The Great Earthquake of 1837, which devastated Tzfat, is frequently mentioned as one of the major disasters that befell the city in the 19th century, contributing to the decline of the city’s population and its loss of status as a Jewish population center. However, two other events played an equally devastating role in the city’s wane, the 1834 Arab Pogrom and the 1838 Druze plunder.
Between the years 1831 and 1841 the Ottoman Turks lost control of a large portion of Palestine, including the area surrounding Tzfat. The area was claimed by the Egyptians though its governor, Ibrahim Pasha, was not able to exert effective control of the area. The local Bedouin and Druze tribes engaged in a continuous revolt against Pasha and in July 1838 they attacked the Egyptian garrison in Tzfat. Abd al Haji, the brother of Acre’s governor, sent soldiers to defend the Jews of Tzfat but the Druze tribesmen managed to overcome these soldiers as well and they swarmed into Tzfat to plunder the city.
The Druze rebels entered Tzfat on July 5th and proceeded to desecrate the synagogues and plunder the Jews’ homes. They, aided by the local Safed Arab population, chased the Jews into the cemetery where they stripped them of their clothes and beat them, demanding that the Jews tell them where their valuables were hidden. Many of the Jews fled to the ancient synagogue in Ein Zeitun where the local Druze continued to beat and harass them.
The Druze rebels located Tzfat’s illustrious rabbi, Rabbi Avraham Dov of Avritch. They kidnapped the rabbi and demanded that he write a ransom letter to his people but the rabbi refused. The Druze covered Rabbi Avraham Dov with a sack and beat him but they became frightened when they heard horses approaching and, in one of the miraculous stories of the pogrom, abandoned the rabbi who was able to return to Tzfat with his congregants.
After three days Ibrahim Pasha’s troops retook the city and drove out the Arab and Druze rebels. The Plunder of 1838 did not result in any fatalities but following the Pogrom of 1834 and the earthquake of 1837, it served as the final nail in the coffin, driving almost all of the remaining population to seek new homes in other areas of the country. Among those were Israel Beck who had moved to Tzfat in 1833 to set up the first printing press of Palestine.
Beck was wounded in the 1834 pogrom and in 1838 his printing press was destroyed. Beck moved to Jerusalem where he restarted his printing house.Sir Moses Montefiori visited Safed in 1839 and, according to a census which he undertook, found only 1,357 Jews left in the city. There were approximately 130 Sephardic families and 200 Ashkenazi families. Montefiori donated large sums of money so that the community could rebuild.
The activities of Sendler, the remarkable diminutive Polish social worker who managed to smuggle over 2500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto is being documented, explored and publicized at the LowellMilken Center Project where students create written and oral projects which honor “unsung heroes.”
Irena Sendler’s story is extraordinary, even more so in that it was almost relegated to the back pages of history until a group of Kansas high school students began to study the episode. Irena Sendler, a member of the Polish Resistance in Nazi-occupied Poland, foresaw the fate of the Jews who were interned in the Warsaw Ghetto.
She made daily forays into the ghetto and managed to persuade thousands of Jewish parents to allow her to smuggle their babies and toddlers out of the ghetto. Using a variety of methods she conveyed them to the Polish side of Warsaw and then placed them with adoptive families for safekeeping.
Sendler maintained a “list” of all of the children, noting their real names and the families with which they had been placed. She buried her list in glass jars in her yard so that, after the war, the children could be returned to their families or, at the very least, their communities.
Although Sendler was captured by the Nazis, she didn’t reveal any information about the children’s whereabouts. The Polish underground was able to secure her release and Sendler herself was forced into hiding.
The Center, sponsored by Jewish businessman Lowell Milken helped produce “Lifein a Jar“ which has been presented as a play to thousands of audiences worldwide. A large amount of material has been compiled into a written documentary and the story has been reported by news agencies throughout the world, ensuring that the account will be preserved for the generations to come.
In this introduction, the noted Rabbi and Maskil points out that the study of Jewish history is not merely to derive enjoyment from the reading of a ‘good story’ or to satiate one’s curiosity, but rather they are essential to every student and Rabbi. He points out how many have faltered in their studies by placing Talmudic personalities in the wrong era, confusing one tanna or ammora for another etc. In addition, the lessons to be learned from such study are many and important “How God punishes those who treated us wickedly and rewarded those who treated us kindly” increase faith in God and their importance cannot be emphasized enough. He continues in this vein for some time.
Perhaps, he did this to assuage a ‘traditional’ Jewish fear of such literature. Some claim that the Jews never labored much to write down their own history (this is undoubtedly true for the Karaite sect, whose own leaders admit that they never granted much effort to the recording of their own history, resulting in modern Historians attempting to reconstruct a movement whose origins are mired in obscurity, see Rise of the Karaite Sect by Dr. Zvi Cahn, Chapter 1).
