Avi Garelick

The Uses and Abuses of History vol. 4844: Abraham Firkovich

ISSUE 41 | INFAMY | JUN 2014

There is an old conflict in the sectarian history of Judaism, between Rabbanites and Karaites. In its basic form, the conflict is about legal revelation and the enduring quality of authoritative statements of law. The Rabbanite claim is that along with the revelation of the written Law comes an oral Law of equivalent stature; the Karaites say that the written Law is pre-eminent. This polemic was the motor for centuries of creativity on both sides in the arena of religious thought.

The conflict undergoes a fundamental change of character in 19th century Eastern Europe. Karaism becomes less of a scriptural religious project and takes on ethno-nationalist dimensions. Within a drama of Jewish identity staged by the Russian empire, the Karaite question is framed in a new way: are they Jewish, or are they not? The answer was put forth by one Abraham Firkovich, and supported by years of scrupulous archival research: We are not Jewish, for our people were exiled from the land of Israel so early, we literally missed the crucifixion. The Russian empire subsequently relieved the Karaites of their Jewish status and lifted all restrictions against them.

The Karaites of Poland and Crimea, as described by travelers.

There is ample record of Polish travelers visiting Crimean Karaite cities and making observations about the exotic dress and behavior of the people they saw. The Karaites sat quietly in coffeehouses, along with Greeks and Tatars, dressing like the Tatars, with “strong,” “aquiline” Eastern features. They exhibited positive moral characteristics, and were proud, honest, and diligent people, contrasting sharply with their Rabbanite brethren, who were corrupted by the Talmud.

For example: “…this man with the black beard, black eyes, thick black eyebrows and large aquiline nose, those women with physiognomies and features of the East… presented the image of Chopin, depicted somewhere in Syria. It would be enough… to give you the image of Rebecca while giving water to the camels of Abraham’s servant” (Mikhail Kizilov, “The Crimean Karaites in the Portrayal of the 19th-Century Polish Travellers,” Studia Orientalia vol. 95). Look at that biblical imagery of noblesse! Some travelers stirred up rumors that no Karaite had ever committed a crime or even been tried in court, not in centuries. In one of his own books, Abraham Firkovich describes the visit of an important Frenchman to Chufut Kale in 1834; his casual inquiry into the people’s origins was met with a muddled response. Firkovich was very embarrassed.

Who was Abraham Firkovich?

Abraham Firkovich


Abraham Firkovich was a Karaite Jew, an emancipator of his people and allegedly a prolific forger. He was a member of a marginalized minority community ostracized from a marginalized minority community, born in 1787 into a region of uncertain state control. Lutsk is a city (in present-day Ukraine) which was at the time of his birth under the sovereignty of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth—but not for long! Within the first eight years of his life, it was to be annexed by the Russian Empire, in the third (and definitive) partition of Poland. The nearest Karaite community, in Halicz, which had strong marital connections to the community of Lutsk, sat on the other side of a brand-new Russian-Austrian border. The question of national and communal borders, and what an imperial power can do to them—that is, the political/collective dimension of one’s existence—asserted itself to Firkovich at an early age.

In his thirties, in concert with a general depopulation of Lutsk due to a destructive fire, he moved to Eupatoria, effectively the capital city of the Karaite stronghold of Crimea. Crimea had been subject to flows of Karaite immigration from Istanbul since the Second Crusade in 1203, and it maintained close relations with the city, both in religious authority and economic co-dependency. When the Karaite community of Istanbul deteriorated, it was understood to be the responsibility of the Crimean Karaites to support it.

Firkovich spent a stormy two years as a public figure in Istanbul, serving as cantor, ritual slaughterer, and teacher, before leaving (or being banished?) apparently due to personal conflict with the communal leadership.

Then he traveled. Over the course of several decades he scoured Crimea, the Caucasus, Turkey, Egypt, and the Near East, seeking evidence to support his theories on the antiquity of Karaite settlement in Eastern Europe.

He spent the latter part of his life in Chufut-Kale (translated as Jew fortress), a medieval Karaite mountain city of mysterious origins. Bustling and beautiful at the beginning of his life, it had been subject to desertion and ruin long before his death there at the age of 87.


