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The Khazars

It was in the days when it took a month to travel from London to Rome that our story begins. Thirty days from London to Rome – and this is what could have been called the civilized, best developed part of Europe.

Why did it take so long to make this journey?

The Roads were nothing more than dirt trails in the summer and mud holes in the winter. Carriages were large and clumsy, rode on iron tires and had no springs. They were so uncomfortable, however ornate, that most people preferred to travel on horseback.

Travel by sea also took a long time, and both land and sea travel were made more torturous by piracy on the waterways and banditry on the roads. The frequent wars which plagues mankind made transportation by land and sea even more undependable and physically exhausting – and of times dangerous.

To have penetrated the wilds of Russia of those times was an even more staggering task. Yet it was to this primitive, trackless land that a letter from Spain was being delivered in the year 960.

The letter had been written by a distinguished Jew in the Spanish city of Cordoba, Chasdai Ibn Shaprut (915-975). This brilliant diplomat, courtier, scholar and patron of learning was the Kissinger in the court of the Caliph Abd-ar-Rachman. His diplomatic skill and mastery of Hebrew, Arabic and Latin made him one of the most powerful international personalities of his day. It was only through him that the major European and Byzantine monarchs could have contact with his monarch, whose power had become so decisive because of Ibn Shaprut ‘s supreme diplomatic acumen.

But Ibn Shaprut never forgot for one moment that he was first and foremost a Jew. His Jewish learning was deep and broad; his devotion to his people and his heritage was boundless. Through his patronage of Jewish learning and scholarship Ibn Shaprut opened the period in Jewish history that was to be known as the Golden Age of Jewish history. Yet in the midst of all his power, wealth and glory, Ibn Shaprut was nonetheless pained by the tragic fact of Jewish homelessness and vulnerability. a question he constantly asked himself was: Could the Jewish people not be consoled by the knowledge that somewhere on earth there existed a Jewish community which was free to rule itself?

And then, sometime after the beginning of the second half of the tenth century, there began to filter through to him dim, unconfirmed reports of an independent Jewish kingdom deep in the wilds of Russia. It was situated in the territory bounded by the Sea of Azov, the river Don and the lower part of the Volga River, the Caspian Sea and the northern Caucasus.

His joy knew no bounds when envoys from the Byzantine Empire told him that there does indeed exist a Jewish kingdom fifteen days journey from Constantinople, and whose king bears the Jewish name Joseph. It was a very strong kingdom; its king was called the Hagan, and the Byzantine Empire had an alliance and good commercial relations with the kingdom of the Khazars, as it was known.

Ibn Shaprut, burning with eagerness to get in touch with King Joseph, now began an intensive search for reliable couriers who would bring a letter to the newly-discovered kingdom of the Jews. A kind fate soon came to his assistance.

A mission from one of the Slavic kingdoms on the Danube River came to Cordoba; two members of this mission were Jews. These men also knew about the Khazars, and undertook to deliver the letter from Ibn Shaprut to King Joseph. They would bring it to friends of theirs in Hungary; from there, via Bulgaria, it would reach Russia.

It is one of the miracles of Jewish history that this correspondence has been preserved. We have the complete texts of Ibn Shapruts letter to King Joseph, and the kings answer to the Jewish statesman in Spain. Ibn Shaprut, of course, wrote in Hebrew. But to his gratified amazement the reply was also in Hebrew!

At this point we must digress for a bit in order to answer the question: How is it possible for you, gentle reader, to study an exchange of letters which took place more than one thousand years ago? The answer constitutes one of the fascinating sidelights of the cultural history of mankind.

Think of a book which you have been reading this week. The merits, or demerits of this work will determine whether or not this book will also be available to your children and grandchildren. Even though we possess the technical gift known as printing, we cannot guarantee that once a volume has come off the press it will remain immortal. On the contrary, printing has been a mixed blessing. Will Durant, in his Story of Civilisation, enumerates the many changes which printing has effected in the history of mankind, and concludes with the words:

And, after speech, it (printing) provided a readier instrument for the dissemination of nonsense than the world has ever known until our time.

