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32564 The Karaites

During the first centuries of the existence of the sect, Karaism was widely extended among the Jews, and could boast of making many converts among the followers of the parent religion, gathering them in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Babylonia, and Persia. Several circumstances contributed to its success. Firstly, sectarianism was then rife in the East in consequence of the great changes brought about by Islam, and numbers of the adherents of different confessions throughout the califate eagerly accepted any new departures. In the second place, Anan's proclamation of the unrestricted study of the Bible as the only source of religion was most attractive, not only to the members of earlier anti-rabbinic sects, which had by no means been uprooted, but also to the more liberal elements within traditional Judaism that were dissatisfied with the stagnation shown in the methods of the Babylonian academies. In the third place, the directors of the academies (the Geonim), who were at that time out of touch with science and all secular matters, were too short-sighted to recognize the dangers threatening traditional Judaism on the part of the new sect, and believed that by simply ignoring it they could destroy it. They were, moreover, incapable of engaging in religious polemics with their adversaries, as they were familiar only with weapons which the latter refused to recognize, namely, arguments taken exclusively from the traditional writings, and did not distinguish critically between halakic and haggadic and mystical elements in rabbinical literature. Hence none of the attacks on traditional Judaism, not even those that were unfounded, were properly refuted, nor was the true state of affairs explained. Small wonder, then, that the new sect, filled with the zeal of propaganda, generally had the upper hand and went from victory to victory.


Reaction or Rabbinism—Saadia.


At the end of the ninth and in the tenth century, however, there was a decided change, for several rabbinical scholars took up the study of the Biblical books, Hebrew grammar, and secular science, as in the case of Saadia's teacher Abu Kathir Yaya ibn Zakariyya of Tiberias (d. 932), David ibn Merwan al-Muamma, and other Jewish scholars of that time. Men like these, who were well fitted to take up the systematic defense of their belief, presumably did engage in that work. Thus it has recently been discovered that a Palestinian scholar, Jacob b. Ephraim by name, of the beginning of the tenth century, wrote at least one polemic in Arabic against Karaism and in behalf of Rabbinism, and he probably was not the only one in the field. All these Jewish scholars, however, were eclipsed by Saadia al-Fayyumi (892-942), who subsequently became famous as the director of the Academy of Sura. As in many other branches of Jewish science, he was successful also in his polemics against the Karaites, which he began in 915, returning to the subject again in 926, and also, probably, later. Thanks to his forceful intellect and his scientific attainments, he entirely averted the danger threatening traditional Judaism and assured its victory over Karaism; he has therefore been the object of attack by all the leading Karaite writers, even of later periods. Saadia's pupils followed in his foot-steps. One of these, Jacob b. Samuel (c. 950), wrote polemical works in Hebrew, and possibly also in Arabic, against the Karaites, calling forth replies by Sahl and Yafith.


With the beginning of the second half of the eleventh century the field of Karaite activity was transferred from Asia to Europe by Abu al-Faraj Furan's (Jeshua b. Judah's) pupils from Spain and Byzantium. Karaism had been introduced into Spain by a certain Ibn Altaras, who carried it to Castile, where his successors, and chiefly his widow (!), apparently were too outspoken in their attacks upon Rabbinism, for the new heresy was soon suppressed by two influential Judæo-Spanish statesmen—Joseph Farissol and Judah ibn Ezra. This is the sole instance in Jewish history where the temporal powers interfered on behalf of the faith. This ephemeral appearance of Karaism on Spanish soil was fruitful for Jewish historical literature, for it induced the philosophically trained Abraham ibn Daud of Toledo to write his "Sefer ha-abbalah" (1161), which is invaluable for the history of the Jews in Spain. The new sect enjoyed a longer life at Byzantium. Two pupils of Abu al-Faraj of Constantinople, Tobias b. Moses (called "the Translator") and Jacob b. Simon, devoted themselves after their return home to translating into Hebrew the Arabic works of their teacher Abu al-Faraj Furan, those of the latter's teacher Yusuf al-Bair, and other works, adding glosses of their own and their teacher's replies to their questions.


It seems that these scholars in turn had pupils and imitators. Although the translators were very unskilful, interpolating many Arabic or Greek words and phrases, their work was yet important for the European Karaites, who were unacquainted with Arabic. Karaism owes to these translationsits original Hebrew style—on the whole an acquisition of doubtful value—and the appearance of its leading European exponents. Among these are Judah Hadassi (beginning in 1149), Jacob b. Reuben (12th cent.), Aaron b. Joseph (end of the 13th cent.), Aaron of Nicomedia (about the middle of the 14th cent.), Elijah Bashyai and his brother-in-law Caleb Afendopolo (second half of the 15th cent.), and Moses Bashyai (first half of the 16th cent.). The first-named is the author of the "Eshkol ha-Kofer," a comprehensive work in the form of a commentary on the Decalogue, arranged alphabetically and in acrostics, and written in quasi-rime, all sentences riming with "kaf." As the author intended this to be a kind of encyclopedia, he not only included all the opinions and doctrines of religious law of Karaite authors known to him, together with the continual attacks upon the Rabbinites, but he also covered the entire field of Karaite dogmatics, religious philosophy, hermeneutic rules, Hebrew grammar (with unacknowledged borrowings from Ibn Ezra's grammatical works), etc.; he included also passages relating to natural science, partly fabulous, from Arabic and Byzantine sources. This work was until recently the chief authority for information regarding the earlier Karaite writers, and it has still some value, although the original sources of a large portion of the encyclopedia are now accessible. Hadassi composed, in addition, a few smaller works, including a compendium of the Karaite religious laws, of which there have been preserved only fragments—unless these fragments represent all that the author had accomplished. Jacob b. Reuben, whose birthplace and circumstances of life are unknown, used, in his Hebrew commentary on the Bible ("Sefer ha-'Osher"), the exegetical works of Yafith, Abu al-Faraj Harun, Abu al-Faraj Furan, and 'Ali ibn Sulaiman. As the last-named flourished at the end of the eleventh and the beginning of the twelfth century, Jacob can not have written his book before the twelfth century. He consulted also Ibn Jana's lexicon. The Greek words occurring in his commentary point to his Byzantine origin; he frequently uses the current technical terms of the Byzantine Karaite translators, although his Hebrew style is in general more fluent and developed.


Aaron ben Joseph (called "the Elder") is more independent in his exegesis than his predecessor, although in his Bible commentary ("Sefer ha-Mibar") he follows earlier 'scholars, chiefly Ibn Ezra, whose pregnant style he endeavors to imitate. He often quotes early rabbinical views, without polemical intention, salving his Karaite conscience with the saying of Nissi b. Noah (a Karaite author of Persia; 11th cent.) that it was obligatory upon the Karaites to study early rabbinical literature, as the larger part of their teachings was based on the true national tradition (on his theology see Jew. Encyc. i. 14-15). He is also highly esteemed for his arrangement of the Karaite liturgy, being called "the Holy" by his coreligionists in recognition of this work. Nothing is known of the circumstances of his life except that he disputed in 1279 at Solchat (now Stary Krüm), then the Tatar capital in the Crimea, with the Rabbinite Jews of that city, and that fourteen years later, in 1293, he wrote his commentary on the Pentateuch. He probably lived at Constantinople.


Karaite Types.(From Artamof, "La Russie Historique," 1862.)Aaron ben Elijah.


Aaron ben Elijah of Nicomedia (called "the Younger") was born in 1300 at Nicomedia, in Asia Minor. He composed his first work, dealing with religion and philosophy, entitled "'E ayyim," in 1346; his second work, the Karaite code, entitled "Gan 'Eden," in 1354; and the "Keter Torah," a commentary on the Pentateuch, in 1362. Some liturgical and secular poems by him or relating to him are printed in the Karaite prayer-book and in the editor's preface to his works. His system of religious philosophy, in which, while imitating Maimonides, he attempts to refute his "Moreh Nebukim," is discussed by Franz Delitzsch in the introduction to "'E ayyim" and in Jew. Encyc. i. 9-10. Aaron's return to Yusuf al-Bair's Motazilism, for Karaite patriotic reasons, in opposition to the Judæo-Spanish Aristotelianism, must be considered as a retrogression. His above-mentioned code was entirely displaced by the works of his successors, especially of Bashyai, this being the common fate of the earlier codifiers.


Elijah b. Moses Bashyai (1420-90), the scion of a family of Karaite rabbis, studied first with the famous rabbinical scholar Comtino, from whom he derived his love for secular science. In 1460 he began to officiate as a Karaite rabbi, first as the successor of his grandfather and father in his native city, Adrianople, and then in Constantinople, where he founded a kind of Karaite academy. In his chief work, the Karaite code of laws ("Adderet Eliyahu"; for its contents see Jew. Encyc. ii. 574-575), he collected all the views known to him of Karaite legalists, attempting to glean and harmonize the most expedient of them. And he likewise endeavors to justify, by means of Nissi's saying, quoted above, the Karaite borrowings from Rabbinism. This work, written in the last decades of the fifteenth century, left incomplete by the author, and then partially continued by his brother-in-law and pupil, Afendopolo, is still considered by the Karaites as the final and most important authority in religious matters. Elijah carried on an extensive correspondence with his coreligionists in eastern Europe, and at his instance several young Karaites from Lithuania and southern Russia were sent to Constantinople to be educated by him. In the Imperial Public Library at St. Petersburg there are several polemical letters by Bashyai against contemporary rabbinical scholars, and some which he induced his brother-in-law Afendopolo to write (see "adashim gam Yeshanim," i., No. 2, pp. 13-16).


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