Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin: The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and the Ottoman Empire

Helping merchants in the markets of Jerusalem, saving the Samaritans of Nablus, and corresponding with Jewish communities around the world - the archive of Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin tells the story of one of the 19th century's most fascinating Jewish figures…

Tehila Bigman
Illustration purportedly of Rabbi Gagin and his signature

One of the most moving treasures in the National Library of Israel is not a book, an ancient document or manuscript. Rather, it’s a stick.

More precisely, we are referring to a wooden staff consisting of two parts connected with a screw, measuring slightly over four feet and three inches long, with an ivory knob fastened at one end. It was sent to Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin by the Ottoman Sultan in 1842, when he was appointed to the position of “Rishon LeZion” – chief rabbi of the Jews of the Land of Israel. The Sultan would present such a staff to those in official positions as a mark of his patronage, with the item intended for use at public events and ceremonies.

Staff of the Rishon LeZion, Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin

For hundreds of years, under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the “Hakham Bashi” was the title given to the chief rabbi of the Jews of the entire empire. The Hakham Bashi served as the Jewish community’s official representative before the government. The title of Rishon LeZion was given to the leader of the Jews of the Land Israel. Rabbi Gagin was the first to hold both positions at the same time.

Official appointment of Rabbi Gagin as Rishon LeZion. The tughra, the official seal of the Sultan, appears at the top.

Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin was born in Istanbul, or as it was then called by Jews – Kushta, almost 240 years ago, in 1787. Immigrating to Jerusalem as a child, he was drawn to the revered Beit El yeshiva in the Old City that had been founded 50 years before his birth and where a select few were allowed to devote themselves to the study of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah. In addition to promoting Torah study, the Beit El yeshiva also fostered communal support. Students had to sign a contract pledging to love and to help one another in times of sorrow and of joy, and to refrain from bearing grudges. At that time, Beit El was the only institution in Jerusalem permitted to independently send emissaries abroad to raise funds among Jewish communities in the diaspora.

Fundraising letter of the Beit El Yeshiva

Rabbi Gagin grew up in the Beit El yeshiva. He became a rabbi, ruled on matters of Jewish law, was proficient in Kabbalah, and eventually assumed the role of head of the yeshiva. At the age of 55, married and the father of a son, he was given the titles of Hakham Bashi and Rishon LeZion. In the collections of the National Library of Israel are hundreds of items, documents and correspondence from his 8-year tenure. From his seat in the Old City of Jerusalem, Rabbi Gagin conducted extensive correspondence with dozens of communities in the Land of Israel and beyond. Tiberias, Haifa, Ramla, Safed, Acre, Beirut, Aleppo, Syria, Egypt, Yugoslavia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Bulgaria, Vienna and London are just some of the Jewish communities Rabbi Gagin was in contact with and assisted in countless matters. Gagin sent halakhic responses to questions that required his ruling, signed court documents such as wills, endowments and inheritances, and even rent contracts. He was in contact with very wealthy families and with communal leaders and religious court judges in many different locations, but he also personally raised funds for young bridegrooms, resolved inheritance disputes, helped establish an orphanage and even testified on behalf of a man who had come to Jerusalem from Damascus and was accused of various libels.

Transfer of a debt from Damascus to Jerusalem


Fundraising for a bridegroom


Inheritance dispute


Testimony on behalf of a resident of Damascus who had come to Jerusalem

While engaged in these activities, Rabbi Gagin continued to write essays on Torah, sermons and books which are also kept at the Library. Two of the books relate to his term in office: Sefer HaTakanot VehaHaskamot (“The Book of Regulations and Agreements”), which included the customs of Jerusalem, and is believed to be one of the first books printed in the city; and Chaim M’Yerushalayim, a book which includes a selection of sermons delivered by Rabbi Gagin while serving in his esteemed roles. Both books, which deal with communal matters, shed light on contemporary historical issues and life in Jerusalem 200 years ago, including for example the debate among Jerusalem’s rabbis about the distribution of the charity funds (haluka) collected abroad on behalf of the Holy Land’s Jewish residents.

An interesting case which illustrates the multifaceted nature of Rabbi Gagin’s work is the approbation he gave to the Samaritan community. According to Islamic practice, only “people of the book” (the ahl al-kitab), generally understood to include Jews and Christians, have the right to protection under Islamic law. Islamic religious scholars ruled that Samaritans were not of the Jewish religion and were therefore unprotected. The Samaritan community of Nablus appealed to Rabbi Gagin to help them escape the dire fate of their coreligionists living in Damascus who had nearly been wiped out due to Muslim persecution. Rabbi Gagin sent a letter in which he wrote: “The Samaritan people are an offshoot of the Children of Israel who acknowledge the truth of the Torah”. The Islamic authorities, recognizing Rabbi Gagin’s personal signature and status, accepted the document and the Samaritans duly received the government’s protection.

Signature of Rabbi Gagin

Rabbi Gagin died on 20 Iyar תר”ח, 1848, at the age of 61, and was buried in Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives. His son Shalom Moshe Chai Gagin also served as head of the Beit El yeshiva, and was also an emissary and travelled abroad on its behalf. He named his own son Chaim Abraham after his father.

Sixty years after Rabbi Gagin’s death, the rabbis of Jerusalem signed a declaration which they presented to the Ottoman authorities. The statement reads: “We, the undersigned sages and rabbis of the Sephardi community in Jerusalem, do hereby inform and testify… that the role of Rishon LeZion has no affiliation to the role of Hakham Bashi and there is no connection between the two, as these are two distinct and separate positions. And therefore the Hakham Bashi will not be referred to by the title Rishon LeZion and the Rishon LeZion will not be referred to by the title Hakham Bashi. And to this we have signed our names… Jerusalem, Sivan התרס”ט (1909).”

The statement signed by the rabbis of Jerusalem, including Rabbi Gagin’s grandson, also named Chaim Abraham

Among the names of the 26 rabbis who signed the declaration is that of Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin, the grandson of Rabbi Gagin. He surely knew that his grandfather, for whom he was named, had served at the same time as both Hakham Bashi and Rishon LeZion. It seems that the years when these two roles could be held by the same person were not long lasting. Few had managed to follow in Rabbi Gagin’s footsteps and hold the staff at both ends.



The archive of Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin is in the process of being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.


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