The Great Jewish Kingdom of the Khazars, and the Jews of the East who predated the Slavic peoples

KhararMap With the Russian invasion of Crimea, it is surprising to remember that much of the area, and areas around it, were once part of a Jewish kingdom.  This was the kingdom of the Khazars, a people that converted to Judaism, and held off the advance of Islamic armies.  They were finally overrun by the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan, holding out longer than their neighbors, but finally collapsing.  Before this conversion (sometime in the eighth century), there had been many Jews residing in the area of what is now the Ukraine, Crimea, and Southern Russia.
The first Jews in the area were fleeing from war and intolerance of the Byzantine empire (Christian) and Sassanian empire (Persians).  Joining earlier Jews in the area they contributed to the development of the region both in its intellectual development as well as in practical arts like agriculture.  For instance they taught their neighbors writing.  A contemporary Muslim geographer described the land as being full of “sheep, honey and Jews.”
Khazarian kings were called Khagans, and Khagan Bulan is said to have chosen Judaism after listening to a presentation of the various religious systems.  It is also possible that embracing Judaism was a means of choosing neutrality between the rival religions of Islam and Christianity, that were both powerful outside Khazaria.
The Khazar’s resistance to Muslim armies, according to historian D. M. Dunlop, prevented the outflanking of Byzantium by the Arabs, “and the history of Christendom and Islam might well have been very different.”  In fact they prevented a Muslim advance into Europe through the Caucasus mountains in 737, while 5 years earlier Charles Martel stopped the advance of an invading Muslim army in France.
The Khazars allowed liberty of conscience, and visitors from the Caliphate (Muslim) and Byzantium were amazed to see a supreme tribunal consisting of seven judges, including two Jews, two Christians, two Muslims, and one pagan.
The Khazars relied mainly on the Bible, and it embarrassed a Spanish jurist, Yehuda bar Barzillai al-Barceloni, to see them offering animal sacrifices.

The priests may have been dressed in leather vestments tailored to the biblical descriptions,  judging from a find of a body of that period in a cave near Phanagoria.

Though tolerant, the Khazar rulers were prepared to institute sharp reprisals for anti-Jewish measures in neighboring lands.  When a Muslim mob destroyed a synagogue, they went in and demolished the tower of the town Mosque, and executed its Muezzins.  They also replied to the forced conversion of Jews by Byzantines by persecuting Christians

According to historian Salo Baron (see sources) it was out of Khazaria that came a messianic movement led by David Alroy, whose goal was the military conquest of the holy land.  He did not get the aid of enough Jews in the intervening Muslim countries in this effort, but Baron suggests that the “star of David” may have come from him, and that symbol is still with us. (Wikipedia says he was born in Iraq, which was not Khazar territory).

Jews in other lands were flattered by the existence of an independent Jewish state and spun romantic tales about them.  It was also a debating point – when they were told that the prediction “The scepter will not fall from Judah” (Genesis 49:10) had been proved false, they could point to the Khazar kingdom.
The Mongol invasion put an end to Khazar sovereignty.  Their state had lasted a remarkably long time, about 500 years.  After the Golden Horde defeated it some of the inhabitants made it to mostly Slavic lands, where they became an element in the growth of the great Jewish centers of Eastern Europe. In fact Jews were those areas long before the arrival of the Serbs and Bulgars and Magyars, and before the Khazarian empire emergence as well.  They  were there as early as the 2nd century, and perhaps earlier.

It is ironic that eventually the newer peoples regarded the Jews as aliens living amidst the native majority.

If you look at the above map, you will see a town called Kerch that is on one of side of the narrow strait at the north of the Black Sea that separates it from the sea of Azov.  This has been in the news, because after Putin’s invasion of Crimea, the Russians want to build a bridge over it.  Kerch was called Karsch Al Yahud by Arab geographers, because it was a Jewish town surrounded by Jewish territory on both sides of the strait.  Another leader who wanted to build a bridge over it was Adolf Hitler, who planned to use the bridge to cross eastward into the Caucasus mountains, where he could capture oil fields and advance toward Persia.  Part of the bridge was built, but then the Soviets pushed out the Nazi armies, and the bridge began to break up under the pressure from ice by early 1945.  The rest was removed as a hazard.

