Anan ben David is generally regarded as one of the most important (if not the most important) figure in the Karaite movement. Although he is often mistakenly referred to as the founder of it, he was in fact not. Nonetheless, he was, and continues to be, highly venerated by most Karaite communities- especially those of the Near East. This veneration stemmed from the fact that he was the first of the non-Rabbanites to supply a Halakhic manual for the movement (called ספר המצוות The Book of Precepts) and secondly (and perhaps more importantly) he was from the line of the exilarchs-direct descendants of the Royal house of Judah and of the seed of King David.
ʿAnan ben David
was active in Baghdad
during the reign of the city’s founder, the second Abbasid caliph, al-Manṣūr (r. 754–775). Starting in the twelfth century, Karaite historiography held that ʿAnan
was an Exilarch
and credited him with founding the Karaite movement in Iraq
Iraq/Babylonia and the Karaite community in Jerusalem. Prior to the twelfth century, however, Karaites made a definite distinction between themselves and ‘Anan
. They described him as having founded the ʿAnanites (Heb. ʿananiyyim
; Ar. al-ʿananiyya
), one of the many religious sects in Babylonia and Persia (Iran/Persia
) at the beginning of the gaonic period. The early Karaites held that the community in Jerusalem was founded in the last quarter of the ninth century by the Mourners of Zion (Heb. aveley ṣiyyon
), who originally came from Iraq and Persia.
Early Karaite sources referred to ʿAnan
as an exilarch, but while he was indeed a member of the Davidic house, he never held that lofty office. The early Karaites saw ʿAnan
as a forerunner of their movement, an innovator who first propounded the idea that the Oral Law was created by men and, concomitantly, rejected the rabbinic chain of tradition extending back to Sinai, arguing that it only distanced people from the Bible. According to Karaite tradition, the Rabbanites tried to kill him, but were unsuccessful
rejected the Rabbanite laws (Heb. halakhot)
based in the Talmud and wrote his own law book in Aramaic, Sefer ha-Miṣvot
(The Book of Commandments). In his commentary on Psalms 69:1, the Karaite Salmon ben Jeroham
(10th century) maintained that since ʿAnan
was the first to return to the Bible, his path was not easy, and in many halakhic areas he continued to follow the practices of the talmudic sages. The Karaite scholar and encyclopedist Jacob al-Qirqisānī
(10th century) stressed that the members of his movement were not the only ones who acknowledged ʿAnan
’s close affinity to the teachings of the talmudic rabbis. According to al-Qirqisānī, Hayy Gaon (apparently Hayy ben
Nahshon, 886–896) and his father found that only one of the halakhot
’s Sefer ha-Miṣvot
did not have a source in the rulings of the talmudic sages, and they eventually discovered the basis for that exceptional one in the piyyuṭim
(Heb. liturgical poems) of Yannai, who was active in Palestine at the end of the Byzantine period. The adoption of Palestinian halakhot
that had been rejected in Babylonia was also a characteristic of early Karaite halakha
. An entirely different picture of how the geonim related to ʿAnan
’s law book is found in the prayerbook of Amram ben Sheshna Gaon
, which citesNaṭronay bar Hilay Gaon
(853–861) as stating that ʿAnan
told his students: “Leave aside the words of the Mishna and the Talmud, and I will make you a Talmud of my own.” Naṭronay denounced Sefer ha-Miṣvot
as Sefer To’evot
(Book of Abominations), and ruled that ʿAnan
’s followers should be ostracized.
It is difficult to form an opinion about ʿAnan
’s teachings because only fragments of his Sefer ha-Miṣvot
are extant. Most of what is known about his teachings is second-hand, derived from Karaite works, Rabbanite polemics, and some scant references by Muslims. It is important to note that the early Karaites criticized ʿAnan
for so closely following the Rabbanite halakha on many issues. Daniel al-Qūmisī
, a founder of the Karaite movement and one of its first adherents to settle in Jerusalem, was a very harsh critic of ʿAnan
within the Karaite camp. In his commentary on the Book of Daniel, he claimed that if ʿAnan
was indeed an “enlightener” (Heb. maskil
), then he was a failed enlightener, “because he was the first.” But al-Qūmisī doubted whether ʿAnan
was actually an enlightener at all. According to al-Qirqisānī, al-Qūmisī initially admired ʿAnan
as the “head of the enlighteners” but later changed his mind and referred to him as “head of the benighted.” As it happens, some of the Qumran scrolls were discovered around the time al-Qūmisī arrived in Palestine. If he had an opportunity to read them, perhaps they were what led to his separation from ʿAnan
. Influenced by the scrolls that had fallen into his hands, he developed a messianic doctrine and in addition adopted some of the halakhot he found in the scrolls.
