About 1,000 years ago, the large Jewish communities of Babylon began to dwindle down. The great epoch of the Gaonim and the great Babylonian yeshivot was drawing to an end. At the same time the center of the Jewish people and Jewish scholarship was shifting westwards, along the shores of the Mediterranean sea. The Jewish communities in Egypt, Tunisia, Spain and Italy began to grow very rapidly. By divine providence, these great Jewish centers received great spiritual leaders in a most amazing and unprecedented way . . .
One day, in or about 4720 (960 CE), four great rabbis were sailing on a ship on the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. They were great friends, and all had met in the city of Bari in Italy in order to sail together to Siponte—a seaport on the Mediterranean—where a noted mutual friend was giving his daughter away in marriage.
They were four of the greatest rabbis of their age, and their names were: Rabbi Shmariah, Rabbi Hushiel, and Rabbeinu Moshe ben Enoch, who was accompanied by his wife and son Enoch, called so after his grandfather. The name of the fourth rabbi is not known exactly.
In those days the seas were infested with pirates, whose business it was to seize ships on the high seas and sell their passengers into slavery.
One of the fiercest pirates was a certain sea captain called Ibn Rumahis, and one day, as he was roaming the seas between Italy and Greece, he encountered the ship in which the four great rabbis were sailing. After a brief but fierce fight, Ibn Rumahis captured the ship and took all the passengers as prisoners.
Looking over his human booty, he did not fail to notice the four great and venerable rabbis, and he knew that they would bring in a handsome price from the large Jewish communities in Egypt, Tunisia, Spain and Italy. Ibn Rumahis then proceeded to Alexandria, Egypt, where he offered Rabbi Shmariah for sale. He requested a huge ransom for him, and the Jews of Alexandria paid it in full. Free again, Rabbi Shmariah went to live in Fostat (old Cairo), and when the Jews learnt that he was the famous Rabbi Shmariah, they asked him to become their chief rabbi. Rabbi Shmariah felt a debt of gratitude to the Jews in Egypt, and thought that he could do a lot of good there by setting up yeshivot and spreading the knowledge of the Torah. Besides, he would not venture to risk his life on the high seas in trying to reach his own community. And so Rabbi Shmariah remained in Fostat, where he was beloved and respected by all.
Ibn Rumahis continued his voyage along the African coast until he reached the great port of Kairwan in Tunisia. There he brought out his second captive, Rabbi Hushiel, and again the local Jewish community paid for him the full amount of ransom-money that the fierce pirate requested.
Kairwan was a great Jewish center in those days, and Rabbi Hushiel had always wanted to go there, hoping that together with his friend Rabbi Shmariah they would set up a great academy there. Now he found that the divine providence had brought him there after all. However, he was too modest to accept the invitation of the local Jewish leaders to become their chief rabbi. Kairwan, you see, was the birthplace of his friend Rabbi Shmariah, and Rabbi Hushiel hoped that Rabbi Shmariah would some day become the chief rabbi of his native community. Rabbi Hushiel, therefore, wrote many letters to his friend in Fostat, urging him to come to Kairwan and become the spiritual leader there. But as mentioned above, Rabbi Shmariah did not dare to make another sea voyage. The Jewish community continued to beg him to become their rabbi, and the city elders, too asked him to honor the city as the leader of the Jewish community. And so Rabbi Hushiel finally agreed to become chief rabbi of Kairwan, where he was beloved and respected by all. He founded a great yeshivah there and had many fine disciples, but his greatest disciples were his son Rabbenu Hananel and Rabbenu Nissim, both of whom became the greatest Talmudists of the succeeding generation.
On sailed Ibn Rumahis to Spain. There was Rabbenu Moshe left now of his four great captives, with his wife and son Enoch.
Rabbenu Moshe had hardly recovered from his harrowing experience of falling into captivity, when another blow struck hard at him. He lost his dearly beloved wife. It happened like this. Rabbenu Moshe’s wife was a very fair woman, and her beauty was surpassed only by her great virtue and modesty. Now, the fierce pirate wanted to take her away. He offered her all his riches and spoils, and promised her that she should be the queen of the seas. Whilst Ibn Rumahis was describing to her the “glorious” future that awaited her, she asked her husband, in Hebrew, whether she would have a place in the world to come if she ended her life with her own hands in order to escape the brute. Rabbenu Moshe answered her unhesitatingly, quoting the words of the Psalmist (68:23), “G‑d said . . . I will bring back from the depths of the sea . . .” Immediately she jumped overboard and was drowned.
This tragedy was a dreadful blow to the now widowed rabbi and his orphaned son, but they were proud of her, and it gave them courage to endure their troubles with real Jewish courage and faith.
After many days at sea, the ship cast anchor at Cordova, Spain. Here Rabbenu Moshe and his son were quickly redeemed and set free by the Jews of Cordova. Rabbenu Moshe and his son were so modest that they did not disclose the fact that they were great scholars. They attended the Talmudic lectures in the great academy of Cordova, but never participated in the discourses, lest it became known that they weren’t the ignorant and humble folk they appeared to be.
One day, however, as Rabbenu Moshe was sitting in the academy listening to the Talmudic discourse given by Rabbi Nathan the dayan (communal rabbi) of Cordova, he heard him make an error on a point of Jewish law. After the lecture, Rabbenu Moshe, who was simply known in the community as “the captive,” came up to Rabbi Nathan and very modestly pointed out his error, and explained the whole matter to him so perfectly that Rabbi Nathan was truly amazed. He recognized at once that before him stood no ordinary captive, but an outstanding scholar and Talmudist. Rabbi Nathan rushed out to his colleagues, exclaiming: “I can no longer be the dayan of this community. That poor captive over there is an outstanding scholar. He is my master, and I shall regard it as a privilege to be his disciple. Let us beg him to become the dayan of our community!”
Thus spoke a great man of a greater one still. And from then on Rabbenu Moshe became famous not merely in Cordova, but throughout the Jewish communities of Spain and far beyond. The greatest rabbis and scholars sent him their questions and problems with regard to the Talmud and Jewish law. Many young men of promise came to Cordova to join Rabbenu Moshe’s academy, and Cordova soon became a flourishing Jewish center of learning, where such great Jews as Rabbi Moses ibn Ezra, Rabbi Joseph ibn Migash, Rabbi Judah Halevi and Maimonides were brought up and educated. The famous Jewish Minister of Caliph Abdurrahman, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, was a personal friend of Rabbenu Moshe, and the caliph himself was very proud of the fact that Cordova became famous with its great Jewish academy.