History of the Jewish Community in Egypt
The Jewish community in Egypt was in continuous existence for about two thousand five hundred years, and holds a central, notable position in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. Below shall be given a general background presentation of the history of Egyptian Jews, in ancient, medieval and modern times.
The Ancient Era:
The association of the Israelites with Egypt began as early as the second millennium BCE. It is related in the book of Genesis that Abraham went down to Egypt because of the famine (chapter 12:10). The cycle of stories about Joseph in Genesis (chapters 37 and 39–50) relates the selling of Joseph into slavery in Egypt, the travelling of his brothers, the sons of Jacob, to Egypt to obtain food during a drought, and their emigration to Egypt at Joseph's invitation. The book of Exodus begins with the travails of Jacob's descendants in Egypt after the advent of a new king ‘who knew not Joseph’ and continues with the relation of their Exodus from Egypt. The marriage of King Solomon to Pharaoh's daughter (1 Kings 3:1, 9:16) bears witness to amicable relations with Egypt in the Unified Kingdom period. Egypt was at times a refuge for insurgents against the kings of Judah (1 Kings 11:40); alliances between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and Egypt are also mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 17:4, 23:34).
A further Biblical source, describing the emigration of a company of Judahites to Egypt and their settlement there, is found in the book of Jeremiah 43:5–7 and 44:1. The Judahite emigration described in these verses took place following the murder of Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the governor appointed by Babylonia over the inhabitants of Judah. Among the emigrants were the prophet Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch son of Neriah.
An ancient Judahite/Jewish community that existed in Egypt and whose roots go back even further than the emigration related in the book of Jeremiah is the community at Elephantine (Yeb/ελεφάντινη/إلفنتين = ‘Island of Elephants’), an island on the Nile in southern Egypt, in the Aswan area. From various sources, including documents on economic and social matters of the Elephantine community itself, written on papyri, parchments and ostraca, and findings of the excavations conducted on the site, fairly much is known on this community. It was a garrison of Judahite soldiers, some of whom had come to Egypt even before the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, to serve as a defence force protecting the southern border of Egypt. The Jewish community whose origin was this outpost endured for a long time in the Persian period and subsisted as a Jewish soldier garrison until its end (525–399 BCE). This community erected a temple in Elephantine, which however was later destroyed due to a conflict with the local Egyptian community. The Elephantine documents were written in a southern Aramaic dialect particular to this community, now known as the Aramaic dialect of Elephantine Jews.
In the Hellenistic period, in the days of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE, conquered Egypt in 332 BCE), Alexandria became an important Egyptian and Mediterranean center and was home to a large, prominent Jewish community. The synagogue founded by this community in the third century BCE is mentioned in the Talmud. There were other synagogues in other communities in Egypt at that time. It was in Alexandria that the Septuagint (LXX) was composed, the earliest known translation of the Bible. It began with the translation of the Pentateuch into Greek in the middle of the third century BCE and was later expanded to include all Biblical books as well as Apocrypha. According to the relation in the pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas, 72 Jewish elders were summoned to Alexandria by Ptolemy II (Philadelphus, reigned 285–247 BCE) and composed the translation for the great Library of Alexandria (another version of the tale is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 9:71). It is however possible that, contrary to the relation in this Letter, the translation was done by Jews from the Alexandrine community itself. Opinions are divided as to the translation's target audience: it may have been composed to introduce the Scriptures to Hellenistic circles or to answer the community's own needs. The text on which the Septuagint translation was based differed in many details, in various matters, from the Masoretic version, and the study of the Septuagint therefore carries a great importance for the study of the Scripture versions in general and the Masoretic version in particular, as well as the study of Jewish beliefs and opinions in the Diaspora at large and more particularly in Alexandria. The Septuagint translation had its own chain of transmission, a fact that lead to the development of an important field of research, dealing with textual criticism of the translation itself. A prominent Jewish-Hellenistic Alexandrian philosopher, mentioned in the writings of Flavius Josephus, is Philo of Alexandria (circa 15 BCE–45 CE). Philo left a series of works of Biblical exegesis, written in Greek, in which he relied on allegorical interpretations and on concepts of Greek philosophy. His writings were preserved by Christian transmitters; in the writings of the theologian Eusebius were also preserved quotations from other Jewish works in Greek, most of which were certainly composed in Egypt. These works bespeak a prolific literature created by the Jewish community in that land, of which only a few fragments have reached us. The Alexandrine community also integrated Jewish refugees after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and its scholars maintained relations with the scholars of Yavneh.
It is further known that between the years 170–154 BCE another temple was built in Leontopolis in Lower Egypt, probably by Onias IV, a scion of the priestly family of the House of Zadok, after he lost the priesthood of Jerusalem and fled to Egypt. Of particular interest is the temple's design: though it did not outwardly resemble the Temple in Jerusalem, the altar and sacred vessels were modelled mainly on those of the Temple in Jerusalem, except for the Menorah. This is related in the Baraita to the tractate of Menachot (‘Meal Offerings’), in the writings of Flavius Josephus etc. This temple stood for 234 years before being destroyed by the Romans. We know of the Rabbinic Sages' irresolution regarding sacrificial slaughter in this temple; Maimonides also referred to this, being of the opinion that those who offered sacrifices in that temple had fulfilled their obligation.