A study of early Karaite writings shows that the halakhic rulings ʿAnan
made in light of his biblical interpretations were the basis for the discussion of almost every halakhic issue. Often ʿAnan
’s stand would be challenged or condemned; nonetheless, the fact that such deliberations began with a representation of his method demonstrates that his teachings were part of the Karaite curriculum.
The Karaites’ reliance on ʿAnan
did not escape the notice of their Rabbanite rivals. In the Kuzari
Judah ha-Levi wonders how the Karaites could have abandoned the venerable majority tradition of the talmudic sages with its reliance on the prophets in favor of the later tradition of a few individuals like ʿAnan
and Benjamin al-Nahāwandī
. Interestingly, despite the importance of ʿAnan
’s doctrines to the Karaites of the tenth and eleventh centuries, it is obvious that many of them, in both Iraq and Palestine, did not have direct access to his writings until the mid-eleventh century, and that they referenced his statements from secondary sources. Only the Karaite Jeshua ben Judah
, who was active in Jerusalem in the mid-eleventh century, actually quoted directly from Sefer ha-Miṣvot
. A further confirmation of the Karaites’ lack of access to ʿAnan
’s writings is the statement by al-Qirqisānī attributing a book on transmigration of souls to ʿAnan
but admitting that he himself had never seen it.
As mentioned, Karaite sources referred to ʿAnan
as exilarch. However, an anonymous Rabbanite source, which should almost certainly be ascribed to Saʿadya Gaon
, claimed that ʿAnan
founded his own movement out of resentment because the rabbis of his generation had not appointed him to the exilarchate, selecting his brother Hananiah instead. The Karaite genealogical record affirmed thatʿAnan
was the grandson of Ḥisday and the great-grandson of Bustanay
, the first exilarch after the Muslim conquest. Bustanay had two wives, one Jewish, and the other of Persian origin. Since Ḥisday was the son of the Jewish wife, ʿAnan
’s enemies could not claim that he was not a Jew, an allegation opponents often hurled at the descendants of Bustanay’s Persian wife generations after Bustanay’s death.
According to the Epistle (Iggeret
) of Sherira Gaon
, Solomon ben
’s uncle) was exilarch from 730 to 757. Naṭronay ben
Ḥavivay, Bustanay’s great-grandson by his Jewish wife, was deposed from the exilarchate before 771, in favor of a descendant of his Persian wife. Moshe Gil has posited that Ḥavivay, Naṭronay’s father, was in fact Ḥaninay, that is, Hananiah, ʿAnan
’s brother, who was appointed exilarch instead of ʿAnan
and who served in office for about two years (760–762). The certainty that ʿAnan
was a member of the exilarchic house is reinforced by Rabbanite sources, which recount that his grandson Daniel was a Rabbanite exilarch in the first quarter of the ninth century, and that his great-grandson Ṣemaḥ ben
Josiah (Josiah was Daniel’s brother) served as gaon
of the Palestinian yeshiva for thirty-one years, until about 893. Ṣemaḥ held the title of nasi
, signifying that he was a member of the Davidic house. The fact that ʿAnan
’s descendants held these distinguished positions within the Rabbanite establishment until the end of the ninth century led Gil to cast doubt on the early Karaite statements crediting ʿAnan
with founding the ʿAnanite movement.
The Muslim scholar al-Bīrūnī (d. after 1050) attributed the founding of the ʿAnanites to another ʿAnan
II) who was the son of the exilarch Daniel, ʿAnan ben David
’s grandson. According to al-Bīrūnī,ʿAnan
II was active at the end of the ninth century. To date, this is the only source referring to him, and nothing whatsoever is known about his offspring. Gil believes that the descendants of the exilarch from ʿAnan
’s branch of the family only joined the Karaites in the ninth century, beginning with Daniel andʿAnan
II. The offspring of Ṣemaḥ and Jehoshaphat ben
Josiah are known to have headed the Karaite community in Jerusalem and to have had the title of nasi
. Gil maintains that they inflated ʿAnan
’s contribution to the Karaite movement even though it had no basis in historical fact. In a Judeo-Arabic letter by a Rabbanite in Jerusalem, dated 1057, the author, referring to the Karaite Mourners of Zion community there, claims that the Karaites in his city were adopting the laws of ʿAnan
, “the head and ancient founder of the Karaites (Heb. qadmon ha-qara’im
),” in matters of incest, but could not explain why they were doing so. This may be the first solid evidence that the Mourners of Zion community in Jerusalem already viewed ʿAnan
as their founder.
