Abraham (Avraham) ben Samuel Firkovich (Hebrew אברהם בן שמואל - Avraham ben Shmuel; Karayce: Аврагъам Фиркович - Avragham Firkovich) (1786–1874) was a famous Karaim writer and archeologist, collector of ancient manuscripts, Karaim cleric. He was born in Lutsk, Volhynia, then lived in Lithuania, and finally settled in Çufut Qale, Crimea.
Abraham Firkovic was born in Crimean Karaites farmers family in Lutsk district of Volhynia (then part of the Russian Empire, now Ukraine). At age 25 went bankrupt. Then began to study Hebrew, Torah and other holy books. In 1818 he was appointed junior hazzan of the Lutsk Crimean Karaites community. Because of a dispute with the older hazzan had to leave and emigrate to Evpatoria in Crimea, where he was appointed in 1823 to the hacham and the head of local Crimean Karaites community. In 1825 sent a letter to the Czar, that proposed to settle the Jewish population from the border of Russia and bring the Jews working the land, but the proposal was rejected. In 1828 he moved to Berdichev, where he met Hasidism and Jewish Scriptures that were unacceptable to the Karaites, such as the Talmud. Encounter with the Rabbinical Jews brought Firkovic hard to argue with them, it published a book, "Massah and Meribah" (Eupatoria, 1838). Book raised serious allegations against the Jewish way of life.In later years when he was reconciled with the Rabbinites, he apologized for the sentiments contained in that pamphlet. In 1830 he visited Jerusalem, where he collected many Jewish manuscripts. On his return he remained two years in Constantinople, as teacher in the Karaites community there. He then went to Crimea and organized a society to publish old Karaite works, of which several appeared in Eupatoria with comments by him. In 1838 he was the teacher of the children of Sima Babovich, the head of the Russian Crimean Karaites, who one year later recommended him to Count Vorontzov and to the Historical Society of Odessa as a suitable man to send to collect material for the history of the Crimean Karaites. In 1839 Firkovich began excavations in the ancient cemetery of Çufut Qale, and unearthed many old tombstones, claiming that some of them belonged to the Bosporan "sebomenoi" period (first centuries of the common era). The following two years were spent in travels through the Caucasus, where he visited the genizot of the old Jewish communities and procured many documents on the history of his people. He went as far as Derbent, and returned in 1842. In later years he made other journeys of the same nature, visiting Egypt and other countries looking for anything which might pertain to Crimean Karaite traditions concerning pre-Khazar origins. In Odessa he became the friend of Bezalel Stern and of Simchah Pinsker, and while residing in Wilna he made the acquaintance of Fuenn and other Hebrew scholars. In 1871 he visited the small Crimean Karaites community in Halych, Galicia, where he recommended several reforms. From there he went to Vienna, where he was introduced to Count Beust and also made the acquaintance of Adolph Jellinek. He returned to pass his last days in Çufut Qale, of which there now remained only a few buildings and many ruins. However, Firkovich's house is still preserved in the site.
Firkovich collected a vast number of Hebrew, Arabic and Samaritan manuscripts during his many travels in his search for evidence concerning the pre-Khazar traditions of his people. These included thousands of Jewish documents from throughout the Russian Empire in what became known as the First Firkovich Collection. He was one of the first to visit the Cairo Genizah with the intention of cataloging and studying its contents. His visit, in 1863, took place thirty four years before Solomon Schechter's more famous trip. Firkovich therefore got first pick of the documents contained in the Genizah. Though this "Second Firkovich Collection" contains only 13,700 items in comparison to Schechter's 140,000, the Firkovich documents are generally more complete.
