Aaron ben Elijah

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AARON BEN ELIJAH (1328?–1369), Karaite scholar, philosopher, and jurist. Aaron, who lived in Nicomedia (near present-day Izmir, in Turkish Asia Minor), was called Aaron the Younger to distinguish him from Aaron ben Joseph, or Aaron the Elder, who lived a century earlier. Aaron died in an epidemic, apparently in Constantinople.

Aaron's greatest work is a massive Hebrew trilogy of Karaite learning. The trilogy consists of Eẓ Ḥayyim ("Tree of Life"), dealing with philosophy of religion, composed in 1346; Gan Eden ("Garden of Eden"), dealing with Karaite law, composed in 1354; and Keter Torah ("Crown of the Law"), a commentary on the Pentateuch, written in 1362. According to Karaite tradition, Aaron wrote Eẓ Ḥayyim when he was 18 years old. This would place his birth in 1328, but it was probably earlier. The trilogy displays fully his great learning in both Karaite and Rabbanite literature. Aaron quotes of course the Karaite authorities, notably the 10th and 11th centuries Jerusalem scholars (his access to their Arabic writings was probably through Hebrew translations and abridgements). But he frequently quotes also the Talmud, Saadia, Rashi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, David Kimḥi, Maimonides, Naḥmanides, the earlier grammarians Judah ibn *Quraysh, Judah Ḥayyuj, Jonah ibn Janaḥ, and others. His Hebrew style, though tinted with arabisms, is clear and fluent.

Legal Teachings

As a jurist, Aaron followed mainly in the footsteps of his Karaite predecessors. He generally opposed any relaxation of the letter of scriptural law, even when it involved great exertion and hardship, except in cases of clear and evident danger to life. Yet on the other hand he accepted Jeshuah ben *Judah's reform of the Karaite law of incest, and rejected the excessive restrictions advocated by Karaite ascetics, such as the prohibition of eating meat in the Diaspora.

Biblical Exegesis

As a biblical commentator, Aaron followed the general Karaite policy of preferring the literal meaning of the biblical text, except where this meaning seemed to lead to conclusions that were blasphemous or illogical. However, this did not prevent him from indulging his philosophical bent by introducing allegorical and metaphorical interpretations where they seemed to him to be more suitable or advisable. His commentary on the Pentateuch has become the standard reference in all Karaite communities.


Aaron's Eẓ Ḥayyim was undoubtedly undertaken by him with the aim of creating a Karaite counterpart to *Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed. Unlike Maimonides, Aaron did not venture to cut a new Aristotelian path for Karaite theological-philosophical thought. Instead, he remained attached to the Muʿtazilite philosophy (see *Kalam) which dominated his Karaite predecessors, as well as a number of pre-Maimonidean Rabbanite philosophers. Aaron is more orderly, clear, and logical than his Karaite forerunners, but he to a large extent rephrases what the latter had already said. Occasionally he avoids taking a definite stand on some points, and does not refrain from adopting some Aristotelian terminology and argumentation. Accordingly, and under the influence of Aaron b. Joseph, he attempted to forge some sort of reconciliation between traditional Karaite Kalamic positions, regarding it as his duty to stand by the tradition of his predecessors, and more Modern positions.

Although Aaron had to deal with religion in a rational fashion, he begins his philosophical work with a wholesale condemnation of the Greek philosophers and of their brainchild, philosophy, in general. The teachings of the Muʿtazilite "investigators" (the term "philosopher" is objectionable to Aaron), on the other hand, are in accord with Scripture (as interpreted by the Karaites), while most Rabbanite thinkers, particularly Maimonides, follow the philosophers and thus often run counter to the true principles of the Torah. Reason is the chief instrument of true knowledge, hence God exists, for His existence was deduced rationally already by the patriarch Abraham. God is one, and is neither corporeal nor characterized by any corporeal qualities. His attributes are both negative and positive – indeed every negation implies a positive assertion – and not exclusively negative, as asserted by Maimonides. His providence and justice extend to all creatures, both human and subhuman. His revelations were given to His prophets for transmission to mankind as a guide to righteous life. The world (i.e., matter) is not eternal (as the Aristotelians taught) but created – this is the chief proof of God's existence – and consequently natural law is not immutable. The universe is made up of indivisible atoms having no magnitude and not eternal, and creation signifies combination of atoms, while dissolution signifies their separation. The atomic theory of matter, rejected by the Aristotelians, is thus reasserted by Aaron. Anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Bible must be interpreted allegorically. God is all-knowing, but man's will is free, hence no evil can be charged to God; though God fore-knows that the wicked will choose evil, the blame is theirs, not God's. Free will necessarily involves retribution according to each man's deserts. Scriptural ordinances are divided into revelational, whose necessity is so sublime that it is beyond rational explanation; and rational, whose necessity is deducible by reason. Good and evil are inherently so, and are not so merely because God approves of the former and condemns the latter. His approval or condemnation simply assists man in recognizing what is good and what is evil. Divine chastisement is not always punishment for antecedent sin: in the case of a righteous person like Job it is a Divine favor intended to increase the sufferer's reward in the world to come. This explains the prosperity of the wicked and the misery of the righteous on earth. Besides, physical bliss is, at best, a base and fleeting enjoyment, hence a more sublime spiritual reward must be postulated in the hereafter. This serves as one of the evidences of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the dead. All these philosophical problems are treated with constant reference to, and mostly refutation of, the teachings of the Aristotelians, as set forth by Maimonides.

Aaron also composed a number of poems and hymns, some of which were included in the official Karaite liturgy. Gan Eden was published in Eupatoria, 1864 and 1866; Ramle 1972. Eẓ Ḥayyim was edited by Franz Delitzsch (Leipzig, 1841), and was re-edited, with an extensive commentary, by the Karaite scholar Simḥah Isaac Lutzky (Eupatoria, 1847). Extracts from these two works, in English translation, are found in L. Nemoy (ed.), Karaite Anthology (New Haven, 1952), 172–95, and most chapters of the latter in two Ph.D. dissertations mentioned below; Keter Torah was published in 1867 in Eupatoria; Ramle 1972.


Husik, Philosophy, 362–87; Guttmann, Philosophies, 81–83; add. bibliography: M. Charner, "Aaron ben Elijah, The tree of life: First half (chapter 1–78) / Translated from the Hebrew with introd. and notes", 1949, Ph.D. Thesis, Columbia University; S.B. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium (1204–1453), 1985, index; H. Ben-Shammai, "Studies in Karaite Atomism", Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, 6 (1985), pp. 280–285; D. Lasker, in Da'at, 17 (1986) 33–42 (Heb.); D. Frank, "The religious philosophy of the Karaite Aaron ben Elijah: the problem of divine justice", 1991 (Includes English translation of: Sefer Ets Hayyim: chapters seventy-nine through ninety), Ph.D. Thesis, Harvard University; M. Polliack (ed.), Karaite Judaism: A Guide to Its History and Literary Sources, (2003), index.

[Leon Nemoy]

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