One of the best-known Eastern European Karaite figures was Avraham Firkovich (1786-1874). Born in Luck, Poland, to a simple family, he was discovered by a Karaite chacham who took him under his tutelage. He eventually became a prodigious writer, manuscript collector and traveler.
In the spring of 1864, Firkovich found himself in the Samaritan community of Mt. Gerizim in the city of Nablus, known in Hebrew as Shchem. Firkovich was on a mission to buy as many handwritten manuscripts as he could get his hands on. He had his eye on the 1,300 priceless manuscripts housed in the Samaritan archives at this ancient and sacred site. Aside from the substantial sum offered by Firkovich to buy them (40,000 grush or 2,000 rubles), the latter also concluded a treaty of sorts that spoke of the “common origin of the two peoples” and sought to cement it by instituting a seemingly odd commitment to praying with a minyan.
This strange episode and a reproduction of the contract signed between the two parties can be found in an article published in the Journal Studia Orientalia (1997, vol. 82, pp. 85-98), titled “Samaritan and Karaim Commitments to Minyan, Abraham Firkovich and the Poor of Trakai” by Tapai Harvianinen, Haseeb Shehadeh and Harry Halen.
The author’s note: “It is surprising to note that he attempted to introduce the minyan among the Samaritans of Nablus and (later) the Karaim of Lithuania. His motives for such an attempt are unknown to us from the material that is in our disposal.”
They continue: “At present we know on the basis of new material that there was a religious aspect to Firkovich’s acquisition; this can be referred to as the Samaritan’s commitment to ‘minyan.’ Needless to say, such a commitment rather than an agreement remained only on paper. The text is to be found in MS Sam XIV 43 in the Samaritan collection at the Firkovich Collection in St. Petersburg.”
The MS consists of two pages written mainly in Arabic. The first page (translated into English) contains the original version of the commitment. This version was most likely written by the Samaritan High Priest at that time, Jacob ben Aaron (1840-1916) in the summer of 1864 without seal imprints. The second page with slight but numerous variants was copied by Firkovich himself in square letters. Firkovich did not know the Samaritan script well and copied it with help from Samaritans and Karaites in Jerusalem.
בברית הר סיני וחקי הר חוריב אנחנו בני ישראל שכוני עיר שכם
בהתאספו ראשי העם כרותים אמונה ובאים על החתום על שטר התקנה הזאת להקים את התנאים האלה המבוארים בלשון ערבי….
There follows the Arabic text.
Followed by the signatories:
יצחק בן יוסף
ישראל בן עבד חנונה
יעקב בן שלבי
מרחיב בן יעקב
מרחיב בן אברהם
אברהם בן אב סכוה
ישמעאל בן אברהם
יעקב בן אהרן הכהן
עמרם בן שלמה הכהן
פנחס בן יצחק הכהן
ישראל בן ישמעאל
עבד חנונה בן ישמעאל
(By the way, I can’t help but marvel at some of these names; Yishmael is interesting but not unusual but Shlomo?! One must recall that Samaritans—unlike Karaites—reject the legitimacy of the Davidic dynasty and that their canon does not include any of the books of the Prophets or Scripture.)
English translation of the contract:
By the Mt. Sinai covenant and the decrees of Mount Horeb, we, the Israelites, the inhabitants of the town of Nablus in the gathering of the leaders of the community, are making a covenant and appending our signets to this document of regulation in order to fulfill those conditions that are clarified in the Arabic language. It is the eve of the blessed Tuesday, the 28th day of the 12th month of the year 1280 n (4-5 June 1864 a.d.) in the presence of his excellency, the Chief Rabbi (!) of our respected brethren, rabbi אלחכם Abraham Firkovich, in the town of Nablus while meeting his excellency and in the footsteps of negotiation and listening to his magnificent spiritual counsel. All we who append our names and signets below have agreed to come to the House of God (synagogue) intended for prayers in order to perform the ritual prayer twice a day in the evening and in the morning in accordance with our duty and the practice of our fathers of long standing. And we will not be restrained from doing so without a clear excuse. And for this agreement of ours we have composed this as notification of what we have agreed upon in the presence of his excellency referred to on the date mentioned above. We ask God to give us success (in achieving) what he chooses and wishes and may God’s peace rest upon Moses b Amram.
It is well and if one or two persons of the community come (to the synagogue) then it will not be necessary for the priest to pray unless an assembly of ten persons at least (is present). With less than ten he (the priest), ought not to perform public prayers, and upon this agreement was reached.
Additional signatories transliterated from the Arabic…
It’s important to point out that in this move, Firkovich did not have the backing of the Karaite religious leaders of his time. In fact, even though there was some communication, and also degrees of influence, between Karaites and Samaritans since the Middle Ages, many (if not most) Karaites did not consider the Samaritans Jews (neither did the Samaritans consider themselves Jews but rather Israelites). The historian Dan Shapira aptly demonstrated that Firkovich scarcely believed himself that the origins of the Crimean Karaites were from Samaria, but merely used it as a ploy in order to ingratiate himself with the Samaritan elders, and thereby gain the valuable collection of documents that he coveted.
The author is an author and an independent researcher of Jewish history and can be reached at [email protected]