Vipers
Parts 55a through 55b the end
By Willie Martin

Jew Watch

Vipers - 55a

     To take Hasdai's letter first: its starts with a Hebrew poem, in the then fashionable manner of the piyut, a rhapsodic verse form which contains hidden allusions or riddles, and frequently acrostics. The poem exalts the military victories of the addressee, King Joseph; at the same time, the initial letters of the lines form an acrostic which spells out the full name of Hasdai bar Isaac bar Ezra bar Shaprut, followed by the name of Menahem ben-Sharuk. Now this Menahem was a celebrated Hebrew poet, lexicographer and grammarian, a secretary and protege of Hasdai's.

     He was obviously given the task of drafting the epistle to King Joseph in his most ornate style, and he took the opportunity to immortalize himself by inserting his own name into the acrostic after that of his patron. Several other works of Menahem ben-Sharuk are preserved, and there can be no doubt that Hasdai's letter is his handiwork.

     After the poem, the compliments and diplomatic flourishes, the letter gives a glowing account of the prosperity of Moorish Spain, and the happy condition of the Jews under its Caliph Abd al Rahman, 'the like of which has never been known...And thus the derelict sheep were taken into care, the arms of their persecutors were paralyzed, and the yoke was discarded. The country we live in is called in Hebrew Sepharad, but the Ishmaelites who inhabit it call it al-Andalus.'

     Hasdai then proceeds to explain how he first heard about the existence of the Jewish kingdom from the merchants of Khurasan, then in more detail from the Byzantine envoys, and he reports what these envoys told him: 'I questioned them (the Byzantines) about it and they replied that it was true, and that the name of the kingdom is al-Khazar. Between Constantinople and this country there is a journey of fifteen days by sea (this probably refers to the so-called 'Khazarian route': from Constantinople across the Black Sea and up the Don, then across the Don-Volga portage and down the Volga to Itil. (An alternative, shorter route was from Constantinople to the east coast of the Black sea)), but they said, by land there are many other people between us and them. The name of the ruling king is Joseph.

     Ships come to us from their land, bringing fish, furs and all sorts of merchandise. They are in alliance with us, and honored by us. We exchange embassies and gifts. They are powerful and have a fortress for their outposts and troops which go out on forays from time to time (The fortress is evidently Sarkel on the Don. 'They are honored by us' fits in with the passage in Constantine Born-in-the-Purple about the special gold seal used in letters to the Kagan. Constantine was the Byzantine Emperor at the time of the Embassy to Spain).'

     This bit of information offered by Hasdai to the Khazar King about the King's own country is obviously intended to draw a detailed reply from Joseph. It was good psychology: Hasdai must have known that criticism of erroneous statements flows easier from the pen than an original exposition.

     Next, Hasdai relates his earlier efforts to get in touch with Joseph. First he had sent a messenger, a certain Isaac bar Nathan, with instructions to proceed to the Khazar court. But Isaac got only as far as Constantinople, where he was courteously treated, but prevented from continuing the journey. (Understandably so: given the Empire's ambivalent attitude towards the Jewish kingdom, it was certainly not in Constantine's interest to facilitate an alliance between Khazaria and the Cordoba Caliphate with its Jewish Chief Minister). So Hasdai's messenger returned to Spain, mission unaccomplished. But soon another opportunity offered itself: the arrival at Cordoba of an embassy from Eastern Europe. Among its members were two Jews, Mar Saul and Mar Joseph, who offered to deliver Hasdai's letter to King Joseph. (According to Joseph's reply to Hasdai, it was actually delivered by a third person, one Isaac ben-Eliezer). Having thus described in detail how his letter came to be written, and his efforts to have it delivered. Hasdai proceeds to ask a series of direct questions which reflect his avidity for more information about every aspect of the Khazar land, from its geography to its rites in observing the Sabbath. The concluding passage in Hasdai's letter strikes a note quite different from that of its opening paragraphs: 'I feel the urge to know the truth, whether there is really a place on this earth where harassed Israel can rule itself, where it is subject to nobody.

