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Rabban Nissim ben Ya'qub ibn Shahin, Gaon al-Qayrawan, birth CA 990 Al-Qayrawan, Kairouan North, Kairouan, Tunisia, died CA 1062 Mahdia, Tunisia, son of Ya'qub ben Nissim ibn Shahin al-Qairouan (ben Yakob al-Qairouan) and unkbown bat Dunash ben Labrat
Nissim ben Jacob ben Nissim ibn Shahin was one of the foremost Jewish scholars of the eleventh century and the leader of the North African Jewish community. He was born in 990 in Qayrawan, where he spent most of his life. His family name (Shahin ) indicates Persian origins. His father, Jacob, was head of the local academy (Heb. bet midrash) and in 987 wrote to Sherira Gaon in Babylonia in the name of “the holy congregation of Qayrawan,ö asking him how the Mishna was written. The famous re sponse is known as the Epistle (Heb. Iggeret) of Sherira Gaon. In it Sherira refers to Jacob as mari (my teacher) and rabbana (our mentor).

By the end of the tenth century, the academy in Qayrawan had become the most important scholarly institution of North African Jewry. Nissim studied with his father, Jacob, then with Rav ?ushiel, who became head of the academy when Jacob passed awa y in 1006, and with ?ushiel&Aelig;s son ?ananel. Even at a relatively early age Nissim was called gaon in recognition of his outstanding scholarship and leadership. After ?ushiel&Aelig;s death, even though he was younger than ?ananel, Nissim became head of th e academy, a post for which he had been groomed since childhood by his father and the senior members of the Qayrawan community. Following the destruction of Qayrawan in 1057, Rav Nissim lived in several coastal towns, including Sousse and al-Mahdi ya (Almeria), where he died in 1062. His death was mourned by Jews throughout the Maghreb.

Nissim ibn Shahin, known by the honorific “Renewer of the Faith,ö was a great scholar, well versed in the religious and philosophical literature of the time, as well as in Muslim religious literature. He corresponded with Hay Gaon in Babylon an d with Samuel ha-Nagid in Spain, and was considered a halakhic authority of the same stature as the Babylonian geonim. His authority enabled the transplantation of Babylonian legal traditions in the West. He visited Spain often, taught at the Gran ada academy, and married his daughter to Jehoseph ibn Naghrella. Nissim was also a poet; in fact, according to Samuel ha-Nagid, Ibn Shahin&Aelig;s poems were superior to his own. Isaac al-Fasi studied with him, but never mentioned him as a mentor and of ten disagreed with him. Nissim visited Granada and taught there. Of importance during his time was the disturbed political situation in North Africa, since the local Zirid dynasty there was in conflict with the Fa?imids, and when the Bedouin of th e Banu Hilal [q.v.] and the Sulaym attacked Ifri?iya, and the Zirid ruler had to leave al-?ayrawan in 449/1057 and take refuge in al-Mahdiyya, Rabbi Nissim fled to Susa [q.v.], where he died in 454/1062 after a serious illness.

Nissim&Aelig;s commentary on the Talmud was the first systematic work on the Talmud. Written mostly in Hebrew, it fully paraphrased the talmudic text so as to enable detailed study without any need to consult the text directly. This approach differed su bstantially from the one favored in Ashkenaz. Nissim&Aelig;s commentary apparently antedated ?ananel&Aelig;s. Since the latter gives a more literal paraphrase, it eventually supplanted Nissim&Aelig;s commentary, which was rarely quoted by later scholars and was mos tly lost. Both works were meant to make it possible for students to learn independently without dependence on external sources. Rav Nissim held that the editing of the Talmud was a one-time act, whereas in Sherira&Aelig;s view, as presented in the Epist le, the redaction of the Talmud was a continuous process.
In the Kitab Mifta? Maghaliq al-Talmudh (Ar. Key to the Locks of the Talmud), a prototype of the Massoret ha-Shas genre, Nissim provided a further aid to Talmud study. This work, a reference tool, organized tractate by tractate in the standard seq uence, enabled access to all the sources mentioned in the Talmud and taught that a full understanding of any specific talmudic matter requires familiarity with parallel matters in other parts of the Talmud or in other sources. The work also treat s aggada, principles of faith, and interfaith discussions, occasionally mentions Sherira and Hay Gaon, the She?iltot and Halakhot Gedolot, and once even ?ushiel, and uses both the Palestinian Talmud and the Tosefta. The goal of this work, as Nissi m explains in a long introduction, was to strengthen Jewish faith and explicate the holiness of the Torah. A Hebrew translation of tractates Berakhot, Shabbat, and ?Eruvin has come down to us, and Arabic segments of tractate Shabbat were foun d in the Geniza (see Cairo Geniza). The book was often quoted by scholars who were well versed in Arabic.

