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Avraham Firkovich;  the Adventures and Foibles of a Karaite Maskil in 19th century Eastern Europe PART I

Rare photo of Firkovich as a young Hakham

Avraham Firkovich is probably the best known Karaite of the 19th century (arguably, the last best-known Karaite of note). He was one of the more eccentric and colorful personalities of the 19th century. In his early years he was known as a passionate individual which could translate to either episodes of explosive rage or displays of genuine affection and fondness. He was an (underrated) poet and wrote some interesting poetry which to my knowledge has never been properly studied. He maintained close ties with his Rabbanite contemporaries who were known as Maskilim  (the enlightened Jews). Some of his books contain approbation from several of the best known Maskilim of his age. He is commonly accused of having forged tombstones and other antiquities in order to bolster his theory that the Eastern European Karaites lived in Crimea before the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, thus sparing the Karaites from the anti-semitic charge of deicide. His own Maskilic friends (even some Karaite ones!) concurred with this assessment that he engaged in forgery but I think the words of one famous maskil is very illustrative of the forgiving and understanding attitude exhibited in some enlightened quarters ( I stress the word ‘some’ because he was also at the receiving end of some very vitriolic attacks from maskilim who considered him a complete charlatan, e.g. Ephraim Deinard). The Maskil in question excused Firkovich’s forgeries by saying that he did what he did for the good of his community. In other words he was not engaging in forgery for financial or any other selfish end but rather the welfare of his community was at the forefront of his mind. Modern scholarship maintains that the extent of Firkovich’s forgeries were overstated. This from the excellent book Scripture and Schism (JTS, 2000)

firk bio jts

From תולדות היהדות הקראית ח”ב עמוד 46

(I am not sure who this  חוקר מהמאה ה19 is exactly).

Deinard, however, was a different story. He once worked closely with Firkovich before apparently having a severe falling out with him. Deinard is considered  to be one of the greatest ‘hebrew bookmen’ of all time and traveled extensively while amassing a large library of books and manuscripts which he put to use in his grotesque Hebrew work “Masa Qrim”. The latter purports to be a diary of his travels among the Karaites of Crimea. The work does not even pretend to be an objective account or anything close to an ethnographic study but is rather an undisguised attack against Karaites, Karaism and particularly his nemesis: Firkovich (about whom he devoted a seperate ‘biography’ called “Toldot Even Reshef”). To be sure Deinard himself was hardly a stellar individual of high integrity, but his “Masa Qrim “received approbations from maskilim who apparently felt torn between a sense of admiration for Firkovich (and an abiding interest in Karaism in general) on the one hand and their personal friendship with Deinard on the other. Illustrative of this ambivalent attitude is exhibited in several of the approbation to “Masa Qrim”. Equally interesting is the enthuastic aprobation of the Sephardic sage, Hayyim Hizkiyahu Medini, who served as a Rabbi in Karasubazar, Crimea for a period.

masa krim

Even more interesting is that Deinard continued to correspond with Firkovich even after the rift between the two. Firkovich’s responses do not seem to contain the slightest hint of resentment. One in particular is strange and seems to show that Firkovich suffered from onset dementia at that particular stage (the following is a part of a transcription of a correspondence between Firkovich and Deinard regarding the alleged grave of Rabbi Yitzchak Sangari in Chufut Kale, a personality that Firkovich seems to have invented).

frik reply to deinard 1     firk reply to deinard 2

He also exhibited paranoic behavior. An ex pupil of Firkovich named Tarkhov adressed an exceedingly strange episode, in his diary, where he claims Firkovich accused him of attempting to murder him.

firk delusional


Dan Shapira in his strangely titled biography of the man, “Avraham Firkowicz in Istanbul (1830–1832). Paving the Way for Turkic Nationalism” summed up Firkovich and the EE Karaites thusly:


In order to understand Firkowicz, we must first relinquish our Rabbanite-centric view of Qaraism seeing in the Qaraites merely a sect, and try to imagine what would happen if the situation was the opposite, i.e., not roughly 10,000 Karaites against 10,000,000 of Rabanites, but vice versa. Such modern phenomena like the Natorei Qarta, an ultra-orthodox and super anti-Israeli Jewish religious sect siding with the worst enemies of Israel, especially in the West in recent years, could serve a good parallel: here the need for inner cohesiveness, combined with a high degree of paradigm tension with the majority inert to the minority kerygma, push the minority group to pathetic, and sometimes almost suicidal, acts of protest It is important to put things in perspective.  A minority finding itself under suspicion at best and hostility at worst from two quarters: their rabbanite brethren and their gentile neighbors (a minority within a minority within a minority) will ultimately produce figures who may act quite strangely depending on circumstance (p. 88-9)


Firkovich was probably a disagreeable and quarrelsome individual by nature (Jewish history is replete with such individuals..). He did not get along with Rabbanites and Karaites alike. His fistfights in the Kenesa of Istanbul are quite illustrative of that. His violent quarrel with fellow Karaite Isaac Cohen deserves closer attention. His fist fight with the Hassidic Rebbe of Berditchev, Rabbi Moshe Zvi (later the Admor of Savran) is likewise indicative of his temperament. It is important to remember, as Shapira points out, that Firkovitch was not a Karaite ‘leader’ in the modern sense of the term but rather a very well-known individual and an inseparable part of the Maskilic circle of Eastern Europe who just happened to be Karaite. His last days in Chufut Kale in Crimea were marked by some bizarre behavior on his part. His marriage to a maiden half his age raised some eyebrows. Her ensuing pregnancy elicited some gossip among the townsfolk. Firkovich was aware of the talk and was not averse to issue threats. His last known portrait portrays him exactly as he wanted it to. It shows a venerable sage surrounded by his Rasputin looking son-in-law, Gavriel and his family. He fancied himself an old-testament like figure and he received visits from Jewish and non-Jewish notables at his residence up until his death there.

firk photo




In 1834 Firkovich gained particular notoriety when he published his explosive apologetic book Hotam Tokhnit. In it, he accused the Rabbanites of having crucified Jesus and the alleged murder of Anan ben David! (this seems to have been the first time such a charge was leveled). The implication was clear;  the Rabbanites were killers of prophets and it seemed an endorsement of traditional anti-Semitism. While at first glance these charges should give one pause and pass sentence on Firkovich as someone beyond the pale,  a virtual Jew-hater (perhaps even a self-hating Jew). One must keep in mind that Firkovich was writing his book as a polemical work. Not one known to control himself, Firkovich was merely reacting to the perhaps equally vicious things written about Karaites among Rabbanite circles. Two examples should suffice:

A Rabbi Pesach of Slutzk (Russia) was queried on whether the Halakhic categories of tam’e and tahara, purity/impurity apply to the Karaite dead. He replied that even though it is a great mitzvah to kill them (and adding for good measure that it’s permitted to practice usury on them), they are still metam’e b’ohel (their corpses render one impure inside an enclosure).

גם ר׳ פסח כ״ץ מסלוצק
בתשובתו שנדפסה בסוף ספר ״לקוטי הפרדס״, אמ״ד תע״ה, נו״נ בענין זה, והוא מסיים: ״ולא
מיבעיא אלו  א ל א  א פ י ל ו  א ו ת ם  ה ק ר א י ם  י מ ח  ש מ ם  ש ח ד ש י ם  מ ק ר ו ב
(ב א ו (הכונה כנראה לשבתאים) וכופרים בתושבע״פ שהם בכלל (נראה שצריך להוסיף: המינים
כל ההורג אחד מהם עשה מצוה גדולה ומותר להלותן ברבית, אע״פ כן מטמאין באהל״

Lest one think that this sort of attitude was limited to Ashkenazi Rabbinic authorities only, this from Dan Shapira’s biography of Firkovich:

Towards the end of the 19th c. a Rabbi in Istanbul by the name of Shelomo Kimhi wrote a book called “Melekkhet Shlomo” where he called the Karaites ‘worse than animals and it is permitted to kill them” 
The Hakham Bashi Yaqir Geron came out against him and ordered all copied to be burned. See here

It should be pointed out that as with Meleketh Shelomo, senior religious figures got involved in the ensuing firestorm and convinced Firkovich to recall  all copies of the book which he promptly did (the influence of his maskilim friends also likely played a role in his decision). Firkovich was no fool or ignoramous. His writings exhibit a strong knowledge of both Karaite and Rabbanite literature. His flowery biblical Hebrew earned him the admiration of many maskilim and lovers of the Hebrew language and proponents of the revival of the Hebrew language when Yiddish stood as its strongest competitor among maskilic circles.

He was a prodigious writer as well as an indefatigable traveler and collector. His literary estate now forms the Firkovich collection at the St. Petersburg Russia’s National Library, which is a goldmine for scholars.


firk deicidefirk apology
I also found it interesting that he and his master/rival, Mordechai Sultanski sold leather for tefillin to Rabbanite merchants.

firk sultanski tefilin



His poetry, reproduced in Yosef Elgamil’s second volume on Karaite history (Heb.) תולדות היהדות הקראית, חלק ב עמוד 45 shows a tenderness otherwise not shown in his other writings. In a series of  paragraphs of rhymed prose recounts the history of the Karaite Jews and while he repeats the time-honored traditions of his forbears, his paean to the enlightened masklim is a fascinating window into a little known feature of the man.  His characterization of Mendelssohn  (affectionately referred to by the Maskilim as Ramabaman-which was both the acronym of his Hebrew name: Rabbi Moshe Ben Menachem as well as a hint as to his standing in their eyes, i.e. on the same plane as Rambam-Maimonides) as “the sage of our generations”  and his usage of the Rabbinic aphorism (taken from the epithet on the alleged tomb of Maimonides) that “from Moses to Moses, there arose none like Moses” abundantly illustrates that sentiment.  he had similar tender things to say about Naphatali Hirz Wessely Solomon Dubno and Marcus Jostfirk mendelson

His attitude however was decidedly violent when it came to Hassidim, whom he considered vulgar, unelightened and reprehensible (1). On the Hassidic Admor Rabbi Moshe Zvi of Savran, he wished a fate nothing less than death! (he appared to have had a run-in with Firkovich, when the latter moved to Berditchev in 1828, and an altercation ensued- in which the Savraner Rebbe called him an ignoramus).

firk savran

It is interesting to note also that Firkovich was a native of Poland and was proficient in Yiddish among other languages. In some of his correspondence with his teacher/rival Mordechai Sultansky he was not averse to utilize this language-especially when he had reason to believe that prying eyes were prying(~ I thank Prof. Golda Akhizer for making me aware of this interesting tidbit- see here and my comment there).

When he worked as a Hebrew school teacher in Istanbul, he comes across as a doting teacher; keeping exact notes about the condition and advancement of each pupil (though it should be pointed out that he also knew how to act the role of disciplinarian when he felt the need). As mentioned Firkovich was a transient scholar in his early days and did not posses the capacity to stay put in one place for too long. His stint in Istanbul did not last long. In 1834 we find him accompanying Simcha Babovich in his travels across the east, checking -and sometimes emptying  the archives of various Jewish communities in the Criman Peninsula (their protests notwithstanding. It should be pointed out that Jewish scholarship owes him a great deal of gratitude for doing this, as he there is no doubt that by doing so he ended up saving many of these archives from certain destruction by the Nazis a century later).


How Firkovich is Viewed by Contemporary Karaites


Firkovich continues to be a divisive figure even among certain Karaite circles. It should be remembered that certain sectors of the Middle Eastern Karaite community have often viewed their ‘brethren’ in the west (once referred to me as ‘ashkenazy karaites’ by a member of the Egyptian community) with suspicion due in part to, what they perceived as, their dissociation from world Jewry (the much made about ‘dejudaization’ (2) process attributed by many to Firkovich and especially to his succesor Seraya Szapshal deserves a closer look.  Shapira rightly points out

firk karaites real jews




(1) He corresponded however throughout his life with a wide variety of people, including prominent Hassidim, such as the third Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch (Mentioned in Shapira, p. 77).

(It should be pointed out that the Karaite approach to Kaballah -and presumably the movements it inspired, such as Hassidism, was allot more nuanced than commonly perceived, see for instance the biography and works of Simcha Yiztchak Lutzki, termed in this paper a “Karaite Kabbalist”).

Mordechai Sultansky actually met Rabbi Yisrael, the founder of the Ruzhin Hassidic dynasty. David Assaf gives an account of Sultansky’s less than charitable impression of the man:

Writing in 1841, Mordechai Sultansky of Chufut-Qale (Crimea), a prominent Karaite sage and historian recalled his encounter in Ruzhin with the young Israel, which probably took place around 1815

When I was young I had heard of the fame of the baal shem Israel, who was adored by his believers. I had a desire to see him and to assess his quality. I went there to the town of Ruzhin; however I could not see his face because of the crowd who flocked from all over the country to ask his assistance. Finally I had an idea. I wrote a letter of poems and phrases dedicated to his honor and delivered it to his attendant, and then he ordered that I be invited. That is how I came to see him, and he was then 18 years old. He said to me: my dear, you wrote your letter in vain, since I will not understand ay of it. That is because I haven’t any knowledge in wisdom or in books. I am devoted only to theoretical Kabbala. When I tested him, I realized that he had neither faith nor knowledge or sense, but he is one of Jezebel’s prophets, who merely consumes the remnants of the brainless Jews and strips them of their skin with his crazy tricks. However in their eyes he is as lofty as an angel. (Assaf, David “The Regal Way”)

(2) Shelomo ben Mordechai Kazaz, considered to be the leading sage of Chufut Kale, wrote  the book “Tuv Taam” in the Karaim language (the dialect spoken by the Karaim [not Krymchaks] of Crimea). It was published in 1835. This book was the first basic or elementary textbook on the Karaite faith for younger people. It can be classified as a book on basic Karaite ‘catechisms’. Professor Henryk Jankowski in a recent presentation (see here) on this particular tome shows how conscious Crimean Karaim were of their Hebrew/Israelite roots. For instance Kazaz teaches that the national language of the Karaim is Hebrew (unlike Szapszal who actually banned its study). See also Avraham Qanai’s transcription of a Hebrew poem by Hakham Shabbetai ben Mordechai Tiro (1861-1939), a resident of Gozleve (Eupatoria), where the latter strongly expresses his Jewish identity and proclaims that ‘kol yisrael achim’, literally: all Jews (clearly including himself and his kinsmen) are brothers. While most of Tiro’s poems are in Karaim language, this particular one is written in Biblical Hebrew and it was composed in the late 30s, a mere several years after the passing of the Nuremberg Laws in Germany..





