The origin of this dignity is not known, but the princely post was hereditary in a family that traced its descent from the royal Davidic line. It was recognized by the state and carried with it certain definite prerogatives. The first historical documents referring to it date from the time when Babylon was part of the Parthian Empire. The office lasted to the middle of the sixth century, under different regimes (the Arsacids and Sassanids). During the beginning of sixth century Mar Zutra formed a politicially independent state where he ruled from Mahoza for about 7 years. He was eventually defeated by Kavadh I, King of Persia, who wanted to introduce communism through out the Persian Empire The position was restored in the seventh century, under Arab rule. Exilarchs continued to be appointed through the 11th century. Under Arab rule, the exilarch was treated with great pomp and circumstance.
Such was the exilarchate as it appears in Talmudic literature, the chief source for its history during the first period, and which provides our only information regarding the rights and functions of the exilarchate. For the second, Arabic, period, there is a very important and trustworthy description of the institution of the exilarchate (See the sections Installation ceremonies and Income and privileges); this description is also important for the first period, because many of the details may be regarded as having persisted from it.
Probably historical exilarchs also found among the Davidians in the Books of Chronicles:
David ben Zakkai was the last exilarch to play an important part in history. His son Judah survived him only by seven months; at the time of Judah's death, he left a twelve-year-old son, whose name is unknown. The only later exilarch whose name is recorded is Hezekiah, an exilarch who also became gaon in 1038, but fell from power in 1040, both the last exilarch and the last gaon.
Karaite princes beginning in the 8th century, after the time of David ben Judah:
A commentary to Chronicles [Kirchheim 1874, p. 16] dating from the school of Saadia Gaon quotes Judah ibn kuraish to the effect that the genealogical list of the descendants of David was added to the book at the end of the period of the Second Temple, a view which was shared by the author of the list of exilarchs in Seder 'Olam Zuta. This list has been synchronistically connected with the history of the Second Temple, with Shechaniah being mentioned as having lived at the time of the Temple's destruction. The following are enumerated as his predecessors in office: Salathiel, Zerubbabel, Meshullam, Hananiah, Berechiah, Hasadiah, Jesaiah, Obadiah, and Shemaiah, all of which names are also found in I Chron. 3. (compare the list with the variants given in [Lazarus 1890]).
The names of the next two exilarchs - Hezekiah and Akkub - are also found at the end of the Davidic list in Chronicles. Then follows Nahum, with whom the authentic portion of the list probably begins, and who may, perhaps, be assigned to the time of the Hadrianic persecution (135). This is the period in which are found the first allusions in traditional literature to the exilarch.
The danger threatening the Palestinian authority was fortunately averted; at about the same time, Rabbi Nathan, a member of the house of exilarchs, came to Palestine, and by virtue of his scholarship was soon classed among the foremost tannaim of the post-Hadrianic time. His Davidic origin suggested to Rabbi Meïr the plan of making the Babylonian scholar nasi (prince) in place of the Hillelite Simon ben Gamaliel. But the conspiracy against the latter failed [Horayot 13b]. Rabbi Nathan was subsequently among the confidants of the patriarchal house, and in intimate relations with Simon ben Gamaliel's son Judah I (also known as Judah haNasi).
Rabbi Meïr's attempt, however, seems to have led Judah I to fear that the Babylonian exilarch might come to Palestine to claim the office from Hillel's descendant. He discussed the subject with the Babylonian scholar Hiyya, a prominent member of his school [Horayot 11b], saying that he would pay due honor to the exilarch should the latter come, but that he would not renounce the office of nasi in his favor [Jerusalem Talmud Kilayim 32b]. When the body of the exilarch Huna, who was the first incumbent of that office explicitly mentioned as such in Talmudic literature, was brought to Palestine during the time of Judah I, Hiyya drew upon himself Judah's deep resentment by announcing the fact to him with the words "Huna is here" (Yerushalmi Kilayim 32b).
A tannaitic exposition of Genesis 49:10 [Sanhedrin 5a] which contrasts the Babylonian exilarchs, ruling by force, with Hillel's descendants, teaching in public, evidently intends to cast a reflection on the former. But Judah I had to listen at his own table to the statement of the youthful sons of the above-mentioned Hiyya, in reference to the same tannaitic exposition, that "the Messiah can not appear until the exilarchate at Babylon and the patriarchate at Jerusalem shall have ceased" [Sanhedrin 38a].