Since the Khazar kingdom, there have been periods where the Jews did fairly well in the area which became the Ukraine and its periphery.  In 1648-9, however, Bohdan Khmelnytsky led an uprising, and since Polish estate owners had often used Jews as supervisors of their estates, the Jews became objects of hatred to the oppressed and long-suffering peasants. Khmelnytsky told the people that the Poles had sold them as slaves “into the hands of the accursed Jews.” With this as their battle cry, Cossacks and the peasantry massacred a large number of Jewish and Polish-Lithuanian townsfolk, as well as Szlachta (Polish nobility) during the years 1648–1649. The contemporary 17th-century Eyewitness Chronicle (Yeven Mezulah) by Nathan ben Moses Hannover states:
Wherever they found the szlachta, royal officials or Jews, they [Cossacks] killed them all, sparing neither women nor children. They pillaged the estates of the Jews and nobles, burned churches and killed their priests, leaving nothing whole. It was a rare individual in those days who had not soaked his hands in blood ..

Then came the riots throughout Southern Russia of 1881, and the Kishinev pogrom of 1903.

The New York Times described the First Kishinev pogrom of Easter, 1903:

“The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia [modern Moldova], are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Orthodox Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, “Kill the Jews”, was taken up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number 120 [Note: the actual number of dead was 47–48] and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.

Other Jews in the area included Karaites (they are Jews who do not believe in the Talmudic law, and just accept the Bible), and they were treated better by Russian authorities, partly for that reason.  Also residing in Crimea were the Krimchaks, another group, who did accept rabbinic Judaism Krimchaks often were blond and had distinctive garb, and sidelocks as the modern Hasidim do.

After the first World War, there was an attempt at a Jewish agricultural revival in Crimea, but the Soviets then prohibited an effort by a charitable organization called Agro-joint to equip the Jewish farmers.  There was even a split in a Jewish Kibbutz in Israel, where one faction became so leftist that they decided to head to the Crimea, where they founded an agricultural village called Via Nova.   .

Then came the Nazis in 1941.  They killed many Jews in the area before their defeat.

In 1952, there was news of a nationalist plot to establish a Jewish territorial unit – a Jewish republic in the Crimea.  The Russians thought that if it would be permitted, it would encourage others, for example Armenians, so Soviets annihilated the intellectuals behind it in August 12 1952.

Ukranian Jews Reach Israel

Ukranian Jews Reach Israel

Today in the Ukraine, the leader of a party called Svoboda said that a Muscovite-Jewish mafia” had come to rule Ukraine.  There is a movement of Jews in the areas of Ukraine now being conquered by Russia to leave for Israel.

So what was the legacy of the Khazar kingdom, and the lasting influence?

For that period, they were tolerant, and relatively free, more so than the regimes that followed them.  They had expansionist neighbors, but managed to hold them off for hundreds of years.

The fact of a Jewish kingdom for a while in that area did have an impact on other Jews elsewhere – and Yehudah Ha Levi wrote the Kuzari – one of the greatest books in Judaism, and he frames his ideas as a discussion between the King of the Khazars and a Rabbi.

It is sad that a people that had such a large and vibrant presence in a large territory, is now almost completely gone from that area.

A Social and Religious History of the Jews (Volume 3) by Salo Baron, Columbia University Press (1957)
Kremlin’s Bridge Plan Spans Dark Past – March 4, 2014 Wall Street Journal
Kiev Coalition Tries To Tame Nationalists – March 20, 2014 Wall Street Journal



The Qur’an that likes the Jews

It is hard to believe, given the widespread paranoia of the Jews that we see in the Muslim world today, but the Qur’an discourages this kind of hatred toward them.
For instance, ISIS is not a debating society, but more of a mass-slaughter society of anyone who thinks differently, and the probably would decapitate me for pointing this quote out but:
The Qur’an: Surah 29: verse 45

Do not argue with the people of the book, but only in a decent way. And say to them, “we believe in what was given to you. For our lord and your lord is one. And to him, we are devoted.”

Surah 42: verse 14

Allah is our lord, and your lord. But we have our order of his worship and you have yours. There is no disagreement between us. In the end he will unify us for his is the ultimate purpose of all things.

The Palestinian Hamas organization brings up its children from very early to “liberate” Palestine, but I’m sure those children do not  read:
Surah 10: verse 94

After (the Exodus) I settled the Children of Israel in their land and bestowed on them all from the very best….should you have any doubt whatsoever concerning something from the Qur’an which was bestowed upon you, ask (the children of Israel) for they received and studied this book (the bible) before you.

