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A troublesome affair in Kiev?

Detail of T-S 12.122 with multispectral imaging
Detail of T-S 12.122 with multispectral imaging
Melonie Schmierer-Lee
Wed 23 Feb 2022

As the eyes of the world turn to Ukraine, let’s take a look at the so-called ‘Kiev letter’ – a document that has been interpreted by many scholars as proof of the existence of a Jewish community in the Middle Ages in Khazaria (in what is now Ukraine). This 10th-century letter of introduction, written on a tightly folded piece of parchment, accredits Jacob son of Hanukkah in his efforts to raise money to free himself of debt. Jacob – described as generous and of a good family – fell into difficulties when his brother borrowed money from gentiles and was then robbed and slain by brigands. Jacob was held liable for his brother’s debts. He was assisted by a community who paid off enough of his debt to allow him to be released from prison in order to raise the rest of the money, and he would have carried this letter on his travels to other communities seeking donations toward his case (perhaps as far as Egypt, since the letter ended up in Fustat). The letter was authorised by a certain Isaac the Parnas, who signed in Hebrew, and a second official then endorsed it in what is believed to be Turkic runes (in the Khazarian language). A number of individuals signed the letter, some of whom have names of apparently non-Semitic origin (e.g., GWSTT and KYBR). The well-folded and widely travelled letter is badly damaged at an unfortunate point – the place where the name of the community is given.

… We, the community of [Kiev], inform you of the troublesome affair of this Mar Jacob bar Hanukkah, who is from a [good] family. He was of the givers and not the takers, until a cruel Fate was decreed against him, in that his brother went and took mone[y] from gentiles; this Jacob stood surety. His brother went on the road, and there came [bri]gands who slew him and took his money. Then came the creditors [and t]ook this (man) Jacob captive, they put chains of iron on his neck and fetters about his legs. He stayed there an entire year […and after]ward we took him in surety; we paid out sixty [coins] and there ye[t …] remained forty coins; so we have sent him among the holy communities that they might take pity on him… [Translation from Cohen, The Voice of the Poor, p64]

When the document was discovered by Norman Golb, who read the location as ‘Kiev’, it caused tremendous excitement. Could Jacob’s letter be tangible proof of a community of Khazars in Kiev who had converted to Judaism but retained their non-Semitic names? The possible use of Khazarian runes is significant too, as it would suggest the document was written before the conquest of Kiev by the Rus in about 950 CE, making it among the earliest original letters in the Genizah. Decades of debate and speculation followed. Some interpreted the letter as having been sent to Kiev rather than from it, and others wondered about the Khazarian names which carried the priestly title ‘Kohen’. The reading of the runes has also been a topic of contention. Is it the only surviving written example of Khazarian? Or is it a different language altogether?

T-S 12.122  T-S 12.122 with multispectral imaging

T-S 12.122 (recto), with comparison multispectral image (courtesy of The Early Manuscripts Electronic Library and The Lazarus Project). To see these and other images, visit Cambridge Digital Library.

In 2015 the ‘Kiev letter’ was photographed using multi-spectral imaging (by a team from The Early Manuscripts Electronic Library and The Lazarus Project) in an effort to confirm at least one aspect of the debate – is the community’s location to be read as ‘Kiev’ or something else altogether? Although we were able to get a very good sense of how many letters could fit in the space, it seems that the parchment is so damaged at that crucial point that some of the ink of that word is simply no longer there. So the debate continues. Kiev or not Kiev? 


Further reading: (click here for more publications on the fragment)

Golb, Norman and Omeljan Pritsak. Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century. Cornell University Press, 1982.

Marcel Erdal, ‘The Khazar Language,’ in Peter B. Golden, Haggai Ben-Shammai, András Róna-Tas (eds.), The World of the Khazars: New Perspectives, Brill, 2007 pp.75–108.

Mark R. Cohen, The Voice of the Poor in the Middle Ages: An Anthology of Documents from the Cairo Geniza, Princeton University Press, 2005.

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