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Abraham (Avraham) Firkovitch (1786-1874) was a Lithuanian Karaite of Crimean Karaite (Karaim) descent, born in Lutsk, Volhynia. Firkovitch was a communal leader and hakham. He is best known as a collector of manuscripts and amateur archeologist.
In 1818 he was hazzan of his native city, an office which among both Karaites and Rabbinites includes that of cantor, reader, teacher, and minister. In 1828 he lived in Berdichev, and had controversies with some Rabbinite Jews, the result being his anti-rabbinical work "Masah u-Meribah" (Yevpatoria, 1838). In later years when he became closely connected with the Rabbinites, he repudiated the sentiments contained in that pamphlet. In 1830 he visited Jerusalem, where he collected many Karaite and Rabbinite manuscripts. On his return he remained two years in Constantinople, as teacher in the Karaite community. He then went to the Crimea and organized a society to publish old Karaite works, of which several appeared in Yevpatoria (Koslov) with comments by him. In 1838 he was the teacher of the children of Simchah Babovich , the head of the Russian Karaites, who one year later recommended him to Count Vorontzov and to the Historical Society of Odessa as a suitable man to send to collect material for the history of the Karaites. In 1839 Firkovich began excavations in the ancient cemetery of Chufut-Kale , and unearthed many old tombstones, some of which, he claimed, belonged to the first centuries of the common era. The following two years were spent in travels through the Caucasus, where he ransacked the genizot of the old Jewish communities and collected many valuable manuscripts. He went as far as Derbent, and returned in 1842. In later years he made other journeys of the same nature, visiting Egypt and other countries. In Odessa he became the friend of Bezalel Stern and of Simchah Pinsker , and while residing in Wilna he made the acquaintance of Fuenn and other Hebrew scholars. In 1871 he visited the small Karaite community in Halicz, Galicia, where he introduced several reforms. From there he went to Vienna, where he was introduced to Count Beust and also made the acquaintance of Adolph Jellinek. He returned to pass his last days in Chufut-Kale, of which there now remained only a few ruins.
Firkovitch collected a vast number of Hebrew, Arabic and Samaritan manuscripts during his many travels. These included thousands of Karaite and rabbinic documents from throughout the Russian Empire in what became known as the First Firkovitch Collection. He was one of the first to visit the Cairo Genizah with the intention of cataloging and studying its contents. His visit, in 1863, took place thirty four years before Solomon Schechter's more famous trip; Firkovitch therefore got first pick of the documents contained in the Genizah. Though this "Second Firkovitch Collection" contains only 13,700 items in comparison to Schechter's 140,000, the Firkovitch documents are generally more complete.
In his later years he became obsessed with "proving" that the Karaites of Russia were not Judean in descent, but rather Khazarian; to this end Firkovitch resorted to forgeries of tombstones and documents. Because of this, and his secrecy regarding the sources for the Second Collection, any document that passed through Firkovitch's hands is academically suspect. His theories, though historically implausible, caught on in the Russian imperial court, and the Karaites were excluded from the restrictive measures against other Jews.
Upon his death in 1874 Firkovitch's collection was bought by the St. Petersburg Imperial Library, later the Leningrad State Public Library.
Among the treasures in the Firkovitch collection is a manuscript of the Garden of Metaphors, an aesthetic appreciation of Biblical literature written in Judeao-Arabic by one of the greatest of the Sephardi poets, Moses ibn Ezra.
Last updated: 05-27-2005 22:07:19