Joseph

(c. 10th century)
   King of the Khazars. The Khazars were a nomadic people of Turkish stock in the region of the Volga River, the Caucasus and the Black Sea. There was a persistent legend that Khazaria, which existed as a separate state from AD 740, was ruled by a Jewish king. Certainly the country had a large Jewish population, for the Arab writer Mukaddasi says of Khazaria, ‘sheep, honey and Jews exist in large quantities in that land’. According to the Arab historian al-Masudi, writing around 943, the Khazar king converted to Judaism between 786 and 809.
   When word reached HISDAI IBN-SHAPRUT, an influential Jew in Cordova, Spain, in the mid-10 century that there was a Jewish king in Khazaria and that his name was Joseph, Hisdai determined to write to him to find out if it was true. Joseph’s reply, which reached Cordova in 955, recounts that his ancestor Bulan converted to Judaism around AD 740 with four thousand of his nobles; and that Bulan’s successor, Obadiah, invited to the country ‘Jewish sages from all places who explained to him the Torah’. Synagogues and schools were founded throughout the country, although Christianity and Islam were still widespread. The letter admits that there were probably irregularities in their Jewish calendar. In all probability, only the king and his nobles converted to Judaism. The country’s supreme court was a model of religious tolerance, comprising seven judges two of whom were Jews, two Christian, two Moslem and one pagan. Joseph was nevertheless a resolute if rough defender of his faith. When he heard that Byzantine Jews had been forced to accept baptism, he exacted revenge from the Christians living in his country. In Joseph’s reply to Hisdai’s letter, he refers to raids on the kingdom of Khazaria from Russia, along the Volga River, which began around 913. These attacks intensified in 965, and the kingdom did not survive for long after that, although there is some doubt about the date of its disappearance.
   There is considerable difference of scholarly opinion on the question of the authenticity of the Khazar Correspondence, as the exchange of letters between Joseph and Hisdai is called. King Joseph’s reply exists in two versions, a long and a short one, and the existence of these texts has been known since the 16 century. From the style of the Hebrew in which they are written, it is impossible that these letters could have been 16century forgeries. There is also a marked difference in style between the Hebrew of Hisdai’s letter and that of Joseph’s, and the language of the latter strongly suggests that it was composed in a non- Arabic-speaking environment. A number of scholars agree that these two texts were probably prepared in the 11 century on the basis of an original letter written by the Khazarian king and no longer extant.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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