Don Abraham Senior of Castile (b. 1410/12). Was he the last Exilarch?

'The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain' painted in 1889 by Emilio Sala Frances, Museo de Bellas Artes de Granada.

A representative of the Jews pleads for the reversal of the decree of expulsion of 1492. The figure in the foreground is either Don Isaac Abravanel or Don Abraham Senior. The figure gesturing behind the table must be Torquemada; presumably this is the point at which Torquemada said that accepting Jewish gold would be like Judas accepting the 30 pieces of silver.

For biographical information on Don Abraham Senior see here.

The Exilarchs

By the Waters of Babylon by Evelyn de Morgan (1883)

This modern song is based on Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yeah we wept, when we remembered Zion
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yeah we wept, when we remembered Zion

When the wicked
Carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
Now how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land

Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts
Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight
Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts
Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yeah we wept, when we remembered Zion
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yeah we wept, when we remembered Zion

Exilarch means 'Prince of the Captivity' or 'Head of the Exile'. The title is hereditary in the House of David and originated during the Babylonian captivity or exile from 597-538 BC. Three separate occasions are mentioned in the Bible (Jeremiah 52:28-30):

  • In 597 BC during the reign of Jeconiah, penultimate King of Judah, the temple of Jerusalem was partially despoiled, and a number of the leading citizens were taken in captivity to Babylon, including Jeconiah who was replaced by Zedekiah, the last King of Judah.
  • In 587 BC another rising took place under Zedekiah. Jerusalem was razed to the ground and the First Temple was destroyed by the Neo-Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and a further deportation ensued. Zedekiah was blinded, his children were killed and he was taken to Babylon in chains.
  • Finally, five years later, Jeremiah records a third captivity.

The first Exilarch was Jeconiah, penultimate King of Judah of the Davidic dynasty, who was still called King while in captivity (he was released from prison in 562 BC). The Exilarchs were secular rulers of the Jews as heirs of the Davidic Kings. I assume that they were not called Kings because they did not rule a territorial area comprising a Kingdom (as they had before the Babylonian exile as Kings of Judah) but their status and authority as 'Kings in Exile' was recognised by Jews everywhere. In other words, the Exilarchs are not of the Davidic dynasty, they are the Davidic dynasty; that is de jure Kings of Judah by right of descent.

In 538 BC the Neo-Babylonian Empire was overthrown and Babylon was captured by Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire. He allowed the Jews to return to their homeland but only a proportion did so, apparently about 40,000; the remainder, probably the majority, stayed in Babylon/Mesopotamia. Thus there were, until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 135 AD, two principal centres of world Jewry, namely Jerusalem/Judea and Babylon/Mesopotamia, as follows. The Exilarch at the time of the ending of the Babylonian exile, Zerubabel, 3rd Exilarch, returned to Judea but was recalled and later executed (510 BC).

Map of the Middle East See also this.

Judea

After the ending of the Babylonian captivity in 538 BC, political power in Judea was exercised consecutively by:

  • the Persians until Darius III was defeated by Alexander the Great at the battle of Guagamela in 331 BC;
  • Alexander the Great until his death in 323 BC;
  • the Antigonids of Macedonia and Asia Minor (founded by Antigonus, a Macedonian general of Alexander the Great) until the Battle of the Kings in 301 BC;
  • the Ptolemies of Egypt (founded by Ptolemy, son of Lagus, a Macedonian general of Alexander the Great) until the battle of Paneas in 198 BC;
  • the Seleucids of Greece and Asia Minor (founded by Seleucus Nicator (358-281 BC), a Macedonian general of Alexander the Great) until the revolt of the Hasmoneans against the Seleucids in 166 BC, although the Hasmoneans did not establish full independence until 141 BC;
  • the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty (the Maccabees - meaning 'hammer') until Pompey captured Jerusalem in 63 BC;
  • the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty as client rulers until the Romans replaced the Hasmoneans with the Herodians in 37 BC;
  • the Jewish Herodian dynasty (37 BC to 6 AD, 41 to 44 AD) as client rulers interchanging with periods of direct Roman rule (6 AD to 41 AD, 44 AD to 66 AD);
  • after the Jewish revolt of 66-70 AD, which resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, the Romans governed Judea by direct rule from Caesarea until the Jewish revolt of 132 to 135 AD, when the Jews were finally expelled from Jerusalem, which was destroyed, and Judea was laid waste, being incorporated into Palestine. This was the beginning of the Diaspora ('scattering') and a substantial proportion of the Jews of Judea joined their brethren in Mesopotamia.