Nathan 'Ukban, however, who is none other than Mar 'Ukban, the contemporary of Rab and Samuel, also occupied a prominent position among the scholars of Babylon' (see Bacher, "Aggadoth of the Babylonian Amoraim" pp. 34-36) and, according to Sherira Gaon (who quotes Talmud Shabbat 55a), was also exilarch. As 'Ukban's successor is mentioned in the list his son Huna (Huna II), whose chief advisers were Rab (d. 247) and Samuel (d. 254), and in whose time Papa ben Nazor destroyed Nehardea. Huna's son and successor, Nathan, whose chief advisers were Judah ben Ezekiel (d. 299) and Shesheth, was called, like his grandfather, "Mar 'Ukban," and it is he, the second exilarch of this name, whose curious correspondence with Eleazar ben Pedat is referred to in the Talmud [Gittin 7a; see Bacher, l.c. p. 72; idem, "Aggadoth of the Palestinian Amoraim" i. 9]. He was succeeded by his brother (not his son, as stated in Seder 'Olam Zuta); his leading adviser was Shezbi. The "exilarch Nehemiah" is also mentioned in the Talmud [Bava Metzia 91b]; he is the same person as "Rabbanu Nehemiah," and he and his brother "Rabbanu 'Ukban" (Mar 'Ukban II) are several times mentioned in the Talmud as sons of Rab's daughter (hence Huna II was Rab's son-in-law) and members of the house of the exilarchs [Hullin 92a; Bava Batra 51b].
He was succeeded by his brother Huna Mar (Huna III), whose chief advisers were Abaye (d. 338) and Raba; then followed Mar 'Ukban's son Abba, whose chief advisers were Raba (d. 352) and Rabina. During Abba's time King Sapor conquered Nisibis. The designation of a certain Isaac as resh galuta in the time of Abaye and Raba [Yebamoth 115b] is due to a clerical error [Brüll's Jahrbuch, vii. 115]. Abba was succeeded first by his son Nathan and then by another son, Mar Kahana. The latter's son Huna is then mentioned as successor, being the fourth exilarch of that name; he died in 441, according to a trustworthy source, the "Seder Tannaim wa-Amoraim." Hence he was a contemporary of Rav Ashi, the great master of Sura, who died in 427. In the Talmud, however, Huna ben Nathan is mentioned as Ashi's contemporary, and according to Sherira it was he who was Mar Kahana's successor, a statement which is also confirmed by the Talmud [Zevachim 19a]. The statement of Seder 'Olam Zuta ought perhaps to be emended, since Huna was probably not the son of Mar Kahana, but the son of the latter's elder brother Nathan.
Huna V fell a victim to the persecutions under King Peroz (Firuz) of Persia, being executed, according to Sherira, in 470; Huna VI was not installed in office until some time later, the exilarchate being vacant during the persecutions under Peroz; he died in 508 [Sherira]. The Seder 'Olam Zuta connects with the birth of his son Mar Zutra the legend that is elsewhere told in connection with Bostanai's birth.
Mar Zutra, who came into office at the age of fifteen, took advantage of the confusion into which Mazdak's communistic attempts had plunged Persia, to obtain by force of arms for a short time a sort of political independence for the Jews of Babylon. King Kobad, however, punished him by crucifying him on the bridge of Mahuza (c. 520). A son was born to him on the day of his death, who was also named "Mar Zutra." The latter did not attain to the office of exilarch, but went to Palestine, where he became head of the Academy of Tiberias, under the title of "Resh Pirka" ('Aρχιφεκίτησ), several generations of his descendants succeeding him in this office.
After Mar Zutra's death the exilarchate of Babylon remained unoccupied for some time. Mar Ahunailived in the period succeeding Mar Zutra II, but for more than thirty years after the catastrophe he did not dare to appear in public, and it is not known whether even then (c. 550) he really acted as exilarch. At any rate the chain of succession of those who inherited the office was not broken. The names of Kafnai and his son Haninai, who were exilarchs in the second half of the sixth century, have been preserved.
Haninai's posthumous son Bostanai was the first of the exilarchs under Arabic rule. Bostanai was the ancestor of the exilarchs who were in office from the time when the Persian empire was conquered by the Arabs, in 642, down to the eleventh century. Through him the splendor of the office was renewed and its political position made secure. His tomb in Pumbedita was a place of worship as late as the twelfth century, according to Benjamin of Tudela.
Not much is known regarding Bostanai's successors down to the time of Saadia except their names; even the name of Bostanai's son is not known. The list of the exilarchs down to the end of the ninth century is given as follows in an old document [Neubauer, "Mediæval Jewish Chronicles," i. 196]: "Bostanai, Hanina ben Adoi, Hasdai I, Solomon, Isaac Iskawi I, Judah Zakkai (Babawai), Moses, Isaac Iskawi II, David ben Judah, Hasdai II."
