EXILARCH (Hebrew resh galuta), the leading authority in the Jewish community in Babylonia. The Babylonian Talmud is the major source of information on the office up to the 6th century, supplemented by contemporary Palestinian sources, later medieval chronicles, and 9th-century Pahlavi texts (see, e.g., Markwart, Provincial Capitals, p. 19).
In Talmudic sources the exilarch is represented as descended from the Judean king Jehoiachin, exiled to Babylonia in 597 B.C.E. (II Kings 25:27-28), and he derived his status within the community from this Davidic lineage. The origins of the office are obscure, as there are no textual, documentary or epigraphic sources from the entire period of the second temple (520 B.C.E.-70 C.E.); its character begins to emerge only in sources of the late 2nd and early 3rd century C.E. Nevertheless, the power and prestige of the exilarch in the early centuries C.E. are apparent. He had executive powers and apparently enforced the decisions of the rabbinical court (Beer, pp. 57-93). There is no clear evidence that he held the power of capital punishment, but there are references to types of corporal punishment and to extralegal steps taken by his officials to impose their will (see, e.g., Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 59a-b, Gitin 67b). The exilarch also regulated aspects of economic life, appointing overseers of the marketplace (agoranomoi) and granting to certain rabbis the exclusive privilege of selling their produce in the market, thus guaranteeing them the advantage over their competition (Beer, pp. 123-26). The distinction between the communal functions of the exilarch and the spiritual functions of the emerging rabbinic leadership was fairly well defined under the Sasanians, in contrast to the frequent overlapping of authority and function that pitted exilarchs against geonim (heads of academies) under later Arab rule. In neither context, however, is there any evidence that the exilarch represented or acted on behalf of the government vis-à-vis the Jewish community, for example, by collecting taxes on behalf of the ruler (Goodblatt, p. 270, 293).
The later chronicles, particularly the 9th-century Seder Olam Zuta (Neubauer, II, pp. 68-87) and the 10th-century Iggeret of Rav Sherira Gaon, are primary sources for the exilarchate under Arab rule, and their testimony is enhanced by literary evidence and correspondence discovered in the Cairo Genizah (Fischel, pp. 181-87). These sources also shed light on the political status of the exilarchate in the waning years of Sasanian rule. Rav Sherira and other chroniclers described the execution of an exilarch in the year 470 (or 471), probably as part of a general persecution of religious minorities during the reigns of Yazdegerd II (438-57) and his son Pērōz (459-84). During the Mazdakite disturbances and temporary removal from the throne of Kavād in 496-98 the exilarch Mar Zutra attempted to establish an independent Jewish kingdom (ca. 495-502), but upon the restoration of Kavād he was executed (Neubauer, II, p. 76).
The Arab conquest and the fall of the Sasanian dynasty posed a potential threat to the exilarchate, and the incumbent apparently sided with the Arabs in order to ensure not only his own position but also that of the Jewish community at large. According to subsequent legend (see Grossman, pp. 22-44), Bustanai, the sole survivor of the exilarch’s family, appeared before the caliph ʿOmar (634-44), who gave him the daughter of the defeated Persian king (kesrā). This story is frequently cited as symbolizing the amicable relations between the Jewish community of Babylonia and the new Arab rulers (cf. Gil, pp. 58-80, arguing that the exilarch opposed the Arab conquest). It was ultimately used by Jewish opponents to cast aspersions on the exilarch, supposedly descended from a gentile princess.
There is no clear description of the functions and authority of the exilarchate under Arab rule, and the status of the office seems to have fluctuated over the years (Gil, pp. 81-114). A critical turning point came in 825 C.E., after the Karaite schism, when the caliph al-Maʾmūn (198-218/813-33) issued a decree allowing ten men of any minority to organize a separate community and choose their own leader. This decree weakened the cohesiveness of all minorities, and it was from that period that exilarchs were challenged by the geonim both for influence within the Jewish community and for funds collected from the subcommunities. The functions of the exilarch can be partially reconstructed from comparison of his status with that of the leader of another religious minority, the Nestorian katholikos. In a letter of appointment issued in the mid-11th century the functions of the katholikos were enumerated: responsibility for the religious life of the community, control over communal funds, responsibility for the communal judiciary, and the authority to punish those who rebel (Conrad, pp. 92-94). Correspondingly the exilarch appointed judges, maintained a court, punished those who refused to recognize its decisions, regulated the affairs of the academies, and disbursed funds to needy segments of the community. These powers were never constant and were frequently challenged by geonim as well as by wealthy merchants and bankers.
The Genizah material has shown that the office was in existence at least as late as 1258, when Baghdad fell to the Mongol armies (Goode pp. 167-68). It is possible that it continued in limited fashion until about 1400 C.E.
E. Bashan, Mivhar bibliyografi al rashut ha-golah: ha-nesiut ve ha-negidut ba-mizrah (Selected bibliography of the exilarchs: nesiim and negidim in the Middle East), Ramat-Gan, 1974.
M. Beer, Rashut ha-golah bi yeme ha-mishnah veha tal (The Babylonian exilarchate), 2nd ed., Ramat-Gan, 1976 (in Hebrew).
L. I. Conrad, “A Nestorian Diploma of Investiture from the Taḏkira of Ibn Ḥamdūn: The Text and Its Significance,” in W. al-Qadi, ed., Studia Arabica et Islamica: Festschrift for Iḥsan ʿAbbās, Beirut, 1981, pp. 83-104.
W. I. Fischel, “The ‘Resh Galuta’ in Arabic Literature” (in Hebrew), in F. I. Baer et al., eds., Magnes Anniversary Book, Jerusalem 1938, pp. 181-87.
M. Gil, Be-malkhut Yishmaʿel bi-tekufat ha-Geʿonim (In the kingdom of Ishmael), Jerusalem, 1997, pp. 58-114.
D. M. Goodblatt, “The Poll Tax in Sasanian Babylonia,” JESHO 22, 1979, pp. 233-95.
A. D. Goode, “The Exilarchate in the Eastern Caliphate, 637-1285,” Jewish Quarterly Review 31, 1940-41, pp. 149-69.
A. Grossman, Rashut ha-golah be bavel bi tekufat ha-geonim (The Babylonian Exilarchate in the Gaonic Period), Jerusalem, 1984.
F. Lazarus, “Die Häupter der Vertriebenen,” in Jahrbücher für jüdische Geschichte und Literatur 10, 1890, pp. 1-183.
B. M. Lewin, Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon, Haifa, 1921.
A. Neubauer, Mediaeval Jewish Chronicles, 2 vols., Oxford, 1887-95.
J. Neusner, A History of the Jews in Babylonia, 5 vols., Leiden, 1965-70.
(Isaiah M. Gafni)
Originally Published: December 15, 1999
Last Updated: December 15, 2012
This article is available in print.
Vol. IX, Fasc. 2, pp. 126-127