In the days before Gutenberg’s invention works which were meaningful and in demand were copied and re-copied by scribes generation after generation. The best example is the Bible. For almost 3,000 years, this work was written on papyrus and parchment scrolls – much like our Torah and Megillot today -in various parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. The fact that it was written on parchment meant that each copy could endure for centuries. Parchment manuscripts were expensive to produce, hence they were carefully preserved. In the monasteries, the copyist worked only during the day. They were afraid to work by candlelight lest the manuscripts be damaged or destroyed by the flame of the candles.

From the days of antiquity until the end of the Middle Ages, the word "library" usually meant a private or monastic collection of a few hundred scrolls and finally, books whose leaves were either papyrus or parchment sheets and later rag-paper and paper. The closest approximation in the days of antiquity to the world’s great libraries of today, with their millions of books, was the library in Alexandria, which had a few hundred thousand scrolls. However, since a scroll contained only a fraction of the material found in an ordinary volume, we can realise that the Alexandrian library, therefore housed the modern equivalent of a small university library.

Voluminous works, such as the Talmud, were preserved from generation to generation in the same way. And of course, the works of other civilisations followed the same course. It is also true that many valuable works were lost. This happened, not because there was no demand for them, but because there might have been but a few copies of these works and they were destroyed in wars; looted and burned, stolen and then left to rot away; carried away by their owners who migrated from one country to another because of persecution, plagues and prosperity-hunting. Thus, for example, one of the most precious manuscripts in the world is the Lindisfarne Gospels, written at the end of the seventh century in a monastery in Northern England. In 875 the Danes invaded the area and destroyed the monastery. The monks fled, taking with them whatever they could, including this masterpiece of illuminated writing which is today in the British Museum. In the course of their flight, the monks dropped the manuscript into the sea and only by a miracle was it recovered at low tide.

To make the picture a complete one, however, we must indicate that the number of extant manuscripts does not always accurately reflect the status of the author. Such was the case concerning the greatest lyric poet of the Roman Empire, Caius Valerius Catullus, who lived in the first century B.C.E. Of his works only a single copy came down to the days of printing.

Fortunately for Jewish historiography (the writing of history) the Ibn-Shaprut-King Joseph correspondence was of such tremendous interest and importance that enough copies were made and preserved until in 1577 it was published in printed form. The man responsible for this was one of those fabulous personalities whit which the Jewish people has been blessed throughout its history – Isaac Akrish (1489-1578?). He was a tremendous scholar and a lover and collector of books and manuscripts. And he was a constant traveller, even though lame in both legs, and at a time when travel was difficult and dangerous. He was born in Spain; exiled in 1492 with his family to Naples; and later in life – as a respite from his wanderings – lived in Egypt for ten years. He served as a private tutor to the children and grandchildren of the Chief Rabbi of Cairo, David Ibn Zimra.

While in Cairo, he came upon a collection of Hebrew manuscripts which had obviously been neglected for some centuries by the indolent community of Cairo. Upon examination Akrish found that he had come upon a treasure-trove which contained priceless manuscripts of all sorts, including copies of the correspondence between Ibn Shaprut and King Joseph. When Rabbi Ibn Zimra left Egypt to settle in Safed, Palestine, Akrish took up his wanderer’s staff again, and set off for Constantinople, which was a centre of Hebrew publishing. It was here, in 1577, that the material discovered by Akrish, including the letters, was published. Indeed, the Jewish people will never be able to repay the dept it owes to this modest, almost-forgotten scholar.

We now return to the letters (in excerpt).

After a very flowery address to the king of the Khazars, Ibn Shaprut begins with a geographical description of his own land, its distance from Constantinople; its resources, and commercial activity – especially the cultivation of silk – and the fortunate political situation enjoyed by the Jews under the rule of the Moslem kings. He then continues:

I am the one who receives the gifts brought from the various rulers and it is from me that they receive their compensation. May I give praise to the Lord Who has shown me His kindness, not because of my righteousness, but because of His great mercies. I constantly inquire of all emissaries who bring gifts as to the welfare of our brothers who have not yet found peace and freedom in various lands. Then I heard from commercial emissaries from Kharason (an area near Persia –) of a Jewish kingdom called Khazaria. I did not believe them, but rather suspected that they told me this story only in order to ingratiate themselves with me. I doubted the whole matter until emissaries bringing gifts from Constantinople and a letter from their emperor informed me that the story was true; that the Khazar kingdom was fifteen days journey by sea from Constantinople, but on land the two kingdom were separated by many nations. The king; that the Khazar kingdom was fifteen days journey by sea from Constantinople, but on land the two kingdom were separated by many nations. The king’s name is Joseph, and many ships sail between Khazaria and Constantinople, bringing fish, furs and various goods.