     If I were to know that this is indeed the case, I would not hesitate to forsake all honors, to resign my high office, to abandon my family, and to travel over mountains and plains, over land and water, until I arrived at the place where my Lord, the (Jewish) King rules...And I also have one more request: to be informed whether you have any knowledge of (the possible date) of the Final Miracle (the coming of the Messiah) which, wandering from country to country, we are awaiting. Dishonored and humiliated in our dispersion, we have to listen in silence to those who say: 'every nation has its own land and you alone possess not even a shadow of a country on this earth.'

     The beginning of the letter praises the happy lot of the Jews in Spain; the end breathes the bitterness of the exile, Zionist fervor and Messianic hope. But these opposite attitudes have always co-existed in the divided heart of Jews throughout their history. The contradiction in Hasdai's letter gives it an added touch of authenticity. How far his implied offer to enter into the service of the Khazar King is to be taken seriously in another question, which we cannot answer. Perhaps he could not either.

     King Joseph's reply is less accomplished and moving than Hasdai's letter. No wonder, as Cassel remarks: 'Scholarship and culture reigned not among the Jews of the Volga, but on the rivers of Spain.' The highlight of the Reply is the story of the conversion, already quoted. No doubt Joseph too employed a scribe for penning it, probably a scholarly refugee from Byzantium. Nevertheless, the Reply sounds like a voice out of the Old Testament compared to the polished cadences of the tenth-century modern statesman.

     It starts with a fanfare of greetings, then reiterates the main contents of Hasdai's letter, proudly emphasizing that the Khazar kingdom gives the lie to those who say that 'the Scepter of Judah has forever fallen from the Jews' hands' and 'that there is no place on earth for a kingdom of their own.' This is followed by a rather cryptic remark to the effect that 'already our fathers have exchanged friendly letters which are preserved in our archives and are known to our elders.' (This may refer to a ninth-century Jewish traveller, Eldad ha-Dani, whose fantastic tales, much read in the Middle Ages, include mentions of Khazaria which, he says, is inhabited by three of the lost tribes of Israel, and collects tributes from twenty-eight neighboring kingdoms. Eldad visited Spain around 880 and may or may not have visited the Khazar country. Hasdai briefly mentions him in his letter to Joseph, as if to ask what to make of him).

     Joseph then proceeds to provide a genealogy of his people. Though a fierce Jewish nationalist, proud of wielding the 'Scepter of Judah,' He cannot, and does not, Claim for Them (the Khazars) Semitic DEscent; He traces their (Khazars) Ancestry not to Shem, but to Noah's Third Son, Japheth; or more precisely to Japheth's Grandson, Togarma, the Ancestor of all Turkish Tribes. 'We have found in the family registers of our fathers,' Joseph asserts boldly, 'that Togarma had ten sons, and the names of their offspring are as follows: Uigur, Dursu, Avars, Huns, Basilii, Tarniakh, Khazars, Zagora, Bulgars, Sabir. We (Khazars) are the Sons of Khazar, The Seventh...'

     The identity of some of these tribes, with names spelt in the Hebrew script is rather dubious, but that hardly matters; the characteristic feature in this genealogical exercise is the amalgamation of Genesis with Turkish tribal tradition. it also throws a sidelight on the frequent description of the Khazars as the people of Magog. Magog, according to Genesis X, 2-3 was the much maligned uncle of Togarma.

     After the genealogy, Joseph mentions briefly some military conquests by his ancestors which carried them as far as the Danube; then follows at great length the story of Bulan's conversion. 'From this day onwards,' Joseph continues, 'the Lord gave him strength and aided him; he had himself and his followers circumcised and sent for Jewish sages who taught him the Law and explained the Commandments.' There follow more boasts about military victories, conquered nations, etc., and then a significant passage: 'After these events, one of his (Bulan's) grandsons became King; his name was Obadiah, he was a brave and venerated man who reformed the Rule, fortified the Law according to tradition and usage, built synagogues and schools, assembled a multitude of Israel's sages, gave them lavish gifts of gold and silver, and made them interpret the twenty-four (sacred) books, the Mishna (Precepts) and the Talmud, and the order in which the liturgies are to be said.'

