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Rabbi Refael Nathan Nata Rabinowitz’s Encounter with the Karaites as Reflected from His Letters

Rabbi Refael Nathan Nata Rabinowitz (1835-1888) was a remarkable Lithuanian Rabbi, philologist and scholar.

His magnum opus Dikdukei Sofrim was one of the most influential projects on Talmud study ever until recently. He traveled all across Europe to collect and compare manuscripts. The grandiose project would eventually cost him his life, as he fell ill and passed away while travelling in Russia in the midst of searching for more Talmudic manuscripts.
I recently came across a collection of letters from him that was published in the Yeshurun periodical. In one of them he describes a visit that he undertook to the Crimean Peninsula. There he was hosted by the famed Karaite Hakham Abraham Firkovich (whom I wrote about innumerable times) at his home near the isolated ancient ruins of Chufut Kale.

What struck me is his description of Firkovich as an am haaretz, literally an ignoramus. He claims that Firkovich, although in possession of thousands of Hebrew books and manuscripts, barely ever saw a copy of the Talmud and did not know how to read it (both of which are assertions that should be taken with a grain of salt).

Now, I am certain that he didn’t make these feelings clear to Firkovich and his anti-Karaite bias certainly played a part. I just found it interesting that a litvak misnaged characterized him in the same manner as the Chassidic Rebbe of Savran did back in Berditchev (only the Chassidic Rebbe called him an ignoramus to his face and was reportedly rewarded with fisticuffs see more about that here ).

In fact in this letter you will see a very warm approbation of Firkowitz from Rabinowitz, where the latter characterized the former as a man full of knowledge and wisdom (although check the comment by the editor).

Firkovich may have been less than schooled in Talmudic knowledge (although he was certainly familiar with and often employed plenty of talmudisms), but he was quite knowledgeable in other facets of Judaism such as tanakh, poetry and philology.
In a different letter, that he wrote from Munich, he responds to a questioner regarding what he believes to be the condition of Firkovich in the hereafter (Firkovich had since passed). He writes charmingly:
אף כי אינני מאמין שהוא בא תכף אחר מיתתו לגן עדן, מכל מקום מדת דרך ארץ הוא כך

(אני משער שהזכיר את החכם והוסיף ז”ל, ע”ה או אולי אפילו נ”ע–יואל)

.ואשכנזי אנכי, ובמדינות אלו לא הורגלו בקללות

What is also interesting to note is his contention that Ben Asher was “undoubtedly” a Karaite.

Here he describes the Karaite Hakhamim of Crimea, in general, as ignorant like oxen and asses. He also reports that he attended the Karaite Beit Knesset where he was the recipient of much honor (an interesting admission perhaps reflective of a pretty liberal and tolerant view). (Also, notice his opinion that the Krymchaks are descended of the Khazar proselytes (a hypothesis now rejected by most scholars).

Interestingly, this contention of his is backed up by none other than Firkovich himself. In this secret letter (that he wanted burned but was saved for posterity and eventually published in the HUC Annual) Firkovich bemoans the spiritual condition of his Crimean compatriots.

In the following letter to an unknown recipient, Rabinowitz blasts the maskil, Ephraim Deinard. Deinard was a Latvian-born mercurial scholar who for reasons of personal animus penned a scathing biography of Firkovich entitled תולדות אב”ן רש”ף

He also wrote about his travels among the Karaites and Krymchaks of Crimea in his משא קרים

Rabinowitz calls Deinard to task for taking advantage of Firkovich’s hospitality while the former was doing his research. Basically, he finds it repugnant that he repaid the good that he was the recipient of with nothing but mean spiritedness and half truths in his screeds.

He wrote as much to Deinard himself (who tried to woo him apparently). In this letter, where he offers him tepid praise, he flat out says “I have received your book [on Firkovich] and it did not find favor in my eyes”.


Parenthetically, in this letter Rabinowitz makes mention of the Polish Sephardic physician Shlomo Calahorra (who I blogged about before here). He writes that the saga of this remarkable family (he uses the corrupted surname kalifari) was written up as monograph entitled Toar Pnei Shlomo by a descendant of the physician, Shlomo Landsberg. Apparently Shlomo’s son Moshe Landsberg of Pozen and his brother-in-law Raphael Segal were keen on distributing this family monograph free of charge (they will not accept remuneration Rabinowitz intones).

On the Main Line Blog has a very interesting post on Rabinowitz here 

Who Was Elyehoanay ben Hakof (or was it Hakots)?

There is an enigmatic individual, a High Priest in the Jerusalem Temple, mentioned in the Mishna, Tractate Parah מסכת פרה פרק ג’ משנה ה by the name of Elyehoanay ben Hakof. He is counted among a select number of High Priests who ever sacrificed a red heifer.

As mentioned, there is a sole reference to this individual in Rabbinic literature.

However Rambam ‘elevates’ him to the role of one of the transmitters of the mesorah (tradition) in his Introduction to the Mishna:

והחבורה החמישית, חוני המעגל, ואליהועיני בן הקף, ויהודה בן טבאי, ושמעון בן שטח.

This is interesting, since he is not mentioned as such in the Mishna Abot where the chain of transmission is recorded. In fact, as I mentioned, he gets no mention at all anywhere else in the vast Rabbinic corpus.

