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:
- R. Chasdai welcomed him back and is known as a Rabbinite.
- R. Menachem quotes admiringly from R. Sa’adia Gaon, a fierce opponent of Karaites.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.