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Baghdad, Iraq

Baghdad is the capital of  Iraq. Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid dynasty from its foundation in 762. From then a Jewish community existed there which eventually became the largest Jewish community of Iraq, and the seat of the exilarch. During the gaonic period the Jews lived in a special quarter, D?r al-Yah?d (Jewish Quarter). The bridge in the western section of the town, which led to the Karkh quarter, was named Qan?arat al-Yah?d (Bridge of the Jews). A tomb situated in this quarter was the site of prayer gatherings. The local Jews believed it to be the tomb of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. By the end of the ninth century the famous yeshivot of Sura and Pumbedita were established in Baghdad. The Karaites also played an important part in the life of the city.

Early and Early Modern History

During the tenth century there were two distinguished Jewish families in Baghdad, Netira and Aaron. They were both influential in the royal court and they showed concern for the welfare of the community. At the end of the tenth century R. Isaac b. Moses ibn Sakr? of Spain was the rosh yeshivah. He had traveled to Iraq and “had been ordained as Gaon in order to fill the position of Rav Hai, of saintly memory.” During the 12th century beginning with the reign of Caliph al-Muktaf? (902–908), the situation of the Jews in Baghdad greatly improved.

A short while before 1170, Benjamin of Tudela, the traveler, found approximately 40,000 Jews living peacefully in Baghdad, among them scholars and exceedingly wealthy people. He noted that there were 28 synagogues and ten yeshivot. During the reigns of Caliph al-Muktaf? and his successors, the rights, and the authority of the exilarch were increased and with it the prestige of the Baghdad community also grew. In that period the exilarch Daniel b. ?asdai was referred to by the Arabs as “Our lord, the son of David.” The Baghdad community reached the height of its prosperity during the term of office of rosh yeshivah Samuel b. Ali ha-Levi (c. 1164–94), an opponent of Maimonides, who raised Torah study in Baghdad to a high level.

During the late 12th century through the middle 13th century, some prominent poets, as well as the great scholars and the rashei yeshivot appointed by the caliphs, lived in Baghdad. The most important were R. Eleazar b. Jacob ha-Bavli and R. Isaac b. Israel, whom Judah Al-?arizi, the poet and traveler, referred to as the greatest Iraqi poet. Isaac b. Israel headed the Baghdad yeshivah from 1221 to 1247. There were many physicians, perfumers, shopkeepers, goldsmiths, and moneychangers among the Jews of Baghdad; however, Judah Al-?arizi considered this period as one of decline in view of the past importance of the community.

In 1258, Baghdad was conquered by the Mongols and the Jews were not maltreated, as was the case with the Muslims. Argh?n Kh?n (1284–91) appointed the Jew Sa?d al-Dawla, who had previously been the sultan’s physician, director of financial administration of Iraq. During the few years he held office, Sa?d al-Dawla developed the economic importance of Baghdad and because of this he was appointed chief vizier of the Mongol Empire in 1289. After the death of Argh?n, Sa?d al-Dawla was executed on the pretext that he had not given the kh?n the appropriate medical care. After their final conversion to Islam in the early 14th century, the ?l-Kh?nids reinstated decrees which they formerly had abolished, concerning the discriminatory dress of the Jews and Christians and the special taxes which applied to all “unbelievers” under Muslim rule. When Baghdad was conquered for a second time in 1393 by Tamerlane, many Jews fled to Kurdistan and Syria, leaving almost no Jews in Baghdad until the end of the 15th century.

During the struggle between the Ottomans and the Persians kings of the Safavid dynasty for the domination of Iraq, the political situation of the Jews of Baghdad underwent many changes. Generally, the Jews were oppressed by the Persians, who were fanatical Shi?ites and haters of non-Muslims; on the other hand, they enjoyed fair treatment under the Ottomans.

The conquest of Baghdad in 1514 by Shah Ism???l I did not worsen the situation of the Jews, but with the beginning of the reign of his son ?ahm?sp I (1524–76), they suffered greatly from the hostile attitude of the Persian authorities. During the first part of the Ottoman rule, which lasted from 1534 to 1623, there was again an improvement in the situation for the Jews. Their economic position improved; their trade with foreign countries increased; and there were several wealthy merchants among them. In the early 17th century Pedro Teixeria, the Portuguese Marrano explorer, found 25,000 houses in Baghdad, of which 250 belonged to Jews.

