Sunday 30 April 2017


Letter from the Cherson Geniza, apparently from a student of the Baal Shem Tov


Chassidim have many holidays. Chabad, for example, have twenty-two Chassidic Holidays. These include the 19th Kislev which is the ‘Rosh haShana of Chassidut’, the 5th of Tevet which is the ‘Sefarim Victory’, and the 10th of Shevat which is the anniversary of the passing of the previous Rebbe and the beginning of the leadership of the last Rebbe.

Other groups of Chassidim also have their various special holidays.

All Chassidim are rooted in their common spiritual ancestor, R. Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) – the founder of the general Chassidic movement.

Few are aware, though, that the Baal Shem Tov himself apparently established a holiday which was meant to be one of the first Chassidic Holidays – and yet it remains largely unknown and uncelebrated!


Around the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917, a geniza or repository of old writings[1], was discovered in a synagogue in Cherson (or Gerson or Kherson) in southern Ukraine. It contained, amongst other writings, a number of letters written and signed apparently by the Baal Shem Tov. 

It has come to be regarded, by some, as the 'Cairo Geniza' of early Chassidic literature.

Without this discovery, we would never have known of a fascinating chapter of Chassidic and Jewish history:

According to the letters, in  1759 - the year before the Baal Shem Tov passed away - Bishop Sokolski of Lvov summoned him and two others ‘of the Chassidic brotherhood’ to a ‘contest of debate’ against the followers of the self-proclaimed and false messiah Jacob Frank (1726-1791).

Remarkably, the Chassidim emerged victoriously and thus were many Jewish souls ‘saved from evil’ - and the public burning of the Talmud was averted.

After winning the debate, the Baal Shem Tov and a number of other prominent rabbis signed a celebratory document which solemnly stated that they undertook to make that day, the 26th of Tammuz, a festival ‘of eating, drinking and joy, for ourselves and our children for now...and forever.’!

The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe’s yeshiva in Warsaw (in the suburb of Otwosk) published a magazine known as HaTamim[2]

In 1935, two letters found in the Cherson geinza were published which showed the Baal Shem Tov as one of the signatories:

LETTER 1:[3] 

(Loose translation)

Lvov, 26 Tammuz 1759.

Today we, the undersigned, bring good tidings to all of Israel. Through the efforts of the Bishop Sokolski of Lvov (may he live and be well) we, the signatories below, were victorious over the evil cult of...Jacob Frank and his evil group... 

G-d assisted us to be victorious - therefore we and our children and all who participated, undertake from now on and for all time to make this day a festival and holiday of eating, drinking and joy in every place,  in the merit of G-d...permitting us to victoriously tread on their altars, raising up the light of Israel. 

Signed on this day in Lvov:

Chaim haCohen Rappaport ben haRav Simcha - Av Beit Din City of Lvov
Yisroel ben Moraynu Eliezer of Medzibuz
Yitzchok Dov Ber Margolios of Yazilovich
Dov Ber ben Avraham of Mezrich
Yaacov Yosef haCohen of Polnoa
Zev Wolf Kitzes

LETTER 2: [4]

(Loose translation)

We the undersigned have taken upon ourselves to make an annual celebration on the 26th of Tammuz. It should be a day of eating, drinking and gladness in remembrance of the great miracle and kindness that G-d did for us on this day. 

There rose against us a wicked, evil enemy...Jacob Frank...He misled Jews into idolatry and influenced many of our faith, and now G-d has upturned his evil plans and made him fall into the very pit he had prepared for others.

With the help of Bishop Tikulslki (Sokolski or Mikulski) of Lvov (may he live and be well) who called the three of us from the Chassidic brotherhood on the 23rd of Tammuz 5519 (1759) to debate against the evil ones...and a hearing of their issues against (the Jewish religion). A thorough investigation was conducted between us. G-d stood in our defence...leaving intact the good name of the Jews.
On the 26th of the month of Tammuz in the abovementioned year...we were victorious over the evil ones... and many Jewish souls were saved from evil... 

We made a pact in our hearts to declare this day, forever, a holiday of feasting, drinking and happiness for ourselves and our children and for all who participated.

