The Karaite Korner

Karaism vs. Rabbanism
In the Writings of Salmon ben Yeruham

The brilliant Karaite Bible commentator, Salmon ben Yeruham (10th century), wrote a devastating criticism of Rabbanite Judaism in his book Sefer Milhamot YHWH ("The Book of the Wars of YHWH"). Salmon directed his polemic against Rabbanism in general and the Rabbanite leader Sa'adiah al-Fayyumi (known in Rabbanite circles as Rav Sa'adiah Gaon) in particular. In the three chapters presented below Salmon tears down the main pillars of Rabbanism and the "Oral Law".

Sa'adiah Gaon was Salmon's older contemporary and was notorious for his vicious writings against Karaism. Salmon repeatedly rejects the arguments of an unnamed foe with such formulas as "He says", "You say", etc. This unnamed opponent was none other than Sa'adiah Gaon who is also called by Salmon "The Fayyumite" (since Sa'adiah was from the Egyptian town of Fayyum), "The Blackguard", and "A man devoid of a good heart". Salmon had a detailed knowledge of Sa'adiah's infamous anti-Karaite writings and towards the end of the third chapter he systematically refutes the seven arguments presented in Sa'adiah's "Commentary on Genesis".

"The Book of the Wars of YHWH" is written as a series of acrostic poems, with the opening letters of each stanza forming, in sequence, the Hebrew Alphabet (i.e. the first stanza opens with Aleph, the second stanza opens with Bet, etc.). Salmon alternates between acrostics which start at the beginning of the Alphabet (Aleph) and work their way to the end (Tav) and those which start at the end of the Alphabet and work their way to the beginning. Salmon tells us that he wrote his work both in Hebrew and Arabic, although only the Hebrew version has survived.

To date only the first three chapters of "The Book of the Wars of YHWH" have been translated into English. The rest of the book deals with various points of Rabbanite law, laying special emphasis on the corrupt Rabbanite calendrical practices and their blasphemous personification of God. The table of contents of "Wars of YHWH" is as follows [based on the chapter headings given by Davidson p.X]:

Wars of YHWH - Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1: Concerning the Oral Law (translated below)

  • Chapter 2: Continuation of Above (translated below)

  • Chapter 3: Continuation of Above (translated below)

  • Chapter 4: Concerning the Calculation of Intercalation and the Postponements

  • Chapter 5: Continuation of Above

  • Chapter 6: Continuation of Above

  • Chapter 7: Continuation of Above

  • Chapter 8: Continuation of Above

  • Chapter 9: Concerning Setting Two Days of Rosh Hodesh and Two Days of Holiday in the Exile

  • Chapter 10: Concerning Setting Shavuot on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and the Correct Explanation of "On the Morrow After the Sabbath"

  • Chapter 11: Concerning Preparing the Fire From Before Sabbath for the Sabbath

  • Chapter 12: Concerning a Foetus That Remains From the Slaughtering of Its Mother and Concerning the Measurement One in Sixty

  • Chapter 13: Concerning Impurity in the Exile and the Measurements "About the size of a Lentil" for an Insect and "About the size of an Olive" for a Nevalah [i.e. animal which died of natural causes]

  • Chapter 14: Concerning the Legends of the Rabbanite "Sages"

  • Chapter 15: Concerning Personification Which Appears in [the Rabbanite Works] "The Letters of Rabbi Akiva", "Book of Hekhalot", and "Shiur Komah"

  • Chapter 16: Continuation of Above

  • Chapter 17: Continuation of Above

"The Book of the Wars of YHWH" remained in manuscript until it was published together with a commentary by Israel Davidson under the title "The Books of the Wars of the Lord", New York 1934 (Hebrew). The present translation of the first three chapters of "The Book of the Wars of YHWH" were rendered into English by Leon Nemoy in his book "Karaite Anthology", Yale University Press 1952, pp.71-82 (Buy the Book from!) [square brackets added by Nehemia Gordon].

Excerpts from "Book of the Wars of Yehovah"
by Salmon ben Yeruham

Canto I

To you I call, O men-
Hearken to my explicit words,
Reinforced, clad, enveloped, and robed
With proofs as solid as onyx and sapphire.

When I was at the age of vanity,
I did search for the right road for my course,
That I might learn, as well as teach, in the midst of my Karaite congregation,
And I sought to clear the stones from my path.

