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The Masoretes really were Karaites

posted Nov 25, 2016, 5:42 AM by David Mitchell   [ updated Jan 6, 2017, 1:10 PM ]
One of the incendiary issues in modern Masoretic scholarship and medieval Jewish studies is whether or not the Masoretes, and particularly Aharon ben Asher, the mastermind behind the Aleppo Codex, were ‘Orthodox’ Rabbanite Jews or Karaites, who reject the authority of rabbinic literature and accept only the Hebrew Bible as authoritative. It has led to hot confrontations in several recent academic conferences.
    Evidence that the Masoretes were Karaites was first advanced by Pinsker (1860) and endorsed by Graetz (1870). Later, Kahle and Klar found supporting evidence in the Cairo Genizah. The clincher was when Klar identified the Genizah document Essa Meshali with the anti-Karaite, anti-Ben Asher polemic which Sa‘adia Gaon was known to have written against Aharon ben Asher and the Karaites (as recorded by the Andalusian paytan, Labrat ben Dunash).
    The matter seemed settled until Dotan reopened it, first with a Hebrew article in 1957, and then with an English book on the subject in 1977. The book is sizeable and erudite, but its arguments are weak. Dotan begins simply by batting away the evidence. Yes, he says, the Cairo and Aleppo Codices were commissioned by Karaties. But a Karaite could have secretly commissioned them from Rabbanite Masoretes through a Rabbanite intermediary. Yes, maybe Sa‘adia did write a polemical tract against Ben Asher, but it must have been another Ben Asher. And so on. Then Dotan turns to his own ‘new’ evidence. Briefly summarized, it goes something like this: 'Maimonides and all our sages endorsed the Aleppo text. They were good Jews. Good Jews do not accept the work of Karaite heretics. Ergo, the Aleppo text was not the work of a Karaite.' As Rafael Zer says, ‘It goes without saying that this is not a valid argument and in any event does not prove anything.’
    Since 1977, Dotan’s view has been widely disregarded. Kahle ignored it. Yeivin said ‘in my opinion, the vocalizer of A[leppo Codex] was most certainly a Karaite’. Barthélemy published a refutation of Dotan’s work. Zeev Ben-Hayyim, in the new Encyclopaedia Judaica, says that comments in Aharon ben Asher’s Dikdukei ha-te‘amim about deducing halakhah from the prophets show that their author was certainly a Karaite. He further proposes that the entire Ben Asher clan were Karaites. Likewise Rafael Zer, on the basis of similar views in halakha in the Aleppo text margins, concludes that it can be “established quite surely that the Masorete of the Aleppo Codex was a Karaite”. Nuff said.
    If you want to know more, I refer you to Rafael Zer’s excellent article, available on the website of the Hebrew University, ‘Was the Masorete of the Aleppo Codex of Rabbanite or of Karaite Origin? (2009)