If we accept the contention of the early Karaites that ʿAnan
did indeed establish a movement, then the assertion of the Rabbanite polemicist that ʿAnan
’s sole reason for doing so was because he had not attained the coveted title of exilarch is nothing more than polemics, pure and simple. The founding of the ʿAnanites should be considered within the context of the unrest that pervaded the Jewish communities conquered by the Muslims. ʿAnan
was active at a time when Muslim religious law was taking shape. Minor circles within Islam opposed the idea of basing Muslim religious law on oral tradition, the ḥadīth
, maintaining that the Qur’ān was the sole source for religious law. In orthodox Muslim circles, too, a struggle arose over the status of the oral tradition. The Rabbanite narrative about ʿAnan
’s struggle with his brother Hananiah reported that the caliph, viewing this conflict as a revolt against the caliphate, imprisoned ʿAnan
and condemned him to death. ʿAnan
was saved, according to this account, by a Muslim scholar who told him that if he claimed to have founded a new sect in Judaism, his sentence would be commuted and he could go free. A Karaite source no earlier than the fourteenth century claims that this Muslim was none other than Abū Ḥanīfa, the founder of the Hanifi legal school and one of the scholars who relegated the ḥadīth to a lower status within Islam. He called upon Muslim judges to use discretion (Ar. ra'y
) based on wisdom. Furthermore, he madeanalogy (Ar. qiyās
) a juridical tool of the utmost importance in legal reasoning. Whether or not ʿAnan
actually met Abū Ḥanīfa, it seems that Muslim circles like his had some influence on ʿAnan
’s doctrine. In Moses Zucker’s opinion, ʿAnan
’s method of analogy is not based on the traditional talmudic method, but rather upon Abū Ḥanīfa’s. The idea of applying intellect to the study of the Bible, which in many instances means the use of the method of analogy, can be discerned in ʿAnan
’s teachings and from the saying the Karaites ascribed to him: “It is best to search in the Torah.” According to Sa`adya, as cited by al-Qirqisānī, the scriptural proof-text used by ʿAnan
and Benjamin al-Nahāwandī justifying the use of analogy for determining halakhot
was: “If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures” (Proverbs 2:4).
Islamic influences were much more profound among the Karaites who came after ʿAnan
, and this is one of the factors that led to the divergence between their doctrines and his. ʿAnan
still wrote in Aramaic, whereas the Karaites wrote primarily in Judeo-Arabic. Under the influence of Arabic linguistic culture, the Karaites made Hebrew grammar a major tool, unavailable to ʿAnan
, of their biblical exegesis. The Karaites adopted the Muslim Mu’tazilite rational method, whose impact was not confined to theology, but was extremely significant in their scriptural interpretations. Like ʿAnan
, thelater Karaites adopted analogy in their biblical exegesis, but their method was much more sophisticated due to the development of the “principles of jurisprudence” (Ar. uṣūl al-fiqh
) in Islam, which were unknown to ʿAnan
The similarities and differences between the exegetical methods of ʿAnan
and the early Karaites can be seen in their commentaries on the verse “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk,” which occurs three times in the Torah (Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21). This verse is the basis for the talmudic prohibition of mixing milk and meat. Since the beginning of the two verses in Exodus deals with the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple, ʿAnan
also linked the end of the verses to this theme, concluding that the “kid” is merely megadim
, that is, a fruit. Therefore, the verse is instructing us not to bring the first fruits to the priest in a tardy manner. With the development of Hebrew grammar in the tenth century, the argument that gedi
(a kid) is derived from the word meged
(choice fruit) would not have been acceptable. Thus al-Qirqisānī stated that the gloss of the word gedi
as meaning a fruit was a nonliteral interpretation (Ar. ta’wīl
). A study of the exegesis of Japheth (Abū ‘Alī Ḥasan) ben Eli
indicates that he remained faithful to ʿAnan
’s method of interpreting the verse according to its context. Since the beginning words of both verses in Exodus deal with bringing first fruits, which are plants, the closing words of the two verses relate to the firstborn of undefiled cattle, represented in the verse by the kid. We are instructed to bring the firstborn animal to the priest without delaying until it is fattened by its mother’s milk. According to Japhet, the verse “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” in Deuteronomy 14:21 deals with another commandment, because the context in which it is found is different. Here the verse instructs us not to cook in its mother’s milk any undefiled cattle that has been slaughtered, and not just the firstborn cattle.
