Dissertations, English, Reviews

Karaite Mishnah (and other friends too)

Ofra Tirosh-Becker, Rabbinic Excerpts in Medieval Karaite Literature, 2 Vols. Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 2012, 1219 pp., NIS 111.

Everyone knows about the Karaites. They need little introduction: Ninth century Jews tired of geonic hegemony, going back to scripture to find law and independence. But there is very little beyond that which has trickled outside of the academic circles that busy themselves with the Karaite movement, despite its great importance to the study of rabbinic Judaism.

There is much Karaite material waiting to be read. Simply read.  The great age of Karaite scholarship – in Jerusalem and its environs in the tenth-eleventh centuries – produced a great mass of work, fascinating and useful not only for students of Karaism. However, most Karaite commentaries lack editions of any kind; the Karaite communities have little interest in their own literature, and not much of it was published, while even less is in print today.

“It is one of the ironies of fate […] that the Karaites, the great fighters against the oral Torah, allowed me, with the grace of God, to reconstruct a new segment of the literature of the oral law.” Thus Menahem Kahana in his introduction to Sifre Zutta Deuteronomy (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2003). Kahana discovered this midrash by mistake in a survey of Hebrew manuscripts in Russian libraries, during the first days of Soivet perestroika. Kahana identified fragments catalogued as “Midrash on Deuteronomy,” as belonging to the commentary on Deuteronomy by the Karaite Yeshuah b. Yehudah. But he also discovered a long-lost tannaitic midrash quoted in them as well: Sifre Zutta Deuteronomy, which he proceeded to publish, with an extensive commentary and study.

This is just one dark corner of the Karaite world that Kahana helped expose. But he was not alone in this enterprise. Ofra Tirosh-Becker, a linguist by training, has been working on one aspect of this Karaite material for many years. Her doctoral dissertation – under the same name – was approved in 2000.  In it, she discusses as many quotations of rabbinic works in Karaite literature as she could find.

Our book is an expansion of this dissertation, both in terms of the breadth of the corpus of quotations in vol. 2 and in terms of the “philological and linguistic discussions,” in vol. 1. Tirosh-Becker discusses such questions as the ways in which Karaite scholars treated rabbinic material, whether or not they forged it for their own purposes (usually not, but there is one fake barayta forged by Sahel b. Masliah, mentioned on p. 106-107), and what they called it when they quoted it (usually, “the first ones said”, qâl âlâwalûn). She also devotes an extensive chapter to the question of the script employed in Karaite works: Karaite writers used both Hebrew and Arabic scripts, and wrote both languages in both scripts. This is of importance to the linguist, as many rabbinic sources are transliterated into Arabic script, allowing for the reconstruction of the reading tradition of certain words (e.g.: the reading ribbi is attested, as in all other rabbinic sources – and not rabbi; the letter ג is transliterated as jim and as ghain, depending on its positon in the word: gevul but reghilim).

Additionally, the Karaites employed some Hebrew diacritics in their Arabic to signify phonemes that do no exist in Arabic, like Hebrew vowels, and the rafe sign over the Arabic bah. But this is of importance to the cultural historian, too: why did Rabbinites use only Hebrew script, and Karaites Arabic? Was it an economic divide, or an ideological one? Tirosh-Becker discusses some previous research cursorily, but essentially leaves the field for others to till. She makes that work easier, too: a description of all the manuscripts employed is appended to vol. 1 (chapter 14), and it allows for a survey of material where interesting discussions of rabbinic material might show up. More such discussions abound – the chapters on nikkud (10) and cantillation marks (9) are fascinating as well. Tirosh-Becker also identifies errors that testify both to the oral recitation of the texts, as well as some errors that clearly point to a written provenance of the same texts (I wonder if Karaites stopped copying from the rabbinic texts themselves at some point and started copying from each other; we do know that many rabbinic texts were owned by the Karaite synagogue in Cairo – but the fake barayta was copied over and over as well).

But the great treasure of the book is vol. 2. Spanning over 800 pages, this volume  includes all the quotations of rabbinic literature in Karaite works Tirosh-Becker was able to find.  She was careful to leave the script as she found it – no transliterations for you! – with or without all the diacritics. In a feat of typesetting (it seems the book was created entirely on MS Word), she was able to reproduce the Hebrew diacritics, Arabic diacritics, and scripts accurately and precisely. She also points out where the quotations diverge from the MS chosen by “Maagarim” to represent the work. This is another area where a Talmudist should intervene, and check the quotations to see if they match any one text-type of the Mishnah.

Tirosh-Becker also publishes a large number of quotations from the previously-lost Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai. This is a real find, and the author promises an article soon with Menahem Kahana on their value (see pp. 112-115 for a discussion, and pp. 856-882 for the quotations). There is a disproportionately large amount of quotations from this Mekhilta in the corpus, pointing to its prominence in Babylonia (indeed, the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael was sometimes called “the Palestinian Mekhilta”). Many of these quotations are from parts of the Mekhilta not attested in known Genizah fragments, and were reconstructed from the fourteenth century Yemenite Midrash Hagadol twice: by D. Z. Hoffmann, and by J. N. Epstein. The latter was more conservative in his reconstructions, but several quotations discovered by Tirosh-Becker actually support Hoffmann’s more extensive reconstructions. However, these quotations, as far as I could see, are not marked in any way as derived from the Mekhilta, and in some cases (see e.g. pp. 859, 860-862) I’m curious why the author thinks they are from this work and not simply from one of the Talmuds, which contain similar material.

There is also one quotation from the lost Mekhilta to Deuteronomy (1124), a handful of quotations from the Palestinian Talmud (Talmud llshâm), and a long quotation with the story of the Oven of Aknai – a rallying point for laughing Karaites everywhere (1172-1175). The rest of the rabbinic library is proportionately represented too: Mishnah, Sifra, Sifre (Num and Deut), Bavli, Midrash Agada and even some Tosefta.

The unimaginatively named Rabbinic Excerpts in Medieval Karaite Literature is now another resource scholars of rabbinics must consult on matters of text, readings and reception history of the rabbinic text. But it is also a repository of a culture negotiating its relationship with revered predecessors represented in this world by bitter enemies; a story of cultural appropriation and literary positioning. In that sense, Tirosh-Becker’s book is a collection of artifacts still waiting to be read.