Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Ban Decared Against Karaites on Sukkot on the Mount of Olives

Recently my friend, Rabbi Yosef Leichter highlighted in his weekly column in the weekly Shabbat B'shabato the role the Mount of Olives played in the Geonic period as a sort of an alternative pilgrimage site during the three major festivals. At the time of Father-son Rabbis Sherira and Hai Gaon, there is evidence of the site also being used as a platform from which to assert the central authority of the Rabbinic Academies of Babylonia.

Leichter quoted some Genizah findings to that effect. Which is why I was surprised to see that he omitted mention of the excommunication recited there against all schismatics, chiefly among them the Karaites who were then a real threat to the authorities of the Academy and Rabbinic Judaism in general.

In the excellent booklet Scripture and Schism (JTS, 2000), there is a facsimile of a  very interesting document found in the Genizah that sheds some light on this topic.

It is entitled "Letter from Eli ben Ezekiel in Jerusalem to Ephraim ben Shemariah in Fustat"

Ibn Daud (Raabad) described a Jerusalem custom in which every year on Hoshana Raba, the seventh day of sukkot, Rabbanite pilgrims who had convened on the Mt. Of Olives would hear the yearly blessings and bans declared. Included in the bans were defaulted debtors, Sabbath desecrators, and anyone who had infringed upon the authority of the Gaon and the other leaders of the Jerusalem Yeshiva. A special ban of excommunication was reserved for the "eaters of meat and milk" by which was meant the Karaites. Although as a sign of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem, the Karaites did not consume the meat of cattle or sheep in Jerusalem, they nonetheless ate dairy and fowl together in violation of the Rabbinic extension of the meat and milk prohibition to include poultry (in itself an interesting subject, as this extension was not accepted by all Rabbanites as late as the 3rd Century CE).

In Ibn Daud's description, the Karaites remained utterly passive in the face of this yearly indignity. But the Genizah has shown how exaggerated his description was. Letters like this one demonstrate that the ban was not issued every year, and when it was, it was declared only by a minority of upstart Rabbanites who did no go unpunished. The Karaites, for their part, were quick to exact revenge on the Rabbanite issuers of the ban.

In this Judeo-Arabic letter writtten by Eli b Ezekiel, a scholar of the Yeshiva in Jerusalem, to his colleague Ephraim b Shemarya, representative of the Yeshiva in Fostat (old Cairo), we learn that the Muslim authorities had thrown the rabbinic instigators of the ban into prison in Damascus. The Karaites, perhaps encouraged by this turn of events, ascended the Mount.of Olives and destroyed the pulpit from which the ban had been declared, declaring "May no Rabbanite come to Jerusalem any more!".

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