The saga of the Khazars began with the fall of the mighty Gokturk Empire in 4282/522 CE. The Gokturk leaders retained control of the western half of their empire that was inhabited by Khazar nomads, which evolved into the kingdom of Khazaria and persisted in an area of southern Russia for about five centuries. At its height, the Khazar kingdom stretched thousands of kilometers eastwards, from the Volga River to the Black and Caspian Seas.
Although Rav Saadyah Gaon mentions the Khazars briefly, the most extensive record of their history is the mid-tenth century correspondence between King Yosef of the Khazars and Rav Chasdai ibn Shaprut, foreign secretary of Caliph Abd al-Rahman III of Cordoba, Spain. These letters were probably an important source of the story at the beginning of Rav Yehu- dah HaLevi’s famous sefer, HaKuzari.
TWO UNIQUE LETTERS
When Rav Chasdai heard of the Khaz- ar kingdom, he quickly shot off a letter to King Yosef. A free translation follows:
Rav Chasdai first explained how he had heard about the Khazars in the first place:
“I was surprised that we have had no account of your kingdom [until now], and I think this is only due to the great distance of your kingdom from the realm of my lord, the King [of Cordoba]. I recently heard that two men, inhabitants of our land, had arrived at the dwelling place of my lord, the King, and I thought that Hashem, in his mercy, would enable me, too, to see the majesty and royal throne of my lord.”
Still unsure whether the Khazar kingdom really existed, Rav Chasdai began interrogating foreign ambassadors.
“Kings of the earth, to whom his (Abd- el-Rahman’s) magnificence and power are known, bring gifts to him, courting his favor with costly presents. All their gifts pass through my hands, and I am charged with making gifts in reciprocity. I always ask the ambassadors of these monarchs who bring gifts about our brethren, the Israelites, the remnant of the captivity, whether they have heard anything concerning the deliverance of those who have languished in bondage and have found no rest.
“At length, mercantile emissaries of Kharasan (southeast of the Caspian Sea) told me that there is a kingdom of Jews which is called al-Khazar. But I did not
believe these words for I thought that they told me such things to procure my goodwill and favor. I was therefore wondering, until the ambassadors of Constantinople came with presents and a letter from their king to our king while I questioned them concerning this matter.
“They answered me, ‘It is quite true, and the name of that kingdom is al-Khaz- ar. It is fifteen days’ journey by sea from Constantinople but, by land, many nations intervene between us; the name of the king now reigning is Yosef; ships sometimes come from their country to ours bringing fish, skins and wares of every kind. They are very powerful; they maintain numerous armies with which they occasionally engage in expeditions.’ When I heard this report, I was encouraged, my hands were strengthened and my hope was confirmed. Thereupon I bowed down and adored the G-d of Heaven.”
Rav Chasdai’s grateful reaction was not surprising – the Khazar kingdom was the only independent Jewish kingdom in existence at that time.
KING YOSEF’S REPLY
In his reply to Rav Chasdai, King Yosef first gives a brief summary of the Khaz- ar’s history:
“Know that we are descended from Yafet, through his son, Togarmah. I am a descendant of Khazar, the seventh son (of Togarmah).
“I have a record that although our fathers were few in number, the Holy One, Blessed be He, gave them strength, power and might so that they were able to carry on, war after war, with many nations who were more powerful and numerous than they. With the help of G-d, they drove them out and took possession of their country. Upon some of them, they have imposed forced labor even to this very day. They left their country and fled while the Khazars pursued them as far as the Danube River and the Khazars have occupied their land until now.”
The Khazars played a vital role in history before they ever dreamt of becoming Jewish. This was when they helped the Christian Byzantine Empire block the fanatical Moslem hordes that threatened to overwhelm the world in an uncontrollable flood. The two sides confronted each other in 4410/650 CE in the first of many Khazar-Moslem wars, and the Moslems reached their zenith when they seized the Khazar capital, Atil. However, the Khaz- ars eventually managed to expel them,
and the two sides retained an uneasy status quo for the subsequent centuries, enabling the Khazars to prevent Islam from spilling over into Eastern Europe.
At that time, the Khazars were still pagans, ascribing divine powers to a huge multitude of spirits.
The Jewish population in the region was increasing, as Jews living in the area since much earlier times were joined by Jews fleeing from Christian and Moslem oppression. Also, Jewish traders, known as Radhanites, regularly traversed the Khazar territory on their way to China and the Far East.
Rav Yehudah HaLevi (died 4901/1141) reports that when the Khazar king, Yosef, who began searching for the true religion around the year 4500/740 CE, there were representatives of the three major religions who came to his court to guide him in his quest.