We attach our signatures on this day, the 27th of Tammuz 5519 (1759) in the City of Lvov:

Chaim haCohen Rappaport - Chief Rabbi of Lvov and the Country
Yisrael ben Eliezer of Medzibozh
Yitzchok Dov Ber Margolios of the city of Yazlovich
Dov Ber ben Avraham of the town of Mezrich
Yaacov Yosef haCohen of Polona
Zev Wolf Kitzes 

It is amazing that had it not been for this random finding in an old synagogue geniza, no one would have known that there was an original holiday established by the Baal Shem Tov, as evident from the letters.


These letters speak of a religious victory. And being supported by writ and six signatures of a who's who in the Chassidic world at that time, carried much weight. Furthermore, this holiday was to be not just a Chasssidic holiday but also a universal Jewish holiday because the issues of false-messianism were universal to all Jews.

One would have imagined that even if the general Jewish world had ignored this holiday, at least the Chassidim of the Baal Shem Tov would have observed it.

Apparently, one of the few groups which celebrate this holiday are those Chassidim from the Ruzhiner dynasty. The Cherson synagogue in which the geniza was located appears to have originally been a Ruzhiner synagogue, and most of the geniza collection was eventually purchased by them.

Yet mysteriously, this great Chassidic holiday was unknown or perhaps even overlooked by most of the other followers of the Baal Shem Tov.


One explanation, given in a letter by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1959, reads:

I have not heard a specific explanation for this, but it seems to me that it can be compared to the case of a festival whose form and manner of acceptance is fixed only after the passage of time.

The matter surfaces in an allusion made to it by our Sages when dealing with the miracle of Chanukah, the annual celebration of which was only instituted in the following year.
Now since its (the Tammuz 26 holiday) acceptance was in 5519 (1759), what emerges is that even before the first celebration of this festival was to take place, the passing of the Baal Shem intervened and the group disbanded.

We know something of the state of mind that existed among his disciples at that time.
We are speaking, then, of a date that never became the occasion of an actual celebration.”[5]

That probably is the best answer that one can give, and the Rebbe appears to have acknowledged that it may be inconclusive.

But it is still difficult to understand how Chassidim particularly, would have ignored a signed letter of the Baal Shem, declaring unequivocally, a festival for all future generations. One also wonders whether this standard of ‘waiting the year out’ applied to all the other Chassidic holidays as well?


I have put together the following chronological timeline to try to contextualise the letters:


Years earlier on, tensions between the rabbis and the Frankists[6] came to a head in 1743, when the Rabbinic Congress in Brody placed all those suspected of Sabbatean and Frankist heresy under a cherem or ban.  

[For more on the influential Sabbateans, see KOTZK BLOG 117]

This congress called for anyone with information on secret messianic cells to come forward and expose the deviant groups. The rabbis accused the 'messianic Jews' of wife swapping and adultery. They also proclaimed a ban against anyone studying Kabbalah under the age of forty.[7] This upset the Sabbateans and Frankists and they took their case to the Church for support.


These ‘messianic Jews’ argued that they were being persecuted by the rabbis and asked for Christian protection. 

The Frankists proclaimed that they rejected rabbinic and Talmudic writings, and only adhered to the mystical teachings of the Zohar. This, according to them, was quite compatible with the Trinity and Christianity.

Jacob Frank and his followers were duly taken under the protective wing of Bishop Kobielski, and in 1757 (two years prior to the Lvov debate) a debate or trial was held in Body, between the Frankists and the Rabbis.

According to Pinkas haKehilot, a certain Dr Abraham Uziel, who was a physician and a Talmudic scholar was charged with the duty of defending the rabbinical position. The presiding judge was Bishop Kobielski who apparently was greatly assisted by an earlier letter from the Pope - and the Frankists were declared the victors resulting in ten thousand volumes of the Talmud being burned.

Interestingly, in this account from Pinkas haKehilot, there is a section that has been expunged and removed for some reason, from the original text.

To complicate matters even further, just over a decade later: “A rabbinical assembly convening in Brody in 1772 excommunicated the followers of Hasidism, and Hasidic works were burned there.”[8]

(The description of events is staggering:  We move from accounts of the Frankists winning  debates and burning copies of the Talmud in Brody, and then two years later rabbis winning debates in Lvov and saving copies of the Talmud from being burned – to thirteen years later when some rabbis themselves were burning works written by the Chassidim, also in Brody!)


