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The Four Captives

The Four Captives is a story circulated in Spain in the Middle Ages on the subject of four rabbis who were taken captive. According to this story, which is preserved in Abraham *Ibn Daud's Sefer ha-Kabbalah (The Book of Tradition, ed. by G.D. Cohen (1967), 46–49, 63–67), a Muslim sea raider from Cordoba, Spain (probably Ibn Rumahis, 974) captured a ship which had set sail from Bari in southern Italy. On it were four rabbis who were on a mission (it is conjectured on behalf of the Babylonian academy) to raise funds for the dowries of poor brides. These rabbis were redeemed by Jewish communities: R. *Shemariah b. Elhanan in Alexandria, Egypt; R. *Ḥushi'el was sold in "Africa" (i.e., Tunisia) and became the leader of the Kairouan rabbis; R. *Moses b. Ḥanokh and his son *Hanokh were redeemed in Cordoba. The identity of the fourth captive and the place where he was redeemed was not stated.

There are various opinions among researchers as to the authenticity of this story. The principal argument against its veracity is to be found in a letter written by R. Ḥushi'el to R. Shemariah b. Elhanan and his son Elhanan, from which it is evident that he left his country (perhaps ltaly) voluntarily in order to travel to Egypt, but remained in Kairouan to await the arrival of his son Elhanan. It also appears that R. Shemariah b. Elhanan was already in Egypt, as his father was the leader of Egyptian Jewry. Another objection is chronological. On the one hand, Ibn Daud writes (ibid., 66/48) that the appointment of R. Moses b. Hanokh occurred during the lifetime of R. *Sherira Gaon in about 990, while on the other hand, it appears from his account that his appointment, as well as that of his son Hanokh several years later, occurred during the lifetime of *Ḥisdai ibn Shaprut, who died in about 990 (ibid., 67). The story of Ibn Daud reflects the popular tradition which was current among the Jews of Andalusia during the generation after R. Moses Ḥanokh's arrival in Spain. A proof for the relative antiquity of the tradition is the fact that David *Conforte, in his Kore ha-Dorot (1846, 5a), recounts it on the authority of *Samuel ha-Nagid (993–1056). By this story Ibn Daud presumably wanted to demonstrate the historical fact of the disintegration of the spiritual center in Babylonia, its gradual removal to Spain from the beginning of the tenth century, and the end of the dependence of the Spanish rabbis on Babylonia. From the time of the arrival of R. Moses b. Ḥanokh in Spain the Spanish scholars became independent. Indeed, the story of R. Moses B. Ḥanokh's appointment to the position of chief dayyan in Cordoba in the place of the dayyan R. Nathan, who surrendered his position to R. Moses b. Ḥanokh when he became aware of the latter's erudition, is an ancient motif which already existed in talmudic literature (in the story of *Hillel and the *Benei Bathyra, Pes. 66a). It appears that Abraham Ibn Daud and the author of Midrash Tanḥuma, who brings a similar motif (Tanh. Ex. 277), drew this idea from an ancient source.


S. Eppenstein, in: MGWJ, 55 (1911), 324–9, 464–77, 614–28; 56 (1912), 80–98; J. Mann, in: JQR, 9 (1918/ 19), 165–79; S. Schechter, in: JQR, 11 (1899), 643–50; G.D. Cohen, in: PAAJR, 29 (1961), 55–131; Auerbach, in: Jahresbericht des Rabbiner-Seminars zu Berlin fuer 1925, 1926, 1927 (1928), 1–39; L. Blau, in: Festschrift … David Simonsen (1923), 129–33 (Ger.); Z. Javetz, Toledot Yisrael, 10 (1932), 238–43; Abramson, Merkazim, 159–61; Ashtor, Korot, 1 (19662), 289–90; Hirschberg, Afrikah, 1 (1965), 24 lf., 382; M. Margalioth, Hilkhot ha-Nagid (1962), 6f.

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