When I heard this, I was filled with renewed strength and my hopes rose. I bowed down to the Lord in thanks, and began inquiring for an emissary to send to your land in order to find out about the king and his servants.

The emissary who was sent on this mission went by way of Constantinople, where he was detained for six months on malicious pretexts by the emperor, who finally convinced the emissary that the journey was too dangerous and sent him back empty-handed to Spain. Ibn Shaprut then tells of the assistance given him by the two emissaries from the Slavic kingdom who undertook to have the letter delivered to King Joseph.

Now I have written this letter to my lord the king in the hope that my request may not burden you. May it please you to inform your servant about all matters concerning your land; the origin of your people, and the story of your dynasty. Please let me know about the size of your country; about walled cities and open cities; does it have rivers and rain; about the size of your army. Do not be angry that I enquire about the number of your soldiers (may the Lord increase their number!) I ask this only because I should like to delight in the increase of the numbers of Jews.

Have the neighbouring islands also accepted Judaism? Do you alone act as judge of your people, or do you appoint other judges? What is your form of worship? Do you wage war against other nations, and does the waging of war annul the observance of Shabbat?

How many kings have reigned before you, and how long did each one reign? What language do you speak?

May the king live forever. I should have liked to ask many more questions had I not feared to burden my lord the king. I have already spoken too much, and I confess it. Enduring peace to my lord the king, to him and his seed, his household and his throne unto eternity. May he rule over his kingdom for many years, together with his children in the midst of all Israel.


King Joseph’s answer, as indicated above, was also written in Hebrew. Whether the king himself wrote this letter, or had a scholarly scribe write it for him, we shall never know. What is important are the contents. This letter laid at rest a legend that had been spread by a traveller of the tenth century, Eldad Hadani, that the Khazars were descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel. You will note as you read what the origin of these people was.

To Rabbi Hasdai, Prince of the Diaspora, son of Isaac, son of Ezra the Spaniard, who is gracious unto us and honoured in our midst…

I wish to inform you that your honoured letter has reached us by the hand of Jacob ben Eliezer of the land of Germany. We rejoiced with it, and we delighted in your wisdom and understanding.

We shall answer you point by point, an answer, we hope, which will indicate our delight and joy in your wisdom.

You ask from what people we are descended. We are the descendants of Japhet (one of the three sons of Noah. The Jews are descended from Noah’s son Shem-hence Semitic.).

The father of our nation was Khazar. Our annals tell that in his day our people were very few, and the Almighty gave them strength and power and they waged war against nations that were greater and more powerful than they were. With the help of God they drove them across the Don River and inherited their lands. After a few generations we had a king whose name was Bulan, who was a wise and God-fearing man. He abolished all idol-worship from the land.

Now Bulan once dreamt that an angel appeared to him and said to him : "God has sent me to you to tell you : I have heard your prayers end entreaties, and I shall bless you and protect your kingdom forever. When you awake in the morning, pray to me." And he did so.

The angel then appeared a second time to him and said : "I have seen your ways and am pleased with them. I wish to give you commandments and laws, which, if you observe them, will bring you blessing and increase."

Bulan answered the angel saying : "You know my thoughts and innermost beliefs, and you know that I have trusted in none but God. But the people over whom I rule are pagans ; I do not know if they will follow me. If it please the Almighty to have mercy upon me, let him inspire the prince who leads these pagans to assist me."

The Almighty fulfilled the wish of King Bulan, and He appeared to the prince in a dream. When the prince awoke the next morning he came to the king told him of his dream. The king gathered all the princes and his retainers and his entire nation. He told them oh his dreams, and they all consented to accept the new faith in one God.

Using the spoils of war, Bulan built a sanctuary to God, and made an Ark for the Torah, a Menorah and other holy vessels, all of which serve us to this very day.

