Rabbi Ebiathar Hacohen Gaon; The Last of the Mohicans of The Eretz Yisrael Gaonate PART I
Abiathar ben Elijah ha-Kohen, who was born around 1041, probably in Jerusalem, was the last important gaon of the Palestinian yeshiva. He was the eldest of the four sons of Elijah ha-Kohen Gaon, and in keeping with standard practice, his father put him on an advancement track in the yeshiva. By 1067 he was already signing documents as “fourth in line,” thus making him a member of the ḥavurat ha-qodesh (sacred collegium; i.e., the yeshiva); by 1071 he was co-signing responsa with his father and, apparently as his right hand, went on missions to Egypt on his behalf.
In addition to Geniza documents, the most important source of information about Abiathar’s life is Megillat Evyatar (Heb. The Scroll of Abiathar), a work he wrote in 1094. Abiathar’s account of the bitter struggle for authority over Fatimid Jewry begins in the 1050s, when Solomon Gaon, Abiathar’s grandfather, died and was succeeded as head of the Palestinian yeshiva by a newcomer from Baghdad, Daniel ben Azariah, a nasi of the exilarchic house. Daniel died in 1062 and was succeeded by Abiathar’s father, Elijah, who moved the yeshiva to Tyre after the Seljuq conquest of Jerusalem in 1073. Conflict broke out in the 1080s when Daniel ben Azariah’s young son David ha-Nasi attempted to revive the exilarchate, claiming supreme authority over Egyptian and Palestinian Jewry, and denying the superior status of the yeshiva in exile in Tyre under Elijah Gaon and his son Abiathar.
Abiathar ultimately won the bitter struggle. He wrote and disseminated the Megilla to tell his version of events to Jewries everywhere. His account lambasted David ben Daniel and his associates, repudiated their attacks on him and his family, and condemned David’s regime as dictatorial. The correspondence from the Cairo Geniza that documents the other side of the dispute tells a different tale: massive grass-roots support for David, his moderate and sagacious political conduct, and the legitimacy of his Davidic descent.
The conflict between the two extended over fifteen years. It was not an ordinary struggle for leadership of the yeshiva, but rather a conflict between the yeshiva and a new force seeking to create a exilarchate center based in Egypt. The struggle came about as a result of the already diminished status and power of the Palestinian yeshiva, which had been forced into exile, and had lost much of its prestige. The struggle also involved the nagid in Egypt, Mevorakh ben Saʿadya, who was deposed by David ben Daniel and, when reinstated in 1094, renewed his allegiance to Abiathar Gaon. According to the Megilla, divine intervention on behalf of Abiathar induced the vizier al-Afḍal to dismiss David ben Daniel, restore Mevorakh, and thus bring an end to the conflict.
With the coming of the Crusaders, Abiathar and the yeshiva fled from Tyre in or around 1097 and apparently went to Tripoli in Lebanon , since they were there in 1102. Abiathar is mentioned in several Geniza documents from the early twelfth century. He died sometime before the end of 1112 and was succeeded by his brother Solomon. The yeshiva moved to Damascus, but it had already lost its prominence in the Jewish world.
On the aforementioned Scroll of Ebiathar, Bareket writes:
And who exactly was this 'pesky' Daniel b. Azaryah? Again Bareket:
Megillat Evyatar (Scroll of Abiathar) was written by Abiathar Gaon ben Elijah ha-Kohen in 1094. It mirrors the turmoil and internal conflict in the Jewish communities of the eastern portion of the Mediterranean basin at the end of the eleventh century. In particular, it contains direct reverberations of the disasters that befell the Jewish community in Palestine, and especially in Jerusalem, in the wake of a series of political and military vicissitudes that included the Seljuk invasion and the events leading up to the First Crusade.
Abiathar was apparently born in the fourth decade of the eleventh century and was the right hand of his father, Elijah Gaon. The Jerusalem yeshiva remained in Jerusalem until just before the Seljuk conquest in the summer of 1073, but then moved to Tyre, a seemingly logical destination given the close economic ties between the city’s governor and its Jewish merchants. Megillat Evyatar’s retrospective account of the gaonate of Daniel ben Azariah and subsequent events tells us about the conflict that began on the death of the gaon Solomon ben Judah in 1051 and ended with a compromise in 1052. The scroll is practically the only source that discusses Ben Azariah’s successor, Elijah Ha-Kohen, Abiathar’s father, during the period between his ascendancy to the gaonate and his death.
