Anan Ben David - History


In the second half of the 7th century and in the whole of the 8th, as a result of the tremendous intellectual commotion produced throughout the southwestern Asia by the swift conquests of the Arabs and the collision of Islam with the older religions and cultures of the world, there arose a large number of religious sects, especially in Persia, Babylonia (Iraq), and Syria. Judaism did not escape this general fomentation; the remnants of Second Temple sects picked up new life and flickered once more before their final extinction, and new sects also arose, including the Isawites, the Yudganites, the Shadganites, the Malakites, the Mishawaites, and others. All these groups may have quickly disappeared, or been assimilated by rabbinical Judaism, if not for the actions of Anan Ben David.

Some polemical accounts supply Anan with a typical background story often used of "heretics" - namely, that he was frustrated in a bid for power within the religious community, and as a result broke away to form his own sect. According to these accounts, when, about the year 760, the Jewish exilarch in Babylon (probably Isaac Iskawi) died, two brothers among his nearest kin, probably nephews of his, Anan and Josiah (Hassan), were next in order of succession to the exalted office. Eventually Josiah was elected exilarch by the rabbis of the Babylonian Jewish colleges (the Geonim) and by the notables of the chief Jewish congregations; and the choice was confirmed by the calif of Baghdad. The story continues that Anan was proclaimed exilarch by his followers - an act construed by the Muslim authorities as rebellion against the authority of the calif, who had formally invested Josiah with the position. He was arrested by the authorities one Sunday in 767, and thrown into prison, to be executed on the ensuing Friday, as guilty of high treason. Luckily for Anan, the story goes, he met in jail a prominent fellow-prisoner, the founder of the Muslim casuistic school of the Hanifites, Abu Hanifah al-Nu'man ibn Thabit. He gave Anan Ben David advice which saved his life: He should set himself to expound all ambiguous precepts of the Torah in a fashion opposed to the traditional interpretation, and make this principle the foundation of a new religious etc. He must next get his partisans to secure the presence of the calif himself at the trial — his presence not being an unusual thing at the more important prosecutions. Anan was to declare that his religion was different from Rabbinical Judaism, and that his followers entirely coincided with him in matters of religious doctrine; which was an easy matter for Anan to say, because the majority of them were opposed to the rabbis. Complying with this advice, Anan defended himself in the presence of the calif Al-Mansur (754-775), who granted his favor. The story manages to put both Anan ben David and Abu Hanifah in a bad light at the same time.

The story so closely fits polemical clichés about the personal motives of "heretics" that it is open to grave doubt. Moreover, Leon Nemoy notes that "Natronai, scarcely ninety years after Anan's secession, tells us nothing about his aristocratic (Davidic) descent or about the contest for the office of exilarch which allegedly served as the immediate cause of his apostasy." He later notes that Natronai - a devout Rabbinical Jew - lived where Anan's activities took place, and that the Karaite sage Ya'acov Al-Kirkisani never mentioned Anan's purported lineage or candidacy for exilarch. (See Karaite Anthology; Yale Judaica Series 7)

Anan ben David's Sefer ha-Mitzvot ("The Book of the Precepts") was published about 770. He adopted many principles and opinions of other anti-rabbinic forms of Judaism that had previously existed. It has been suggested that he took much from the old Sadducees and Essenes, whose writings — or at least writings ascribed to them — were still in circulation. Thus, for example, these older sects prohibited the burning of any lights and the leaving of one's dwelling on the Sabbath; they also enjoined the actual observation of the new moon for the appointment of festivals, and the holding of the Pentecost festival always on a Sunday.

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