Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: From “The Mantle of Elijah”

It was estimated that in 1942 about one hundred Karaite families were living in the United States—a remnant of a once flourishing Jewish “heresy.” The movement itself will soon disappear entirely, if it has not done so already. But it will have left behind it a history and a body of writing of unusual interest.

The origins of Karaism are still relatively obscure. It rose in the 8th century C.E. in the Near East and flourished in the two following centuries; thereafter its vitality ebbed, but slowly, and there was significant Karaite activity down through our own time. It is possible that Karaism had its roots in older heterodox movements (the Sadducees, the Essenes, etc.); it was certainly much affected by the rise of Islam and by the emergence of Moslem theology and scholasticism. The Karaites rejected the rabbinic (Rabbanite) tradition as codified in the Talmud and aimed to “reform” Judaism by returning afresh to Scripture; in this, their attitude paralleled that of the later Christian Reformation. They also laid greater stress on ascetic practices, and were more inclined to a Messianic nationalism than rabbinic Jews.

Despite their revolt against the Oral Law and their adherence only to the Written Law, the Karaites soon developed a tradition of their own which was no less stringent and complete than the rabbinic one. Some later Karaite thinkers, while still condemning Rabbanism, nevertheless relied freely on the work of its authors, particularly Maimonides. One such was Elijah Basyatchi, born in Adrianople about 1420, and author of a code of Karaite law entitled The Mantle of Elijah (in Hebrew, Adderet Eliyahu) .

The following excerpt from The Mantle of Elijah is condensed from the section printed in the recent Karaite Anthology, translated and edited by Leon Nemoy, and published by Yale University Press under the Louis M. Rabinowitz Foundation grant as Volume VIII of the invaluable Yale Judaica Series.—Ed.

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“The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul” (Ps. 19:8) to the sublime place from which it had been hewn, so that it might enter the palace of divine wisdom and so that knowledge of God might be upon the earth and God’s glory fill the world. This takes place in three ways: through ethical qualities, practical ordinances, and rational ordinances.

2. Ethical qualities may be learned from the stories of the Patriarchs who are mentioned in the Law, as well as from the tales of the Prophets, the kings, and the wars recounted in the books of prophecy, since all these accounts induce a man to arrange his personal affairs according to the politic order.

3. This is the reason why the Giver of the Law placed at its beginning the tales of the Patriarchs, and it is to this perfection that King David referred when he said: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple (Ps. 19:8); for by means of these tales any simple person may learn, so far as it is possible for his natural ability, to acquire the perfection of ethical qualities, in order that he may do the proper thing at the proper time for the proper reason and in the proper place.

4. These tales are called the testimony of the Lord because the prophetic tales mentioned by the Prophets, and especially the patriarchal tales mentioned by Moses, were all or most of them given by the Lord to the Prophets with His testimony as to their truth, and they recorded them in the books of prophecy.

5. The reason that the Law does not prescribe for us the observance of ethical qualities in the same admonitory manner as it does the practical and rational ordinances is that had the Law prescribed these for us in the same fashion as the other ordinances, we would have found ourselves everlastingly in sin, since ethical qualities are characteristics of the soul which . . . is joined to matter—i.e., to the human body—which is constantly subject to change. For this reason we would have been everlastingly in a state of sin, and there would have been no man on earth righteous enough to do only good and never to sin.

6. Moreover, this would also have caused men to make light of other fundamental ordinances, because as a man would observe that he is unable to fulfill perfectly most of the ethical ordinances imposed upon him, he would inevitably grow careless about all ordinances, including the fundamental commandments. This would be as if a master were to give many orders to his servant and tell him that if he did not fulfill all of them perfectly he would be flogged unmercifully; now this servant, observing that he could not possibly perform them all and knowing that his master would therefore assuredly flog him, of necessity would lose all hope and would not carry out even one of his master’s orders.

7. That is why the Prophet has said: Even thus shall the children of Israel eat their bread unclean among the nations (Ezek. 4:13), and that is why scholars have said that the ordinances of the Law were imposed upon men according to their ability to understand and perform them and that when we do not know an ordinance perfectly we must fulfill it approximately. It was therefore a wise procedure on the part of our divine Law to set forth the politic wisdom in the form of tales, and not in the form of commands.