Can a Convert Recite Some Portions of the Haggadah?


This is a seemingly simple question with a seemingly simple answer (yes…) but it wasn’t so a millenium ago. In the section of the Seder preceding the festive meal (which one hopes, almost in vain, to finally arrive;), there is a section that makes much mention of our forefathers. Specifically these passages come to mind:

לֹא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד גָּאַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֶלָּא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל עִמָּהֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: (דברים ו כג): “וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָׁם, לְמַעַן הָבִיא אֹתָנוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵנוּ“.

Free Translation:

Not only our forefather did the Blessed one redeem (from Egypt),but also our very selves as the verse states…And he pulled us out from there etc. (Deut. 6:23)

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר גְּאָלָנוּ וְגָּאַל אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה לֶאֱכָל בּוֹ מַצָּה וּמָרוֹר.


Blessed art thou our lord, who has redeemed us and redeemed our forefather from Egypt and we have arrived at this very night to consume the Massa and the Marror (the bitter herbs).

In the first quarter of the 12th c., a remarkable individual sent a query to the great Maimonides. The questioner was known as Obadiah and he was a Proselyte.

Obadiah wondered whether he was allowed to recite אלהינו ואלהי אבותנו “Our God and the God of our Fathers” in his prayers. After all his fathers were not only gentiles but may have even taken part in anti-Jewish persecutions..

Maimonides offered a particularly tender reply:

Thus says Moses, the son of Rabbi Maimon, one of the exiles from Jerusalem, who lived in Spain:

I received the question of the master Obadiah, the wise and learned proselyte, may the Lord reward him for his work, may a perfect recompense be bestowed upon him by the Lord of Israel, under whose wings he has sought cover.

You ask me if you, too, are allowed to say in the blessings and prayers you offer alone or in the congregation: “Our God” and “God of our fathers,” “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments,” “You who have separated us,” “You who have chosen us,” “You who have inherited us,” “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt,” “You who have worked miracles to our fathers,” and more of this kind.

Yes, you may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least. In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessing and prayer, you, too, shall bless and pray alike, whether you are alone or pray in the congregation. The reason for this is, that Abraham our Father taught the people, opened their minds, and revealed to them the true faith and the unity of God; he rejected the idols and abolished their adoration; he brought many children under the wings of the Divine Presence; he gave them counsel and advice, and ordered his sons and the members of his household after him to keep the ways of the Lord forever, as it is written, “For I have known him to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19). Ever since then whoever adopts Judaism and confesses the unity of the Divine Name, as it is prescribed in the Torah, is counted among the disciples of Abraham our Father, peace be with him. These men are Abraham’s household, and he it is who converted them to righteousness.

In the same way as he converted his contemporaries through his words and teaching, he converts future generations through the testament he left to his children and household after him. Thus Abraham our Father, peace be with him, is the father of his pious posterity who keep his ways, and the father of his disciples and of all proselytes who adopt Judaism.

Therefore you shall pray, “Our God” and “God of our fathers,” because Abraham, peace be with him, is your father. And you shall pray, “You who have taken for his own our fathers,” for the land has been given to Abraham, as it is said, “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give to you” (Gen. 13:17). As to the words, “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt” or “You who have done miracles to our fathers” – these you may change, if you will, and say, “You who have brought Israel out of the land of Egypt ” and “You who have done miracles to Israel.” If, however, you do not change them, it is no transgression, because since you have come under the wings of the Divine Presence and confessed the Lord, no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you. Thus is it said in the Book of Isaiah, “Neither let the son of the stranger, that has joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, ‘The Lord has utterly separated me from His people’” (Is. 56:3). There is no difference whatever between you and us. You shall certainly say the blessing, “Who has chosen us,” “Who has given us,” “Who have taken us for Your own” and “Who has separated us”: for the Creator, may He be extolled, has indeed chosen you and separated you from the nations and given you the Torah. For the Torah has been given to us and to the proselytes, as it is said, “One ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the stranger that sojourns with you, an ordinance for ever in your generations; as you are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord” (Num. 15:15). Know that our fathers, when they came out of Egypt, were mostly idolaters; they had mingled with the pagans in Egypt and imitated their way of life, until the Holy One, may He be blessed, sent Moses our Teacher, the master of all prophets, who separated us from the nations and brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence, us and all proselytes, and gave to all of us one Law.

Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, you derive from Him through whose word the world was created. As is said by Isaiah: “One shall say, I am the Lord’s, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob” (Is. 44:5). (1).


1). Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte (from A Maimonides Reader, ed. Isadore Twersky. West Orange: Behrman House, 1972)

*For a facsimile of Obadiah’s (although there seems to be some confusion regarding which Obadiah this belongs to, as the name was quite common among Proselytes esp. in the east) correspondence and writings (including fragments of a memoir he wrote) from the Cairo Genizah, see the Cambridge Genizah Collection online here

See also a Piyut he (possibly) composed here and here

Is the Tet. Offensive On a Tombstone?


The above are several photos taken from the ever-interesting collection of tombstones from the Protestant graveyard on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. These appeared in the most recent addition of the Hebrew Journal ARIEL, August 2012 under the title חוקרי ארץ ישראל הקבורים בבית הקברות הפרוטסטנטי בהר ציון (Shiller, Barkai).

I will not and cannot reproduce and translate the lengthy and fascinating article here but I what caught my notice-and what I want to focus on is the presence of the hebrew tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God (known in hebrew as ‘shem hameforash’) on tombstones.

How common was this practice? Is it halachically permissible? Is this an anomaly because it is a non-Jewish graveyard or have Jewish gravestones likewise been adorned with the tet. in the not so distant past? {1}

First I think a brief history of the Protestant cemetery in in order.

It was purchased in the year, 1848 and it came to contain the remains of some of the most prolific scholars of Near Eastern Sudies; archaeologists, linguists, religious figures and many others of 19th c. Ottoman Palestine.

In 1916 it was also used to inter military casualties; 11 German soldiers, 5 Austrians and Two Britons who fell in battle were buried there. It was in use as late as the War of Independence in 1948. After 1967, the grounds were restored but it was no longer in active use. All in all, the graveyard contains the remains of 1,040 individuals but, with the vicissitudes of time and circumstance, quite a few graves defy identification.

Most interesting for my research are the graves of Jews. As you can see in the accompanying photo, not a few Jews found their final resting place there. These included converts to Christianity but also ordinary Jews who died while being treated in one of the hospitals in Jerusalem that were operated by Protestant Christian groups (whose aim was to missionize to the local Jewish community and whose services were often strictly forbidden by Jerusalem’s Rabbinate). These Jews were sometimes refused burial in a Jewish cemetery and therefore ended up there.

Hebrew inscriptions are usually a good indicator that the buried individual was a Jew- but not always as Protestant Hebreophiles often utilized the language as well (see here for instance).

The photo on the far left shows a tombstone with a phrase from Psalms, 116:13

כּוֹס יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא וּבְשֵׁם יְהוָה אֶקְרָא.

A cup of salvation I shall bear and in the name of the lord I shall call out.

Other names and details are left out of the description of that particular stone.

Back to our question about the Tetragrammaton.

Halachic logic might dictate that this would not be halachically permissible. The four letter name of God is censored in even benign content. A graveyard of the dead seems like an unlikely-perhaps even sacrilegious place to put it.

I recently came across an interesting epigraphic study; a study on a Jewish cemetery in a place called Argis in Southern Armenia, dating back to the 13th and 14th century. The paper is entitled בית קברות יהודי מימי הביניים בארגיס שבדרום ארמניה

דוד עמית ומיכאל סטון


It can be accessed here.


What caught my eye was this particular grave:


כתובת 10
מצבה -12 צד רוחב דרום תמונה 20
שמונה שורות קצרות הממלאות את כל שטח האבן בצדה הצר, שצורתו כאן מעוגלת
בחלק העליון.

על זה הקבר ויב א
עליו רחמים מלפני
הקדוש ברוך הוא יהי
באותו ברכה שעשה
אהרן כוהן גדול בבית
ה מקדש אמן נצח סלה

The name of the individual is somewhat difficult to decipher. The team hypothesizes that שואסתירו is a corruption of נסתר, literally (here is it is) ‘hidden’, commonly used in epithets. However the name defies explanation.

Of interest to us is the line I highlighted and underlined. This is what they have to say:


לא מן הנמנע שבשורה 5 , לאחר “הקדוש ברוך הוא”, מופיע השם המפורש ולא ” יהי” . איזכור השם
המפורש בצד הכינוי “הקדוש ברוך הוא” , הוא בעל משמעות מאגית ואפוטרופאית ברורה, הבולטת
כאן ביתר שאת בהקשרה הישיר לברכת כוהנים אשר השם המפורש חוזר בה שלוש פעמים. על השימוש
בברכת כוהנים כנוסחה מאגית אפוטרופאית כבר בימי בית ראשון ניתן ללמוד ממציאותה בשני קמיעות
הכסף שגילה גבריאל ברקאי באחת ממערות הקבורה שחפר בכתף הינום בירושלים, המתוארכות
למאה השביעית לפנה”ס, אף כי יש לציין כי מקום מציאתם של קמיעות אלה אינו מוכיח שיש להם
קשר לקבורה וסביר להניח שהמת נשא אותם על צווארו בהיותו בחיים – ראו ברקאי. בספרות קומראן,
בספרות חז”ל ובספרות ההיכלות, נמשך השימוש בשם המפורש בכלל ובברכת כוהנים בפרט כנוסחה
. מאגית – ראו: אשל, עמ’ 297-295 ; בר-אילן, עמ’ 42-41 ; נוה ושקד, עמ’ 27-25


While it seems inconclusive that the tetragrammaton in fact appears on this particular gravestone (the comment also includes a pretty mind-blowing theory about the Ketef Hinnom priestly plates [that they were buried along with an apparently prominent individual], Amit and Stone hold out for that [strong] possibility). Lest one think this was a Karaite or some other sectarian cemetery (Karaites themselves, though more liberal in their approach to the reproduction of the Tet., refrained from writing out the name outside of a liturgical context, see Fleicher, Ezra “סידור השם המפורש” in ,תפילות הקבע בישראל p. 304, n. 2), all other findings indicate otherwise; it was a cemetery used by Rabbinic Jews {2} (see also here). There are also several strong indications that they were semi-recent migrants to the area from mainland Persia.

However in מצבה 36  כתובת 15 in the same graveyard, we find a modified representation of the Tetragrammaton. Instead of Yud Heh Waw Heh, we found the commonly used Yud Waw Yud Waw יויו

(צורה מקובלת בקרב קהילות המזרח לציון השם המפורש)

The grave in question is that of a virgin girl. The restored inscription reads:

הרחמן יחון ויחמול וירח(ם) על נפש הנערה הבתולה

המאורשה אסתר בת מיכאל יהא חלקה עם אמנו ש'(=שרה)

(…על נשמתה) הק'(=הקדושה) על קבור'(=קבורתה) הטהורה קד'(=קדושה)


דכת’ שקר החן והבל היופי אשה יראת יויו

ועוד תנו לה ג/מ נכתב בשמונה עשר בתשרי


The inscription quotes the passage from Proverbs 31:30

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;

but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

the Tetragammaton is clearly modified in the reproduction of that verse, perhaps lending credence to the theory that the aforementioned כתובת 10 מצבה 12 likewise does not contain the Tetragrammaton.

Hebrew Wikipedia (light years head of its english counterpart…) has a pretty good breakdown of Jewish attitudes throughout the ages towards the use of the Tet. See here (I found it particularly interesting that Maimonides does not prohibit pronouncing the tet. in its proper context. At least one tosafist concurs with this liberal view as well).

Here are some available photos from the Argis inscriptions. The bottom photo is of the gravestone of the virgin girl mentioned above.



Top with inscription under discussion



1. The ‘lesser sacred’ name ELOHIM and its variants are found in relative abundance on tombstones, see here for one example from several hundred years ago in Eastern Europe.  I also found Dr. Rami Arav’s incredulous statement here puzzling. Firstly it’s greek and not hebrew and secondly to say that for observant Jews to write ‘elohim’ on a burial would be be unthinkable seems to me an inaccurate observation (although probably a rare occurrence but not because it would have been considered sacrilegious but because in that era very little attention was paid, in Judea, to the receptacles containing the Jewish deceased. Other than inscribing the name and perhaps some Graeco-Roman or religious/pagan designs, nothing else was added).

Dr. Rami Arav:

טענתם ארבע המילים הן” “אלוהים” ביוונית, שמו המפורש של אלוהים בעברית, “קום” או “קם לתחייה” ביוונית ו”קום” או “קם לתחייה” בעברית. האפשרות שיהודי יחרוט את שם השם המפורש על גלוסקמה היא בלתי סבירה. כך גם חיבור מעין תפילה הוא דבר לא מוכר כלל על גבי ארונות הקבורה.

I am also puzzled by this statement by James Tabor here:

 that’s the opinion of Dr. Natalie Messika, an expert in archaeological mapping often under contract with the IAA. As for the linkage to early followers of Jesus, the fact is that whoever made those pictures and wrote that inscription was sectarian and not normative. Jews did not–and do not–write the Tetragrammaton on a bone box filled with “tumah” or impurity. I know that there is an attempt to re-read the second line in the inscription, but the reading was confirmed repeatedly by major scholars, including Prof. Rollston who is now revising his opinion. It’s OK to change one’s mind. All I’m saying is that the vast majority of scholars see the ineffable name inscribed in the second line.

As far as I know these putative Christian tombs DO NOT CONTAIN THE HEBREW TETRAGRAMMATON but rather a possible Greek reference to God.

For a relatively simple-to-understand breakdown of this particular discovery see here
f you’re a bit more scholarly inclined and aware see here

How Jews in the Graeco-Roman world (decidedly more assimilated than their Judean co-religionists) often utilized God’s name (and I use that term loosely) in Greek funerary inscriptions, see here  and here

2). Of particular interest is MS TS 20.57 from the Cambridge collection. The MS is one of the earliest liturgical documents from the Cairo Genizah (from the Eretz Israel rite). It was studied and published by Ezra Fleicher (see “מגילה קדומה “לתפילת יום חול כמנהג ארץ ישראל in his תפילות הקבע בישראל. On the second folio of the MS there appears a curious inscription, someone rather clumsily scribbled:

כל השומע הזכרת השם מפי חברו ואינו מקללו הוא בעצמו יהא בנידוי

Literally, One who hears his friend utter the Tet. and does not curse him, he himself shall be in excommunication.

This harsh proscription is repeated again in larger and bolder letters, perhaps to underscore the severity of the deed (as perceived by the anonymous writer). It is unclear what this is doing in a manuscript that otherwise records weekday prayers according to the EY rite. Perhaps it was written in the midst of a firestorm of anti-Karaite polemics against pronouncing the Tet. (see there pp. 530-31).


The Silent Tombstones of Hevron


One of the curious (and annoying) things about researching the early Jewish history of the city of Hebron is the dearth of material evidence discovered thus far. Hebron, long considered to be one of “The Four Holy Cities” in Judaism (along with Safed, Jerusalem and Tiberias) may have been only sparsely populated by Jews during most of its history. One of the reasons for that may be because of a lack of water resources; there are only several small springs in the area (an aqueduct providing an abundant water supply to the area was not built until the Mamluke and Ottoman occupations of the area). Yes, David’s original kingdom was established there (where ‘there’ is exactly is a question that archaeologists are still trying to figure out). Various theories have been propounded as to where the Biblical Hebron was situated exactly. The current consensus among scholars is that it was at a place called Jebel Rumeida. The strategic location of the site; it’s topographical advantage (it oversees a major intersection that runs from Beersheba in the south and Jerusalem in the north). As early as 1970, Professor Benjamin Mazar was convinced that Jebel Rumeida (or Tel Rumeida) contains within it the remnants of ancient Hebron. Archaeological excavations have been conducted in the area shortly after Mazar published his paper and are still ongoing.

I don’t want to focus on the history of the Jews of Hevron during the Biblical Period or The Middle Ages (also referred to as The Geonic Period) in this post (look out for another post on the subject in the near future) but rather focus ON ONE curious fact about the city.

There is an ancient cemetery in the area of Jebel Rumedia which would have been a goldmine for researchers had it not been for one “annoying” fact: apparently there was an ancient custom among the Jews of Hevron not to inscribe names or dates on tombstones. As a result we have a collection of slabs of anonymous chiseled stones. The terrible massacre of Jews by the local Arabs in 1929, saw the destruction of large parts of the cemetery, a road was built right in the middle of it and parts of it were used for agriculture and construction of houses.

When the massacre of 1929 occurred, there was a question regarding engraving the names of the dead. A query was sent to Rav Kook, then Chief Rabbi of Jaffa. He replied in no uncertain terms that this case was an exception and that the graves should be marked “so that it also stand as an eternal remembrance of the horrific crime that occurred”. This courageous Halakhic decision enabled the Jews to recover some of the remains of the murdered (whose tombstones were shattered and their remains scattered in the period 1948-1967) when Israel re entered the area after the Six Day War in ’67.

Noam Arnon (a leader of the modern Hevron Jewish community) writes:
למרות המנהג שהיה מקובל בחברון לא לכתוב שמות על המצבות, הורה הרב הראשי הראשון לא”י, הראי”ה קוק זצ”ל, לכתוב שמות על מצבות חללי תרפ”ט כדי לזכור את האירוע המחריד. הוא כתב: “הצרה שבאה עלינו ע”י הרוצחים הטמאים ימ”ש, שהוא דבר נורא ואיום שלא נשמע כמוהו בארצנו הקדושה מימי החורבן, לא שייך לגביו תוכן של מנהג, וחובתנו היא לחקוק לזכרון עולם את המאורע הנורא עם שמות הקדושים הי”ד…והשי”ת ינקום לנו מצרינו, וחרפת צוררינו אל חיקם ישיב, וירים רן עמו ונחלתו בב”א..”. הוראה זו אפשרה לשחזר חלקה זו אחרי שחרור חברון.

This is also mentioned in the book דרכי חסד מאת הרב יצחק אושפאל. See here He claims that this is based on the famous passage (also quoted by Rambam in Hilkhot Avel) from the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Shekalim: אמר רשב”ג אין בונין נפשות לצדיקים דבריהם הם זכרונם, which I discussed in my post about praying at graves.

This is a a bit of a strange claim since we find plenty of inscribed tombstones from that era which commemorate great people (Including the mentioned Rabban Shimon Ben Gamaliel himself![possibly the same person; there were several members of this family referred to by that name] at the Beth Shearim necropolis, the High Priest Joseph Caipha et al). 1

see also here, end of n. 122

Back to the anonymous tombstones. From whence did this strange custom originate? It is certainly neither a Rabbanite nor Karaite custom, for we don’t see anything of the kind in any of the other graveyards belonging to either (in fact one of the largest graveyards outside of Israel is the Karaite necropolis of Chufut Kale, about which I blogged about here).

It appears that this was a very early local Arab custom which made its way to the Jews of the area. I don’t have any hard evidence on this yet, however this from Sepher Hevron:

It is the first time I see it mentioned as an ancient custom of the Arabs from the area (meaz umitamid..), so I put forth my modest proposal that this was an non-Jewish custom, probably followed by the Mustara’abin, down to to the 20th c.

However I should point out that like every other rule, there are always exceptions to the rule. It does not appear to have been strictly followed even before 1929. I spoke to a local resident who is an expert on local antiquities and I was made aware of several interesting facts about the area-not all of which I am at liberty to reveal. But I will say this much: on the day following the Shavuot holiday, there will be a conference which will focus on new findings and research on the Hevron area. Said resident archaeologist revealed to me (in response to my query about the lack of tombstone inscriptions) that with much effort he was able to extract some writing from several ancient tombstones, one from the Karaite graveyard and two from the Rabbanite. He plans to reveals the contents of these inscriptions at said conference. 2

See also the testimony of former Hevron resident of Shlomo Zalman Shalman החריתה שעל המצבות in Sepher Hevron, p. 398:

Photos of the Karaite portion of the cemetery-which is the best preserved section.SAMSUNG


1. In this book, Israel Zeev Horowitz (Vienna, 1922) claims that Josephus does not speak about ‘a cave’ for the Patriarchs at Hevron but rather actual tombstones מצבות

2. Videos from the last two conferences can be found here

How To Scare People Into Going To Shul in 17th Century Venice

The following is a letter written by Rabbi Leon Da Modena, the Chief Rabbi of Venice, to the the Jewish community of Capodistria. Apparently the community was having trouble with membership attendance (more specifically: completing the ‘ten men quorum’ for Synagogue prayers) and thus turned to the esteemed Da Modena for help. In this letter, written in flowery Hebrew, Da Modena is decidedly stern; he decrees that all male members of the community must attend synagogue services, twice daily (presumably mincha and maariv(arvit) were conducted one right after the other, as was– and still is quite common), under penalty of ‘nachash’, an acronym which stands for נידוי חרם שמתא loosely meaning complete excommunication. Modena added ‘AND all the curses mentioned in the torah’ for good measure. I was struck by some phrases and their similarity to a similar missive penned by Abraham Firkovich in the 19th century for the Samaritan community in Nablus/Sichem, that experienced similar problems. I was particularly intrigued by Da Modena’s directive to appoint overseers to make sure that an attendee does not leave the Synagogue, if there are less than ten in the room. His ordinance that nobody engage in commerce before morning prayers, that nobody miss Synagogue unless one has a valid excuse (illness etc.). Compare Firkovich’s ‘contract’ with the Samaritans after the jump.

First Da Modena:

לקא”וו די איסטריא שילכו לב”ה

לא נפלא היא ולא רחוקה מלבות כל בני ישראל היות העולם מתקיים על העבודה שבלב זו תפלה ומה גם בהיותה בקהל ועדה אין פחות מעשרה כי תפילת ציבור אינה חוזרת ריקם וכל מי שיש לו ב”ה בעירו ואינו נכנס להתפלל  נקרא שכן רע (ברכות ח עא) וקדוש לא יאמר לו, אשר לזאת הוגד לנו כי בעיר קאו”ו די איסטריאה יש ויש שתי בתי כנסיות בנויות כזוייות מחוטבטת להתפלל אל ה’ אחד בבית הישיש הנעלה כהר’ נפתלי יצ”ו ואחת בבית המעולה כמר’ מנחם מרקריאה יצ”ו ופעמים רבות כל איש מאנשי המקום לדרכו פנו לעסקיהם או כי עצלה תפיל תרדמה או למה שיהיה ואינם נמנים יחד להתפלל בעשרה ובטל התמיד ותהי זאת לפוקה ולמכשול ולמזכיר עון. ועל כן בזכרנו את ציון החרבה והשוממה וכי אין לנו כהיום הזה לא זבח ולא מנחה אלא מקדש מעט אלו בתי כנסיות (מגלה כט עא) וכמה גדול עונש המבטל תפלת הרבים ראה ראיתי לחזק את בדק הבית בית תפלה יקרא והנה אנחנו הבאים על החתום לכבוד ה’ להועיל לנפשותיהם של האנשים האלה אשר נקבו בשמות והנלוים אליהם גוזרים בגזירת נח”ש וכל אלות וקללות הכתובות בספר התורה ע”ד המקום ב”ה והרבים על כ”מ הירץ וכ”מ מנחם הנ”ל הם ובניהם ובני בניהם שכיניהם ותושביהם והגרים עמם והנלוים בבתיהם להיות זריזים וזהירים לילך כלם בקר וערב פעמים בכל יום ויום לבית הכנסת בשעה הראויה בבית אחד מאיזה שיהיה ולעמוד שם ולהתפלל תפלתם בהזמנים הנ”ל ובעלי בתים הנזכרים יחוייבו להשגיח לזרזם ולצוותם ואחד מהם לא ימנע מלבוא בשום אופן אם לא לאונס חולי ח”ו אם ד”א ניכר ומפורסם, ובחומר החומרא הנ”ל אנחנו גוזרים על כל אנשי העיר הנ”ל שלא יוכל שום אחד להתחיל ולהטפל בשום עסק מתן הבוקר אור טרם לכתו להתפלל שחרית וכן סמוך למנחה ישתדל כל אחד לפנות מעסקיו ללכת לב”ה ולא יקדימו ויכניעו הנפסד לקויים והיקר לזולל רק כאשר יהיה ידוע ודאי לאיש אחר כי כבר יש בבית הכנסת מנין עשרה בלתו או שיתחילו להתפלל כבר אז יהיה הרשות בידו להתעכב קצת אם יהיה מטופל באיזה דבר עסק אך יחשוב הפסד מצוה כנגד שכרה וכן יבואר כי כאשר ימצא מנין עשרה בבית אחד מהבע”ת הנז’ יוכל להתפלל בב”ה שלו גם אם יהיה החדש מגיע לחברו ולא יחוייב לצאת עם בעל ב”ב אל בית כנסת האחר–וסוף דבר כל מעשיהם יהיו לשם שמים להודות לו ולברך בשמו. וכל זה גזרנו עליהם במעמד שניהם לפנינו דהיינו הנעלה כמו”ה זלמן….והישיש אביו כ”מ הירץ והמעולה כ”מ מנחם הנ”ל בעצמו ונדרו לשמור ולעשות כל המצוה הזאת לשמוע אל הרנה ואל התפלה כי כן יברכו מפי עליון ומפינו ברכות שמים וארץ

ויניציאה מה טובו אהליך יעקב (פרשת בלר) למב”י השנ”ט

כתבי הרב יהודה אריה ממודינא (Blau, Budapest 1905) pp. 5,6


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. 

See more here


1. I deliberately refer to the house of worship in question with the ashkenazic term ‘shul’ because the community, Modena addressed in this letter, was apparently composed of Ashkenazim (judging by the surnames mentioned in the letter). It is called ‘kehila kedosha Capo di Istria’.Also known as ‘koper’, it is now a city in southwestern Slovenia, with the other Slovenian coastal towns Ankaran, Izola, Piran, and Portorož, situated along the country’s 47-kilometre (29-mile) coastline, in the Istrian Region, approximately five kilometres (3.1 miles) from its border with Italy. It was part of the Republic of Venice at that time

Did Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel) Celebrate the exta-biblical holiday of Simchat Torah

Leafing through Wolf Leslau‘s Falasha Anthology I came across this passage:

The Feast of Tabernacles is celebrated from the 15th to the 22nd of the seventh moon in commemoration of the Exodus…There are special prayers but the Falashas do not make the booths required by scriptures. The reason given for the disregard of this ordinance is that the huts in which they live may be regarded as booths symbolical of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness. They spread leaves of various trees, such as palm and a variety of weeping willow, over the floor of their houses and the Synagogue.

…..The first and last days are called holy and no work is allowed during the whole festival. On the last day, the priests or the deacons carry the Torah in the Synagogue and the people dance…

(Falasha Anthology, p. xxxii).

I found it very interesting and perhaps even odd that a community so isolated from the mainstream Jewish centers (they did not possess the mishna, talmud, mezuzot or phylacteries) do celebrate this day in this fashion. However, one must bear in mind that the Beta Israel, aside from their intermittent contacts throughout the centuries with the nearby Jews of Yemen and Arabia, were also known and sometimes even visited by Jews from as far away as the Levant and Eastern Europe. Maskilim, enlightened Jews began taking a deep interest in them in the 19th c, One of the most famous Ashkenazy Jews who became involved with the Beta Israel, was Jacques Faitlovich, a Polish born anthropologist and Zionist. Faitlovich was instrumental in bringing the plight of the Beta Israel to the influential Jews of the west, among them Baron Rothschild who donated generously to the cause. Though he doesn’t appear to have been an overly observant Jew, scholars agree that his activities had an indelible effect on the customs and mores of the Beta Israel. He introduced them to the Oral Law by composing booklets in Ge’ez and Amharic (which he studied and was proficient in).  He read them letters from the Rabbis of Eretz Israel and Europe. He was also instrumental in stemming the tide of Beta Israel who were steadily being lost to Christianity (due to the presence in the country of Missionaries from Europe).


Simchat Torah is a fairly ‘modern concept’. It is essentially a celebration of the completion of the yearly Torah cycle. It is celebrated on the last day of Sukkot, which is referred to in the Bible as Shemini Azeret and dates back to the Geonic period. The name Simchat Torah does not appear in Rabbinic literature before the 11th c. (where it mentioned in the writings of the Sephardic sage Isaac Ibn Giat:

רגילין ביום זה הואיל ובו מסיימין את התורה לעשות כמה קילוסין והידורין לספר תורה ואומרים כמה דברי שבח והודאות לכבוד ספרי תורה וכמה מיני שבחות ושמחות רגילין לעשות בו ונתכנה יום שמחת תורה“)

The celebration and reason for it is mentioned in a late Midrash known as Shir Hashirim Rabba:

“ויקץ שלמה והנה חלום ויבוא ירושלים ויעמוד לפני ארון ברית ה’ ויעל עולות ויעש שלמים ויעש משתה לכל עבדיו”, אמר ר’ אלעזר: מכאן שעושין סעודה לגמרה של תורה… לכך עושין סעודות גדולות ותענוגים גדולים ביום שמחת תורה לכבוד סיום התורה

However interestingly enough, the Hakkafot (dancing  with the scrolls) are mentioned for the first time in the Book of Customs by the 14th c. Ashkenazy Rabbi Isaac of Tirnau, who interestingly enough only mentions the ‘haqafot’ of the night:

: “מפקין כל ס”ת שבארון וש”ץ נוטל ס”ת אחת ומתחיל אנא ד’ הושיעה נא אלוקי הרוחות ב’ או ג’ חרוזות ומסבב את המגדל והעם עמו עם הס”ת”. למחרת, בשחרית: “ומפקין כל ס”ת שבארון וש”ץ אומר שמע ישראל אחר גדלו ועומד אצל המגדל ואומר אנא ד’ הושיעה נא כאמש רק שאין מסבב המגדל

However, the pre eminent halahic decisor of Ashkenazi Jewry, Rabbi Moses Isserles (known as Rama) does seem to mention both haqafot:

נוהגין במדינות אלו להוציא בשמחת תורה ערבית ושחרית כל ספרי התורה שבהיכל ואומרים זמירות ותשבחות (הוצאת כל ספרי התורה נזכרה גם בראשונים) וכל מקום לפי מנהגו. ועוד נהגו להקיף עם ספרי התורה הבימה שבבית הכנסת כמו שמקיפים עם הלולב והכל משום שמחה”.

Back to our subject, it stands to reason that the Simchat Torah celebrations were indeed a custom brought in by either Faitlovich or perhaps someone who preceded him.

It should be pointed out the Beta Israel did not celebrate the holiday of Sukkot as we know it i.e. taking the four species in hand and building outdoor huts (some [like Leslau] have tried to claim that it was unnecessary for them to build mentioned huts since they lived in thatched huts year-round, but it still leaves the issue of the four species mentioned explicitly in the bible).

On the preceding, I have come across the following resource in Hebrew. Here it says (citing a primary source ?) that the Beta Israel do indeed build a sukkah and the materials used for its construction were the 4 species (just as the Karaim and Samaritans[and also according to one opinion in the Mishna, which requires the four species for the construcion of the Sukkah as well as taking it in hand]):

על-פי דברינו מובן הדבר ומסתבר שאכן פירשו יהודי אתיופיה את מצוות “ולקחתם” כלקיחה לשם בניית הסוכה, כמו שנהוג היה לפרש בימי נחמיה. הדבר מסתבר מאוד, שהרי ספר נחמיה נמצא בכתביהם ואף חוגגים הם חג מיוחד בכ”ט בחשון כשחזור לאירוע חידוש הברית בירושלים בתקופה זו. בחג זה קוראים הם את נחמיה פרקים ח-י המתארים את האירוע. אף “צום אסתר” נהוג אצלם שלושה ימים, ומכאן שהמסורת היהודית הידועה לנו מהכתובים בתקופה הפרסית, קיימת אצל יהודי אתיופיה ולפיה פירשו הם את ההלכות. לעומת זאת, אין להם חג חנוכה, שהוא כידוע מהתקופה ההלניסטית בימי הבית. על-כן מובן שמנהג נטילת הלולב ביד לא קיים אצלם, שהרי זוהי התפתחות מאוחרת יותר מיסודם של חז”ל בימי הבית, ולא היתה קיימת בהלכה הקדומה המשתקפת בספר נחמיה ובמנהגי האתיופים. (המידע על מנהגי האתיופים נלקח מתוך עבודה שעשתה וויבעלס טזזן בנושא. בעניין זה היא ראיינה את הקייסים וחכמי העדה. דברי כאן הם על-פי דבריה, ועל כך תודתי נתונה לה). לעניין ארבעת המינים שלא היו מוכרים לבני העדה האתיופית, ראה: שלוה ויל, סוגיות במסורת הדתית של יהודי אתיופיה, ירושלים, 1991, עמ’ 24; ר’ ולדמן, יהודי אתיופיה, ירושלים, 1985, עמ’ 38. לענין חידת מוצאם שעדיין לא נפתרה, ראה: מ’ קורינאלדי, יהדות אתיופיה זהות ומסורת, ירושלים, 1985, עמ’ 5 ואילך, 56-45, 64-63 (לעניין ההלכה האתיופית). נראה כי ההסבר המובא באוספי מנהגים שונים לזה שלא היו נוטלים ארבעת המינים אצל יהודי אתיופיה, והוא שהם לא היו קיימים באזור ההוא, או שהגויים לא נתנו ליהודים לגדלם, הוא הסבר חדש יותר על-פי המנהג המסורתי ליטול ארבעה מינים ביד. (ואולי הדיו הגיעו עם השנים אף לחכמי העדה באתיופיה). ראה למשל: א’ וסרטיל, (עורך), ילקוט מנהגים, ירושלים, 1996, עמ’ 146. וע”ע דף שבועי מאת המרכז ללימודי יסוד ביהדות – אונ’ בר אילן, מס’ 320 פרשת שמות, תש”ס, במאמרו של י’ גלר “שלח את עמי”.

It is also interesting to point out that the Beta Israel include The Book of Jubilees in their Canon. The commandment to build a sukkah and take several species (at least 2 out of the 4 are ‘explicitly’ mentioned there) is recorded there:

ספר היובלים ט”ז כ”ט-לא: “על כן הוקם בלוחות השמים על ישראל כי יהיו עושים את חג הסוכות שבעת ימים בשמחה בחודש בשביעי ויהי לרצון לפני ה’ חק עולם לדורותם בכל שנה ושנה. ואין לזה קץ הימים כי לעולם הוקם לישראל לעשותו וישבו בסוכות ושמו כתרים על ראשם ולקחו ענף עץ עבות וערבי נחל. ויקח אברהם לבות תמרים ופרי עץ הדר וסבב מדי יום ביומו את המזבח בענפים שבע ליום ובבוקר יהלל ויודה לאלוהיו על הכל בשמחה”.

