Crown rabbi (Iberia)

For the crown rabbi in the Russian Empire, see Crown rabbi (Russia).

In the Iberian peninsula, the crown rabbi (Spanish: rabino mayor or Portuguese: arrabi mor (chief rabbi) ) was a secular, administrative post occupied by a member of the Jewish community for the benefit of the governing state, and existed in the kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Portugal as far back as the 13th century, and is referred to as crown rabbi by historians in English, as well as by court rabbi and other terms.


In Spanish this position was known as rabino mayor or rab de la corte, which can be translated literally as "chief rabbi" or "court rabbi", respectively, and which is referred to in some English sources as "crown rabbi"[1][2][3][4] and in others as "court rabbi".[5][6] In Sicily (part of Aragon) the position was known locally as the dayyan kalali[7] and in Portuguese as arrabi-mor.[8][9][10] The derivation of arrabi mor is through a very unusual, three-language merger of parts in Judaeo-Portuguese, from Hebrew rabi (noun, "rabbi") preceded by Arabic definite article ar ("the", from al + initial r- consonsant), and Portuguese mor (adj., "chief", in normal postposition).[11]


The concept of an official rabbi performing administrative duties and acting as an intermediary existed as far back as the 13th century in the kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, and Portugal and elsewhere in the Iberian peninsula.

The crown rabbi was one of the chief ways for the kingdoms in the peninsula to exert power over their Jewish communities. Those officials fulfilling this position often acquired significant secular power over their communities, and sometimes over provinces or even kingdoms.[2]

Castile and Aragon

In Castile, the Court Rabbinate extended as an institution from 1255 until Expulsion in 1492. They were often laymen, not rabbis, and had near dictatorial authority of their flock. They presided in appeals cases and international synods, and might also be a court physician, as well as tax collector over both the Jewish as well as the Christian community. The last one to hold the office of crown rabbi of Castile was Abraham Seneor who became a converso rather than be expelled.[7]

In 1386 in the Kingdom of Aragon for example, King John I in the context of a time of political reform, issued edicts defining the functions and duties of the Rab Mayor as intermediary between the power of the kingdom and that of the aljama, or Jewish community. There were various requirements as to the good character and faith of the person holding this charge, as well as a requirement that he live among the entourage of the Court, and thus away from his community, and in constant contact with the Christian majority population. His powers and authorities over the aljama (Jewish community) of Castile, economic, judicial, and otherwise, were specified.[12]

the arrabi in Portugal

In Portugal, the arrabi was a Jewish official who acted as a private municipal judge in a locality, chosen from among the community.[8]

The term arrabi is attested from the late 12th century in Latin and Portuguese under Afonso III, and is mentioned in a judicial sense in municipal legislation documents. Sometimes it appears as Rabi. Documents from Lisbon, Leiria and elsewhere suggest that there was one arrabi per community, who was an outpost of royal authority, parallel to and separate from the traditional rabbi who tended to their flock's religious and spiritual needs.[13]

Presiding above the arrabis was a high functionary of the crown known as the arrabi mor (or arrabi-môr; chief rabbi) and reporting to the King.[13] Besides supervising the administration of justice, he also was in charge of fiscal administration[13][8] and presided over the ouvidores (auditors) of the kingdom.[9]

The position of arrabi mor emerged in Portugal as a result of efforts begun in the 12th century to centralize the legal and fiscal system in the country. By the late 13th century this effort extended to all of Portuguese Jewry, as manifested by the creation of a network of Jewish officials in each locality. The head of this network was the arrabi mor (chief rabbi) who acted as the royal tax collector similar to the position of the almoxarife mayor[13] (chief financial administrator[14]) in Castile. Under him were seven officials also called arrabis or ouvidores (auditors) who were responsible for taxes in their region (arrabiado); the local arrabis were assigned to individual communities after the model in Castile and Aragon.[13]

The high post tended to be filled by wealthy Jews, and the post was handed down and controlled by family dynasties. The first arrabi mor mentioned was Don Judah in the 13th century under King Dinis, followed by his son Guedelha. The main duties were judicial, and fiscal. Judicially, the decisions of the arrabi mor concerning matters in the Jewish community were final, per a decree by Afonso III in 1266, and he was responsible only for the highest issues, as the simpler suits and appeals were judged by the local arrabis.[13]