Another thing: ‘ben hakof’ is a queer term for a High Priest. And while we do find an Aramaic rendition of ‘kof’ (which means monkey) namely: Caipha or Caiphas of New Testament fame ( See here for other variants of his patronym, also according to one explanation his name is supposed to derive from the Aramaic word for”the fat of boiled meat” and not monkey). Is it possible that the proper rendering of his name is ‘ben hakoz’ and not ‘hakof’? In other words, there is a supposed to be a tzadi sofit, rather than a peh sofit.

As you can see in attached pic (which is a reconstruction of an archaeological find from a circa 3rd or 4th c. Synagogue in Caesarea. See here
The Hakotz family of Cohanim were one of the 24 Mishmerot Kehuna (Priestly shifts) and are already mentioned in Sefer Ezra and (as problematic but they were apparently eventually rehabilitated into the priesthood see here for all other occurrences in Tanach). Hakotz family is also mentioned in the Temple Scroll: “In the cave that is next to (illegible), belonging to the House of Hakkoz, dig six cubits. There are six bars of gold.” .We also come across ‘ben Hakotz’ in the Apocrypha; in Maccabees I אבפולימוס בן יוחנן בן הקוץ is one of the peace emissaries sent to Rome at the behest of Judah Macabbee see here)

This is a reconstruction of a stone inscription that was discovered in Caesarea in the 60s

The name Elyehoanay itself is not a very common one. It appears only several times in Tanakh. It also comes down to us from an epitaph of a Jewish man of priestly lineage from 3rd Century BCE Egypt.



Here’s a really interesting take from Sefer Ma’aseh Merkavah: (see page 21, verse Reish-Nun-gimmel [253]), where his name is spelled
אליהו עונא בן הקוף

Beyond the text itself, is the footnote to Reish-Nun-Gimmel connects this to the individual in Rambam’s list and in Masekhet Parah, with about a paragraph of other observations.

By the way, speaking of Caipha (which is presumably the Aramaic rendition of Qof), Moshe Gil has an interesting theory about the  extremist Islamic canard that Jews being descend from monkeys (and pigs), see here

I should also mention that Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Greenwals in his biography of Jewish High Priests holds out for the possibility that our High Priest was a son of Joseph Caiphas. see here

On the Caiphas family see Tractate Yebamot here  [ועל משפחת] בית קופאי מבית מקושש [שהן] בני צרות ומהם כהנים והיו מקריבין [לגבי מזבח]

The famed Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulai, known as Chida cites a strange theory wherein he maintains that Eliyahu and Einay were two seperate individuals

Here’s a really wild theory; according the Kabbalist Rabbi Yissakhar Eilenberg in his book Be’er Sheva, our High Priest was the author of the midrash Tanna d’Bei Eliyahu.  The Chida vociferously disputes this.

I reproduce a discussion, I found about this, here

מי הוא מחבר הספר תנא דבי אליהו

איתא בסנהדרין צב, א: “תנא דבי אליהו צדיקין שעתיד הקב”ה להחיותן” וכו’, וכ’ שם הבאר שבע וז”ל:

“אל תטעה לחשוב שזה אליהו הוא אליהו הנביא התשבי, אלא הוא התנא הרשום בהקדמת זרעים לרמב”ם ז”ל אצל חוני המעגל סוף פרק ז’ ובפרק מי שהיה תמצא תנא דבי אליהו רבי נתן אומר כל הישוב כו'”, ע”כ.

וכ”כ בשו”ת שלו סוף סימן נד על הא דאמרינן סוף נדה: “תנא דבי אליהו כל השונה הלכות וכו'”, וז”ל: “ועדיין צריכים אנו למודעי דהאי תנא דבי אליהו אינו אליהו הנביא כמו שחשבו רבים מן התלמידים אלא הוא תנא הנזכר בהקדמת הרמב”ם ז”ל מסדר זרעים בפרק שביעי”.

קצת תימה מדוע מציין לפרק שביעי, – והרי כבר מוזכר בפרק שלישי, ומפורש יותר בפרק רביעי, דהיה בזמן חוני המעגל עיי”ש.

והנה הא דמביא דתנא דבי אליהו אמר בשם רבי נתן (פסחים צד, א) – כוונתו לכאורה להוכיח מזה שלא יתכן דהוא אליהו הנביא.

אך מה שכ’ דהוא אליהו שהזכיר הרמב”ם – לא הרויח בזה כלום. דהרי הרמב”ם כ’ שם שהיה בזמן חוני המעגל, והיה זה קודם לרבי נתן.

ועיין סדר הדורות ערך תנאים, “אליהו” – “תנא דבי אליהו”, דמביא דעת הב”ש.

ולאחר שמביא מפסחים קיב, א: “תנדב”א בשם ר’ עקיבא”, כ’: “ואם כדברי הרמב”ם כי תנדב”א היה קדמון כו’ איך אומר בש”ר נתן ור”ע ובש”ר יהודה בן תימה, ועוד דאם תנדב”א היה בזמן ר’ יהושע בן פרחיה שהיה ג’ אלפים תק”ס לבריאת העולם גדלה תמיהת הזקוקין דנורא במ”ש תנדב”א “ששה אלפים הוי עלמא ב”א תהו, ב”א תורה, ב”א ימות המשיח ובעוונותינו שרבו יצאו מה שיצאו”, שהרי אז היה קודם התחלת ב”א ימות המשיח ת”מ שנים”. עיי”ש.

ומ”ש “ואם כדברי הרמב”ם” – צ”ע, דהרי הרמב”ם לא כ’ כלום מענין תנא דבי אליהו, וכבר תמה עליו החיד”א להלן.