     This indicates that, about a couple of generations after Bulan, a religious revival or reformation took place (possibly accompanied by a coup d'etat on the lines envisaged by Artamonov). It seems indeed that the Judization of the Khazars proceeded in several steps. We remember that King Bulan drove out 'the sorcerers and idolaters' before the angel appeared to him; and that he made his Covenant with the 'true God' before deciding whether He was the Jewish, Christian of Muslim God. It seems highly probable that the conversion of King Bulan and his followers was another intermediary step, that they embraced a primitive or rudimentary form of Judaism, based on the Bible alone, excluding the Talmud, all rabbinical literature, and the observances derived from it.

     In this respect they resembled the Karaites, a fundamentalist sect which originated in the eighth century in Persia and spread among the Jews  all over the world, particularly in 'Little Khazaria,' i.e., the Crimea. Dunlop and some other authorities surmised that between Bulan and Obadiah (i.e., roughly between 740 and 800) some form of Karaism prevailed in the country, and that orthodox 'Rabbinic' Judaism was only introduced in the course of Obadiah's religious reform. The point is of some importance because Karaism apparently survive in Khazaria to the end, and villages of Turkish-speaking Karaite Jews, obviously of Khazar origin, still existed in modern times.

     Thus the Judaization of the Khazars was a gradual process which, triggered off by political expediency, slowly penetrated into the deeper strata of their minds and eventually produced the Messianism of their period of decline. Their religious commitment survived the collapse of their state, and persisted in the Khazar-Jewish settlements of Russia and Poland.

     After mentioning Obadiah's religious reforms, Joseph gives a list of his successors: 'Hiskia his son, and his son Manasseh, and Chanukah the brother of Obadiah, and Isaac his son, Manasseh his son, Nissi his son, Menahem his son, Beniamin his son, Aaron his son, and I am Joseph, son of Aaron the Blessed, and we were all sons of Kings, and no stranger was allowed to occupy the throne of our fathers.'

     Next, Joseph attempts to answer Hasdai's questions about the size and topography of his country. But he does not seem to have a competent person at his court who could match the skill of the Arab geographers, and his obscure references to other countries and nations add little to what we know from Ibn Hawkal, Masudi and the other Persian and Arabic sources. He claims to collect tribute from thirty-seven nations, which seems a rather tall proposition; yet Dunlop points out that nine of these appear to be tribes living in the Khazar heartland, and the remaining twenty-eight agree quite well with Ibn Fadlan's mention of twenty-five wives, each the daughter of a vassal king (and also with Eldad ha-Dani's dubious tales). We must further bear in mind the multitude of Slavonic tribes along the upper reaches of the Dnieper and as far as Moscow, which, as we shall see, paid tribute to the Khazars.

     However that may be, there is no reference in Joseph's letter to a royal harem, only a mention of a single queen and her maids and eunuchs'. These are said to live in one of the three boroughs of Joseph's capital, Itil: 'in the second live Israelites, Ishmaelis, Christians and other nations who speak other languages; the third, which is an island, I inhabit myself, with the princes, bondsmen and all the servants that belong to me (this division of Itil into three parts is also mentioned, as we have seen, in some of the Arab sources)...We live in the town through the whole of winter, but in the month of Nisan (March-April) we set out and everyone goes to labor in his field and his garden; every clan has his hereditary estate, for which they head with joy and jubilation; no voice of an intruder can be heard there, no enemy is to be seen. The country does not have much rain, but there are many rivers with a multitude of big fish, and many sources, and it is generally fertile and fat in its fields and vineyards, gardens and orchards which are irrigated by the rivers and bear rich fruit...and with God's help I live in peace.'

     The next passage is devoted to the date of the coming of the Messiah: 'We have our eyes on the sages of Jerusalem and Babylon, and although we live far away from Zion, we have nevertheless heard that the calculations are erroneous owing to the great profusion of sins, and we know nothing, only the Eternal knows how to keep the count. We have nothing to hold on only the prophecies of Daniel, and may the Eternal speed up our Deliverance...'

     The concluding paragraph of Joseph's letter is a reply to Hasdai's apparent offer to enter into the service of the Khazar king: 'Thou hast mentioned in thy letter a desire to see my face. I too wish and long to be behold thy gracious face and the splendor of thy magnificence, wisdom and greatness; I wish that thy words will come true, that I should know the happiness to hold thee in my embrace and to see they dear, friendly and agreeable face; thou wouldst be to me as a father, and I to thee as a son; all my people would kiss thy lips; we would come and go according to thy wishes and thy wise counsel.'