That the Jews did not bother to record their own history is a curious claim for the ‘People of the Book’. Some may even call this claim a ridiculous one for several reasons: an inordinate amount of space in Scripture is devoted to the happenings of the Jews- down to minute details about names and numbers of the members of various clans. These facts are recorded and often repeated in painstaking detail (and I am not even referring to the books that are mentioned in the Bible itself but were lost, as well as apocrypha, psuedipigrapha etc).
Some claim that this is partially true-especially from the closure of the ‘Scriptual era’ until the rise of the Graeco-Roman one, i.e. it was only under the influence of the Greeks (who arguably invented this discipline) that the Jews finally ‘got into the act’ as well. It was thanks to the Greeks that we now have the historical recordings of the Hellenized Jew, Josephus. If this is indeed true, it took many years of Graeco-Roman influence for a personage like Josephus to arise among the Jews and do to his people what Herodotus to his own.
As in many things, there seems to be something in both sides of the argument.
Yes, it is curious that in the several centuries since the events described in scriptures took place, nobody bothered to record Jewish history. Yet that too is only partially true as Jesus ben Sirach, (whose own book seems to be a matter of contention and debate in the Babylonian Talmud, see here) for instance, devotes the last chapter of his popular book to listing all the Jewish greats who lived up until his own time.
His successors: the Hasmoneans received painstaking documentation. In the several Books of Maccabees (certainly the first two), the first of which was written by a contemporary in Biblical Hebrew- according to many scholars (one would assume an individual without an overly fond attitude towards the Hellenists and the culture that they imported into Judea…)
When we fast-forward to to the Andalusian (Spanish) Golden Age, we may detect a lack of enthusiasm towards this discipline on the part of Maimonides (some might even say hostility, though curiously the latter mandates the daily study of Tanakh, basing himself on what seems to be merely proper advice in BT Kiddushin 30a from R. Joshua B Hanania) (3).
This attitude may further be evidenced in the Sephardic reaction (particularly of R. Joseph Karo and the Safed Kabbalistic circles) to the work of Azariah De Rossi, especially his historical work Maor Einyai’im which was outright banned (though the reasoning given was that it accorded dishonor to the Rabbis of the Talmud, by challenging the latter’s system of chronology ).
During the European Enlightenment, this dichotomy between what I will call the ‘historists’ and the ‘a-historists’ or ‘anti-historists’ take on new and different (arguably more urgent) forms. The Maskilim of Eastern Europe strongly encouraged the study of Jewish history. The study of Tanakh (Scriptures) had already been almost abandoned among Ashkenazic Jews, in favor of intensive Talmudic study (See author of Peri Megadim and the Ashkenazi sage known as the Hakham Sevi who lament this state-of -affairs and praise Sephardim for studying Tanakh and Dikduk [Hebrew Grammar], disciplines that were largely abandoned among most Ashkenazi circles at that point) (4).
The Wissenschaft des Judentums and Haskalah‘s renewed stress on the aforementioned studies produced reactionary violent response which went as far as to outright forbid the study of even Tanakh. (although the’ abandonment’ of Tanakh may have already come about as a much earlier reaction to Sadduccees, who believed in its authority alone). (5)
It seems that Ashkenazic writers of Jewish history, such as the author of Seder Hadorot, David Gans, et-al (this seems less evident in the writings of De Rossi and Joseph Hakohen of Genoa for instance) were walking a tightrope between maintaining fealty to Rabbinic tradition and basing themselves heavily on ‘outside’ and ‘foreign’ material. This was risky business as the latter material often stood in conflict with the Rabbinic one (a classic example would be the aforementioned De Rossi’s issue with Rabbinic calculations and the resultant scandal and ban).
This is clearly evident in the writings of Rabbi Yehiel Heilprin, author of Seder Hadorot, especially in his own introduction, where he takes great pains to point out how important the study of Jewish history is in order to understand Talmud (the who’s who of Talmudic figures) and essentially be a better Jew.
In Heilprin’s and his contemporary’s worldview, the study of Jewish history is a very important means towards a noble end. This same attitude is even more evident (for obvious reasons, see here) in later works of this genre, such as the writings of Rabbi Isaac Rabinowich in his six-volume Dorot Harishonim. It continues to this day (see for instance the introductions to Seder Hadorot Hakatzar by R. Shelomo Benizri; Atlas Ets Hayyim, authored by the recently deceased Refael Heilprin (a direct descendant of R. Yehiel and Rabbi Shelomo Rottenberg in his multi-volume Toldos Am Olam).
