A Jewish Empire in the Middle Ages
Dr.Rivka Shpak Lissak
Are the East-European Jews descendants of the people of Khazaria who converted to Judaism?
Some historians believe that during the Middle Ages there were no more than 25,000 - 35,000 Jews in Western Europe.
They find it hard to agree with other historians whose studies show that by the 17th century there were hundreds of thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe,who were descendants of the Jews who had been expelled from Wetern and central Europe during the Middle Ages.
This controversy raised the question whether Easten European Jews are not descendants of people of Khazria who converted to Judaism.
The Palestinian propagania adopted this thesis arguing that East European Jews are Khazars and have, therefore, no historical rights in today Israel.
In medieval times the Jews suffered persecutions but in the Kingdom of the Khazars they were received with honor and played a decisive role in transforming it into an empire
The early history of the Khazars is shrouded in mystery. The Khazars belonged to the family of Turkish tribes, and were part of the Western Turkish Empire in Central Asia, which disintegrated as a result of civil wars in the middle of the 7th century CE.
The Khazars were a nomadic tribe that believed in Shamanism, which was widespread in Northeast Asia. This religion ascribed to the priests, who were called shamans, control over the actions of the good and evil spirits.
The Khazar tribe became independent following the disintegration of the empire. It settled between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea and from this base it took control over extensive territories and established the Khazar Empire, which lasted from the close of the 6th century to 1083.
The empire comprised North Caucasus, Eastern Ukraine, the Crimean Peninsula, West Kazakhstan and Northwest Uzbekistan. Some scholars believe the Khazar Empire reached modern-day Poland and Hungary. The empire was established gradually from the middle of the 6th century to the 9th century. The establishment of the empire was facilitated by virtue of a modern army numbering 40,000 soldiers and a network of fortresses at strategic command points.
At the time the Caspian Sea was known as the Khazar Sea and retains this name to the present day in Azeri, Turkish, Persian and Arabic. Further proof of the strength of the Khazar Empire can be discerned from a map on the wall of the Caliph of Baghdad's palace showing the Kingdom of the Khazars as one of the five most important empires along with the Arab, Western Christian, Eastern Christian and Chinese Empires.
The Structure of Khazar Rule
Khazar society was a pluralistic society, composed of a wide variety of tribes and religions. Aside from the Khazars, Slavic, Magyar, Huns, Jews and other ethnic groups formed part of the empire. The Khazar kingdom was a dualist monarchy, ruled by the king, called a khagan, and by the bek, who was a military chieftain.
At the head of the legal system stood a supreme court composed of seven justices who represented the various faiths in the Khazar Kingdom. Two justices were Christian, two Muslims, two Jews and the remaining justice was a pagan.
The Jews in the Khazar Kingdom
According to one hypothesis, the first Jewish settlers reached the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea in the first century CE, i.e. after the destruction of the Second Temple. Following the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 C.E. another wave of Jews arrived. Some scholars believe that already during the First Temple Period exiles from the Ten Tribes reached the region after the Assyrian Empire had liquidated the Kingdom of Israel at the end of the 8th century BCE. Likewise Jewish refugees from Persia and regions under Muslim and Christian rule found refuge in the Khazar Kingdom.
The Jews filled an important task in developing the Khazar Kingdom in every area. The Khazars, who were illiterate, even adopted the ancient Hebrew script. Some hold they also adopted the Hebrew language from the Jews, who were on a higher cultural and technological level.
Researchers believe the Jewish exiles played a decisive role in the process of transforming the Khazars from a nomadic tribe to a settled people and in developing the various branches of the economy.
The Jews served as advisors in the spheres of trade and technology and contributed to other branches of the economy as well. The Khazars developed a variegated economy that incorporated agriculture, fisheries, hunting, crafts and trade.
The handicraft industry was highly developed in the Khazar kingdom. Archeological digs have uncovered workshops used for manufacturing glass and jewelry and dying cloth. These skills were imported from the Middle East by Jews and apparently the Jews played a major role in the area of crafts.