There is so many contradictory testimony regarding the Beta Israel’s true customs. Aside from the one I just mentioned (that they DID in fact build sukot, contrary to Leslau’s contention), there is also contradictory evidence, for instance, on whether they allowed fires to burn into the Sabbath (the historian faces similar hurdles when researching the customs of the Samaritans). I’ve also recently read about an Ethiopian Rabbi in Israel who claims his father wore some sort of tefillin (phylacteries)

Rabbi Sharon Shalom, in his recently published  מסיני לאתיופיה From Sinai to Ethiopia  claims that his father wore arm tefillin back in Ethiopia. The same assertion (that it was a late custom introduced by an outside Jewish visitor) was made by some regarding that (although it’s odd that he would only wear arm tefillin and not the headpiece).

From the book review:

לאחר שמתקיימת השוואה בין המסורת האתיופית לתלמוד, מנסה הרב שלום להכריע כיצד ניתן למזג בין המסורות. כך למשל, ביחס לתפילין הוא כותב כי סבו נהג להניח תפילין (אמנם רק על ידו ולא על ראשו) אך צבען לא היה שחור. הרב שרון כותב כי בתלמוד אין חובה שהתפילין עצמן יהיו שחורות, אלא רק הרצועות. ולכן הוא ממליץ ליוצא אתיופיה להקפיד על החובה התלמודית ביחס לרצועות, בעוד שלגבי התפילין עצמן ניתן שיהיו בצבע אחר.,7340,L-4205758,00.html

Happy Sukkot and Simchat Torah if you’re celebrating it.



*Interestingly enough since the first Karaite calendar was printed in 1835, almost all of them include the holiday of Simchat Torah! Its quite extraordinary, I think. See here beggining at the 35:36 mark.

Attitudes of the Rabbis Towards the Study of Jewish History, Part I

See Intro to this series here

Rabbi Avraham Korman in his introduction to his פענוח אגדות describes the role of historiography (among other disciplines) in the study of Torah (p. 29):

(Translation mine):

Hazal (our sages of blessed memory) did not hesitate to turn to experts on any given subject in order to better understand the nature and workings of various fields. Be it (directly) Torah-related or not, for instance, medicine, architecture (King Solomon procured the help of the gentile King of Tyre in order to construct the Temple) and also the historian.

In a footnote there (24) Korman quotes several Talmudic passages:

אי טעי היי תנא…לשיילא לספרא

‘ויחד עם זאת אי טעי ספרא נשיילא לתנא (עבודה זרה ט’ א

Korman explains:

  כלומר אם יש לתנא ספקות בנושא היסטורי עליו לפנות להיסטוריון אך גם להיסטוריון להיעזר בתנא בכל הקשור בנושאים שהוא בקי בו יותר ממנו כגון הלכה וכדומה

Is the Study of Jewish History a Mitzvah?

Joanna Weinberg in her essay on Rabbi Azariah De Rossi (also known as ‘min Haadaumim’) The Beautiful Soul: Azariah De Rossi’s Search for Truth writes:

….One of the main purposes of de Rossi’s work is to put the historical record right . The tools used to achieve this purpose are precise historical information or correct reading of ancient works, be it in the form of establishing authenticity through textual criticism or through interpretation that takes into account the specific hermeneutic mode in which a text was created….In 5 passages in Light of the Eyes, de Rossi speaks of the nefesh yafah or bel animo or bei (or elevati) spirit. In Hebrew the expression has little significance. There is a neoplatonic ring to the “beautiful soul”….it is an expression typical of Plotinus, Augustine, and Renaissance philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino and Leone Ebreo whose works de Rossi knew well..It may be that De Rossi was thinking of Augustine’s use of the term on the latter’s commentary on the verse in Psalm 30: “Lord by your favor you have made me firm as a high mountain. When you hid your face I was terrified”. Augustine writes: “This proves that every soul is only beautiful by virtue of its partaking of the light of God”…..Something of this, however vague and unspecific, is conveyed by De Rossi’s “beautiful soul”-the nefesh yafah belongs to the category of higher beings. It is invoked at crucial moments in the discussion. One example of his use of this phrase occurs at the end of chapter 12, in which he has been discussing various mishnaic and talmudic accounts that attribute the massacre of the Jewish population of Alexandria variously to Tarquin, Alexander of Macedon, Hadrian and even to Trajan-the real culprit. Amassing a large array of historians, de Rossi demonstrates that not only the Rabbis had a somewhat muddled view of this period of history but even interpreters of a later age, such as the Tosafists and Don Isaac Abravanel. He then states: “Now the greater part of this chapter has been devoted to inconsequential investigations which one could dismiss by saying ‘what happened, happened’ or on the grounds that it has no bearing on any law or precept. Nevertheless, the beautiful soul yearns to know the truth of every matter and the way of man in the world even when such issues are not directly relevant to it”

Such a statement, says Weinberg, despite its concern with historical-not philosophical truth would have met with Maimonides’ approval. Here we are given side by side 2 images of the historian that are constantly met throughout the book: oscillation between self-deprecation and assertion of the absolute value of scholarship. Ultimately the attention is on the beautiful soul, whose sole aim is the acquisition of truth.

In another passage, the beautiful soul rejects uncorrected texts. In Chapter 19, De Rossi, in good Renaissance fashion, examines various Rabbinic texts that in his view had become corrupt over the centuries. Included in the study is the text of Jossipon, the 10th century adaptations of Josephus Flavius, which was used by many Medieval writers to guide them through badly charted years of the 2nd Temple Period. de Rossi is suspicious of the work….he is suspicious of the work…demonstrates that it is flawed, full of anachronisms. In sum: it is not a basic text, but the beautiful soul still desires to know the truth of every matter.

…One of the chapters, that, on Rabbinic orders, he had to censure regards the Rabbinic use of the hyperbole….he demonstrates the literary use of numbers in Rabbinic texts …the use of exaggeration to communicate the message in the most effective way possible…numbers and figures matter and for correct accounting the most accurate reading in authentic texts must be obtained…In his desire to put on record the true account of events, he must necessarily expose the Rabbis’ lack of expertise in the field of history. here again, he dismisses his inquiries with the Talmudic dictum mai dehava hava “what happened, happened”–in other words his exploration into Jewish ancient history have no practical bearing on the life of the Jew, and are actually of supreme irrelevance. He writes: ” The fact is that from the very outset, I can imagine, you dear reader saying to yourself, that this investigation is a type of Halakha suitable for messianic times or of an even lesser significance . For what relevance does it hold for us? After all what happened, happened thousands of years ago or seven times again. But you could answer your own objection once you take into consideration the following points: First, the truth itself which is the quest of thousands of sages, in investigations more obscure than this one, is in fact like a seal of the true God, the characteristic of the beautiful soul and the good to which all aspire”

2 other advantages are then described: the interpretation of Scripture, for which reward is always forthcoming derosh vekabel sechar דרוש וקבל שכר  (literally, study and collect your reward) and the eradication of current Messianic speculation about the imminent year 1575-if the true date cannot be known because all  computations are, to a certain extent arbitrary–all calculation of the end of days can only be speculative.

But these 2 justifications of his scholarship are subordinated to one overriding goal: the truth.

To be continued


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