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Cambridge University Library

Q&A Wednesday: Chronicling Karaites with Nadia Vidro

T-S AS 158.147
T-S AS 158.147 (recto)
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Nadia Vidro
Wed 16 Jun 2021

Nadia, which fragment are you working on today?

I am working on T-S AS 158.147. It’s a fragment of a Karaite calendar chronicle for the end of 410–418 AH (1020–1028 CE). I’m looking at it as part of the project ‘Qaraite and Rabbanite calendars: origins, interaction, and polemic’, funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation. It is a joint project between UCL and LMU (Munich).

What are the key things that tell you it’s Karaite and not Rabbanite?

Since at least the end of the 9th century, Rabbanites have used a calendar based on calculation. In contrast, Karaites regulated their calendar by the observation of natural phenomena. They observed the first appearance of the lunar crescent in order to begin a new month, and they observed the ripening of the barley crops in Palestine in order to decide whether to begin a new year or to intercalate (insert an additional month). Together with another fragment from the Firkovich Collection, T-S AS 158.147 tells about expeditions to examine barley fields, which is a uniquely Karaite practice.

Does T-S AS 158.147 join with the Firkovich fragment?

No, T-S AS 158.147 and RNL Evr Arab I 1151 are in different hands and have no textual overlap. However, their contents are very similar, and they cover dates in 1020s. They are either two different copies of the same chronicle or fragments of two texts of the same genre. Unfortunately, both are very fragmentary.

Do the fragments also date to the 1020s, or are they significantly later?

T-S AS 158.147 is copied in a late twelfth–thirteenth-century handwriting. RNL Evr Arab I 1151 is copied in a late eleventh–twelfth-century handwriting. That the surviving manuscripts were copied up to two centuries after the covered years means that Karaites considered this calendrical information worthy of preservation for posterity.

Were the 1020s so interesting, that people wanted to read about these years so long afterward?

On the one hand, we do not know if the chronicle covered a much longer period because only three leaves of it survived. On the other hand, 11th century was the “golden time” of the Karaite centre in Jerusalem. The most important medieval Karaite scholars and thinkers were active in Jerusalem during the 10th–11th centuries. This was the period that later Karaites drew on for foundations of Karaite religious law once the centre was destroyed by the Crusades in 1099 CE. Calendar is, of course, part of religious law.

Can you tell me more about the chronicle?

It is a unique text that sheds invaluable light on actual Karaite intercalation practices and decision-making processes, which previously were hardly known. The chronicle describes how in 1020–1028 CE Karaite groups went to the fields located in the areas Ramla, Asqalon, Gaza and the Jordan valley and inspected barley crops, looking at the colour of the ears and the consistency of kernels. They collected handfuls of barley stalks from each field and counted ears in each growth stage in order to determine whether enough barely was ripe to proclaim the month of Nisan. The parties active in different regions exchanged information which could then be taken into consideration when making calendrical decisions. Remarkably, even when members of different groups performed the inspection together, they often reached opposing conclusions regarding the need for an intercalation. The chronicle shows for the first time that various Karaite groups differed among themselves more often than they differed from the Rabbanites.

How would they eventually reach an agreement? Or would some Karaite groups move ahead with starting the month of Nisan while others waited?

They did not necessarily reach an agreement! Karaites were very open to the idea of calendar diversity. At least in the first half of the 11th century different Karaite groups regularly found themselves in different months because some started the month of Nisan and others inserted an extra month. This happened in a number of years described in the chronicle. But we also see this in other documents. For example, a Karaite betrothal formulary that mentions 1009 CE includes a dating formula in the event of a month’s difference between the calendars of the bride and the groom (RNL Evr II A 506, fol. 1r). T-S J3.47v is a draft Karaite betrothal deed dated 1032/3 CE in a month ‘which is Av for the majority of the Karaites, and which is Elul for some of them’.

I’m imagining the ‘Splitter!’ scene from the Life of Brian.

In theoretical works on calendar, Karaites often write that calendar diversity is completely normal when one follows the calendar regulated by the observation of natural phenomena. As long as the correct principles of calendation were upheld (observing the crescent moon and the ripening of barley) they did not mind if different people fixed months and celebrated festivals on different dates!

Sounds like a recipe for confusion. I guess if one year a group diverged from another on the calendar, they might come back into sync with the next year’s barley examination.

Yes. Although calendars of different Karaite groups were often a month apart, they then came back in sync. In the chronicle, in five years out of nine, the calendar for the period between Nisan and the following Tišri was identical for all groups, Karaite and Rabbanite alike (the Rabbanites are not described in the chronicle but their calendar for the relevant years can be calculated and compared with the data in the chronicle).

This chronicle was presumably Karaite reading material rather than Rabbanite. Do we have any idea what percentage of the Cairo Genizah is Karaite?

I’m not sure about percentages, but Karaite materials in the Cairo Genizah are not rare. We find all kinds of Karaite texts, both literary and documentary. Karaite and Rabbanite communities lived closely together, formed trade partnerships, intermarried, and knew each other’s literature. Looking at T-S AS 158.147 is one of the times where I’m grateful to Schechter for not just bringing the big and beautiful fragments. It is not much to look at, but it has very important information about the practicalities of Karaite intercalation.

Thanks Nadia! I’ll let you get back to the chronicle now.

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