Hasdai I was probably Bostanai's grandson. The latter's son Solomon had a deciding voice in the appointments to the gaonate of Sura in the years 733 and 759 [Sherira]. Isaac Iskawi I died very soon after Solomon. In the dispute between David's sons Anan and Hananiah regarding the succession the latter was victor; Anan then proclaimed himself anti-exilarch, was imprisoned, and founded the sect of the Karaites. (So says the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906; the origin of the Karaites is not uncontroversial.) His descendants were regarded by the Karaites as the true exilarchs. The following list of Karaite exilarchs, father being succeeded always by son, is given in the genealogy of one of these "Karaite princes": Anan, Saul, Josiah, Boaz, Jehoshaphat, David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Hasdai, Solomon II [Pinsker, "Likkute Kadmoniyyot," ii. 53]. Anan's brother Hananiah is not mentioned in this list.
Judah Zakkai, who is called "Zakkai ben Ahunai" by Sherira, had as rival candidate Natronai ben Habibai, who, however, was defeated and sent West in banishment; this Natronai was a great scholar, and, according to tradition, while in Spain wrote the Talmud from memory. David ben Judah also had to contend with an anti-exilarch, Daniel by name. The fact that the decision in this dispute rested with the calif Al-Ma'mun (825) indicates a decline in the power of the exilarchate. David ben Judah, who carried off the victory, appointed Isaac ben Hiyya as gaon at Pumbedita in 833. Preceding Hasdai II's name in the list that of his father Natronai must be inserted. Both are designated as exilarchs in a geonic responsum (Harkavy, "Responsen der Geonim," p. 389).
After a short interregnum 'Ukba's nephew, David ben Zakkai, became exilarch; but he had to contend for nearly two years with Kohen Zedek before he was finally confirmed in his power (921). In consequence of Saadia's call to the gaonate of Sura and his controversy with David, the latter has become one of the best-known personages of Jewish history. Saadia had David's brother Josiah (Al-Hasan) elected anti-exilarch in 930, but the latter was defeated and banished to Chorasan. David ben Zakkai was the last exilarch to play an important part in history. He died a few years before Saadia; his son Judah died seven months afterward.
Judah left a son (whose name is not mentioned) twelve years of age, whom Saadia took into his house and educated. His generous treatment of the grandson of his former adversary was continued until Saadia's death in 942. Only a single entry has been preserved regarding the later fortunes of the exilarchate. When Gaon Hai died in 1038, nearly a century after Saadia's death, the members of his academy could not find a more worthy successor than the exilarch Hezekiah, a descendant, perhaps a great-grandson, of David ben Zakkai; he thereafter filled both offices. But two years later, in 1040, Hezekiah, who was the last exilarch and also the last gaon, fell a victim to calumny. He was cast into prison and tortured; two of his sons fled to Spain, where they found refuge with Joseph, the son and successor of Samuel ha-Nagid. Hezekiah himself, on being liberated from prison, became head of the academy, and is mentioned as such by a contemporary in 1046 [Jewish Quarterly Review, hereafter "J. Q. R.", xv. 80].
A long time previously a descendant of the ancient house of exilarchs had attempted to revive in Egypt the dignity of exilarch which had become extinct in Babylon. This was David ben Daniel; he came to Egypt at the age of twenty, in 1081, and was proclaimed exilarch by the learned Jewish authorities of that country, who wished to divert to Egypt the leadership formerly enjoyed by Babylon. A contemporary document, the Megillah of the Palestinian gaon Abiathar, gives an authentic account of this episode of the Egyptian exilarchate, which ended with the downfall of David ben Daniel in 1094 ["J. Q. R." xv. 80 et. seq.].
Descendants of the house of exilarchs were living in various places long after the office became extinct. A descendant of Hezekiah, "Hiyya" by name, with the surname Al-Da'udi, indicative of his origin, died in 1154 in Castile (Abraham ibn Da'ud). Several families, as late as the fourteenth century, traced their descent back to Josiah, the brother of David ben Zakkai who had been banished to Chorasan (see the genealogies in [Lazarus 1890] pp. 180 et seq.). The descendants of the Karaite exilarchs have been referred to above.