The Hirschian ‘Neo-Orthodox’ stance on the subject is (arguably) best articulated in an articled penned by the late Rabbi Shimon Schwab where the latter states unequivocally that “History must be truthful otherwise it does not deserve its name…. What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic picture? Nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity” see here for excerpts.
In Jewish Germany, the study of Jewish history (as part of wissenschaft) was a matter of identity and religion. Heinrich Graetz devoted the better part of his career to researching and then recording the Judische Geschichte.
His treatment may be judged by today’s (relatively) objective standards to have been something less than objective. Much of his writings are his own often less-than-charitable musings and therefore an editorialized, jaundiced take on Jewish history.
The latter also had a history with Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a history the latter would probably have preferred be forgotten. Graetz himself shows a thinly veiled contempt for the venerable Rabbi-his former teacher, and his Talmudic studies (“who busies himself with the miniutate of the laws of an oxe who gored a cow”), though he did retain a fondness for the man himself. (6)
To be continued.
1. On this very eclectic family, see also here.
2. To read his edition online, go here
3. It is interesting to note the crucial word that makes all the difference when this is cited in Maimonides’ Code.
Spot the one crucial difference in choice of word:
וחייב לשלש את זמן למידתו: שליש בתורה שבכתב; ושליש בתורה שבעל פה; ושליש יבין וישכיל אחרית דבר מראשיתו, ויוציא דבר מדבר, וידמה דבר לדבר, וידין במידות שהתורה נדרשת בהן עד שיידע היאך הוא עיקר המידות והיאך יוציא האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן
מדברים שלמד מפי השמועה–ועניין זה, הוא הנקרא תלמוד.
משנה תורה להרמב”ם*
הלכות תלמוד תורה א’ יג
אמר רב ספרא משום ר’ יהושע בן חנניא: מאי דכתיב (דברים ו, ז) “ושננתם לבניך”? אל תקרי “ושננתם” אלא “ושלשתם” – לעולם ישלש אדם שנותיו: שליש במקרא שליש במשנה שליש בתלמוד. מי יודע כמה חיי? לא צריכא אלא ליומי
קידושין ל’ א
(4). In contemporary Religious Zionist circles, the study of Tanakh is often strongly stressed, see here. There are yearly conferences on Tanakh at the Flagship Institution of Religious Zionism, Yeshivat Har Etzion.
(5). for instance:
תנו רבנן, רבו שאמרו רבו שלמדו חכמה, ולא רבו שלמדו מקרא ומשנה, דברי רבי מאיר, רבי יהודה אומר, כל שרוב חכמתו הימנו… תנו רבנן העוסקים במקרא מדה ואינה מדה, במשנה מדה ונוטלין עליה שכר, גמרא אין לך מדה גדולה מזה… אמרו אחיכם אלו בעלי מקרא, שנאיכם אלו בעלי משנה… (בבא מציעא לג א
See also Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 79b, where this appears in slightly different version in the name of R. Shimon bar Yohai. See also JT Horayot 19a
Although in a different place in the Jerusalem Talmud, it appears that EY Jews did stress the study of Tanakh very strongly:
לא כן אמר רבי פנחס בשם רבי הושעיה ארבע מאות וששים בתי כנסיות היו בירושלים, וכל אחת ואחת היה לה בית ספר ובית תלמוד, בית ספר למקרא ובית תלמוד למשנה… (כתובות סז ב)
see more here
(6) Another disciple of Hirsch who later went on to write extensively on Jewish (specifically Sephardic) history was Rabbi Meyer Kayserling.
Historians continue to review the importance of Sephardi Jewry as it has evolved throughout American Jewish history. The study of the Sephardi community within the American Jewish experience offers fresh insights into the present American Jewish community. Sephardi Jews were the first Jewish immigrants in the New World. They traveled to South America to flee the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. When the Inquisition reached the shores of the new colonies many of these Jewish refugees left their homes to travel northward. The earliest of these Jewish settlers reached South Carolina and then continued northward to Virginia, Rhode Island and New York before spreading out to other colonies and, eventually, westward. The history of these Sephardi settlers is now being researched by the Lowell Milken Archives. The Archives use the chants, prayers, liturgy and music of each successive generation of American Jews to chart the course of Jewish history in America. Researchers at the Archives have collected a wide range of material that allows students of the American Jewish experience to track the Sephardic Jewish community as it matured from a small group of refugees to its present situation as a multi-ethnic society with a rich variation of customs, traditions and styles of worship. The Milken Archives presents its research in several collections of recordings including Jewish Voices in the New World: The Song of Prayer in Colonial and 19th-Century America.The volume reviews some of the best-known Sephardic prayers along with their original compositions and melodies, many of which are still sung and chanted in American Sephardic congregations that date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Other works presented at the Archives include Ladino — the vernacular of Mediterranean and Iberian Sephardic Jews — songs and compositions such as traditional Ladino folk songs which can be heard on the Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering album. The Archives, started by Jewish businessman Lowell Milken also features historical memorabilia, videos, photographs and oral histories which lend depth and content to the material which is contained in the alb
Historians continue to review the importance of Sephardi Jewry as it has evolved throughout American Jewish history. The study of the Sephardi community within the American Jewish experience offers fresh insights into the present American Jewish community.