During the same year as the Brody debate and following the suggestion of R. Yaakov Emden(1697-1776), the Jews contacted Bishop Dembowski of Kamanets-Podolsk, and accused the Frankists of magic and immoral practices. 

This was presented as being a threat to both Judaism and Christianity.

It’s interesting to see that in the same year of 1757, both the Frankists in Brody and the rabbis in Kamanets-Podolsk, were alternately seeking support from the Church.

R. Emden’s plan, however, failed and Bishop Dembowski became emboldened by Frankist support. The tables were turned against the Jews with volumes of Talmud being burned once again.

Illustration of Bishop Dembowski drinking in celebration after burning volumes of the Talmud.(From Sefer Shimush by R. Yaakov Emden. Amsterdam 1757.

Years later, Augustus III of Poland also issued a decree which offered the Frankists further protection.

THE LVOV DEBATE (17 July 1759):

Historically, from sources other than the Cherson letters, we similarly see that a debate did indeed take place in Lvov from 17 to 19 July 1759. This corroborates the general description of the debate in the Cherson letters.

Jacob Frank came to Lvov for the debate but did not participate. 

For some reason, the Vatican got involved and the Jews were surprisingly treated rather well, with them being “obliged only to formulate a written response to the Frankists’ accusations.[9] 

As for the Frankists themselves, as a result of the Lvov debate, it was seen that some of their messianic ideas resonated with the Church and they were now considered as ‘eligible for conversion’ to Christianity. 

Voluntary baptisms began even before the debate was concluded, and Jacob Frank himself converted to Catholicism in the Lvov Cathedral on 17 September 1759. In all, about 3,000 Jews converted around this time, and were given “prerogatives of the gentry”.

However, there does not appear to be confirmation that the Baal Shem Tov participated in that debate, nor in any other debates!

According to Dubnow, the Jews were represented by R. Rapaport (as recorded in the letters) but no mention is made of the Baal Shem Tov’s participation.

Others similarly maintain that “the historicity of the Besht’s participation in this public debate is open to serious doubt.” [10]


As we have seen, according to the Cherson letters, the debate took place in Lvov.

However, there is a Breslov tradition that the Baal Shem Tov and R. Nachman of Horodenka (R. Nachman of Breslov’s grandfather) debated with the Frankists in Kamanets-Podolsk, which is about three hundred kilometres away from Lvov!

(Nachman of Breslov visited Kamanets-Podolsk forty years later in 1798, together with an anonymous student, both in disguise, as Jews were not permitted within city limits. They returned, apparently, to in order to perform ‘spiritual rectifications’ and to ‘cleanse’ the city from the previous Frankist presence.[11]) 

This account contradicts the version as presented by the Cherson letters, both in terms of the date, geographical location and disputants.


Even though the Breslov tradition differs from the Cherson letters, both accounts nevertheless do speak of the Baal Shem debating the Frankists.

There is also a document from R. Avraham of Shargorod which he sent to R. Yaakov Emden in which the Baal Shem Tov is mentioned as being involved in the debate.

According to Nathan Michael Gelber, besides the main disputants designated to represent the rabbis “...the community leaders invited the surrounding settlements to choose alternative disputants.”[12]  In some instances we know there were up to forty other rabbis also present. It is therefore not entirely unreasonable to think that the Baal Shem Tov could have been one of those ‘alternative disputants’. 

As to why we have largely ignored the Chassidic holiday established by the Baal Shem Tov after the Lvov victory, we are left with more questions than answers:

Why were there two letters in the Cherson geniza (with the name of the bishop varying from Sokolski to Tikulslki) with the exact same signatories effectively saying the same thing?

Why did R. Nachman record the debate of his great-grandfather the Baal Shem Tov as taking place in Kamenets-Podolsk and not Lvov as stated in the Cherson letters?

What Chassidim would ignore an instruction from the Baal Shem Tov?

The answers to all these questions revolve around one central issue:

- How reliable and authentic are the letters of the Baal Shem Tov as discovered in the Cherson Geniza?

According to Moshe Rosman:

Close inspection of the contents, form, and paper cast serious doubt on their genuineness, and today, outside of the Habad Hasidic movement, there are virtually no authorities who consider these letters anything other than forgeries...scholars examined the letters...attributed to the Baal Shem Tov and matched up the dates to the day of the week in which they were written...some of these dates coincided with Saturdays and other Jewish holidays in which writing is prohibited...the Gerrer Rebbe, Belzer Rebbe and Munkatcher Rebbe all took issue with the authenticity of these letters and I could not find any sources outside of Habad that suggested they were not forgeries.”[13]

According to Toledot haTenu’ah haFrankit[14], the alleged debates between the Baal Shem Tov and the Frankists did not take place at all.

