The Jews of Narbonne and a Babylonian Sage
A Jewish Kingdom in France
The Jewish community of Narbonne in southern France left an indelible mark on Jewish history. Chachmei Narbona, the Sages of Narbonne, are mentioned in rabbinical responsa throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. They are cited by the Rashba,1Teshuvos HaRashba, part V, 259:3. the Rivash,2Teshuvos HaRivash 79. the Maharashdam,3She’elos uTeshuvos Maharashdam, Yoreh Deah 37:4. the Radbaz,4Teshuvos HaRadbaz, volume 4, 1271. and others. The Rambam quotes Chachmei Narbona in his letters.5Igeros HaRambam, Iggeres Kannaus. Who were these Chachmei Narbona? How did their scholarship come about?
Jews in Narbonne
The area comprising today’s France was called Gaul in Roman times. Originally occupied by Gallic tribes, the lands of Gaul were conquered by Julius Caesar and absorbed into the Roman Empire and it remained under Roman rule for the following five centuries. During the Roman period, Jews made an occasional appearance in these lands. French Jewish historian Esther Benbassa writes:6Benbassa, Esther. The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present. Princeton University Press, 2001. Page 4.
A number of legends surround the settlement of the Jews in Gaul. From the beginning of the Christian era, mention is made of certain Judean notables who were forced out of their native land by the Roman authorities. As a land of exile for condemned Roman politicians, Gaul must have also received Jews suffering the same fate.
While individual Jews might have found themselves in Gaul due to their circumstances, organized Jewish communities do not appear in written records until the 4th century. Dr. Benbassa explains that Jews were drawn to Gaul to escape the increasing Christianization, and the accompanying persecution of Jews, in more central areas of the Roman Empire. First Jewish communities formed along the route taken by the Roman legions, following the valley of the Rhone River. Jews would follow the Romans as soldiers, tradesmen, or merchants.
Dr. Benbassa writes:7Benbassa, Esther. The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present. Princeton University Press, 2001. Page 4.
The Gauls considered them Romans. The Jews living in Gaul benefited from certain rights and privileges deriving from their Roman citizenship… These included freedom of worship, military service, and access to public office. Jews practiced trades that did not distinguish them from other Roman citizens, such as agriculture and wine-growing. Nor did they limit their activities to commerce alone. They dressed like the rest of the population, bore arms, and spoke the local language; even in the synagogue, Hebrew was not the only language used for rituals. Their ancestral names—biblical, Roman, and Gallo-Roman—did not differentiate them from other inhabitants. During this period relations between Jews and the surrounding society were relatively harmonious.
Narbonne, located along a well-traveled route on the coast of the Mediterranean, was one of the towns where the Jews making their way through Gaul stopped and settled. There is evidence of a Jewish presence in Narbonne beginning in the 5th century, mostly expressed in Christian complaints about the Jews owning land or Christian slaves.8Zuckerman, Arthur J. A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, Columbia University Press, 1972, Page 7. Of particular interest is a certain tombstone discovered in Narbonne, dating to 688-689, which has Hebrew writing (currently on display at the Museum of Art and History in Narbonne).9The Cultural Guide to Jewish Europe: Narbonne. Available at: jguideeurope.org.
With the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the neighboring Germanic nation known as the Franks slowly moved into Gaul from the north, conquering towns and forming small Frankish kingdoms. From the south, another Germanic nation, the Visigoths, also began conquering Gaul’s towns. Narbonne fell under Visigoth jurisdiction.
Originally, the Visigoth rulers did not persecute Jews. Throughout the 5th and most of the 6th century, Jews in Narbonne owned land, engaged in commerce, and practiced their religion in peace. All of this changed in 589 CE. American Jewish historian Solomon Grayzel writes:10Grayzel, Solomon. A History of the Jews. The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1947.