8. Moreover, the opinions of men are more likely to be fortified in fulfilling this politic ordinance by the method of tales, for they observe that so-and-so among the Patriarchs had acted thus-and-so with such-and-such results and are guided by this in their own actions. In fact, for this very reason even some practical ordinances have been set forth by way of tales and stories mentioned in Scripture.

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9. The practical ordinances are ordinances like: And the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath (Exod. 21:16); And thou shalt sacrifice the Passover to the Lord, thy God (Deut. 16:2); Ye shall surely destroy all the places (Deut. 12:2); In booths shall ye dwell seven days (Lev. 23:42)—in general, all ordinances making some action obligatory. These practical ordinances are the road and the entrance to the reception of the rational ordinances, and scholars have said that the practical ordinances are the preparation for, and the introduction to, the rational ordinances. They said also that the excellence of the ordinances imposed by the human intellect requires their being obligatory, while the obligatory nature of the ordinances imposed by the Law requires their being excellent. They said further that each practical ordinance has a reason and a cause appropriate to its own character, and the fact that we are unable to learn the reasons for some ordinances is solely because of the insufficiency of our knowledge. In the case of some ordinances, however, the Law itself explains the reason for them, e.g., the ordinance of the Sabbath is explained by For in six days did the Lord make the heavens and the earth (Exod. 20:11); this tells us also of the incipience of the world and the eternal existence of the Lord. Likewise, the ordinance commanding the eating of unleavened bread, bitter herbs, and the flesh of the Passover lamb is explained by their being a memorial of the exodus from Egypt, which also tells us of the existence of the Lord and His care of what exists underneath the heavens. . . . By means of the practical ordinances man enlightens the eyes of his heart and purifies his soul of all shortcomings, so that it becomes as spotless as a polished mirror in which to behold the Lord in the land of life.

10. The rational ordinances are the fundamental ordinances established and planted in man’s heart, as King David expresses it: The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart (Ps. 19:9); i.e., they are planted and rooted in the heart, which is the fountainhead of wisdom, as it is written: In the heart of him who has discernment rests wisdom (Prov. 14:33), and again: The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all the inward parts (Prov. 20:27).

11. These ordinances are known to man as a result of mental consideration, which is the reason why they were known prior to the revelation of the Law, from the time of the Patriarch Abraham onward, as it is written of him: and he kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws (Gen. 26:5). This is true also of the Ten Commandments, excepting the one ordaining the Sabbath. However, the truth is that the mystery of the Sabbath also is a matter of reason.

12. You must know also that if the believer in the divine Law takes these rational ordinances to heart by way of example from the deeds of the Biblical personages, they are bound to be established and planted in his heart more firmly than if he had received them only by way of tradition. However, the proper thing for every believer in the Law is to receive these ordinances first by tradition, and only afterward, with the help of his divine Rock, to seek the knowledge of the cause for every ordinance, according to its interpretations, particulars, and Biblical examples. . . . If he were to endeavor first to learn the reasons and the Biblical examples for every commandment, and accept it by tradition only afterward, he would be like a man who refuses to eat bread until he learns how it was sown, how it was harvested, how it was ground, and how it was baked, and who would consequently go hungry a long time.

13. The root and basis of these rational commandments is the existence and oneness of the Lord, and the denial of His corporeality, which is the reason why the Ten Commandments begin with I am the Lord, thy God (Exod. 20:2); for the relation of this commandment . . . which affirms the existence of God to the others is like that of the substance to the accidences which it carries.

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14. The ordinances are also divided into two other groups, the positive and the negative. Examples of positive ordinances are: And thou shalt sacrifice the Passover unto the Lord, thy God (Deut. 16:2); And thou shalt keep the feast of weeks (Deut. 16:10); And thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart (Deut. 6:5); that they shall make for themselves fringes (Num. 15:38); and thou shalt make a parapet for thy roof (Deut. 22:8). And it is to these positive ordinances that King David alluded in saying: the ordinances of the Lord are true, they are righteous altogether (Ps. 19:10). The Rabbanites have made a reckoning of these positive ordinances and they say that there are two hundred and forty-eight in all.

