From the 6th to the 11th century, the center of Jewish life was in Babylon under Persian rule. The Jewish community was headed politically by the Exilarch and religiously by a sage known as the Gaon. Jewish communities that existed outside of Babylon were usually small and isolated and were therefore dependant on the Babylonian leaders for their legal rulings and advice.

This all changed, however, when four great rabbis from Babylon were captured by pirates on the Mediterranean. The pirates then ransomed them off to different Jewish communities who were willing to pay great amounts of money to free the rabbis. Thus one rabbi (Shemariah ben Elhanan) was taken to Alexandria in Egypt, one (Hushiel) to Morocco and Tunisia, another (Moses ben Hanoch) to Cordova in Spain, and another (Nathan ben Isaac Ha’Kohen) to Narbonne in France. In one fell swoop, the pirates decentralized Torah and Jewish learning.

Decentralizing Jewish scholarship certainly wasn’t the pirates’ intention, but the tragic capture of these four rabbis turned into a major blessing, as Jewish learning blossomed and flourished in France, Spain, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, under their guidance and inspiration.

This tale (whose source is in the writings of Abraham ben David, “Ibn Daud,” also known as the RaVad, 1110-1180 C.E.) may be legend. However, it reflects the true evolution of Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean during the 9th-12th centuries, when the center of Jewish life and scholarship shifted from the Near East to North Africa and Europe.