Harkavy, Albert

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HARKAVY, ALBERT (Abraham Elijah ; 1835–1919), Russian Orientalist, scholar of Jewish history and literature. Harkavy was born in Novogrudok, Belorussia. He studied at Lithuanian yeshivot and at the universities of St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Paris. On his return to Russia in 1870 he began teaching ancient Oriental history. The opposition in certain circles to the appointment of a Jew to a university lectureship prompted the Russian government to cancel his post, and he was transferred to the department of Jewish literature and Oriental manuscripts at the Imperial Library in St. Petersburg. In 1877 he was made head of that department, remaining in that position for the rest of his life.

Harkavy started his literary and scientific work in 1861, publishing articles mainly in Ha-Karmel and Ha-Meliẓ on the natural and physical sciences and on current problems in education and literature. At about that time Harkavy started his research on the origin of the Jewish community in Russia. His efforts were part of the general efforts of the Wissenschaft des Judentums school to secure equality for Russian Jews. They based their claims on the ancient Jewish heritage in Russian language. Harkavy argued his theories in several essays and articles, and especially in his first Russian book, O yazyke yevreyev,… i o slavyanskikh slovakh, vstrechayemykh u yevreyskikh pisateley (1865), which also appeared in Hebrew as Ha-Yehudim u-Sefat ha-Slavim ("The Jews and the Slavic Language," 1867).

Harkavy claimed that the Jewish community in Russia was formed by Jews who migrated from the region of the Black Sea and Caucasia, where their ancestors had settled after the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles. These people, who preserved an ancient Jewish heritage, which they spread among the *Khazars, expanded through the Khazar kingdom westward to Czechoslovakia. Their spoken language was Slavic, at least from the ninth century on; not until the 17th century did it change to Yiddish, and that was because many Ukrainian Jews fled the 1648–49 pogroms to Poland, where Yiddish was spoken. This theory concerning the origins of Russian Jewry led to Harkavy's research into the history of the Khazars, the most important of which is his essay Skazaniya yevreyskikh pisateley o khazarakh i khazarskom tsarstve ("Jewish Authors' Reports on the Khazars and the Khazar Kingdom," 1874). The reports were few and sketchy but Harkavy showed uncanny knowledge and acumen in their interpretation.

An important part of his work was publishing Jewish manuscripts by Jewish authors that were in the possession of the St. Petersburg library, with his comments and critical notes. Among them were works by the later geonim, including Saadiah Gaon, Samuel b. Hophni, and Hai Gaon; and the Spanish sages, including Samuel ha-Nagid, Joseph ha-Nagid, Judah Halevi, and Abraham ibn Ezra. He also published manuscripts in the journals Me'assef Niddaḥim (16 issues, 1878–80) and Ḥadashim Gam Yeshanim (20 issues, 1886–1907); in the series of monographs he edited, Zikkaron le-Rishonim ve-gam le-Aḥaronim (7 issues, 1879–82), and in other publications.

Significant information in Jewish history is included in his comments on volumes three to eight of H. Graetz's Geschichte der Juden. Among the manuscripts he published were geonic responsa and the long version of "The Letter of King Joseph of the Khazars to R. Ḥisdai ibn Shaprut" and other manuscripts that the library acquired from the Karaite scholar Abraham Firkovich.

While working on Karaite documents it occurred to Harkavy that Firkovich had forged many of the manuscripts and tombstone epitaphs. He proved this claim in a series of articles and essays, of which the most significant were Altjuedische Denkmaeler aus der Krim mitgetheilt von Abraham Firkowitsch 18391872 ("Ancient Jewish Monuments from Crimea…," 1876) and "Po voprosu o iudeyskikh drevnostyakh naydennykh Firkovichem v Krymu" ("On Jewish Antiquities Found by Firkovich in Crimea," in Zhurnal Ministerstva narodnago prosveshcheniya, 1877). Harkavy's keen, systematic analysis in this controversy placed him in the first rank of Jewish scholars of his time. Since Firkovich used his forgeries to obtain equality for the Karaites (but not for all the Jews) in Russia, Harkavy felt he was fighting for the whole of Jewry. The controversy escalated when the learned apostate Daniel *Chwolson of the University of St. Petersburg took Firkovich's side and defended his theories. Of his many articles about the Karaites the most significant are the one on Anan (in Voskhod, 1900) and his extensive research in Ocherki istorii karaimstva ("Notes on the History of the Karaites," 1896–1900).

Harkavy published in Russian a description of Samaritan scrolls of the Torah found in the St. Petersburg public library (1874), and with H.L. Strack a description in German of the Bibles found in Firkovich's collection (1875). He devoted a special essay in German, "Neuaufgefundene hebraeische Bibelhandschriften" (1884), to biblical manuscripts he acquired later. These descriptions are important from both paleographic and historical points of view, as the manuscripts contain various notes and comments added by the authors and copyists. Harkavy was esteemed by the czarist regime, and in the 1890s he was awarded a hereditary noble title and made an honorary member of several scientific societies in various countries. He was active in the Jewish community of St. Petersburg as the gabbai of the central synagogue and as a member of Mefiẓei Haskalah be-Yisrael and Mekiẓei Nirdamim societies. A listing of his entire work through 1907, including 392 titles, was published by D. Magid with corrections and supplements by S.A. Poznański in a Festschrift published on the occasion of Harkavy's 70th birthday, Zikkaron le-Avraham Eliyahu (1908).


Y. Guttman, in: Ha-Shilo'aḥ, 24 (1871), 161–70; S. Assaf, in: Kobez al Jad, 11 (1936), 191–243; Z. Harkavy, in: S.K. Mirsky (ed.), Ishim u-Demuyyot be-Ḥokhmat Yisrael… (1959), 116–36.

[Abraham N. Poliak]