The Middle Ages:
The Egyptian Jewish community remained prominent after the Arab-Muslim conquest (640 CE), absorbing many influences from Islamic culture. Much is known from various sources, primarily the Cairo Genizah, on the community life of Egyptian Jews in the Middle ages, the Jew's dependence on the Muslim rule for protection, the management of the community and the Jewish culture and creation during that period. The Cairo Genizah is the collective name given to the repositories of sacred texts discovered in Rabbinic and Karaite synagogues in Cairo in the second half of the 19th century, chief among which was the genizah of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo; this genizah was discovered by Solomon Schechter of Cambridge). A central, well-known figure of Jewish history in Egypt and at large is Saadia Gaon (882–942 CE), a native of the Fayum district in Egypt. Saadia Gaon's work encompassed philosophy, religious law (Halakha), Biblical exegesis, Biblical translation and Hebrew grammar; he composed liturgical poems and transcribed a book of prayers (Siddur). His poems were composed in Hebrew and most of his other writings in Judeo-Arabic. Saadia Gaon is considered to be the first medieval Hebrew grammarian, the master of Dunash ben Labrat and Menahem ben Saruq. He was also involved in various polemics, including the polemic against the Karaites, first in Egypt and later elsewhere. Another notable figure of Jewish history in Egypt and beyond is Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1138–1204 CE). A native of Cordoba in Spain, Maimonides settled in Egypt in his adulthood. He touched on medicine, religious law and philosophy, composing many works on these subjects, and was also Saladin's personal physician. He also served at two different periods as Ra’is al-Yahud (‘head of the Jews’), as the religious leader of the Cairene Jewish community.
A special chapter in the history of the Egyptian Jewry in the Middle Ages (and in modern times) is the close relation between the Rabbinic and the Karaite Jewish communities in Egypt. The establishment of the Karaite community in Egypt was due to the activity of Anan ben David (715–765 CE), originally a scholar from Babylon. This community endured for centuries in Fustat and later in modern Cairo and other centers in Egypt. The Ben Ezra synagogue, in which the most extensive genizah was discovered, was probably originally a Karaite synagogue, only later made over to Rabbinic possession. It is probably due to this that many Karaite documents were found in this genizah.
The Late Middle Ages and the Modern Era:
After the Spanish expulsion (1492) and the subsequent Jewish emigration, many Jews arrived in Egypt, altering the community's demographic structure. Social and economic life was greatly expanded. In addition to Judeo-Arabic, Ladino took root at that time as one of the languages of Egyptian Jews. In the 19th century, with the inception of modern Egypt, the Jewish community showed, on one hand, signs of activity expansion and great involvement of Jews in Egyptian public life, and on the other hand, difficulties stemming from the emergence of modern Egyptian nationalism. Violence against the Jewish community peaked in 1882, a few months before the British invasion of Egypt, when several synagogues in Cairo and Alexandria were burned. With the British occupation in Egypt (1882), the instituted segregation against minorities in Egypt, including Jews, was officially cancelled. The opening of the Suez Canal (1869), and even more the British occupation, led to an increase in the immigration of Jews to Egypt from all the countries of the Mediterranean Basin, as well as from Eastern and Central Europe and from North Africa. This immigration created a composite, multi-cultural Jewish community in Egypt. While this led to the creation of a modern education system (the Alliance Israélite Universelle schools opened in the late 19th century, and children from well-to-do Jewish families also studied in French and English schools) and the development of Jewish press and culture (a Jewish theater was founded in Cairo towards the end of the 19th century), the various immigrant groups maintained separate educational institutions and retained the linguistic differences between them. Not all members of the Jewish community in Egypt held the Egyptian nationality — some had kept their previous nationality.
Zionist activity had already begun by the end of the 19th century, but it was chiefly during the 1920s that it became firmly established. In the 1930s and 1940s the position of Jews (and other minorities) began to deteriorate, and in 1945 the Cairene Jewish community suffered a wave of severe violence, with many people injured and Torah books burned. Violence against the Jews increased with the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. In the years 1949–1952 many Jews emigrated from Egypt to Israel. From the Egyptian revolution of 1952 onwards began the process of eradication of the Jewish community. In 1954, several members of the Jewish community in Egypt were involved in an action instigated by Israel, intended to exacerbate the conflict between Egypt and the Western powers (the Lavon Affair). The operation failed, ending with the execution of two community members, Dr. Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar, and the imprisonment of others. In 1956, following the nationalization of the Suez Canal by President Nasser and the subsequent British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt in the Suez War (‘Operation Kadesh’), Jewish property was expropriated by the Egyptian government (as was the property of any who had traded with Britain and France). Following the expropriation, many Egyptian Jews were also arrested and expelled, and the eviction process continued later on as well. In those years, the major part of the Egyptian Jewish community was effectively wiped out.