I was a stranger in a foreign land,
Investigating and searching the ways of the Law.
And I saw in the midst of the Jewish congregation
A man [Sa'adiah] devoid of a good heart and straying away from justice.

He bent his bow to write complaints
And to remonstrate in all languages,
To tear up improved roads
And to pervert with nonsense and trifles the highway of understanding.

I understood his purpose and was overcome with apprehension,
And my wrath was kindled like a burning fire;
And I was seized with zeal for the sons of Judah,
And for the Almighty, and for the Book of the Testimony.

And I was afraid of the Day of Judgment and Retribution,
Lest His wrath should burn with anger.
Therefore I composed a double rejoinder against him,
In the language of Eber [Hebrew], and also in that of the sons of Dumah [Arabic].

This shall be my consolation in my exile,
That there are learned men to investigate my words fairly,
Who will know that I speak out of zeal for God,
So that the men of my congregation might not be led astray.

He stated in him misleading discourse,
And he did utter the assertion,
That the Almighty chose to reveal Himself to Moses
At Mount Sinai, to give him two Laws for His chosen people.

The commandments of the one Law were set down in writing,
While the commandments of the other were kept upon the tongue.
Moreover, they were both to be, into everlasting eternity,
An heirloom for the congregation of the seed of the perfect ones.

My spirit advised me to reply to him in this matter,
And to place my answer among my congregation in a written epistle,
In order to remove the stumbling block, and to clear the path of stones,
So that the flock of Israel would not go astray into the waterless desert of heresy.

But rather that they would study it attentively,
So that my congregation might not be seduced by what is hidden from them.
And I hope that as my reward God Almighty
Will let me behold His good tidings in Zion.

We believe firmly that the written Law
Was in truth given to Israel by the right hand of the Almighty,
According to the testimony of the whole congregation of the Lily [The Children of Israel],
Who are scattered in every land.

All of them, believers as well as unbelievers,
Divided as they are by language and tongue,
All Israel, from the east to the westernmost ends of the world,
Testify to the sanctity of the written Law, all of them, the little and the great.

This testimony has become firmly established in their midst,
By their united and universal consent, without challenge.
Likewise, the signs and miracles which the Dweller of the heavenly abode has wrought
Are written therein and are explained for them who wish to understand.

Selah! They remember the splitting asunder of the Red Sea,
And they do not deny the words spoken by the Almighty on Mount Sinai;
And with their mouths they sing of the glory of the Law and of the other miracles.
Israel and all other nations speak of this as one.

Now if Israel and Judah are all united
Concerning the validity of the oral Law which is, as they say, perfect,
Let them offer their testimony, and let their voices be heard;
If not, then the Fayyumite's [Sa'adiah] words are void and his tongue has been silenced.

I shall begin here with another argument,
Which I shall mention now, without delay,
And I shall ask and demand a reply to it
From everyone who holds to the oral Law and has given his preference to it.

You say that the Rock [God] has given Israel two Laws,
One which is written, and one which was preserved in your mouths.
If this is as you say,
Then indeed your deeds are but falsehood and rebellion against God.

The Holy One has given you an oral Law,
So that you would recite it orally,
For, say you, He had deemed it, in His wisdom, a laudable command.
Why, then, did you write it down in ornate script?

Had the Merciful One wished to write it down,
He would have had it written down by Moses.
Now did He not give it to you to be studied orally,
And had He not ordained it not to be inscribed in a book?

Yet they altered God's alleged words and wrote it down,
And instead of studying it orally they transferred it into writing.
How, then, can their words be believed, seeing that they have offended grievously?
They cannot withdraw from his contradictory path.

They wrote down both Laws, thus contemning the commandment of the Almighty.
Where, then, is the oral Law in which they place their trust?
Their words have become void and meaningless,
And out of their own mouths have they testified that they have drawn God's wrath upon themselves.

Canto II

I have discovered in my heart another argument,
A handsome one, and majestic enough
To be placed as a crown for the Karaites,
To be their ornament, pride, and glory.

I have looked again into the six divisions of the Mishnah,
And behold, they represent the words of modern men.
There are no majestic signs and miracles in them,
And they lack the formula: "And the Lord spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron."

I therefore put them aside, and I said, There is no true Law in them,
For the Law is set forth in a different manner,
In a majestic display of prophets, of signs, and of miracles;
Yet all this majestic beauty we do not see in the whole Mishnah.

