Prester Drop | Ānān “ben David” ibn Habibi, Founder of ʿĀnāniyya – Karaism

Written by on 12/03/2017

About ʿĀnān “ben David” ibn Habibi, Founder of ʿĀnāniyya – Karaism


ʿAnan ben David

ʿAnan ben David was active in Baghdad during the reign of the city’s founder, the second Abbasid caliph, al-Manṣūr (r. 754–775). Starting in the twelfth century, Karaite historiography held that ʿAnan was an Exilarch and credited him with founding the Karaite movement in IraqIraq/Babylonia and the Karaite community in Jerusalem. Prior to the twelfth century, however, Karaites made a definite distinction between themselves and ‘ Anan. They described him as having founded the ʿAnanites (Heb. ʿananiyyim; Ar. al-ʿananiyya), one of the many religious sects in Babylonia and Persia (Iran/Persia) at the beginning of the gaonic period. The early Karaites held that the community in Jerusalem was founded in the last quarter of the ninth century by the Mourners of Zion (Heb. aveley ṣiyyon), who originally came from Iraq and Persia.

Early Karaite sources referred to ʿAnan as an exilarch, but while he was indeed a member of the Davidic house, he never held that lofty office. The early Karaites saw ʿAnan as a forerunner of their movement, an innovator who first propounded the idea that the Oral Law was created by men and, concomitantly, rejected the rabbinic chain of tradition extending back to Sinai, arguing that it only distanced people from the Bible. According to Karaite tradition, the Rabbanites tried to kill him, but were unsuccessful

ʿAnan rejected the Rabbanite laws (Heb. halakhot) based in the Talmud and wrote his own law book in Aramaic, Sefer ha-Miṣvot (The Book of Commandments). In his commentary on Psalms 69:1, the Karaite Salmon ben Jeroham (10th century) maintained that since ʿAnan was the first to return to the Bible, his path was not easy, and in many halakhic areas he continued to follow the practices of the talmudic sages. The Karaite scholar and encyclopedist Jacob al-Qirqisānī (10th century) stressed that the members of his movement were not the only ones who acknowledged ʿAnan’s close affinity to the teachings of the talmudic rabbis. According to al-Qirqisānī, Hayy Gaon (apparently Hayy ben Nahshon, 886–896) and his father found that only one of the halakhot in ʿAnan’s Sefer ha-Miṣvot did not have a source in the rulings of the talmudic sages, and they eventually discovered the basis for that exceptional one in the piyyuṭim (Heb. liturgical poems) of Yannai, who was active in Palestine at the end of the Byzantine period. The adoption of Palestinian halakhot that had been rejected in Babylonia was also a characteristic of early Karaite halakha. An entirely different picture of how the geonim related to ʿAnan’s law book is found in the prayerbook of Amram ben Sheshna Gaon, which cites Naṭronay bar Hilay Gaon (853–861) as stating that ʿAnan told his students: “Leave aside the words of the Mishna and the Talmud, and I will make you a Talmud of my own.” Naṭronay denounced Sefer ha-Miṣvot as Sefer To’evot (Book of Abominations), and ruled that ʿAnan’s followers should be ostracized.

It is difficult to form an opinion about ʿAnan’s teachings because only fragments of his Sefer ha-Miṣvot are extant. Most of what is known about his teachings is second-hand, derived from Karaite works, Rabbanite polemics, and some scant references by Muslims. It is important to note that the early Karaites criticized ʿAnan for so closely following the Rabbanite halakha on many issues. Daniel al-Qūmisī, a founder of the Karaite movement and one of its first adherents to settle in Jerusalem, was a very harsh critic of ʿAnan within the Karaite camp. In his commentary on the Book of Daniel, he claimed that if ʿAnan was indeed an “enlightener” (Heb. maskil), then he was a failed enlightener, “because he was the first.” But al-Qūmisī doubted whether ʿAnan was actually an enlightener at all. According to al-Qirqisānī, al-Qūmisī initially admired ʿAnan as the “head of the enlighteners” but later changed his mind and referred to him as “head of the benighted.” As it happens, some of the Qumran scrolls were discovered around the time al-Qūmisī arrived in Palestine. If he had an opportunity to read them, perhaps they were what led to his separation from ʿAnan. Influenced by the scrolls that had fallen into his hands, he developed a messianic doctrine and in addition adopted some of the halakhot he found in the scrolls.

A study of early Karaite writings shows that the halakhic rulings ʿAnan made in light of his biblical interpretations were the basis for the discussion of almost every halakhic issue. Often ʿAnan’s stand would be challenged or condemned; nonetheless, the fact that such deliberations began with a representation of his method demonstrates that his teachings were part of the Karaite curriculum.