All western Karaites were bilingual. They needed to know the dominant, vernacular language in order to be able to communicate with government officials, employers, or trade partners. They also had to know their own mother tongue, called Karaim, which was an ethnolect of Crimean Tatar. Firkovich was raised speaking its Lithuanian dialect. This dialect would have been mutually intelligible with Turkish, had there been any Turkish-speakers in Lithuania to try to talk to (Karaites in Crimea, especially during Ottoman rule, were therefore naturally at home in their surroundings). Western and Crimean Karaites shared this stateless mother tongue, but no second language (only men of God or educated people shared knowledge of Hebrew). Meanwhile, Western Karaites and Polish Rabbinic Jews did share second languages—Polish, Hebrew if applicable—without a common mother tongue. Karaites did not know Yiddish, for the most part, nor Yiddish-speakers Karaim.

By the height of his career Firkovich had command of Russian and Hebrew, as well as three similar Turkic languages (Turkic Karaim, Crimean Tatar, and Ottoman Turkish). Strangely, it appears that he also knew spoken Yiddish, and used some version of it as a code in his correspondence with his teacher Mordecai Sultanski. The libelous disintegration of that relationship partly precipitated Firkovich’s move to Crimea. He wrote letters as well as scholarly books in Hebrew, an eccentric choice of language for works that aim to be of interest to a European academic community. Indeed, his great work Abne Zikkaron (Stones of Memory) was initially rejected by the Russian Academy of Sciences because it was written in Hebrew. His impractical decision to write in Hebrew probably carried the influence of his exhaustive work with Hebrew-language scribal activity that stretched out across centuries. He immersed himself in the study of Hebrew scribal paratexts in search of the national secrets that had been carefully preserved by those scribes. By choosing to write in the holy tongue, Firkovich was addressing a literate elite that communicated across history, that had eternity in mind.

Russia’s Jewish Question.

By the turn of the 19th century, the expanding Russian empire was the accidental sovereign of a great number of Jews. After annexing so much territory from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire, they literally had more Jews than they knew what to do with, because Jews were traditionally not allowed to be part of Russia. The Russian brand of antisemitism combined indirect knowledge of actually existing Jewish people with a zealous theological antipathy towards the Jewish religion. In short, according to the Orthodox church, the problem was twofold: 1) They killed Christ, 2) they had been perverted by the nonsense Talmud. For this reason, the czarist government proceeded to severely restrict their freedom of movement and to impose onerous taxes and long terms of military service. Fine. But what about the Karaites? Given their station as the noble foil for the diseased Talmudic Judaism, it was not at all clear that they deserved the same treatment. Karaites in both Poland and Crimea had periodically been offered privileges (there is some evidence that in the early seventeenth century the Crimean Karaites were given exclusive right to maintain apiaries, thus cornering the honey market). In 1795, a delegation of Karaites successfully petitioned the Russian government for exemption from the onerous tax burdens of Jewishness. But in 1827, new legislation subjected both Karaites and Rabbanites to military conscription. The Russian approach was haphazard, and clearly confused about what Karaites really were.

Enter Firkovich. In 1839, the governor general of Novorossiya and Crimea approached Simha Babovich, the head of the Karaite Spiritual Council and wealthiest guy around (whose kids Firkovich had tutored on a trip to Israel nine years previously, a trip which initiated his interest in manuscripts) and asked: what is the deal with the Karaites? What is their character, what are their occupations, what is their historical origin, time of separation from the Rabbanites, religious differences from them? Firkovich presented a plan for historical research, got a travel budget, and off he went.

His research.

There are two main types of artifact that Firkovich sought on his travels: tombstone epitaphs, and scribal notes on sacred documents. Graveyards provide their own kind of historical map through records left of the deceased. In Rabbanite and Karaite textual culture, sacred documents were stored indefinitely in archives, or genizoth, a second kind of graveyard. So Firkovich would approach Jewish communities, Karaite and Rabbanite, and bargain with or flatter them in order to gain access to their synagogue attics. There is some measure of irony in Firkovich’s search through libraries of carefully copied texts for some evidence as to the lives of the people writing them. Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink. The desubjectivized, deterritorialized writing of a scribe preserves the precious sacred text and obscures the world beyond the pen, denying historical consciousness. So Firkovich searched for writing with a territorial, descriptive residue. I am writing from this place and at this time, or even better, I am writing on behalf of these people, with this hallowed past… What he found was that a few zealous scribes, sprinkled amongst centuries, kept a treasured hidden secret of the community’s sacred origins, one murmured of amongst the people. (Glimmering fragments of these unrecorded legends are strewn throughout Karaite culture, e.g. the dessert named hazar qatmagi, or Khazarian halva—a dessert that intimates stories of an ancient kingdom).

