Joseph's epistle must have arrived in Spain about 960. Only a few years later events occurred which made this King the last ruler of the Khazars. The apprehensions, voiced in his letter, concerning the Russians, with whom the King was at war, and who were ready to "destroy the whole land of the Ishmaelites as far as Bagdad," were speedily realized. A few years later the Slavonian tribes, who had in the meantime been united under the leadership of Russian princes, not only threw off the yoke of the Khazars, whose vassals they were, but also succeeded in invading and finally destroying their center at the mouth of the Volga. Prince Svyatoslav of Kiev devastated the Khazar territories on the Ityl, and, penetrating to the heart of the country, dislodged the Khazars from the Caspian region (966-969). The Khazars withdrew to their possessions on the Black Sea, and established themselves in particular on the Crimean Peninsula, which for a long time retained the name of Khazaria.
The greatly reduced Khazar kingdom in Tauris, the survival of a mighty empire, was able to hold its own for nearly half a century, until in the eleventh century it fell a prey to the Russians and Byzantines (1016). The relatives of the last khagan fled, according to tradition, to their coreligionists in Spain. The Khazar nation was scattered, and was subsequently lost among the other nations. The remnants of the Khazars in the Crimea who professed Judaism were in all likelihood merged with the native Jews, consisting partly of Rabbanites and partly of Karaites.
In this way the ancient Jewish settlements on the Crimean Peninsula suddenly received a large increase. At the same time the influx of Jewish immigrants, who, together with the Greeks, moved from Byzantium towards the northern shores of the Black Sea, continued as theretofore, the greater part of these immigrants consisting of Karaites, who were found in large numbers in the Byzantine Empire. Even the subsequent dominion of the Pechenegs and Polovtzis, who ruled over the Tauris region after the downfall of the Khazars, failed to uproot the ancient traditions, and as late as the twelfth century the name Khazaria meets us in contemporary documents. About the year 1175 the traveler Pethahiah of Ratisbon visited "the land of the Kedars and that of the Khazars, which are separated from each other by a sea tongue," meaning the continental part of Tauris, where the nomadic Polovtzis (Kedars) were roaming about, and the Crimean Peninsula, between which two regions lie the Gulf of Perekop and the isthmus of the same name. In the land of the Kedars Pethahiah did not find genuine Jews, but minim, heretics or sectarians, who "do not believe in the traditions of the sages, eat their Sabbath meal in the dark, are ignorant of the Talmudic forms of the benedictions and prayers, and have not even heard of the Talmud." It is evident that the author is describing the Karaites.
3. The Jews in the Early Russian Principalities and in the Tataric Khanate of the Crimea15
With the growth of the Russian Principality of Kiev, which received its ecclesiastic organization from the hands of Byzantine monks, it gradually became another objective of Jewish immigration. The Jews came thither not only from Khazaria, or the Crimea, but also, following in the wake of the Greeks, from the Empire of Byzantium, developing the commercial life of the principality and connecting that primitive region with the centers of human civilization. The popular legend, which is reproduced in the ancient Russian chronicles, and is no doubt tinged with the spirit of Byzantine clericalism, makes the Jews participate in the competition of religions for the conquest of pagan Russia, in that famous spectacle of the "test of creeds" which took place in 986 in the presence of Vladimir, Prince of Kiev.
The church legend narrates that when Vladimir had announced his intention to abandon idolatry, he received a visit from Khazarian Jews, who said to him: "We have heard that the Christians have come to preach their faith, but they believe in one who was crucified by us, while we believe in the one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." Vladimir asked the Jews: "What does your law prescribe?" To this they replied: "To be circumcised, not to eat pork or game, and to keep the Sabbath." "Where is your country?" inquired the Prince. "In Jerusalem," replied the Jews. "But do you live there?" he asked. "We do not," answered the Jews, "for the Lord was wroth with our forefathers, and scattered us all over the earth for our sins, while our land was given away to the Christians." Thereupon Vladimir exclaimed: "How then dare you teach others when you yourselves are rejected by God and scattered? If God loved you, you would not be dispersed in strange lands. Do you intend to inflict the same misfortune on me?"
