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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

Qairawan: Between East and West

By Shelomo Alfassa

July 12, 2005

Qairawan, located in Northern Tunisia was a city of Jewish scholarship where intellect and progress flourished. This desert city with its imposing walls, monumental gates and medina were one of many large Arab fortified locations in the north of Africa. Qairawan was an important intermediary point located between east and west, especially when large scale migrations of mainly Babylonian Jews immigrated in the course of the 9th and 10th centuries. This fourth holiest city of Islam served as a relay point for funds and intellectual materials between the Jewish communities of Spain, Babylonia and Israel. There in the northern Sahara, Talmudists incorporated Ga'onic works into their own western academia, coalescing Talmudic knowledge from Babylonia into what would eventually become the Sephardic nusach. Qairawan grew into a fundamental link in the chain of scholars intertwining Babylonia and Spain.

Near the end of the 10th century HaRav Hushiel ben Elhanan, president of the yeshibot at Qairawan died. When the distressing news arrived in Spain, the community mourned greatly for he was a much beloved leader. As a community, the Spanish Jews held a public fast day in his honor on the behest of Shemuel HaNagid who organized memorials in Lucena, Cordoba and Granada-sending dispatches to all other Spanish cities to do the same. The Spanish community thought very highly of Hushiel ben Elhanan, and they expressed their feelings of loss in a letter of consolation sent to his son Hananel proclaiming "…a misfortune has befallen the whole world."

The first collection of oral law, Talmud, was developed in Erets Israel, near Galilee, and was redacted together in a formal collection around the year 450 CE known simply today as the Yerushalmi. The second Gemara and Mishna combination developed in Babylonia and was redacted together and was mostly completed around the year 550 CE. Generally speaking, the Babylonian Talmud has became more authoritative because the rabbinic yeshibot of Babylonia survived longer than those in Erets Israel. Since the sages of Jerusalem traveled, many to Babylonia, the ideas and traditions held in the Yerushalmi Talmud were transmitted to Babylonia and this is why in the Babylonian Talmud references to the Yerushalmi can be found. Even so, the two Talmuds are distinct, and they do feature many differences in their interpretation and discussion of the Mishna. The Babylonian contains many traditions that the Yerushalmi does not, but this cannot be said the other way around. For the Babylonian Talmud continued to be edited and modified for 300 years after the completion of the Yerushalmi. It is in these 300 years that the core difference emerge, even supposing the knowledge which went into developing the original Babylonian Talmud came from Jerusalem. Wanting to close the gap between Talmudic teachings, HaRav Hananel (d. 1057) and HaRav Nissim ben Yacob, both which were students of Hushiel, started utilizing both the Yerushalmi and Babylonian versions.

Nissim corresponded frequently with Sherira Ga'on and with Hai Ga'on of Babylonia. The halacha he had learned, he then passed along to Shemuel HaNagid in Spain. In doing this, it can be said Nissim was one of the significant links which helped transplant Talmudic knowledge from Babylonia to Spain. After the death of Hananel and Nissim (c. 1050) the Qairawan academic world became desolate and ceased to exist. Political unrest between Muslims continued to escalate and the Jewish populace suffered exceedingly. Countless Jews fled from the city, a considerable number relocating to Tunis.

Early into the 9th century CE Al-Andalus most likely had a large and growing Jewish population whose ranks were continually swelled by immigration from the Levant and North Africa. From the tenth century forward, the Jews of North Africa and Spain who for several centuries shared complementary political and cultural features under the influence of Islam became increasingly independent of Babylonian jurisdiction. As they gained their own aptitude in rabbinic law and tradition, they relied on their own rabbis for guidance. Regional experts increasingly answered halachic inquiries rather then send them to the sages in the east, thus accumulating a body of responsa literature of their own. They themselves were becoming and later became sages in their own right. Indeed, among the very earliest commentaries on the Babylonian Talmud were those compiled in Qairawan by Rav Hananel ben Hushiel, and his student Nissim ben Jacob ibn Shahun. Their work, so well developed, later influenced Alfassi who studied in Qairawan, then towards the end of his life relocated to Spain where he educated ibn Migash who later trained Moshe ben Maimon's father.