Megillat Evyatar also provides important details about David ben Daniel, Abiathar’s rival. It recounts David’s arrival in Egypt, his sojourn in Damira and afterwards in Fustat, his relations with the nagid Mevorakh ben Saʿadya and other people, his marriage into a prestigious, wealthy Karaite family, his status and activities in Fustat, and his connections with Ashkelon and other communities. David ben Daniel is described as fanatical and authoritarian, a picture confirmed by several letters from the Cairo Geniza.
The scroll also gives a full account of the process of appointing an exilarch and of the problems of the yeshiva in Tyre resulting partly from the uncertain political situation in the city, but also from the disruption of its connections with the Jewish community of Egypt and the other communities that remained under or returned to Fatimid rule. The difficulties for Abiathar and the other members of the yeshiva peaked during the ten months from June 1093 to April 1094, when Mevorakh ben Saʿadya resumed the post of nagid and his close association with the Fatimid regime, bringing about the removal of David ben Daniel.
The ideological portion of Megillat Evyatar is aimed at proving the legitimacy of the Jerusalem yeshiva and of the ha-Kohen family, its heads, as the leaders of the Jewish Diaspora. The relatively numerous statements in the scroll about the blessing of the new month and the leap year seem to have been made chiefly to provoke the Karaites (see Karaism), with whom David ben Daniel had developed a special relationship. In the final analysis, this work is a bitter polemic against David ben Daniel’s attempt to seize the leadership in the name of the house of the exilarchs on the grounds of its descent from King David. Over a period of more than ten years, David ben Daniel gained the support of many Rabbanite as well as Karaite communities, most likely because he spoke to the messianic hopes and yearnings of the masses.
Megillat Evyatar was distributed to Jewish communities far and wide to commemorate the victory of Abiathar and the house of Ha-Kohen over David ben Daniel and the Davidic dynasty. It may be assumed that the scroll was copied many times. The copy preserved in the Cairo Geniza was evidently made by Judah ha-Levi; it had been in the hands of a relative of Maimonides relatives and influenced his views on the Babylonian/Palestinian issue.
David, the only son of the gaon of the Palestinian yeshiva Daniel ben Azariah was born around 1058. Only four when his father died, he was evidently raised by family members in Damascus. When the Seljuks conquered Syria and Palestine in the 1170s, he went to Egypt, where he was adopted by relatives in Damira in the Nile Delta, who treated him well and pledged him in marriage to a female relative.
David had other plans, however, as well as supporters who saw in him a hope for redemption because of his Davidic descent. Leaving Damira and his fiancée, he moved to Fustat, where he was received with open arms by Mevorakh ben Sa‘adya, the nagid and court physician. There David married a woman from a wealthy Karaite family, a match served him well financially and politically.
From then on he began to overtly oppose the Palestinian yeshiva, promoting himself and the idea of his legitimate right to rule as a member of the House of David. Around 1082, he established his own high court (Heb. bet din ha-gadol; Aram. be dina rabba) and began appointing communal magistrates and officials, a traditional prerogative of geonim. This was apparently the underlying reason for the clash between him and his chief supporters in Fustat, among them Mevorakh ben Sa‘adya, who opposed the idea of a revolt against the Palestinian yeshiva, but David already had many other supporters, among them the Karaites, whose leader was also a scion of the Davidic house.
David now turned against his former supporters. We do not know the details, but according to Megillat Evyatar (Heb. Scroll of Abiathar), he acted maliciously and informed on fellow Jews to the authorities, who ousted Mevorakh ben Sa‘adya from his offices. Geniza documents from this period refer to David as nasi and rayyis (Ar. head). David declared himself exilarch in Egypt in 1091, an unprecedented act, and ruled aggressively over all the Jewish communities of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, while mercilessly pursuing his rivals, the geonim of the Kohen line, residing at the time in Tyre, whence the yeshiva had been transferred in 1071.
In 1094, events took a new turn. The vizier Badr al-Jamālī, who had supported David ben Daniel, fell ill and was succeeded by his son al-Afḍal, a close associate of Mevorakh ben Sa‘adya, who was now reinstated as nagid and court physician. David ben Daniel disappeared from the historical records and his fate remains unknown. Jacob Mann has theorized that two Hebrew poems attributed to a David ha-Nasi who expresses sorrow for causing dissension and exhorts his soul to turn from pride and self-aggrandisement were composed by David ben Daniel after he was deposed.