In 1623, the Persians again conquered Baghdad, and during their rule, which lasted until 1638, there was a new deterioration in the situation of the Jews. Because of this, they gave their support to Sultan Mur?d IV, who conquered Baghdad in 1638. The day of the conquest, Tevet 16, 5399, was fixed as a yom nes (day of miracle). Additional evidence of the sympathy of the Jews toward the Ottomans is the custom fixing 11 Av, 5493 (1733), the day that the Persians were defeated trying to reoccupy Baghdad, as a yom nes. Carsten Niebuhr, a Danish traveler, and scholar who visited Iraq some 30 years later, relates that there was a large Jewish community in Baghdad and that its influence was felt in the economic life of the city.

During the second half of the 18th century and the early 19th century, Ottoman rule deteriorated in efficiency and the attitude of the government toward the Jews became harsh. Even so, some Jewish bankers were involved in the affairs of the governing circles, especially in the attempted rebellion of the governors.

During the reign of Sultan Mahmud II, the banker Ezekiel Gabbai supported the removal of the governor of Baghdad, who had rebelled against the sultan in 1811. The last Mamluk governor, D???d Pasha (1817–31), who had also tried to rebel against the sultan, oppressed the Jews of Baghdad, and many of the wealthier ones fled to Persia, India, and other countries. Among them was David S. Sassoon, a member of the distinguished Baghdad family.

The number of Jews at that time was still considerable. R. David D’Beth Hillel, who visited the city in 1828, found 6,000 Jewish families there led by a pasha, also known as “king of the Jews,” who was also responsible for the judicial affairs of the community. The English traveler Wellsted, who visited Baghdad in 1831, praised the remarkable moral conduct of the Jews, which he attributed to their religious upbringing. Wellsted made special note of the feeling of mutual responsibility among the Jews of Baghdad. According to him, there were no poor among them because anyone who lost his means of livelihood was assisted by his companions. R. Jehiel Kestelmann, an emissary from Safed, claims to have found 20,000 Jews in Baghdad in 1860.

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and the improvement of the city’s economic situation, the economic status of the Jews also improved. Many Jews from other localities settled in the city. According to the traveler Ephraim Neumark, the Baghdad community numbered 30,000 in 1884; 50,000 in the early 20th century; and 100,000 in the 1930s.

Community Leaders

In the 18th and 19th centuries important changes in cultural and religious life occurred, because of the activities of outstanding rabbis in the community. A notable improvement took place with the arrival of R. ?edakah ?ozin from Aleppo in 1743. ?ozin improved the educational system of the city and Jewish religious education improved.

During the 18th century Palestinian emissaries visited the Baghdad community, strengthening its ties with the Palestinian population and reinforcing religious values within the community. Besides collecting funds for the communities of Jerusalem, Safed, and Hebron, these emissaries also delivered sermons and resolved halakhic problems. The most prominent of Baghdad’s rabbis during the 19th century was R. ?Abdallah Somekh, who is considered the greatest Iraqi rabbi of the last generations. In 1840, he founded a rabbinical college, Beit Zilkha, whose graduates filled rabbinical positions in many different localities.

Among the Jews of Baghdad in the 19th century were still some writers of piyyutim, such as R. Sasson b. Israel (1820–1885). In the same century there were wealthy philanthropists who contributed generously to the community projects, especially to educational and religious institutions. The most prominent of them were Jacob ?ema? (d. 1847), Ezekiel b. Reuben Manasseh (d. 1851), Joseph Gurji (d. 1894), Eliezer Kadoorie (1867–1944), and Mena?em Daniel (1846–1940).

Until 1849 the community of Baghdad was led by a nasi, who was appointed by the vilayet governor, and who also acted as his banker (?arr?f b?sh?). The first of these leaders claimed to be descendants of the house of David and their positions were inherited by members of their families. Later, however, the position was purchased. The most renowned of these leaders were Sassoon b. R. ?ala? (1781–1817), the father of the Sassoon family, and Ezra b. Joseph Gabbai (1817–24). From 1849, the community was led by the ?akham bashi who represented the Jews to the Turkish authorities. The first one was R. Raphael Ka?in. The nasi, and later the ?akham bashi, were assisted by a council of 10 and later 12 delegates, which included three rabbis and nine laymen drawn from the wealthier members of the community. The council collected the taxes and dealt with community affairs. The collection of the ?askarl? (“military service ransom tax”), which replaced the jizya (poll tax), was sometimes the cause of violent conflicts within the community.