Mohammad says that the Jews can even be asked questions on finer points of religion because:

Surah 16: verse 45

Before I revealed myself to you, we only sent other messengers to whom I had revealed myself. Ask if you do not know this the people of the book for to them we revealed ourselves with proofs and the psalms.

Surah 46: verse 10

Before this, the book was given to Moses as guidance and graciousness and this book (the Qur’an) confirms it in the Arabic language.

Its interesting to me (the blogger) that these verses have so little impact on the worldview of hundreds of millions of Muslims and especially the Palestinians. They are more likely to pay attention to Hadiths such as:
The Hour [Day of Resurrection] will not arrive until you fight the Jews, [until a Jew will hide behind a rock or tree] and the rock and the tree will say: ‘Oh Muslim, servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!’”
In fact, this was quoted by Hassan Khader, founder of the Al Quds Encyclopedia, on Palestinian Authority Television.

Maybe this ultimately shows that people believe what they want to believe. Or at least they pick and choose what confirms their beliefs.

Where did the ten lost tribes go – Jewish connections in Afghanistan and the Mideast

A Pathan

A Pathan

Though Islam has conquered much of the world, from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Pacific islands of Indonesia, you can find interesting Jewish connections in some of the peoples who now pay allegiance to it.  For instance, the Pathans of the Afghanistan mountains said they were descended from the tribe of Benjamin, and indeed, they had prayer shawls, and lighted candles on the Sabbath.   The British author Rudyard Kipling, who was in the area at a time when the British wanted to manage Afghanistan as a buffer against Russia, described the Pathans as: “These huge, black-haired and scowling sons of the Beni-Israel” (sons of Israel).

The Pathans have a military-like ethos and did a play a big part in repelling the Soviet invasion from their land.

The Ethiopian Jews, known as Falashas, who did not embrace Ethiopian Christianity, say they are from the tribe of Dan.  Many have returned to Israel.  My brother spoke to one who had walked across Northeast Africa to get to Israel.



Then there are the Kurds, a people who live in Iran, Turkey and Iraq and Syria.  Some Kurds did claim they were once Jewish, and Kurdish Muslims would visit the tombs of Jonah and Danel near the former Nineveh (close to Mosul, Iraq).



In the mountains of Morocco Jews lived some twelve centuries prior to Islam’s appearance.   Many Berbers, who are native to the region, converted to Judaism, and they had a queen Kahena, who was a warrior-priestess who led tribal resistance against the Muslim invaders.  She was defeated, and then most Berbers converted to Islam, though some tribes adopted Judaism.  The Baragwata, in northwest Africa, claimed descent from the Jewish tribe of Simon.  They are no longer with us, having been destroyed by the (Muslim) Almoravids.

The Druze claim descent from the father in law of Moses, who was a Midianite (not a Jew).  Amel Nassar Al-Din, former Druze member of the Knesset in Israel, said “We believe that Isaac, not Ishmael (as Islam claims) was brought for sacrifice.  Mohammad is not our prophet.”   As far as actual descent though, the first known Druzes appeared in the 11’th century, so there would be no way they could know their ancestry.

The Armenians are now Christian, and the ancient Armenians lived near the area where the first Jew (Abraham) was born.  Jews lived in Armenia a long time, probably from the time of the ten lost tribes.  Some Armenian feudal families are considered to be of Jewish origin and there was even a dynasty, the Bagratid dynasty, that claimed to be descendants of King David.

The Jews did go further afield, but this post is just about the general vicinity of the Middle-East.  It is interesting that the Jews of modern Israel sometimes find a natural alliance with at least some of these groups, because radical Islam often ends up to be a threat to all of them.  So Israel has tried to strengthen the Kurds militarily, and the leader of this rugged mountain people, Mustafa Barzani, told the Israeli emissary  in 1966 that in truth, only the Jews cared about the Kurds.  Barzani felt that the Jews and Kurds were brothers, at least in terms of friendship.  The original relationship after Islam took hold was ambiguous.  At times, Jews were veritable slaves to Kurdish chieftains, though they did get Kurdish protection from Arabs.  Jewish life in villages like Zakho, Amadiya, and Dohuk lasted more than 2500 years.  There was a Kurdish tribe in Turkey that revered the Torah, and respected the memory of King David, and some Kurds claimed that they were once Jewish.