Trouble began because of a struggle for power within the ruling class. The Visigoth kings were kings only in name. Their nobles did not always obey them. Rebellions were frequent. In 589, Reccared was elected king and decided to strengthen his position. He turned Roman Catholic, thereby obtaining the help of the Catholic clergy. Through the clergy he also gained the support of the Catholic population against the unruly Visigothic nobility. The bishops, in turn, now saw their chance of destroying the respect which the Jews enjoyed among the common people. The king wanted to prevent the aid which the Jews might extend to the nobles who opposed him. Therefore, king and bishops joined hands to prohibit Judaism entirely. The Jews were ordered to become Catholics or to leave the country.
Historian Henry Abramson explains that along with Catholicism, the Visigoths also discovered anti-Semitism. He says:11The Nasi of Narbonne (Jews of the Rhone, part 3) video by Henry Abramson, available at: henryabramson.com.
They instituted a 122-year reign of terror on the Jews, with absolutely incredible, unusually intrusive persecutions … That ended in the year 711 when the Muslims conquered the Iberian peninsula from the south and actually penetrated, with some degree of success, into southern France [including Narbonne] … Coming in of the Muslims actually shifted the position of the Jews in a very positive way.
The Muslims had intended to conquer the whole world, but they were stopped by the Frankish king Charles Martel at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. The Franks weren’t satisfied with simply stopping the Muslim invasion; they wanted to conquer the lands now occupied by the Muslims, and they set their eyes on Narbonne.
Siege and Conquest of Narbonne
King Pepin the Short, son and successor of Charles Martel, continued his father’s battle. He besieged the city of Narbonne in 752. However, due to its location on the coast of the Mediterranean, Narbonne continued to receive provisions delivered by the Muslim navy.
Between the town’s resistance and the Frankish kingdom’s own internal struggles, the siege continued for seven years, with no resolution in sight. Desperate to end the siege and capture the town, the Frankish king turned to non-Muslim residents of Narbonne for help. Who were these non-Muslims living in Narbonne? While some historians believe they were Goths, others suggest that they were Jews.
Jewish writings seem to confirm the latter opinion. Two Jewish sources discuss the Frankish conquest of Narbonne. In his sefer Milchemes Mitzvah, 13th century Narbonne scholar Meir ben Shimon tells the following story about the history of the Narbonne Jewish community:12Milchemes Mitzvah. Hebrew text quoted in an appendix to Zuckerman’s book. English translation mine.
When King Carlus13Even though the Frankish king is called “Carlus” in this sefer, historians believe that it refers to Pepin the Short. conquered the city of Narbonne, at the time when they fought with the Yishmaelim that were there, his horse was killed in front of the gate, and he [the king] fell on the ground. He was in their hands to kill, and of all the strong men that were with him not one wanted to get off his horse and give it to him [the king] because they were afraid that if they get off their horses they’d get killed there. Until a Jew who was there with them, a great hero, got down from his horse and let him [the king] ride it, and he [the Jew] remained there on foot and died by the hand of the Yishmaelim.
Milchemes Mitzvah goes on to describe the king’s eternal gratitude and the reward that he bestowed upon the Jews of Narbonne – a third of the city and its surroundings, as well as just and benevolent laws that protected Jewish lives and possessions for centuries to come.
The story of the fallen horse is not confirmed by any other source, but the Frankish kings’ benevolence to the Jews after their conquest of Narbonne is well known. We will leave it to the reader to distill historical facts from the poetic license in this story.
Another medieval sefer, Sefer Haqabbalah by Avraham ibn Daud, also tells of the gifts the Frankish king granted the Jews of Narbonne after conquering the town:14Avraham ben Daud. Sefer Haqabbalah. Hebrew text quoted in an appendix to Zuckerman’s book. English translation mine.