World War I and After

Until the British conquest of Baghdad in March 1917, the Jews were oppressed by the vilayet governor and the police commissioner, who attempted to extort money from them and to recruit their youth for the Turkish army. Hundreds of young men were recruited, and the majority were sent to the Caucasus where many died of starvation and cold. Wealthy Jews were tortured and killed after being accused of devaluating the Turkish pound. The Jews naturally rejoiced when the British occupied Baghdad. The day of their entry was fixed as a yom nes (17 Adar, 5677, or February 3, 1917).

From the conquest until 1929, the Jews of Baghdad enjoyed complete freedom. Many of them were employed in the civil service, while others were even appointed to important government positions. Zionist activities also prospered for some time. However, in 1929, when the British decided to grant independence to Iraq, many Jewish officials were dismissed from government services, Zionist activity was prohibited, and, in general, there was an increase of anti-Semitism. This was especially so after Dr. A. Grobbe, the German ambassador in Baghdad, began to propagandize in 1932.

In 1934, there were large-scale dismissals of Jewish civil servants and, from 1936, murders of Jews and bombing of their institutions were added to even more dismissals. These attacks reached a climax on Shavuot 5701 (June 1–2, 1941) with Rash?d ??l?’s pro-Axis revolution against the British. During those two days savage mobs massacred Jews and looted their property with the passive support of army and police officers. Neither the regent ?Abd al-Il?h, who had arrived in the city before the beginning of the riots nor the British troops, who were stationed outside the city, made any effort to intervene. According to various sources 120 to 180 Jews, including women, elderly people, and children, were killed and 800 injured during some 30 hours of what is known as the Farhud. This was accompanied by cases of rape and abduction of women. The value of the looted property was estimated at 1,000,000 dinars (or 1,000,000 pounds sterling – then 4,000,000 dollars). Thousands of Jews left the city, most of them for India and Palestine. However, many of them returned before the end of the year after failing to integrate themselves in these countries and having heard that the situation in Baghdad had improved. A period of prosperity ensued and continued until 1945; even though the decrees concerning their employment in government service and their admission to public schools had not been repealed, the Jews lived in Baghdad at ease and without fear.

After 1945, there were frequent demonstrations against the Jews and especially against Zionism. With the proclamation of the partition of Palestine, November 1947, even greater danger threatened the Jews of Baghdad. There was fear of a massacre, and the Jewish underground defense, organized with help of Palestinian Jews, was in a state of preparedness; the catastrophe was averted when martial law was proclaimed by the government. Nonetheless, many Jews were brought before military courts and fines were levied on most of them.

Immediately after the establishment of the State of Israel, hundreds of Baghdadi Jews were arrested. Many of the detainees were accused of communist or Zionist activities. A few hundred Jewish youth had joined these clandestine movements, especially after 1948. Two communist and two Zionist leaders were hanged publicly in Baghdad.

During the government of ?Abd Al-Kar?m Qassem (July 1958–February 1963) the attitude toward the Jews was more favorable. Even so, there were severe periodical restrictions on departure from Iraq, property confiscation, and a strengthening of economic pressure on the community.

Fourteen Iraqis, including nine Jews, were hanged publicly in Baghdad on January 27, 1969, after being convicted on charges of spying for Israel. Two other Jews were hanged in August of the same year. In April 1973, the total number of the innocent Jews who were hanged, murdered, or kidnapped and disappeared reached 46; dozens more were detained.

There were 77,000 Jews in Baghdad in 1947. After the mass exodus to Israel in 1950–51, approximately 6,000 Jews were left. Subsequently, Jews continued to leave Baghdad, so that only about 3,000 remained in 1963 when Qassem was toppled by ?Abd al-Sal?m ??rif. This figure remained nearly the same until 1971, when the Jews began to escape from the country to Iran via Kurdistan and the authorities began to issue passports to Iraqi Jews. From this point on, the number of Jews dropped steadily to be about 350 in 1975. In 2005, there were only a few Jews still living in Baghdad.

[Abraham Ben-Yaacob / Nissim Kazzaz (2nd ed.)]

