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Harkavy, Avraham

(1835–1919), historian, public activist, and librarian. Avraham (Albert Iakovlevich) Harkavy was born into a wealthy and prominent family in Novogrudok, Minsk guberniia, where he received a typical religious education. As an adolescent he studied briefly at the Volozhin yeshiva before transferring in 1858 to the state-sponsored Vilna Rabbinical Seminary. In 1863, he enrolled at Saint Petersburg University, where he received a master’s degree in oriental studies in 1868. He then went to Berlin and Paris to study Egyptology and Assyriology. He returned to Saint Petersburg and was awarded a doctorate in 1872. After teaching briefly at the university, Harkavy was appointed to a position at the Russian Imperial Public Library and became the librarian of the Oriental and Semitic Department in 1877.

Harkavy’s first published book, Ob iazykie evreev zhivushikh v drevnee vremia na rusi (On the Language of the Jews Who Lived in Ancient Russia; 1865), argued that prior to the seventeenth century the Jews of Poland and Lithuania spoke the Slavic languages of their neighbors, and he concluded that the Jewish community of that region was descended from ancient Jewish settlements in the Caucasus and Crimea rather than from recent immigrants who had come from German lands. Harkavy followed the publication of his Russian-language monograph with a series of related articles in the Hebrew journal Ha-Karmel and a Hebrew-language translation of the book in 1867. His argument was subsequently refuted by Simon Dubnow, who showed that Yiddish had become the dominant language of daily use among Polish and Lithuanian Jews by the sixteenth century.

After publishing his master’s and doctoral theses as Skazaniia musul’man o slavianakh i russkikh (Muslim Narratives of Slavs and Russians; 1870) and O pervonachal’nom obitalishche semitov, indoevropeitsev i khamitov (On the First Residences of Semites, Indo-Europeans, and Hamites; 1872), Harkavy returned to the topic of early Jewish settlements in Eurasia with Skazaniia evreiskikh pisatelei o Khazarak i khazarskom tsarstvie (Narratives by Jewish Authors on the Khazars and the Khazar Kingdom; 1874). The work was again followed by a series of articles in Russian- and Hebrew-language journals. By this time, Harkavy had proven himself to be the leading scholar of medieval Semitic manuscripts and epigraphs in Russia.

In 1875, Harkavy turned his attention to the collection of Karaite documents, manuscripts, and gravestone inscriptions that the Karaite scholar Avraam Firkovich had deposited in the Imperial Public Library. Firkovich had used this collection to argue that Karaites had first settled in the Crimean peninsula during the reign of Persian king Cyrus the Great (580–529 BCE), meaning that Karaite settlement predated both the advent of Christianity and Slavic settlement in the region. Harkavy demonstrated on the basis of historical, geographical, and philological inconsistencies that the sources on which Firkovich based his claims were forgeries. His results were published as Altjüdische Denkmäler aus der Krim (Old Jewish Monuments of the Crimea; 1876); they caused a sensation both within Russia and abroad.

From 1880 on, Harkavy’s public activities and library duties began to take up most of his time. In 1880, he became chair of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia. He used this position to promote the field of Jewish history, calling for the collection of historical documents, establishing a commission for the study of Jewish history in Russia and Poland, and assisting in the publication of Russko-evreiskii arkhiv, a collection of primary source material on the history of Russian Jewry. During this period, he regularly contributed articles on early Jewish history to the Russian-language journal Voskhod and the Hebrew-language newspaper Ha-Melits.

Harkavy also published numerous critical editions of Judaica manuscripts from the collections of the Imperial Public Library, some of which dated from the later Gaonic and early ri’shonim periods, and included works by Samuel ha-Nagid and Sa‘adyah Gaon. During the last years of his life, Harkavy served on the editorial board of the Evreiskaia entsiklopediia (Jewish Encyclopedia), contributing numerous articles.

Suggested Reading

I. Berlin, “Avraam Iakovlevich Garkavy,” Evreiskaia starina 3 (1910): 592–598; David Magid, “Reshimat sifre A. A. Harkavi ve-ma’amarav,” in Zikaron le-Avraham Eliyahu, ed. David Gintsburg, vol. 1, pp. ix–lii (St. Petersburg, 1908).