Kievan Letter

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The Kievan Letter scan in The Kievan Letter scan collection of Cambridge University Library website

The Kievan Letter is an early 10th-century (ca. 930)[1] letter thought to be written by representatives of the Jewish community in Kiev. The letter, a Hebrew-language recommendation written on behalf of one member of their community, was part of an enormous collection brought to Cambridge by Solomon Schechter from the Cairo Geniza. It was discovered in 1962 during a survey of the Geniza documents by Norman Golb of the University of Chicago. The letter is dated by most scholars to around 930 CE. Some think (on the basis of the "pleading" nature of the text, mentioned below) that the letter dates from a time when Khazars were no longer a dominant force in the politics of the city. According to Marcel Erdal, the letter does not come from Kiev but was sent to Kiev.[2]

Historical significance[edit]

Some scholars point to a district in Kievan Podil named after the Khazars (called "Kozare"), which indicates to some that Turkic Khazars did live in Kiev. The Khazars apparently played a significant role in the economic vitality of the city, importing caviar, fish, and salt into Kiev.

If so, it might at first glance suggest that Khazar control over Kiev, in some form or another, continued well into the tenth century, significantly later than the traditional date for conquest by Oleg, 882. On the other hand, from the letter itself it seems that the Khazar authorities could do little to help the Jewish community of Kiev; the letter itself had ended up in Egypt, and the beleaguered alms-seeker had presumably travelled thousands of miles in his search for relief. The identity and status of the reviewing, turcophone officer is therefore ambiguous. It would seem more likely that the letter was reviewed in Khazaria at a time when Khazar Jewish power had waned not only in Kiev but in the heartland itself (sometime in the 11th century).[citation needed]

Linguistic significance[edit]

Linguists are interested in the letter because the names of the community members are of Turkic, Slavic, and Hebrew origins (for example, names such as: "Hanukkah," "Yehudah," "Gostata," and "Kiabar"). There is some disagreement as to whether these Jews were Israelites who had taken local names, or whether their names indicate Turkic or Slavic origins. The debate is complicated by the presence of the name Kiabar Kohen. According to Omeljan Pritsak, this name indicates that non-Israelite Khazars adopted the status of Kohen, possibly because they had formed a pre-conversion priestly caste. A simpler explanation is that Israelite Jews in Khazaria adopted Khazar Turkic names, much in the same way that Jews, including prominent rabbis, had adopted Aramaic, Persian, Arabic, Greek, and German names.

The Turkic runiform inscription on the Kievan Letter.

Recent studies determined that at least one of the names of signatories is Slavic and that it is likely that the signatories with non-Jewish names, were Jews who adopted local names.[3]

The letter may contain the only written record of the Khazar language extant today - the single word-phrase "I have read (it)," though Erdal argues against this hypothesis and favours Bolgar-Chuvash (hakurüm from the reconstructed verb *okï-, 'call out, recite, read'), and suggests that it originated in the Danube-Bulgar region.[4] (Similar inscriptions, in Latin and Greek are found in Byzantine documents from roughly the same period.)

Text of the Letter[edit]

  1. The First among the foremost [i.e. God], He who is adorned with the crown "Final and First,"
  2. Who hears the whispered voice, and listens to utterance and tongue - May He guard them
  3. as the pupil [of his eye] and make them to dwell with Nahshon on high as at first -
  4. Men of Truth, despisers of gain, doers of [deeds of] loving-kindness and pursuers of charity,
  5. guardians of salvation whose bread is available to every traveler and passerby,
  6. holy communities scattered to all (the world's) corners: may it be the will of
  7. the Master of Peace to make them dwell as a crown of peace! Now, our officers and masters,
  8. we, [the] community of Kiev, (hereby inform you of the woesome affair of this Mar Jacob bar
  9. Hanukah, who is of the sons of [good folk]. He was of the givers, and not of the
  10. takers, until a cruel decree was decreed against him, in that his brother went and took money
  11. from gentiles; this Jacob stood surety. His brother went on the road, and there came
  12. brigands who slew him and took his money. Then came creditors
  13. [and t]ook captive this Jacob, they put chains of iron on his neck
  14. and irons about his legs. He stayed there an entire year ...
  15. [and afterwards] we took him in surety; we paid out sixty [coins] and there ye[t...]
  16. remained forty coins; so we have sent him among the holy communities
  17. that they might take pity on him. So now, O our masters, raise up your eyes to heaven
  18. and do as is your goodly custom, for you know how great is the virtue
  19. of charity. For charity saves from death. Nor are we as warners
  20. but rather those who remind; and to you will be charity before the Lord your God
  21. You shall eat fruits in this world, and the capital fund [of merit] shall be yours perpetually in the world to come.
  22. Only be strong and of good courage, and do not put our words behind
  23. your backs; and may the Omnipresent have mercy upon you and build Jerusalem in your days
  24. and redeem you and also us with you. (An acronym follows standing for either "Amen, Amen, Amen, soon [may the redemption come]" or "Brotherly people are we, soon [...]".)
  25. Abraham the Parnas [community leader] [...]el bar MNS Reuben bar
  26. GWSTT (Gostata) bar KYBR (Kiabar) Kohen Samson
  27. Judah, who is called SWRTH (Surta) Hanukah bar Moses
  28. QWFYN (Kufin) bar Joseph MNR (Manar) bar Samuel Kohen
  29. Judah bar Isaac [the] Levite Sinai bar Samuel
  30. Isaac the Parnas [An Old Turkic/Steppean rovas inscription follows, read variously as okhqurüm/hokurüm/hakurüm, "I read (this or it)"]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nomads in the sedentary world
  2. ^ Marcel Erdal, 'The Khazar Language,' in Peter B. Golden, Haggai Ben-Shammai, András Róna-Tas,(eds.), The World of the Khazars: New Perspectives,Brill, 2007 pp.75-108, pp.95-97.
  3. ^ The World of the Khazars: New Perspectives, Part 8, Volume 17 by Peter B. Golden, Haggai Ben-Shammai, András Róna-Tas P:96
  4. ^ Erdal, ibid.p.98.


  • Golb, Norman and Omeljan Pritsak. Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982 ISBN 0-8014-1221-8.

External links[edit]