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Tobias ben Moses Ha-Avel


TOBIAS BEN MOSES HA-AVEL (or ha-Ma'tik , "the translator"; 11th century), *Karaite scholar. He laid the theoretical and educational foundations for establishing the Karaites in the Byzantine milieu. According to Elijah *Bashyaẓi (Iggeret Gid ha-Nasheh, 4a) Tobias studied under *Jeshua b. Judah, translated his works from Arabic into Hebrew, and brought them to Constantinople. He would therefore seem to have lived in the second half of the 11th century. However, two letters in Tobias' own handwriting found in the *Genizah of Cairo indicate that he went to Jerusalem as early as the 1030s (or possibly the 1020s). At any rate he had returned by 1041, after he, like other Karaites, became involved in a bitter controversy which split the *Rabbanite community in Ereẓ Israel between the supporters of *Nathan b. Abraham and the followers of *Solomon b. Judah Gaon. Tobias could not have been a pupil of Jeshua b. Judah since both apparently studied under Joseph b. Abraham ha-Kohen "ha-Ro'eh" (al-*Baṣīr), Tobias even translating some of al-Baṣīr's letters into Hebrew. A few years later, at all events before 1048, Tobias headed the Karaite community in Byzantium. He went to Egypt, perhaps as an emissary, and there instituted regulations for the synagogues of his community. His authority was recognized by all "the communities of Edom [i.e., Byzantium] both near and far" (letter to Abraham b. Yashar *Abu Sad al-Tustarī in Egypt; see Z. Ankori, in: Essays… S.W. Baron (1959), 38). As the independent leader of the first Karaite center in the Byzantine Empire, he several times addressed questions on halakhic matters to the scholars in Jerusalem. Their answer to his query on inter-calation was kept as a ruling for the Diaspora communities (Judah Hadassi, Eshkol ha-Kofer, 76a).


The epithets by which Tobias is remembered in Karaite history are an indication of his personality and activities. His membership of the *Avelei Zion of Jerusalem while he was a student in the academy there led to his designation haavel ("the mourner") and ha-oved ("the worshiper"); his role as commentator and decisor on the laws of his community gained him the honorific ha-baki ("the erudite"), in addition to the conventional appellations he-ḥakham ("the sage") and ha-maskil ("the teacher"). Tobias attests that he was also called ha-sofer ("the scribe"), possibly in reference to his art (as demonstrated by his fine calligraphy in manuscripts which have survived). The title ha-ma'tik ("the translator") best describes Tobias, which then meant both translation and knowledge of tradition (masoret).


With the exception of several liturgical poems (two of which were included in the Karaite prayer book), Tobias' works consist for the most part either of actual translations of works by his teacher Joseph al-Baṣīr from Arabic into Hebrew – Sefer Ne'imot, i.e., Kitāb al-Muḥtawī ("Book of Melodies"); Sefer Maḥkimat Peti, i.e., Kitāb al-Tamyīz (or al-Manṣūrī, "Book for the Enlightenment of Fools"); and Sefer ha-Moladim, one of eight chapters from Kitāb al-Istibṣār ("Book of Festivals") – or of compilations of Arabic material from other "Jerusalemite scholars" and its adaptation in Hebrew as the basis for Tobias' original work. This applies to his philosophical treatise Meshivat Nefesh (extant in manuscript), and his halakhic commentary, in many volumes, Sefer Oẓar Neḥmad le-Va-Yikra (only the first part, on Lev. 1–10, has survived in manuscript; passages from it have been published by Neubauer, Poznański, Mann, and Ankori). In this case Tobias himself states (at the end of the work) that his investigation is based "on Arabic works which I would have rendered into Hebrew," particularly on the Arabic commentaries of *David b. Boaz and *Japheth b. Ali ha-Levi, tenth-century Karaite scholars.

Halakhic System

In the legal field, the term ha'takah (Ar. al-naql) denotes the principle of tradition (precedence) in the determination of law. Its original (i.e., Rabbanite) meaning naturally refers to the Oral Law. But the tenth-century Karaite polemical writers, who borrowed this term from their Rabbanite opponents, attributed to it, in accordance with the classic standpoint adopted by this sect, two separate aspects and designated them as follows: on the one hand, there is acknowledgment of "ha'takah which all regard as authoritative," i.e., the prophetic tradition which has been preserved for posterity "in the books and prophecies transcribed with the Torah in the possession of Israel" (according to the definition of *Sahl b. Maẓliaḥ ha-Kohen in S. Pinsker (ed.), Likkutei Kadmoniyyot (1860), 34); on the other, the authority of non-biblical tradition is rejected and it is laid down that "any ha'takah which has no support from Scripture is worthless" (Aaron b. Elijah of Nicomedia, Gan Eden, 8b/c, and Elijah Bashyaẓi, Adderet Eliyahu, 9d, 48c, 82b. All further citations are taken from the latter source). The original version of Tobias' definitive treatise on the theory of ha'takah has not survived and its position among his lost works is not known. However, its inherent boldness and revolutionary consequences were perceived by subsequent generations of scholars who preserved his text, with slight linguistic changes, and interpreted it repeatedly as they saw fit. In his endeavor to establish an intellectual and legal criterion for compromise solutions necessitated by time and place, Tobias recognized in both theory and practice the positive and dynamic function of the principle of ha'takah for his contemporaries, as it was also understood by the Rabbanites. In order to mollify conservative Karaite opinion, Tobias based this awareness on the fictitious assumption that all the activities of the Karaites, even seeming innovations, must have a foundation in and derive proof from Scripture, and "those who say that ha'takah exists without support from Scripture merely show that they lack the intelligence to find its legal validity in the Torah."

At the same time as the Karaite concept of tradition was in the process of being enriched, there existed in Karaism a corresponding trend whereby the concept of "community" (Heb. edah or kibbutz; Ar. al-ijmāʿ) was assimilated within the comprehensive context of tradition. Thus Tobias' fundamentally broader concept of ha'takah absorbed the ingredients of the Karaite principle of "consensus of the community," one of the earliest sectarian impediments to authoritative halakhic initiative. On the strength of this twofold development, ha'takah (which Tobias also called kabbalah, i.e., chain of tradition, while others called it sevel ha-yerushah, i.e., traditional custom) was harnessed in its new context to the positive process of later Karaite legislation. In the course of time ha'takah was to rise to the level of the two other fundaments of Karaism, the Torah (Scripture) and comprehension (da'at or analogy; hekkesh, Ar. al-qiyās), and even to become the leading principle. It completely changed the attitude of the Karaites toward the Talmud and its place in Jewish history, and ended by paving the way to the radical reforms effected in Byzantine-Turkish Karaism in the 15th century.


Z. Ankori, Karaites in Byzantium (1959), index; idem, in: Tarbiz, 25 (1957), 44–65; idem, in: paajr, 24 (1955), 1–38; idem, in: jjs, 8 (1958), 79–81; idem, in: Essays… S.W. Baron (1959), 1–38; S. Poznański, in: Oẓar Yisrael, 5 (1911), 12–14; Mann, Texts, index; L. Nemoy, Karaite Anthology (1952), 124, 249, 380.

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