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Islamic Seals

Though in the technical sense outside the realm of this study, which is concerned with the Jewish seal in late medieval Europe, some attention should be directed toward the seals of Jews under the sway of Islam. Sweeping out of the Arabian peninsula, the warriors under Mohammed and his successors moved both east and west, in the process not only conquering the Persian Empire and a good part of the Byzantine Empire, but also sweeping along the Mediterranean littoral to engulf many Christian areas, including Sicily and most of Spain. These were the major centers of Jewish settlement, and far more Jews in this period lived under the crescent than the cross.

Perhaps the most important Jewish seals ever used were those of the exilarchs and geonim, the heads of the academies, under the caliphate of Bagdad. The Jews throughout the Orient were organized under a strict hierarchy which received its form from Islam. The caliphs, who were in the theological sense the viceregents of God on earth, received unquestioned obedience from all Mohammedans. Under these caliphs supreme authority over the Jews was vested in the Jewish exilarchs, the Heads of the Captivity, who claimed descent from David, king of Israel. The geonim, who were the highest authorities of instruction, were appointed by the exilarchs.* The power of the exilarch therefore was tremendous; he was a sort of Jewish pope serving under the very much greater Mohammedan pope. We gain a vivid picture of conditions in the late twelfth century in Islam due to the travels of Benjamin of Tudela and Petachia of Regensburg. From them we learn that the exilarch’s authority extended over the Jews of Mesopotamia, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula and Syria, Georgia and the adjoining regions of the Caucasus, parts of Anatolia and Turkestan, “the land of Siberia,” and “to the gates of Samarkand, the land of Tibet, and the land of India”—an immense area dwarfing Europe in both size and population (Adler, 1966, p. 49).

We know that under the caliphs of Baghdad, the privilege of using official seals was restricted to the Jewish exilarchs and geonim, which, of course, is an index to the great importance of the seal in the Moslem world. These seals commanded respect and obedience from both Jew and Moslem and were not merely intra-Jewish in their function. In The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (1964), we read:

at the head of them all [the Jews under the Baghdad caliphate] is Daniel the son of Hisdai, who is styled “Our Lord the Head of the Captivity of all Israel.” … he has been invested with authority over all the congregations of Israel at the hands of the Emir al Muminim, the Lord of Islam. For thus Mohammed commanded concerning him and his descendants; and he granted him a seal of office over all the congregations that dwell under his rule, and ordered that every one, whether Mohammedan or Jew, or belonging to any other nation in his dominion, should rise up before him [the exilarch] and salute him, and that any one who should refuse to rise up should receive one hundred stripes” (pp. 39–40).

The early exilarchs are reported to have had a wasp (sometimes given as a fly) engraved on their seal. This motif has a curious history. A Geniza fragment relates that Bustanai, the first exilarch, as a young man appeared before Caliph Omar of the conquering Arabs. During this interview a wasp stung Bustanai on the temple, and though the blood trickled down the young man’s face, he made no move to brush away the insect. The caliph was struck by this and was told by Bustanai that in the house of David, from which he descended, the people were taught, having lost their own throne, neither to laugh or raise a hand before a king but to stand in motionless respect. This so impressed Caliph Omar that he permitted Bustanai and his successors to use a wasp as the device on the official seal of the exilarch.

The geonim also had the right to use seals. Nehemiah ben Kohen Tzedek, gaon of the Pumbedita Academy from 960 to 968, had a circular seal with the Hebrew inscription Nehemiah Gaon ben Gaon—indeed, a Geniza letter is reported in the Chepiro Collection (whose present whereabouts are unknown) with Nehemiah Gaon’s autograph, with the clay seal still attached to the end of the letter by a cord (Lewin, 1921, pp. 132–33). Both the Encyclopaedia Judaica and the Jewish Encyclopedia report that Hai ben Sherira, gaon at Pumbedita from 998 to 1038, was reputed to have a seal with a lion as device, signifying descent from David.

