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

June 29, 2014

125710617_RRyoSRRRRyoS_R_SRRRR_RRRRyoRRSRAvraham 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 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 aimed against his nemesis Firkovich (about whom he devoted a separate ‘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 approbations to Masa Qrim. Equally interesting is the enthusiastic approbation 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 indicate that at that point Firkovich may have begun to suffer from onset dementia. See the correspondence in the links between Firkovich and Deinard regarding the allegedly discovered grave of Rabbi Yitzchak Sangari in the ancient Karaite necropolis in Chufut Kale.

firk reply to deinard 1     firk reply to deinard 2

Firkovich sometimes exhibited paranoid like behavior. An ex pupil of Firkovich named Tarkhov addressed an exceedingly strange episode in his diary, where he claims that Firkovich once accused him of attempting to murder him.

firk delusional

Dan Shapira in his biography of the man, Avraham Firkowicz in Istanbul (1830–1832). Paving the Way for Turkic Nationalism summed up Firkovic 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 a Hasidic 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):


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 (such as his on and off patron, the wealthy Hakham Simcha Babovich) 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 ignoramus. 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, a veritable goldmine for scholars.

firk deicidefirk apology
I also found it interesting that he and his master/rival, Mordechai Sultanski sometimes 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, Firkovich 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 Leib ben Ze’evNaphatali Hirz WesselySolomon 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 Crimean 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 ‘ashkenazi 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..

  1. הפלא ופלא!! מלא וגדוש בחומר מעניין

  2. אם אפשר קישור או מראה מקום מדוייק לעימות בין הרב מסאווראן ובין אב”ן רש”ף. תודה

  3. נראה לי שאני הראשון שמזהה (כמעט בודאות) את הרב בברדיצב אותו העתעמת אבן רש”ף
    אפילו שפירא שבדרך כלל לא חוסך פרטים מקדיש לזה שורה אחת בספרו

  4. Just added some more material.
    On the Berditzchev edisode. It’s strange that no one, as far as I know, figured out who the Rabbi who got into a physical altercation with Firkovich, was. I’ll try to look into it further.

  5. Amazing. Keep us posted. “Physical altercation”?!? as in a fistfight? or you simply mean an actual face-to-face argument.

  6. hateomot permalink

    The photograph of a Avraham Firkovich in his youth, is a mislabling of a photo of his relative. BOGUSLAW FIRKOWICZ (1865-1915).

    Can anyone cite the source of the photograph of the family of Avraham Firkovich?


  7. Mikhail Kizilov permalink

    The family portrait was found by me – Mikhail Kizilov – in the personal archive of Seraya Shapshal in Vilnius.

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