As a result of his research he became focused on the origin of the Crimean Karaite ancestors among descendants of Israelite teachers (mainly from the tribes of Simeon and Levi and their Carian bodyguard from Caphtor) who arrived in Crimea to make sebomenoi among the Kolkhis natives before the common era (thus not being culpable for the crucifixion of Jesus) . However, due to lack of comments regarding the sources for the Second Collection, many documents which passed through Firkovich's hands were promoted as skeptic among some Hebraists (Chwolson, S. L. Rapoport, A. Neubauer, Julius Fürst, Heinrich Grätz, Strack and Harkavy etc.). His theories persuaded the Russian imperial court that Crimean Karaites cannot be accused in Jesus Crucifixion and they were excluded from the restrictive measures against Jews.
Upon his death in 1874 Firkovich's collection was bought by the Russian National Library.
Among the treasures in the Firkovich collection is a manuscript of the Garden of Metaphors, an aesthetic appreciation of Biblical literature written in Judeo-Arabic by one of the greatest of the Sephardi poets, Moses ibn Ezra.
The account of the contents of his second collection, which he sold for a very large sum to the Imperial Library of St. Petersburg in 1862-63 (see Fürst, Geschichte des Karäerthums, iii. pp. 174 et seq., Leipsic, 1869), gives more than 700 numbers of various (including many Jewish) manuscripts. Another collection of 317 Samaritan manuscripts, acquired in Nablus, arrived in the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy in 1867 (ib. p. 176).
Probably the greatest service that Firkovich rendered to Jewish studies was the awakening of interest in Karaite history and literature, that led to the discussion of his alleged discoveries. His personal contributions to it are mostly of a bibliographical nature, and great caution is necessary in utilizing his materials.
Firkovich's chief work is his Abne Zikkaron, containing the texts of inscriptions discovered by him (Wilna, 1872). It is preceded by a lengthy account of his travels to Daghestan, characterized by Strack as a mixture of truth and fiction. His other works are Khotam Toknit, antirabbinic polemics, appended to his edition of the Mibkhar Yesharim by Aaron the elder (Eupatoria, 1835); Evel Kavod, on the death of his wife and of his son Jacob (Odessa, 1866); and Bene Reshef, essays and poems, published by Peretz Smolenskin (Vienna, 1871).
Gabriel Firkovich of Troki was his son-in-law.
Briefly stated, Firkovich's discoveries include the major part of the manuscripts described in Pinner's Prospectus der Odessaer Gesellschaft für Geschichte und Alterthum Gehörenden Aeltesten Hebräischen und Rabbinischen Manuscripte (Odessa, 1845), a rather rare work which is briefly described in Literaturblatt des Orients for 1847, No. 2. These manuscripts consist of:
- Fifteen scrolls of the Law, with postscripts which give, in Karaylar fashion, the date and place of writing, the name of the writer or corrector or other interesting data.
- Twenty copies of books of the Bible other than the Pentateuch, some complete, others fragmentary, of one of which, the Book of Habakkuk, dated 916, a facsimile is given.
- Nine numbers of Talmudical and rabbinical manuscripts.
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After the Firkovich death Hebraist Abraham Harkavy wrote a basic book "The Hebrew monuments of the Crimea". in which he accused Firkovich of falsifying (changes in dates and names on the headstones and some manuscripts), citing the utilitarian purpose pursued by Firkovich: proof that Karaites settled in Crimea before Jesus was born and, therefore not involved in the crucifixion of Jesus, should not be subject to similar restrictions to the Jews.
In contradiction Firkovich's most sympathetic critic, Chwolson, gives as a résumé of his belief, after considering all controversies, that Firkovich succeeded in demonstrating that some of the Jewish tombstones from Chufut-Kale date back to the seventh century, and that seemingly modern forms of eulogy and the method of counting after the era of creation were in vogue among Jews much earlier than had been hitherto suspected.