     There is a passage in Joseph's letter which deals with topical politics, and is rather obscure: 'With the help of the Almighty I guard the mouth of the river (the Volga) and do not permit the Rus who come in their ships to invade the land of the Arabs...I fight heavy wars with them (the Rus) for if I allowed it they would devastate the lands of Ishmael even to Baghdad.'

     Joseph here appears to pose as the defender of the Baghdad Caliphate against the Norman-Rus raiders. This might seem a little tactless in view of the bitter hostility between the Omayad Caliphate of Cordoba (which Hasdai is serving) and the Abassid Caliphs of Baghdad. On the other hand, the vagaries of Byzantine policy towards the Khazars made it expedient for Joseph to appear in the role of the defender of Islam, regardless of the schism between the two Caliphates. At least he could hope that Hasdai, the experienced diplomat, would take the hint.

     The meeting between the two correspondents, if ever seriously intended, never took place. No further letters, if any were exchanged, have been preserved. The factual content of the 'Khazar Correspondence' is meager, and adds little to what was already known from other sources. Its fascination lies in the bizarre, fragmentary vistas that it conveys, like an erratic search-light focussing on disjointed regions in the dense fog that covers the period.

     Among other Hebrew sources, there is the 'Cambridge Document' (so-called after its present location in the Cambridge University Library). It was discovered at the end of the last century, together with other priceless documents in the 'Cairo Geniza,' the store-room of an ancient synagogue, by the Cambridge scholar, Solomon Schechter. The document is in a bad state; it is a letter (or copy of a letter) consisting of about a hundred lines in Hebrew; the beginning and the end are missing, so that it is impossible to know who wrote it and to whom it was addressed. King Joseph is mentioned in it as a contemporary and referred to as 'my Lord,' Khazaria is called 'our land'; so the most plausible inference is that the letter was written by a Khazar Jew of King Joseph's court in Joseph's lifetime, i.e., that it is roughly contemporaneous with the 'Khazar Correspondence.'

     Some authorities have further suggested that it was addressed to Hasdai ibn Shaprut, and handed in Constantinople to Hasdai's unsuccessful envoy, Isaac bar Nathan, who brought it back to Cordoba (whence it found its way to Cairo when the Jews were expelled from Spain). At any rate, internal evidence indicates that the document originated not later than in the eleventh century, and more likely in Joseph's lifetime, in the tenth.

     It contains another legendary account of the conversion, but its main significance is political. The writer speaks of an attack on Khazaria by the Alans, acting under Byzantine instigation, under Joseph's father, Aaron the Blessed. No other Greek or Arab source seems to mention this campaign. But there is a significant passage in constantine Porphyrogenitus's De Adminisdrado Imperio, written in 947-50, which lends some credibility to the unknown letter-writer's statements: 'Concerning Khazaria, how war is to be made upon them and by whom. As the Ghuzz are able to make war on the Khazars, being near them, so likewise the ruler of Alania, because the Nine climates of Khazaria (the fertile region north of the Caucasus) are close to Alania, and the Alan can, if he wishes, raid them and cause great damage and distress to the Khazars from that quarter.'

     Now, according to Joseph's Letter, the ruler of the Alans paid tribute to him, and whether in fact he did or not, his feelings toward the Kagan were probably much the same as the Bulgar King's. The passage in Constantine, revealing his efforts to incite the Alans to war against the Khazars, ironically reminds one of Ibn Fadlan's mission with a parallel purpose. Evidently, the days of the Byzantine-Khazar rapprochement were long past in Joseph's time.

     About a century after the Khazar Correspondence and the presumed date of the Cambridge Document, Jehuda Halevi wrote his once celebrated book,  Kuzari, the Khazars. Halevi (1085-1141) is generally considered the greatest Hebrew poet of Spain; the book, however, was written in Arabic and translated later into Hebrew; its sub-title is 'The Book of Proof and Argument in Defense of the Despised Faith.'

     Halevi was a Zionist who died on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; the Kuzari, written a year before his death, is a philosophical tract propounding the view that the Jewish nation is the sole mediator between God and the rest of mankind. At the end of history, all other nations will be converted to Judaism; and the conversion of the Khazars appears as a symbol or token of that ultimate event.