Now it is hard to separate fact from myth, in some of these cases.  The Pathan connection is based on very little evidence. In other cases, there is more evidence. Genetic tests cannot tell us that much, because there was intermarriage and conversion. However, there is a interesting finding (see sources) that the Kurds are quite close genetically to the Jews.  The Armenians are fairly close too. This makes sense, because Abraham came from the same area that their forbears did.

Minorities in the Middle East – by Mordechai Nisan (1991)
for more on the genetic study see:

The Nazir – Biblical Jews who undertook a vow of abstinence

Almost  the entire Chapter 6 of “Numbers” (baMidbar) which is the fourth of the five books of the Torah, is devoted to the “Nazir”.  Briefly, he is supposed to not cut his hair, or drink wine, and he cannot go near dead people – not even if his relatives die.

To start with the hair-cutting – his hair is like a crown or diadem (Nezer) on his head, setting him apart for God.  This item as well as the others have become a major source of discussion.  Entire treatises in the Mishnah, Tosefta, and in both Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds have been devoted to this.

Ibn Ezra says that this uncut hair is a crown of royalty to show that the Nazir is free of worldly lusts and passions.

It is interesting that there is a requirement for the Nazir at the end of his vow period to bring a so-called sin-sacrifice. Ibn Ezra explains this by saying that it is an an atonement for his returning now to regular life, to be defiled again by the worldly passions.

In the Bible, there are only two persons mentioned who were called Nazir: Samson and Samuel.  Samson was made a Nazir by his parents on the order of a prophet that appeared to them. Samuel was made a prophet by Eli the priest.

Since their time, there were no further cases of parents designating their offspring to become Nazirim.

Zeev Yavetz, a historian in the early 1900’s, says that before Samson, that like the pagans around them Jews would sacrifice their children.  An example of that was Yiftach, who sacrificed his daughter.  Nazirut became a substitute for this practice.  But it eventually stopped being practiced as well.
Yafetz quotes a negative attitude to Nazirim from various sages:

One said that ‘Anybody who says “Samson is a Nazir because of his parents is wrong, because – he did defile himself by the dead by killing Philistines throughout his life.’
A Rabbi Shimon adds that Samson did not choose to be a Nazir of his own free will, and therefore was not.


Some of the prophets did value the practice of Nazirut. There is a positive attitude in Amos 2, 11-12:

And I raised up of your songs for prophets
And of your young men for Nazirites
Is it not even thus, O ye children of Israel?
Saith the Lord
But ye gave the Nazirites wine to drink;
And commanded the prophets saying: Prophesy not.

There is another example of a positive attitude – by Jeremiah – who invites the Rechabites (on Gods order) to the the temple and gives them wine. Jeremiah writes that he set before them wine, but they said “We will drink no wine, for Jonadab the son of Rechab our father commanded us, saying “Ye shall drink no wine, neither rye, nor your songs, for ever; neither shall ye build hosue, nor sow seed…”, etc.
And “to the house of the Rechabites Jeremiah said: “Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel – because you have hearkened to the commandment of Jonadab your father, and kept all his precepts and done according unto all that he commanded you, therofore …there shall not be cut off unto Jonadab, the song of Rechab a man to stand before me for ever.” (this is interpreted as implying that ‘you will survive no matter what happens around you.

In general, there is no abstinence as an ideology in the post biblical period. There are sharp disagreements among the teachers of the Talmud, both pro and con, on the practices, but abstinence is not valued.  On the contrary, in the tractace Taanit, a Rabbi Samuel says that even someone who fasts on a voluntary basis is committing a sin. Another Rabbi, Eliezer Hakapar, says that the one who abstains from wine is a sinner. And in the ‘Talmud Yerushalmi’ is the most negative attitude to this in a major tractate ‘Nedarim’ – which is full of examples.

One section asks satirically: that isn’t the Torah full of enough prohibitions that you have to add even more?

Some of the illuminating students of the matter, such as Rabbi Issachar Jacobson, say that engaging in abstinence that is not called for is no benefit for anyone else – and that the kind of person who does this will not do any good to the society in general.  If you go beyond your obligations to your fellow man, that is considered good, but to go beyond your obligations to God, that is considered ultimately anti-social, for you weaken your ability to help others.
This is said to be foreign to spirit of Judaism, for the person who refrains from enjoying his earthly life, will also come to a conclusion that the perfection of human society is not worth it. If the value of the individual is zero, then how do you value society? If you does not take care of your own needs, why would you worry about the needs of your fellow men.

Samuel anoints Saul as king

Samuel anoints Saul as king