The Geopolitical Situation and the Empire's Collapse
The Khazar Kingdom was situated between the Muslim caliphates to the southeast and the Byzantine Empire to the southwest. The Khazars conducted protracted wars with the Muslims, who attempted to penetrate Eastern Europe via the Caucasus. They managed to check the Muslim penetration via a pact signed with the Byzantine Empire. But the empire collapsed as a result of a Slavic revolt, after they had been enslaved for 200 years to Khazaria and a pact between the Byzantine Empire and the Slavic-Rus kingdom.
In 969 CE the Byzantines conquered the Crimean Peninsula and additional portions of the empire. In 1083, the Khazar Kingdom finally collapsed. Some of the Khazars remained where they were, while others fled eastward to Asian regions or westward toward Poland and Hungary.
It may well be that the Khazar rulers' decision to embrace Judaism was motivated by geopolitical considerations. In order to preserve an independent status between the two empires, the Muslim and the Christian, they decided to embrace the Jewish religion, which posed no danger to them, since it was a religion without a state. It is likewise a plausible assumption that the Khazar rulers were influenced by Jews who held key positions in managing the kingdom and its economy.
Arab, Christian, Persian and Jewish sources testified to the fact that the Khazar rulers embraced Judaism. Researchers have arrived at a consensus on this issue but remain divided over the question of the extent to which the Khazar population converted to Judaism. Some researchers maintain that only the upper ruling class converted, whereas other scholars maintain a minority of the Khazar population also converted to Judaism. A third group of scholars maintains that all or most of the Khazar people followed in the footsteps of their rulers and converted.
A 10th -century Arabic document shows that all Khazars are Jewish, but are recent converts. A document from the 11th century relates the conversion of the Khazars, who accepted Torah commandments such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, etc.
A Persian document from 1206 CE reports that Khazars spoke Hebrew. An Arabic source states that the Jewish refugees who settled in Khazaria suggested that the Khazar king convert to Judaism, and he found it superior to the Khazar religion and subsequently adopted it. A Christian document from the 10th century tells of a Hungarian Duke inviting Khazarian Jews to dwell in his kingdom. A Khazar author named Jacob Ibn Reuben wrote a book titled Happiness which notes that the Khazars are the only Jews who do not have to suffer the rigors of the Diaspora.
Researchers have found a number of versions for the adoption of Judaism in Khazaria. A Jewish Khazarian source from Istanbul; Yehuda Halevi's book, Kuzari; and the Khazar Correspondence between Hasdai ibn Shaprut, a minister of Muslim Andalusia in Spain, and Joseph, king of Khazaria.
Prof. Schechter of Cambridge University discovered a letter in the Cairo Geniza by a Khazar Jew from 950 CE, addressed to a high-ranking Jew, possibly Hasdai. The letter was published in 1912. The letter speaks of the Khazar king's conversion as a well-known fact, tells of Jews, possibly from the Ten Tribes, immigrating to Khazria, and mentions the correspondence between King Joseph and Hasdai.
The letter states that the Jews had assimilated among the Khazars and observed only circumcision, while some observed the Sabbath laws as well. When one of the Jews was chosen as the warlord, the bek, and after winning many victories, his wife and father-in-law persuaded him to return to his ancestors' religion. He acceded and underwent circumcision, but his return to Judaism threatened Islamic and Christian successes in Khazaria, and their representatives feared that the Khazars would convert to Judaism.
Christian and Muslim rulers also put pressure on the Khazars, and so the Bek decided to hold a debate between representatives of the three religions. When the debate ended the Khazars went to the caves where the Jews had hidden their Torah Scrolls and were persuaded to convert. "And the Jews together with the People of Khazaria repented fully." The conversion was followed by extensive government reform, and the Khazar king even intervened on behalf of Byzantine Jews with the emperor, when they faced harsh edicts – most likely in the years between 932 and 940 CE.