Megillat Setarim (Heb. Scroll of Secrets), Nissim&Aelig;s most famous book, consists of 250 items on questions pertaining to halakha, aggada, Bible, and Talmud, religious customs, religious opinions, and issues of faith. Its title derives from the circu mstance that many of the matters it explicates had been unclear until it appeared. The phrase Megillat Setarim first appears in Rav Nissim&Aelig;s commentary on Tractate Shabbat, but there it refers to a private notebook not meant for publication. Thi s work circulated throughout the Jewish world and until the fourteenth century was used by all the major scholars both east and west, including France and Ashkenaz. It was written mostly in Hebrew, which facilitated its wide circulation. Nowadays , only some collected selections are left. The book&Aelig;s original content was revealed by an early index discovered by Simha Assaf in the Geniza.

Also worthy of mention is Nissim&Aelig;s Kitab al-Faraj ba?d al-Shidda wa-?l-Sa?a ba?d al-?iqa (Ar. The Book of Relief after Adversity and Ease after Anguish; known in its Hebrew version as ?ibbur Yafe meha-Yeshu?a -- An Elegant Composition about Delive rance). Only in the past hundred years has it become clear that Nissim Ibn Shahin was the author of this book on “salvation after distress and comfort after trouble,ö written in response to a request by his father-in-law after his son&Aelig;s death . It consists of sixty stories and tales from talmudic, gaonic, and foreign sources. Some of the adaptations from the Talmud include significant changes indicating that Rav Nissim used other sources; some of the stories are of unknown origin. Th e book is based on the Arabic genre of al-faraj ba?d al-shidda, anthologies of stories about rescues from great trouble or severe need. The work was translated into English by Brinner (1977).

Shraga Abramson has established that additional compositions attributed to Rav Nissim are included in Megillat Setarim. Most of his works were copied in his lifetime. Hence even the ones that did not survive were quoted by authors in Spain, Ashken az, Provence, Egypt and Palestine.

Nahem Ilan


Abramson, Shraga (ed.). Rav Nissim Gaon: Five Books; Remnants from His Compositions (Jerusalem, 1965) [Hebrew].

Baneth, David ?vi. “The Robe of the Scholars, æ ? ibbur Yafe Mehayeshu?a&Aelig; and an Islamic Tradition,ö Tarbi ? 25 (1956): 331û336 [Hebrew].

Ben-Sasson, Menahem. The Emergence of the Local Jewish Community in the Muslim World, Qayrawan, 800û1057 (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1997) [Hebrew].

Blau, Joshua. Judaeo-Arabic Literature: Selected Texts (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1980), pp. 166û181 [Hebrew].

ùùù. “R. Nissim&Aelig;s Book of Comfort and the Problem of Script in Judeo-Arabic Manuscripts,ö Jewish Quarterly Review 67, no. 4 (1977): 185û194.

Nissim Ibn Shahin. An Elegant Composition Concerning Relief after Adversity, trans. William M. Brinner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

Citation Na?em Ilan. " Ibn Shahin, Nissim ben Jacob." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2013. < -shahin-nissim-ben-jacob-COM_0011110>
Unknown bat Barhun al-Taherti
1) Rahel bat Rabi Nissim ben Yakob al-Qairouan to:
Raw Joseph HaNagid HaLevi Ibn Nagrela, birth 15 Sep 1035 Granada, died 30 Dec 1066 Executed, son of Shmuel HaLevi HaNagid and Bath Smuel HaNagid
2) Abu Yahya Nahray "Nehorai" ben Nissim, Nagid, birth CA 1025 to:
Sitt al-Muna bat Nathan, birth CA 1037, died CA 1120
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