15. Examples of negative ordinances are: Thou shalt have no other gods before me (Exod. 20:3); Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain (Exod. 20:7); Thou shalt eat no leaven with it (Deut. 16:3); Thou shalt not carry tales among thy people (Lev. 19:16). The Rabbanites have made a reckoning of these also and have found them to be three hundred and sixty-five, and it is to them that King David alluded when he said: The fear of God is clean, enduring forever (Ps. 19:10), for the word fear cannot refer, to anything except negative ordinances.

16. The positive ordinances are the path and the point of contact for the negative ones, which are the fundamental ones; for we find positive ordinances the essence of which is negative. For example, And the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath (Exod. 31:16) implies the obligation to rest, and resting is not action but lack of action. So also: ye shall afflict your souls (Lev. 16: 29) implies “ye shall not give yourselves the pleasure of eating and drinking”; and sanctify yourselves (Lev. 11:44) implies “ye shall not defile yourselves.” . . .

18. The negative ordinances are more stringent, as commands of the Lord, than the positive ones, because he who does what he had been commanded not to do, yet does it notwithstanding, causes greater wrath on the part of the Lord than he who is too lazy to do what he had been ordered to do. The latter, in not performing what he had been commanded to do, may have been prevented by some restraining cause, whether a matter of time or place. On the other hand, he who does that which he had been ordered not to do, yet does it nevertheless, is deliberately rebelling against the intent of Him who had issued that ordinance. That is why the extreme punishment of being cut off [i.e., excommunicated] is, under the Law, imposed mostly for violation of negative ordinances and only in a few instances for violation of positive ordinances, like those of circumcision and Passover, the violator of which draws the punishment of being cut off only because these two ordinances are among the original fundamental ordinances of the Jewish faith.

19. However, we find one ordinance which embraces all the positive ordinances together and involves the punishment of being cut off, namely, Cursed be he that confirms not the words of this law (Deut. 27: 26). Cursed be he implies the divine punishment of being cut off by way of death, since the crimes referred to are committed in secret, and in fact the several occurrences of Cursed be he in this section of Deuteronomy refer to secret crimes, inasmuch as transgressors who lie with an animal or a mother-in-law or a sister, or accept a bribe, act in secret. In the case of crimes openly committed, human law exacts its due from the perpetrators, but where they act in secret their punishment consists in their being cut off by the hand of God.

20. You must know also that all ordinances fall into three other categories; first, those fulfilled by way of the belief of one’s heart, i.e., the commands of the Lord which are planted in the human heart; second, those fulfilled by word of mouth; and third, those fulfilled by action, as it is written: For this word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, to do it (Deut. 30:14). All, however, are also meant for the heart, since the heart is the principal thing, as it is written: for the Lord searches all hearts and understands all the imaginations of the thoughts (I Chron. 28:9); thou didst well that it was in thy heart (I Kings 8:18); but the Lord looks into the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). . . .

25. You must know also that there are many ordinances which are not expressly mentioned in the Law but which issue from the validity of other ordinances or from the accounts of prophetic utterances, and their excellence requires their being obligatory. These ordinances are derived by means of analogy, in several ways, as is evident from the words of scholars.

26. The first variety: when an ordinance is found in the Law in one place and its precise meaning is explained in another place, either in the Law or in the prophetic books, we assume that the explanation of the ordinance as first formulated is the same as that found in the other place. For example, with regard to the verse If brethren should dwell together, and one of them should die (Deut 25:5), one might be in doubt as to whether brethren signifies brothers by blood or brothers by common family. Now from the story of Ruth the Moabite, we learn that redemption of the deceased brother’s wife and property belonged in Ruth’s case to a brother by family. Since the Law forbids the application of this ordinance to brothers by blood, we therefore interpret If brethren should dwell together to refer only to brothers by family. Likewise we assume that the verse Thou shalt not take a wife in addition to her sister, to make enmity (Lev. 18:18), refers to sisters by religion, and not by blood, in accordance with what scholars have explained in this matter.

27. The second variety: from the rule governing the particular we learn the rule governing the general. For example, the verse Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together (Deut. 22:10) forbids the combination of two specific kinds of animals, one of which is clean and the other unclean; it also mentions plowing, which is a particular kind of work used here in lieu of all kinds of work. We conclude therefore that . . . unclean and clean animals of any species whatever may not be used jointly in the same work, of whatever type it may be.

