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Encyclopaedia Judaica

Jews in Tunisia 03: Arab rule 1229-1543

Hafsid dynasty with tolerance and developing Jewish trade and communities - clothing laws - full integration as translators and ambassadors

Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: Tunisia, vol. 15,
                  col. 1431, map of the Jewish communities in the Middle
                  Ages and in 1971
Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: Tunisia, vol. 15, col. 1431, map of the Jewish communities in the Middle Ages and in 1971

from: Tunisia; In: Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971, vol. 15

presented by Michael Palomino (2007 / 2010)

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<Hafsid Rule (1128-1534)

[1236: Abu Zakariya proclaims himself emir - Tunis becomes the new capital - new religious tolerance - international Jewish trade and products - relations with Sicily and Spain]

In 1228 the governor of Ifriquiya, Abu Zakariya, severed relations with the Almohad caliph of *Marrakesh, and in 1236 he proclaimed himself emir and chose Tunis as his capital. It appears that from then onward many Jews who had been forced to convert were able to return to Judaism; from that date they lived under relatively normal conditions together with those who had fled from the towns. At least the constant threat to their lives and property was lifted. the synagogues, which were closed under the Almohads, were reopened.

Although the Jewish communities of Ifriquiya did not in general enjoy their former prosperity, a class of important merchants, which appears to have survived the Almohad tempest, succeeded in reassuming its earlier position. They resumed their maritime trade immediately after the consolidation of the Almohad rule - well before the advent of the Hafsids. There is mention in Maimonides' responsa of a Jew from Egypt who traveled to Tunis in the course of his affairs.

The reign of Abu Zakariya and his successors was propitious, and the Jews of Tunisia once more developed their trade. In 1227 a detainer was lodged against them in a commercial lawsuit by the podesta of Pisa.

In 1239 the Jews of Djerba established a colony in Sicily. Frederick II granted them a concession to cultivate indigo, which had until then been imported from the orient, as well as henna, which only Tunisia supplied to Italy. The royal palm plantation near Palermo was also given to them as a concession.

In 1257 the Jews of *Barcelona, who maintained permanent relations with their coreligionists on the Barbary Coast, demanded diplomatic intervention in Tunis so as to render their trade with Ifriquiya more profitable. The expenses of the mission were included in the taxes which were paid by the Jewish (col. 1437)

community. From that time excellent relations existed between the king of Aragon and the Hafsid sultan, who recommended to Pedro III a considerable number of his Jewish subjects wishing to settle in Majorca and Catalonia (see *Spain). The king then granted them privileges and favors. Other Jews of Ifriquiya established themselves in the Aragon states, having been encouraged to do so by Pedro III, who granted safe conduct to Hayon b. 'Amar, Isaac b. Bul-Faraj, Ismael Hazzan, and the astronomer Isaac *Nifoci (Nafusi) among others.

There was constant movement of Jews between the Barbary Coast and the Aragon states (see *Spain), and they became useful and even indispensable intermediaries. The monarchy of Aragon maintained excellent relations with the Jews of southeastern Ifriquiya; moreover, the king of Aragon showed a special concern for the Jews of the Barbary Coast and accorded them particularly advantageous facilities to establish themselves in the Aragon states.

In 1285 the Hafsid sovereign sent a delegation to Pedro III and requested that he grant the concession of all the funduqs (marts) which belonged to him in Tunis to one of his Jewish subjects Solomon b. Zahit - probably one of his favorites. For a period of two years Solomon b. Zahit was able to appropriate for himself one half of the income of these funduqs, through which the majority of the goods imported from Europe moved in transit. A Jew of Djerba was entrusted with the proposal and the payment of a ransom of 14,000 dinars for the liberation of the Muslim ruler of the island, which was occupied by the Catalonians from 1286 until about 1335. Djerba then became the center of the trade between Catalonia and Ifriquiya and the Jews played the leading role in it.

[1308-1329: King James II of Majorca: war against Tunisia - peace treaty by Jewish assist of Maimon b. Nono]

In 1308, when James II of Majorca decided to wage war against Tunisia, the goods of his Jewish subjects in Tunisia were seized by the Hafsid makhzan [[state's control]]. All trade with Tunisia was prohibited, but the Jews, who had tremendous interests in Ifriquiya, disapproved of this measure. As a result the Jewish community of Majorca did not contribute to the equipping of the fleet which was sent against Tunisia. A short while later, when negotiations were opened in order to resume cordial relations with the Hafsid state, a prominent Jewish merchant, Maimon b. Nono, assisted James III of Majorca's ambassador in the negotiations which led to the peace treaty of July 1329.

[Hafsid Tunisia: Jewish positions - petty tradesmen - Sahara trade]

In Tunis the collector of custom (col. 1438)

duties, an important official, was often a Jew. In 1330 Joseph Assusi, who held this position and was zealous in upholding the interests of his sovereign, sought to impose additional taxes on the Catalonian Christians and his Jewish coreligionists.

Alongside of these influential businessmen the Jewish masses engaged in peddling. These petty tradesmen carried textiles, leather, spices, and other goods from one village or hamlet to another; others joined caravans which went deep into the desert. A number of them were exceedingly wealthy and were a very important factor in the trans-Sahara trade of Tunisia. Though its volume and importance could not be compared to the scope of that of the kingdoms of Tlemcen and Morocco, it nevertheless greatly enriched the Hafsid sovereigns and their subjects.

The Jews of Ifriquiya thus earned their livelihood almost exclusively from their economic activity, a situation which prevailed throughout the Hafsid period and also after it. However, there were probably also a number of physicians, and aside from their religious officials the Jews also had a few representatives in other liberal professions. They hardly engaged in manual occupations, with the exception of those connected with precious metals, an ancient Jewish craft in North Africa.

[1391: Jews arriving from Spain - developments in the communities with the Jews from Spain: professions, relations]

The great anti-Jewish persecution which broke out in Spain in 1391 deeply affected North African Jewry. The Jewish emigration from Spain which followed this persecution was largely directed to the Barbary Coast. The eastern towns of Ifriquiya, which form part of present-day Tunisia, received only a limited number of these emigrants. Their influx was felt to the greatest extent, in quality and quantity, in the territory of the kingdom of *Tlemcen. Many of the emigrants originated in the countries to which they now turned.

In Tunisia, hostility which prevailed against the newcomers and their coreligionists who had left the country, was unknown. The influence of Jews of Catalonia and Majorca does not seem to have been as appreciable in Tunisia as in Algeria where more backward communities had benefited from their contact with the newcomers. Even so, Tunis, Sousse, and Bizerta, as well as the communities of the central Maghreb, often turned for orientation and leadership to Algiers, the center of such outstanding rabbis as R. *Isaac b. Sheshet Perfet and the *Duran family.

There were a number of rabbis and dayyanim [[Jewish judges]] in the communities of eastern Ifriquiya. Although they were not as numerous, and especially not as influential, as those of the western part of the country - in Miliana, Bougie, Bône, or *Constantine - there were nevertheless some outstanding scholars among them, such as the dayyan of Tenes, Samuel Hakim, who was native born and had studied astronomy under the Spanish immigrant Abraham b. Nathan; the learned Isaac of Tunis and the financier Hayyim Méllili, who was also from Tunis and corresponded with R. Simeon b. Zemah *Duran. Occasionally however, such important towns as Tunis found themselves without a rabbi-dayyan and were compelled to seek them elsewhere.

[Hafsid Tunisia: Tax questions - Jews as translators and ambassadors]

Although the Hafsids decreed that newcomers would not be taxed to the same extent as the native Jews, the number of immigrants does not appear to have increased. The local Jews always constituted a majority in Ifriquiya. It seems that the interpreters and translators who maintained the contacts between the native Arab dynasty and the European authorities in the cities and ports were recruited from among Jewish immigrants. Such one seems to be also Moses, who in the year 1267 was interpreter into Arabic for the Genoese merchants who had settled in Tunis.

In 1421 a Jew Abraham was entrusted with the translation from Arabic into Italian of the peace treaty which had been concluded between Florence and Tunis. In 1485 Abraham (col. 1439)

Fava drew up the Latin version of the Tunis-Genoa treaty.

European Jews were also raised to the rank of ambassador in the foreign relations of the Hafsids. In 1400 the physician *Bondavi was entrusted with a diplomatic mission to the king of Aragon; in 1409 Samuel and Eli Sala negotiated the peace treaty between Sicily and Tunis, which they signed themselves. The above examples of Jews who played an important role in the political life of Ifriquiya were rare under the Hafsids. Even though Tunisia did not have eminent Jewish statesmen as those who flourished in Morocco during the same period, the community was at least spared bloody pogroms such as were perpetrated in *Fez at the beginning and the end of the Merenid dynasty (1269-1465).

[Hafsid Tunisia: dhimmi protection - but restrictions with taxes and clothing laws]

The legal status of the Jews in the Hafsid State conformed to the legislation pertaining to the dhimmi [[protected people of other religions]], which tolerated and protected the "people of the Book" but at the same time looked upon them as inferior to the Muslims. As in all the Islamic countries, the Hafsids subjected the dhimmi to a number of restrictions: they imposed the payment of special taxes, and at the whim of the sovereign or his representatives, the obligation to wear distinctive garments or signs.