     In spite of its title, the tract has little to say about the Khazar country itself, which serves mainly as a backdrop for yet another legendary account of the conversion, the King, the angel, the Jewish scholar, etc., and for the philosophical and theological dialogues between the King and the protagonists of the three religions. However, there are a few factual references, which indicate that Halevi had either read the correspondence between Hasdai and Joseph or had other sources of information about the Khazar country. Thus we are informed that after the appearance of the angel the King of the Khazars 'revealed the secret of his dream to the General of his army,' and 'the General' also looms large later on, another obvious reference to the dual rule of Kagan and Bek. Halevi also mentions the 'histories' and 'books of the Khazars' which reminds one of Joseph speaking of 'our archives,' where documents of state are kept. Lastly, Halevi twice, in different places of the book, gives the date of the conversion as having taken place '400 years ago' and 'in the year 4500' (according to the Jewish calendar).

     This points to A.D. 740, which is the most likely date. All in all, it is a poor harvest as far as factual statements are concerned, from a book that enjoyed immense popularity among the Jews of the Middle Ages. But the  medieval mind was less attracted by fact than by fable, and the Jews were more interested in the date of the coming of the Messiah than in geographical data. The Arab geographers and chroniclers had a similarly cavalier attitude to distances, dates and the frontiers between fact and fancy.

     This also applies to the famed German-Jewish traveller, Rabbi Petachia of Ratisbon, who visited Eastern Europe and western Asia between 1170 and 1185. His travelogue, Sibub Ha'olam, 'Journey around the World,' was apparently written by a pupil, based on his notes or on dictation.

Vipers - 55b (Last One)

     It relates how shocked the good Rabbi was by the primitive observances of the Khazar Jews north of the Crimea, which he attributed to their adherence to the Karaite heresy: 'And the Rabbi Petachia asked them: 'Why do you not believe in the words of the sages (i.e., the Talmudists)?' They replied: 'Because our fathers did not teach them to us.' On the eve of the Sabbath they cut all the bread which they eat on the Sabbath. They eat it in the dark, and sit the whole day on one spot. Their prayers consist only of the psalms (Spending the Sabbath in the dark was a well-known Karaite custom).'

     So incensed was the Rabbi that, when he subsequently crossed the Khazar heartland, all he had to say was that it took him eight days, during which 'he heard the wailing of women and the barking of dogs.' He does mention, however, that while he was in Baghdad, he had seen envoys from the Khazar kingdom looking for needy Jewish scholars from Mesopotamia and even from Egypt, 'to teach their children Torah and Talmud.'

     While few Jewish travellers from the West undertook the hazardous journey to the Volga, they recorded encounters with Khazar Jews at all principal centers of the civilized world. Rabbi Petachia met them in Baghdad; Benjamin of Tudela, another famous traveller of the twelfth century, visited Khazar notables in Constantinople and Alexandria; Ibraham ben Daud, a contemporary of Judah Halevi's, reports that he had seen in Toledo 'some of their descendants, pupils of the wise.' Tradition has it that these were Khazar princes, one is tempted to think of Indian princelings sent to Cambridge to study.

     Yet there is a curious ambivalence in the attitude toward the Khazars of the leaders of orthodox Jewry in the East, centered on the Talmudic Academy in Baghdad. The Gaon (Hebrew for 'excellency') who stood at the head of the Academy was the spiritual leader of the Jewish settlements dispersed all over the Near and Middle East, while the Exilarch, or 'Prince of Captivity,' represented the secular power over these more or less autonomous communities.

     Saadiah Gaon (882-942), most famous among the spiritual excellencies, who left voluminous writings, repeatedly refers in them to the Khazars. He mentions a Mesopotamian Jew who went to Khazaria to settle there, as if this were an every day occurrence. He speaks obscurely of the Khazar court; elsewhere he explains that in the biblical expression 'Hiram of Tyre,' Hiram is not a proper name but a royal title, 'like Caliph for the Ruler of the Arabs, and Kagan for the King of the Khazars.'

