The kingdom of the Jewish Khazars

The penetration of Jews into the territories now incorporated within the Russian Union began in the border regions beyond the Caucasus Mountains and the shores of the Black Sea. Traditions and legends connect the arrival of the Jews in Armenia and Georgia with the Ten Lost Tribes (c. 721 b.c.e.) or with the Babylonian Exile (586 b.c.e.). Clearer information on the settlement of the Jews in these regions has come down from the Hellenistic period. Ruins, recordings, and inscriptions on tombstones testify to the existence of important Jewish communities in the Greek colonies on the Black Sea shores, Chersonesus near Sevastopol, Kerch, and other places. Religious persecutions in the Byzantine Empire caused many Jews to emigrate to these communities.

At the time of the wars between the Muslims and Persians during the seventh century many Jews emigrated to the Caucasus and beyond, where they established communities which during subsequent generations maintained relations with the centers of Jewish learning in Babylonia and Persia.

In the seventh century many Jews from Greece, Babylonia, Persia, and the Middle East and Mediterranean area immigrated to the Caucasus and beyond. From the early Middle Ages, Jewish merchants (known in Hebrew as holkhei Rusyah – Russian travelers) traveled through the Slavic and Khazar lands on their way to India and China. During the first half of the eighth century, the Khazar’s converted to Judaism. The Khazar kingdom essentially became a new Jewish kingdom. Some scholars trace the origins of Ashkenazi Jews to the conversion of the Khazars. The influence of the Khazar conversions are significant enough to be a major topic of research for scholars today.

There were also Jews living in Kiev at this time and ancient Russian sources mention the “Gate of the Jews” in Kiev. Historical records preserve disputations between the Jews of Kiev and Christian clergy. There are also records of communications between Jews in Kiev and Jews in Babylonia and Western Europe, including, in the 12th century, a mention of R. Moses of Kiev corresponding with Rabbenu Jacob ben Meir Tam and Gaon Samuel b. Ali of Baghdad. In 1237, however, the invasion of the Mongols brought much suffering to the Jewish communities of Russia.

The Jewish Virtual History Tour, Russia, By Avi Hein

From the early Middle Ages Jewish merchants, referred to in Hebrew as holkhei Rusyah, regularly traveled through the Slavonic and Khazar lands on their way to India and China. They traded in slaves, textiles, hides, spices, and arms. It was during this period that the accepted term in Hebrew literature for those lands—Erez Kena'an ("Land of Canaan")—appeared (originating in the etymological interpretation of the name "Slavs"), and the merchants were said to be familiar with the "language of Canaan" (Slavonic). It is clear that the conversion to Judaism of the kingdom of the Khazars during the first half of the eighth century was to a certain degree due to the existence of the many Jewish communities in this region. Jews from the Christian and Muslim countries which bordered upon the Khazar realm were later attracted to the Jewish kingdom. Possibly refugees who escaped from this kingdom formed one of the elements of Russian Jewry in later generations, though their proportion in the composition of this Jewry is still under discussion.

The kingdom of the Jewish Khazars is referred to in ancient Russian literature as the "Land of the Jews," and warriors of the Russian epic poetry wage war against the Jewish warrior, the "zhidovin." According to one tradition Prince Vladimir of Kiev conversed with Jews on religion before accepting Orthodox Christianity. At the same time there were Jews living in Kiev. Ancient Russian sources mention the "Gate of the Jews" in Kiev. The Jews lived in the town under the protection of the prince, and when the inhabitants of the town rebelled against Prince Vladimir II Monomachus (1117) they also attacked the houses of the Jews. Extracts of religious disputations held in Kiev between monks and clergy and Jews have been preserved in the early Russian religious literature. There were also Jewish settlements in Chernigov and Vladimir-Volynski. The Jews of Kiev also communicated with their coreligionists in Babylonia and Western Europe on religious questions. During the 12th century there is mention of R. Moses of Kiev who corresponded with Rabbenu Jacob b. Meir Tam and with the Gaon Samuel b. Ali of Baghdad.

The invasion of the Mongols (1237) and their rule brought much suffering to the Jews of Russia. An important community—Rabbanites as well as Karaites—subsequently developed in Theodosia (Feodosiya, Crimea) and its surroundings, first under Genoese rule (1260–1475) and later under the Tatar khans of Crimea.

Jews of Russia

Copyright H. David Marshak, All Rights Reserved