Virtually, every Karaite respects Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra. He lived in the 12th Century, and he is arguably the greatest of the classical Rabbanite peshatist (plain meaning) commentators. I have even quoted him in my talks. One of the reasons he is such a good peshatist is because he was combatting the then-thriving Karaite movement, which espoused peshat above all.
In addition to writing commentaries, ibn Ezra also penned numerous poems – the most famous of which is Ki Eshmera Shabbat. It is well known that the poem wound up in Karaite prayer books. It is less well-known that the Karaites modified the poem to remove anti-Karaite rhetoric. And it is even less well-known that the version that appears in Karaite prayer book still appears to have anti-Karaite polemics.
First, I should point out that there are different Rabbanite versions of Ki Eshmera Shabbat floating out there. These differences have actually caused confusion in the Rabbanite community when preparing song books. For example, I recently read that the “standard” version of Ki Eshmera Shabbat says thus in the fourth stanza:
The ones who rejoice on [Shabbat] will reach joy.
(Ha-semahim bo hem simhu masigim)
According to this same source, there is a Yemenite variation of this line, which reads as follows:
The ones who mourn on [Shabbat] are retrograde.
(Mitabelim hem bo ahor nesogim)
But you can see here, that at least one song book actually included the Hebrew from the “standard” version and the transliteration and translation of the “Yemenite” variation. See line three below.
Anyway, back to our story about how ibn Ezra trolled the Karaites: regardless of which version is the original, both of them can be understood as a direct polemic against the Karaites. The Karaite movement of 1,000 years ago was characterized (in large part) by the mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem. They even (it appears) felt that it was okay to mourn on Shabbat.
But because this line in ibn Ezra’s poem was understood as a polemic against the Karaites, the Karaite printing of Ki Eshmera Shabbat has something quite different (but is related in structure to the “Yemenite” version):
The ones who have intercourse on [Shabbat] are retrograde.
(Mishtameshim hem bo ahor nesogim)
The Karaite version is a polemic against the Rabbanites, who believe that sex on Shabbat is a double mitzvah. The historical Karaites believed that sex on Shabbat was an act of melacha (work). This is also (as far as I am aware) the majority opinion of observant persons of historical Karaite extraction today. There is a fascinating article about whether sex on Shabbat was always a double-mitzvah, posted at TheTorah.com.
Eli Shemuel (remember that guy?!) was the one who told me about ibn Ezra’s polemic against the Karaites (and the Karaite response) years ago. I also shared this observation with another young Karaite in the U.S.
Just last week, as I was reading more about this very topic, this young Karaite told me that he discussed the polemic with his mother and his mother reviewed the poem and noticed something interesting. The third stanza also seems like it is a polemic against the Karaites of ibn Ezra’s day – and this was something the Karaites did not change in their printings.
The third stanza reads (in relevant part):
Therefore, to make a fast on [Shabbat] is forbidden, in accordance with His wise men.
Only on the day of atonement do I fast.
(Al ken, lehit’anot al pi nevonav
Asur levad miYom Kipur avoni)
She was right; this does appear to be a jab at the same early Karaites who held it was okay to fast on Shabbat. Interestingly, the mourning part of this line would have been consistent with the views of later Karaite, who would have had no reason to change it to reflect their current mores. (To be clear, while I prefer to be joyous every day of the week, I see no religious reason why people cannot fast or mourn on Shabbat.)
But she also pointed out that the reason given for why it is forbidden to fast on Shabbat also seems polemical. The reason given is *not* that the text of the Torah forbids it; the reason given is that God’s wise men said so. Presumably, these wise men are the Rabbanite sages.
This got me wondering whether the entire poem is a polemic against the Karaites. So I reviewed the version of Ki Eshmera Shabbat that appears in Karaite prayer books, and there is at least one other sectarian difference between the Karaite printing and the Rabbanite printing.
In the fifth and final stanza, ibn Ezra’s text (as I have seen it in various rabbinic sources) reads:
I will pray to God in the evening and in the morning
the additional [prayer] and also the afternoon prayer, He will answer me.
(Etpalela el El aravit v’shacharit
Musaf vegam minha hu ya’aneni)
The version of the prayer that appears in the Karaite prayer book reads:
I will pray to God, in the evening and in the morning
I will call out to the Most High God, that He will answer me
(Etpalela el El aravit v’shacharit
Ekra le’El Elyon ki ya’aneni)
The Karaite rendition of this line reflects our belief that there is no minha prayer in our daily tradition; nor does there appear to have been a musaf service on holidays historically. I don’t know whether ibn Ezra’s original qualifies as a polemic. Indeed, not every description of a sectarian difference is a polemic. But in the context of the rest of the poem, it just might be.
Don’t get me wrong, Ki Eshmera Shabbat is one of the best songs there is. I just can’t sing it anymore. To be honest, I have no problem with Karaites reading poems by Rabbanites. I have no problem with Rabbanites reading poems by Karaites. Good poetry should be embraced and studied. I do get concerned when a minority movement (such as the Karaites) tries to kasher a poem that contains sectarian differences (likely) meant to degrade the minority.
This discovery has prompted me to work with the KJA to produce a booklet of (mostly) Karaite appropriate Shabbat songs.