The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times

By Reeva Spector Simon; Michael Menachem Laskier et al. | Go to book overview
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Community Leadership and Structure


Jewish community life in the Diaspora centered on the synagogue and its related functions. The house of worship, the school, the mikveh (bathhouse), the inn or hostelry, and in some cases the hospital were often all housed in the synagogue complex—the larger the community, the more diverse the functions.

By the time of the seventh-century Muslim conquests, the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa had already experienced centuries of autonomous living in small communities, and thus their adjustment to the newly imposed dhimmi status was not difficult. Because religion defined identity, and Jewish law determined personal status issues, the rabbis dominated Jewish life. Although dynasties of rabbinic families emerged in many cities, similar to the clerical families in the world of Islam, talent could also catapult an unknown individual into a prominent position. He would usually be quickly married into the rival center of community power, that of the rich lay leader.

When the Ottoman Turks took over in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, the Jewish community continued its internal autonomy. The Ottomans imposed some controls but left the community to administer its own religious affairs, as well as courts of justice, education, slaughter houses, hospitals, philanthropic institutions, cemeteries, sanitation, and lighting. The leaders would collect taxes, as set by the authorities, and forward them to the government. The main revenue sources included taxes on wine and kosher meat; birth, marriage, and death registration; income derived from rental of community real estate holdings; and monies from wills, inheritance, and donations of the rich. Among the numerous charities were those that


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