Avraam Samuilovich Firkovich (seated at right) with other Karaites. From Description ethnographique des peuples de la Russie (Ethnographic Description of the Peoples of Russia), by Theodore de Pauly (St. Petersburg: F. Bellizard, 1862). Illustration by C. Huhn, lithographed by J. B. Kuhn. (The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary)

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Firkovich, Avraam Samuilovich

(1787–1875), Karaite author and collector of ancient manuscripts. Avraam Firkovich was born in Łuck; his family, though possessed of a long and distinguished lineage, was poor, and Firkovich did not receive much education in his childhood. After his marriage in 1808, Firkovich worked as a miller in Volhynia. In 1813 he studied Torah with the prominent Karaite scholar Mordekhai Sultanskii, with whom he eventually quarreled. Firkovich moved to the Crimean city of Gözleve in 1822, and in 1825 was appointed ḥazan (head) of the local Karaite community (although ḥazan refers to a cantor in Rabbinite communities, for the Karaites the term refers instead to the head of a community). He used his status to submit memorandums suggesting to the Russian government that it resettle Rabbinite Jews from the border areas and recommended that they be forced into agriculture, a measure that he thought would prevent them from involvement in smuggling (Rabbinite Jews, who practiced rabbinic rather than scripture-based Judaism, were scorned by Karaites).

In 1830, the Karaite ḥakham (spiritual leader) Simkhah Babovich invited Firkovich to accompany him on a pilgrimage to the Land of Israel. During their travels to Jerusalem, Hebron, and Cairo, Firkovich purchased and transcribed a variety of ancient books. By 1832 he had moved to Constantinople, where he served as ḥazan, ritual slaughterer, and teacher. After a conflict with the local community, he returned to Crimea, where he organized a society for the publication of Karaite books. In 1834 he was appointed head of the Karaite publishing house in Gözleve and published his virulently antirabbinic book Ḥotam tokhnit, in which he accused the Rabbinites of crucifying Jesus and killing Anan ben David, the Babylonian Jewish scholar and founder of the anti-rabbinic Ananite sect. When in 1839 Mikhail Vorontsov, the governor general of the Novorossiia region and Crimea, sent the Karaite Spiritual Consistory questions concerning the Karaites’ history, Firkovich was appointed to investigate the answers and to collect manuscripts, tombstone inscriptions, and other relics in Crimea and Caucasia in order to compose an account of Karaite history.

In the course of his work Firkovich created a new version of the origins of the Crimean Karaites, according to which they had settled in Crimea in the first century BCE and could not, therefore, have shared responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus. Firkovich wanted to convince the officials that the Karaites were a separate nation that was historically, culturally, and anthropologically different from the Jews. He was the first Karaite author to apply scientific research methodology to effect an improved legal status for his congregation. However, to substantiate his claims, Firkovich fabricated colophons and falsified some of the tombstone inscriptions; his corpus of Crimean tombstone inscriptions, Avne zikaron (1872), is one such example. Firkovich also invented major figures of Karaite history, including Yitsḥak Sangari (allegedly the character in Yehudah ha-Levi’s Ha-Kuzari who converted the king of the Khazars to Judaism); according to Firkovich’s theory, Sangari converted the Khazars to the Karaite version of Judaism and died in Chufut-Kale.

Firkovich’s theories and discoveries aroused vehement controversy; indeed, many scholars claimed that some of the items in his collections were forgeries or fabrications. Nevertheless, the manuscripts that he delivered to prominent scholars for publication, as well as the ensuing discussions about the authenticity of his materials, stimulated the development of Jewish studies in Russia and Western Europe.

Firkovich’s collection is considered to be one of the most valuable sources of Hebrew manuscripts. It contains thousands of rabbinic, Karaite, and Samaritan manuscripts and Torah scrolls from Crimea, Caucasia, and the Middle East. It is housed in the Russian National Library in Saint Petersburg, together with his private archive, and was opened to researchers only after the beginning of perestroika. Firkovich died in Chufut-Kale and was buried in the necropolis in the Jehoshaphat valley.

Suggested Reading

Efraim Deinard, Toldot Even-Reshef: Hu Avraham [ben] Shemu’el Firkovits (Warsaw, 1875); Abraham Kahana, “Two Letters from Abraham Firkovich,” Hebrew Union College Annual 3 (1926): 359–370; Dan Shapira, Avraham Firkowicz in Istanbul (1830–1832): Paving the Way for Turkic Nationalism (Ankara, 2003).