Now the King of Persia and the Moslem Caliph wanted Bulan to accept their forms of belief in the One God. Whereupon King Bulan invited a Persian and a Moslem holy man to learn more about their faiths. Each one refuted the claims of the other. The king then decided to discuss the matter with each one separately. "Tell me", he said to the Persian holy man, "which is the purer faith, Judaism or Islam ?" The Persian answered, "May the king live forever. Know that in all the world there is no faith like the Jewish faith. God chose the Jews from all the peoples and performed miracles for them in Egypt and in the wilderness ; gave them the Torah and brought them to the land of Canaan, where He resided in the Temple they built for Him." Bulan thanked him and then sent for the Moslem Kadi, to whom he set the same question : "Which is the purer faith – Judaism or the Persian faith ?" And the answer was the same. And then in the presence of all his people Bulan repeated these questions to the Mohammedan and the Persian and all the people heard the answers.

"Know yes, therefore" , said King Bulan, "I have already chosen the Jewish faith, which was the faith of Abraham." From that day all the males were circumcised and teachers were brought to instruct the people in the Law and then commandments. To this day we faithfully observe all the precepts of the true faith of God, praised be His name.

A later king, Obadiah, strengthened the kingdom and organised religious life according to the strictest law. He built synagogues and study-halls, brought scholars to the land who interpreted the Bible, the Misnah and the Talmud and taught the correct form of prayers.

King Joseph then goes on to explain in detail the boundaries of his land, the peoples who are subservient to him, and the extent of his military power which was great enough to hold back the Russians. Christians and Moslems had complete freedom and had their own judges. He describes the tremendous fertility of the land due, not to rain, but to the many rivers therein. He then closes his letter in a vein which reflects the deepest attachment to the Jewish tradition, employing a phraseology which could have been uttered by a Rabbi.


May the God of Israel hasten his deliverance and gather together our dispersions and scattered brethren in our lifetime and your lifetime and in the lifetime of the entire House of Israel who love His name.

You mention in your letter that you are very eager to meet me. I too long to see your gracious countenance and the splendour of your greatness and wisdom. May it be as you have said. Were I to have the privilege of being near you and to gaze upon your benign and honoured face, you would be like a father unto me and I would be your son. My entire nation would obey you and by your word would I go forth and by your wise counsel would I return. – Much peace unto you.


Let us now sum up the story of Jewish kingdom in Russia with a few facts which have been established by historians.

It was about the year 679 that the Khazars reached the zenith of their power. About that time the king (or as he was called, the hagan) and his grandees accepted the Jewish faith. Bulan was converted to the faith of Abraham in a rather basic, if not crude, manner. His grandson, Obadiah, was responsible for the adoption of the complete code of Jewish observance. Soon after his death the same Russians who until his time had been held at bay by the Khazar kingdom began their offensive. It was the beginning of the end of Khazaria, because within a few years most of the Khazar territory was in the hands of the spreading kingdom of Kiev. But it seems that the remnants of his kingdom held out until it was finally wiped out in the irresistible conquests of Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. Previous to the Mongol invasion, and especially after it, the Khazars began to disperse to neighboring lands.

Teir origin was a matter of controversy. Some historians concluded that they were of Turkish stock; others maintained that they were of the Finnish group, and the latest theory puts them into the Bulgarian-Hungarian tribes of Europe. Medieval Italian traders, who were very active in the southern part of Russia, contunued to call that area "Gazaria" (Italian ‘g’=kh) until the fifteenth century.

Curiously enough, much has been written and studied about the Khazars in Soviet Russia, where Jewish historical research generally has been suspended for more than fifty years.

As a postscript to this story we must add that the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism served as the framework for one of the greatest books in Jewish history – Sefer Hakuzari (the Book of the Khazars) by the greatest poet of Jewry, Judah Halevi. This towering figure of Spanish Jewry was not only a recognised physician and the prince of poets, but also a distinguished philosopher. In seeking to write a work explaining the principles of the Jewish religion, he fastened upon the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism, and then presents his philosophy as a dialogue between the king and a rabbi who had been invited by the former to answer questions about the Jewish religion. For the Jewish people, it is mainly through the study of this great work that the memory of the vanished Khazar kingdom still lives.






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