Changes in Jewish Life

After 1038, no one in Babylonia was of the stature of Rabbi Hai Gaon and able to take his place. As a result, Jews in faraway communities turned to their local rabbis for halachic guidance. In addition, as people began supporting their own community institutions, financial contributions from Jews worldwide to the Babylonian yeshivas slowed to a trickle. Sura and Pumbeditha became shadows of their original greatness, gradually going out of existence. In their stead, many new Torah centers sprung up, and for the first time in Jewish history no one place was considered the national halachic center. As each Jewish settlement developed independently, diverse customs evolved, leading to the proliferation of minhagim (local practices) in areas not legislated by normative halacha.

The Four Captives

In the mid-900s, an incident took place that caused Torah scholarship to spread in many different areas. Four distinguished scholars traveled together on a fundraising mission for their institutions. According to some historians, they departed from Babylonia, while according to others they traveled from Italy. Regardless, on the way pirates captured their ship. Realizing the value of their captives, the pirates did not harm the rabbis, but brought them to different Jewish communities to be redeemed. One of the captives, Rabbi Chushiel, was sold in Kairouan, in Tunisia, and helped develop it into a major Torah center. Rabbi Shemariah was redeemed in Egypt and settled there. Rabbi Moshe, along with his wife and young son Chanoch, wound up in Cordova, Spain. The fourth scholar, whom some say was Rabbi Nassan HaBavli, was taken to France. Although at that time it must have appeared as a tragedy to the scholars involved, in actuality it was a Divine method of spreading Torah throughout the Jewish world.