Rylands Karaite manuscripts: Jewish presence of the Ukrainian past

Among the many manuscripts bought from the famous rabbi and scholar Moses Gaster (1856-1939), the John Rylands Library holds a curious copy of a Karaite work.

Among the many manuscripts bought from the famous rabbi and scholar Moses Gaster (1856-1939), the John Rylands Library holds a curious copy of a Karaite work. It is a biblical commentary entitled Sefer ha-Osher (The Book of Riches) by Jacob ben Reuben, a twelfth-century Karaite sage. According to its title page the manuscript was written in Zolochiv (or Zolochev), today in Ukraine, in 1539.

Fig. 1: Title page in Gaster Hebrew MS 2020, flyleaf iia.

However, this title page was written by a later hand on a different type of paper, and added to the original manuscript at a later stage. The original manuscript, written in a Byzantine-style Hebrew script, is incomplete and a large part of the commentary on Genesis is missing from its beginning. Without any explicit clue in the original codex, it is not easy to establish the connection between the title page and the rest of the codex. Was it indeed written in 16th-century Zolochiv as the title page claims? Who are the Karaites and what do we know about their presence in what was then called Galicia but is today part of western Ukraine?

The Karaites are a Jewish sect that emerged during the 9th-10th centuries and that has a few thousand followers even today. The name Karaite or karaim (קראים) meaning “readers” derives from the Hebrew root ḲRʾ (קרא) meaning “to read”. The name may refer to the fact that the members of this sect considered the Hebrew Bible (or Miḳra (מקרא), from the same root) as the only source of religious law, and they rejected its rabbinical interpretations compiled in works such as the Mishnah and the Talmud. The Karaites’ main opponents were the Rabbanites (followers of the mainstream or Rabbinic Judaism), who accepted the authority of these rabbinical works.

One of the first centres of the Karaite movement was Jerusalem. After the city fell into the hands of the Crusaders in 1099, Jews – both Rabbanites and Karaites – had to leave. Many of them took up residence in the Byzantine Empire, and we have a large body of works that were written by Karaite scholars in Constantinople (modern Istanbul). One of these scholars was Jacob ben Reuben, who is the author of Sefer ha-Osher, the biblical commentary in our manuscript.

It is widely accepted that the Sefer ha-Osher was composed by Jacob ben Reuben, and most manuscript copies begin with “These are the words of Jacob ben Reuben…” (Figs. 2-3). However, according to the title page in our manuscript it was composed by Joseph ben Judah the Karaite. The manuscript does indeed mention a certain Joseph ben Judah at the end of the commentary on the Pentateuch (folio 55b, Fig. 4), but it is not clear at all what his connection to the work was. The person who added the title page may have taken the name from this page assuming that he was the author. Remember, the first few pages of the manuscript are missing, and the title page was added sometime later!

Fig. 4: The name Joseph ben Judah, Manchester, John Rylands Library, Gaster Hebrew MS 2020, folio 55b.

Joseph ben Judah is mentioned in another, early 17th-century copy of Sefer ha-Osher that was made by Joseph Tsadik ben Eliezer. Joseph Tsadik, who was a teacher and cantor in the Karaite community in Constantinople, attributes the work to Jacob ben Reuben but in the colophon at the end of the commentary on the Pentateuch, he says that he copied the text from an earlier manuscript made by Joseph ben Judah (Fig. 5)! Could there be a connection between the Rylands’ copy and the one made by Joseph Tsadik in Constantinople? Could Joseph Tsadik have used the Rylands copy or could they have been both copied from a third codex that was written by Joseph ben Judah?

Fig. 5: Colophon at the end of the commentary on the Pentateuch. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France
ms. hebr. 191, folio 95v. Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Curiously, there is a surprising similarity between the two manuscripts: at the discussion of the menorah, the seven-branched candelabra, there is some space within the text block left out by the scribe intentionally (Figs. 6-7).

A third manuscript helps solve the puzzle of this empty space (Fig. 8). It was left out either as a kind of negative image outlining the shape of the branches of the candelabra, or – as it is in this third manuscript – for an illustration to be added later.

Fig. 8: Depiction of the menorah. St Petersburg, Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, the Russian Academy of Sciences, MS. B 314, folio 44v. Credit: From the collection of the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences – Available online via “Ktiv” Project, The National Library of Israel.