והנה החיד”א בפתח עינים (וכפל כל דבריו בס’ שם הגדולים שלו מערכת ספרים ערך סדר אליהו) סתר דברי הב”ש וכדאי להביא לשונו וז”ל:

“וזה לי למעלה משלשים שנה (בשם הגדולים כ’ “למעלה משלשים וחמש שנה” ומכאן אולי להוכיח ששם הגדולים כ’ קודם ספרו פתח עינים) שתמהתי על זה דמה שהזכיר הרמב”ם בהקדמתו הוא אליהועיני בן היקף והוא שם אחד אליהועיני ואינו אליהו לחוד ועיני בן הקף לחוד וכן הוזכר שם בהקדמת הרמב”ם הנזכר פ”ב ופ”ד ופ”ג.

“ועוד הדבר ברור מאד דתנא דבי אליהו הוא אליהו הנביא זכור לטוב והוא מאי דתני לרב ענן סדר אליהו רבא וסדר אליהו זוטא כדאמרינן בכתובות דף קו, א, ונדפס ספר זה בויניציא שנת ישמ”ח ואח”כ נדפס בפראג עם פירוש רחב הנקרא זקוקין דנורא, וזה נקרא תנא דבי אליהו ומתחיל ויגר”ש בגי’ תנא דבי אליהו כמ”ש רבנו הרוקח בריש ספרו.

“ועוד נעלם מהם מ”ש רבנו הערוך ערך סדר וז”ל: “סדר אליהו רבא וסדר אליהו זוטא בריש גמרא דפ”ב דייני גזילות וכו’ ודאמרינן בגמרא תנא דבי אליהו כלהון בגוויהו”, עכ”ל, וכן הוא האמת כי הרואה יראה דכל תנא דבי אליהו דמייתי הש”ס או רובם שם הם, ובפרטיות הני בי תרי דעלייהו קאי הרב ב”ש הא דשמעתין הוא בסוף סדר אליהו רבא, אלא שיש שנוי בסוף ותנדב”א כל השונה הלכות דעל זה דיבר בתשובה הוא בס’ אליהו זוטא פ”א”, עכ”ל החיד”א.

והנה החיד”א כאן נזהר וכ’: “דכל תנא דבי אליהו דמייתי הש”ס או רובם שם הם”, והיינו כנ”ל משום דתלוי בשינוי גירסאות.

עוד כ’ שם החיד”א: “ותימה עוד על הרבנים, הרי הרמב”ם שם אינו מזכיר כי אם התנאים שהוזכרו במשנה, והיכן מצאו במשנה שם אליהו בתנאים”.

והרמב”ם כ’ ‘אליהועיני בן הקוף’, ונמצא שמו פעם אחת בפאה פ”ג מ”ה שהיה כהן ועשה פרה אדומה. ועיי”ש תוי”ט, דיש הגורסים אליועיני ויש הגורסים אליהועיני, ושתי השמות נמצאים בתנ”ך (אליועיני – עזרא י, כב; נחמיה יב, מא; ובדה”י. ואליהועיני – עזרא ח, ד; ובדה”י).

והנה יש להוסיף ולומר דלא נמצא שם אליהו אפילו אצל האמוראים, ומה שמביא בסדר הדורות ערך “אליהו”, דנמצא במדרש רבה במדבר פרשה ד מאמר אליהו בענין כל המרבה כבוד שמים, ובסוף הסדר פ”ה בענין נתקבצו ויצאו למלחמה, – הנה יש לומר דשם הכוונה למאמר אליהו הנביא, ואכן נמצאים המאמרים בתנא דבי אליהו רבה פרשה יד ופרשה יב, עיי”ש, וכדאיתא בסנהדרין דף צז: “אמר ליה אליהו לרב יהודה”, דבוודאי פירושו שזה מאמר אליהו הנביא, עיי”ש.

דרך אגב יש להעיר דזה קצת פלא דלא ימצא שם אליהו בתנאים ואמוראים, והוא ע”ד הפלא שלא נמצא שם משה. – וכבר כ’ החיד”א בשם הגדולים ערך “רב משה גאון” וז”ל: “מצאתי כתוב בס’ כת”י לא היה שום תנא או אמורא שנקרא משה והוא פלא וסוד, והיינו דאמרי אינשי על הרמב”ם “ממשה ועד משה לא קם כמשה”, שלא היה תנא או אמורא שנקרא משה”.

וכן לא נמצא שם “אברהם” בתלמוד, ובגיטין נ, א איתא: “תני אברם חוזאה”, אך כבר כ’ סה”ד ד “לולא דמסתפינא אמינא דצ”ל אבימי חוזאה”, ולכאורה נראים דבריו דמדוע יקרא אברם ולא אברהם. ואכמ”ל בזה.

והנה מלבד שמוכרח כדברי החיד”א שנעלם מהבאר שבע דברי הערוך, יש להקשות טובא על הב”ש, דהרי בספר עצמו מוכח בכמה מקומות שזהו אליהו הנביא, וכמו בפי”ח סעיף מט דהכי איתא התם:

“פעם אחת היו אבותינו ושאר חכמים … חולקין מהיכן אליהו בא … באתי אליהן ועמדתי לפניהן ואמרתי להן רבותי אין אני בא אלא מזרעה של רחל”.