Note that the Hasmoneans, although Jewish, were not of Davidic descent; they were 'Kings of Judea' but not 'Kings of the Jews'; the same applied to the Herodians.

The Second Temple as rebuilt by Herod the Great. Destroyed in 70 AD. This is deemed by scholars to be an accurate representation of the Temple buildings. The size of the human figures gives an idea of the gigantic scale of the buildings.

Babylon/Mesopotamia

  • The Babylonian exile ended in 538 BC with the capture of Babylon by Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire. The city of Babylon presumably remained the seat of the Exilarchate until and after the overthrow of the Persian Empire in 331 BC by Alexander the Great when he defeated Darius III at the battle of Guagamela. Under Alexander's rule Babylon flourished but his early death prevented him from making the city the capital of his empire as he had planned.
  • Following Alexander's death in 323 BC Babylon was ruled by the Seleucid dynasty. The founder of the dynasty, Seleucus Nicator (358-281 BC), one of Alexander's generals, founded the city of Seleucia on the Tigris in 305 BC and it seems that the inhabitants of Babylon (which appears to have been virtually empty from this time onwards) were transported to Seleucia at this time.
  • The Seleucid Empire was overthrown and Seleucia was captured by Mithradates I in 141 BC and Babylonia became part of the Parthian Empire. The city was burned by Trajan in 117 AD during the wars between the Roman and Parthian Empires and was finally destroyed by the Romans in 164 AD.
  • Ctesiphon, directly across the River Tigris from Seleucia, rose to prominence in the first century BC and became the capital of the Parthian Empire.
  • The Parthian Empire was overthrown at the Battle of Hormizdeghan in 224 AD by the Sassanids (the second Persian Empire), who retained Ctesiphon as their capital.
  • The Sassanid Empire was overthrown and Ctesiphon was captured by the Arabs in 637. The city quickly fell into decay. Damascus was the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate from its foundation in 661. From the death of Muhammad in 632 until 661 the Orthodox Caliphate was based at Medina.
  • The Moslem Umayyad Caliphate was overthrown by the Moslem Abbasids at the Battle of Zab in 750 and Baghdad was established as the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate in 762 or thereabouts.
  • The Abassid Caliphate was overthrown and Baghdad sacked by Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, in 1258. Baghdad became part of the Mongol Khanate of Persia (the Ilkhanate), a division of the Mongol Empire that included modern Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and western Pakistan.
  • After the death of Abu-Sa'id (9th Khan) in 1335 the Mongol Khanate of Persia disintegrated into a number of succcessor dynasties, namely the Jalayirids (whose capital was at Baghdad), the Muzafarids, the Eretnids, the Sarbadarids and the Karts.
  • Baghdad was captured by Timur (Tamerlane the Great) in 1401 and, following his death in 1405, was briefly ruled by Timur's son, Shah Rukh, until captured by the Black Sheep Turkmen in 1410. It was Timur who apparently deposed the last Exilarch in 1401 following his capture of Baghdad and no Exilarch was recognised by subsequent dynasties in the region, namely the Black Sheep Turkmen (1410-1469), the White Sheep Turkmen (1469-1508), the Safavids (1508-1534), the Ottomans (1534-1917) or the British (1917-1921). The Jewish population of Baghdad increased steadily and numbered some 140,000 by 1950 but following Moslem persecution less than 100 Jews now remain in the whole of Iraq. Thus the Jewish association with the region that has lasted for 2,500 years and survived 17 dynasties has been finally ended by persecution during the so-called 'modern' era. Many Jewish congregations still pray for the 'sages of Babylon'.