The Karaites in Galicia (Western Ukraine)

As we have seen, we cannot entirely trust the information provided on the title page, and judging by the script and codicological features, our manuscript could have been written in late medieval Byzantium. However, since Karaites have been living in these parts of Europe since the Middle Ages, we cannot entirely exclude Eastern Europe as a possibly place of origin either.

According to recent studies, the first Karaites settled in Eastern Europe sometime during the Middle Ages, by the 13th-15th centuries at the latest. They established communities in Crimea, Lithuania, Poland, and Galicia what is today in Ukraine. By the 17th and 18th centuries, the centre of Karaite intellectual activities shifted from the once Byzantine territories further north to these regions.

The town of Zolochiv is located east of Lviv, Ukraine, in the region once called Galicia. It is not known when the first Karaite community was set up in Zolochiv. The first documents about a (possibly non-Karaite) Jew settling in Zolochiv are from the end of the sixteenth century. If the Rylands manuscript was indeed copied there, it would be the earliest witness of any Jewish presence in the town, which later became an important Jewish settlement (a shtetl).

Fig. 10: Censorship note at the end of the commentary. Gaster Hebrew MS 2020, folio 205a.

Apart from the title page that claims that the Rylands manuscript was copied in Zolochiv in 1539, there is puzzling note added at the end of the manuscript. It speaks about the presence of some additional material in the volume (which is not there anymore). The added material comprises mostly of calendrical calculations, but it also mentions a document that was sent by someone who travelled to Zolochiv with a “son of the king” (folio 205b; fig. 9). If you think you could interpret this note, please get in touch!

Fig. 9: Note by a later hand at the end of the manuscript. Gaster Hebrew MS 2020, folio 205b.

As a censorship note testifies, by 21 December 1837 the manuscript was even further north than Zolochiv, in a town called Babruysk (Бабруйск), today in Belarus (Fig. 10). It was checked by the local rabbi, which is not surprising since during the reign of Nicolas I (1825-1855), the rabbis were required to act as censors and check every book in their community.

The Karaites in Crimea

Another of the Rylands manuscripts can be linked to Eastern European Karaites with more certainty. It is a Bible produced sometime in the 18th or 19th centuries in Crimea (Fig. 11). It does not have a colophon or a title page, but its language is revealing: it contains sections of the Hebrew Bible translated into the northern Crimean dialect of the Karaim language (Gaster Hebrew MS 170).

Fig. 11: Beginning of the Book of Genesis; Crimea, 18th or 19th century. Gaster Hebrew MS 170, folio 1a.

Karaim is a Turkic language that the Karaites of Crimea, Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania have developed in their interactions with the rest of the population. Karaim comprises several related dialects most of which are extinct today.

Based on linguistic and historical evidence, some argue that the Karaites arrived in Crimea even before the thirteenth century, and the first written translations of parts of the Bible could have appeared as early as the fifteenth century.

There are Karaites in Ukraine even today, and they are recognised as one of the country’s smallest indigenous peoples, alongside the local Rabbanite Jewish group called Krymchaks (meaning “inhabitants of Crimea”). These two manuscripts from the Rylands Gaster collection show only a tiny snippet of the long and colourful history of the Jews in Ukraine that stretches from the Middle Ages up to the current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.

More Karaite manuscripts in our collection:

Gaster Hebrew MS 146 Gaster Hebrew MS 1324

Gaster Hebrew MS 1326 Gaster Hebrew MS 2108/7

Gaster Hebrew MS 2109/1 Gaster Hebrew MS 2109/2

Gaster Hebrew MS Add 35

For more Hebrew manuscripts, go to Manchester Digital Collections.

Further readings:

Miller, Philip E. “Evidence of a Previously Undocumented Karaite Presence in Galicia.” Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 17 (1989): 36-42.

Karaite Judaism: A Guide to its History and Literary Sources, edited by Meira Polliack. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Kizilov, Mikhail. The Karaites of Galicia: An Ethnoreligious Minority among the Ashkenazim, the Turks, and the Slavs 1772-1945. Leiden: Brill, 2009.

Jankowski, Henryk. “Karaim and Krymchak.” In Handbook of Jewish Languages, edited by Lily Kahn and Aaron D. Rubin, 451-488. Leiden: Brill, 2016.

Curator of Global Manuscripts, John Rylands Research Institute and Library, specialised in Hebrew manuscripts, but enthusiastic about all book cultures.

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