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Japheth ben Eli Ha-Levi

JAPHETH BEN ELI HA-LEVI (Yefet ben Eli; Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī al-Lāwī al-Baṣrī; second half of tenth century), Karaite scholar in Jerusalem. Details of his life are not known. He was the only Karaite who wrote biblical commentaries in Arabic, accompanied by an Arabic translation (considered very literal by some modern scholars) of the Scriptures, on the entire biblical corpus (to date Lamentations is the only biblical book on which no trace of Japheth's commentary has been identified). His commentaries are unparalleled in size and diversity of the aspects discussed in relation to the biblical text: language, halakhah, history, theology and much polemics against Rabbinic Judaism and also against other religions, notably Islam and Christianity. Messianic aspects of the biblical text are adduced in certain contexts, sometimes extensively. Historical facts and circumstances are mentioned or alluded to occasionally.

Japheth relied mainly on earlier Karaite authorities, whom he quotes mostly anonymously. He sometimes utilized rabbinic sources and works of Rabbanite scholars. The latter are often quoted for polemical reasons. *Saadiah Gaon is often quoted verbatim. He mastered a very wide array of sources, from which he selected in a rather sophisticated manner. Opposing interpretations are sometimes discussed at length (and ultimately rejected) when he thinks that they deserve it. His commentaries are thus a treasure house of old interpretations that often are not found in any other source.

In principle Japheth is committed to the literal meaning of the text, which nevertheless always has to be judged by reason. The result can be defined as rationalistic exegesis. Although ostensibly attacking the Muʿtazila (see *Kalam), his exegetical terminology and theological concepts are typically Muʿtazilite. Accordingly he allows for metaphorical interpretation when required by ideological-exegetical considerations (e.g. unity and integrity of the biblical corpus) or theological ones. Some scholars recently suggested that he also took into account literary considerations, and that historic-philological considerations were paramount for him, but this needs further research. While strictly conservative, Japheth's opposition to the pursuit of secular studies was somewhat milder than that of his contemporaries. His commentaries won immediate recognition among contemporary Karaite scholars and were widely used by subsequent generations of Karaite scholars. Because of their large size, some commentaries were abridged, mainly by Egyptian Karaites. Parts of his commentaries were later translated into Hebrew and thus became available to Karaites in Byzantium who had no knowledge of Arabic. The original Arabic text apparently reached Spain, which may explain the fact that interpretations of his are referred to by Abraham *Ibn Ezra.

He also wrote Sefer ha-Mitzvot (Book of Precepts), parts of which survived in manuscript.

Japheth's commentaries survived in many hundreds of MSS. The text seems to have developed over time in various ways and measures. Yet, only a relatively small part of Japheth's gigantic oeuvre (comprising dozens of volumes) has been published to date (mostly from the Prophets and the Writings). In recent times, however, there is an ever-increasing interest in Japheth's works, which is clearly reflected in the amount of publications (see bibl.).


TEXTS: L. Barges (ed.), Rabbi Yapheth ben Heli Bassorensis Karaitae in librum Psalmorum comentarii Arabici (1846) [Psalms]; idem, Libri Psalmorum David regis et prophetae, versio a R. Yapheth ben Heli Bassorensi Karaita (1861) [Psalms]; idem, Rabbi Yapheth Abou Aly … in librum Canticum Canticorum comentarium Arabicum (1884) (Song of Songs); H. Ben-Shammai et al. (eds.), Judaeo-Arabic Manuscripts in the Firkovitch Collections: The Commentary on Genesis by Yefet ben 'Eli (2000) (catalogue, texts, study) (Heb.); P. Birnbaum (ed.), "The Arabic Commentary of Yefet ben Ali the Karaite on the Book of Hosea" (Ph.D. Thesis, Dropsie College, 1942); R.M. Bland (ed.), "The Arabic Commentary of Yephet ben 'Ali on the Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapters 1–6" (Ph.D. Thesis, Berkeley, 1966); S. Butbul, in: Sefunot, 23 (2003), 459–571 (Ruth) (Heb.); H. Hirschfeld (ed. & transl.), Jefeth b. Ali's Arabic Commentary on Nahum (Jews' College Publications; no. 5, 1911); O. Livne-Kafri, in: Sefunot, 21 (1993), 73–113 (Habakkuk) (Heb.); D.S. Margoliouth (ed. & transl.), A Commentary on the Book of Daniel by Jephet ibn Ali, the Karaite (1889); M. Polliack, in: Pe'amim, 89 (2002), 61–82 (Ovadiah, tr.) (Heb.); M. Sokolow, "The Commentary of Yefet ben Ali on Deuteronomy XXXII" (Ph.D. Thesis, Yeshiva University, 1974). STUDIES: Mann, Texts, 2 (1935), 30–33; L. Nemoy (ed.), Karaite Anthology (1952), 83–102; Z. Ankori, Karaites in Byzantium (1959), index, S.V.; H. Ben-Shammai, in: Alei Sefer, 2 (1976) 17–32 (Heb.); idem, "The Doctrines of Religious Thought of Abu Yusuf Ya'qub al-Qirqisani and Yefet Ben 'Eli" (Ph.D. Thesis, Jerusalem 1977 (Heb., vol. 2 is a selection of texts)); Y. Erder, in: Michael, 14 (1997), 313–34 (Heb.); D. Frank, in: J. Dammen McAuliffe et al. (eds.), With Reverence for the Word: Medieval Scriptural Exegesis in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (2003), 51–69; idem, Search Scripture Well: Karaite Exegetes and the Origins of the Jewish Bible commentary in the Islamic East (2004), index; M. Goldstein, in: G. Khan (ed.), Exegesis and Grammar in Medieval Karaite Texts (2001), 41–64; M. Polliack, in: G. Khan (ed.), Exegesis and Grammar in Medieval Karaite Texts (2001) 1–39; idem, "Major Trends in Karaite Biblical Exegesis in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries," in: M. Polliack, Karaite Judaism; A Guide to Its History and Literary Sources (2003), 363–413; idem, The Karaite Tradition of Arabic Bible Translation (1997), index; G. Tamani, in: Bulletin d'Etudes Karaïtes, 1 (1983), 27–76; G. Vajda, Deux commentaires karaïtes sur l'Ecclésiastes, (1971); N. Wieder, The Judean Scrolls and Karaism (20052), index.