S. L. Rapoport has pointed out some impossibilities in the inscriptions (Ha-Meliẓ, 1861, Nos. 13-15, 37); A. Geiger in his Jüdische Zeitschrift (1865, p. 166), Schorr in He-Ḥaluẓ, and A. Neubauer in the Journal Asiatique (1862–63) and in his Aus der Petersburger Bibliothek (Leipzig, 1866) have challenged the correctness of the facts and the theories based upon them which Jost, Julius Fürst, and Heinrich Grätz, in their writings on the Karaites, took from Pinsker's Liḳḳuṭe Ḳadmoniyyot, in which the data furnished by Firkovich were unhesitatingly accepted. Further exposures were made by Strack and Harkavy (St. Petersburg, 1875) in the Catalog der Hebr. Bibelhandschriften der Kaiserlichen Oeffentlichen Bibliothek in St. Petersburg; in Harkavy's Altjüdische Denkmäler aus der Krim (ib. 1876); in Strack's A. Firkowitsch und Seine Entdeckungen (Leipsic, 1876); in Fränkel's Aḥare Reshet le-Baḳḳer (Ha-Shaḥar, vii. 646 et seq.); in Deinard's Massa' Ḳrim (Warsaw, 1878); and in other places. Chwolson alone defended him, but he also was forced to admit that in some cases Firkovich had resorted to forgery. In his Corpus Inscriptiorum Hebraicarum (St. Petersburg, 1882; Russian ed., ib. 1884) Chwolson attempts to prove that the Firkovich collection, especially the epitaphs from tombstones, contains much which is genuine.
In 1980 V. V. Lebedev investigating the manuscript of the Firkovich collection came to the conclusion that forgery cannot be attributed to Firkovich, but rather it was done by the previous owners, who attempted in such a way to increase the price of manuscripts.
- Seraya Shapshal Philosophical disciple of Firkovich also carrying the Bashyazi Sevel ha Yerushah.
- A. Harkavy, Altjudische Denkmaler aus der Krim, mitgetheilt von Abraham Firkowitsch, SPb., 1876
- Лебедев В. В. К источниковедческой оценке некоторых рукописей собрания А. С. Фирковича.// Палестинский сборник. — Л., 1987. Вып. 29 (история и филология). — С. 61.)
- Ben-Sasson, M. (1991). "Firkovich's Second Collection: Notes on historical and Halakhic material." Jewish Studies, 31: 47-67 (Hebrew).
- Josephs, Susan. "Fact from Fantasy" The Jewish Week January 12, 2001.
- Markon, I. “Babowitsch, Simcha ben Salamo.” Encyclopaedia Judaica 3: 857-58.
________. “Firkowitsch, (Firkowitz), Abraham ben Samuel.” Encyclopaedia Judaica 6: 1017-19.
- Miller, Philip E. Karaite Separatism in Nineteenth-Century Russia. Cincinnati, 1993
- Harkavy, Albert. Altjudische Denkmaller aus der Krim mitgetheilt von Abraham Firkowitsch, 1839-1872. In Memoires de l’Academie Imperiale de St.-Peterboug, VIIe Serie, 24, 1877; reprinted Wiesbaden, 1969.
- Кизилов, Михаил. “Караим Авраам Фиркович: прокладывая путь тюркскому национализму.” Историческое наследие Крыма 9 (2005): 218-221.
- Кизилов М., Щеголева T. Осень караимского патриарха. Авраам Фиркович по описаниям очевидцев и современников // Параллели 2-3 (2003). С.319-362.
- Shapira, Dan. “Remarks on Avraham Firkowicz and the Hebrew Mejelis 'Document'.” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 59:2 (2006): 131-180.
- Shapira, Dan. Avraham Firkowicz in Istanbul (1830–1832). Paving the Way for Turkic Nationalism. Ankara: KaraM, 2003.
- Shapira, Dan. “Yitshaq Sangari, Sangarit, Bezalel Stern and Avraham Firkowicz: Notes on Two Forged Inscriptions.” Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi 12 (2002–2003): 223-260.
- Kizilov, Mikhail. Karaites through the Travelers’ Eyes. Ethnic History, Traditional Culture and Everyday Life of the Crimean Karaites According to Descriptions of the Travelers. New York: al-Qirqisani, 2003.
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