David ben Zakkai (I)

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DAVID BEN ZAKKAI (I) , exilarch in Iraq, 917–40. David became exilarch during a period of severe controversy, some five years after his uncle, *Ukva, had been removed from his position by the rosh yeshivah of Pumbedita, *Kohen Zedek, and his faction. David was appointed by the rosh yeshivah of Sura. The wealthy, who were influential in royal circles, were the principal opponents of the exilarchate. They probably wished to abolish the established leadership, which was based on lineage. David zealously watched over the dignity of his position and its income from distant provinces. Aided by government intervention, the exilarch collected a large sum of money from the Jews of Persia. *Nathan ha-Bavli's description of the installation ceremony of the exilarch and of his system of tax collection probably applies to David. In the early days of David's office the balance of authority in the autonomous Jewish leadership of Babylonia was disturbed by the decline of the yeshivah of Sura which was in danger of closing. Such a situation would have left Pumbedita, and the gaon at its head, as the only possible challenge to the authority of the exilarch. David showed initiative and a readiness to depart from traditional ways in order to save the ancient yeshivah and the double gaonate. He appointed *Saadiah ben Joseph as gaon, "who was not of the rabbinical body of the yeshivah, but from Egypt." David had become acquainted with him when, together, they had opposed the gaon*Ben Meir of Palestine over the issue of the independence of the Babylonian community in matters concerning the calendar. In this conflict Saadiah recognized David as a leader. It is related that David had been forewarned of Saadiah's irritable disposition, to which he replied: "My judgment and decision have already fallen in favor of him." The relations between David and Saadiah Gaon were satisfactory during the first two years following his appointment. Moreover, a document is extant in which the gaon lavishly praises the halakhic judgment of the exilarch. About 930, however, a dispute broke out between them. There are differing versions of the cause of the conflict, according to the two groups of supporters. It may be assumed that it was a struggle for the leadership between two resolute men, during a period of upheaval and tension among the ruling class of Babylonian Jewry. The consequences were grave: the wealthy supported Saadiah and appointed Josiah-Ḥasan, the brother of David, as exilarch. On the other hand, David appointed *Joseph b. Jacob as gaon of Sura. The struggle between the contending forces took the form of reciprocal accusations, bans, and counter-bans, and the case was even brought before the court of the caliph. David's party gained the upper hand; Josiah was expelled and Saadiah was removed from his position. David acted with excessive severity against his opponents. In the end the rivals reached a compromise (Purim, 937). David's life was a stormy one, but by the time of his death he had strengthened the authority of the exilarchate. His efforts had saved the yeshivah of Sura from extinction. Furthermore, his struggle for the prestige of his position and the maintenance of the traditional form of Jewish autonomous leadership prevented the rising wealthy class from seizing power.


Neubauer, Chronicles, 2 (1888), 78–87; A. Harkavy, Zikkaron le-Rishonim, 1:4 (1892), 276–7, no. 555; B.M. Lewin (ed.) Iggeret Sherira Ga'on (1921), 117; Auerbach, in: Juedische Studien Joseph Wohlgemuth… (1928), 1–30; Baron, in: Saadia Anniversary Volume (1943), 9ff.; Abraham Ibn Daud, Book of Tradition, ed. by G.D. Cohen (1967), 54f., 58, 61, 130f.; H. Malter, Saadia Gaon: His Life and Works (1921), index.

[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]