This popular tradition is historically true only insofar as it reflects the ecclesiastic and political struggle of the time. It was in Taurian Chersonesus, the ancient scene of Jewish and Byzantine rivalry, that the threads were woven which subsequently tied pagan Russia to Byzantium. The attempts of the Taurian, or Khazarian, Jews to assert their claims in the religious competition at Kiev were bound to prove a failure. For community of political and economic interests was forcing Byzantium and the Principality of Kiev into an alliance, which was finally consummated at the end of the tenth century by the conversion of Russia to Greek Orthodox Christianity. The alliance resulted in the downfall of their common enemy, the Khazars, who, for several centuries, had been struggling with the Byzantines on the shores of the Black Sea, and at the same time had held in subjection the tribes of the Slavs. In consequence of the defeat of the Khazars, a part of the Jewish-Khazarian center in Tauris was transferred to the Principality of Kiev.
The coincidence of the settlement of Jews in Kiev with the conversion of Russia to the Greek Orthodox faith foreshadows the course of history. The very earliest phase of Russian cultural life is stamped by the Byzantine spirit of intolerance in relation to the Jews. The Abbot of the famous Pechera monastery, Theodosius (1057-1074), taught the Kiovians to live at peace with friends and foes, "but with their own foes, not with those of God." God's foes, however, are Jews and heretics, "who hold a crooked religion." In the Life of Theodosius written by the celebrated Russian chronicler Nestor we are told that this austere monk was in the habit of getting up in the night and secretly going to the Jews to argue with them about Christ. He would scold them, branding them as wicked and godless, and would purposely irritate them, in the hope of being killed "for the profession of Christ" and thus attaining to martyrdom, though it would seem that the Jews consistently refused to grant him this pleasure. Hatred against Jews and Judaism was equally preached by Theodosius' contemporaries Illarion and John, Metropolitans of Kiev (about 1050 and 1080).
This propaganda of religious intolerance did not remain without effect. In the beginning of the twelfth century the Jewish colony of Kiev experienced the first pogrom. Under Grand Duke Svyatopolk II. (1093-1113) the Jews of Kiev had enjoyed complete liberty of trade and commerce. The Prince had protected his Jewish subjects, and had intrusted some of them with the collection of the customs and other ducal imposts. But during the interregnum following the death of Svyatopolk (1113) they had to pay dearly for the liberty enjoyed by them. The Kiovians had offered the throne of the principality to Vladimir Monomakh, but he was slow about entering the capital. As a result, riots broke out. The Kiev mob revolted, and, after looting the residences of several high officials, threw itself upon the Jews and plundered their property. The well-intentioned among the inhabitants of Kiev dispatched a second delegation to Monomakh, warning him that, if he tarried longer, the riots would assume formidable dimensions. Thereupon Monomakh arrived and restored order in the capital.
Nevertheless the Jews continued to reside in Kiev. In 1124 they suffered severely from a fire which destroyed a considerable portion of the city. In the chronicles of that period (1146-1151) mention is frequently made of the "Jewish gate" in Kiev. Jewish merchants were attracted towards this city, a growing commercial center serving as the connecting link between Western Europe on the one hand and the Black Sea provinces and the Asiatic continent on the other. Reference to Kiev is made by the Jewish travelers of the time, Benjamin of Tudela and Pethahiah of Ratisbon (1160-1190). The former speaks of "the kingdom of Russia, stretching from the gates of Prague to the gates of Kiev, a large city on the border of the kingdom." The latter, Pethahiah, informs us that, on leaving his home in Ratisbon, he proceeded to Prague, the capital of Bohemia; from Prague he went to Poland, and from there "to Kiev, which is in Russia," whereupon he traveled for six days, until he reached the Dnieper, and, having crossed it, finally arrived on the coast of the Black Sea and in the Crimea.