King Yosef describes the episode in his letter to Rav Chasdai:
“Several generations passed until a certain King arose whose name was Bulan. He was a wise and G-d-fearing man, trusting in the Creator with all his heart. He expelled the sorcerers and idolaters from the land and took refuge in the shadow of His wings. An angel appeared to Bulan and said to him, ‘I will give you precepts, statutes and judgments. If you observe them, I will bless you and multiply you.’”
The Khazar kingdom had two rulers who governed simultaneously: the Kha- gan (Khan), in charge of spiritual affairs, and the Khagan Bek in charge of government and war. This perhaps explains King Bulan’s subsequent plea to the angel:
“He said to the angel: ‘The people under my rule are unbelievers and I do not know whether they will trust me. If I have favor in your eyes, appear to their prince and leader (perhaps the Khagan Bek) so that he may assist me.’ G-d did so and appeared to that prince in a dream. Then the people were pleased and accepted the Divine rule.”
It seems that the Khazars had only been instructed to keep the seven Noachide laws, because the letter now describes how King Bulan chose Judaism over the other religions.
“After this, his fame spread. The (Christian) king of the Byzantines and the (Moslem) Arabs who had heard of him sent their envoys and ambassadors with great riches and many large presents to the King as well as some of their wise men with the object of converting him to their own religion.
“But the King, being wise, sent for a learned Israelite (identified as Yitzchak HaSangari). The King searched, inquired and investigated carefully and brought the sages together that they might argue about their respective religions. Each of them refuted, however, the arguments of his opponent so that they could not agree. When the King saw this, he said to the Christian and Moslem priests, ‘Go home but return to me on the third day.’”
“On the third day, he called all the sages together and said to them, ‘Speak and argue with one another and make clear to me which is the best religion.’ They began to debate with one another without arriving at any results until the King said to the Christian priest ‘What do you think? Between the religions of the Jews and the Moslems, which is to be preferred?’ The priest answered, ‘The religion of the Israelites is better than that of the Moslems.’
“The King then asked the (Moslem) qadi, ‘What do you say? Is the religion of
the Israelites or that of the Christians preferable?’ The qadi replied, ‘The religion of the Israelites is preferable.’
“Upon hearing this, the King announced, ‘If this is so, you both have admitted with your own mouths that the religion of the Israelites is better. Wherefore, trusting in the mercies of Hashem and the power of the A-lmighty, I choose the religion of Yisroel, that is, the religion of Avrohom. If that G-d in whom I trust, and in the shadow of whose wings I find refuge, will aid me, He can give me without labor the money, the gold, and the silver that you have promised me. As for you all, go now in peace to your lands.’”
“From that time on, the Almighty helped Bulan, fortified him and strengthened him. He circumcised himself, his servants, attendants and all his people. Then Bulan sent for and brought from all places wise men of Yisroel who interpreted the Torah for him and arranged the precepts in order and, up to this very day, we have been subject to this religion.
“Since that day, when my fathers entered into this religion, the G-d of Israel has humbled all of their enemies, subjecting every folk and tongue round about them, whether Christian, Muslim or pagan. No one has been able to stand before them to this day. All of them are tributary.
“After the days of Bulan, there arose one of his descendants, King Obadiah by name, who reorganized the kingdom and established the Jewish religion properly and correctly. He built shuls and yeshivos, brought in Jewish scholars, and rewarded them with gold and silver. They explained to him the Tanach, Mishnah, Talmud and the order of prayer. The King was a man who revered and loved the Torah. He was one of the true servants of Hashem. May the Divine Spirit give him rest!”
To lessen this story’s impact, Moslem writings claimed that mainly only the Khazar upper classes converted to Judaism while the commoners remained pagans. This argument has been refuted by recent excavations, which reveal that, around the time of this episode, the style of graves throughout the country altered from pagan to Jewish style, indicating that the entire kingdom was transformed. However, the Khazars did not force people to convert and, throughout their reign, Jews, Christians and Moslems lived in peaceful coexistence.
As news of the Khazar Empire spread, some Jews became convinced that the Khazars would destroy the Moslem empire. As a contemporary Jewish commentary on Yeshayahu comments on the verse, “Hashem’s friend will do his will against Bavel and the children of Kasdim” (48:14) – “This refers to the Khazars who will go and destroy Bavel.”
Tragically, however, by the time King Yosef wrote this letter, the Khazar kingdom was already in its death throes. The empire had been weakened by the constant attacks of Vikings and Turkic tribes, and although it resurged under King Aharon and King Yosef (who corresponded with Ibn Shaprut), the attacks intensified into full-scale wars, which culminated with the fall of the capital city, Atil, in about 3729/969 CE.
Surviving Khazar Jews gradually integrated into surrounding Jewish communities and lost their identity while the capital city, Atil, has never been discovered. Thus all that remains of this mighty kingdom is a namesake – the Caspian Sea – known until today in Turkish, Persian and Arabic languages as the “Khazar Sea.”