It's a Jungle Out There
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

It’s a Jungle Out There*

Let’s face it. The great Moses Maimonides wasn’t much of a people person. If he could have had his way, he would probably have devoted all his time and energy to solitary study and contemplation, with little or no interaction with other human beings.

True, he believed that the ultimate human perfection is to be a prophet; and weren’t the prophets of Israel deeply involved in political and social affairs?

Well, not quite—at least not according to Maimonides. His ideal prophet was a disciplined scholar who mastered science and metaphysics.

He advised aspiring prophets to maintain a prudent distance from the common folk.

The masses must be assessed according to their true worth; some of them are undoubtedly like domestic animals, whereas others resemble beasts of prey. These people should only be of concern to the mind of a perfect and solitary man insofar as he wishes to protect himself from harm when associating with them, or to derive some benefit from them when necessary.

Documents from the Cairo Genizah have allowed us to fill in many gaps in our knowledge of Maimonides’s role in the Egyptian Jewish community. His disparaging evaluation of the masses— and in particular those “beasts of prey” who threaten to pounce on the unwary prophet— might well be based on actual persons who opposed Maimonides in various communal controversies.

We know the names of several troublemakers he had to deal with, and historians lean toward the view that some or all of the names may in fact refer to the same contentious individual who (in keeping with Arabic conventions) was known by an assortment of different names or epithets.

There was, for example, a personage named Yaḥya Abu Zikri who acquired the headship of the Jewish community—the lucrative office of “Ra’is al-Yahud”—by offering the sultan a generous bribe. In a departure from the established local custom, he insisted that the judges collect fees from litigants or seekers of halakhic decisions, part of which would be earmarked for the central administration (that is, to Abu Zikri’s pocket). Rabbi Perahiah, a judge in the town of al-Maḥallah, refused to comply, and his community swore a solemn oath to disregard any orders and appointments emanating from Abu Zikri’s office. There was need for a respected halakhic authority to uphold the community’s resistance to Abu Zikri, so Perahiah turned to Maimonides—who was at the time a newly arrived refugee from Andalusia with no vested allegiances in the local political landscape.

This situation could explain how this reclusive scholar was able to rise rapidly to prominence in the community, and how he became embroiled in time-consuming administrative responsibilities, including a brief term as Ra’is al-Yahud. In the present controversy, the principle at stake was particularly dear to Maimonides’s heart, for he was outspoken in his opposition to profiting from Torah learning and accepting remuneration for the performance of rabbinical duties.

In a letter addressed to the judge Rabbi Pinḥas of Alexandria, Maimonides assured his correspondent that he should not worry himself about Abu Zikri—a mere upstart whose support came from the lowly rabble and whose claim to authority remained extremely precarious. After all, the Muslim ruler had made Abu Zikri’s position contingent on the approval of his Jewish constituency—and the Jews had only consented to keep him in office with the greatest reluctance, after he had tearfully implored them not to fire him.

A detailed account of a communal agitator who was opposed by Maimonides is preserved in a work entitled "the Scroll of Zuta the Wicked." This chronicle in the spirit of the Book of Esther was composed in 1197 by Abraham ben Hillel in flowery Hebrew rhyme complete with the vowels and cantillation signs that are normally reserved for biblical texts. It described how the nefarious Zuta (whom the author equated with Haman) succeeded three times in purchasing the office of “Ra’is al-Yahud”—but each time was deposed.

The scroll goes on to relate how “the Mighty One gazed down from on high, took pity on the multitude and sent a faithful servant, a paragon of glory and a wonder of the times, Rabbi Moses [that is: Maimonides], luminary of the east and west, the shining light and the brilliant star... and he restored the Torah as of old.”

The Scroll of Zuta contains some sensational details about the scoundrel’s machinations. At one time he sought to have himself appointed to office in return for informing the Caliph about a great treasure that had purportedly been buried along with the previous Ra’is al-Yahud (whom Zuta had once deposed temporarily)—but the tip turned out to be false, leading to Zuta's speedy dismissal.

Zuta's second term coincided with the transfer of régimes from the Fatimids to the Ayyubid dynasty headed by Saladin. Zuta seized the opportunity to ingratiate himself with the new Ayyubid sultan (who was evidently resistant to bribes) by informing on Jews who had remained loyal to the previous régime. Three of those Jews were arrested and perished in prison, prompting the community to issue a  writ of excommunication against Zuta, and to successfully lobby the sultan  for his dismissal.

Zuta was also involved in messianic agitation, and announced that the redeemer would arrive during his term of office. Apparently his Hebrew name was Sar Shalom: "prince of peace"—a name with solid messianic associations. During the Crusades, when the mighty Christian and Islamic empires were entangled in a momentous clash over control of the holy land, many Jews (perhaps even Maimonides himself) interpreted those events in apocalyptic terms.