And at the time of the capture of the city the king divided it into three parts. One he gave to the ruler of the city, and his name is Don Aymerik.15Likely refers to Aymeri de Narbonne, legendary hero mentioned in medieval French literature. And the second part to the bishop of the city. And the third part he gave to R’ Machir and made him ben chorin [free man – perhaps in the sense of nobleman] and out of his love made good laws for all the Jews living in the city, as is written and sealed in the Christian document, with the stamp of King Carlus, and [that document] is in their hands until today.
Putting aside the identity of Rav Machir for a moment, we see that Sefer Haqabbalah confirms the assertion made by Milchemes Mitzvah that the king granted a third of the city of Narbonne to its Jewish residents.
In addition to the two Jewish sources, there also exist two Christian accounts16Zuckerman, Arthur J. A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France. Columbia University Press, 1972. Pages 36-46. that tell of non-Muslim residents of Narbonne who delivered the town to the Franks in exchange for a promise of self-government. However, while one of them refers to the non-Muslim residents as “Jews,” the other refers to them as “Goths.”
Until 1972, historians believed that the version referring to Goths was the historically accurate one, with the other version being fictional. In 1972, however, Jewish American historian Arthur J. Zuckerman published a groundbreaking book, entitled A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900, where he presents a detailed argument for the existence of a self-governed Jewish state in Narbonne – the autonomy, the Jews received as a result of King Pepin’s promise when they delivered Narbonne into his hands.
Who was Rav Machir?
Among his arguments, Zuckerman brings later French sources that refer to a Jewish ruler of Narbonne.17Ibid., pages 49-58. In addition, the above-mentioned quote from Sefer Haqabbalah tells us the name of the first Jewish ruler of Narbonne – Rav Machir. It also tells us how Rav Machir got to Narbonne:
And the king Carlus sent to the king of Bavel [to request] that he sent from his Jews, from the offspring of kingship, from the house of David, and he listened to him and sent to him one of them, great and wise, and his name is R’ Machir. He settled him in Narbonne, the great city, and planted him there and gave him a great possession (achuza) there at the time of its capture from the Yishmaelim, and he married a wife from the greats of the city. And the Nasi, R’ Machir, was there as a head, and his descendants were close to the king … He and his descendants were from the leaders of the generation and lawyers and judges in all the lands, like rashei galuyos, and they faithfully and wisely shepherded the Jews.
Thus, we know that Rav Machir was a Babylonian scholar, possibly a descendant of David Hamelech, and he came from Bavel to Narbonne on the Frankish king’s personal invitation. He settled in Narbonne, on land presented to him by the king, and married a local woman. The couple had children, who became leaders in their own right. Descendants of Rav Machir continued to lead the Jewish community in Narbonne long after his death. According to Sefer Haqabbalah, “There were in Narbonne great sages, roshei yeshiva, trusted and known for leadership (nesius), like roshei yeshivos in Bavel.” The sefer continues to list many of them. Among Rav Machir’s prominent descendants were Rav Todros and Rav Klonimus of Narbonne. These rabbis are also mentioned by another medieval Jewish writer, Binyamin of Tudela, in his travel notes.18Ibid., page 58.
This would seem to be the end of our inquiry into Rav Machir’s origins. However, Zuckerman looked into the matter further and made a surprising claim. He proposed that Rav Machir was none other than the deposed and exiled reish galusa Netronai ben Chabibai19Ibid., pages 74-83. (also spelled Natronai in some sources).
Who was Netronai ben Chabibai?
To appreciate Zuckerman’s claim we need to understand what transpired at the same time in the land of Bavel, which was home to the largest Jewish community at the time. In the 8th century, the period of the Geonim, Babylonian yeshivos were thriving, their Torah scholarship unparalleled, and the Jews lived rather comfortably, governed by the reish galusa, a descendant of David Hamelech, whose role was very similar to that of a king. The reish galusa was respected by Jews and non-Jews alike and enjoyed close relationships with the caliph and other prominent personalities.