We are most fortunate in having a primary source that clearly indicates the power of this Jewish seal—in fact, the only such evidence the writer has encountered in all Jewish literature. It comes from Sibbub, or Circular Journey (i.e., a narrative put together from notes), of Rabbi Petachia (also spelled Pethahiah) of Regensburg, stemming from a trip the rabbi took about 1170 to 1187: “Rabbi Samuel,* the head of the Academy [at Baghdad], gave Rabbi Petachia a document with his seal, directing that he should have safe conduct whithersoever he should go. . . . Rabbi Petachia carried the seal of Rabbi Samuel with him; and the people did all that he required; and they feared him. . . . Wherever Rabbi Petachia showed the seal of the head of the academy, men armed with spears came immediately forward and escorted him” (Adler, 1966, pp. 73, 78).

Another source informs us of the importance of seals in the Islamic world, this time more directly referring to the area adjoining Europe. S. D. Goitein in A Mediterranean Society (1967) deals with the life of the Arabic-speaking Jewish merchants from the tenth through the thirteenth centuries in the Moslem countries to the south and east of the Mediterranean. Goitein writes of sealing: “Money was handled largely in sealed purses of coins, the exact values of which were indicated on the outside. . . . Two types of purses are discernible in the Geniza records, those that bore the seal of certified money-assayers, of a government office, or of a semiofficial exchange, and others referred to by the names of individual merchants.” He then continues, “When a deal was made and the time fixed for payment had arrived, the purchaser went to a banker and had him weigh, test, and seal in a purse the amount of coins to be paid. On the purse he most probably added his own seal to that of the banker, and it was then called by his own name” (p. 231). This description could not refer to blank seals, which can easily be cut and resealed; we must assume that some identifying mark difficult to replace was stamped on these sealed surfaces. Therefore Jewish personal seals, as distinct from the official seals of the exilarchs and geonim, must have been more common throughout Moslem society than in Christian Europe despite the fact that all internal Jewish business matters were settled before Jewish courts (and Jewish authorities condemned, and even punished, those having recourse to Moslem courts); while other matters were sworn to, without the necessity for sealing, before Moslem notaries. This field of research is still a closed book.


*This order of hierarchy sometimes broke down, with conflicts between exilarchs and geonim, as well as between rivals in these various positions.

*Samuel ben Ali ha-Levi, who was gaon of Baghdad after the decline of the geonim of Sura and Pumbedita, reigned from 1164 to around 1194. He was the most famous of the Bagdad geonim, praised both by Benjamin of Tudela and Petachia of Regensburg on their visits.

The omnipotent power of the seal in Moslem society at this time can be illustrated by an excellent example from literature. Nizami, considered the greatest Persian epic poet after Firdousi, around A.D. 1180 wrote “Khosrau and Shirin,” a love story. In this historical romance the beloved Shirin is given the seal ring of Khosrau, prince and heir to the Persian throne, and told to go to the royal palace in the prince’s absence. She travels there alone on a two-week journey from Armenia, her passport being the ring. There she presents the ring and is greeted with great ceremony. It is obvious to the reader that the presentation of the signet ring was equivalent to a direct command from the prince.

*This order of hierarchy sometimes broke down, with conflicts between exilarchs and geonim, as well as between rivals in these various positions.

*Samuel ben Ali ha-Levi, who was gaon of Baghdad after the decline of the geonim of Sura and Pumbedita, reigned from 1164 to around 1194. He was the most famous of the Bagdad geonim, praised both by Benjamin of Tudela and Petachia of Regensburg on their visits.

The omnipotent power of the seal in Moslem society at this time can be illustrated by an excellent example from literature. Nizami, considered the greatest Persian epic poet after Firdousi, around A.D. 1180 wrote “Khosrau and Shirin,” a love story. In this historical romance the beloved Shirin is given the seal ring of Khosrau, prince and heir to the Persian throne, and told to go to the royal palace in the prince’s absence. She travels there alone on a two-week journey from Armenia, her passport being the ring. There she presents the ring and is greeted with great ceremony. It is obvious to the reader that the presentation of the signet ring was equivalent to a direct command from the prince.

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344859
MARC Record
OCLC
1055142843
Pages
373-376
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-SA
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