After the Crusades, when considerable settlements of Jewish immigrants from Germany began to spring up in Poland, part of these immigrants found their way into the Principality of Kiev. The German rabbis of the twelfth century occasionally refer in their writings to the journeys of German Jews traveling with their merchandise to "Russ" and "Sclavonia" (= Slavonia, Slav countries). The Jews of Russia, who lacked rabbinical authorities of their own, addressed their inquiries to the Jewish scholars of Germany, or sent their studious young men to the West to obtain a Talmudic education. Hebrew sources of the twelfth century make mention of the names of Rabbi Isaac of Chernigov and Rabbi Moses of Kiev. The latter is quoted as having addressed an inquiry to the well-known Gaon of Bagdad, Samuel ben Ali.
The conquest of the Crimea by the Tatar khans in the thirteenth century and the gradual extension of their sovereignty to the Principalities of Kiev and Moscow brought the old center of Judaism in the Tauris region in close contact with its offshoots in various parts of Russia. Kiev enters into regular commercial intercourse with Kaffa (Theodosia) on the Crimean sea-shore. Kaffa becomes during that period an international emporium, owing to the Genoese, who had obtained from the Tatar khans concessions for Kaffa and the surrounding country, and had founded there a commercial colony of the Genoese Republic. The Crimean Peninsula was joined to the world commerce of Italy, and merchantmen were constantly ploughing the seas between Genoa and Kaffa, passing through the Byzantine Dardanelles. Italians, Greeks, Jews, and Armenians flocked to Kaffa and the adjacent localities on the southern coast of the Crimea. The Government of the Genoese Republic time and again instructed its consuls who were charged with the administration of the Crimean colony to observe the principles of religious toleration in their attitude towards this heterogeneous population. If the testimony of the traveler Schiltberger, who visited the Crimea between 1394 and 1427, may be relied upon, there were in Kaffa Jews "of two kinds," evidently Rabbanites and Karaites, who had two synagogues and four thousand houses, an imposing population to judge by its numbers.
The great crisis in the history of Byzantium – the capture of Constantinople by the Turks – affected also the Genoese colony in the Crimea. The Turks began to hamper the Genoese in their navigation through the straits. In 1455 the Genoese Government ceded its Kaffa possessions to the Bank of St. George in Genoa. The new administration set out to restore order in the colony and establish normal relations between the various races inhabiting it; but the days of this cultural oasis on the Black Sea were numbered. In 1475 Kaffa was taken by the Turks, and the whole peninsula fell under Turco-Tataric dominion.
Important Jewish communities were to be found during that period also in the older Tataric possessions of the Crimea. Two Jewish communities, one consisting of Rabbanites and the other of Karaites, flourished, during the thirteenth century, in the ancient capital of the Tatar khans, named Solkhat (now Eski-Krym). Beginning with 1428, the old Karaite community of Chufut-Kale ("the Rock of the Jews"), situated near the new Tatar capital, Bakhchi-Sarai, grows in numbers and influence. The memory of this community is perpetuated by a huge number of tombstones, ranging from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century. Crimea, now peopled with Jews, sends forth settlers to Lithuania, where, at the end of the fourteenth century, Grand Duke Vitovt16 takes them under his protection. Crimean colonies spring up in the Lithuanian towns of Troki and Lutzk, which, as will be seen later, are granted extensive privileges by the ruler of the land.