According to the testimony of Maimonides’s son Abraham, when his father had tried to abolish the venerable liturgical rites of the local Palestinian synagogue in favour of the Babylonian practices that were prevalent in the larger Jewish world, his project was sabotaged by a certain “Shar al-Ashrar” [Arabic for “ super-villain”], likely a pun on the name Sar Shalom.

Now we should bear in mind that these scathing characterizations of Zuta / Sar Shalom / Abu Zikri originated from the pens of his opponents, and we should not necessarily accept them all at face value. To be sure, Sar Shalom ha-Levi was no upstart plebeian ignoramus, but the scion of a respected rabbinic family who bore the titles "Ga'on," “Chief of the Court” and “Head of the Academy of the Land of Israel.”

In spite of any questions that remain about the accuracy of the details, these episodes supply some intriguing background about the ferocious beasts that lurked in the shadows of medieval communal politics, ever ready to ambush unworldly scholars, philosophers or prophets.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, June 26, 2015, p. 9.
  • For further reading:
    • Bareket, Elinoar. Fustat on the Nile: The Jewish Elite in Medieval Egypt. (Medieval Mediterranean ; v. 24). Leiden and Boston: Brill, 1999.
    • Ben-Sasson, Menahem. “Maimonides in Egypt: The First Stage.” Translated by Jonathan Chipman. Maimonidean Studies 2 (1990): 2–30.
    • Ben Ze’ev, Israel. “‘Al Meḳom Moshavo Shel Ha-RaMBa"M Be-Miṣrayim.” In Rabbenu Mosheh Ben Maimon: Limlo’t Shemoneh Me’ot Shanah Le-Huladeto (special Issue of Ha’aretz #4788), 46–51. Tel-Aviv, 1935. [Hebrew]
    • Büchler, Adolf. “The Reading of the Law and Prophets in a Triennial Cycle [I].” Jewish Quarterly Review, Old Series, 5, no. 3 (1893): 420–68.
    • Davidson, Herbert A. Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
    • Fleischer, Ezra. Eretz-Israel Prayer and Prayer Rituals as Portrayed in the Geniza Documents. Publications of the Perry Foundation in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988. [Hebrew]
    • Frenkel, Miriam. “The Compassionate and Benevolent”: The Leading Elite in the Jewish Community of Alexandria in the MIddle Ages. Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 2006. [Hebrew]
    • Friedman, Mordechai A. “Maimonides, Zūṭā and the Muqaddams: A Story of Three Bans.” Zion 74, no. 4 (2005): 473–572. [Hebrew]
    • Goitein, S. D. A Mediterranean Society; the Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. 6 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.
    • ———. “Moses Maimonides, Man of Action: A Revision of the Master’s Biography in Light of Geniza Documents.” In Hommages À Georges Vajda : Etudes d’Histoire et de Pensée Juives, edited by G. Nahon and C. Touati, 155–67. Collection de La Revue d’Études Juives 1. Louvain: Peeters, 1980.
    • Halbertal, Moshe. Maimonides: Life and Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.
    • Halkin, Abraham S., and David Hartman. Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides. 1st ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1985.
    • Heschel, Abraham Joshua. “Did Maimonides Believe That He Had Attained the Rank of Prophet?” In Prophetic Inspiration after the Prophets: Maimonides and Other Medieval Authorities, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, 69–126. edited by Morris M. Faierstein. Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1996.
    • ———. Maimonides. New York, NY: Fall River Press, 2012.
    • Kaufmann, David. “The Egyptian Sutta-Megilla.” Jewish Quarterly Review, Old Series, 9, no. 1 (1896): 170–72.
    • Kraemer, Joel L. Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
    • Kreisel, Howard Theodore. Maimonides’ Political Thought: Studies in Ethics, Law, and the Human Ideal. SUNY Series in Jewish Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
    • ———. Prophecy: The History of an Idea in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. Springer, 2001.
    • Levinger, Jacob. “Was Maimonides ‘Rais Al-Yahud’ in Egypt.” In Studies in Maimonides, edited by Isadore Twersky, 83–93. Harvard Judaic Texts and Studies 7. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.
    • Mann, Jacob. “A Second Supplement to ‘the Jews in Egypt and in Palestine Under the Fāṭimid Caliphs.’” Hebrew Union College Annual 3 (1926): 257–310.
    • ———. The Jews in Egypt and in Palestine Under the Fāṭimid Caliphs: A Contribution to Their Political and Communal History, Based Chiefly on Genizah Material Hitherto Unpublished. Ktav, 1970.
    • Neubauer, Adolf. “Egyptian Fragments [I].” Jewish Quarterly Review, Old Series, 8 (1896): 541–61.
    • Rustow, Marina. Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate. Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.
    • Shailat, I., ed. Letters and Essays of Moses Maimonides. Maaleh Adumim: Maaliyot Press, 1987.