Lot 5: Letter from the Cairo Geniza - Sent by Rabbi Shlomo Cohen of Alexandria to his Father Rabbi Yehuda Cohen in Fustat, 1148 - Unique Historical Documentation of Forced Conversion, Kiddush Hashem and Destruction of the North-African Jewish Communities During the Almohad Conquest
15 November 2016
Jerusalem, IsraelLive Auction
Description: Letter from the Cairo geniza, by Rabbi Shlomo Cohen of Alexandria (Egypt), to his father Rabbi Yehuda who resided in Fustat (now a part of the 'Old Egypt' area in Cairo), Shvat 1148. Judeo-Arabic. Manuscript on paper; long narrow format. Complete letter (with damages to text), restored with a delicate net fabric and paper filling to margins. Complete letter with very significant content, dated in the letter itself. One of the most important letters removed from the Cairo Geniza containing a unique historical documentation of the conquest of the Almohad (al-Muwahhidun) movement in North Africa and in Southern Spain and of the ensuing destruction of the Jewish communities. The names of the addressee and the sender appear on verso of the letter [cutoff]: " Our teacher and Rabbi Yehuda grandson of the Geonim His servant who prays to G-d on his behalf, Shlomo Cohen, Shalom" [the identity of the addressee, "Our teacher and Rabbi Yehuda" is unknown, however from the content of the letter it seems that he was a notable person and perhaps an important rabbinical figure. The letter begins with various verses followed by a long description of the writer's personal state and many details of his personal business and his joint business with his father. He writes of purchase and sale of merchandise, of debts and payments to various people, etc. Afterward, a long section appears beginning with the words: "As to your desire to know of the news in Maghreb, that whosoever heareth of it, his ears shall tingle". He then details the events which occurred at that time of the Almohad conquest of Maghreb cities relying on trustworthy updates ["I inform you of this, not from rumors but from someone who came and informed me"]. Among other things, he tells of the conquest of the city of Tlemcen by the forces of Abd al-Mu'min, a prominent member of Almohad movement, and of the murder of some Jews who lived there and coercion of others to convert (to Islam) ["and he will murder all those therein with the exceptions of those who were traitors and converted"]. He continues to recount the conquest of the city of Sijilmasa with the assistance of the residents who extradited the city into the hands of Al-Mu'min. He writes that before the invasion of the city, about 200 Jews escaped to El- Kasbah, Morocco including their own relatives. He adds that after the conquest of Sijilmasa, Al-Mumin tried to convince the Jews to convert to Islam for the duration of seven months, after which he murdered 150 Jews who refused to convert and the rest converted. He mentions that Rabbi Yosef ben Amram who was a Dayan in Sijilmasa was among those who converted and labels him "the leading traitor". Further he writes of "Maghreb communities who were entirely traitorous and no one from B?ja?a to Sijilmasa, retained his Jewish names. Some were killed and other changed their religion". The letter also details the various Almohad invasions and numbers of the dead [he invaded Fez and conquered it killing 100,000 people and in Marrakech he killed 120,000 people ]. This is a distinctive documentation of the destruction of Jewish North African communities in the 12th century, by a Jewish merchant of that time who wrote about the events as they were happening. After this long section, the writer returns to personal and commercial matters. In several places, he expresses his longing for his father and his hope to meet him. He also mentions a Jewish sage who was a disciple of R. Y. Migash and who left Sijilmasa for Egypt [Rabbi Y. Migash died seven years previously in 1141]. In the beginning of the 12th century, the Almohad Caliphate (al-Muwahhidun, "the Unifiers") movement was founded in North Africa by Ibn Tumart, a Muslim Berber who launched an open revolt against the ruling Almoravids and conquered Maghreb cities. Later, the Almohads also conquered the Al-Andalus territory in the Iberian Peninsula. The Almohad was an extreme Muslim movement that forcefully converted Jewish communities in each new city they conquered. In each city they invaded, the Almohad decreed upon the people to accept Islam or forfeit their lives. This decree led to the destruction of dozens of Jewish communities in North Africa and in Southern Spain. Many were murdered sanctifying G-d's name and thousands outwardly converted to Islam. The Ra'avad describes the destruction of the communities: "After the death of R. Yosef HaLevi (R. Y. Migash), came years of shmad to the Jewish people and they exiled from their homes, some to die, some to be killed by the sword, some died of hunger and some were taken into captivity He decreed to singularly target the Jewish people and annihilate them until their name will be extinguished ". Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra wrote a lamentation on the destruction of these communities mentioning the names of those communities. Among them are Sijilmasa, Marrakech, Fez, Tlemcen, Meknes, Derah, etc. At the time this letter was written, the Rambam was about ten years old. Following the Almohad conquests, his father, Rabbi Maimon the Dayan was forced to flee his city of Cordova with his family. They wandered for ten years after which they attempted to settle in Fez but were forced to leave after five years again fleeing the Almohad. They then made their way to Eretz Israel and from there the Rambam eventually travelled to Egypt. Following these events and the fact that Jews were coerced into outwardly accepting the Islamic religion to save their lives, the Rambam wrote his famous Igeret HaShmad, in which he defends those Jews and fiercely attacks the anonymous sage who claimed that those anusim are considered by Jewish law as idol-worshipers and as heretics. This letter was purchased by the collector R. David Sassoon. The version in Judeo-Arabic was published in the book Ohel David (no. 713) and in other places. Some of the letter [the section related to the Almohad riots] was translated into Hebrew by R. Ya'akov Moshe Toledano, author of Ner HaMa'arav [this section was published in the Mekabtzi'el anthology, 37, pp. 651-652]. R. Toledano thinks that the writer of the letter is R. Shlomo Segan HaKohanim mentioned in Igeret Teiman by the Rambam, who journeyed from Egypt to Yemen. A handwritten notebook is enclosed with the letter, with the full transcription of the letter and its Hebrew translation with explanatory notes written by Prof. Yitzchak Yechezkel Yehuda for R. David Sassoon. Leaf, written on both sides. Length: 50 cm. Width: 18 cm. Fair condition. Stains and tears. Restored with transparent net fabric glued onto both sides of the letter and paper filling to margins. Bound. Provenance: Sassoon family collection. Ohel David - no. 713.