Monday, September 05, 2011

Was the Gaon of Pumeditha, Rab Sherira Crucified (?) by the Caliph Alkadir of Baghdad?

I came across this odd reference a long time ago, while reading SEDER HADOROT by Rabbi Yehiel Halperin (1660 - 1746). I came across it again, recently in this book published in honor of the 1999 wedding that united the vizhitz and spinka Hassidic sects. As is their custom on occasions such as this, a book was published with sayings of their Hassidic forbears. Appended to it, an exaggerated royal pedigree, to demonstrate that they are of noble (Davidic) lineage. The text on this particular page quotes the SEDER HAKABALLAH ("Chain of Tradition") of the Spanish scholar Abraham ibn Daud (1110-1180, approx.):

רב שרירא גאון זצ״ל, הי״ד, בן רב חנינא גאון בן רבי יהודאי גאון בן רב שמואל ר י ש

בלה, מצאצאי רבה בר אבוה המיוחסים לזרע דוד, מצאצאי זרובבל בן שאלתיאל, ,

גאון בפומפדיחא משנה ד' ,תשב״ח עד שנת ד' תשנ״ח, שאז לגודל חולשתו מסר

הגאונות לבנו רב האי, והאריך ימים עד שנח חשס״ז, וגם אז נקפד פחיל חייו ביד צר,

במו שבחב רבינו הראב״ד בסדר הקבלה שלו"דהלשינו פריצי ישראל ברב שרירא ורב

האי, וחפסם מלך ישמעאל ובזזו בל אשר להם, לא השאיר שריד שום מחיה בעולם,

ותלה רב שרירא בידו אחה והוא בבן מאה שנה״. ורבינו האר״י ז״ל אמר, שהוא רמוז

בפסוק "שרים בידם נתלו, פני זקנים לא נהדרו". "שרים״ רמז לרב שרירא, "בידם

נחלו" שנתלה בידו, "פני זקנים לא נהדרו" שהיה זקן בן מאה שנה, שהכל רמוז בתורה.

Brief synopsis:

Rav Sherira Gaon, of blessed memory, may God avenge his blood, (906-1006)was a descendant of Rabba bar Abahu who in turn descended from the house of David. He (Sherira) was the Gaon of the Academy at Pumbeditha from the year 4710 to 4758, when due to his weakened state he handed over the reigns to his son Hai Gaon (939-1038) who reigned until 4767. And then his life was turned upside down, when insolent men of Israel spread libel on them to the authorities, whereby they were seized by the 'King of Ishmael' who confiscated all their possesions, and Rav Sherira was hanged by one of his hands. And Arizal (Isaac Luria) said that this was foretold in the verse in Lamentations 5:12: שרים בידם נתלו, פני זקנים לא נהדרו, literally: Our princes are being hanged by their thumbs, and our elders are treated with contempt. 'sarim' alludes to sherira, 'beyadam nitlu' that he was hung by his hand, 'pney zekenim lo nehadaru' alludes to his being 100 years old at the time of his death, etc.

Was Rab Sherira really crucified at age 100 by the Arab ruler of Baghdad?

If so, why the strange and macabre method of hanging him by one arm?

Is this some sort of twisted crucifixion? (parenthetically, crucifixion was not foreign to the Arabs and the Berbers of that period. A century after the incident in question, a Berber mob would crucify Rabbi Josef Ha-naggid (1035-1066) on the gates of Granada)

Heinrich Graetz tells the story quite differently:

Malicious persons had Sherira arraigned before the Caliph Alkadir on some unknown charge, probably growing out of the rigor of his administration (the editor of hebrew wiki, opines that the charge was espionage and probably related to the far reaching correspondence of the father-son pair, often sending letters (and accepting disciples from) to countries that were considered at war with their own, such as Persia, Spain, Andalucia and Byzantium--J.D.). In consequence of this, father and son were deprived of their liberty, all their property was confiscated and there was not enough to them for a bare livelihood. They were however, liberated at the intercession of an influential man and restored to their dignity. Sherira soon after on account of old age abdicated in favor of his son (998) and died a few years later. (1)

Moshe Gil and David Strassler in Jews in Islamic Countries, put forth a (possible) different explanation for the word נתלה by Ibn Daud:

“and the king of the Ishmaelites grabbed them..”and Rav Sherira Gaon depended on one hand”; (nitla נתלה which may be “he was hanged”, but also ‘depended’, i.e., was in distress...