Sephardi Jews were the first Jewish immigrants in the New World. They traveled to South America to flee the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. When the Inquisition reached the shores of the new colonies many of these Jewish refugees left their homes to travel northward. The earliest of these Jewish settlers reached South Carolina and then continued northward to Virginia, Rhode Island and New York before spreading out to other colonies and, eventually, westward.
The history of these Sephardi settlers is now being researched by the Lowell Milken Archives. The Archives use the chants, prayers, liturgy and music of each successive generation of American Jews to chart the course of Jewish history in America. Researchers at the Archives have collected a wide range of material that allows students of the American Jewish experience to track the Sephardic Jewish community as it matured from a small group of refugees to its present situation as a multi-ethnic society with a rich variation of customs, traditions and styles of worship.
The Milken Archives presents its research in several collections of recordings including Jewish Voices in the New World: The Song of Prayer in Colonial and 19th-Century America.The volume reviews some of the best-known Sephardic prayers along with their original compositions and melodies, many of which are still sung and chanted in American Sephardic congregations that date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Other works presented at the Archives include Ladino — the vernacular of Mediterranean and Iberian Sephardic Jews — songs and compositions such as traditional Ladino folk songs which can be heard on the Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering album.
The Archives, started by Jewish businessman Lowell Milken also features historical memorabilia, videos, photographs and oral histories which lend depth and content to the material which is contained in the albums.
A common Jewish adage has it that ‘yichus’ (noble lineage) is a 0, all those prestigious personages on your family tree are zeros, so to speak, and the only thing that matters is how much you yourself can be; you can have many zeros but all you need is one ‘one’ to precede all those zeros to make it count .
Since as far back as I can remember, I’ve nurtured a great love for genealogy- the seemingly boring and cumbersome study of the generations of man. I was, and continue to be, particularly fascinated by Biblical genealogy and how often this seems to plays an important role in the unfolding of the story of mankind. Being somebody’s son, wife, granddaughter, etc. in the Tanakh, is not just a minor unnecessary detail but can, and often does, really add a lot to a given story. Not for naught, is a large portion of the Pentateuch-not to mention the Tanakh, devoted to genealogy.
As far as the holiday of Purim is concerned, it seems that yichus is indeed everything. One doesn’t have to be ‘midrashic’ to see what an important role yichus plays in the Purim story; the clear connection inferred between Haman and Amalek on the one hand and Mordechai and King Saul on the other hand. Haman is referred to in the Book of Esther as an ‘agagite’ i.e. a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag, whom King Saul in a moment of misplaced mercy spared, and whose wife, according to tradition, escaped with his seed, to spawn a new line of insidious haters of humanity (see the Book of Samuel). Mordechai, the Benjaminite is a descendant of Saul, just as Haman is a descendant of Agag, the Amalekite. To use movie jargon, the story develops into a situation where “we meet yet again” but this time Mordechai finishes the job that his ancestor failed to do and thus spares the Jewish people.
Haman’s yichus According to targum sheni
and then follows a gap of several generations until Amalek
Haman’s yichus according to targum rishon
Mordechai’s yichus according to traditon
A happy and joyous Purim to all!
purported tombs of Mordechai and Esther in Iran
I am pleased to present this essay by my good friend, a gentleman and a scholar: Suleiman Shriki of New York. I hope this will be the first of many of his posts on this blog.
The narrative of The Book of Esther revolves around the lives of its protagonists, Mordecai and Esther, Judeans exiles living in Susa, possibly during the reign of either Xerxes I (“Ḫshayārshāh” in Persian–which simply sounds more authentic, as it ends with “Shah”, and “Aḥashwērosh” in Hebrew). In the Midrashic and Talmudic traditions, Mordecai and Esther often become larger than life figures, prophets even. There is a tradition that Mordecai not only served on (the equivalent of) the Syhedrion in Jerusalem not only before he came to Susa, but even after. Though there is no evidence in the scriptures to support this theory. Any critical inquiry into the personage of Mordecai must be done using only the scriptures and external information we have regarding the time and place in which he may have lived.
