Murat Işık

The History of Bible Translations as Part of the Karaim Cultural Heritage

Murat Işık

University of Szeged, Hungary

Abstract: The Karaites are the followers of Karaitism which spread in the 9th century and via the Byzantine Empire, it reached the Turkic speaking people of the Crimea. Turkic speaking Karaite communities living in Eastern Europe are called Karaim and they define their religion as Karaism. The faith acknowledges the Hebrew Bible and it is highly necessary to read the Bible and to interpret it. Thence, starting from the early stages, the Hebrew Bible had been translating into Karaim as they are also important representatives of basic notions, traditions, religious rituals and perspectives of the communities. However, due to fatal changes in their life, Karaims were forced to not continue their religious rituals during the Soviet Union period. Their prayer houses called kenesa were closed and the old tradition of Bible translations have stopped. In addition, after the places called Qaray Bitiği closed, the richest collection of Karaim manuscripts were transferred to Russian, Polish and Lithuanian libraries and they are hardly accessible. Besides, since Karaims stopped using Hebrew script, they are no longer able to read the earlier translations written with Hebrew alphabet. After the collapse of Soviet Union, prayer houses were reopened and Karaims are now free to practice their religion. Moreover, after a long break, Turcology scholars became interested in Karaim, and the studies on Karaim Bible translations has become popular again. In this sense, the presentation aims to provide a brief overview of the changes in the cognition of the Bible translations among the Turkic-Karaim.

Keywords: Hebrew Bible; Bible translations; Karaims; Karaism; Turkic

1. Introduction

The term “Karaim” represents a Turkic community who mainly live in Eastern Europe such as Crimea, Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania. Their endangered language belongs to Kipchak Turkic and it shows similarity with, for example, Karachay-Balkar and Crimean Tatar. Since the community has split into 3 main areas, the language also has 3 varieties: Halich, Crimean, Trakai. As for the religion, they are followers of Karaitism which is based on the Hebrew Bible. Basically, the faith takes the books of Hebrew Bible as the only source of the religious law. Therefore, it is essential for Karaims to read the Hebrew Bible and fulfill its requirements. In fact, their own name Karaylar means “the readers” which refers to the people who are reading the Hebrew Bible. Thus, beginning from the early stages, the Hebrew Bible had been translating into Karaim. In this manner, it is possible to say that the identity of the present-day Karaim communities is based on both religion and language. Considering the religious sources are also very useful for analyzing the Karaim language and its varieties, the Karaim Bible translations present the most valuable materials. Consequently, the study will start with introducing Karaims and making a new compilation about Karaim bible translations as well as presenting recent issues about it.

2. Karaims

The origin of Karaims is still debated by scholars. According to Harvianien (2013: 627-638), there are 4 main opinions about the presence of Karaims in Eastern Europe. The first idea claims that Karaims are ethnically Jewish Karaites who settled in Crimea from Constantinople and adopted the local Turkic vernacular. This idea accepted by some scholars, e.g. Kizilov (2007), Shapira (2001). The other idea is that ethnically Jewish Karaites have come to the area via Constantinople and they converted local Turkish tribes to their belief and later the community adopted the Turkic vernacular. The next one argues that the Karaims are descendants of the Turkic Khazars, who adopted the Karaitism in the middle of the eighth century. It should be mentioned that this theory is mostly accepted by Karaims. Finally, the fourth opinion claims that the Karaims are descendants of Jews deported to Mesopotamia during the early kings of the Persian empire. This theory is based on some documents which were discovered by Abraham Firkovich who is a famous Karaim scholar, archeologist and the collector of ancient manuscripts.

In 1932, Karaim population was around 10.000 in Russia (Nemoy 1971). Now, it is generally supposed that there are only 3000 European Karaims (Csató É. 2006).

For a long time, Karaims had been struggling with expressing their identity. But, recently in Lithuania, their language and religion have recognized officially by the government

3. Karaitism

It was Anan ben David, who was the son of David, produces the first document of the code of laws written in Aramaic language. After that, his descendants managed to spread the new movement which has riched till Constantinople and later to Khazar Empire (Csató 2006:392). The followers are called Karaites while Turkic speaking followers are called Karaims. It must be noted that technically both creeds are based on Hebrew Bible and there is no fundamental difference between Karaitism and Karaism.