The Karaites’ reliance on ʿAnan did not escape the notice of their Rabbanite rivals. In the Kuzari, Judah ha-Levi Judah ha-Levi wonders how the Karaites could have abandoned the venerable majority tradition of the talmudic sages with its reliance on the prophets in favor of the later tradition of a few individuals like ʿAnan and Benjamin al-Nahāwandī. Interestingly, despite the importance of ʿAnan’s doctrines to the Karaites of the tenth and eleventh centuries, it is obvious that many of them, in both Iraq and Palestine, did not have direct access to his writings until the mid-eleventh century, and that they referenced his statements from secondary sources. Only the Karaite Jeshua ben Judah, who was active in Jerusalem in the mid-eleventh century, actually quoted directly from Sefer ha-Miṣvot. A further confirmation of the Karaites’ lack of access to ʿAnan’s writings is the statement by al-Qirqisānī attributing a book on transmigration of souls to ʿAnan but admitting that he himself had never seen it.

As mentioned, Karaite sources referred to ʿAnan as exilarch. However, an anonymous Rabbanite source, which should almost certainly be ascribed to Saʿadya Gaon, claimed that ʿAnan founded his own movement out of resentment because the rabbis of his generation had not appointed him to the exilarchate, selecting his brother Hananiah instead. The Karaite genealogical record affirmed that ʿAnan was the grandson of Ḥisday and the great-grandson of Bustanay, the first exilarch after the Muslim conquest. Bustanay had two wives, one Jewish, and the other of Persian origin. Since Ḥisday was the son of the Jewish wife, ʿAnan’s enemies could not claim that he was not a Jew, an allegation opponents often hurled at the descendants of Bustanay’s Persian wife generations after Bustanay’s death.

According to the Epistle (Iggeret) of Sherira Gaon, Solomon ben Ḥisday (ʿAnan’s uncle) was exilarch from 730 to 757. Naṭronay ben Ḥavivay, Bustanay’s great-grandson by his Jewish wife, was deposed from the exilarchate before 771, in favor of a descendant of his Persian wife. Moshe Gil has posited that Ḥavivay, Naṭronay’s father, was in fact Ḥaninay, that is, Hananiah, ʿAnan’s brother, who was appointed exilarch instead of ʿAnan and who served in office for about two years (760–762). The certainty that ʿAnan was a member of the exilarchic house is reinforced by Rabbanite sources, which recount that his grandson Daniel was a Rabbanite exilarch in the first quarter of the ninth century, and that his great-grandson Ṣemaḥ ben Josiah (Josiah was Daniel’s brother) served as gaon of the Palestinian yeshiva for thirty-one years, until about 893. Ṣemaḥ held the title of nasi, signifying that he was a member of the Davidic house. The fact that ʿAnan’s descendants held these distinguished positions within the Rabbanite establishment until the end of the ninth century led Gil to cast doubt on the early Karaite statements crediting ʿAnan with founding the ʿAnanite movement.

The Muslim scholar al-Bīrūnī (d. after 1050) attributed the founding of the ʿAnanites to another ʿAnan (ʿAnan II) who was the son of the exilarch Daniel, ʿAnan ben David’s grandson. According to al-Bīrūnī, ʿAnan II was active at the end of the ninth century. To date, this is the only source referring to him, and nothing whatsoever is known about his offspring. Gil believes that the descendants of the exilarch from ʿAnan’s branch of the family only joined the Karaites in the ninth century, beginning with Daniel and ʿAnan II. The offspring of Ṣemaḥ and Jehoshaphat ben Josiah are known to have headed the Karaite community in Jerusalem and to have had the title of nasi. Gil maintains that they inflated ʿAnan’s contribution to the Karaite movement even though it had no basis in historical fact. In a Judeo-Arabic letter by a Rabbanite in Jerusalem, dated 1057, the author, referring to the Karaite Mourners of Zion community there, claims that the Karaites in his city were adopting the laws of ʿAnan, “the head and ancient founder of the Karaites (Heb. qadmon ha-qara’im),” in matters of incest, but could not explain why they were doing so. This may be the first solid evidence that the Mourners of Zion community in Jerusalem already viewed ʿAnan as their founder.