Moshe Idel refers to the general writings found in the Cherson Geniza as ‘Kherson fabrications”.[15]

Astoundingly, R. Chaim Lieberman, the noted librarian and secretary of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, claimed to have met the ‘forger’ of the Cherson Geniza!

Could it be that the Baal Shem Tov’s debate with the Frankists never happened?

Could this be the real reason why the festival of 26 Tammuz was never established as a Chassidic holiday?



(Loose translation and paraphrase of Igerot Kodesh Vol. 8 p. 249)

"When I saw the almost three hundred letters (from the Cherson Geniza) which were in the possession of my father-in-law (the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe) - some of which he did not allow to be published – I knew without a doubt that they were authentic...

... I would want to present reasons which prove (that they are indeed authentic letters):

1.  We know all the people, who were involved in matters of Chassidism at that time who lived in Southern Russia near Odessa and Cherson, and none of those individuals would have been able to write (forge) these letters by themselves.

2. During that tumultuous time (of the Russian Revolution of 1917) it would have been almost impossible to acquire the parchment on which those letters were copied.[16]

The major argument of those who doubt the authenticity of these letters is that the dates do not correspond appropriately. Anyone who has ever worked on copying and editing will know that mistakes are likely to occur in about five percent of the work. This is especially the case where one copies in haste.

A forger, however, who would want to sell the writing to a Chassidic court where they have knowledge of Chassidic history, would have made the effort to ensure there were no mistakes as this would reveal the fact that the writing was a forgery. So the existence of mistakes actually proves their authenticity.
If one were to see the hundreds of letters at one time, which is how they were brought when sold to Lubavitch, would clearly see that they were not original as they were all in the same handwriting and on similar parchment. A forger would never have presented his work in such a way, especially if he wanted to sell them to a Chassidic court..."

In the collection of letters that were not published, there were kamiyot (mystical inscriptions) and other indications which were not common to the public but remained private and transmitted only from Rebbe to Rebbe, beginning with the Alter Rebbe (the first Rebbe of Chabad).

M. Schneerson.

ADAR 5714 (1954)


Days in Chabad – Historic Events in the Dynasty of Chabad-Lubavitch, Compiled by R. Yosef Y. Kaminetzky.

In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov: Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz.

Tormented Master, by Arthur Green.

Encyclopaedia Judaica.

Pinkas haKehilot.

Toledot haTenu’ah haFrankit, by Meir Balaban.


Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov, by Moshe Rosman.

[1] Apparently they were not all original writings, but many were said to be hand-copied from the originals.
[2] Personally, when I was in yeshiva, this was one of my favourite books to learn, because it afforded one with such insight of classical Chassidic values, rare to find elsewhere.
[3] HaTamim, Nissan 1935 Warsaw: vol. 2 p. 558 #342.
[4] HaTamim ibid.  p. 559, #126.
[5] Letter dated 8 Kislev 5720 (1959).
[6] I have used the terms Sabbateans and Frankists interchangeably because the two messianic sects were interrelated, although the latter were more extreme. As for the date of the Brody Rabbinical Congress in 1743, Frank would have only been 17 years old - so technically the Congress must have been primarily directed against the Sabbateans. Later, though, the Frankists would have fallen under the same ban.

[7] The Jewish Time Line Encyclopedia: A Year-by-Year Mattis Kantor, p. 223.

[8] See Encyclopaedia Judaica – Brody, Ukraine
[9] The Yivo Encyclopaedia of Jews in Eastern Europe – Frankists.
[10] (See In Praise of the Baal Shem, by Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz, p. 319.)
[11] According to Hillel Zeitlin, there were still Frankists living there, and R. Nachman visited with them in order to bring them back to Judaism. Rabbi Nachman wrote that he first had to visit Kamanets-Podolsk as preparation for his journey to the Land of Israel, almost like the mystical notion of ‘decent for the sake of ascent’. Also see Shivchey II 2, 3, which contains a censored reference to the controversy caused by the journey to Kamanets-Podolsk : “Everybody offered some explanation of it, some praising it, while others etc.” (See Tormented Master, by Arthur Green, p. 65.)
[12] See Encyclopaedia Judaica – Brody, Ukraine
[13] See: Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov, by Moshe Rosman
[14] p. 295 and 316.
[15] See R. Israel Baal Shem Tov; ‘In the State of Walachia’, by Moshe Idel.
[16] The original letters were apparently hidden and copies were hastily made.

