1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Exilarch

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EXILARCH, in Jewish history, “Chief or Prince of the Captivity.” The Jews of Babylonia, after the fall of the first temple, were termed by Jeremiah and Ezekiel the people of the “Exile.” Hence the head of the Babylonian Jews was the exilarch (in Aramaic Resh Galutha). The office was hereditary and carried with it considerable power. Some traditions regarded the last king of Davidic descent (Jehoiachin) as the first exilarch, and all the later holders of the dignity claimed to be scions of the royal house of Judah. Under the Arsacids and Sassanids the office continued. In the 6th century an attempt was made to secure by force political autonomy for the Jews, but the exilarch who led the movement (Mar Zutra) was executed. For some time thereafter the office was in abeyance, but under Arabic rule there was a considerable revival of its dignity. From the middle of the 7th till the 11th centuries the exilarchs were all descendants of Bostanai, through whom “the splendour of the office was renewed and its political position made secure” (Bacher). The last exilarch of importance was David, son of Zakkai, whose contest with Seadiah (q.v.) had momentous consequences. Hezekiah (c. 1040) was the last Babylonian exilarch, though the title left its traces in later ages. Benjamin of Tudela (Itinerary, p. 61) names an exilarch Daniel b. Hisdai in the 12th century. Petahiah (Travels, p. 17) records that this Daniel’s nephew succeeded to the office jointly with a R. Samuel. The latter, according to Petahiah, had a learned daughter who “gave instruction, through a window, remaining in the house while the disciples were below, unable to see her.”

Our chief knowledge of the position and function of the exilarch concerns the period beginning with the Arabic rule in Persia. In the age succeeding the Mahommedan conquest the exilarch was noted for the stately retinue that accompanied him, the luxurious banquets given at his abode, and the courtly etiquette that prevailed there. A brilliant account has come down of the ceremonies at the installation of a new exilarch. Homage was paid to him by the rabbinical heads of the colleges (each of whom was called Gaon, q.v.); rich gifts were presented; he visited the synagogue in state, where a costly canopy had been erected over his seat. The exilarch then delivered a discourse, and in the benediction or doxology (Qaddish) his name was inserted. Thereafter he never left his house except in a carriage of state and in the company of a large retinue. He would frequently have audiences of the king, by whom he was graciously received. He derived a revenue from taxes which he was empowered to exact. The exilarch could excommunicate, and no doubt had considerable jurisdiction over the Jews. A spirited description of the glories of the exilarch is given in D’Israeli’s novel Alroy.

See Neubauer, Mediaeval Jewish Chronicles, ii. 68 seq.; Zacuto, Yuhasin; Graetz, Geschichte, vols. iv.-vi.; Benjamin of Tudela, Itinerary, ed. Adler, pp. 39 seq.; Bacher, Jewish Encyclopaedia, vol. v. 288.  (I. A.)