I love reading anything that raises the profile of Karaites, even when the work is fictional. So, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on Alan A. Winter’s Savior’s Day, a recently published novel that mentions Karaites quite prominently.
Savior’s Day is historical fiction about a series of murders tied to the lost pages of the Aleppo Codex. It is a tale that spans centuries and takes us through many of the Middle Ages’ greatest Jewish communities: Jerusalem, Tiberias, Fostat, and Aleppo.
Since the book is historical fiction, I’m not going to fact-check every Karaite (or Rabbanite) reference here. But I thought these were worth noting.
The first reference to Karaites is that Karaites commissioned the Aleppo Codex in the early part of the tenth century AD. (p. 12.) In the fictional Savior’s Day, Jacob al-Kirkisani (a famed tenth century Karaite) commissioned the Codex.
We actually don’t know who commissioned the Aleppo Codex, but we do know that two Karaites (Solomon ben Buya‘a and Aaron ben Asher) penned the text. We also know that another Karaite purchased the Codex and donated it to the Karaite synagogue of Jerusalem. That’s part of the reason that Karaites are awesome.
The book then takes an interesting turn with respect to Karaite references. It repeats the cliched stereotypes that Karaites take the words of the Bible “to their literal excess” and that the Bible was “not open for interpretation.” (p. 93.) Oy Vey! Karaites do not seek a literal interpretation of the Bible; Karaites seek the “plain meaning.” (See here, here, and here.)
What follows next is just crazy. The author suggests that in the Rabbinic tradition, “the Sabbath day was meant for rest and prayer,” but that Karaites disagreed with this notion. In the author’s words, “The Karaites would have none of that.” (p. 93.) Double Oy Vey! Perhaps, I’ll post in the future on the historical Karaite understanding of Shabbat/melacha; but the Karaites of the Middle Ages interpreted the Tanakh to prohibit many, many types of activities on Shabbat. And in certain instances, the Karaite interpretation of Shabbat observance was more restrictive than the Rabbinic interpretation.
Savior’s Day actually does some justice to one of the most important aspects of Karaite Judaism: that today we all have authority (and responsibility) to interpret Scripture to the best of our ability. In one interesting scene, Aaron ben Asher, whom the book portrays as a Rabbanite, sympathizes with the Karaite view for the first time in his life. Ben Asher challenges Saadia Gaon, “You are a man just like any of us. . . Are you better than us? Are you a prophet? Is that how you know what God wants?” Saadia responds, “This is blasphemy.” (p. 115.)
Technically, I think it’s heresy; but that’s beside the point. The scene actually captures some of the Karaite philosophy quite well.
In the end, Savior’s Day is a nice and quick read – even if I disagree with the (purportedly) factual assertions about Karaites and Rabbanites. I actually reached out to the author of the book hoping to discuss these details with him. I have yet to receive a response.