JAPHETH HA-LEVI (Arabic, Abu or Ibn 'Ali Ḥasan [= Japheth] al-Baṣri al-Lawi):

Karaite Bible translator and commentator; flourished at Jerusalem between 950 and 980. He was one of the most able Bible commentators among the Karaites, who distinguished him by the epithet "maskil ha-Golah" (= "teacher of the Exile"). Unlike his Karaite predecessors in the field of Bible exegesis, Japheth realized the importance of grammar and lexicography for the interpretation of Scripture, although he did not excel in either. The interest which his commentaries present lies chiefly in the accumulation of material for the history of the differences between the Rabbinites and the Karaites; for he enters into lengthy disputes with the Rabbinites, especially with Saadia, from whose commentaries on the Bible and polemical works, including some no longer in existence, he gives many extracts. Thus in regard to Ex. xxxv. 3 he discusses with Saadia the kindling of a fire by a non-Jew on Sabbath, a practise which the Karaites considered to be forbidden. Japheth reproaches Saadia with being unfaithful to the principles he himself had laid down for the interpretation of the Law, according to which no deductions by analogy are admissible in definite revealed precepts. On Lev. xxiii. 5 Japheth cites fragments from Saadia's "Kitab al-Tamyiz," a polemical work against Karaism, in which the author states that there are three sects which are divided on the question of the new moon: (1) the Rabbinites, who, except in special cases, determine it by the molad; (2) the sect of the Tiflis, which follow the molad absolutely; and (3) a sect which is guided by the first appearance of the moon.

His Exegetical Principles.

Japheth claims full freedom for the exegete, refusing to admit any authority for the interpretation of the Law; and, although he sometimes uses the thirteen hermeneutic rules laid down in the Mishnah, he denies their authority: they are to be applied, he claims, only when it is not possible to explain the passage literally. Thus, notwithstanding his profound veneration for Anan, thefounder of Karaism, and for Benjamin Nahawandi, he often rejects their interpretations.

Japheth was a decided adversary of the philosophico-allegorical treatment of Scripture. He, however, symbolizes several Biblical narrations, as, for instance, that of the burning bush, in which he finds a representation of Israel, whom enemies can not annihilate; and he admits that the Song of Solomon is an allegory.

Japheth attacked Islam with the greatest violence. For him the words of Isaiah, "Woe to thee that spoilest" (Isa. xxxiii. 1), refer to Mohammed, who robbed all nations and dealt treacherously with his own people, and Isa. xlvii. 9 to the downfall of Islam. In the following verse he sees an allusion to the sufferings inflicted by the Mohammedan rulers upon the Israelites, who are loaded with heavy taxes, compelled to wear badges, forbidden to ride on horse-back, etc.

Japheth was no less bitter in his attacks on Christianity and on rabbinical Judaism, to which he refers many prophecies. Unlike his predecessors, he was not an opponent of secular science. To him the word "da'at" (Prov. i. 7) denotes "the knowledge" of astronomy, medicine, mathematics, etc., the study of which is to be undertaken before that of theology.

Their Influence.

Japheth's commentaries were much used by succeeding Karaite exegetes, and were often quoted by Ibn Ezra. Written in Arabic, some of them were rendered into Hebrew either in full or abridged. Nearly the whole Arabic text on all the Biblical books is extant in manuscript in the leading European libraries (Leyden, Oxford, British Museum, London, Paris, Berlin, etc.). The parts which have been published are: on the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, by Abbé Bargès (Paris, 1861, 1884); on Proverbs, by Z. Auerbach (Bonn, 1866); on Hosea, by Tottermann (Leipsic, 1880); on Daniel, by Margoliouth (in "Anecdota Oxoniensa," Semitic Series, i., vol. iii., Oxford, 1889); on Ecclesiastes i.-iii., by E. Günzig (Cracow, 1898); on Ruth, by N. Schorstein (Heidelberg, 1903).

Other Works.

Before devoting himself to Biblical exegesis Japheth wrote several other works of lesser importance. Among these were: (1) an epistle in rimed prose refuting the criticism on Karaism by Jacob ben Samuel, surnamed by the Karaites "ha-'Iḳḳesh" (= "the intriguer"), published by Pinsker in his "Liḳḳuṭe Ḳadmoniyyot," p. 19. Japheth endeavors in this epistle to demonstrate that there is no trace of oral tradition in Scripture, and consequently the Mishnah, Talmud, and other rabbinical writings fall under the prohibition "Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you" (Deut. iv. 2). (2) "Sefer ha-Miẓwot," treating of the precepts, and containing many controversies with the Rabbinites; mentioned by Japheth in the commentaries to I Sam. xx. 27; Dan. x. 3. Some fragments of this work were found in the Library of St. Petersburg and published by A. Harkavy. (3) "'Iyyun Tefillah," in ten chapters, treating of all that pertains to prayer; extant in manuscript (Paris MS. No. 670). (4) "Kalam," perhaps a liturgical work, extant in manuscript. Levi, Japheth's son, mentions in his "Muḳaddimah" to Deuteronomy another work by his father, entitled "Safah Berurah," the contents of which are unknown (the supposition of Fürst that it was a grammatical treatise is considered to be erroneous).

  • Pinsker, Liḳḳuṭe Ḳadmoniyyot, passim;
  • Munk, in Jost's Annalen, 1841, pp. 76 et seq.;
  • Jost, Gesch. des Judenthums und Seiner Sekten, ii. 348;
  • Fürst, Gesch. des Karäert. ii. 124 et seq.;
  • Grätz, Gesch. v. 28;
  • Poznanski, in J. Q. R. viii. 691, x. 246;
  • Bacher, in R. E. J. xxviii. 151 et seq.;
  • Steinschneider, in J. Q. R. x. 533, xi. 327;
  • idem, Hebr. Uebers. p. 941;
  • idem, Die Arabische Literatur der Juden, § 44.
K. I. Br.
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