Was Menachem A Karaite?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

R. Menachem Ben Saruk (ca. 920-970) was an extremely important Hebrew grammarian. Living in Spain, he worked under the patronage of R. Chasdai ibn Shaprut. At some point, R. Chasdai and R. Menachem had a falling out and R. Menachem left Cordoba. They eventually reconciled and R. Menachem returned to work under R. Chasdai’s patronage.

What was the subject of their dispute? We do not know but the 1854 edition of R. Menachem’s magnum opus, Machberes Menachem, contains an interesting speculation. I am not sure whether this suggestion was offered by Shadal, the source of the biography in the introduction, or the editor.

The suggestion is that R. Menachem was accused of being a Karaite. This is based on the severity of the dispute, hints in R. Menachem’s poetic letter to R. Chasdai during their separation and the fact that a great scholar like R. Menachem could not find any other patron. These are weak inferences, at best.

The writer responds to the charge of Karaism, exonerating R. Menachem from his alleged heresy as follows:

  1. R. Chasdai welcomed him back and is known as a Rabbinite.
  2. R. Menachem quotes admiringly from R. Sa’adia Gaon, a fierce opponent of Karaites.
  3. R. Donash ben Librat, in his attacks on Machberes Menachem, rejects some of R. Menachem’s literal translations because he implicitly permits that which is forbidden. If R. Menachem were a Karaite, he would not have been convinced by that argument.
  4. On one translation, R. Donash attacks it as being the same as that of Anan, the Karaite founder. If R. Menachem was a Karaite, that would have been a compliment.
  5. Pursuing literal explanations does not make one a Karaite, since Rashi and Rashbam did the same and were great talmudists.

The defense of R. Menachem is much stronger than the accusation, but still not definitive. It essentially boils down to his great contemporaries considering him innocent. I am surprised that he doesn’t also state that R. Menachem’s students, including the famous R. Yehudah ibn Chayug and R. Yitzchak bin Gikatilla, defended him.

But was R. Menachem actually accused of being a Karaite? And do historians have any views on the truth of this claim? I could not find any further discussion of this but I welcome input from readers.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

34 comments

  1. You may want to check Hillel Halkin’s recent book about Yehuda Halevi. He may also have some additional information beyond what made it into the book as published.

  2. william gewirtz

    i have a more recent critical edition of the machberet, based on a large set of mansuscripts, published in Spain around 1985 by a spanish professor with a intro by a professor from hebrew universityy. i picked it up in the jewish quarter book shop in Gerona. The biographical section is in spanish which i cannot read.

  3. >Pursuing literal explanations does not make one a Karaite, since Rashi and Rashbam did the same and were great talmudists.

    As Menachem preceded them, that’s no argument. Not to credit the accusation, but just saying. And Rashi was hardly a pashtan, as the Rashbam would be the first to say.

    This isn’t really a question of whether he was a Karaite, but whether he was accused of Karaism.

  4. “And Rashi was hardly a pashtan,”

    By our standards. Alongside the midrash he brings there is plenty of pshat. We only think of him as basing himself on midrash because, unlike many later traditional commentaries, he does not exclusively use pshat.

  5. Moshe Shoshan

    “By our standards. Alongside the midrash he brings there is plenty of pshat. We only think of him as basing himself on midrash because, unlike many later traditional commentaries, he does not exclusively use pshat.”

    Also because the velt has a habit of ignoring Rashi’s pshat endeavors, especially those boring inscrutable dikduk comments.

  6. Mechy Frankel

    While of some interest, as long as you have opened this particular can of worms I’m surprised you haven’t rather focused your attention on a much more interesting and surprising possibility. That of the supposed karaism of his very much more important contemporary, or near contemporary, Aaron b. Asher himself, bikh’vodo uv’atzmo – a suggestion advanced by important scholars with proofs a lot more cogent than any levied against menachem. (to be clear, i come down on the traditional side that he was a rabbanite – hard to go against the rambam’s endorsement, but still…)

  7. “Also because the velt has a habit of ignoring Rashi’s pshat endeavors, especially those boring inscrutable dikduk comments.”