A powerful arrabi-mor could sometimes influence the laws of the kingdom in favor of the aljama.[10] Such a man was Moses Navarro under King John I of Portugal. Following the carnage and forced conversions in the 1391 massacre of Jews in Seville and its aftermath in other kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula, the devastation threatened to spill across the border into Portugal, but Moses Navarro exercised his power and influence with the monarch and his knowledge of edicts from the Vatican by Popes Boniface IX and Clement VI friendly to Jews to prevent any harm from coming to Portuguese Jewry.[15] King John upon hearing of the edicts, immediately promulgated a law on July 17, 1392 prohibiting any persecution, which was obeyed gladly by his subjects due to the extent of his popularity in the land. As a result, Portugal became a safe haven for Jews escaping persecution in Spain.[16]

Notable crown rabbis

See also


  1. Kaplan Appel, Tamar, ed. (3 August 2010). "Crown Rabbi". The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300119039. OCLC 170203576. Archived from the original on 2015-03-27. Retrieved 2015-05-31.
  2. 1 2 Ray, Jonathan (2004-03-20). "Royal Authority and the Jewish Community: The Crown Rabbi in Medieval Spain and Portugal". In Jack Wertheimer. Jewish Religious Leadership: Image and Reality, Vol. 1. I. Jewish Theological Seminary. p. 307-332. ISBN 978-0873340977. Retrieved 2014-03-19. One of the most significant ways in which royal power came to influence the Jewish community was through the development of the post of Crown Rabbi, a product of the general expansion of royal administrations, which took place throughout the Iberian kingdoms in the second half of the thirteenth century. Buttressed by the royal court, these Jewish magistrates quickly became the preeminent fiscal and judicial authorities with the local Jewish community (aljama) and in some instances, over the Jewries of entire provinces and kingdoms. The nature and development of the rabbinate is one of the most important and controversial issues in medieval Jewish history, and a comprehensive study of the topic remains a desideratum. ... The common designation of "rabbi" used to describe both traditional Jewish legists and Jewish officials appointed by the crown has led some scholars to confuse the two. This confusion stems, in large part, from the relatively fluid and imprecise manner with which medieval Christian documents employ various renderings of the Hebrew term rav (lit. "teacher"), such as rabi, arrabi, rab and rap.
  3. 1 2 Burns, Robert Ignatius (8 March 2015). "VIII. Collectories: Muslim, Christian, Jew. Role of the Jews.". Medieval Colonialism: Postcrusade Exploitation of Islamic Valencia. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 276. ISBN 978-1-4008-6759-2. Retrieved 3 June 2015.
  4. 1 2 The Editors of The Encyclopædia Britannica. "Hasdai ben Abraham Crescas". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica. Archived from the original on 2015-04-27. Retrieved 2015-06-03.
  5. 1 2 Berlin, Adele; Himelstein, Shmuel (2011). "Crown Rabbi". The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion (2nd ed.). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-973004-9. Retrieved 31 May 2015. p. 195
  6. 1 2 "Senior, Abraham -". 1906. Archived from the original on 2015-04-20. Retrieved 2015-06-03.
  7. 1 2 3 Stow, Kenneth (1 June 2009). Alienated Minority: The Jews of Medieval Latin Europe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-674-04405-0. Retrieved 5 June 2015.
  8. 1 2 3 Herculano, Alexandre (1854). História da origem e estabelecimento da Inquisição em Portugal [History of the Origin and Establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal] (in Portuguese). Tomo I. Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional. p. 86. Retrieved 5 June 2015.
  9. 1 2 Cardozo de Bethencourt (March 1903). J Leite de Vasconcellos, ed. "Inscriptions Hébraïques du Portugal" [Hebrew Inscriptions of Portugal]. O Archeólogo português (in Portuguese and French). Museu Ethnográphico Português. 8 (2): 37. Retrieved 5 June 2015. Dans la grande division administrative du Judaisme Portugais, vers 1402, Faro fut le siege de l'un des sept auditeurs, ouvidores, relevant de l'arrabi-mor.
  10. 1 2 3 Singer, Isidore; Adler, Cyrus (1907), "Moses Navarro", The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, p. 193, retrieved 5 June 2015
  11. Wexler, Paul (2006). "IX. Marrano Ibero-Romance". Jewish and Non-Jewish Creators of "Jewish" Languages: With Special Attention to Judaized Arabic, Chinese, German, Greek, Persian, Portuguese, Slavic (modern Hebrew/Yiddish), Spanish, and Karaite, and Semitic Hebrew/Ladino ; a Collection of Reprinted Articles from Across Four Decades with a Reassessment. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 513. ISBN 978-3-447-05404-1. Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  12. Crespo Álvarez, Macarena (2001). "El cargo de Rab Mayor de la Corte según un documento de Juan II fechado en 1450 (The post of Rab Mayor in the Court according to a document of John II issued in 1450)". Edad Media: revista de historia (Middle Ages: History Magazine (in Spanish). Á (4): 157–198. ISSN 1138-9621.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Ray, Jonathan (2006). "5. Jewish Communal Organization and Authority". The Sephardic Frontier: The Reconquista and the Jewish Community in Medieval Iberia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. pp. 124–128. ISBN 0-8014-4401-2. Retrieved 4 June 2015.
  14. Roth, Norman (8 April 2014) [2003]. "Abravanel Family". In Roth, Norman. Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia. New York: Taylor & Francis. p. 6. ISBN 978-1-136-77154-5. OCLC 827973299. Retrieved 2015-06-08.
  15. Kayserling, Meyer (1867). Geschichte der Juden in Portugal [History of the Jews in Portugal] (in German). Leipzig: Oskar Leiner. p. 25. Retrieved 5 June 2015. That the fanaticism of this period did not claim victims in Portugal as well, was primarily due to the measures taken by then chief rabbi D. Moses Navarro. Full of apprehension, the clergy in an excess of zeal could become carried away by such labors of love here as well. In Coimbra at the end of 1391, the chief rabbi (who was also the king's personal physician) acting on behalf of all of Portuguese Jewry, presented his Lord and King a papal bull of Pope Boniface IX dated July 2, 1389, which in turn was based on an earlier edict of July 5, 1347 by a predecessor, namely the Jewish-friendly Pope Clement VI. In this bull, which was especially translated into Portuguese, it was strictly forbidden for a Christian to force a Jew to be baptised, or to strike him, rob him, or slay him; or to interrupt the Jewish festivals and ceremonies, or to disturb their cemeteries, dig up Jewish corpses, or by means of force to induce Jews to perform a job or a service which they were not legally obliged to perform in earlier times. According to a decree issued in Coimbra on July 17, 1392, King John not only publicized the bull in all cities of the kingdom, but also promulgated a law to the same effect.   Dass der Fanatismus um diese Zeit nicht auch in Portugal seine Opfer forderte, war vornehmlich den Vorkehrungen des damaligen Oberrabiners D. Moses Navarro zu danken. Voller Besorgniß, die Geistlichkeit könnte in ihrem übernatürlichen Eifer sich auch hier zu solchen Liebesdiensten hinreißen lassen, überreichte der Oberrabbiner, der auch zugleich des Königs Leibarzt war, seinem Herrn und Könige gegen Ende des Jahres 1391 in Coimbra im Namen der ganzen portugiesischen Judenheit eine Bulle des Papstes Bonifacius IX vom 2. Juli 1389, der ein Früherer Erlaß eines Vorgängers desselben, des judenfreundlichen Papstes Clemens VI, vom 5. Juli 1347 zu Grunde lag. In dieser, eigens ins Portugiesische übersetzten Bulle wurde aufs Strengste verboten, daß ein Christ einen Juden zur Taufe zwinge, ihn Schlage, beraube oder tödte, die Fest- und Feierlichkeiten der Juden störe, ihre Begräbnißplätze verletze, die jüdischen Leichen ausgrabe und die Juden zu einem Dienste oder einer Arbeit mit Gewalt verhalte, zu denen sie in früheren Zeiten gezetzlich nicht verpflichtet waren. Diese Bullen liess D. João, laut einer in Coimbra am 17. Juli 1392 getroffenen Verfügung, nicht allein in allen Städten des Reiches publiciren, er erliess auch gleichzeitig ein dem Inhalte derselben analoges Gesetz.
  16. Graetz, Heinrich; Philipp Bloch (1897). "5. The Age of Chasdaï Crescas and Isaac Ben Sheshet". History of the Jews. IV. From the Rise of the Kabbala (1270 C.E.) to the Permanent Settlement of the Marranos in Holland (1617 C.E.). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. p. 173. Retrieved 6 June 2015.

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