We know that the Exilarchate was initially located at Babylon and we also know that it was later located at Baghdad but I am unclear, at the moment, as to how the Exilarchate moved from the one to the other and when. It seems likely that the Exilarchate moved from Babylon to Seleucia in about 300 BC, from Seleucia to Ctesiphon in 164 AD or earlier, from Ctesiphon to Damascus in about 637 AD and from Damascus to Baghdad in around 750 AD. Thus the Exilarchate would have been officially seated at:

  • Babylon for about 280 years (587-305 BC)
  • Seleucia for about 470 years (305 BC to 164 AD)
  • Ctesiphon for about 470 years (164-637)
  • Damascus for about 125 years (637-762)
  • Baghdad for about 640 years (762-1401)

This makes a total of 1988 years from the beginning of the Babylonian Exile and 2406 years from the accession of David. The physical seat of the Exilarchs seems to have been at Nehardea from the time of Jeconiah, at Sura from the beginning of the 5th century AD and then at Pumbedita from the end of the 8th century until the fall of Hezekiah, 38th Exilarch and last gaon, in 1040; after that the Exilarchs seem to have been seated at Baghdad.

The dynasties which ruled Mesopotamia and under which the Exilarchate existed were therefore:

  • the Neo-Babylonian Empire from 587 BC to 538 BC;
  • the Persian Empire from 538 BC to 331 BC;
  • the Greek Empire from 331 BC to 323 BC;
  • the Seleucid Empire from 323 BC to 141 BC (331 BC to 141 BC constitutes the 'Hellenistic period');
  • the Parthian Empire from 141 BC to 224 AD;
  • the Sassanid (Second Persian) Empire from 224 AD to 637 AD;
  • the Orthodox Caplihate from 637 AD to 661 AD;
  • the Umayyad Caliphate from 661 AD to 750 AD;
  • the Abassid Caliphate from 750 AD to 1258 AD;
  • the Mongol Khanate of Persia from 1258 AD to 1335 AD;
  • the Jalayirid Emirate from 1335 AD to 1401 AD;
  • the Timurid Empire from 1401 AD to 1410 AD (Timur apparently deposed the last Exilarch in 1401).

Babylon

If anything this picture is an understatement. The base of the ziggurat was over 200m, surmounted by a further seven stories, and the walls of Babylon were 80 feet thick. There was a second inner wall of similar thickness. The blue glaze is historically accurate.

Ruins at Ctesiphon. The Exilarch would have passed through this gate.

The Mongol Khan, Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, attacks Baghdad in 1258.

Timur or Tamerlane the Great (1336-1405)

The last Exilarch

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the Exilarchate came to an end in 1040 when the 38th Exilarch, Hezekiah, was deposed and imprisoned. Other sources (see next paragraph) say that the Exilarchate continued until Tamerlane sacked Baghdad in 1401 as described above. It seems that Hezekiah's eldest son, David, apparently 39th Exilarch, temporarily fled to Spain and David's third son Hiyya Ha-Nasi, left descendants in Spain (Is this the Chiya Al-Daudi (1090–1154) who is apparently ancestor of the Charlap family?).

It is curious that the Jewish Encylopedia continues to state that the Exilarchate came to an end in 1040 when it is quite clear that this is not the case. The famous 12th century writer, Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela (Spain), describing his visit to Baghdad in his 'Book of Travels' (1173), mentions Daniel, who he described as 'Our Lord the Head of the Captivity of all Israel', who had 'a book of pedigrees going back as far as David, King of Israel'.

Exilarchs traced down to the present day

The webpage at http://www.angelfire.com/ego/et_deo/index.htm traces numerous lines of Davidic descent (some legendary, others disputed) down to the present day. This list continues down to:

(87) Shalom, 75th Exilarch [of the 3rd dynasty which was founded in 642 AD] 1365-1401, the last exilarch, deposed by the Tartar King Tamerlane; the ancestor of Moshiah HaMelech, claimant (1600), the ancestor of Saleh Ha-Nasi (d 1791), claimant, the father of Pasha (1775-1825), the last of his line, who was called "King of The Jews" by the Jews of the Baghdad “ghetto”

This would mean an unbroken male line descent from King David of 2,800 years.