I have seen an end to every human purpose,
But there is no end to the speaking about the majesty of His ordinance and utterance.
Blessed by the Creator of what is below and of what is above,
And may His blessing rest upon His people. Selah!

I am young in days,
And you are older than I.
Had not the blackguard [Sa'adiah] intruded among the scholars
I would never have written this epistle.

I have turned again to my first argument,
To fortify it with truth and uprightness, without falsehood,
And with might and power, like the power of Samson;
However, the best answer of the tongue is from the Lord.

I have set the six divisions of the Mishnah before me,
And I looked at them carefully with mine eyes.
And I saw that they are very contradictory in content,
This one Mishnaic scholar declares a thing to forbidden to the people of Israel, while that one declares it to be permitted.

My thought therefore answer me,
And most of my reflections declare unto me,
That there is in it no Law of logic,
Nor the Law of Moses the Wise.

I said, Perhaps one of the two did not know the right way,
Wherefore he did not know how to reason it out with his companion;
Perhaps the truth lies with his companion;
Let me look into his words; perchance I will find relief from my perplexity.

But instead I found there other men-
Sometimes they say, "Others say,"
While anon the scholars issue a decision,
Agreeing neither with the one nor with the other, but contradicting both.

Had I been among them - I say, had I been among them -
I would not have accepted the words of these "others" and "scholars."
Rather would I have weighed the words of the Lord with them,
And I would have judged accordingly every word which they had contrived.

Gird thyself with thy strength and hearken, and step up to me,
And let the scholars of my congregation of Israel judge between us,
And let them place our words upon the scales,
So that I may walk in truth upon the road of my life's course.

Know that there is no difference in learning between them and me.
When they say, "Rabbi So-and-so said thus-and-so.
I answer and say, I too, am the learned So-and-so.
Thine escape has been cut off by this argument, else answer me, if thou canst.

His [Sa'adiah] heart is overlaid with stupidity as with fat, and I know well what he says and speaks,
As he has set it forth in his written scroll;
Therefore will I turn my face toward him and do battle with him,
And I will shake his loins and strike down his sword.

He has written that the six divisions of the Mishnah are as authoritative as the Law of Moses,
And that they wrote it down so that it would not be forgotten.
I shall answer him concerning this, for I will not be silent,
Lest the blackguard [Sa'adiah] think that he had uttered an unanswerable argument.

He who remembers forgotten things and knows what is hidden,
Had He deemed it proper to have them skillfully written down,
In order that they might not be forgotten upon the earth,
He would have ordered His servant Moses to inscribe them, with the might and power, in a book.

If it is proper for men like us,
Who have none of the holy spirit in us,
To turn the oral Law into a written Law, by writing it down,
Why would it not be right for us to turn the written Law into a Law preserved only in our mouths?

Hearken unto me and I will speak further:
If thou shouldst say, "This took place in the days of the Prophets and in the days of Ezra";
Why is there no mention in it of these Prophets
In the same manner as the names of the Prophets are recorded throughout Scripture?

Be silent, and I will teach thee wisdom,
If it be thy desire to learn wisdom.
It is written: The Law of the Lord is perfect (Ps. 19:8).
What profit be there for us, then, in the written Mishnah?

Moreover, if the Talmud originated with our master Moses,
What profit is there for us in "another view",
And what can a third and a fourth view teach us,
When they tell us first that the interpretation of this problem in law is thus-and-so, and then proceed to explain it with "another view?"

The truth stands upon one view only,
For this is so in the wisdom of all mankind,
And right counsel cannot be based upon two contradictory things.
Now in this one thing he has fallen down and cannot stand up:

If the Talmud is composed of the words of prophets,
Why are contradictory views found in it?
Now it is evident that this view of Sa'adiah's is foolishness, and the words of fools.
So testify all mankind.

Canto III

Where dost thou flee, O Fayyumite [Sa'adiah], to hide thyself
From utter ruin?
Let us rather come together for judgment;
Increase thine army of arguments and come out for battle.

I have seen also in the Talmud -
Which you Rabbanites regard as if it were your main supporting column,
And which is made by you a partner to the Law of Moses,
And is held beloved and desirable in your hearts -

The bellowing of the School of Shammay against the School of Hillel, to controvert their words,
As well as that of the School of Hillel against the School of Shammay, to refute their interpretations of law.
This one invokes blessings, and that one heaps curses upon their heads,
Yet both are an abomination in the sight of the Lord.