Let us backtrack for a moment and take a look at how the Yeshibha fared under the leadership of Ebiathar's father, R' Eliyahu Hacohen. Yoram Erder writes:
In about 1076, the Palestinian yeshiva, now led by Elijah ha-Kohen ben Solomon Gaon (1062–1083), was forced to leave Jerusalem and settle in Tyre, which was no longer under Fatimid authority. The move was a result of the Turcoman invasion, which had begun in 1071 and had caused the situation in Palestine to seriously deteriorate for the entire population. The hardships and lamentations of Christian inhabitants and pilgrims following this occupation were one of the factors that led to the launching of the First Crusade. Jerusalem’s Karaite leaders, the nesi’im, moved to Egypt. Elijah’s son Abiathar, the last gaon of the Palestinian yeshiva, never returned to Jerusalem and died as a refugee in Damascus around 1112, while fleeing the Crusaders.
As is apparent from the preceding survey, the Palestinian yeshiva was beset with problems on many fronts—the vicissitudes of relations with the changing Muslim governments and the ongoing attempts by the Babylonia yeshivot to undermine its status. The haughty attitude of the Babylonian yeshivot toward the Palestinian yeshiva was probably the main factor that led to the situation whereby, until the discovery of the Geniza, the existence of an active Jewish center in Palestine during the geonic period was totally unknown. The yeshivot in Babylonia contested both the authority of the Palestinian yeshiva in the Diaspora and the Palestinian tradition of halakhic interpretation. The Palestinian yeshiva also had to contend with the challenge posed by the Karaite community in Palestine, mainly in Jerusalem. Although the Karaite movement began in the Diaspora communities of Babylonia and Persia, the most important Karaite center was established in Jerusalem in the last quarter of the ninth century by the Mourners of Zion. They vigorously challenged the Rabbanite leadership, which they considered the main obstacle to the coming of the messiah. Karaite communities in the Diaspora were less militant.
In addition to these external problems, there was no lack of power struggles over the leadership of the yeshiva among the families whose members routinely filled this position. Two representatives of the exilarchic line, Ṣemaḥ and Jehoshaphat, served as geonim. This branch of the Ananite dynasty was deposed from the yeshiva as the Karaite movement increased in strength. Daniel ben Azariah, who held the office of gaon from 1051 to 1062, was also of exilarchic lineage. He fought against the Kohen family, who hailed from North Africa ( Elijah and Abiathar, mentioned above, were members of this family). From 1038 to 1042, Solomon ben Judah was forced to defend his position against a challenge by Nathan ben Abraham, who attempted to have Solomon removed so that he could declare himself gaon. (On this power struggle see Palestine.)
A twofold disaster brought an end to the geonic period in Palestine. The First Crusade dealt a demographic death blow to the country’s Jewish population. A considerable number of communities simply disappeared. Second, the status of the yeshiva had already suffered a severe setback when it moved to Tyre, since it was cut off from the Jews of the Fatimid caliphate. It remained in exile until the First Crusade and was never able to return to Palestine. As a result, for many generations Palestine ceased to be the center of Jewish authority for the Diaspora. The attempt to preserve the authority of the Palestinian yeshiva in exile failed, and the Diaspora communities that were called Palestinian or Jerusalemite began to wane and finally disappeared altogether.
His relationship to the Jewish community of Hevron (second holiest city for Jews after Jerusalem):In the EY Kaddish prayer, they would add this caveat, while the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Ebiathar was alive:
׳בחיי אדוננו אביתר
הכהן ראש ישיבת גאון יעקב ובחיי רבנו שלמה הכהן אב הישיבה ובחיי
רבנו צדוק השלישי בחבורה, בחייכון וביומיכון ובחיי כל ישראל במהרה
ובזמן קריב׳... . ׳בחיי נשיאנו ראש הגולה ובחיי ראש הישיבה
ובחיי כל כלל(!) ישראלי
I've come across some Genizah gragments, cited in Sepher Hevron, that indicates that Medieval EY Jews gathered en masse at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron to pray for the health and wellbeing of this remarkable figure, Ebiathar Gaon, the last EY Gaon of influence.
see also Joseph Elias's article here
His relationship with the Jews of early Ashkenaz from wiki (still looking for a better source on this):
Rabbi Eliyahu Cohen's last resting place is supposedly here
And here is that of his son-the subject of my blog post.
In 1985, during construction work, carried out in the Galilean village of Gush Halav (now known as J'ish), his crypt was (possibly) found. Some hypothesized that it may be a remnant of his tombstone [others a signpost of the actual entrance to The Academy, similar to this find. For an explanation see here]).
(which would make his final resting place The Galil and not Syria-as sites like MyTzadik would have us believe). See here