The establishment of Turkish sovereignty over the Crimea (1475-1783) resulted in a closer commercial relationship between the Jewish center on the Peninsula and the Principality of Moscow, which at that time fenced herself off from the outside world by a Chinese wall, and, with few exceptions, barred from her dominions all foreigners and infidels, or "Basurmans."17 In the second half of the fifteenth century the Grand Duke of Muscovy, Ivan III., was constrained to seek the help of several Crimean Jews in his diplomatic negotiations with the Khan of the Crimea, Mengli-Guiray. One of the agents of the Muscovite Prince was an influential Jew of Kaffa, by the name of Khoza Kokos, who was instrumental in bringing about a military alliance between the Grand Duke and the Khan (1472-1475). It is curious to note that Kokos wrote his letters to Ivan III. in Hebrew, so that the Muscovite ruler, who evidently could find no one in Moscow familiar with that language, had to request his agent to correspond with him in Russian or "in the Basurman language" (Tataric or perhaps Italian). Another agent of Ivan III., Zechariah Guizolfi, was an Italian Jew, who had previously occupied an important post in the Genoese colony in the Crimea, and was the owner of the Taman Peninsula ("the Prince of Taman"). He stood in close relations to Khan Mengli-Guiray, and in this capacity carried on a diplomatic correspondence with the Prince of Muscovy (1484-1500). Later on Zechariah was on the point of taking up his abode in Moscow in order to participate more directly in the foreign affairs of Russia, but circumstances interfered with the execution of the plan.
During the same period there arose in Moscow, as the result of a secret propaganda of Judaism, a religious movement known under the name of the "Judaizing heresy." According to the Russian chroniclers, the originator of this heresy was the learned Jew Skharia (Zechariah), who had emigrated with a number of coreligionists from Kiev to the ancient Russian city of Novgorod. Profiting by the religious unrest rife at that time in Novgorod – a new sect, called the Strigolniki,18 had arisen in the city, which abrogated the Church rites, and went to the point of denying the divinity of Christ – Zechariah got in touch with several representatives of the Orthodox clergy, and succeeded in converting them to Judaism. The leaders of the Novgorod apostates, the priests Denis and Alexius, went to Moscow in 1480, and converted a number of the Greek Orthodox there, some of the new converts even submitting to the rite of circumcision. The "Judaizing heresy" was soon intrenched among the nobility of Moscow and in the court circles. Among its sympathizers was the daughter-in-law of the Grand Duke, Helena.
The Archbishop of Novgorod, Hennadius, called attention to the dangerous propagation of the "Judaizing heresy," and made valiant efforts to uproot it in his diocese. In Moscow the fight against the new doctrine proved extremely difficult. But here too it was finally checked, owing to the vigorous endeavors of Hennadius and other Orthodox zealots. By the decision of the Church Council of 1504, supported by the orders of Ivan III., the principal apostates were burned at the stake, while the others were cast into prison or exiled to monasteries. As a result, the "Judaizing heresy" ceased to exist.19
Another tragic occurrence in the same period affords a lurid illustration of Muscovite superstition. At the court of Grand Duke Ivan III. the post of physician was occupied by a learned Jew, Master Leon, who had been invited from Venice. In the beginning of 1490 the eldest son of the Grand Duke fell dangerously ill. Master Leon tried to cure his patient by means of hot cupping-glasses and various medicaments. Questioned by the Grand Duke whether his son had any chances of recovery, the physician, in an unguarded moment, replied: "I shall not fail to cure your son; otherwise you may put me to death!" On March 15, 1490, the patient died. When the forty days of mourning were over, Ivan III. gave orders to cut off the head of the Jewish physician for his failure to effect a cure. The execution was carried out publicly, on one of the squares of Moscow.
In the eyes of the Muscovites both the learned theologian Skharia and the physician Leon were adepts of the "black art," or magicians. The "Judaizing heresy" instilled in them a superstitious fear of the Jews, of whom they only knew by hearsay. As long as such ideas and manners prevailed, the Jews could scarcely expect to be hospitably received in the land of the Muscovites. No wonder then that for a long time the Jews appear there, not in the capacity of permanent residents, but as itinerant merchants, who in a few cases – and with extreme reluctance at that – are accorded the right of temporary sojourn in "holy Russia."