It’s clear that in order to pinpoint Mordecai’s life using scriptural evidence, we must find other instances where Aḥashwērosh or Susa are mentioned. Thus we find that Aḥashwērosh is mentioned only one other time in Tanakh by that name, in The Book of Ezra (4:6), there we find only a passing mention of Aḥashwērosh as being one of the Emperor’s of Persia to whom the Samaritans wrote ill-reports regarding the Jews, and having lived after Korēsh (Cyrus, 550-530) and Dāryāvesh (Darius, 521-486), yet before Artaḥshāshta (Artaxerxes I presumably), and who seems to have listened to the reports. Which would make Aḥashwērosh Xerxes I (in this analysis). If we examine the reign of Xerxes I, we find that he ruled only twenty years (485-465), that he was defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis, that he built a place at Susa, and that he was later assassinated.
The events described in The Book of Esther then, are coming to elaborate on this passing description in the Book of Ezra of the short reign of Xerxes I, and upon his apparent willingness of his opinion to be swayed by the Samaritans to take a harsh stance towards returned exiles of Judea, and the Temple, which had been rebuilt under the reigns of Cyrus and Darius (completed by 516).
The city of Susa, as it happens, is also mentioned in The Book of Daniel and The Book of Nehemiah, as the city in which they both served as government officials. It was a capital city under the Neo-Babylonians when the Judeans came there during the Babylonian Exile, and switched hands peacefully to the Persians when they entered the city at night in 540 BC. The Judeans also served high positions under Persian government. Daniel had been brought to Babylon as a youth, yet appears to have lived until the reign of Cyrus. Both Ezra and Nehemiah lived and served mainly during the reign of ArtaxerxesI, after Xerxes.
We see therefore that although Judeans such as Mordecai had not wandered far off from the capitals to which they were exiled, they also lived respectable lives in Exile while the Temple had already been rebuilt decades earlier. The Book of Esther itself makes no mention of neither Jerusalem, nor the Temple, and nor do Mordecai or Esther. The narrative ends with Mordecai leveling taxes and having his great deeds recorded in the Persian chronicles. And yet he is the one sending out letters commanding the Judeans throughout the world to celebrate the new feast of Purim, which was adopted and celebrated by the new community in Judea. It is this lukewarm approach to the Return to Zion of the originator of the feast which may have been the reason the Midrashic tradition was forced to have him returning to Jerusalem and serving in the Synhedrion.
Unlike The Book of Esther, we find that The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah deal solely with the question of the Return to Zion. Yet still, it would be hasty of us to brand Mordecai a non-Zionist and them as Zionist activists. Upon further inspection, we find that Nehemiah would not have thought much about the plight of the new community in Jerusalem had he not met an emissary from there, who seems to have inspired him to visit himself. Even Ezra, “the great Zionist leader”, was a scribe in Babylon (under Artaxerxes) until he was given permission and even told to travel to Jerusalem.
It’s clear therefore that while Mordecai had little interest in returning to Zion, the same could also be said of Ezra and Nehemiah, had they not been moved by external influences to the plight of Judea.
A ‘minyan’ is a minimum quorum for public thrice-daily prayer. The quorum has been set by the Rabbis as consisting of a group ten adult males (although there are minority dissenting opinions on that 1).
Karaite Jews traditionally did not have such a concept, but some eventually did adopt it, under Rabbinic influence. Karaite prayer, like its Rabbanite counterpart, is based on the verse in Micah ונשלמה פרים שפתנו, i.e. our lips are now substitutes for the daily sacrifices once offered in the temple, and since the latter sacrifices were done once at dawn and then again at dusk, so too were Karaite prayers established only twice a day.
Karaite Hakham, Shlomo ben Afeda, in his Halakhic compendium Yeriot Shelomo is quite adamant that prayers should be done with a group (although a specific number is never specified) and not alone. He writes:
ועל תפילת יחידי יכול להיות כוונת דוד המלך עליו השלום באמרו: “כִּי לֹא- בָזָה וְלֹא שִׁקַּץ, עֱנוּת
עָ ני וְלֹא-הִסְתִּיר פָּנָיו מִמֶּנּוּ; וּבְשַׁוְּעוֹ אֵלָיו שָׁמֵ ע” (תהלים כ”ב, כ”ה). כי איך יעלה בדעת מפני עניותו
יעלים השם עיניו ממנו ויהיה מוכרח להבטיח שלא יעלים.