The list includes 'Yitzak Dayyan, who, in 1933, was recognized by Jewish rabbis as the dynasty's heir; then, in 1968, another Dayan Family member, Yosef, was encouraged by Jewish rabbis to be an active claimant to the throne.' Yosef D[a]yan is a member of Malchut Israel, an organization which is working actively to restore the Davidic monarchy in Israel.

Possible links to the Senior family

There does not appear to be any link to the Senior family in this list except possibly through either:

'(77C) [C]Hiyya Ha-Nasi [born in Spain], father of three sons (78a) Avraham "Nasi" [ancestor of several "Marrano" families], (78b) Moshe Al-Dar'l of Fez (1127), & (78c) Bonjudah Vital [ancestor of the Vital Family].' Hiyya Ha-Nasi was the third son of David, 39th Exilarch, son of Hezekiah, 38th Exilarch (above).

or:

'(74E) Daniel "Nasi", claimant, went to Palestine, Patriarch/Prince 1051-62; the invasion of the Turks [Seljuk] put an end to his reign; the father of three sons, who were: (75a) David [V] "Nasi", anti-exilarch, patriarch/prince 1081-94, who, by wife, Nashiya [daughter of Moshe Ha-Kohen], had issue [note: there were several families in the 1300s which claimed descent from him]; (75b) [name unsure], the father of (76) Jacob, the father of (77) Arye of Cordova Isaac "Alfasi" [fled to Spain 1088] (d 1103), the father of (78) Ibn (1117), claimant, the father of (79) son [identity unsure], ancestor of a Spanish noble house; & (75c) Yosef Ha-Nagid of Egypt 1081-1091.'

or:

'the three sons of (80A) Judah III [54] (above) were:

(81A) David VIII/VI, 60th Exilarch (1216), father of (82) Abraham, father of (83) Nissim, 69th Exilarch (1295), deposed, went to Spain

(81B) Joshua, the father of (82) Hisdai V/VI, 63rd Exilarch, the father (83) David IX/VII, 67th Exilarch (1288)

(81C) Shlomo, the father of (82) Daniel III, 64th Exilarch (d 1240), the father of (83) Samuel, who went to Spain in 1240, the father of (84) Abraham Abulafia "Raziel", who went to Italy, claimant 1282/84 (d 1291), the ancestor of an Italian noble house'

as well as a number of other descendants of Exilarchs who went to Spain.

See this also as well as a regnal list.

The reference to Don Abraham Senior as 'Exilarch'

The reference to Don Abraham Senior in a letter of 1487 from the Jews of Castile to the Jews of Rome and Lombardy as 'the Exilarch who is over us' is problematic if the Exilarchate came to an end in 1040 (see above) as described in the Jewish Encyclopedia. However, the title seems to have survived until 1401 and, if this is true, then it is more likely that someone could have been Exilarch in 1487. Furthermore, the letter of 1487 which describes Don Abraham Senior as Exilarch is not from one individual to another, it is from one Jewish community (the Jews of Castile) to another (the Jews of Rome and Lombardy) and, on this basis, it carries the full weight of an official communication. Again, the Jews were, as I understand it, normally precise in their use of official and religious terminology and the authors of the letter must have been aware of the implications of the use of the word 'Exilarch', namely that the person so described was of Davidic descent. Given this connotation the mis-use of the word 'Exilarch' in an official communication would seem to be unlikely. It is worth noting, in this context, that David Einsiedler in his article 'Descent From King David - Part II' (Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, 1993, Vol. IX, No. 2, page 34) states that 'Genealogists who value religious tradition could say that our rabbis and sages did not make statements about Davidic descent lightly [and calling someone 'Exilarch' amounted to a statement about Davidic descent], that they were trustworthy and insisted on truth.'

Interpretation

The reference to Don Abraham Senior as Exilarch can only be one of three things:

  • It is a transcription error (i.e. the original Hebrew document doesn't say 'Exilarch' at all but something else). I consider this to be unlikely because I have seen two separate translations of the letter and both use the word 'Exilarch'.
  • The word is used simply to indicate someone who was the leading Jew in a community and without any intended reference to descent, Davidic or otherwise. This may reflect the fact that Don Abraham held judicial authority over all the Jews of Castile, including, it appears, the right to try capital offences; that is he had a judicial authority comparable to the Babylonian Exilarchs.
  • The word means what it says.