4. General Issues in Karaim Bible Translations

For centuries, the Hebrew Bible had been translated into Karaim in order to help the community members to understand better the religious texts. But, after they started to use Latin script, the strengthening of the Turkic identity from the 19th century on, together with the political approach of the Soviet Union toward religions and minorities caused fatal changes in the life of Karaim. The prayer houses called Kenesa which can be seen in Figure 1 were converted to cinemas or offices and Karaims were not able to continue their religious activities (Csató É 2006:391).


Figure 1: A Kenesa in Vilnius/Lithuania

Due to these changes in social life, the old tradition of Bible translations also had to stop. The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, created a chance for reviving their activities. Prayer houses were reopened and Karaims are now free to practice their religion. Nowadays, usually in Trakai ceremonies in their Turkic vernacular are held on the regular basis.

Besides the fortunate possibility of the revitalization of Karaim religious life, the forced ca. 50 years long break led to sad consequences as well. Firstly, many manuscripts had been transferred to other countries during the Soviet Union period and they are hardly accessible. Therefore the numbers of manuscripts and their content can hardly be estimated. Secondly, there are only a few speakers of Karaim since it is highly endangered language. In addition, during the Soviet Union, Cyrillic orthography was employed. Thus, Karaims are not able to read their old books and manuscripts written with the Hebrew alphabet anymore and there are only a few short fragments of the Bible published in Latin script. Consequently, it is hard to find a large number of speakers who can read the Bible translations.

Apart from the one printed edition of whole Karaim Bible (except for the Chronicles) which is called Gözleve Bible, the number of the manuscripts is unknown as it was mentioned. Although there are attempts to clarify them, there are many unknown manuscripts which are being held in private collections need the assistance of scholars in reading, analyzing and publishing the biblical texts.

However, in the first half of the twentieth century, it has been rediscovered that the Bible translations from Hebrew to Karaim are both useful for linguistic analysis and for the observation of Karaim people’s interpretation and understanding of the holy texts. Therefore, recently several publications of translations written in different Karaim varieties have been published e.g. Jankowski (1997), Shapira (2013), Olach (2013) and Németh (2014).

There is another issue which is related to the Hebrew script. Since Karaims have constructed the Hebrew script according to the phonetics of Karaim language, some problems have occurred. As Németh (2016) has described in his study, it seems the Hebrew script is not adequate to show Karaims phonetics precisely. Thus there is a lack of standardization in translations. Besides, he described the certain vowel and consonants changes such as ö>e, ü>i, š > s, č > c, ž > z ve ǯ > ʒ and mistakes occurred in Southwestern Karaim translations. These texts can be used for the reconstruction of Karaim language history since they can give us important clues about the copyist and conditions of the relevant period.

5. Karaim Bible Translations

The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Karaim can be seen in three dialects. Trakai and Halitch dialects belong to Western Karaim while the Crimean dialect belongs to Eastern Karaim. The first study on the Karaim Bible starts in 1928 with Gordlevskij in Saint Petersburg. Later, Kowalski followed him and studied on some published and some unpublished manuscripts of the Karaim Bible translations. Though it is not known the date of the first Karaim Bible translation, Zajączkowski (1964:793) claims that the first printed Karaim text was a hymn in the Crimean Karaim dialect which was published in a Hebrew prayer book in Venice in 1528.

In 2016, Németh published a Crimean Karaim handwritten translation of the Book of Ruth dating from before 1687 which is the oldest known Western Karaim translation of the Hebrew Bible. Previously, (Németh 2014a) he also has described some old translation of Bible fragments into Western Karaim dating from 1720. This manuscript is written with Hebrew alphabet and it contains the Five Books of Moses and four other books of the Ketuvim, namely the Book of Ruth, the Book of Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Esther.

In 1929, Kowalski presented the different translations. For example, the beginning of the book of Genesis dated back to 1723 from Derazhnia (Ukraine) can be found in his study. In the same study, he also describes the same parts which were written between 1824-1830 in Halich Karaim. This translation is made by Josef Mordkowicz. Later, in Kowalski’s monograph, the translation of Song of Songs into Trakai Karaim also presented. The translation was copied by Yoav Zerahiah in 1889 (Shapira 2003: 672).