Sunday 23 April 2017


Codex Cairensis compiled by Moshe Ben Asher, 895.


Before Moshe passed away he wrote thirteen Torah scrolls. One was given to each of the twelve tribes and the other was deposited in the Sanctuary. The Thirteenth Scroll served as the Master Copy against which all future Torah scrolls were to be checked.

Later this Thirteenth Scroll was placed in the Holy of Holies in the First Temple for safe keeping.
However, during the reign of King Achaz (578-562 B.C. E) there was a campaign to destroy all Torah scrolls, so the Kohanim of the Temple hid this precious Master Copy. 

It was only discovered one hundred years later by King Yoshia (around 458 B.C.E.) who - on threat of imminent invasion and attack on the Temple – hid Moshe’s Thirteenth Torah once again.

It remains hidden and has never been seen since.


After the destruction of the First Temple, during the subsequent seventy years of Babylonian Exile, there was a profound decline in Torah study and it became impossible to find accurate Torah scrolls. Ezra the Scribe then rose to the occasion and wrote a new Torah scroll which replaced Moshe’s Thirteenth Torah and it then served as the second Master Copy.

About four centuries later, just before the Second Temple was destroyed, it was discovered that there were, in fact, three scrolls - with slight variances - and no one knew for certain which one was Ezra’s Master Copy. It was decided to take two of the three scrolls which better matched each other, and that became the basis of the third subsequent Master Scroll.

During the persecutions which took place in the century following the destruction of the Second Temple it again became difficult to find accurate Torah Scrolls. This is why there arose some discrepancies between versions of some verses as recorded in our Torah compared to those same verses as quoted in some sections of the Talmud.


An example of Babylonian supralinear punctuation.

At that time, there were three primary schools of Hebrew text and vocalisation: One was in Babylonia, and another school was in southern Israel.[1] (Both these schools placed the nekudot or markings above the letters. This method of supralinear vocalisation, however, was no longer in popular usage after the eleventh century.)

The third and most authoritative school was in Tiberius which gave rise to the common system of vocalisation that we use today.

Ibn Ezra writes that; ‘The sages of Tiberius are the most accurate of all. From them came all our mesoras (traditions) and vocalisation.’

The Tiberius school was dominated by two families, Ben Naftali and Ben Asher and they had worked on the accuracy of Torah texts for generations. Their slightly different styles are recorded in Sefer haChilufin or Book of Differences. There are 867 differences and some examples follow:[2]

Eventually, a fourth Master Scroll was finally put together in Tiberius, written by Shlomo Ben Buya’a and corrected and annotated by Aaron (ben Moshe) Ben Asher[3] in 920 C.E.  Aaron Ben Asher was the last of five Ben Asher generations who had worked on the texts.[4]

Aaron Ben Asher’s accurate Codex became the basis for the Torah scrolls we use today.

This new Ben Asher Master Scroll was soon deposited in Jerusalem, in the Karaite synagogue where it remained until the First Crusade in 1099 when it was plundered and sold to the rich Jews of Cairo for a huge ransom.

This, now famous, Ben Asher Scroll was actually seen by Rambam (1135-1204) when he was in Cairo, and he wrote about it as follows:

Rambam Hil. Sefer Torah 8:4
Since I found many mistakes in the scrolls, and since there is much divided opinion[5]...The scroll that I relied upon is the well-known scroll found in Egypt...which was in Jerusalem beforehand for many years...This (scroll) was used as the standard text for the correction of Torah scrolls. Everyone relied on it as it had been corrected by Ben Asher himself who spent many years working on it. And I have relied on it for my personal Torah scroll that I wrote.”[6]

The Master Scroll of Ben Asher was later taken to Aleppo in Northern Syria where it became known as the Aleppo Codex.

[The above is a summary of my earlier article on The Aleppo Codex. For more details, see KOTZK BLOG 73) THE ALEPPO CODEX.]