As elsewhere, the jizya [[capita tax]] was the characteristic levy which was imposed on the dhimmi. Only rabbis who had achieved a degree of fame were exempted by the Hafsid government from its payment. The government also extorted arbitrary payments from the Jewish communities on fixed dates, or as exceptional measures. This category of imposition was known as qanun. The community, in the person of its leaders, was responsible for its payment.

The Jews of the Hafsid State were compelled as a matter of principle to distinguish themselves from the Muslims by the color of their clothes or the donning of a distinctive sign.

The severity of the application of these laws varied widely. The decree of the Almohad al-Mansur which stipulated that the Jews were to wear a special costume and a distinctive sign called a shikla fell into disuse with time. In 1250 the Hafsid al-Mustansir reimposed this discriminatory measure. As late as 1470 the Jews of Tunis still wore special dress and displayed a piece of yellow cloth on their head or neck.

[Full Jewish emancipation concerning ownership - government protection - the court of Algiers - living places in Tunis]

At the same time, the Jews of the Hafsid State were not affected by any official impediment to their rights of ownership. They freely acquired and sold real estate (col. 1440)

everywhere, including houses which they erected, and thus were occasionally important landowners. They could also possess non-Muslim slaves.

The government authorities truly protected the Jewish communities of Ifriquiya, where anti-Jewish outbreaks of violence were unknown. In spite of the difference of religion and the feeling of contempt which was often expressed by the Muslim masses toward the Jews, commercial relations were maintained on a permanent basis and both parties reaped their benefits from them.

Conflicts which arose were brought sometimes before the qadis. Occasionally, the qadi himself referred complicated cases to the dayyanim [[judges]] of Algiers. In fact, the rabbis of Algiers often campaigned against the exaggerated tendency of the Jews of Tunisia to resort to the tribunal of the qadi.

According to legend the Jews lived in the center of Tunis from the tenth century onward, when the Muslim mystic Sidi Mahrez founded the hara (harat al-Yahud, i.e., the Jewish quarter of the town). In the Middle Ages the Jews concentrated themselves in a quarter of the town around one or several synagogues. On other occasions, they preferred to live in groups among the Muslim population. Foreign Jewish merchants used to live in a special funduq [[mart]] in Tunis.

[Community life and details]

The Jewish communities were granted official recognition and enjoyed a wide measure of administrative and cultural autonomy. They were headed by "notables" (gedolei ha-kahal, ziknei ha-kahal) who were - as in Morocco - a plutocratic oligarchy. This was in contrast to the leaders (ne'emanim) of the communities of Spanish or *Leghorn [[Livorno]] (Italy) origin - to be later established in the country - who were elected by all the members of the community.

The gedolei ha-kahal were entrusted with the management of charitable funds, while others known as parnasim or gizbarim were responsible for the administration of the synagogues and religious funds. They held these functions - which were often financially burdensome - on an honorary basis and were referred to with confidence.

The notables were headed by the zekan ha-Yehudim (elder of the Jews), who under the Turkish rule assumed the title of qa'id. This eminent personality was always feared when he was nominated by the sovereign and loved and respected when he was chosen by his coreligionists. He was always a native of the country, because, in the first place, he exercised his control over the destinies of the communities of the native Jews; his authority, however, also included the communities of foreign born Jews. Moreover, in Tunisia the native Jews were far more numerous than their coreligionists of European origin. As a general rule the rabbis, and particularly the dayyanim, played a role in the administration of the community.

[1492-1497: Jews arriving from Spain, Sicily, and Portugal]

In the wake of the expulsion from Spain and Sicily in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, a number of Jewish refugees took refuge in Tunisia. They do not appear to have been very numerous; furthermore, many of them were only transients. There were several scholars among these refugees, including such highly eminent personalities as the commentator on Rashi, Abraham *Levy-Bacrat, the talmudist Moses *Alashkar, and the astronomer and historian Abraham *Zacuto, who completed his Sefer Yuhasin ("Book of Genealogy") while in Tunis in 1504.> (col. 1441)





Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: Tunisia, sources
Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: Tunisia,
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Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: Tunisia, vol. 15, col. 1430
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Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: Tunisia, vol. 15, col. 1433-1434
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Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: Tunisia, vol. 15, col. 1435-1436
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Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: Tunisia, vol. 15, col. 1437-1438
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Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: Tunisia, vol. 15, col. 1439-1440
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Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: Tunisia, vol. 15, col. 1441-1442
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Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: Tunisia, vol. 15, col. 1445-1446
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Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: Tunisia, vol. 15, col. 1447-1448
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Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: Tunisia, vol. 15, col. 1449-1450
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Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971: Tunisia, vol. 15, col. 1451-1452





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