If we accept the contention of the early Karaites that ʿAnan did indeed establish a movement, then the assertion of the Rabbanite polemicist that ʿAnan’s sole reason for doing so was because he had not attained the coveted title of exilarch is nothing more than polemics, pure and simple. The founding of the ʿAnanites should be considered within the context of the unrest that pervaded the Jewish communities conquered by the Muslims. ʿAnan was active at a time when Muslim religious law was taking shape. Minor circles within Islam opposed the idea of basing Muslim religious law on oral tradition, the ḥadīth, maintaining that the Qur’ān was the sole source for religious law. In orthodox Muslim circles, too, a struggle arose over the status of the oral tradition. The Rabbanite narrative about ʿAnan’s struggle with his brother Hananiah reported that the caliph, viewing this conflict as a revolt against the caliphate, imprisoned ʿAnan and condemned him to death. ʿAnan was saved, according to this account, by a Muslim scholar who told him that if he claimed to have founded a new sect in Judaism, his sentence would be commuted and he could go free. A Karaite source no earlier than the fourteenth century claims that this Muslim was none other than Abū Ḥanīfa, the founder of the Hanifi legal school and one of the scholars who relegated the ḥadīth to a lower status within Islam. He called upon Muslim judges to use discretion (Ar. ra’y) based on wisdom. Furthermore, he made analogy (Ar. qiyās) a juridical tool of the utmost importance in legal reasoning. Whether or not ʿAnan actually met Abū Ḥanīfa, it seems that Muslim circles like his had some influence on ʿAnan’s doctrine. In Moses Zucker’s opinion, ʿAnan’s method of analogy is not based on the traditional talmudic method, but rather upon Abū Ḥanīfa’s. The idea of applying intellect to the study of the Bible, which in many instances means the use of the method of analogy, can be discerned in ʿAnan’s teachings and from the saying the Karaites ascribed to him: “It is best to search in the Torah.” According to Saadya,
as cited by al-Qirqisānī, the scriptural proof-text used by ʿAnan and
Benjamin al-Nahāwandī justifying the use of analogy for determining
halakhot was: “If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as
for hid treasures” (Proverbs 2:4).

Islamic influences were much more profound among the Karaites who came after ʿAnan, and this is one of the factors that led to the divergence between their doctrines and his. ʿAnan still wrote in Aramaic, whereas the Karaites wrote primarily in Judeo-Arabic. Under the influence of Arabic linguistic culture, the Karaites made Hebrew grammar a major tool, unavailable to ʿAnan, of their biblical exegesis. The Karaites adopted the Muslim Mu’tazilite rational method, whose impact was not confined to theology, but was extremely significant in their scriptural interpretations. Like ʿAnan, the later Karaites adopted analogy in their biblical exegesis, but their method was much more sophisticated due to the development of the “principles of jurisprudence” (Ar. uṣūl al-fiqh) in Islam, which were unknown to ʿAnan.

The similarities and differences between the exegetical methods of ʿAnan and the early Karaites can be seen in their commentaries on the verse “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk,” which occurs three times in the Torah (Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21). This verse is the basis for the talmudic prohibition of mixing milk and meat. Since the beginning of the two verses in Exodus deals with the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple, ʿAnan also linked the end of the verses to this theme, concluding that the “kid” is merely megadim, that is, a fruit. Therefore, the verse is instructing us not to bring the first fruits to the priest in a tardy manner. With the development of Hebrew grammar in the tenth century, the argument that gedi (a kid) is derived from the word meged (choice fruit) would not have been acceptable. Thus al-Qirqisānī stated that the gloss of the word gedi as meaning a fruit was a nonliteral interpretation (Ar. ta’wīl). A study of the exegesis of Japheth (Abū ‘Alī Ḥasan) ben Eli indicates that he remained faithful to ʿAnan’s method of interpreting the verse according to its context. Since the beginning words of both verses in Exodus deal with bringing first fruits, which are plants, the closing words of the two verses relate to the firstborn of undefiled cattle, represented in the verse by the kid. We are instructed to bring the firstborn animal to the priest without delaying until it is fattened by its mother’s milk. According to Japhet, the verse “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” in Deuteronomy 14:21 deals with another commandment, because the context in which it is found is different. Here the verse instructs us not to cook in its mother’s milk any undefiled cattle that has been slaughtered, and not just the firstborn cattle.

The Rabbanites of Iraq considered ʿAnan a revolutionary not only because of the influence of Islam on his legal rulings, but also because they rejected the Palestinian halakha, whereas ʿAnan did not hesitate to adopt it. Evidence of his use of Palestinian halakha can be found in the halakha he adopted from the piyyuṭim of Yannai, as mentioned above. He established the rule that candles should not be kindled on the eve of the Sabbath, relying, inter alia, on the School of Shammai’s definition of labor (Heb. melakha). In light of this definition, no work should be started on Sabbath eve if it is clear that it will continue into the Sabbath (Mishna Shabbat 1:5–6).