     Thus Khazaria was very much 'on the map,' in the literal and metaphorical sense, for the leaders of the ecclesiastical hierarchy of oriental Jewry; but at the same time the Khazars were regarded with certain misgivings, both on racial grounds and because of their suspected leanings toward the Karaite heresy.

     One eleventh-century Hebrew author, Japheth ibn-Ali, himself a Karaite, explains the word mamzer, 'bastard,' by the example of the Khazars who became Jews without belonging to the Race. His contemporary, Jacob ben-Reuben, reflects the opposite side of this ambivalent attitude by speaking of the Khazars as 'a single nation who do not bear the yoke of the exile, but are great warriors paying no tribute to the Gentiles.'

     In summing up the Hebrew sources on the Khazars that have come down to us, one senses a mixed reaction of enthusiasm, skepticism and, above all, bewilderment. A warrior-nation of Turkish Jews must have seemed to the rabbis as strange as a circumcised unicorn. During a thousand years of Dispersion, the Jews had forgotten what it was like to have a king and a country. The Messiah was more real to them than the Kagan.

     As a postscript to the Arab and Hebrew sources relating to the conversion, it should be mentioned that the apparently earliest Christian source antedates them both. At some date earlier than 864, the Westphalian  monk, Christian Druthmar of Aquitania, wrote a Latin treatise Expositio in Evangelium Mattei, in which he reports that 'there exist people under the sky in regions where no Christians can be found, whose name is God and Magog, and who are Huns; among them is one, called the Gazari, who are circumcised and observe Judaism in its entirety.'

     This remark occurs a props of Matthew 24:14 ('And this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.') which has no apparent bearing on it, and no more is heard of the subject.

     At about the same time when Druthmar wrote down what he knew from hearsay about the Jewish Khazars, a famed Christian missionary, sent by the Byzantine Emperor, attempted to convert them to Christianity. He was no less a figure than St. Cyril, 'Apostle of the Slavs,' alleged designer of the Cyrillic alphabet. He and his elder brother, St. Methodius, were entrusted with this and other proselytizing missions by the Emperor Michael III, on the advice of the Patriarch Photius (himself apparently of Khazar descent, for it is reported that the Emperor once called him in anger 'Khazar face.'). Cyril's proselytizing efforts seem to have been successful among the Slavonic people in Eastern Europe, but not among the Khazars. He travelled to their country via Cherson in the Crimea; in Cherson he is said to have spent six months learning Hebrew in preparation for his mission; he then took the 'Khazarian Way,' the Don-Volga portage, to Itil, and from there travelled along the Caspian to meet the Kagan (it is not said where). The usual theological disputations followed, but they had little impact on the Khazar Jews. Even the adulatory Vita Constantine (Cyril's original name) says only that Cyril made a good impression on the Kagan, that a few people were baptized and two hundred Christian prisoners were released by the Kagan as a gesture of goodwill. it was the least he could do for the Emperor's envoy who had gone to so much trouble.

     There is a curious sidelight thrown on the story by students of Slavonic philology. Cyril is credited by tradition not only with having devised the Cyrillic but also the Glagolytic alphabet. The latter, according to Baron, was 'used in Croatia to the seventeenth century. Its indebtedness to the Hebrew alphabet in at least eleven characters, representing in part the Slavonic sounds, has long been recognized.' The eleven characters are A,B,V,G,E,K,P,R.S,Sch, T. This seems to confirm what has been said earlier on about the influence of the Hebrew alphabet in spreading literacy among the neighbors of the Khazars." (The Thirteenth Tribe, by Arthur Koestler, pp. 58-82)

With a close study of this presentation from the Jewish Encyclopedia, about the Khazars (Chazars), one can see that There was an infusion of the Edomite (Esau's) Blood Line into The Khazar (Chazar) Blood Line. Which would make them, not only descendents of Jappeth but also a mixed breed of Canaanite and Israelite mixture. Which would explain their fanatical hatred of Christ, True Israelites and Christians!

In addition, under the heading of "A brief History of the Terms for Jew" in the 1980 Jewish Almanac is the following: "Strictly Speaking it is Incorrect to call an Ancient Israelite A 'Jew' or to call a Contemporary Jew an Israelite or a 'Hebrew.'" (1980 Jewish Almanac, p. 3)

The End

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