Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 October 2020
Judicial Autonomy and the Jewish Communities
The pre-Fatimid history of Jews in Muslim Egypt is little-known and Arabic sources offer only a few bits of information. Jews and Christians, for example, alongside Muslims, participated in the prayers for the recovery of Aḥmad ibn ʺṬūlūn during his final illness. Jews lived in the former Byzantine fortified town (Qaṣr al-Shamʿ), which was engulfed by the expanding town of Fusṭāṭ. Immigration from Iran and Iraq (Hebrew Bavel [Babylonia]) that began in the second half of the ninth century was an important factor in the growth of Egyptian Jewry, and it shaped its spiritual orientation towards the Iraqi academies (yeshivot) of Sura and Pumbeditha and the Palestinian yeshiva in Jerusalem. In Fusṭāṭ there were two Jewish congregations and synagogues, Palestinian and Babylonian, which constituted the Rabbinite community, while the Karaites (Bible readers or Scripturalists, who disapproved of the teaching of the Talmud) were a separate community with complex relations with the Rabbinite Jews. The Palestinian and Babylonian synagogues were located along the Zuqāq al-Yahūd in Qaṣr al-Shamʿ. Although the Samaritans seceded from mainstream Judaism during the Second Temple, there was interaction between them and the Rabbinite community and, in the eyes of the Fatimid rulers, they were part of the subject Jewish population.
The size of the Jewish community in Fusṭāṭ and Cairo during the eleventh century has been estimated by Goitein at 4,000 (3,600 Rabbinites and 400 Karaites). The Jewish community of Cairo, however, is barely attested by the Geniza documents or the Arabic sources. It had apparently existed since the foundation of the town and was gravely affected by al-Ḥākim's persecutions, though it subsequently recovered. The second-biggest Jewish community was in Alexandria, but Jewish communities were also found in the Delta and Upper Egypt and individual Jews lived in many places all over the country.
The yeshivot were institutions of learning headed by the gaon and also had judicial functions and served as a court. The title av beth din (head of the court) was preserved for the president of the yeshiva court, who was also heir apparent to the post of gaon.