The authenticity of the names of the amoraim designated as the scholars "guiding" the several exilarchs, is, in the case of those passages in which the text is beyond dispute, supported by internal chronological evidence also. Some of the Babylonian amoraim were closely related to the house of the exilarchs, as, for example, Rabba ben Abuha, whom Gaon Sherira, claiming Davidian descent, named as his ancestor. Nahman ben Jacob (d. 320) also became closely connected with the house of the exilarchs through his marriage with Rabba ben Abuha's daughter, the proud Yaltha; and he owed to this connection perhaps his office of chief judge of the Babylonian Jews. Huna, the head of the school of Sura, recognized Nahman ben Jacob's superior knowledge of the Law by saying that Nahman was very close to the "gate of the exilarch" ("baba di resh galuta"), where many cases were decided [Bava Batra 65b].
The term "dayyane di baba" ("judges of the gate"), which was applied in the post-Talmudic time to the members of the court of the exilarch, is derived from the phrase just quoted [compare Harkavy, l.c.]. Two details of Nahman ben Jacob's life cast light on his position at the court of the exilarch: he received the two scholars Rav Chisda and Rabba b. Huna, who had come to pay their respects to the exilarch (Sukkah 10b); and when the exilarch was building a new house he asked Nahman to take charge of the placing of the mezuzah according to the Law [Men. 33a].
The modification of ritual requirements granted to the exilarchs and their households in certain concrete cases is characteristic of their relation to the religious law [Pesahim 76b, Levi ben Sisi; Hullin 59a, Rab; Avodah Zarah 72b, Rabba ben Huna; Eruvin 11b, Nahman versus Sheshet; Eruvin 39b, similarly; Mo'ed Katan 12a, Hanan; Pesahim 40b, Pappai]. Once when certain preparations which the exilarch was making in his park for alleviating the strictness of the Sabbath law were interrupted by Raba and his pupils, he exclaimed, in the words of Jer. iv. 22, "They are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge" [Eruvin 26a].
There are frequent references to questions, partly halakic and exegetical in nature, which the exilarch laid before his scholars (to Huna, Gittin 7a; Yebamoth 61a; Sanhedrin 44a; to Rabba ben Huna, Shabbat 115b; to Hamnuna, Shabbat 119a). Details are sometimes given of lectures that were delivered "at the entrance to the house of the exilarch" ("pitha di-be resh galuta"; see Hullin 84b; Betzah 23a; Shabbat 126a; Mo'ed Katan 24a). These lectures were probably delivered at the time of the assemblies, which brought many representatives of Babylonian Judaism to the court of the exilarch after the autumnal festivals (on Sabbath Lek Leka, as Sherira says; compare Eruvin 59a).
The exilarch Nehemiah is said to have dressed entirely in silk [Shabath 20b, according to the correct reading; see Rabbinowicz, "Dikdukei Soferim"]. The Talmud says almost nothing in regard to the personal relations of the exilarchs to the royal court. One passage relates merely that Huna ben Nathan appeared before Yazdegerd I, who with his own hands girded him with the belt which was the sign of the exilarch's office. There are also two allusions dating from an earlier time, one by Hiyya, a Babylonian living in Palestine [Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 5a], and the other by Adda ben Ahaba, one of Rab's earlier pupils [Sheb. 6b; Jerusalem Talmud Sheb. 32d], from which it seems that the exilarch occupied a foremost position among the high dignitaries of the state when he appeared at the court first of the Arsacids, then of the Sassanids.
An Arabic writer of the ninth century records the fact that the exilarch presented a gift of 4,000 dirhems on the Persian feast of Nauruz [Revue des etudes juives - hereafter R. E. J. - viii. 122]. Regarding the functions of the exilarch as the chief tax-collector for the Jewish population, there is the curious statement, preserved only in the Jerusalem Talmud [Sotah 20b, bottom], that once, in the time of Huna, the head of the school of Sura, the exilarch was commanded to furnish as much grain as would fill a room of 40 square ells.
A synagogal prerogative of the exilarch was mentioned in Palestine as a curiosity [Jerusalem Talmud Sotah 22a]: The Torah roll was carried to the exilarch, while every one else had to go to the Torah to read from it. This prerogative is referred to also in the account of the installation of the exilarch in the Arabic period, and this gives color to the assumption that the ceremonies, as recounted in this document, were based in part on usages taken over from the Persian time. The account of the installation of the exilarch is supplemented by further details in regard to the exilarchate which are of great historical value; see the following section.
