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Cambridge University Library

Q&A Wednesday: Ottoman Karaites and conflict, with Dotan Arad

Mosseri VII.84.1
Mosseri VII.84.1 (recto)
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Dotan Arad
Wed 4 Aug 2021

Dotan, what are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a group of documents, mainly in Judaeo-Arabic, related to the relations between Karaites and Rabbanites in the Ottoman period, especially in Cairo and Jerusalem. Most of the documents are part of the Firkovich collection, such as Evr. Ar. II 1143, Evr. Ar. II 1408, Evr. Ar. II 1458 and more, but a few of them belong to other collections. For example, Mosseri VII.84.1, a torn loan deed, written in the 16th century, which testifies that a Karaite borrower, Jacob ibn Farjallah, owed money to a Rabbanite lender, Moses Hazan.

Is your work on these documents part of a project?

These documents are part of a large corpus that has been the focus of my research in recent years. As is well known, the historical sources discovered in the Cairo Genizah have served as the basis for extensive research on the Karaites in Egypt and Palestine during the Fatimid and Ayyubid periods, but the later period is still waiting for researchers. Our knowledge about the Karaites in Egypt in the Ottoman period is virtually non-existent. The period between the middle of the 19th century and the eradication of the Karaite community in Egypt in 1956 has been examined by several scholars, some of whom are Karaites who descended from the community. Nevertheless, describing Karaite life in Egypt from the 16th through the 19th centuries remains terra incognita. I hope that this project will help to close this gap somewhat. My research project, “The Karaites in Egypt, Palestine and Syria in the Ottoman Period”, is supported by the Ben-Zvi Institute and The Universal Karaite Judaism Association.

I am working on the documents with my talented colleague, Dr Rachel Hasson. It has been a very fruitful collaboration. Like my last project, working with Dr Miriam Wagner on a corpus of Judaeo-Arabic and Hebrew documents from the 15th century, now housed in the Bodleian in Oxford, the current project is also a collaboration between historian and linguist. We ask different questions, and look for different things in the documents. The results are richer for it, and more interesting. Despite the project’s title, I am also working on documents from the Mamluk period, and some of them will soon be published.

What kinds of document are you looking at? 

I’m focusing on two main genres. The first is legal documents, such as court deeds, contracts, etc. These documents teach us about the leadership of the Karaite communities, methods employed for solving conflicts, the usage of Karaite halacha in real life, and more. The second genre is letters. The corpus contains both private letters and communal letters – letters that were written by the local leadership and were addressed to leaders in another Karaite centre, for example, from Cairo to Damascus, or from Jerusalem to Istanbul. These letters contain rich information about the economic conditions of each community, including details of the debts they owed to Rabbanite lenders (an ongoing problem during the Ottoman period). 

How were the relations between the Karaites and Rabbanites during this later period?

It is very hard to summarise the state of the relations between the groups in that period. It’s complicated. I have found testimonies of cooperation and mutual respect, but also evidence of conflict and tension. At this stage of the research, I can, however, share my impression that the relations between the groups – I prefer to use this term rather than ‘sects’ – do not appear to have been as good as in earlier periods.

It sounds like the Karaites are in quite a different economic position compared to their situation in the Middle Ages. How did the Karaite leadership respond to the economic troubles of their community?

The Karaites were aware of their economic and demographic decline. The letters contain repeated complaints about debts they owed to the Rabbanites, and dissatisfaction stemming from the fact that Karaite estates (homes, stores and even synagogues) had been sold to their Rabbanite counterparts. In a letter from the 17th century a writer describes the situation in his community by saying “most of the [members of] the community of Cairo are debtors”. The relations between the groups, in light of the heavy debts that owed, were very bad (especially in Jerusalem) and the writer considers it to be a Rabbanite conspiracy: “you have to know that they [the Rabbanites] will not pity you and their goal is to get us out of Jerusalem” (Evr. Ar. II 1408). The leaders of the Karaite community dealt with this situation by trying to assume mutual responsibility – asking for help from more financially secure communities, such as Istanbul. The community of Jerusalem received valuable support from the Crimean Karaite community and sometimes even from the far-flung communities of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.

Have you found anything that has surprised you?

I was surprised to find in one of the letters a description of an unknown event that took place in the 17th century – a bloody conflict in Cairo between Karaites and Rabbanites. Three Karaites (two women and one man) died due to Rabbanite violence. The main reason for the conflict seems to have been the different calendars followed by the two groups. The Rabbanites accused the Karaites of disrespecting the festivals of the Rabbanites, when they worked publicly on the date of Passover, according to the Rabbanite calendar (though it was not Passover according to the Karaite calendar). I will be publishing the letter soon in an article. 

Do you see any evidence of intermarriage between the groups in the Ottoman period?

In the 16th century there was an intense dispute between the halachic sages in the big population centres (Cairo, Safed, and Istanbul) over whether it was permitted to marry a Karaite spouse. It is important to emphasise that this took place in circumstances that were very different to the cases of intermarriage that we know of in the Fatimid and Ayyubid periods. In earlier periods there was a tolerant attitude and both sides were able to maintain their original religious identity. In the 16th century, most of those who allowed intermarriage demanded one important condition: the Karaite spouse had to accept the Rabbanite halacha. 

In the 17th and 18th centuries, testimonies of intermarriage disappear, so I assume that the phenomenon became very rare. During British rule in Egypt, however, the issue was reinvigorated, and we once again see sages addressing the legitimacy of these marriages.

What are some of the other issues discussed by the Karaite sages of the Ottoman period?

One of the prominent findings is the lack of dine mamonot (Jewish civil law). If you open a random volume of responsa from a Rabbanite sage in the Ottoman Empire, you would find many discussions of financial conflicts – debts, contracts, commercial partnerships, and more. There is no equivalent phenomenon among the Karaites of that period. It seems that financial conflicts between Karaites were resolved by the Sharia court, not by Karaite judges. There is, however, intense intellectual activity in fields like family law and dietary law (Kashrut). Issues of family laws are reflected in the corpus’ documents, for example in pre-nuptial agreements, conflicts between spouses, divorce deeds, and more. I have recently written an article that discusses the divorce rules that appear in these documents. We can see that women were worried by the “unbearable ease” of divorce and tried to add conditions to pre-nuptial agreements to limit the legitimate reasons for demanding divorce in the court, and to sanction a husband who demanded divorce for insufficiently acceptable reasons.

As a historian dealing with a period in time much closer to our own than the classical Genizah period, how does this affect your work? Are there certain things to keep in mind, for example, that there might be identifiable descendants of the people in the letters you’re reading?

Many people appear in the documents only with their private name and their father’s name, so it is hard to trace any descendants they might have had, but there are also family names, some of which are preserved among the Karaites to this day. For example, many people in documents from Damascus and Cairo carry the name Fayruz, which is known to this day (pronounced nowadays Firouz). My friend, Rabbi Dr Moshe Firouz, the chief Rabbi of the Karaites in Israel, helps me from time to time to clarify halachic questions in the light of the Karaite tradition. 

We'll end on that note of Karaite–Rabbanite cooperation! Thanks for your time, Dotan.

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