When I first wrote about the Aleppo Codex, I was bothered by the Karaite connection. Why was such an important scroll handed over to the custody of the Karaites sect of Jerusalem?

The Karaites, as opposed to the Rabbanites, were a Jewish group which disregarded the Rabbinical Oral Tradition, and only relied on the literal meaning of the Biblical texts. It must be remembered that they were extremely influential and made up of the more elite and wealthy members of the Jewish community. At one stage they boasted more adherents than the ‘mainstream’ Rabbanites!

The date for the birth of the Karaite movement is usually given as around 770.

Karaism has been described as a ‘Muslim-influenced reform movement within Judaism[7], and initially, the adherents were known as Bnei Mikra, or Children of Scripture.  Karaites, or Kara’im in Hebrew, means: ‘readers of scripture’  –  or ‘people who call’, which again shows an Islamic Shiite influence, where the teacher is known as a da’i, or ‘caller’.[8]

Apparently one of the conditions of the transfer of the Ben Asher Master Scroll to the Karaites in Jerusalem was that they would allow free access to the scroll by the Rabbanites who would also need to peruse it from time to time in order to correct their Sifrei Torah.

I speculated that perhaps the reason why such an important document was given over to the Karaites was because they were known to be particularly concerned about the accuracy of Torah texts because they were literalists who only had the written Torah as their halachic Tradition.

However, upon further research, I discovered that the Karaite connection just wouldn’t go away.
The Ben Asher Scroll was not just housed in Jerusalem ‘for many years’, but it was ransomed by the Karaite Jews of Cairo, and again kept in a Karaite synagogue in that city![9]  



Likutei Kadmoniyot, by Simcha Pinsker 1860

Simcha Pinsker's dedication to his father and teacher, an 'expert Rabbi on Torah, Talmud and Spirituality, proficient at Revealed and  Mystical Wisdom, as well as Secular knowledge'.
Pivotal extract from Simcha Pinsker's Likutei Kadmoniyot.

No one seemed particularly bothered by the apparent Karaite connection until 1860, when Simcha Pinsker published his Likutei Kadmoniyot in which he documented Karaite literature and history. He maintained that, as a general rule, the grammarians of the Gaonic period[10] are usually considered to be Karaites unless there are clear indications that they were involved with Talmudic study. 

This was because the Rabbanites were not overly concerned with textual issues and focussed more of Talmudic issues. Later on, however, the Rabbanites did get more involved in textual matters as a response to the growing popularity of the Karaite movement.

Now people began to wonder whether Aron Ben Asher was perhaps a Karaite, as he doesn’t appear to have featured in the Talmudic world of the Gaonim!


From the Cairo Geniza fragments found in 1896, it appears that the Ben Asher family may have been a well known Karaite family extending back a number of generations, who were preoccupied with the preservation of accurate texts.

Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) known for his fierce debates with the Karaites,
published a work known as “Elrad Aleeh Ben Asher” or “A Polemic on Ben Asherreferring rather critically to a certain 'Ben Asher'. However, no one connected him to the famed Aaron Ben Asher of the (later to be known) Aleppo Codex - until the relatively recent discoveries in the Cairo Geniza in 1896:

One of Rav Saadia Gaon’s students, Yaakov Ben Shmuel mentions five names of Karaites with whom his teacher was arguing against, and who were living in Egypt at that time. One of them was a certain Abu Altaib Algabli whose Hebrew name was Shmuel Ben Asher.

In the Cairo Geniza, a fragment was discovered by Max L. Margolis, which identified Shmuel Ben Asher as one of the leaders of Karaite Community of Cairo!

Although not conclusive, this is taken by many as a strong indication that the Ben Asher family may have been Karaites.


Another indication that Aaron Ben Asher may have been a Karaite can be seen in a quote from his Sefer Dikdukei haTe'amim which reads:

"The prophets...complete the Torah, and are as the Torah, and we decide Law from them as we do from the Torah."

This sentence may previously have been overlooked as an innocuous statement, but after Simcha Pinsker’s publication and the Cairo Geniza findings, it may support the notion that Ben Asher may have been a Karaite - as Karaites certainly do 'decide law from the Torah' (as opposed to the Rabbinical interpretation of the Torah which relies on the Oral Tradition of the Talmud).