The members of the two academies [Sura and Pumbedita], led by the two heads [the geonim] as well as by the leaders of the community, assemble in the house of an especially prominent man before the Sabbath on which the installation of the exilarch is to take place. The first homage is paid on Thursday in the synagogue, the event being announced by trumpets, and every one sends presents to the exilarch according to his means. The leaders of the community and the wealthy send handsome garments, jewelry, and gold and silver vessels. On Thursday and Friday the exilarch gives great banquets. On the morning of the Sabbath the nobles of the community call for him and accompany him to the synagogue. Here a wooden platform covered entirely with costly cloth has been erected, under which a picked choir of sweet-voiced youths well versed in the liturgy has been placed. This choir responds to the leader in prayer, who begins the service with 'Baruk she-amar.' After the morning prayer the exilarch, who until now has been standing in a covered place, appears; the whole congregation rises and remains standing until he has taken his place on the platform, and the two geonim, the one from Sura preceding, have taken seats to his right and left, each making an obeisance.
A costly canopy has been erected over the seat of the exilarch. Then the leader in prayer steps in front of the platform and, in a low voice audible only to those close by, and accompanied by the 'Amen' of the choir, addresses the exilarch with a benediction, prepared long beforehand. Then the exilarch delivers a sermon on the text of the week or commissions the gaon of Sura to do so. After the discourse the leader in prayer recites the kaddish, and when he reaches the words 'during your life and in your days,' he adds the words 'and during the life of our prince, the exilarch.' After the kaddish he blesses the exilarch, the two heads of the schools, and the several provinces that contribute to the support of the academies, as well as the individuals who have been of especial service in this direction. Then the Torah is read. When the 'Kohen' and 'Levi' have finished reading, the leader in prayer carries the Torah roll to the exilarch, the whole congregation rising; the exilarch takes the roll in hishands and reads from it while standing. The two heads of the schools also rise, and the gaon of Sura recites the targum to the passage read by the exilarch. When the reading of the Torah is completed, a blessing is pronounced upon the exilarch. After the 'Musaf' prayer the exilarch leaves the synagogue, and all, singing, accompany him to his house. After that the exilarch rarely goes beyond the gate of his house, where services for the community are held on the Sabbaths and feastdays. When it becomes necessary for him to leave his house, he does so only in a carriage of state, accompanied by a large retinue. If the exilarch desires to pay his respects to the king, he first asks permission to do so. As he enters the palace the king's servants hasten to meet him, among whom he liberally distributes gold coin, for which provision has been made beforehand. When led before the king his seat is assigned to him. The king then asks what he desires. He begins with carefully prepared words of praise and blessing, reminds the king of the customs of his fathers, gains the favor of the king with appropriate words, and receives written consent to his demands; thereupon, rejoiced, he takes leave of the king."
The Muslim author of the ninth century, Al-Jahiz, who has been referred to above, makes special mention of the shofar, the wind-instrument which was used when the exilarch (ras al-jalut) excommunicated any one. The punishment of excommunication, continues the author, is the only one which in Muslim countries the exilarch of the Jews and the catholicos of the Christians may pronounce, for they are deprived of the right of inflicting punishment by imprisonment or flogging ["R. E. J." viii. 122 et. seq.].
Another Muslim author reports a conversation that took place in the eighth century between a follower of Islam and the exilarch, in which the latter boasted; "Seventy generations have passed between me and King David, yet the Jews still recognize the prerogatives of my royal descent, and regard it as their duty to protect me; but you have slain the grandson [Husain] of your prophet after one single generation" [ibid. p. 125].
The son of a previous exilarch said to another Muslim author: "I formerly never rode by Karbala, the place where Husain was martyred, without spurring on my horse, for an old tradition said that on this spot the descendant of a prophet would be killed; only since Husain has been slain there and the prophecy has thus been fulfilled do I pass leisurely by the place" [ibid. p. 123]. This last story indicates that the resh galuta had by that time become the subject of Muslim legend, other examples also being cited by Goldziher. [Goldziher, 1884]
That the personage of the exilarch was familiar to Muslim circles is also shown by the fact that the Rabbinite Jews were called Jaluti, that is, those belonging to the exilarch, in contradistinction to the Karaites [ibid.]. In the first quarter of the eleventh century, not long before the extinction of the exilarchate, Ibn Hazm, a fanatic polemicist, made the following remark in regard to the dignity: "The ras al-jalut has no power whatever over the Jews or over other persons; he has merely a title, to which is attached neither authority nor prerogatives of any kind" [ibid., p. 125].
Curiously enough the exilarchs are still mentioned in the Sabbath services of the Ashkenazim ritual. The Aramaic prayer "Yekum Purkan," which was used once in Babylon in pronouncing the blessing upon the leaders there, including the "reshe galwata" (the exilarchs), is still recited in most synagogues. The Jews of the Sephardic ritual have not preserved this anachronism, nor was it retained in most of the Reform synagogues, beginning in the nineteenth century.
The following is a reconstruction of some other references used in that Jewish Encyclopedia article but not explicitly mentioned in its bibliography: