Chapters On Jewish Literature
By Israel Abrahams
Public Domain Books
Chapter VI. The Karaitic Literature
Anan, Nahavendi, Abul-Faraj, Salman, Sahal, al-Bazir, Hassan, Japhet, Kirkisani, Judah Hadassi, Isaac Troki.
In the very heart of the Gaonate, the eighth century witnessed a religious and literary reaction against Rabbinism. The opposition to the Rabbinite spirit was far older than this, but it came to a head under Anan, the son of David, the founder of Karaism. Anan had been an unsuccessful candidate for the dignity of Exilarch, and thus personal motives were involved in his attack on the Gaonim. But there were other reasons for the revolt. In the same century, Islam, like Judaism, was threatened by a fierce antagonism between the friends and the foes of tradition. In Islam the struggle lay between the Sunnites, who interpreted Mohammedanism in accordance with authorized tradition, and the Shiites, who relied exclusively upon the Koran. Similarly, in Judaism, the Rabbinites obeyed the traditions of the earlier authorities, and the Karaites (from Kera, or Mikra, i.e. “Bible”) claimed the right to reject tradition and revert to the Bible as the original source of inspiration. Such reactions against tradition are recurrent in all religions.
Karaism, however, was not a true reaction against tradition. It replaced an old tradition by a new one; it substituted a rigid, unprogressive authority for one capable of growth and adaptation to changing requirements. In the end, Karaism became so hedged in by its supposed avoidance of tradition that it ceased to be a living force. But we are here not concerned with the religious defects of Karaism. Regarded from the literary side, Karaism produced a double effect. Karaism itself gave birth to an original and splendid literature, and, on the other hand, coming as it did at the time when Arabic science and poetry were attaining their golden zenith, Karaism aroused within the Rabbinite sphere a notable energy, which resulted in some of the best work of medieval Jews.
Among the most famous of the Karaite authors was Benjamin Nahavendi, who lived at the beginning of the ninth century, and displayed much resolution and ability as an advocate of free-thought in religion. Nahavendi not only wrote commentaries on the Bible, but also attempted to write a philosophy of Judaism, being allied to Philo in the past and to the Arabic writers in his own time. At the end of the ninth century, Abul-Faraj Harun made a great stride forwards as an expounder of the Bible and as an authority on Hebrew grammar.
During the ninth and tenth centuries, several Karaites revealed much vigor and ability in their controversies with the Gaonim. In this field the most distinguished Karaitic writers were Salman, the son of Yerucham (885-960); Sahal, the son of Mazliach (900-950); Joseph al-Bazir (flourished 910-930); Hassan, the son of Mashiach (930); and Japhet, the son of Ali (950-990).
Salman, the son of Yerucham, was an active traveller; born in Egypt, he went as a young man to Jerusalem, which he made his head-quarters for several years, though he paid occasional visits to Babylonia and to his native land. These journeys helped to unify the scattered Karaite communities. Besides his Biblical works, Salman composed a poetical treatise against the Rabbinite theories. To this book, which was written in Hebrew, Salman gave the title, “The Wars of the Lord.”
Sahal, the son of Mazliach, on the other hand, was a native of the Holy Land, and though an eager polemical writer against the Rabbinites, he bore a smaller part than Salman in the practical development of Karaism. His “Hebrew Grammar” (Sefer Dikduk) and his Lexicon (Leshon Limmudim) were very popular. Unlike the work of other Karaites, Joseph al-Bazir’s writings were philosophical, and had no philological value. He was an adherent of the Mohammedan theological method known as the Kalam, and wrote mostly in Arabic. Another Karaite of the same period, Hassan, the son of Mashiach, was the one who impelled Saadiah to throw off all reserves and enter the lists as a champion of Rabbinism. Of the remaining Karaites of the tenth century, the foremost was Japhet, the son of Ali, whose commentaries on the Bible represent the highest achievements of Karaism. A large Hebrew dictionary (Iggaron), by a contemporary of Japhet named David, the son of Abraham, is also a work which was often quoted. Kirkisani, also a tenth century Karaite, completed in the year 937 a treatise called, “The Book of Lights and the High Beacons.” In this work much valuable information is supplied as to the history of Karaism. Despite his natural prejudices in favor of his own sect, Kirkisani is a faithful historian, as frank regarding the internal dissensions of the Karaites as in depicting the divergence of views among the Rabbinites. Kirkisani’s work is thus of the greatest importance for the history of Jewish sects.
Finally, the famous Karaite Judah Hadassi (1075-1160) was a young man when his native Jerusalem was stormed by the Crusaders in 1099. A wanderer to Constantinople, he devoted himself to science, Hebrew philology, and Greek literature. He utilized his wide knowledge in his great work, “A Cluster of Cyprus Flowers” (Eshkol ha-Kopher), which was completed in 1150. It is written in a series of rhymed alphabetical acrostics. It is encyclopedic in range, and treats critically, not only of Judaism, but also of Christianity and Islam.
Karaitic literature was produced in later centuries also, but by the end of the twelfth century, Karaism had exhausted its originality and fertility. One much later product of Karaism, however, deserves special mention. Isaac Troki composed, in 1593, a work entitled “The Strengthening of Faith” (Chizzuk Emunah), in which the author defended Judaism and attacked Christianity. It was a lucid book, and as its arguments were popularly arranged, it was very much read and used. With this exception, Karaism produced no important work after the twelfth century.
On the intellectual side, therefore, Karaism was a powerful though ephemeral movement. In several branches of science and philology the Karaites made real additions to contemporary knowledge. But the main service of Karaism was indirect. The Rabbinite Jews, who represented the mass of the people, had been on the way to a scientific and philosophical development of their own before the rise of Karaism. The necessity of fighting Karaism with its own weapons gave a strong impetus to the new movement in Rabbinism, and some of the best work of Saadiah was inspired by Karaitic opposition. Before, however, we turn to the career of Saadiah, we must consider another literary movement, which coincided in date with the rise of Karaism, but was entirely independent of it.
Graetz.–III, 5 (on Troki, ibid., IV, 18, end. M. Mocatta, Faith Strengthened, London, 1851).
Steinschneider.–Jewish Literature, p. 115 seq. W. Bacher.–Qirqisani the Qaraite, and his Work on Jewish Sects, J.Q.R., VII, p. 687.
–– Jehuda Hadassi’s Eshkol Hakkofer, J.Q.R., VIII, p. 431.
S. Poznanski.–Karaite Miscellanies, J.Q.R., VIII, p. 681.