Babylonian Talmud, Book 10: History of the Talmud, tr. by Michael L. Rodkinson, , at sacred-texts.com
THE EIGHTH CENTURY. THE DOMINION OF THE GAONIM. THE OPPOSITION OF THE KARAITES. THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A SECT OF THAT NAME.
The Pharisees had been victorious over the Sadducees and the other sects opposed to the Oral Law, but had not annihilated them entirely; since only because these latter could not withstand them, they kept silence and were discontented in their hearts, As the Talmud gained strength and became more severe in its decrees against the Sadducees and Samaritans, so that in the end the Kuthim were declared as idolaters in all respects, then their indignation burned and they awaited a favorable time for revenge. In the time of the dominance of the Gaonim, who carried out the Talmud in practice, the measure became full, and Anan, the nephew of the Gaon at Sura, when he was not elected as Gaon, for the reason of his liberal ideas and his opposition to the Talmud, established the Karaite sect.
Those who hold that the Karaites were a new sect founded by Anan (760 C.E.), are mistaken, for a small sect under the name of Karaites, or adherents of the Text, had existed already in the days of the Talmud, where they are mentioned in many places, as "adherents of the Text," or once "the Karaites add" (Pesachim, 117a in text; in our edition, Vol. V., p. 145). Doubtless the remainder of the Sadducees assumed this name, having lost political influence since they had been vanquished, and the word "Sadducees" being hated by the people. Therefore the remains of the sect called themselves "Karaites," i.e.
those who occupy themselves with the text of Scripture, and endeavor to understand its real meaning. Owing to their. small numbers, or to the lack of a great man to head them, this, sect kept secret its hatred of the Talmud, though it existed so long as to outlive even the close of the latter, and the Talmudic sages paid no attention to them. Finally, however, chance gave them a man fit to be their leader, who publicly opposed the Talmud so that all its enemies made one league against it, and they were at first a great power; and in the course of 700 years they did not cease to persecute the Talmud and almost destroyed it; finally, however, they lost their influence which they never regained, and to-day are decayed so that small numbers only live in Austria, Crimea, and many other places in Russia, numbering in all to-day no more than 4,000 or 5,000 souls altogether.
This man was Anan ben David, nephew of the exilarch Solomon, in Bagdad, who had died childless. Anan expected to be elected as his successor, but his younger brother was chosen instead, and he was rejected because of his liberal ideas and want of sympathy with the Talmud. Then he publicly began to make war on the Talmud and Talmudists, and became the head of all its opponents and ill-wishers. He made his headquarters at Jerusalem, after having been, it seems, obliged to leave Babylonia. There he assumed the title of exilarch, and around him were assembled a great multitude who made, war on the Oral Law, its scholars, and in particular on the two colleges of Sura and Pumbeditha.
By his general precept, "Search well in the Scriptures," he declared as naught the whole Oral Law. And wishing to find favor in the eyes of the Caliphs, who fixed the dates of their festivals by observation of the new moon, he also renewed this custom, once in force among the Jews while the Temple had existed, repealing thus the calculation of R. Adda received among all Talmudists. He openly said to the Caliph Almanzur that the Jews had been guilty of persecuting Jesus and opposing Mahomet, though (said he) both these men did much to drive idolatry out of existence, and cannot be attacked without guilt. Of the first he said that he had been a holy man who did not want to appear as a prophet, or a god, but only desired to reform the faith which the Pharisees had perverted. Of the second
he said that be really was a prophet for the Arabs, only he does not believe that the Law (of Moses) is repealed by Mahommedanism.
His first work was to separate himself from the Jews by fixing the date of Pentecost to be fifty days after the first Sabbath after Passover, as the Sadducees fixed it formerly. The dates of New Year and the Day of Atonement, Passover and the Feast of Booths were determined by watching for the new moon, which did not agree with the Jewish dates. As in the leap year one month is added to the year, he allowed, in case of need, to begin Passover when barley is ripe in the fields. The Phylacteries (not a grave ceremony among the Jews, at any rate), the four species of the Lulab and the semi-holiday Hanuka (Dedication), he abolished. On the other hand he made the observation of Sabbath more burdensome, so that the lighting of candles was prohibited on the eve of Sabbath, even by a non-Jew, also the leaving of one's house during Sabbath when most neighbors are not Jews, i.e. Karaites; the dietary laws he also made stricter, so as to prohibit his adherents eating in company with Jews for the latter are not careful enough and oftentimes eat with Gentiles.