ומחומר הקושיא נראה אולי לומר, דהב”ש לא דיבר אודות הספר כלל – כי יתכן ולא ראהו (דהרי נדפס לראשונה שנת “ישמח” והב”ש הדפיס ספרו רק כחמש עשרה שנים לאח”ז בשנת שע”ב), ואולי אם היה רואה, היה מסכים למ”ש הערוך – אלא אמר דבריו אודות תנא דבי אליהו המובא בגמרא. ועדיין צ”ע בכל זה.



New Archaeological Discovery in Israel Possibly Sheds Light on the Mysterious ‘Rekhabites’


Noted Near Eastern scholar Jim Davila doesn’t buy any connection with early Early Christianity here:.

This is a very important discovery for the history of Judaism in the Galilee in late antiquity. The potential connection with a site associated with a story about Jesus is also interesting, although let’s keep in mind that the story is set several hundred years earlier than this inscription.

The last quoted sentence sounds a bit dubious to me. The word “marmaria” looks an awful lot like a word known from the Targumim (מרמירא) which is just a transliteration of the Greek word for “marble” (μάρμαρος). The specific spelling of the word in the inscription in Hebrew letters is not given, so I can’t be certain, but, given that the object is a marble plaque, that interpretation sounds far more likely to me than any connection with Mary.

And on the subject of the language of the inscription, this report is careful to specify that it is written in “Hebrew letters” and not to claim that it is written in the Hebrew language. Other reports are less cautious, for example: 1,500 Year Old Hebrew Inscription Discovered on East Coast of Sea of Galilee (The Jewish Press); Israeli archaeologists find Hebrew inscriptions on ancient slab of marble near Lake Kinneret (Jerusalem Post). Caution is warranted because, from what I can see of the published photo, it looks to me as though it could well be written in Aramaic. The word “amen,” of course, is used in both Hebrew and Aramaic. That word for “marble” above is found in the Aramaic Targumim (see Jastrow, 844b). And on the photo on line 1, I see what could be יקר or יקרה, which means “glory” or “honor” in Aramaic (but it also appears more rarely in Hebrew meaning “precious” or “valuable”). On line 4, I see אתרה, which means “the place” or “the synagogue” in Aramaic and סייע, which is a root in both Aramaic and Hebrew meaning “to aid or support.” On line 5, I see the word יברך, which could be “he shall bless” in either Hebrew and Aramaic. I don’t have any more time to puzzle out the inscription, but what I see is adding up to Aramaic more than Hebrew.

Cross-file under “Aramaic Watch?”

UPDATE: I see from the original Hebrew version of this article that the word “marmaria” is spelled מרמריה. [I’m revising an earlier comment here, since after a closer look, I see that the spelling is very similar (and there is even some variation of the spelling in the Targumim), but it is not quite the same. I still think the word in the inscription is far more likely to mean “marble” than to have anything to do with the Virgin Mary.]


A new archaeological discovery in Israel may shed some light on the perplexing existence of people or groups calling themselves ‘Rekhabites’. See my previous post on the topic here.

An archaeological discovery on the northeastern shore of the Kinneret River (Tiberias), an inscription in Hebrew and Aramaic from 1500 years ago (Byzantine Period) in what may have been a synagogue for Jews or Jewish-Christians. The only words that have so far been deciphered are “amen” and “MarMaria” which is hypothesized to be a reference to St. Mary.
I haven’t been able to find anything about this in English just yet.
see here

A commenter there points out that archaeologists have long been aware of the existence of a Synagogue in that region.

וייתכן שיש לו רמז ברשימה מהמאה ה- 11 לספירה, המזכירה את בית הכנסת של יונדב בן-רכב “בכורסיא שמעבר לים טיבריא”.

Apparently an ancient source (where?) attests to the existence of a Synagogue on the anti-tiberias shore (specifically Kursi which is mentioned in the New Testament as a site where Jesus visited)  in the 11th century that was named “Jonadab ben Rekhab Synagogue”.

This purported synagogue appears on a list of ancient sites of veneration  that was discovered (when? where?) by Professor Elchanan Reiner of Tel Aviv University. I haven’t been able to obtain that list yet.

Can this new discovery actually be the Synagogue in question? If this is was indeed a synagogue for Jewish Christians, it would be quite curious since there is a dearth of material evidence on the existence of the “Jerusalem Church” flourishing in Israel at such a late period (and using Hebrew writing!). It may also explain the strange moniker, which as I mentioned in my blog post here was a popular biblical figure among the first Jewish-Christians (but also among ordinary Cohanim Jews) as I mentioned. Stay tuned as more information trickles down.66991115980100490489no

How the Jews in Elephantine, Egypt Celebrated Passover in 419 BCE. DO YOU HAVE TO BURN YOUR HAMETZ? IS WINE CHAMETZ?


The papyrus known as THE PASSOVER LETTER from the Jewish military colony  at Elephantine 1 (yeb), ancient Egypt, circa 419 BCE.

According to Dan Adler:

In 1907, a german professor by the name of Eduard Sachau discovered the Passover Papyrus at Elephantine. The papyrus is written in Aramaic using Hebrew letters, and has been scientifically dated back to 419 BCE. This is the oldest archeological document found to date (outside of the Bible) which proves that Jews celebrated Passover during the period which coincides with the Return to Zion of Ezra and Nehemiah (from the Babylonian exile), and provides independent historical evidence that:

  1. A small Jewish community existed in Egypt (as described in the book of Jeremiah)
  2. They worshipped a God named Yahu (יהו which is similar to יהוה)
  3. They considered Judah (the land of Israel) as their religious authority
  4. They wrote to Judah to ask how to celebrate Passover (maybe they had no Torah scroll, or maybe Torah scrolls didn’t exist yet)
  5. One of the other Elephantine papyri mentions Sanballat who is also mentioned in the Bible
  6. The Passover Papyrus is the response the Elephantine community received from Judah outlining the Passover rituals
  7. The timing of Passover in the papyrus and most of the rituals match what we would expect

Here are the contents of the letter:

In the month of Nisan, let there be a Passover for the Judahite garrison. Now accordingly count fourteen days of the month Nisan and keep the Passover, and from the 15th day to the 21st day of Nisan are seven days of Unleavend Bread. Be clean and take heed. Do not work on the 15th day and on the 21st day. ALSO DRINK NO INTOXICANTS; and anything in which there is leaven…

אל אחי
ידניה וכנותה חילא יהודיא אחוכם חנניה שלם אחי אלהיא ישאלו
וכעת שנתא זא שנת \\/\/ דריוהוש מלכא מן מלכא שליחעל ארשם לאמר
בירח ניסן יהוי פסח לחילא יהודיא כעת אנתם כן מנו ארבעתעשר
יומן לירח ניסן ופסחא עבדו ומן יום —||\|\ עד יום \ לניסן
שבעת יומן זי פתירן אנתם דכין הוו ואזדהרוע בירח אל תעבדו
ביום —\\\ \/ וביום / אף שכר אל תשתו וכל מנדעם זט חמיר איתי בה
אל תאכלו מן יום —\\\ \/ מן מערב שמשא עד יום / לניסן שבעת
יומן אל יתחזי בכם אל תהנעלו בתוניכם וחתמו בין יומיא אלה
כן יתעבד כזי אמר דריוהוש מלכא
אל אחי ידניה וכנותה חילא יהודיא אחוכם חנני

Translation and transliteration from here:

‘L ‘HY 1 To my brothers,
YDNYH WKNWTH HYL’ YHWDY’ ‘HWKM HNNYH ŠLM ‘HY ‘LHY’ YŠ’LW 2 Yedaniah and his colleagues of the Judahite garrison, (from) your brother Hananiah. May the gods seek the welfare of my brothers.
WKcT ŠNT’ Z’ ŠNT \\/\/ DRYWHWŠ MLK’ MN MLK’ ŠLYH cL ‘RŠM L’MR 3 Now this year, the 5th year of King Darius, word was sent from the king to Arsames, saying:
BYRH NYSN YHWY PSH LHYL’ YHWDY’ KcT ‘NTM KN MNW ‘RBcT c ŠR 4 In the month of Nisan, let there be a Passover for the Judahite garrison. Now accordingly count fourteen
YWMN LYRH NYSN WPSHc BDW WMN YWM —||\|\ cD YWM ¶\ LNYSN 5 days of the month Nisan and keep the Passover, and from the 15th day to the 21st day of Nisan
ŠBcT YWMN ZY PTYRN ‘NTM DKYN HWW W’ZDHRW cBYRH ‘LTcBDW 6 are seven days of Unleavend Bread. Be clean and take heed. Do not work
BYWM —\\\ \/ WBYWM ¶ / ‘P ŠKR ‘L TŠTW WKL MNDcM ZYHMYR ‘YTY BH 7 on the 15th day and on the 21st day. Also, drink no intoxicants; and anything in which there is leaven,
‘LT’KLW MN YWM —\\\ \/ MN Mc RB ŠMŠ’ cD YWM ¶/ LNYSN ŠBcT 8 do not eat, from the 15th day from sunset until the 21st day of Nisan, seven
YWMN ‘L YTHZY BKM ‘L THNcLW BTWNYKM WHTMW BYN YWMY’ ‘LH 9 days, let it not be seen among you; do not bring it into your houses, but seal it up during those days.
KN YTcBD KZY ‘MR DRYWHWŠ MLK’ 10 Let this be done as King Darius commanded.

Transliteration of special characters

  • ‘ = ‘Aleph
  • H = Heth
  • T = Teth
  • c = cAyin
  • S = Sadê
  • Š = Šin
11 To my brethren, Yedaniah and his colleagues of the Judahite garrison, (from) your brother Hananiah.

Some contemporary Karaites (like Hakham Avraham Qanai) maintain that this is clear proof ” documentary evidence that at the time of the last Nevi’im that alcoholic wine (שכר) ‘was considered Hames (חמיר in Aramaic).” He also adds: “This puts to rest the argument that the Karaite prohibition on alcoholic wine during Hagh HaMassot was an invention of the Middle Ages” (although in a different place Qanai maintains that: “The word Shekhar refers to all types of intoxicating beverages. Wine can also be Shekhar, but, since the commandment already mentioned wine and forbids the consumption of Shekhar as well as wine, it is obviously referring to other types of Shekhar. Also since it list wine vinegar separately from Shekhar vinegar, the reference to Shekhar is obviously not to wine. The word Shekhar is found in other Semitic languages as well and almost always refers to other intoxicating beverages. In Jewish Aramaic Shkikra means intoxicating drink; in Imperial Aramaic it means beer, ale, mead; in Akkadian it is beer, fermented alcoholic beverage; in Syriac it is intoxicating drink, as also in Christian Palestininan Aramaic; in Mandæan it is intoxicating drink; in Arabic Sakar [سكر] intoxicating drink, wine, which developed into the loan-word in Greek σικερα [Síkera] meaning intoxicating drink, beer, which would have been made primarily from barley in contrast to Sove’ [סבא] which is beer made from wheat”.

Some have also theorized that the custom of taking four cups of wine was instituted with the Sadducees (the alleged spiritual forbears of the Karaites) in mind. In Rabbinic parlance: להוציא מלבן של צדוקים

Scholars are of different opinions as to what exactly -s-k-r שכר refers to. Some contend that it refers only to alcoholic wine, others contend that all intoxicating beverages fall under this category. Today most Karaite Jews 2 refrain from consuming wine on Passover because they consider it as falling under the prohibition against fermented foods.

The second interesting aspect about this remarkable document is the attitude towards keeping hametz. Out of sight and out of mind (In keeping with the Biblical injunction of ‘it shall neither be seen nor found’) seemed to have been the order of the day. Neither burning nor selling is mentioned:

“let it not be seen among you; do not bring it into your houses, but seal it up during those days.”

Qanai maintains: the Aramaic word HTM does not only mean “seal” but also “cut off”/“end”. The Torah command WeLo’ Yera’eh Lekha Hames WeLo’ Yera’eh Kekh Se’or BeKhol Gevulekha, i.e., anywhere within the boundaries of the land of Israel, whether in your house or outside of it. The term Lo Yera’eh Lekha does not mean just “it shall not be seen” but “it shall not be found”/“it shall not be present” with you. See Shemot 34:3.

According to his understanding giving away your hamess to a gentile can only work outside the Land of Israel but not in the land since the verse says “in all your boundaries”.

However, others understand it to have meant that it is simply an injunction to keep them completely out of sight. The Papyrus seems to support the latter understanding of the verse, i.e. get the hamess out of your houses and seal them away somewhere so they won’t be seen for the duration of the holiday.


1. For more on the Elephantine Colony see here. The Hebrew Wikipedia erroneously attributes the destruction of the Yeb Temple by local Egyptians, due to their abhorrence of animal sacrifices. It cites the verse וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לֹא נָכוֹן לַעֲשׂוֹת כֵּן, כִּי תּוֹעֲבַת מִצְרַיִם, נִזְבַּח לַה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ: הֵן נִזְבַּח אֶת-תּוֹעֲבַת מִצְרַיִם, לְעֵינֵיהֶם–וְלֹא יִסְקְלֻנוּ” (שמות ח’ כב) in order to back up that contention. But it is patently wrong because Egyptians did engage in animal sacrifice during and after that period. see here and here and here

Herodotus however writes:

Now all who have a temple set up to the Theban Zeus or who are of the district of Thebes, these, I say, all sacrifice goats and abstain from sheep: for not all the Egyptians equally reverence the same gods, except only Isis and Osiris (who they say is Dionysos), these they all reverence alike: but they who have a temple of Mendes or belong to the Mendesian district, these abstain from goats and sacrifice sheep. Now the men of Thebes and those who after their example abstain from sheep, say that this custom was established among them

2. The Crimean Karaites do consume wine. The relaxation of a prohibition that was apparently uniform among Karaites is claimed (by Hakham Qanai and others) to stem from Hakham Elijah Bashyatzi, a Byzantine Karaite who instituted far-reaching reforms that were very controversial for his time (although nowhere in his magnum opus: Aderet Eliyahu does he explicitly permit the consumption of wine).

Reading Shir Hashirim in the (Karaite) Synagogue



Hakham Tobias Babovich was the last of the true Karaite Hakhamim. Born in Crimea to a prominent family of Karaite Hakhamim he was invited to serve the large Karaite community in Cairo until his passing in the 1950s.

In this excursus on the Song of Songs (excerpted from R’ Yosef El-Gamil’s תולדות היהדות הקראית, חלק ב), Babovich relates the general Karaite consensus- which is unsurprisingly the same as the Rabbanite one; Song of Songs is an allegorical work that portrays the intimate love between God and his people.

In the excerpted footnote he relates a somewhat humorous episode wherein he reminisces about the time he spent among Russian Sabbatarian peasants who had recently converted to Karaite Judaism. The custom among the Karaites is to recite Song of Songs on the seventh day of the holiday of Passover (referred to as שביעי עצרת) Yet the aforementioned community refused to carry out this custom, aghast that a book containing such profane content could be recited in a sacred place. No amount of cajoling could switch their resolve.

I personally experienced something similar several years ago when I attended the Shebi’i Aseret prayers at the Anan Ben David synagogue in the old city of Jerusalem. As we sat down in the traditional manner and began reading Shir Hashirim, I noticed the then caretaker of the synagogue (who was a fairly recent returnee to the faith-of Egyptian Karaite extraction) become increasingly uncomfortable until he could hold back no longer. “I can’t read this!” he exclaimed. “Reading about breasts and kisses in the Synagogue?! No!”. The others (including a fairly learned member of the community) relented and so it was, that year Song of Songs was not recited in the Jerusalem Karaite Synagogue.



בקהילות אשכנז נקראת מגילת שיר השירים בבתי הכנסת בשבת החלה במהלך שבעת ימי הפסח, בהתאם למנהג הכללי במסורת האשכנזית לקרוא בכל אחת משלוש הרגלים מגילה המתאימה לאווירת החג. תיאורי האביב המופיעים בשיר השירים הם הסיבה לקריאת המגילה בפסח, הוא חג האביב. מאותו טעם נהוג בקהילות אחרות לקרוא את מגילת שיר השירים בשביעי של פסח,

היום האחרון של החג נקרא שביעי של פסח, ועל פי חז”ל הוא נחוג כיום טוב כיון שבאותו יום נקרע ים סוף. מסיבה זו יש שקוראים ביום זה את שירת הים. הקראים קוראים ליום השביעי שביעי עצרת, על פי הפסוק “שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תֹּאכַל מַצּוֹת וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי עֲצֶרֶת לַה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה מְלָאכָה”‏


*For more on Tobias Levi-Babovich see the 2 volume biography on him by Yusef El-Gamil here

*On the canonicity of Shir Hashirim, the Rabbis were not one of one mind until the 2nd Century CE. Opinions wereput forth both pro and con famous among them is the proclamation by Rabbi Akiva in defense of the work:

“God forbid! […] For all of eternity in its entirety is not as worthy as the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”

~Tractate Yadayim

How Archaeology Illuminates the Parsha; Parashat Mishpatim, The Case of the Poor Man’s Cloak


אִם כֶּסֶף תַּלְוֶה אֶת עַמִּי אֶת הֶעָנִי עִמָּךְ לֹא תִהְיֶה לוֹ כְּנֹשֶׁה לֹא תְשִׂימוּן עָלָיו נֶשֶׁךְ.  אִם חָבֹל תַּחְבֹּל

שַׂלְמַת רֵעֶךָ עַד בֹּא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ תְּשִׁיבֶנּוּ לוֹ. כו כִּי הִוא כסותה [כְסוּתוֹ] לְבַדָּהּ הִוא שִׂמְלָתוֹ לְעֹרוֹ בַּמֶּה יִשְׁכָּב וְהָיָה כִּי יִצְעַק אֵלַי וְשָׁמַעְתִּי כִּי חַנּוּן אָנִי.

25 “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest. 26 If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, 27 because that cloak is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.

Exodus Chapter 22 שְׁמוֹת~

These verses come life in a remarkable ostracon discovered at the remnants of a Judean fortress in Southern Israel (ancient Kingdom of Judah) called Mezad Hashavyahu.

It is dated to the period of Josiah, King of Judah circa 7th c. BCE

It contains a written appeal by a field worker to the fortress’s governor regarding the confiscation of his cloak, which the writer considers to have been unjust. The worker makes his appeal to the governor on the basis of both the garment’s undeserved confiscation and by implication, the biblical law regarding holding past sundown a person’s cloak as collateral for a debt

This is a remarkable find that hasn’t been getting the attention that I humbly think it deserves. Aside from actualizing a theoretical situation described in the bible, it also seems to bear the first mention of Sabbath outside of Tanakh! (although that is disputed by some scholars).

The text:

ישמע אדני השר
את דבר עבדה. עבדך
קצר. היה. עבדך. בחצר אסם. ויקצר עבדך
ויכל ואסם כימם. לפני שב
ת כאשר כל {ע}בדך את קצר וא
סם כימם ויבא הושעיהו בן שב
י. ויקח. את בגד עבדך כאשר כלת
את קצרי זה ימם לקח את בגד עבדך
וכל אחי. יענו. לי. הקצרם אתי בחם.
{ה}ש {מש} אחי. יענו. לי אמן נקתי מא
{שם}………בגדי ואמלא. לשר להש
{יב} ……….עב{דך}…..אלו. רח
{מם. והש}בת את {בגד. ע}בדך ולא תדהמ נ

English translation (from Klaas Smelik, Writings from Ancient Israel, Westminster John Knox Press, 1991):

“Let my lord, the governor, hear the word of his servant! Your servant is a reaper. Your servant was in Hazar Asam, and your servant reaped, and he finished, and he has stored (the grain) during these days before the Sabbath. When your servant had finished the harvest, and had stored (the grain) during these days, Hoshavyahu came, the son of Shobi, and he seized the garment of your servant, when I had finished my harvest. It (is already now some) days (since) he took the garment of your servant. And all my companions can bear witness for me – they who reaped with me in the heat of the harvest – yes, my companions can bear witness for me. Amen! I am innocent from guilt. And he stole my garment! It is for the governor to give back the garment of his servant. So grant him mercy in that you return the garment of your servant and do not be displeased.”

Scans are from:

אסופת כתובות עבריות, מימי בית-ראשון וראשית ימי בית-שני.

אחיטוב, שמואל

ירושלים : מוסד ביאליק, תשנ”ג-1992
ספרית האנציקלופדיה המקראית

Who Are the Rechabites And Why Are They So Often Linked to Cohanim?

George Fischer writing in Brill:

The Rechabites (Heb. רֵכָבִים/rekābîm) are mentioned only in Jer 35. They traced their descent to Jehonadab, son of Rechab (2 Kgs 10:15, 23), who played a supporting role in Jehu’s revolt (9th cent. bce). The etymology of the name is unexplained.