28. The third variety is called comparative analogy or, as the scholars term it, “equal nature.” For example, it is written: Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy father’s brother (Lev. 18:14), from which we learn by way of comparative analogy that the same prohibition applies also to the mother’s brother.

29. The fourth variety is analogy leading from the minor to the major, for the Law sometimes forbids a minor thing without prohibiting the corresponding major, the illegality of which is therefore derived by way of this variety of analogy. For example, it is written: Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy son’s daughter, or thy daughter’s daughter (Lev. 18:10), but Scripture does not expressly forbid marrying the daughter herself. That the latter, too, is forbidden we learn by arguing from the minor to the major, i.e., if the daughter’s daughter is forbidden, how much more so the daughter herself. . . .

31. The sixth variety is logical preference, as for example, the prohibition of marrying the step-brothers of the father, which Rabbi Jeshuah ben Judah forbade by way of logical preference, i.e., preference demanded by both reason and common knowledge. This applies to cases for which we find no pertinent ordinance written in the Law, nor one that might be derived by analogy from another written ordinance; in such cases reason supplies the pertinent ordinance, whether permissive or prohibitive. Most of the laws governing inheritance are derived by way of logical preference, as will be explained in the proper-place.

32. The seventh variety is analogy based upon similarity, i.e., what is prohibited to one of two of a kind, is forbidden to the other also, as required by both reason and common knowledge. For example, if marrying the daughter of the father’s wife is forbidden because two closely related persons may not be married to two other closely related persons, then likewise wherever the marriage of two close relatives to two other close relatives is involved, the same prohibition should apply.

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33. These are the varieties of analogy used by scholars in investigating the laws of the ordinances. There are, however, other ordinances in the observance of which we have been raised since the days of our fathers, and their fathers before them, and which are a matter of custom with us. They are not recorded in the Law and have become as second nature with us; nevertheless, they flow in a sense from the intent of prophetic utterances. Such ordinances are called by scholars “the burden of inheritance” or “tradition”; for example, the slaughtering of animals which must be performed by means of a slaughtering knife and by proper cutting of the prescribed parts of the body; the sanctification of the new month which must be determined by the appearances of the New Moon, even though this latter may be derived also by analogy.

34. The learned Rabbi Tobiah states that he who says that there are traditions which have no support in Scripture does so merely because of his insufficient comprehension of the particular ordinance. That is why scholars have said that all ordinances are valid, whether written in Scripture or derived by way of analogy or transmitted by tradition; and they have said also, “The observance of Scripture rests on three things: the written text, analogy, the ‘burden of inheritance.’”

35. Karaite tradition, however, is not like the tradition believed in by the Rabbanites, since the latter add to and subtract from Scripture and say that tradition overcomes the written Biblical text, notwithstanding that Scripture says expressly: Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you (Deut. 4:2). If their intention be merely to interpret the prophetic utterances, it is not seemly for them to say that tradition overcomes the written Biblical text. For example, with regard to the ordinance Forty strifes may he give him (Deut. 25:3), they say that the meaning is forty less one. They say likewise that the husband should inherit his wife’s property, referring to the verse And he shall inherit her (Num. 27:11); a few among them say that this is a matter of mere assumption. Yet it is evident from Scripture that this verse deals only with hereditary landed property, since it is written: If a man should die, having left no son, ye shall transfer his landed property to his daughter. And if he have no daughter, ye shall give his landed property to his brothers. And if he have no brothers, ye shall give his landed property to the brothers of his father. And if his father have no brothers, ye shall give his landed property to his nearest kinsman, from among his family, and he shall inherit her (Num. 27:8-11); they thus clearly added to Scripture an ordinance of their own when they said that the husband should inherit his wife’s estate. Karaite tradition, on the other hand, is such as is acknowledged by all Israel, and it does not stand up against that which is recorded in the Writ of divine truth; and our scholars have said that every tradition which does not stand up against Scripture, does not add to what is stated in Scripture, is acknowledged by all Israel, and has indirect support in Scripture, is to be called genuine tradition, and we must accept it. They said further that most of the Mishnah and the Talmud comprises genuine utterances of our forefathers, and Rabbi Nissi ben Noah has said that our people are obligated to study the Mishnah and the Talmud.

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