The Madjalis Document, one of his great discoveries.

A scroll of sacred writings (the Book of Esther) discovered by Firkovich in the North Caucasus. 55 x 15 cm, rolled around a wooden stick, yellowish parchment of an unidentified animal, greasy, thick, rough with “an unusual structure.” Ink is black and glossy. “Perhaps the skin was prepared unskillfully in a place with no tradition of parchment production, or the craftsman did not have any good animal skin at his disposal” (Tapani Harviainen, "The Epigraph of the Derbent Torah and the Madjalis Scroll Discovered by Abraham Firkovich in 1840," Studia Orientalia vol. 95). At the end of the scroll there is a colophon, with three levels of scribal attribution.

  1. Isaiah the son of Elijah, a Karaite from Madjalis, in the year 5273 (= AD 1513). Found an old scroll in the hands of a Mar Joseph, near Derbend, which had been copied from the end of an older Torah scroll in Hamadan. Copied it for himself.
  2. Abraham the son of Mar Simcha, from the city of Sephard in the Khazar kingdom, 1682 years into our exile, 4746 (= AD 986). Was sent by the Khazarian prince to the lands of Persia and Medea to purchase ancient books. In Shushan/Hamadan found a Torah scroll with these journeys inscribed at the end, of the son of the inventor of Hebrew vocalization. They wouldn’t sell it so he had to transcribe a copy.
  3. Jehuda son of Moses the Vocalizer, of the East, who traces his lineage back to the exile of King Hoshea of Israel, in the 1300th year of exile (= AD 604). Tells a legend about the Israelite exiles joining forces with the army of the Persian king Cambyses to defeat an invading army of woman soldiers led by one Queen Thalmira. Cambyses gives those Israelites the rights to settle her conquered territory, thus explaining their antique settlement in what is now known as Crimea.

This is an elaborate document, full of details both wonderful and trivial.


The effects of Firkovich’s research were swift and decisive. In 1863, Russia decreed the Karaites to be not-Jewish, and to be due all the rights of citizenship granted to Christians.

But winning isn’t everything. Albert Harkavy, and other guardians of good history against the impostor Firkovich, demonstrated the inconsistencies of his narrative. How could there be Turkic-sounding names recorded in Crimea in a time before Turkic people had settled there? The Madjalis Document had sketchily disappeared and then reappeared in the Firkovich collection, as though there was something to hide about it. The man was clearly a liar, and distorted true history to promote his people’s political interests! After Harkavy, further evidence mounts: the Firkovich narrative is full of inadequacies and contradictions. It does not hold up under the scrutiny of critical historical inquiry.

Tapani Harviainen, writing after the Firkovich Collections in Leningrad were opened to non-Soviets in 1989, observes that there is no case of forgery that can be confirmed as the work of Firkovich himself. Not to say it didn’t happen, but he proposes two alternative possibilities: 1) Forgeries performed by the men who sold Firkovich their antiquities, in order to increase prices. 2) Just a gradual accretion of local folklore into text, by whichever scribe allowed himself license to elaborate.

There are stark differences between Firkovich’s research and earlier Karaite histories which engage with Jewish literary history and make claims for Karaite legitimacy based on points about the law and revelation. The power of Firkovich’s historical claims comes instead from post-biblical legends of ancient heroism. He is not adding a new entry to the old disputes on dimensions of legalism. More like other nationalist mythologers of his day, Firkovich is promoting a Karaite Folk culture.

(He was a documented inspiration to the Polish-Lithuanian nationalist poet Wladyslaw Syrokomla to whom he spun legends of the Karaite knights who served as a guard for the Lithuanian grand dukes of centuries past.)

Strangely, the whole thing ends with him estranged from the Karaite world and esteemed by scholars and tourists, living like a biblical patriarch (see portrait) in that crumbling mountain city and impressing visitors. He is alienated from his own community even as he becomes the mouthpiece for their collective fantasy of origin. He submits his findings hastily without consulting Babovich, Babovich cuts off his funding, he gains a reputation for rash self-promotion. As he takes on the mantle of the collective, condensing the type of the Karaite as beautiful archaic oddity, he becomes more alone.

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