    Boring?! are we reading the same rashi? I’ll agree to “inscrutable” if what you meant was “hard to understand.”

  8. Lawrence Kaplan

    Carlos: Are you a newcomer? Moshe was being sarcastic.

  9. >By our standards

    By the Rashbam’s standards. His style of parshanut is far, far from Karaism is the point.

  10. R’ Mechy: I am out of the sugya right now, but I seem to recall hearing Dr. Shnayer Leiman go through the evidence and conclude that there is nothing to show that Ben Asher was a Karaite.

  11. >to be clear, i come down on the traditional side that he was a rabbanite – hard to go against the rambam’s endorsement, but still…)

    In my opinion the Rambam’s endorsement adds little to the discussion. First, he lived over 2 centuries later, maybe he didn’t know. Secondly, he endorses the sefer because it was known to be authoritative and very corrected and correct, not because of his own expertise or chakira. Thirdly, the “accept the truth no matter the source” Rambam would not have come down on the side of those who won’t learn a rishon because it is published by Mossad Horav Kook. Fourth (or third part B), the Karaites themselves accept and accepted Rabbanite masoretic work, so if they were/ are open-minded enough to accept works they consider to be correct, even if written by heretics, why can’t an open-minded Rabbanite do the same?

    As an aside, I often wonder if the reason why the evidence on both sides seems somewhat compelling is because there was no clear line between Rabbanites and Karaites. I can easily see in a thousand years people arguing over some kind of academic Jewish work, if the author was Orthodox or not.

  12. Shachar Ha'amim

    “This isn’t really a question of whether he was a Karaite, but whether he was accused of Karaism.”

    That’s an important distinction. It’s like asking today in 2011 whether R. Yochan Eybshutz was a Sabbatean. I don’t think anyone would suggest that he was. But we know he was accused of being Sabbatean

  13. >As an aside, I often wonder if the reason why the evidence on both sides seems somewhat compelling is because there was no clear line between Rabbanites and Karaites. I can easily see in a thousand years people arguing over some kind of academic Jewish work, if the author was Orthodox or not.<

    Unfortunately, I don't think you have to wait that long.

  14. >That’s an important distinction. It’s like asking today in 2011 whether R. Yochan Eybshutz was a Sabbatean. I don’t think anyone would suggest that he was. But we know he was accused of being Sabbatean.

    It’s nothing like it. I don’t know if where there is smoke there is fire, but R. Yonasan was surrounded by plumes of smoke.

  15. S.: “As an aside, I often wonder if the reason why the evidence on both sides seems somewhat compelling is because there was no clear line between Rabbanites and Karaites.”

    I have always suspected this to be the case. The same holds for Judaism and Christianity in the first several centuries CE. That “parting of the ways” took place I have no doubt, but I don’t think it was at the same time, place, or in the same manner for everyone.

    Hirhurim: Interesting post. The case against R. Menachem, so I’ve read, seems exceedingly weak to begin with. Anyhow, I think defense #1 is ultimately the most convincing. If the case against him was stronger, however, I’d point out that the other defenses are easily refutable.

    I wonder in particular about R. Dunash. I’m not so in the parsha, so I was wondering if you know (or perhaps another commenter): was Dunash writing to convince R. Menachem, or convince (Rabbinite) readers? I think the strength of defenses #3 and #4 rest on the answer. If he was writing to convince R. Menachem, then I would think that the defenses are more convincing.

  16. Shachar: “I don’t think anyone would suggest that he was.”

    In an article in Revue des Etudes Juives, “New Evidence on the Emden-Eibeschuetz Controversy: The Amulets from Metz” (2006), Dr. Leiman comments on the rediscovered official notarized copies of the amulets written by R. Eibeschuetz while Chief Rabbi in Metz. The proper reading of these amulets was central to the dispute over R. Eibeschuetz’s purported Sabbatianism.

    The whole article is fascinating and worth reading. And he thinks the ultimate answer as to whether R. Eibeschuetz was a Sabbatian is still unclear, but concludes (from the summary): “The texts of the amulets, as they are preserved in the rediscovered original notarized copy, support Emden’s reading of them [i.e. as indicating Sabbatianism] rather than that of Eibeschuetz.”

  17. The amulet itself is only one part of the evidence. R. Yonasan evidently wrote the Sabbatian manuscript “Veavo hayom el ha-ayin” (which if memory served, he eventually acknowledged having written). Some of the Sabbatians thought he was an incarnation of S”Z – well before the RYE accusation. Some of his family was clearly involved. It isn’t as if there was absolutely no association of him with Shabsaus except for the amulet and the one-time accusation by RYE. It may be fine to say it all adds up to smoke but no fire, but it’s not as if there was nothing but the amulets.

  18. The Aleppo Codex was written for the Karaite community of Jerusalem, wasn’t it? (Or at least they bought it. They did share it freely with the Rabbanites.) Even if Ben-Asher wasn’t a Karaite, then, that shows that there isn’t a problem using a codex from one, as the two groups used identical Tanachs.

  19. S.,

    Maskim! I was just pointing out a recent [Orthodox] scholar who clearly gives at least serious consideration to the possibility that RYE may have been a Sabbatian.

    As you say, the case for Menachem’s alleged Karaism is not even slightly comparable.

  20. Jerry, Shalom al Yisrael. 🙂

  21. Nachum,
    I do not believe that there is any evidence hat it was written for that community (as opposed to they’re having had it at an early point (pre-Rambam.)

  22. Hirhurim on February 9, 2011 at 9:17 am
    R’ Mechy: I am out of the sugya right now, but I seem to recall hearing Dr. Shnayer Leiman go through the evidence and conclude that there is nothing to show that Ben Asher was a Karaite.

    “nothing to show”?. i too am hampered by being out of the loop at moment with no recourse to refresh my memory, but that’s not quite the nuance i remember about this business. not prof leiman’s take which i don’t recall ever seeing, but of aron dotan’s whose article i read many years ago and whose conclusion i actually don’t remember. but i do recall that it seemed like a rather close call. one of considerations was indeed the rambam’s seeming endorsement. and dotan – whose scientific edition of diqduquei hat’tomim i have – can fairly be said to have devoted more scholarly intensity to the subject of ben asher than leiman

    S. In my opinion the Rambam’s endorsement adds little to the discussion. First, he lived over 2 centuries later.. maybe he didn’t know. ..Thirdly, the “accept the truth no matter the source”. Rambam would not have come down on the side of those..

    you may be right. rambam never ever actually met the gentleman. on the other hand he was not fond of karaites, nor was karaism a secret society like 18th cent sabbateans. so if ben asher were an open karaite (i think the only kind), it seems reasonable to assume rambam, living close enough to the events, would have known about it, and it might have received some notice in the rambam. nor do i think that accept-the-truth- from-whomever stuff really plays here. the truths rambam was alluding to would seem to me to be those kinds of rational intellectual analyses he was so fond of believing existed, or perhaps some other unimpeachable except-for-who-said-it testimony. but it is not clear at all to me that testimony about a matter in masoretic dispute would qualify. but perhaps i’m wrong. anyway, i’ll certainly agree that rambam’s endorsement of his work is no slam-dunk proof.

    Shachar Ha’amim on February 9, 2011 at 10:46 am
    .. It’s like asking today in 2011 whether R. Yochan Eybshutz was a Sabbatean. I don’t think anyone would suggest that he was. But we know he was accused of being Sabbatean

    you must be kidding. “no one would suggest..”? on the contrary i think it’s probably the scholarly consensus, bizarre as that doubtless sounds to people immersed in the yeshiva. i believe prof leiman for that matter always responds in some cagey manner when people attempt to pin him down. at least he did the one time i heard him. i imagine he doesn’t want to burn too many bridges to the black world.

  23. Dotan wrote a book in which he concludes that bA was a Rabbinite.

  24. Hillel Halkin, Yehuda Halevi, pp. 47-48:

    Yet what new wrong had Menachem committed? Most probable is a theory first advanced by Luzzatto–who, based on hints provided by Ben-Sheshet, suggested that Menachem was suspected by Hasdai of being a secret adherent of Karaism…

  25. MDJ- thankee.

  26. MiMedinat HaYam

    rambam never met the Ri MiGash (who died three years before he was born, or maybe not) yet he considered him his “rebbe muvhak”. so maybe the rambam had justification for using menachem.

    2. weren’t kara’im considered jewish for purposes of intermarriage at the time?

  27. Lawrence Kaplan –Apologies for the confusion, I was kind of trying to play along. I’m not a usual commenter, which is probably why I haven’t learned how to express intonation in these comments that well yet.

  28. Moshe, Bringing a Midrash does not make Rashi not a pashtan. Much of Midrash deals with pshat.

  29. lawrence kaplan

    Carlos: Wow, I’m not doing so well. First, I misread a comment of Gil’s which was intended facetiously and now I misread you!

  30. This is a field of which I am ignorant. But were there in fact 2 different groups totaly distinct from each other – Karaites and Rabbinical Jews. Perhaps there were Jews in grey areas, who may have rejected some form of rabbinical interpretation or the like. Also there may have been a more fluid situation with Jews changing sides in the debate.Certainly the situation was different in regard to the karaite community than in modern times when they are basically no longer part of the Jewish community at least in Europe.

  31. Sorry, just noticed your discussion today, and I haven’t gone through the comments yet. However, Hayyim Scherman in the first volume of his Hebrew Poetry in Spain and Provance (in Hebrew), p. 5, states that it was Shadal who introduced the possibility of Menachem having become a Karaite. I footnoted my copy with a reference to Teshuvot Dunash Al Menachem p. 75 which apparently indicates that he was a Karaite. I don’t have that book in my personal library to check at the moment. David Rosin’s comment to his edition of the Rashbam, p146, note 5, also is relevant. I apologise if previous respondents already noted this material.

  32. I think the fact that Rabenu Tam had to defend Menahem (in his Hakhra’ot Rabenu Tam)and that Joseph Kimhi then responded to that book with his own Sefer Ha-galuy, is a strong indication that the claim was taken seriously, and it was unlikely to have been Dunash’ ploy. For more on this issue, see Shimeon Brisman, ‘History and Guide to Judaic Dictionaries and Concordances’, (Hoboken, Ktav, 2000), p. 7-12.

  33. “It’s like asking today in 2011 whether R. Yochan Eybshutz was a Sabbatean. I don’t think anyone would suggest that he was. But we know he was accused of being Sabbatean”

    To the contrary, there is lots of evidence that he was a Sabbatean. The Pnei Yehoshua listened to evidence from numerous eyewitnesses and poskinned that he was a Sabbatean. See here for a translation of his psak and its basis: When a rabbi is accused of heresy : the stance of Rabbi Jacob Joshua Falk in the Emden-Eibeschuetz controversy. Rabbinic Culture and Its Critics (2008) 435-456.

    Another important article by Sid Leiman, which discusses the view of the Nodeh BeYehuda: “When a Rabbi Is Accused of Heresy: R. Ezekiel Landau’s Attitude toward R. Jonathan Eybeschütz in the Emden- Eybeschütz Controversy in FROM ANCIENT ISRAEL TO MODERN JUDAISM Edited by Jacob Neusner

    Look at this article which shows the actual record of the Beit Din in Metz which documents their discovery of amulets with Sabbatean incantations which were written by Eybeschutz, and his implausible explanations: http://www.leimanlibrary.com/texts_of_publications/95.%20New%20Evidence%20on%20the%20Emden-Eibeschuetz%20Controversy%20The%20Amulets%20from%20Metz.pdf

    Sorry, but it really looks like he was a Sabbatean.

  34. Just consider the fact that, aside from Yaakov Emden, the following individuals held he was a Sabbattean: The Pnei Yehoshua, the Sa’agas Aryeh, and the Nodeh BiYhuda?

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter


The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter

Archives

Categories

%d bloggers like this: