ignored?]

A better example is the Chazon Ish (1878-1953), an anti-Zionist leader who shaped the contemporary Chareidi theological and institutional landscape of modern Israel. He said that if we were to find a Sefer Torah written by Moshe Rabbeinu himself, and if it differs from the version we use today, we need to correct Moshe’s Torah to match ours, otherwise, we need to bury it within thirty days:

“The old sefer Torah, even if were written by the greatest authority (Moshe), must be considered pasul (invalid) as long as it does not conform to ours. 

In order for it to become kasher, it must be amended and adjusted to comply with the text of contemporary sefarim, according to the most recent halacha.”

Much of the phenomena in this world operate on the basis of the Inverted-U curve. Malcolm Gladwell writes:

“Inverted-U curves are about limits. They illustrate that ‘more’ is not always better; there comes a point, in fact, when the extra resources that the powerful think of as their greatest advantage only serves to make things worse[26]... there comes a point where the best-intentioned application of power and authority begins to backfire[27].”

He explains that no police, for example, is bad. A reasonable amount of police is good to maintain law and order, but too much police creates police states. Similarly, too little children in a class is not good, there is a magic number where the dynamic is just right and then there is a point where too many children are detrimental to everyone in the class.

Perhaps one can say the same with the Mesora. Of course, we need a Mesora if we want to live according to the Law of Moshe. That Mesora must of necessity function within the guidelines of Halacha

But a point is reached when a fanaticism, obsession and desperation with Mesora has the opposite effect and creates a false or invented Mesora which by definition is a misnomer. 

This is why we have numerous conflicting accounts in the 11th-century as to who represents the Mesora from Bavel – and, why in the 20th-century, we are prepared to bury the Torah written by Moshe’s hand.

[1] Avraham Grossman, Medieval Jewish Legends on the Decline of the Babylonian Centre and the Primacy of Other Geographical Centres.
[2] Avraham 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.
[3] Parenthesis mine.
[4] Ovadia 1:20. According to Judges 1:21, Jerusalem fell within the territory of Benjamin, while according to Joshua 15:63, Jerusalem fell within the territory of Judah. 
[5] Quoted by R. Yehudah ben Barzilai of Barcelona in his Sefer haItim 267
[6] Sefer Hilchot haNagid (Margaliot), 2. The second part of this statement is not relevant to our discussion but would have implications regarding when the Talmud was finally written down. See Everyone Knows when the Talmud was Written Down.
[7]Yehuda al-Barceloni is the Hebrew version of the Arabic Yehuda al-Bargeloni. He is also referred to as haNasi (the prince).
[8] Parenthesis mine. Rav Hai Gaon rejected this legend out of hand, and he wrote, "Perhaps an imposter happened to come to them and claimed that he was Natronai. If Natronai had been known for performing miracles we would not deny it, but he was not known for such acts at all." [Otzar HaGeonim, Chagiga, pages 16-20].
[9] Commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, 150.
[10] Isaiah 2:3.
[11] One wonders if this is also a veiled reference to the Four Captives who set sail from the southern Italian port of Bari?

[12] Also known as Ibn Aharon. See History and Folklore in a Medieval Jewish Chronicle: The Family Chronicle of Achima’az ben Paltiel, by Robert Bonfil, p. 57.

[13] Lucca is a town in the Tuscany region of Italy.  Lucca is pronounced ‘Lukka’.
[14] See She’elot uTeshuvot Maharshal, no. 29.
[15] Parenthesis mine.
[16] See The Early Sages of Ashkenaz (Heb.), 113-16.
[17] Zimmer, ‘R. Azriel Trabot’s Sefer haposekim’(Heb.), 245.
[18] Zfatman, The Jewish Tale in the Middle Ages (Heb.), 97- 111.
[19] Pronounced ‘Le Moh
[20] Pronounced ‘Provance’.
[21] Parenthesis mine.
[22] According to Jewish Encyclopaedia: Abraham ibn Daud says, in his "Sefer ha-Ḳabbalah," that the calif Harun al-Rashid, at the request of Charlemagne, sent to Narbonne Machir, a learned Jew of Babylon, to whom the emperor gave numerous prerogatives and whom he appointed head of the community. This is evidently a legend; but there is no doubt that Machir settled at Narbonne, where he soon acquired great influence over his coreligionists. 
[23] By R. Yosef ben Yitzchak Sambari.
[24] Sambari, Divrei Yosef, 139-40.
[25] Grossman, The Early Sages of Ashkenaz (Heb,), 36-8.
[26] Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath, p. 238.
[27] Ibid, p. 257.


  1. Thanks for your interesting article. Is it possible you could clarify something for me.?

    You say "Ibn Daud is mentioned in Avodah Zara 38 and appears to have been one of the Baalei haTosefot."

    I saw in Korei Hadoros ( column 2 paragraph "Ve' Agav Orchin" 13 lines before the end )

    that the quote in Tosfot was the Raavad Posquieres (1125-1198). Would you be able to let me know why you think it was Ibn Daud (sometimes known as first Ravaad)?

  2. Thank you Gershom for your difficult question. The way I understand it is as follows: There were three Avraham ben Davids. They are all sometimes also referred to as ibn Daud.

    Usually Avraham ibn Daud (as opposed to ben David) refers to Rabad I (1110-1180) who authored Sefer haKabbalah (recording the Delet Shevuim). He was influenced by Aristotle and wrote an early style Guide of the Perplexed called Al-ʿaqīdah al-rafiyah or Sefer haEmunah haRama.

    Raavad II refers to Avraham ben Yitzchak of Narbonne (1080 or 1110-1158) author of haEshkol.

    Raavad III is the famous Avraham ben David of Posquieres (1125-1198) from Provence who commentated on Mishneh Torah and was an important Kabbalist.

    I did read, when I wrote the original article of the Four Captives, that Rabad I is referenced in that Tosefos but I don't know where. I would like to say that these three were easily confused, however, your source from Korei Hadoros is overwhelmingly compelling and I will go with your your very informative observation.

    Thank you for that.

  3. Gershon's reference is Korei haDorot, p. yud dalet 27.