An issue interesting in itself is the extent to which ʿAnan was influenced by the halakhot of the Jewish sects of the Second Temple period. More particularly, one wonders whether he learned of them from talmudic literature in which these usages were debated, or from other sources. The Rabbanite polemicist who recounts ʿAnan’s struggle for the exilarchate pointedly notes that remnants of the Sadducees and Boethusians joined him.

Yoram Erder

While ʿĀnān rejected specifically the authority of rabbinic tradition (which was accepted by the Rabbanites, whence their name) in favour of an alternative tradition, the early Karaites rejected in principle the authority of all traditions. While all the surviving fragments of ʿĀnān’s Book of laws are in Aramaic and are restricted to matters of law or exegesis, the quotations ascribed (anonymously) to members of the ʿĀnāniyya are in Judaeo-Arabic and relate to legal and theological matters Albert Harkavy, Aus den ältesten karäischen Gesetzbüchern des ‘Anan, Beniamin Nahawendi und Daniel Kummissi, St. Petersburg 1903 (with Hebrew translation, repr. 1970); Solomon Schechter, Documents of Jewish Sectaries, 2, Cambridge 1910.

Many members of the ʿĀnāniyya, including direct descendants of ʿĀnān, seem to have been integrated into the Karaite movement by the end of the third/ninth century. A small number survived as an independent group until the fourth/tenth century in the Fertile Crescent (according to al-Qirqisānī, who wrote in the 930s), and even a century later in Spain (as attested in the document published by Gil, Palestine during the first Muslim period).

Muslim authors, beginning in about the middle of the fourth/tenth century, seem to have taken much of their information about ʿĀnān and his group from Karaite sources, especially al-Qirqisānī, and some information also from Rabbanite sources, but they have used only a small part of that information and tend to blur the differences between the ʿĀnāniyya and the Karaites. Most Muslim authors, with the exception of al-Masʿūdī (d. 345/956) and al-Bīrūnī (d. after 442/1050), use the term “ʿĀnāniyya” for Karaites. Al-Masʿūdī, in his al-Tanbīh wa-̕l-ishrāf, and al-Muṭṭahar b. Ṭāhir al-Maqdisī, in his al-Badʾ wa-l-taʾrīkh (c. 355/966), represent ʿĀnān and the ʿĀnāniyya as Muʿtazilīs of a sort, who profess the divine unity and justice and reject anthropomorphism. In the discussion of Jewish groups (aṣnāf) in his Mafātīḥ al-ʿulūm, Abū ʿAbdallāh al-Khwārizmī (d. 997/8) mentions the ʿĀnāniyya as the followers of ʿĀnī, with no further specification and without mention of the Karaites. This reference may be true of the ʿĀnāniyya or the Karaites or both, but does not relate to ʿĀnān himself.

Ibn Ḥazm (d. 456/1064) discusses the ʿĀnāniyya in his polemic against the authenticity of the text of the Hebrew Bible. He knows of the controversy between Karaites and Rabbanites concerning the authority of the rabbinic tradition (the “oral law”) and gives information about settlements of ʿĀnāniyya/Karaites in Spain in his time. Al-Masʿūdī and, to an even greater extent, al-Bīrūnī are interested in the ʿĀnāniyya’s particular views regarding the calendar. Al-Shahrastānī (d. 548/1153), in addition to mentioning briefly their calendar and their dietary prohibitions—in the edition of Muḥammad Badrān, of the Milal, the texts includes consumption of locust (jarād), whose authenticity is rejected in the translation by Monot and relegated to a footnote—comments on their favourable attitude toward the person of Jesus (ʿĪsa). This may result from a confusion of the ʿĀnāniyya with the ʿĪsawiyya sect.

Later Muslim sources throw no new light on the subject, with one exception, that of Samawʾal al-Maghribī (d. 570/1175), a Jewish convert to Islam. Because of his Jewish background he calls them Qarrāʾiyyūn rather than ʿĀnāniyya and refers to them as the followers (aṣḥāb) of ʿĀnān and Binyāmīn (al-Nahāwandī); he presents the Karaite rejection of rabbinic tradition as stemming from their rationalistic views. No Muslim author mentions the meeting alleged to have taken place between ʿĀnān and Abū Ḥanīfa in the prisons of the caliph al-Manṣūr (r. 136–58/754–74) (quoted in J. Mann, Texts and Studies, 2 (Cincinnati 1935), 108, from a 14th century Judaeo-Arabic Karaite source). Although qiyās (analogical reasoning) is recognised as a source of the law by both the Karaites and the Ḥanafīs, there is nothing to suggest that the latter influenced the former.

Georges Vajda , revised by Haggai Ben-Shammai

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