If Shalom, the 75th and 'last Exilarch', was deposed in 1401 then perhaps his eventual successor was Don Abraham Senior (b. 1410/12). My personal view is that Don Abraham Senior may have been descended from 'Avraham [i.e. I assume 'Abraham'] "Nasi" [ancestor of several "Marrano" families]' (see above) but this requires further research. On the other hand, the Jewish authorities would, I imagine, have been more likely to accept a more recent connection to a past Exilarch, so perhaps Nissim, 69th Exilarch, would be a more likely ancestor of Don Abraham Senior, unless the whole thing is an error of course. One interesting point about Don Abraham Senior is that we know nothing of his origins, which seems quite extraordinary for a man whose rose to become the most important and the richest Jew in Spain. Haim Beinart's book, 'The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain', devotes a lengthy chapter to the 'Senior Dynasty', but where is the dynasty? We do not even know the name of his father.

Note, in this context, that a translation of the same letter of 1487 appears in 'Spain and the Jews' edited by Elie Kedourie (page 70) and refers to 'the staff from Judah that is our Exilarch'. If this translation is correct then this means that the letter of 1487 contains an unequivocal statement to the effect that Don Abraham was of the bloodline ('staff') of Judah (that is, the royal house of Judah or the House of David)*.

*‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.’ (Genesis 49:10).

As far as I can see modern sceptics tend to dismiss the possibility of Davidic descent out of hand but it is apparent that numerous scholars do not do so. More importantly, the Jewish authorities and people at large accepted the Davidic descent of the Exilarchs as fact for 2,000 years. There must be many people of Davidic descent but it is, nonetheless, possible that Don Abraham Senior was the last Exilarch and his family would be of interest for that reason. What is indicated from my necessarily limited researches (and if Professor Beinart's interpretation of the letter of 1487 referred to above is correct) is that:

  • Shalom, the 75th and apparently last Exilarch was deposed by Tamerlane in 1401 when he sacked Baghdad;
  • Don Abraham Senior was described as Exilarch in 1487 in an authoritative Jewish document;
  • members of the families of a number of Exilarchs (and even a deposed Exilarch) fled to or settled in Spain at various times and there is therefore a high probablility (pretty much near certainty in my view) that they left descendants in that country and, in fact, this is stated in various places (see above) to have been the case;
  • no-one else has ever been described as Exilarch without being recognised by the Jewish authorities as a (not 'the' since the title seems to have been elective within the male members of the Exilarch's family) senior heir of the House of David (although there must have been disputes at times);
  • that the Jewish authorities have never recognised someone as Exilarch without good reason; in other words at the time of the appointment of each Exilarch, amongst those making the appointment would always have been people who could attest authoritatively (e.g. religious elders) and personally to the fact that the candidate was a male-line descendant of a previous Exilarch, or who could attest that they had received similar information from someone they regarded as authoritative, meaning that there has been a living chain of memory stretching back over a period of 2000 years.

This line of thought seems quite logical to me. I merely put it forward as a valid area for further research and, in any event, I don't think one can dismiss the letter of 1487 out of hand.

Wikipedia Links

Other links

See the following websites:

Note: Haim Beinart is an emeritus professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has more than three hundred publications to his credit, almost all of them dealing with the history of the Jews in Spain in the Middle Ages and their subsequent expulsion. He was elected to the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in 1981 and has received many other prizes and honours for his scholarly work, including the Ruppin Prize (1966), the Isaac Ben-Zvi Award (1976), the Wiznitzer Prize for the best book published in Jewish History (1981), and the Tri-Cultural Prize of the University of Cordova (1981). In 1989 he became a Doctor Honoris Causa of the Complutense University of Madrid and in 1992 a Dr. Lit. of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York. He has held visiting professorships in Berne, London, Lucerne, and Princeton, and a visiting fellowship at Wolfson College, Oxford.

Back to 'The Descent of Hughes'