Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Shapshal (Szapszał) Seraya ben Mordechai

SHAPSHAL (Szapszał) SERAYA BEN MORDECHAI (1873–1961), leader of East European Karaites, Russian Turkologist and diplomat. Born in Bakhchesaray (Crimea), he studied in the Karaite school of Simferopol where his teacher was Samuel *Pigit, but he did not graduate. In 1899 he graduated from the Oriental Department of St. Petersburg University and served as translator at the Russian Foreign Office. In 1901 he was appointed as a personal tutor of the Iranian Crown Prince Mohammad Ali Shah and, after the coronation of the latter, Shapshal became his court minister and adviser and ennobled as "khan." In Iran he acquired the nickname "bloody Shapshal," because he urged the Shah to crush the Iranian Constitutional Movement. Following the revolution in Iran, he was expelled from the country in 1908 as a Russian spy and returned to the Russian Foreign Office, teaching at the same time Turkish and Azeri in St. Petersburg University. Despite his lack of religious education and traditional way of life, in 1911 Shapshal was elected as ḥakham of West Russian Karaites, but he declined this office. After the demise of the ḥakham S. Pampulov, this office was offered to Shapshal, but he encountered strong opposition among Crimean Karaites, who did not want "bloody Shapshal" as a leader. He again declined this office and was elected only in 1915 as ḥakham. He began with religious reforms, which were aimed at severing Karaite religion and tradition from its Hebrew and Jewish roots, and shaping the new Turkic-Khazar identity. One of his innovations was the complete exclusion of Hebrew language and literature from the curriculum of Karaite schools. In this period he established a Karaite library-museum, "Karai Bitiqligi," which included the books and archive of the Karaite Spiritual Council from Crimea and Odessa. This library contained tens of thousands of printed editions and manuscripts in the Hebrew, Arabic, and Karaite languages. Shapshal also established a periodical "The News (Izvestiya) of the Karaite Spiritual Council" in Russia under his own editorship and published nine numbers (1917–19).

In 1919, after the Bolshevik occupation of the Crimea, which caused the deaths of masses of local population, Shapshal escaped to Istanbul and worked there at a Georgian bank. Later he was appointed as a librarian to catalogue the manuscripts in Abdul Hamid II library. In 1928 Shapshal was appointed as ḥakham of the Karaites in Poland and Lithuania and changed the name of this title to "gahan" (khan), to obliterate the Hebrew term and to demonstrate the Turkic background of the Karaites. From this period until the end of his life he resided in Troki. After the partition of Poland and Soviet occupation in 1939, Shapshal lost this office and became a Soviet scholar of Orientalism. After the Nazi invasion of Lithuania in 1941, he occupied the office again. He met with German authorities and convinced them of the non-Jewish racial background of the Karaites. The Nazi officials in Vilna arranged the "scientific debate" between Shapshal and the Jewish historian Zelig Kalmanovich (who was in the Vilna Ghetto and was killed by the Nazis) about the origins of the Karaites.

After World War II, following the return of Soviet occupation, Shapshal again lost his office and enrolled in the Karaite kolkhoz at Troki. Later, until the end of his life, he was a senior researcher in the Institute for History and Law of the Academy of Sciences of Soviet Lithuania.

While a student Shapshal published two booklets in Russian about Crimean Karaites: Karaimy I Chufut Qaleh (1896) and Karaimy, zapiski krymskago gornago kluba (1897). Later he published several books and articles on Turkology.

Shapshal was a spiritual leader of the Karaites, who was not accepted by the majority of the community but whose ideology led to a great extent to the de-Judaization and assimilation of East European Karaites. According to his theories, they originated from Khazars and Polovtsi. Shapshal claimed that Karaism was very close to early Christianity, and that Anan ben David recognized Jesus and Muhammad as prophets, who were sent to the Gentiles but influenced Karaism. As to East European Karaites, he claimed that they had adopted the Mosaic religion secretly keeping Turkic pagan cults, beliefs, and customs, which had a central role in the Karaite legacy.


B. Elyashevich, Materialy k serii narody i kultury XIV, no. 2 (1993), 214–17; M. Kizilov. "New Materials on the biography of S.M. Szapszal (1928–1939)," in: Materialy Deviatoy Mezhdunarodnoy Konferentsii po Iudaike, (2002), 255–273; M. Polliack (ed.), Karaite Judaism: A Guide to Its History and Literary Sources, (2003), index; D. Shapira, in Proceedings of the 14th Congress of the Turk Tarih Kurumu (2006).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.