Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Princes of Captivity

When the First Temple was destroyed., most of the Jews in Israel were exiled to Babylon. Even when the Jews were allowed to return, only about 40,000 Jews returned to the Holy Land. When the Temple was rebuilt and there was some level of autonomy, most of the Jews remained in Babylon. In time, Babylon became the home of many renowned scholars, and it was in that location that the famed Babylonian Talmud was compiled.

During the hundreds of years that the Jews inhabited Babylon, the head of the Babylonian Jewish community was known as the Reish Galuta, which literally translates to “Head of the Exile.” In English, however, the position is usually referred to as the Exilarch, and sometimes as the “Prince of Captivity.” The princely title refers to the fact that the exilarch was a hereditary position passed from father to son. Jewish tradition states that the position began with the sons of Jeconiah, the deposed king of Judea who was imprisoned by Nebuchadnezzar for over 40 years. Being descendants of Jeconiah meant that the exilarchs were of the Davidic royal line.

The relationship of the exilarch and the Babylonian scholars varied. Some of the exilarchs were, themselves, great scholars. Others tersely tried to assert their control over the scholars. Similarly, the exilarchs had varying degrees of success in their relationship with the government of the land (which itself changed over time). One noted low point, recorded by Rabbi Sherira, was under the rule of Jezdegerd II and his son Peroz, who persecuted both Jews and Christians. On the 18th of Tevet 4231 (470 C.E.). Peroz executed the exilarch Huna (V) Mori, the son of Mar Zutra (along with Rav Mesharshia bar Pekod). 

The office of the exilarch outlasted numerous empires that conquered the Babylonian region. The position remained even after the Muslim conquest in the 7th century. The last exilarch is listed as David ben Zakkai, who died in 940 C.E. 

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