Yehuda Halevi wrote the Kuzari in 1140 CE. This is a literary work, but is based on historical sources. According to Halevi's book, the Khazarian King invited the representative of the three religions to a debate, and after hearing their arguments, chose the Jewish religion. While in the beginning not many converted, gradually the conversion rate grew. The Khazar king sent messengers to bring books and scholars, to instruct the Khazars in Judaism, and also erected a Tabernacle.
The Khazar Correspondence between Hasdai ibn Shaprut and Joseph, king of the Khazars, is also a literary work, written in the late 10th century or early 11th century CE. Hasdai lived between 915 and 975, but the author made use of historical sources. In his letters, Hasdai tells King Joseph how he learned of Khazaria and of his efforts to make contact with King Joseph. Hasdai, a minister of Andalusia's Caliph, learned of Jewish Khazaria from a delegation that came to the court. Various versions explain the origin of this delegation in different ways. One says it was actually a Persian delegation, while another speaks of Jews in a Slavic delegation. Once Hasdai managed to make contact with King Joseph, he asked for details concerning the conversion.
King Joseph wrote to Hasdai that the Khazars were descendants of Japheth, and after the kingdom was founded, in the days of King Bulan, a fundamental religious reform took place in Khazaria. King Bulan saw in his dream an angel telling him: "I have observed your ways and commended your actions in the knowledge that you would follow me with all thy heart, and I wish to bestow upon you commandments, laws and justice. And if you keep my commandments and laws, I shall bless thee and increase thee." Joseph wrote that the king suggested that the angel appear to the Bek as well, and once they both acknowledged the Jewish view they assembled their ministers and servants and converted. The angel appeared once more and requested they erect a Tabernacle for God. The Khazars went to war in order to acquire the spoils needed to build the tabernacle.
Joseph further wrote that the conversion was opposed by Khazaria's neighboring countries, and due to their involvement, King Bulan decided to stage a debate between the sages of Judaism, Christianity and Judaism. Once Judaism was proven superior, the king and his servants underwent circumcision and sent messengers to Jewish scholars so that they might come and interpret the Torah and its commandments. Thanks to the conversion, Joseph writes, "G-d subdued all our enemies before us and laid low all the nations and tongues around us, and none can stand before us to this day, and all pay us tribute, the kings of Edom and the kings of Ishmael."
Following the death of Bulan, writes Joseph, his son Obadiah became king. Of Obadiah it was written, "He was a just and righteous man, and he renewed the kingdom and its laws, constructed synagogues and yeshivas and collected many Jewish scholars and gave them gold and silver, and they interpreted for him 24 books and the Mishna and the Talmud and all changes to the prayers of cantors. And he was G-d-fearing and a lover of the Torah and the commandments."
In his letters, King Joseph described his kingdom economically, politically and demographically, and noted he was in contact with the yeshivas of Babylon and Jerusalem. He replied to Hasdai's question whether he knows when salvation will arrive, saying, "We are far from Zion, but have heard that due to our sins, the count has been lost, and we know nothing…but for the prophecy of Daniel."
In fact, there is a fourth version of the Khazar conversion by Jewish historian Alfred M. Lylintel, who claims King Bulan did invite the representatives of the religions for a debate, but was convinced by none of them. Therefore he spoke with each one of them alone. The first to be interviewed was the Christian representative. The Khagan asked him: "If you weren't Christian, or were forced to give up Christianity, which would you choose, Islam or Judaism?" The Christian answered: Judaism. The same question was posited to the Muslim representative, and his answer was the same. For lack of choice, King Bulan chose Judaism. Only then did he invite Jewish rabbis to teach the Khazars how to practice Judaism, and since then the Khazars lived as Jews.
And so, in the Middle Ages, at a time when Jews suffered religious persecution wherever they settled, Khazaria provided a refuge. They were received there with great honor and played a crucial role in transforming it into an economic, military and political empire.
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