This is not an entirely compelling argument as the Rabbinites also base their Law on the Torah, although, because of the Oral Tradition, with more latitude and less literalism.

The interesting thing though, is that Ben Asher’s manuscripts containing his Sefer Dikdukei haTe’amim were similarly kept by Karaites, in Crimea[11]. This suggests a sense of Karaite ownership of all the Ben Asher texts (his Codex and his other writings)!

Another support for the view that Ben Asher may have been a Karaite is that his contemporaries referred to him by the title haMelamed, or teacher. This was a common honorary title used by Karaites but not by Rabbanites. (Some counter that he actually was a teacher of children as well, which accounts for him being called a melamed.)


I then found something very interesting, which may have relevance to our discussion:

There exists another slightly earlier Codex, known as the Cairo Prophets Codex (or Codex Cairensis) which was written according to its colophon[12], by Moshe Ben Asher – the father of Aaron Ben Asher.

This Codex, which was written in 895,[13] is not as complete as the Aleppo Codex of his son, as it only contains the Books of the Prophets (whereas the Aleppo Codex originally contained the entire Tanach).

Cairo Prophets Codex or Codex Cairensis compiled by Moshe Ben Asher, 895.

What is interesting is that the story of the Cairo Prophets Codex  almost exactly parallels the story of the Aleppo Codex:

It was similarly presented to the Karaite community in Jerusalem – it was also plundered by First Crusades in 1099 - and it was also later redeemed by the Karaite community of Cairo!

While there does appear to be some controversy regarding the Cairo Prophets Codex’s dating, if the colophon is to be believed, this would be further evidence of a Ben Asher/Karaite connection to another very important Codex, perhaps showing a precedent for Karaites as custodians of important Biblical texts.


Not everyone is happy with this alleged Karaite connection to the Ben Asher family:

One of the reasons why some take issue with the notion that Ben Asher may have been a Karaite, is that it was popularised by the secular historian, Graetz[14] who endorsed Simcha Pinsky’s theory. (I’ll leave it up to the Reader to decide if there is merit in that argument.)

Aron Dotan suggests that the ‘Ben Asher’ who is the target in Rav Saadia Gaon’s polemic was indeed another Ben Asher who was a Karaite, but it was not Aaron Ben Asher.[15]

Some say that there is no evidence of Karaite communities living in Tiberius ‘at any time’, and that the major immigration of Karaites was directed mainly towards Jerusalem. It therefore ‘does not seem reasonable’ that before this immigration took place there was already an established family of learned Karaite grammarians living in Tiberius.[16]



If Aaron Ben Asher indeed was a Karaite, it would create an astounding halachic conundrum because Karaites fall into a category known as minim, or heretics. The law is that if a Sefer Torah is written by a min, it is to be burned!

Does this mean that we have to burn the Ben Asher Master Copy?[17]

Perhaps this difficulty could be resolved by pointing out the Aleppo Codex was never intended to be used as a kosher Torah. It was written in book (as opposed to a rolled scroll) form and also contains notes and nekudot (vowel vocalisation), something a Torah scroll does not have. It is more of a Technical Manual and Text Book than a Torah Scroll.

Therefore it does not have to be burned.


Rambam (who like Rav Saadia Gaon, also debated - but more amicably - with the Karaites) was known to have had quite good relations with the Karaite community, and we know that he endorsed Ben Asher's Torah.

Rambam wrote:

Jews should show the Karaites the honour due to every human long as they deal sincerely with the traditional Jews...We should circumcise their children even on Shabbat...Since we must practice the commandment of brotherly love towards non-Jews, then how much more so to the Karaites. We are allowed to enjoy their wine, for they are not idolaters.”

So Rambam seemed to place Karaites in a halachic category very close to that of the Traditional Jews, and may not have had issues with Ben Asher because he was perceived as having ‘dealt sincerely’ with Rabbanites, and was therefore deemed trustworthy.

However, in his Commentary to the Mishna and his Mishneh Torah, Rambam does refer to Karaites as minim, or heretics!

One could answer that Rambam does distinguish between various types of Karaites, because he writes in a responsum that:

The Karaites who live in Alexandria, Cairo and Damascus should be treated with respect and approached with honesty (i.e. they can be trusted).”

Accordingly, Rambam may have trusted certain Karaites including particularly Aaron Ben Asher.