The Rabbanites of Iraq considered ʿAnan
a revolutionary not only because of the influence of Islam on his legal rulings, but also because they rejected the Palestinian halakha
, whereas ʿAnan
did not hesitate to adopt it. Evidence of his use of Palestinian halakha
can be found in the halakha
he adopted from the piyyuṭim
of Yannai, as mentioned above. He established the rule that candles should not be kindled on the eve of the Sabbath, relying, inter alia, on the School of Shammai’s definition of labor (Heb. melakha
). In light of this definition, no work should be started on Sabbath eve if it is clear that it will continue into the Sabbath (Mishna Shabbat 1:5–6).
An issue interesting in itself is the extent to which ʿAnan
was influenced by the halakhot
of the Jewish sects of the Second Temple period. More particularly, one wonders whether he learned of them from talmudic literature in which these usages were debated, or from other sources. The Rabbanite polemicist who recounts ʿAnan
’s struggle for the exilarchate pointedly notes that remnants of theSadducees and Boethusians joined him.
Ben-Shammai, Haggai. “Karaite Exegetes and Their Rabbanite Environment,” in Proceedings of the Ninth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Panel Sessions Bible Studies and Ancient Near East(Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 1985), pp. 43–58 [Hebrew].
Erder, Yoram. The Karaite Mourners of Zion and the Qumran Scrolls: On the History of an Alternative to the Rabbanite Judaism (Tel Aviv: Kibbutz Hameuhad, 2004), pp. 45–71 [Hebrew].
Gil, Moshe. “The Origins of the Karaites,” in Karaite Judaism: A Guide to Its History and Literary Sources, ed. Meira Polliack (Leiden: Brill, 2003), pp. 73–118.
Paul, André. Ecrits de Qumran et sectes juives aux premiers siècles de l’Islam (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1969), pp. 13–73.
Polliack, Meira. “The Emergence of Karaite Bible Exegesis,” Sefunot 22 (1999), pp. 299–311 [Hebrew].
At the close of the 19th century, Most near eastern Karaites found themselves in 2 locations: Cairo and Istanbul. Apparently through a dual process of intimidation and wanting to be close to a Karaite community, the ancient Karaite communities of Persia, Syria, and most of Iraq (except for a tiny community that remained on the shores of the Euphrates, in Al-Hit) beacame empty of its inhabitants. The Karaites of Crimea and Eastern Europe (referred to in Hebrew as קראי קדר) were facing their own challenges, as their leaders sought it best to completely disassociate themselves from their Jewish co-religionists to avoid anti-semitic persecution. Undoubetedly at the close of the 19th century, the center of Karaite Jewish life was in Egypt. There too one can find the descendants of Anan ben David. In the genealogical scroll preserved by members of his family, it appears that most of them migrated to Egypt from Babylonia. Anan himself is said to have immigrated (fled?)to the Land of Israel and founded a Synagogue in Jerusalem that bears his name to this day, although there is no proof of that. The original Karaite Synagogue was also not originally founded in its current location.
Of Anan's descendants, a scant few made their mark on the movement. His son Saul, appears to have been very active in spreading Karaitism. A grandson Boaz wrote a small treatise on consanguineous marriages (known in Hebrew as 'shitat harikuv') which is quoted by other Karaite scholars. His son David b. Boaz wrote some commentaries on the scriptures ,of which fragments are extant. It is worth mentioning that Rabbanite families of high standing had no compunctions marrying the children of the Karaite exilarchs. Some even intermarried into Geonic (Heads of Babylonian Yeshibhot) families. The lines between Karaites and Rabbanites were very much not delineated until much later.
The pedigree chart pictured (bottom) is housed in the Karaite Museum in the Old City of Jerusalem and was copied from an earlier scroll (top), that was originally (apparently) composed in the year 1616. That chart was later transcribed (as is written in the colophon on the bottom), by one Moshe Yehuda Mizrahi of Jerusalem in honor of Abraham Firkovich, perhaps during the latter's visit there in the 1830s.
The newer copy was commissioned for the occasion of the circumcision ceremony in a Cairo Synagogue, of Shlomo the son of Eliyahu Hanassi, known as 'liato' in 1948- the same year the State of Israel was born.
The family is still known to this day by their surname Al-Nassi, some of whom, upon their immigration from Egypt, settled in the Karaite Moshav Mazliah near the city of Ramla in Central Israel.
Picante anecdote: a close friend of mine from Mazliah related to me that one of his pupils in his early years as a teacher in the Moshav was a member of this family. Upon me asking him, what kind of student he was, he smiled as he recalled the young lad's smug sense of self, "listen", the kid would say "I am a direct descendant of King David, I will remember you as not too bad of a teacher and nothing more"....
A possible order of Karaite Rashei Galuta that I found on the net (I haven't checked if it corresponds to the scroll):