Library of Congress: Karaite Work on Display

Judeo-Tartar Translation of the Torah now on display at the Library of Congress.

Judeo-Tartar Translation of the Torah now on display at the Library of Congress.

I was recently invited to give a lunchtime presentation at Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The talk was entitled “Karaite Judaism: Texts, Textualists and Tradition,” and was very well received. The Library of Congress is absolutely breathtaking and is a must see for all.

Before the talk, my wonderful contact at the Library of Congress took me to an exhibit named “Words Like Sapphires: 100 Years of Hebraica at the Library of Congress * 1912-2012.” The exhibit is showing from October 25, 2012 through March 16, 2013.

The exhibit contains an interesting piece commissioned by the once-flourishing Karaite Jewish community of Turkey. In recent years, efforts have been made to revive this community.

The work on display is the Hebrew text of the Torah, side-by-side with a translation of the Torah into Judeo-Tartar, a language spoken some Karaite Jewish communities. The above image is the opening chapter of the Book of Leviticus, whose Hebrew with Judeo-Tartar translation appears on the left side of the image. A Hebrew poem that precedes the Book of Leviticus appears on the right half of the image. According to the Library of Congress, a poem precedes each book of the Torah.

The description accompanying the display reads as follows:

Hebrew Bible with Judeo-Tartar Translation

One of the most unusual Bibles in the Hebraic Section is this splendid edition commissioned by the leaders of the Karaite community in Ortakoi, a city near Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). The Karaites are a Jewish sect with roots going back to the eighth century, and though smaller in number today, they represented a considerable challenge to traditional rabbinic Judaism in the High Middle Ages during the heyday of their power in cities such as Cairo and Baghdad. In Czarist Russia during the nineteenth century, the Karaites sought to emphasize their differences with the followers of traditional Judaism in order to avoid the anti-Jewish laws and improve their socio-economic status. This Bible, with the Judeo-Tartar translation clearly aimed at the Karaite community, was thus a cultural statement as well as a political tool for achieving a separate—but more than equal—status under imperial Russian law. Each of the five biblical books has an introductory poem written by the translators and editors of this edition; here we see part of the poem introducing the Book of Leviticus and the opening verses from the first chapter.

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For those new to A Blue Thread (or Karaite Judaism in general), I note that Karaites tend to resist the notion that our movement’s roots date back only to the eighth century; though, that was clearly an important period in the unification of various Tanach-only groups into a cohesive movement.

Yaaqov Walker has kindly provided a translation of the Hebrew poem. I have reproduced his translation below, with only minor changes. Yaaqov interprets the poem to signify the importance of the priesthood, which I note is a central theme of Leviticus. Yaaqov has included biblical references in his translation:

A Simple Song

The fear of God is continually upon him, day and night;
Humbly, the ‘teacher of righteousness’ [Joel 2:23] worships God, Selah.
To him, life and shalom are a ‘Covenant of Salt’ [Num.18:19; 25:12];
And when the priests of [pagan] high places stand up, ha! Their souls were shocked!
‘They have done violence to God’s Torah’ [Ezek. 22:26], therefore they fell by the dagger.
Woe to them, to violent priests like those;
For to perform acts that are unlawful, have they have begun.
They would even mock the righteous prophets [2 Chron. 36:16];
They did not take them seriously, for even the glory of HaShem did they profane;
Both the Temple as well as the splendor of the Torah, did they despise.
Because of their sins the Temple was burnt up as a ‘patch of thorns’ [Prov. 15:19];
This is my consolation, which in the midst of my heart, flames up;
If only among cedars, descended a fiery flame;
What will hyssop do for one like me, a boorish man?
He who chastises is righteous, his rebuke is loved.
I forsook my people – not among beauty did I choose to live
The city is far from men, I have felt sorrow;
Therefor I will cry out to God, “Please, Yah, Deliver”! [Ps. 118:25]
Cause me to return to my people, for the sake of Hoshe`a [Hos. 1:1]
I shall turn back to my people, for it was better for me before, than it is now
Indeed [Hebrew: Amen], the Living God, the ways of righteous men, does know [Ps. 1:6]
You, the all-knowing God, will help him who does not know
To translate the book of WaYiqra [English: Leviticus], because compassionate, You are.

[Composed in the week of reading] the portion of `Eqev [Deut. 7:12-11:25], in the year of the numerical value of אֵלְכָה וְאָשׁוּבָה אֶל אִישִׁי הָרִאשׁוֹן כִּי טוֹב לִי אָז מֵעָתָּה  “I will go and return to my first husband; for then was it better with me than now.”
592 AM/1831 CE of this millennium, here, in greater Qushta [Constantinople]. May God Protect Her.

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And if you would like a higher resolution image of above image, you can download it here:  Judeo-Tartar Translation: Higher-Resolution Image




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