Soon Anan saw that if every one were left to interpret the Biblical text according to his own mind, etc., his sect would be split, and not endure (as actually was the case in the course of time, as will be explained further on), and that a fixed commentary is needed at least for those passages which can by no means be interpreted literally. Therefore he claimed many great authorities, long deceased, as Karaites, and declared that R. Jehuda b. Tabai, the colleague of Simeon b. Shetah, etc. Shamai the elder, the colleague of Hillel the Elder, and other such, were some of the founders of their sect, and he ascribed to them some interpretations of passages which he claimed to have received by tradition from them. "Abandon the Talmud and Mishna," he said to his followers, "and I will make you a Talmud of my own, according to the traditions I have." Though in reality he took the rules of the Mishna as basis, yet he said that as far as details are concerned he is as wise as the sages of the Mishna, or more so, and can construe the Biblical texts by his own intellect.
His hatred of the Talmud became so great that he said that if he could have swallowed the Talmud, he would cast himself
into a lime-kiln, that it might be burned with him and leave no vestige of its existence. Thus the people of Israel separated itself then into two hostile hosts. The Talmudists declared the Karaites not to be Jews, and forbade to give them any holy ceremony to perform, while the Karaites said of the followers of the rabbis that they are Jewish sinners, and it is sinful to intermarry with them. The city of Jerusalem witnessed for the third time a splitting of Israel into parties.
Of Anan's writing we know nothing, although according to the Karaites he wrote some comments on the Bible and prayers. From the compositions imputed by them to him, we can see that only the love of resistance and victory absorbed him; how great his learning was we can not judge, as in general his biography is unknown to us, but it is known that he was not given, to philosophy, nor ingenious in interpreting Scripture. One good effect we can ascribe to him, that, owing to his opposition, the Talmudic rabbis were also forced to pay more attention to the Scriptures, and make researches and learn the niceties of the Hebrew language, so that Anan and his sect were the prime cause of all the compositions on grammar, Massorah and vowel points, and even poetic compositions that the Talmudists gave birth to in the course of time.
After Anan's death Saul, his son, succeeded him as exilarch of the Karaites, but Anan's disciples separated from him, as they did not agree with him about some ceremonies, according to Saul's interpretation of biblical passages. They became a distinct sect calling themselves Ananites; so it also happened after the death of Saul, who was succeeded by Josiah, his son. And so almost every age sprang a new Karaite sect with a name of its own, each interpreting Scripture in its own way. Some of them will be mentioned presently, It is self-evident that an attempt to get at the profound meaning of the Scriptures was the business of every such sect; through their activity the knowledge of Hebrew grammar, of Massorah, the vowel-points and punctuation marks, was diffused; theological philosophizing was also not strange to some Karaites, as they had to explain such words as God's "hand," "eye," "finger," which they were unwilling to take literally and materialize God, just as the other Jews. Thus gradually a large literature sprang among the Karaites, not inferior, taken as a whole, to the Talmud itself in bulk.
At all events, the Talmud was menaced by a much greater danger from these internal enemies than from its external foes. For the latter did not attack the Talmud itself, except so far as it was an obstacle in their way, but their main and avowed object was to convert the Jews to another religion, or even merely to fill their own pockets with Jewish gold, given to avert the persecution instigated for that very purpose. The Talmud was then attacked only incidentally, not for its sake, while the main object was something else.
But the Karaites made it their great aim to drive the Talmud itself out of existence, to direct their arrows against it for its own sake, and endeavored to bring about, that the Jews should become Christians, or Mussulmans, or join any sect whatever, the Karaites did not care which, provided that the Jews should forsake the hateful Talmud, and its Halakhas and Hagadas should get lost. Therefore the struggle with them was very great, especially as they pretended that their traditions were based on the great authorities of the remnants of the nation.
As their doctrines, however, were not fixed, and as almost every age the Karaites were split into diverse sects, therefore they could not resist or make headway against the Talmud, whose strength is, to those who rightly understand it, that it has never purposed to make fixed rules, to last for all ages; deliberation and reasoning concerning the Halakhas according to the circumstances, is the principle of the Talmud; and the saying of the Talmud, "even when they say to you of right that it is left, and of left that it is right, thou shalt not swerve from the commandment," shows the opinion of the Talmud, that the practice of the ceremonies and precepts is dependent on the time, place and other circumstances. With this power the Talmud combatted all its enemies, and was victorious.
The controversies between the Jews and the Karaites are recorded in many books, Karaite and Talmudistic, from the age of R. Saadia the Gaon, and his opponent Sahal ben Matzliah to the present time. In them can also be found the history of their alternate triumphs. But this is not our task here: we will remark only that from the days of R. Saadiah the Gaon, when the Rabbis had begun to have polemics with them, can be seen the deep mark the Karaite literature left on the Rabbinical
one. Philosophy was from that time used in conjunction with the Torah; many Gaonim followed R. Saadiah's method of harmonizing the Torah and the philosophy of that time, that they should seem as mutual enemies. So the Karaites charged such men with infidelity, but others were themselves compelled to imitate them, and called in the aid of philosophy, of the divinity, to interpret the texts of the Holy Scriptures.
The effect of the Karaites on the Talmudist Rabbis is made evident also in this: that since their time the rabbis also began to write down fixed Halakhas taken from the Talmud, that the readers should not otherwise by error adopt the Karaite rules, made by the Karaite leaders, which they might mistake for the rules of the Talmud itself, since they could not know the whole Talmud by heart. They composed, therefore, the "Halakhoth G'doloth" (Great Halakhas), "Sh'iltoth'derab A'bai" (Queries of R. Ahai), for the sake of the students, who could not themselves wade through the whole Talmud. But thereby they opposed the spirit and object of the Talmud itself, that the Halakhas should be matter for discussion, and modified in accordance with the requirements of the time and place. As soon as the Gaonim had permitted to propound decisions of the Halakhas, and to fix them, those Gaonim, who succeeded them, were compelled to teach that these decisions of the former Gaonim, even though given without proofs, are holy for the people, as if giver, from Mount Sinai. This circumstance added fuel to the quarrel of the Karaites, and gave them new points of attack. The hope of some great men of the nation to reconcile the Jews with the Karaites became naught, for although the Karaites quarrelled among themselves, and split into rival sects, yet they all equally hated the Talmud, reviled it, and insulted it, styling the two colleges, at Sura and Pumbeditha, "the two harlots" spoken of in Ezekiel, who (claimed they) referred to these colleges in his prophecy.
According to Makrizi there were among the Karaites ten sects, differing from each other in their opinions, practice and festivals; they had no permanence, some rose, some fell, and in the tenth century only five large sects were found, named:
1. Jod'anim or Jodganim.
2. Makrites or Magrites.
4. Abn Amronites or Tiflisites.
The reader will find in the books of Jost, Grätz, Fürst, Geiger, and in Hebrew, in "Bequoreth L'toldoth Hakaraim" an account of the particulars about which the various sects of the Karaites differed, and also the names of their leaders. We do not think it necessary to give these details in this place. We will mention for illustration the latest sect, which wished to fix the day of Atonement only on a Saturday every year, because it is said "Sabbath Sabbathan," which means a Sabbath of rest (Lev. xxiii. 32), and they translate "a Sabbath of Sabbaths," and the first day of Passover on Thursday. Thus each Karaite sect celebrated the Biblical festivals on different days, for each sect construed the texts in the Pentateuch by preference without being able to come to an agreement. Thus also in respect of the observation of Sabbath: for some Karaites, their houses were during the Sabbath their prisons, where they did sit in darkness, and which they could not leave when their neighbors happened not to be Karaites like themselves. In this we see the power of the Talmud, that even those who were inimical to it or hostile to a large portion of it, Halakhas never had different opinions concerning the festivals and other such things, important to one particular nation; for they could not deny its general tradition.