Institutions and Community Life – 1917–1970

During the British administration and after World War II, the number of Jewish educational institutions, especially the secondary ones, increased. In spite of the restrictions on the number of Jews admitted to government secondary schools, their number in these institutions was higher in 1950 than in 1920; but, because of lack of data, only the number in Jewish educational institutions will be mentioned. In 1920, there were some 6,000 Jewish youngsters in Jewish educational institutions: 2,500 in talmud torahs, 3,350 in kindergartens and elementary schools, and 150 in secondary schools; for 1950, the total was 13,476 pupils, of which 1,800 were in the talmud torahs, 8,970 in kindergartens and elementary schools, and 2,626 in secondary schools.

During this period there were also important social changes within the Baghdad community. Most women removed the gown (Arabic, ?aba?) and the veil (Persian, p?sh?), which they formerly wore in the street. The number of girls engaged in teaching and in clerical work increased and some of them received a university education. There was also a change in the occupations of the Jews. Whereas in 1920 they were engaged in trade, banking, labor, and public services, in 1950 thousands earned their livelihood by clerical work or in the professions such as law.

Immediately after the British conquest, the Jews began to leave their quarter to settle in all parts of the city. In the 1930s the Batt?w?n and Karr?da quarters were established and inhabited by the wealthy. The attitude toward religion also underwent a change. During the first years after the British conquest there were only a few Jews who profaned the Sabbath or ate non-kosher food, whereas at the end of this period the number of Sabbath observers decreased.

From the end of the Ottoman period until 1931, the Jews of Baghdad had a “General Council” of 80 members, which included 20 rabbis and was led by the chief rabbi. The General Council elected a council for religious matters and a council for material welfare. The former dealt with ritual slaughter, burials, and the rabbinical courts, while the latter was responsible for the schools, hospitals, and charitable trusts. In 1926, however, a group of intellectuals gained the upper hand in the latter council and attempted to remove the chief rabbi, Ezra Dangoor. A

fter a stormy period, in 1931, the community passed the “Law of the Jewish Community.” It deprived the rabbis of the community’s leadership and made it possible for a nonreligious person to assume leadership. Despite this, in February 1933, Rabbi Sasson Kadoorie was elected chairman of the community. His position was, however, a secular one, while a rabbi without any community authority was elected to the position of chief rabbi.

Just before the mass emigration of 1951, there were about 20 Jewish educational institutions in Baghdad; 16 were under supervision of the community committee, the rest were privately run. In 1950 about 12,000 pupils attended these institutions while many others attended government and foreign schools; approximately another 400 students were enrolled in Baghdad colleges of medicine, law, economy, pharmacy, and engineering. All but two of the Jewish educational institutions closed in 1952. These two had approximately 900 pupils in 1960, while about 50 Jewish pupils attended government schools. The Baghdad community also had a school for the blind, founded in 1930, which was the only one of its kind in Iraq. It closed in 1951.

Pupils in Jewish educational institutions in Baghdad in 1920 and just before the mass exodus of 1950–51

Year Talmud Torah Kindergartens and Elementary Schools Secondary Schools Total
1920 2,500 3,350 150 6,000
1950 1,880 8,970 2,626 13,476

The Jews of Baghdad had two hospitals; one, a general hospital named for Meir Elias, founded in 1910, and the second, an eye hospital named for Rima Kadoorie, founded in 1924. At both these hospitals, Jews received treatment, and operations were performed for the needy for little or no payment. Every school in town had a clinic. The community also had several philanthropic societies to provide dowries for girls without means, help to mothers, maintenance of yeshivah students, and for the vocational training of poor children. All these institutions, including the hospitals, eventually closed. Afterward, the community committee arranged for the sick to be admitted to various hospitals in the town.

Only seven synagogues remained in 1960 of the 60 synagogues of Baghdad in 1950. The community committee had subcommittees for religious affairs and administration. These two subcommittees were elected by the general committee, elected in turn by men of the community every four years. In November 1949, Sasson Kadoorie was forced to resign, when local Jewry blamed him for not acting to free the numerous young Jews arrested on charges of Zionism. He was replaced by Ezekiel Shemtob, who served until 1953, when Kadoorie again became president of the community. Kadoorie still presided in 1970. In accordance with an Iraqi law of 1954, a council elected every two years and supervised by the Ministry of Justice worked with the president. The subcommittees were abolished and a government law in December 1951 also abolished the rabbinical court in Baghdad.