The position of reish galusa was passed down from father to son and could be traced all the way back to King Yehoyachin, who was exiled to Bavel by Nevuchadnetzar. Most of the time, the transfer of leadership happened seamlessly upon the reish galusa’s death, with a clear successor accepted by the whole community.
However, conflicts over the position of reish galusa arose after the death of the legendary Bustenai. The story of Bustenai deserves its own article. For our purposes, we will only mention that Bustenai had two wives: one Jewish by birth and another a Persian princess who was presented as a gift to Bustenai by Caliph Omar. Unable to refuse the caliph’s gift, Bustenai converted his Persian wife, and they had several children. Bustenai’s Jewish wife also had children with him. After Bustenai’s death, the children of the Jewish wife refused to recognize the children of the Persian wife as genuinely Jewish, and the two sets of descendants fought over the position of reish galusa for the next several generations.20Holder, Meir. History of the Jewish People: From Yavneh to Pumbedisa. Mesorah Publications, 1986. Page 246.
The conflict finally came to an end towards the end of the 8th century, when Zakkai ben Achunai, descended from the Persian wife, and Netronai ben Chabibai, descendant of the Jewish wife, disputed the position of the reish galusa. While Netronai did receive some rabbinical support, eventually the Gaonim appointed Zakkai as the reish galusa. Netronai left Bavel for the West.21Ibid., page 282.
Zuckerman posits that Netronai ben Chabibai was the Babylonian sage who travelled to Narbonne on the Frankish king’s invitation, settled there, and became known under his Hebrew name, Machir. He writes:22Ibid., pages 80-81.
In the year 768 the Frank mission returned from Baghdad accompanied by Al-Mansur’s ambassadors laden with gifts. The delegation entered the realm of the Franks at Marseilles. Clearly they covered the last leg of their journey by sea although their point of embarkation is unknown. Now a report of Natronai’s journey to the West tells of his arrival bikefitsat haderekh, in a miraculously short time, and adds that he did not travel by caravan and no one caught sight of him on the way. In all likelihood then Natronai also came by sea and, to judge from subsequent events, the deposed Nasi of the Jews must have been a member of this joint Frank-Muslim mission from Baghdad.
That same source23Sefer Haittim by Yehuda ben Barzilai, quoted by Zuckerman. that tells us about Netronai’s journey, also mentions that on his arrival from Bavel, he wrote down the entire Talmud from memory for the local Jews. Clearly, he was a tremendous Torah scholar.
Were Netronai and Machir the Same Person?
While Zuckerman brings numerous arguments to support his claim that Machir was none other than Netronai ben Chabibai, other historians disagree. Israeli history professor, Jeremy Cohen cites earlier historians, who name Netronai’s destination in traveling to “the West” as Maghreb in Northern Africa rather than Narbonne. Moreover, he writes,24Cohen, Jeremy. “The Nasi of Narbonne: A Problem in Medieval Historiography.” AJS Review, vol. 2, 1977, pp. 45–76. JSTOR, www.jstor.org. Accessed 19 May 2020. “The same responsum that speaks of Natronai’s hurried trip to the West reports that he arrived in Spain, not France, and that he subsequently returned to Babylonia!”
Nonetheless, continues Professor Cohen,
Yet, if Makhir’s existence does not emerge as a verifiable, historical fact, the patriarchate of Narbonne as an institution does. Not only does the author of SHQ [Sefer Haqabbalah] gloss list genealogies of known families of nesiim, but Princedom [Zuckerman’s book] also brings three other twelfth century sources that mention them. Their existence at the time no one can deny…
Perhaps we will never know whether Machir and Netronai refer to the same person. But what we do know is that the Jews of Narbonne greatly valued Torah learning. Their first nasi, whoever he was, opened a yeshiva, attracted many students, and turned Narbonne into a center of Torah learning. His descendants continued his holy work, and the Jewish community of Narbonne produced many Torah sages who left their imprint on Jewish scholarship and history.