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).