[Hayyim J. Cohen]

Hebrew Printing

The first Hebrew (lithographic) printing press in Baghdad was founded by Moses Baruch Mizra?i in 1863. The press printed a Hebrew newspaper named Ha-Dover (The Speaker) or Dover Mesharin (Upright Speaker) until 1870 and three small books. A second printing press with movable characters was founded in Baghdad in 1868 by Ra?amim b. Reuben, a resident of Baghdad, who had previously gained printing experience in Bombay. The brothers Moses and Aaron Fetaya later formed a partnership with Ra?amim, and after his death they continued his work until 1882. Fifty-five books were printed on this printing press.

In 1888, a new press was founded in Baghdad by Solomon Bekhor ?utz (1843–1892), a scholar, poet, author, journalist, bookseller, and communal worker. He brought his printing letters from Leghorn, Italy. Besides prayer books, he also printed many books which he considered useful to the members of his community. These included tales and works by Baghdad scholars which had been in manuscript until then. After his death, the printing press was taken over by his son, Joshua ?utz, and operated until 1913. Seventy-five books were printed on it.

In 1904, a new press was founded in Baghdad by R. Ezra Reuben Dangoor (1848–1930), who was also ?akham bashi of Baghdad. This printing press was in existence until 1921 and over 100 books were printed on it. For the greater part they were books of prayers and piyyutim according to the custom of the Baghdad Jews, but there were also some popular books in the Judeo-Arabic jargon and a Hebrew weekly, Yeshu run, of which five issues were published in 1920. This was a second and last attempt at Hebrew journalism in Baghdad.

During the British Mandate in Iraq, two small Hebrew printing presses were founded in Baghdad: the al-Wa?aniyya al-Isr???liyya (The Israel Homeland) press, which printed about 20 books between 1922 and 1927; and the Elisha Sho?et press, which printed more than 40 books between 1924 and 1937. When the British Mandate ended, these printing presses declined and finally ceased operation altogether.

[Avraham Yaari]


Ben-Jacob, in: Zion, 15 (1951), 56–69; idem, Toledot ha-Rav ?Abdalla Somekh (1949); idem, in: Hed ha-Mizra?, 2 (1943/44), no. 8, 13–14; idem, in: Sinai, 54 (1964), 95–101; idem, Yehudei Bavel (1965); A.S. Yahuda, Bagdadische Sprichwoerter (1906); S. Pozna?ski, Babylonische Geonim… (1914); J. Obermeyer, Die Landschaft Babylonien (1929); D.S. Sassoon, A History of the Jews in Baghdad (1949); Yaari, Shelu?ei, index; Cohen, in: Middle Eastern Studies (Oct. 1966), 2–17; H.Y. Cohen, Ha-Pe?ilut ha-?iyyonit be-Irak (1969).


A. Yaari, Ha-Defus ha-Ivri be-Ar?ot ha-Mizra?, 2 (1940), 100–59; idem, in: KS, 24 (1947/48), 71–72; A. Ben-Jacob, ibid., 22 (1945/46), 82–83. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: G. Bekhor, Fascinating Life and Sensational Death (1990); H.J. Cohen, Ha-Yehudim be-Ar?ot ha-Mizra? ha-Tikhon be-Yamenu (1973); M. Gat, Kehillah Yehudit be-Mashber (1989); N. Kazzaz, Yehudei Irak ba-Me'ah ha-Esrim (1991); idem, Sofa shel Golah (2002); E. Kedourie, "The Jews of Baghdad In 1910," in: Middle Eastern Studies, 3 (1970), 355–61; E. Meir, Ha-Tenu?ah ha-?iyyonit ve-Yehudei Irak (1994); idem, Me-Ever la-Midbar (1973); idem, Hitpat?ut Ivrit Tarbutit shel Yehudei Irak (1989); M. Sawdayee, All Waiting To Be Hanged (1974); A. Shiblak, The Lure of Zion (1986); N. Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times (1991); S.G. Haim, "Aspects of Jewish Life In Baghdad under the Monarchy," in: Middle Eastern Studies, 12, (1976), 188–208; A. Twena, Golim ve-Ge'ulim, 5 (1975), 6 (1977), 7 (1979); I. Bar-Moshe, Yawm?n f? ?azir?n (2004); S. Somekh, Bagdad Etmol (2004); N. Rejwan, The Last Jews in Bagdad: Remembering A Lost Homeland (2004).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.