Moreover, even from the wording Rambam used in his Mishneh Torah (quoted earlier on) referring to the ‘well known text in Egypt which had previously been in Jerusalem for many years which was used by everyone to check their texts’ – ‘everyone’ would have known that both in Egypt and in Jerusalem the Ben Asher Codex was housed in Karaite synagogues!

And the Karaite synagogue was situated ‘within shouting distance’ of the Rabbanite synagogues in Cairo, which means that there would have been no secrets regarding the origins of the text - nor where the text was housed.

This would imply that ‘everyone’ must have known of some Karaite connection, at least relating to the housing if not to the writing of the Ben Asher Codex.


The debate over whether Aaron Ben Asher was a Karaite or not, only came to the fore after 1860 when Simcha Pinsker published his Likutei Kadmoniyot. It then intensified a few decades later after the discovery of the Cairo Geniza fragments which appeared to link Aaron Ben Asher to the Ben Asher criticised by Rav Saadia Gaon in his polemic.

But there does not appear to have been any debate on Ben Asher’s credentials during the 900 years prior to the late 1800s. This makes the debate a rather recent one. But that should not take away from the merits of the debate.

Assuming the Ben Asher family was indeed a known clan of influential and scholarly Karaites, it is absolutely astounding that our most critical Master Scroll was collated and edited by them.

To think that our Sifrei Torah today are textually derived from Karaite sources, would be difficult for many to comprehend.

If this is true, the question begs:

- Was Rambam ignorant of the apparent origins of the Master Scroll which he endorsed?

- Or was he aware of its origins yet confident enough to rely on the Karaites regardless, because they (some) Karaites were known to be experts and particular about the accuracy of their texts?

Whatever the answer, it does make for a fascinating study to think that our final Master Copy of the Torah text which we use today, came from Aaron Ben Asher who may indeed have been a Karaite!


A New Ben Asher Manuscript, by Moshe Haberman. Hakira vol. 21.

Ben Asher’s Creed – A Study of the Controversy, by Aron Dotan.

Sacred Trash – The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole.

A History of Palestine, 634-1099, by Moshe Gil.

[1] In the school of southern Israel, surviving manuscripts show the segol and tzere, the kametz and patach, are all used interchangeably, suggesting a pronunciation similar to modern Israeli Hebrew.
[2] Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, by Emanuel Tov, p. 44.
[3] Also known as Abu Sa’id in Arabic.
[4] The Ben Asher family began their textual work from the mid-700s.  For comparison, this was the same time as the Karaite movement was started by Anan ben David (715-795).
[5] Particularly regarding the ‘open’ and ‘closed’ sections. Some read the Mishneh Torah as Rambam endorsing only the 'open and closed sections and the songs' and nothing else!
[6] Laws of Sefer Torah, ch. 8. Hal. 4
[7] See Sacred Trash, by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, p. 153.
[8]Ironically, in their attempt to return to a pure, unadulterated Judaism, the Karaites ended up - in ways they could not have anticipated – introducing the contemporary Arabic intellectual and religious Zeitgeist into the bloodstream of Hebraic culture, as they drew both the inspiration and technique for this linguistic inquiry from the Islamic context in which they lived.
Nowhere is that irony more pronounced than in the association between ‘marginal’ Karaites and the Masoretes – the eighth- and ninth-century Tiberian scholars who standardised the biblical text...“  See Sacred Trash, ibid. p. 158.
[9] For more discussion on whether the synagogue in Cairo was Karaite or Rabbanite, see A History of Palestine, by Moshe Gil, p. 180. There is some debate over whether some of the colophons of the Aleppo Codex were forgeries in favour of either the Karites or Rabbanites.
[10] Gaonic Period (589 – 1038 CE).
[11] See A History of Palestine, by Moshe Gil, p. 179.
[12] Colophon definition: ‘Publisher's emblem or imprint, usually on the title page of a book'.
[13] However, according to the Hebrew University Bible project it is dated as from the 11th century, and is not ascribed to Moshe Ben Asher.
[14] Graets wrote this around 1870, which was about ten years after Simcha Pinsky.
[15] See Ben Asher’s Creed, by A. Dotan.
[16] See A History of Palestine, by Moshe Gil, p. 182.
[17] Ironically enough, there are allegations of the scroll being burned while still in Aleppo during the uprising of 1948, as well as other allegations.