אבל בהיות התפילה הרצוי אליו יתברך הנאמרת ברבים יכול להיות שתפילת היחיד בזויה, לכן
אמר: “כִּי לֹא-בָזָה” וכו’. וכן נאמר: “פָּנָה, אֶל-תְּפִלַּת הָעַרְעָר; וְלֹא-בָזָה, אֶת-תְּפִלָּתָם” (תהלים
ק”ב, י”ח) ובאמרו תפלתם בכינוי הרבים רוצה לומר תפילת כל אחד ואחד מהם.
חיוב התפילה הוא בציבור בבית הכנסת כמו שכתוב: “בְּמַקְהֵלוֹת, בָּרְכוּ אֱלֹהִים” (תהלים ס”ח
כ”ז). ולהיות שהאדם מדיני בטבע, ולפעמים אפשר להתעכב מלהתפלל עם הציבור לסיבה מן
הסיבות, הורו החכמים עליהם השלום בתפילת יחיד, כדי שלא להיפטר ממנה, כי היא חובה
גדולה. אמנם צריך להשתדל תמיד להתפלל עם הציבור, כי התפילה הנאמרת עם הציבור היא
הרצויה, ועוד כי תפילת יחיד ספק נשמעת ספק אינה נשמעת, לפי שאם יהיה האדם ראוי מצד
מעשיו תיעתר תפילתו, ואם אינו ראוי ועוונותיו מבדילים בינו ובין השם יתברך, לא תיעתר. אבל
בהיות עם הציבור ודאי תיעתר אף על-פי שאינו ראוי, כי השגחת הכלל עדיפה מהשגחת הפרט,
וכן הזהירו החכמים: “אל תפרוש מן הציבור”.
Accordingly, most Karaite siddurim have a special תפלת יחיד section, for those praying alone.
An Attempt at Cementing Karaite-Samaritan relations in the 19th Century via the Institution of ‘minyan’
In the Spring of 1864, the noted Karaite figure, Abraham Firkovich, found himself in the Samaritan community of Mt. Gerizim in the city of Nablus, known in Hebrew as Shchem. Firkovich,was on a mission to buy as many hand-written manuscripts as he could get his hands on. He had his eye on the 1,300 priceless manuscripts housed in the Samaritan archives at this ancient and sacred site. Aside from the substantial sum offered by Firkovich to buy them (40,000 grush or 2,000 rubles) , the latter also concluded a treaty of sorts that spoke of the “common origin of the 2 peoples” and sought to cement it by instituting the mentioned commitment 2.
This strange episode and a reproduction of the contract signed between the 2 parties can be found in in an article published in the Journal Studia Orientalia (1997, vol. 82, pp. 85-98), entitled SAMARITAN AND KARAIM COMMITMENTS TO MINYAN, ABRAHAM FIRKOVICH AND THE POOR OF TRAKAI by Tapai harvianinen, Haseeb Shehadeh, and Harry Halen 3.
The authors note: It is surprising to note that he attempted to introduce the minyan among the Samaritans of Nablus and (later) the Karaim of Lithuania. His motives for such an attempt are unknown to us from the material which is in our disposal 4.
They continue: at present we know on the basis of new material that there was a religious aspect to Firkovich’s acquisition, this can be referred to as the Samaritan’s commitment to ‘minyan’. Needless to say such a commitment rather than an agreement remained only on paper. The text is to be found in MS Sam XIV 43 in the Samaritan collection at the Firkovich Collection in St. Petersburg.
The MS consists of two pages written mainly in Arabic. The first page (translated into English) contains the original version of the commitment. This version was most likely written by the Samaritan High Priest at that time, Jacob ben Aaron (1840-1916) in the summer of 1864 without seal imprints. The second page with slight but numerous variants was copied by Firkovich himself in square letters. Firkovich did not know Samaritan script well and copied it with help from Samaritans and Karaites in Jerusalem.
בברית הר סיני וחקי הר חוריב אנחנו בני ישראל שכוני עיר שכם
בהתאספו ראשי העם כרותים אמונה ובאים על החתום על שתר התקנה הזאת להקים את התניאים האלה המבוארים בלשון ערבי….
There follows the Arabic text.
Followed by the signatories:
יצחק בן יוסף
ישראל בן עבד חנונה
יעקב בן שלבי
מרחיב בן יעקב
מרחיב בן אברהם
אברהם בן אב סכוה
ישמעאל בן אברהם
יעקב בן אהרן הכהן
עמרם בן שלמה הכהן
פנחס בן יצחק הכהן
ישראל בן ישמעאל
עבד חנונה בן ישמעאל
English Translation of the contract:
By the Mt. Sinai covenant and the decrees of Mount Horeb, we, the Israelites, the inhabitants of the town of Nablus in the gathering of the leaders of the community are making a covenant and appending our signets to this document of regulation in order to fulfill those conditions which are clarified in the Arabic language. It is the eve of the blessed Tuesday, the 28th day of the 12th month of the year 1280 n (4-5 june 1864 a.d.) in the presence of his excellency, the Chief Rabbi (!) of our respected brethren, rabbi אלחכם Abraham Firkovich, in the town of Nablus while meeting his excellency and in the footsteps of negotiation and listening to his magnificent spiritual counsel all we who append our names and signets below have agreed to come the House of God (Synagogue) itended for prayers in order to perform the ritual prayer twice a day in the evening and in the morning in accordance with our duty and the practice of our fathers of long standing. And we will not be restrained from doing so without a clear excuse .And for this agreement of ours we have composed this as notification of what we have agreed upon in the presence of his excellency referred to on the date mentioned above. We ask God to give us success (in achieving) what he chooses and wishes and may God’s peace rest upon Moses b Amram.
It is well and if one or 2 persons of the community come (to the Synagogue) then it will not be necessary for the priest to pray unless an assembly of ten persons at least (is present). With less than ten he (the priest), ought not to perform public prayers, and upon this agreement was reached.
Additional signatories transliterated from the Arabic…
Firkovich Institutes ”minyan’ in the Kenesa of Trakai, Lithuania
Six years later in July 1870, Firkovich, now aged 82 was paying a visit to Trakai in Lithuania. On Wednesday, the 6th of July , an agreement (taqnan) was proposed by him was signed by 31 leading members of the congregation. The contract 3 large pages written in Hebrew consists of an introduction and 30 clauses by which Firkovich intended to reestablish religious customs and interpretations as well as to revive the spiritual life of the congregation (which apparently was at an all time low)5.
The introduction states that Firkovich comes on the mission from the Karaite council of Gozlova (Eupatoria) in Crimea. We may assume this is mentioned to inform the readers that he had the support of the local Hakham at that time: Nahamu Babovich
(the minyan is dealt with in clause 23)
בתפלת חובתנו-כשנשיג לומר היחוד- ובתחלתו נמצא:במקהלות ברכו אלהים: מן הראוי והחוב שתהיה תפלת צבור בלי שנוי בהמצא 10 אנשים הנקרא מניין, כי זולת זה- החזן בהתחייב שלא להתחיל התפילה יוכרח להתפלל בתפילת יחיד בזה תפלת הצבור תשאר מחמרה ושיהו חוששין כולם כאחד לבוא לעבודת השית בכל זמנים בתנאי שיוגבל מחזן לשמש שיכריז את שעתה בקהל עם
עכפ אולי יהיה מן הצורך לקרוא לבה בימים ארוכים וקצרים בערבי שבתות ומועדים ובימי חול בקר וערב כדי שידעו הקהל זמן בואם לתפלה אבל אם תהיה סבה לעכוב את הקריאה מצד השמש מחמת עסקי זמנו המזדמנים להיות אזי לקריאת ב”ה חוב שלא להתרפה לו ושישלח נער ויקרא והנערים שישמעו אותו ויעשו את דברו
It is signed by 31 representatives of the Karaite community of Trakai:
Abraham b ha-hazzan Lavreckij
Simha b Abraham Kobeckij
Josef b shelomo Firkovic
Shelomo b Abraham Kobeckij
Aharon ben yosef Bizikovic
Simha ben aharon
Mordechai ben Jacob hazaqen Lavreckij
Simha b Josef Zarnovskij
Joshiahu b Abraham Moskevic
Ahiezer ben Isaac Kavreckij
Shalom simha Kobeckij
Mattatiah ben shemuel
Azaroah b abrahan hazeqn Kobeckij
Shelomo jedidiah ben aharon
Zerah ben shealtiel Horcenko
Nissan jehonatan ben simha Moskevic
Gedaliah shemuel ben avraham hazaqen Pileckij
Nissan ben mordechai hazzaqen Firkovic
Simha ben mordechai hazzaqen Firkovic
Aharon ben Abraham Maleckij
Daniel ben shealtiel hazzaqen Horczenko
Efraim ben mordechai Dubinsji
Eliab ben juhuda hamskil Jutkevic
Azariah hashamash ben sar shalom hashmash vehazaqqen
Isaac ben mordechao Malinovkij
Josef jehiel ben mordechai Spakovskij
Gedaliah simha ben nissim spakovskij
Joel ben Josef hazzaqen Firkovic
Isaac ben Jacob Hamaskil
And here signed the hazzanim:
Moriel jehoioda hazzan bk”k troki ben hakham Kaplannovskij
Hananiah Abraham ben david Abkowic who, letter by letter word for word, copied the document
1. see Minor Tractate Soferim 10:8, where it states that in Israel, seven or even six were deemed sufficient for a minyan.
for the numerical reason of ten see TB Berkahot 21B and TB Megillah 23B
I should point out though, that the number ten was adopted in the Karaite community as the minimum number of persons required to conduct a wedding ceremony. This is learned out from a verse in Ruth 4: ויקח עשרה אנשים מזקני עיר “And he (Boaz) took ten men from the elders of the city”. See Sepher Mayan Hayyim (by former Karaite Chief Rabbi Hayyim ben Yitzchak Halevy), p. 146
2. It’s important to point out that in this move, Firkovich did not have the backing of the Karaite religious leaders of his time. In fact, even though there was some communication, and also degrees of influence, between the 2 communities, since the Middle Ages, many (if not most) Karaites did not consider the Samaritans, Jews (neither did the Samaritans themselves, as they considered themselves Israelites with some Levite representation). Dan Shapira (see following comment) aptly demonstrated that Firkovich did not himself believe that the origins of the Crimean Karaites were from Samaria, but used it as a ploy in order to ingratiate himslef with the Samaritan elders, and thereby gain the valuable collection of documents. Firkovich was also on a mission to divorce the Karaites from their Rabbanite brethren, a campaign, that would involve him forging tombstones and concocting outlandish theories about the origins of the Crimean and eastern Eurpean Karaites. This campaign (which is discussed elsewhere at greater length) would be crowned in success when the Russian Czar exempted the Karaites, under his dominion, from the harsh anti-religious edicts, considering the Karaites distinct from the Jews because of their supposed arrival on the Crimean Peninsula before the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and for their rejection of Talmud (‘the root of all jewish evil’).
2b. Although Firkovich eventually acquired the collection, it appears from his personal correspondence, that the Samaritans were quite unwilling to part with their manuscripts even in exchange for ‘much gold and silver’. Firkovich (in that same letter) expressed his hope that another tactic of his might actually work. Firkovich, no doubt, possessed extreme talent and charm, and his playing on the “common brotherly bond” between these 2 isolated and persecuted communities may have actually been the clincher that sealed the deal.
Later Samaritan sources, speak of this episode with a degree of disappointment and regret. For instance, the Samaritan High Priest, Yaakov b Uzi (1889-1987) claimed that Firkovich pulled the wool over their eyes, and payed less than what it was worth (he also mentions something, which isn’t found in the documents here reproduced– namely that Firkovich proposed that Karaites would revere Gerizim, in addition to Jerusalem, as a holy site. It is unclear if he asked the same of the Samaritans-the Samaritans having been known to disregard, and sometimes even shun, Jerusalem).
A more positive note is sounded in a Samaritan chronicle published in 1900, it speaks of a “wise man from the Karaite Jews in the Land of Russia who loved the Samaritans greatly”. That same chronicle also claims that a deal was reached between Firkovich and the High Priest at the time, to the effect that both communities ‘would follow the Five books of Moses alone’. This, of course, was complete bluff on Firkovich’s part, as he well knew that no Karaite would agree to that.
Ephraim Deinard in his תולדות אבן רש”ף also claimed that Firkovich promised the Samaritans, to bring Karaite maidens, in order to ease the severe shortage of females among the Samaritans (a problem that exists among them to this day).
(Member of Knesset, Zeev Elkin (Likud), studied Firkovich and his collection, and is preparing a more thorough investigation piece about this and other picante episodes in Firkovich’s life).
3. For a detailed description of this visit see דן שפירא, מן‘גלותנו‘ לשכם: אברהם פירקוביץ אצל השומרונים, קתדרה 104, יוני 2002, עמ’ 94-85
4. It ay be interested to point out that most Rabbinic Halakhists forbid the inclusion of a Karaite Jew in a minyan. Maimonides, in his published responsa פאר הדור categorically rejects their inclusion on the basis of the fact that they do not accept the validity of the sayings of the Rabbis-from whom we know the concept of minyan( one can only wonder, what Rambam would say in our case, where minyan was accepted-perhaps even considered binding).
5. It should be pointed out that conventional congregations too, often faced similar challenges in attracting worshipers; R Joel Sirkis (1561-1640), author of Bayit Hadash, a commentary on R Jacob ben Asher’s Turim, ruled that Jews can be compelled to attend Synagogue on pain of fines, in order to assure minyan. This was also the ruling of the Rema (Moses Isserles). see Bach on Orah Hayyim 150. Cf. Moses Isserles on SA, OH 15:22