The effects of Karaism are also traceable in some religious practices, which had not been usual among the people of ancient times. Thus Phylacteries, which it had not been customary to use, in spite of the literal interpretation of the Talmud of the passage "and thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes," (Deut. vi. 8); perhaps for the reason that Hillel had said: "Leave Israel alone; if they are not prophets, they are children of prophets," (Pesachim); for after all, the arguments of the Talmud in favor of the literalness of that passage, the people felt that it was only a figurative expression; and the Talmud itself prohibited the use of phylacteries to the people, permitting it only to confirmed scholars. But when the Karaites interpreted the passage figuratively, the Gaonim permitted the use of Tephilin to the people also, to show their difference from the Karaites.
The opposition of the Karaites effected also that the
[paragraph continues] Gaonim should declare that the Hagada of the Talmud is not obligatory to believe for any man; and that it is not to be taken literally, but as allegorical. "Leave to every one the right to hold what opinions he chooseth about the Hagada of the Talmud" says R. Samuel b. Hopni, father-in-law to Hai Gaon, to ward off the attacks of the Karaites and opponents of the Talmud generally, who made it responsible for many Hagadic things cautioned in it. And indeed we see that the collections of Halakhas from the Talmud, as Rab Alphasi and his colleagues inserted but little of the Hagada, as if to show that the Hagadas are not minded. Though in truth the Hagadas of the Talmud relating to morality are the main element of the Talmud, mostly require no change, addition, or subtraction, even in our age. While on the other hand, the absence of the ethics of the Talmudic Hagada is painfully felt in Karaite literature to the present day. In points of morality their opinions are as various as concerning the Halakhas, in the course of time issued from the Karaite ascetics who abstained from meat and wine, left their homes, dwelt in deserts, and mourned over the destruction of Jerusalem. The Karaites styled them "the sixty heroes who are around Solomon's bed," for there were sixty in number, and called them the great teachers, for they had been taught by them that it is not legal to eat meat in exile, since a text says one should not slaughter outside the camp. In contrast with these, from among the Karaites came also Hiri Hakalhi or Habalki who, owing to his opposition to the Talmud, denied also Moses' Torah, providence, creation, etc., so that the Karaites repulsed him also. There were among them also some who believed in a material God, eating something of the sacrifices, and enjoying the agreeable flavor of them. Such was the destiny of those who rejected tradition, and relied on their own intellect.
The issue was that, though among the Karaites were also great men and great sects--and many times they triumphed over the Talmudists for centuries--the following peculiarities made them a sect secluded from the whole world (especially from the Rabbis, who were to them as if unclean); their scrupulousness about cleanliness and uncleanliness, their separation from anybody who was not a Karaite Jew, so as not to take from him bread and other articles of the bakery, and so as not
to eat anything that had been touched by a non-Jew (some prohibited even meat fit for a sacrifice). Gradually their numbers diminished, so that now they number only about four thousand souls in the world, and even these few differ among themselves in their usages and festivals. To this day the Karaites in Egypt and the East remain in the dark during the eve of Sabbath; the dates of their festivals are not alike every year, and by their attacks on the Talmud they not only failed to weaken its influence or diminish the number of its adherents, but brought about its increased influence and accepted holiness. Though the Rabbis kept apart from them, and said to those who wished to make peace between them, "the Karaites (or torn pieces, Kraim Kra'im), never became joined," still they did not forbear to borrow from them what seemed to them good, adopting the Massorah and vowel points of Ben Asher, who was one of them.
About the Judaized Chazars, of their time, the Karaites say that they had the Karaite form of Judaism, but modern scholars contradict this. They say that the Chazars were Talmudic Jews and A. B. Gottlober has written admirably about this subject. His argument seems to savor of the truth. But there is no doubt, that among the Jewish tribes of Arabia, and those of the Judaized Arabian kingdom, there were Talmudic Jews who rendered many services to the Jews of the Byzantine empire; but as these matters do not pertain to our subject, we will not speak further of them, and conclude hereby the present chapter. (See App. at the end of this volume.)