The Rechabites’ lifestyle was unusual: they drank no wine and built no houses, living only in tents; they never sowed seeds or planted vineyards. They ascribed these restrictions to the command of Jehonadab ( Jer 35:6f.), which they followed faithfully. God contrasted them in their absolute obedience to the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem, who refused to listen to him and obey (vv. 13–17), and gave them a promise that they would stand before him for all time modeled on Jer 33:17f. The incident with Jeremiah, whom God had commanded to attempt to seduce them into drinking wine (for the motif of testing by God, Gen 22:1; Exod 15:25; etc.) is dated in the reign of Jehoiakim, around 600 bce (v. 11, based on 2 Kgs 24:1–2), but it could possibly reflect the formation of the book of Jeremiah in the 4th century; the existence of such a group in that period is attested by Jewish sources (W.L. Holladay, Jeremiah, II [Hermeneia, 1989, 246 with n. 5]).

Attempts to identify the Rechabites with other groups like the Nazirites are extremely precarious; G.L. Keown ( Jeremiah 26–52 [WBC 27, 1995, excursus 195f.]) rightly cautions against them and similar speculations. The significance of the Rechabites is that they modeled in their lives the obedient listening expected of the people of Israel.

There is a strange book in the Pseudepigrapha called The Story of Zosimus. Most scholars agree that it’s a hodgepodge; a composite work that combined several different works, composed at various different times by various different authors.

One of the works that were used is ‘A History of the Rechabites’ which Ronit Nikolsky believes to be a product of 5th c. Judean desert monasticism see here 

Arguments for and against a Jewish composition of the entirety or parts of The Story of Zosimus are cited by the noted Bible scholar James Davila here and here

Here is an  excerpt from the article that caught my attention:

Hegesippus tells us that when James the brother of Jesus was being stoned to death, one of the Rechabites, who are identified as a priestly family to which Jeremiah testified, objected and told the attackers to stop (Eusebius, Hist. eccl . 2.23).

Rekhabites? Priestly?

I have noticed this strange linkage too many times, in too many places, for it to be mere coincidence.

Here are several examples from Jewish sources:

The 11th c. Karaite sage Sahl b. Mazliah Hakohen is referred to as a ‘descendant of the rekhabites’  in Yisrael Eisenstein’s popular Ozar Yisrael see here

The Tanna, Rabi Yose B. Halafta (who was also a Kohen) is described as a descendant of Jonadab b Rekhab in The Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Taanit:

תלמוד ירושלמי מסכת תענית פרק ד דף סח טור א /ה”ב  אמר רבי לוי מגילת יוחסין מצאו בירושלם וכתוב בה .. רבי יוסי בי רבי חלפתא מבני יונדב בן רכב

For the Karaite Sahl, perhaps he styled himself a ‘spiritual descendant’ of Yehonadab ben Rekhab, who, as we know according to the Biblical account, abstained from wine (and meat?). Sahl offered sharp rebuke to those who drink wine (and eat meat) while the Temple lies in ruins.

The early church fathers heaped praise upon the Rekhabites. They were held up as a perfect model of obedience and monasticism. Is it possible that some medieval Jews shared a similar view to the point where they made rekhabite a byword for righteous?


The early Christian writers had a positive view of the Rechabites and referred to them several more times… the Rechabites are held up as an example by John Chrysostom for not disobeying their father’s command (Hom. Acts 5:34) and as people approved by the prophets (Hom. Matt. 12:38-29 4); and Jerome extols the asceticism of the Rechabites in Jov. II.3.15) and calls them “holy men” in Epist. 52.3.

More notable excerpts from Davila’s article:

References in these chapters to the Rechabites being commanded to go naked (8:3-5; 9:9) are probably secondary insertions, since nudity was frowned upon in ancient Judaism, the nudity of the Blessed Ones is mentioned elsewhere in the work, and some passages in 8-10 which should mention the nudity do not (9:8; 10:2).

Perhaps the nudity is a reference to their pure innocent state a la Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

The Biblical Jonadab ben Rekhab does not seem to have been a Jew in the proper sense of the term.

From Chronicles, it seems that they were Kenites (and indeed in Aggadic sources they are referred to as descendants of Jethro):

וּמִשְׁפְּחוֹת סֹפְרִים ישבו (יֹשְׁבֵי) יַעְבֵּץ, תִּרְעָתִים שִׁמְעָתִים שׂוּכָתִים; הֵמָּה הַקִּינִים הַבָּאִים, מֵחַמַּת אֲבִי בֵית-רֵכָב

דברי הימים א ב כ”ב

According to the Sifri, the Children of Yitro (which may or may not include the Rechabites) settled in the fat portions of the city of Jericho. When Joshua b Nun apportioned the land, he granted it to the tribe of Binyamin.

Could the Cohanic connection be a result of a phonetic confusion between kenite and cohanite?

Or perhaps they married into the families of prominent cohanim and in so doing became intertwined with them?

The Mishna in Taanit 4, 5  lists the Sons of Rekhab as one of the prominent families who had  a designated day to collect firewood:

ד,ה  זמן עצי הכוהנים והעם, תשע:  באחד בניסן, בני ארח בן יהודה; בעשרים בתמוז, בני דויד בן יהודה; בחמישה באב, בני פרעוש בן יהודה; בשבעה בו, בני יונדב בן רכב; בעשרה בו, בני סנאה בן בנימין; בחמישה עשר בו, בני זתואל בן יהודה–ועימהם הכוהנים והלויים, וכל מי שטעה שבטו, ובני גונבי עלי, ובני קוצעי קציעות; בעשרים בו, בני פחת מואב בן יהודה; בעשרים באלול, בני עדין בן יהודה; באחד בטבת, שבו בני פרעוש שנייה.  באחד בטבת, לא היה בו מעמד, שהיה בו הלל, וקרבן מוסף וקרבן עצים.