Thursday, January 18, 2007

What did the Rambam know, and when did he know it?

Those of you who say (1) that DovBear is about nothing but gossip, parsha, Judaism, and inuendo are dead right. And to prove it, I'm regurgitating an 800-year old scandal ripped, not from the headlines, but from my own comments.

According to documents recently released from the Cairo Genizah(2) Aaron ben Moses ben Asher, the best known of the Masorites, and the man thought to be responsible for the most magnificent Torah manuscript of them all, was a Karaite.

How magnificent was Ben Asher's manuscript? Pretty darn magnificent. Here's how the Rambam (3)described it (4): "All relied on it, since it was prepared by Ben-Asher and was worked on by him for many years, and was proofread many times in accordance with the masorah, and I based myself on this [manuscript] when I wrote my sefer torah according to the halacha."

Did the Rambam rely on a Karaite? For more, we turn to DovBear's senior scuttlebutt correspondant, Mississippi Fred MacDowell:
Basically the story is like this. Simcha Pinske advanced the theory in the mid-19th century {pre-Cairo Genizah, though there are Genizah documents which suggest Ben Asher was a Karaite from a Karaite family - DB} that any Jewish grammarian who is not known to be a Talmudic scholar, too, is suspected of being a Karaite. This view was widely adopted in the 19th century and was repeated about Ben Asher by Graetz.

Now, in fairness it must be stated that there *is* circumstantial evidence that he was a Karaite. The list includes:

- In some texts he is described as a מלמד, which was a Karaite title of those days.
- Rav Saadya Ga'on singled him out for attack, and Rav Saadya waged a great war of polemics against the Karaites.
- He is ignored by the great Rabbanite grammarian Dunash ibn Labrat.
- A known Karaite refers to him after his death with זכרונו לברכה.
- In Ben Asher's great masoretic work, Dikdukei Taamim, he says that the entire Tanakh can be used in deciding Halakhah; not just the Torah.
- He mentions technical Karaite hermeneutic terms.
- His father, R. Moshe ben Asher, wrote the famous Cairo Nakh codex, which was not only used in the Cairo Karaite synagogue, but according to its colophon, commissioned by a Karaite (the thinking is that he would not have hired a Rabbanite to write it).

Arguments against:

- Rambam would not have acepted a Karaite text as authoritative (and we have to assume, according to this view, that he must have known if he was a Karaite).
- No Rabbanite ever directly accused Ben Asher of being a Karaite--no one ever thought of it until 1860 when Simcha Pinsker advanced the idea that all scholars of that period who devoted themselves exclusively to grammar and Tanakh, and not Talmud, must be "suspected" of Karaism unless proven otherwise. {Unlike Rabinates, the Karaite relied on the Written Torah, and only the Written Torah, to establish the law. Therefore, the thinking goes, only a Karaite would devote quite so much attention to establishing the correctness of the biblical text - DB}
- Rav Saadya attacks a different Ben Asher, who was also called Abu al-Tayyib al-Jubair.

The arguments against have mostly been made by Aron Dotan.

Personally? I think the arguments for are stronger, although of those against, the second is particularly strong--BUT the premise that "Jewish grammarians not known to be Talmudists must be suspected of Karaism" is flawed, to say the least
So, what did the Rambam know, and when did he know it? Did he knowingly base his sefer Torah on the conclusions of a Karaite? Did he allow a Karaite to pasken for him on questions of closed and open paragraphs, and the like?

My own view is this: No chance. To me, it seems much more likely that the Rambam simply was unaware of Ben Asher's reputation.

(1) You know who you are.
(2) By "recently" we mean, like, 1902
(3) Ie: Maimonides
(4) Hilchos Sefer Torah 7:5

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