In 2014 Dan Shapira described a manuscript which was written with Hebrew script in Istanbul Turkish and found in Germany. It is translated by Avraham Firkowicz in 1833 as a Pentateuch which includes the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. According to the author, this manuscript is the first known Constantinople-Turkish Bible translation.made by Karaims (Shapira 2014: 144).

As an example of the so-called Gözleve Bible can be seen on figure 2, the only edition of the most comprehensive Bible (without the Chronicles) translation printed in Gözleve/Eupatoria in four volumes in 1841. It was dedicated to the wedding of the future Russian Tsar Aleksander II, but also it was a celebration for the new administrative and religious rights of the Crimean Karaims. The language of this translation is unified and often shows different elements. For example, in the translation Oghuzic and Kipchak features (Initial k>g changing appears in Oghuzic languages where Kipchak languages show opposite) can be found, e.g. “to bring” ketir- (Book of Leviticus 2:8) /getir- (Book of Leviticus 4:14), “pigeon” kögürčin (Book of Leviticus 14:22) /gögürčün, (Book of Leviticus 5:7).


Figure 2: The beginning of the Book of Leviticus in Gözleve Bible (Page 184)

In 1932 and 1934 Zajączkowski published some parts of Lamentation. Some other parts of the translation in Halich Karaim was made by Izajasz Rojecki in 1848 while another translation made by Levisz Ławrecki in 1860 and the other from 1929 in Vilnius by Jozef Lobanosa.

Another publication includes only the book of Jeremiah which was published in 1873 in Odessa (Ukraine) (Walfish 2003:936)

In 1889 the book of Genesis in Trakai Karaim was published in Vilnius (Lithuania) by Zacharja Mickiewicz and Eliyahu Rojecki (Jankowski 2009: 508). A year later the book of Job published in Trakai Karaim (Shapira 2003:673)

The book of Jeremiah which is translated into Halich Karaim by Joseph Mordkowicz was printed in 1927. The important part is that it is the only publication of biblical texts in Halich Karaim which was published by Karaims. The editors were Nowach Szulimowicz and Zarach Zarachowicz (Shapira 2003: 688)

Later, Mykolas Firkovičius published the entire book of Psalms in 1994 and the Proverbs in 2000 which are dating from the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries (Firkovičius 1994:171-173). As the late spiritual leader of the Karaite congregation in Lithuania, he attempted to avoid to use Hebrew lexical elements in his translations (Jankowski 2009:509) Therefore, he tried to find Karaim equivalents of certain Hebrew words, e.g. Ha/ Tieńri (God), paraša/bitik (chapter).

The next one published by Jankowski (1997:26-53) which includes the Crimean Karaim translations of biblical texts in a critical edition. It contains Genesis 1:1-18, 6:9-18, 17:8-19, Deuterenomy 32:1-51; Lamentations 4:11-15, 21.

In 2011, Csató published the Trakai Karaim translation of Psalm 91 which is kept at the Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences.

Finally, in 2013, Olach published a family bible which belongs to Abrahamovich family, who originally lived in Halich. It is handwritten and contains the Five Books of Moses and the Haphtarot, the reading portions from the writings of the prophets on Sabbaths and feasts. According to Olach, the book probably was produced in the nineteenth century (Olach 2013: 10–12).

6. Conclusion

As the study aimed to express, the Karaim Bible translations are very important sources to show Karaim religious rituals and perspectives of the communities. However, nowadays many Karaim cultural elements are endangered. One of the problems is that Karaims started to use Lithuanian orthography starting from 1990 and today it is a big problem for the new Karaim generation to learn the language or read the old written sources. The other problem is that the number of Karaim manuscripts and printed editions are unknown due to their hard accessibility. Thus it is highly essential to access and describe all the Karaim bible translations. Analysis of various Karaim translations in the future will provide a deeper insight into the cultural heritage of Karaims and help in the preservation of such a delicate culture.


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Figure 1

Figure 2:


[2]The version was provided by Prof. Mustafa Kılıçarslan with the permission of the Community of Crimean Karaims.