…the information in Ibn Daud, that Sherira Gaon “was hanged (nitla) on one hand” was somewhat of a mystery for scholars. Some assumed that it should be taken literally, and found parallels in Christian martyrology. As against this it was claimed that- according to what Ibn Daud further states-Sherira was not removed from his post of Gaon, which contradicts this story, that should be considered an invention; or it was considered an erroneous translation of some Arab idiom. However Fleischer has shown, based on piyut that the meaning is: he was impoverished, lived in poverty; this is also in accordance with the additional information which I quote on the sufferings of Sherira and Hai (see ibid) (2)

see also here

and here



Graetz, Heinrich. History of the Jews: From the Revolt Against the Zendik (511 C. E. ) to the Capture of St. Jean D'Acre by the Mahometans pp. 233-4


pp. 389-90

From ibid:

see also Fleischer ZION 41 (1977), 165 FF. Previously that peculiar expression was much discussed; a Christian parallel was cited: what happened to the Persian Anastasius: una manu per tres horas suspensus (he was hung by one hand for three hours) and then decapitated. This martyr had lived in Palestine, and these events should have happened during the Persian conquest..


At Tuesday, September 06, 2011 3:27:00 PM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

Adam Abraham Kessler ‎"or it was considered an erroneous translation of some Arab idiom."

I believe this is the theory set forth by Gershon Cohen. I don't have access to his work however I do have access to a description of Cohen's approach from the biographical section of the introduction to Rabinowich's translation of R. Sherira's epistle. Here is what he writes:

"The most probable solution, without altering the text of Sefer HaKabbalah, is to reinterpret the phrase, ונתלה רב שרירא בידו אחת , which was translated above, "Rav Sherira was hung by one arm." The word for "hung," נתלה can also mean, "found support," or "invoked the aid of." In other words, as G. Cohen has pointed out: "Whatever the exact meaning of the expression, the problematic words ונתלה רב שרירא בידו אחת, must be understood as explaining how it came about that Rav Sherira and Rav Hair were able to retain their position." Cohen goes on to suggest that the passage is a literal translation of a perfectly intelligible Arabic expression, found very frequently in Sefer HaKabbalah, ותוקף על בעצמו אידה "he leaned on (found support through) some (unspecified) source of help." Thus the phrase is explaining why Rav Sherira was not removed from the Geonate. The Arabic phrase, Cohen claims, was corrupted into, "ותוקף עלי בעץ מן אידיה" which was translated literall into, "He was hung by one arm.""

At Tuesday, September 06, 2011 3:29:00 PM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

Ben Abrahamson This seems to me possible. The Karaites were on the ascendancy at that time. Also it should could be a conflation with earlier Exiarchs. The Islamic historians refer to the Exilarchs as "the crucified ones" refering to the crucifiction of Mar Zutra II and his father Haninai in 520CE over the bridge of Mahoza for trying to create an autonomous Jewish state in Babylon (Iraq). Which, by the way, was five years before Dhu Nuwas, a cousin of the Exilarch, declared an autonomous Jewish state in Arabia.

One thing that works against this interpretation is that word for "crucified" in the case of Mar Zutra II is Tzalib, where as here it is Nitla, although this doesn't rule out that another form of execution could have been used.

At Tuesday, September 06, 2011 3:31:00 PM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

Ha-historion Joels Davidi Thanks Adam and Ben for your responses.
@Ben, What does this have to do with the ascendancy of the Karaites?, are you inferring that it was the Karaites who plotted against them?
Yesterday at 2:03pm · Like

Ben Abrahamson Yes. I am using the term "Karaite" as a general term for several assorted groups, all of whom rejected rabbinic authority, and some who adopted Islamic principles in various degrees.

Ha-historion Joels Davidi ‎@Ben, there were plenty of other enemies and potential enemies of the Academies and those that stood at its helm. I am sure you are aware of the recurring feuds between the Exilarchate and the Academy heads (David ben Zakkai is but one example), where the former had no compunctions of turning to the Caliph to persecute his opposition.
There were also rivalries between the Sura and Pumbeditha academies, as well as serious succession struggles within both Yeshibhot.

At Tuesday, September 06, 2011 3:32:00 PM, Blogger Ha-historion said...

Ha-historion Joels Davidi In the Ben Zakkai vs. Saadiah Gaon dispute, the tone was particularly vicious. Aaron ben Joseph ha-Kohen Sargado (who would later become the head of Pumbeditha) ,who was on David ben Zakkai’s side, accused Saadiah of having homosexual relations with young men. If that is not bad enough, he adds that this was done with sifrei kodesh in the room and that witnesses can attest to it!. This is, of course, an abominable accusation, and the scholar Abraham Harkavy, in his introduction (p. 223), apologizes for having to print what he termsדברי שמצה ונבול פה שאין הנפש היפה סובלתם

see Abraham Harkavy, ed., Zikaron la-Rishonim (St. Petersburg, 1892), 5:230. Henry Malter writes as follows about R. Aaron (Saadia Gaon [Philadelphia, 1942], 113, 114):

Ben Abrahamson It is certain that there were other rivalries going on. But in my personal opinion, only the Karaite-Rabbinite dispute could have lead to the intensity of persecution that the Sherira Gaon suffered. But I have not looked into this and I am not certain


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