Israel’s recent (and maybe ongoing?) war with Hamas prompted me to look into whether there was ever a Karaite Jewish presence in what is now referred to as the Gaza Strip. As far as I know, no Karaites lived in the Strip in 2005 when then Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon evicted the Jewish residents there.
But I was surprised to learn that Gaza (the city, not the strip) featured in several aspects of medieval Jewish life.
My favorite example relates to the biblical commandment to observe the Month of Aviv. I’ve previously written (see here, here, and here) that the Jewish year begins with the first new moon after the barley in the Land of Israel reaches its penultimate state of ripeness. Unlike their Rabbanite brethren, the Karaites of the Middle Ages searched for the ripening barley to determine the start of their years. It turns out that one of the documents found in the Cairo Geniza is a Karaite attestation to the state of the barley crops near Gaza City in the year 1052. [1.] And the Karaites of the Middle Ages actually had a community in Gaza City. [2.]
Another interesting reference to Gaza appears in Salmon ben Yeruham’s commentary on Ecclesiastes. Salmon was one of the Karaite Mourners of Zion, the most prominent Karaite community of the Middle Ages. Like their name suggests, the Mourners of Zion were located in Jerusalem, and gave up earthly pleasures as they constantly mourned over the destruction of the Temple.
Ecclesiastes 10:15 reads as follows: “The labor of fools wearies him, as one that does not know how to go to the city.”
Yeruham’s commentary explains that the fool who “does not know how to go to the city” is like someone who leaves Ramle to Jerusalem, but does not take the most direct route. Instead this fool goes through Gaza, then Ein Gedi, then Jericho (among other cities), and then finally makes it to Jerusalem. [3.] Yeruham’s choice of Ramle as a departure city is interesting because there was a large Jewish community there in the Middle Ages, and Ramle was the center of a very peculiar excommunication.
Of course, Rabbanites had a connection to Gaza in the Middle Ages as well. As one can imagine, many Jewish leaders were jockeying for administrative and religious authority throughout the Middle East. The Rabbanites of the 11th Century were no exception. The ga’on of the Jerusalem Rabbanite Yeshiva was Shelomo ben Yehudah, himself originally from Maghreb (the northwest part of Africa); one of his main rivals for power was a Rabbanite from Gaza. [4.]
I do not live in the Land of Israel; so I am always hesitant to use a forum like this to discuss solutions to problems confronting the State of Israel. I’ll just note my general view that relations between Muslims and Jews have taken a significant step backward over the last 1000 years. Jews and Muslims were at least able to coexist in Gaza in the Middle Ages – not so anytime in the last 70 or so years.
I pray for the peace and prosperity for all those who seek peace and prosperity.
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[1.] Dr. Marina Rustow, Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatamid Caliphate, p. 17, n.22.
[2.] Id., at p. 24.
[3.] Dr. James T. Robinson, Asceticism, Eschatology, Opposition to Philosophy: The Arabic Translation and Commentary of Salmon ben Yeroham on Qohelet [Ecclesiastes].
[4.] Heresy and the Politics of Community, p. 21.