Sahl ben Maẓli'aḥ Ha-Kohen Abu al-Surrī

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SAHL BEN MAẒLI'AḤ HA-KOHEN ABU AL-SURRĪ (second half of the 10th century), *Karaite propagandist and author. Sahl ben Maẓli'aḥ was a resident, and possibly a native, of Jerusalem, whence he appears to have undertaken periodical missionary journeys abroad in search of converts to Karaism from among the local Rabbanite communities. During one such journey, he came into conflict, presumably in Cairo, with an influential Rabbanite elder, Jacob ben Samuel, who was a zealous follower of *Saadiah Gaon and therefore hostile toward the Karaites. When he heard of Sahl's missionary activity before Rabbanite audiences, Jacob addressed a letter to him in Arabic, accusing him of having come to a peaceful community in order to stir up controversy, and then fish in the troubled waters in order to obtain converts to his cause. In reply to this charge, Sahl indited a series of ten short responsa, followed by a long Epistle, both in Hebrew, in which he not only repudiated Jacob's accusations, but also appealed over his head to the Rabbanite community at large to accept his message.

The Hebrew text of Sahl's Epistle (Sahl himself states that "he may write an Ishmaelite (Arabic) version of this Epistle so that he who does not know the Jewish (Hebrew) language may read it." It is not known whether he did so, no copy of it having been discovered so far.) was edited by a 17th-century Karaite scholar, Elijah b. Baruch "Yerushalmi," who added a short foreword citing two (originally three?) of the responsa. The Epistle is prefaced by a Hebrew poem by Sahl criticizing the main Rabbanite doctrines. The work itself appears to be a composite of two original works, a polemical blast at Jacob ben Samuel personally and a Hebrew version of the standard missionary sermon delivered by Sahl, no doubt in Arabic, before Rabbanite audiences. The contrasting tone of these two components reveals Sahl's consummate skill as a propagandist: when addressing Jacob ben Samuel, his language is harsh and his discourse full of angry and contemptuous denunciations; when addressing the Rabbanite public, he assumes a humble and compassionate pose, commiserating with his audience and shrewdly appealing to them to cast off what he characterizes as the heavy yoke of their rapacious and hypocritical leaders, and to go back to the original and pure Mosaic faith, meaning of course Karaism.

The Epistle is of considerable historical value. It is the earliest preserved complete specimen of practical Karaite propaganda, addressed not to the Rabbanite upper class, from which Sahl could expect no sympathy, but to the ordinary Rabbanite man in the street. It describes a number of popular customs and superstitions prevalent at that time among the lower classes, as well as some of the reprehensible practices indulged in by some representatives of Rabbanite officialdom, and it gives some historical details about early Karaite scholars and their works. Sahl's statements are obviously not free from deliberate exaggeration and bias, however, and must be approached with some caution.

In addition to his Epistle, Sahl also wrote (in Arabic) a code of law (Sefer ha-Mitzvot and Sefer Dinim, presumably two parts of the same work), of which only the Hebrew introduction has been published (by A. Harkavy. Me'assef Niddahim, i, no. 13). A tract against Saadiah, mentioned in the Epistle, has not yet been discovered. Fragments of a commentary on the Pentateuch, in Arabic, are also tentatively ascribed to him.

The Epistle was published by S. Pinsker, in Likkutei Kadmoniyyot, 2 (Vienna, 1860), 24–43; an abridged English translation appears in L. Nemoy, Karaite Anthology (New Haven, 1952), 109–22, 349–52.


S. Poznański, Karaite Literary Opponents of Saadia Gaon (1908), 30–41; Mann, Texts, 2 (1935), 22–29; L. Nemoy, in: paajr, 38/39 (1972), 145–77 (including corrections and emendations to Pinsker's text).

[Leon Nemoy]