The words of which one of the two shall we accept,
And the views of which one of the two shall we condemn,
Seeing that each one of them has attracted a great congregation of adherents,
And each one of them turns to say, "I am the captain of the ship"?

Incline thine ears, if thou desirest pearls of wisdom;
The matter cannot be in both ways.
If their words require interpretation with words of men of understanding.
Then this Mishnah cannot be the Law of the Master of masters.

If the Mishnah be the Law of Moses, God's servant,
Why do they not mention therein the name of Moses, only?
And why do they mention in each chapter of the Mishnah the names of teachers other then he?
And why do they not say, "Thus said the Lord," and "Thus said Moses," after his meeting with the Lord?

If thou wouldst yet double thy rascalities,
And wouldst utter more error and falsehood,
And wouldst say, "They use to engage in scholarly discussion, in awe of Him who dwells in glory,"
Remember that many fell slain among them in their stumbling.

[Refutation of Sa'adiah's 7 Arguments]

God forbid that I should remain silent;
Rather will I establish the strongest proofs in the world,
And I will refute thee and despoil thee of thy claims,
With the help of Him who causes men to become rich as well as poor.

The text of the seven written arguments
Which are set down in thy commentary on Genesis -
If at all times thou didst mention them publicly in order to seduce
Men's hearts, yet now they will become like spears and swords over the head and heart.

[I] May thy steps be hampered in walking,
When thou sayest that my congregation has need of the Mishnah,
In order to know the precise measurements of the ordinances of the ritual fringe, the lulab,and the booth
And that this is why they arranged it and set it down in writing.

Thou has written lies, for not all ordinances have a definite measurement,
And that is why the length of the fringe is not specified in the Law.
If one should forcefully exhibit this argument, how wilt thou distinguish,
And what answer wilt thou make to him, out of the words of the Divine Testimony?

[II] To heap up more lying words, thou has written and set forth further,
And has said, secondly, that the Mishnah is ancient,
Because in it is explained the precise amount of the heave offering,
So that Israel might know what part of what amount they are to give.

This argument is identical with the preceding,
And the answer to the former argument applies to the latter as well;
No precise amount or sum has been specified for it;
Rather each person is to give as much as he wishes and will meet with no complaint.

[III] Thou has said, thirdly that we have need for the inherited tradition,
In order that we might know what day of the week is Sabbath, so that we might keep it holy.
But the Sabbath is known to all the inhabitants of the world as a day of rest,
From the factual knowledge and reasoning, not merely from reckoning by three, five, and six.

[IV] Though has turned from the right road and has labored much,
When thou has said, fourthly, that we need the Mishnah to know which vessel is capable of becoming ritually unclean. But thou has erred,
For thou hast not considered the verse, whatsoever vessel it be, wherewith any work is done (Lev. 11:32)
All such vessels are specified in the Law, if thou wouldst but turn thy heart to it.

[V] Still thou holdest fast to broken arguments,
And hast said, fifthly, that there are ordinances which we must observe, and which are not explained in the Law -
Such as prayers, and other ordinances -
Yet the prayers are not mentioned in Scripture.

Thy mouth has not considered the verse, and ye shall pray unto me (Jer. 29:12);
And prayers are mentioned also in many other places.
Thus, thou hast not remembered, when thou has spoken, the prayer of Daniel, the man greatly beloved of God.
Therefore I reject from before me all ordinances and statutes which are not written in the Law.

[VI] Thy flag fell from thy bastion,
When thou hast said, sixthly, that we need the tradition, and pride ourselves upon it,
In order to know the number of years elapsed since the destruction and cessation of the Second Temple.
I will answer thee in this matter, and thy glory will wilt.

O thou who bindest together silly things without wisdom!
In which sacred book is it written that it is our duty
To know the reckoning of how many years
Shall elapse between the destruction of the Temple and the Dread Gathering?

[VII] With much labor, but uselessly, hast thou written,
Seventhly, and hast said that we need the tradition, and pride ourselves upon it,
To know the date of the period of the redemption of Israel,
And the appointed time of the resurrection of the dead.

In the songs of the Prophets and other seers,
All these thing are already mentioned and are contained therein;
They are bound and fastened therein as firmly as with ropes,
And they do not follow from thy words and thy worthless traditions.

Here end my words concerning the Mishnah.