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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Aaron ben Elijah, the Younger, of Nicomedia

Karaite theologian, born in Cairo about 1300; died in Constantinople in 1369. To distinguish him from Aaron ben Joseph, the elder Karaite theologian of Constantinople, he was called Aaron the Younger, or the Later. Aaron ben Elijah lived for a long time in Nicomedia, Asia Minor (hence his agnomen, "Nicomedi"), but spent the closing years of his life in Constantinople, at that time the center of Karaite learning. Of his character little is known. The Karaites claim for him a rank equal to that of Maimonides in rabbinical Judaism. In point of fact, he seems to have made it the ambition of his life to rival the famous Rabbi Moses of Cairo, defending at the same time the doctrines of his own sect against Maimonides' attacks. For this purpose he studied carefully the entire philosophical literature of the Moslems and Jews, familiarizing himself with the rabbinical writings as well as with all the works of his Karaite predecessors. Thus prepared, he took as a model Maimonides' "Moreh Nebukim," and, imitating it both in plan and style—betraying also at times an almost slavish dependence upon it in matters of detail—he wrote his philosophical work "'Eẓ ha-Ḥayyim" (The Tree of Life), which he finished in the year 1346. In 1354, while in Constantinople, he composed his work "Gan Eden" (The Garden of Eden), on the Biblical commandments, and finally, in the year 1362, he wrote "Keter Torah" (The Crown of the Law), a comprehensive commentary on the Pentateuch.

Aaron was not of the same profound and independent cast of mind as Maimonides, for whom he entertained great esteem even when opposing him, but was a versatile compiler and eclectic philosopher rather than an original thinker. Still he was eminently successful in his masterly efforts to restore to the Karaites some of the prestige and self-respect which had shown signs of decline ever since Saadia of Fayoum had begun his systematic warfare against them. He, like his predecessor, Aaron the Elder, effected a healthy regeneration of Karaite theology, a fact which the partiality of Grätz, the historian, failed to appreciate (see "Gesch. d. Juden," 6:375,376). Nor, in fact, can an impartial judgment deny him the merit of having often criticized Maimonides quite justly, and of having advanced sounder, because less rationalistic, theological views.

Aaron's Philosophy.

Like Maimonides and all other Judæo-Arabic students of philosophy, Aaron stands under the dominating influence of Aristotelianism. There is, however, a distinction between Aaron and Maimonides. The latter, in his "Moreh Nebukim," 1:71, disagrees with the Motazilites, or liberal Moslem theologians, regarding their system of the see KALAM theology, because, in order to harmonize revelation with philosophy—especially on the question of creation—the Motazilites combine atomism with the theories of Aristotle, while Maimonides defends the dogma of the creation against the Stagirite, himself making use of that philosopher's own arguments. Aaron is opposed to Aristotelianism, and, like the rest of the Karaite theologians, adheres to the liberal system of the Motazilites; herein differing from Aaron ben Joseph, who frequently sides with the Rabbinites against the Karaite traditions. Accordingly, at the very beginning of his book, "'Eẓ ha-Ḥayyim," he declares that the theology of the Kalam is the natural religion arrived at by Abraham through meditation and systematized by the Mosaic Law; while Greek philosophy, adopted by Christianity because of its hostility to Judaism, is a heterogeneous foreign product and obnoxious to the development of the Torah in its purity. He further declares the restoration and clearer presentation of the Kalam to be the object of his work.

Of the one hundred and fourteen chapters which the book contains the first fifteen are devoted to the doctrine concerning God's existence, His incorporeality, and the creation of the world, the heavenly spheres being considered, as in the "Moreh," as ruled by separate intelligences or angels. All these doctrines are shown to be logical deductions and therefore prior to his "'Eẓ ha-Ḥayyim" revelation, which is only the confirmation of truth otherwise known.

In the succeeding forty-seven chapters, the Biblical anthropomorphic expressions (ANTHROPOMORPHISM) are explained as figurative expressions of the divine energies and activities, the words of Maimonides being at times literally reiterated or epitomized, though Aaron claims that Maimonides merely followed Judah Hadassi, whose work, "HaEshkol," appeared twenty-nine years before the "Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah." To him also, as to Maimonides, the Biblical theophany of Ezekiel ("Merkabah") has a physical meaning, and so has the Tabernacle with its symbolism. In demonstrating the unity of God in the following chapters the author opposes Maimonides and Hadassi, who rejectall but the negative attributes; Aaron, however, declares power, knowledge, life, will, and existence to be positive (affirmative) attributes inseparable from His essence and consequently in no way infringing upon His unity. This leads him to an explanation of the usual names of God which denote His activity as distinguished from His specific name, the Tetragrammaton denoting His essence as the author of all existence.

His Views of Divine Providence.

In chapters 78-95 divine providence is then discussed with special reference to the existence of evil in its fourfold nature, physical and psychical, moral and non-moral. This had been a favorite topic of the older Karaite philosophers such as Joseph al-Bazir and Joshua, based upon the Aristotelian view, followed also by Maimonides, that evil is only a defect inherent in matter, and therefore not to be ascribed to God, unless—and this is well brought out by Aaron and his Karaite predecessors—God makes it the means of man's moral improvement. While Maimonides assumes an especial providence of God only for man and not for creatures without reason, Aaron extends divine providence over all beings, God's universal knowledge embracing, according to Karaite theology, also sympathy with all beings. The ruling principle of divine action he takes to be not His wisdom, as does Maimonides, but, with a far deeper theological insight, His justice.

Accentuating the superiority of the moral above the intellectual power, Aaron takes a higher view of the suffering of the righteous than do Maimonides and some of his Karaite predecessors, who speak of temurah (the law of compensation for grief, which also rules over animal life); and he postulates, with especial reference to Abraham and Job, goodness as a divine principle underlying all trials imposed upon man for his spiritual benefit. As to the purposes of the world, man can only comprehend his own sublunary world, of which he forms the highest end as God's servant. From chapter 95 to the end of the work, revelation and law, with the soul's perfection, its immortality and future bliss, are the subjects treated. The two trees in paradise are taken as symbols of the higher and the lower spheres of human life, man's fall from the one to the other necessitating the special commandments of God, until finally the Law becomes the means of man's full restoration to his twofold nature. This leads to a discussion of the nature of prophecy in general and of its highest degree attained by Moses; also of the object of the Law and its various commandments given for the purpose of the perfection of the individual as well as of the human race in general.

The Law of Moses was intended for and offered to all nations, and it can never be changed, improved, or (as the Rabbinites claim) augmented by an oral law. Essentially different from the attitude of Maimonides, and in fact from that of all Aristotelian thinkers, is Aaron's attitude toward immortality, which he bases chiefly upon moral grounds, the postulate of retribution; but for this very reason his eschatology is rather obscure, being half-rational and half-mystical, a blending of many beliefs. A call to repentance forms the conclusion of his work.

Aaron's Interpretation of the Law.

In his great work on the Commandments, entitled "Gan Eden," consisting of twenty-five sections and one hundred and ninety-four chapters, besides nine smaller juridical articles, which became of paramount importance to the Karaites, Aaron follows a system of rationalism similar to the one expounded by Maimonides in his "Moreh Nebukim," whereas the Karaites prefer to compare it with the "Yad haḤazaḳah." He starts with the principle enunciated in the "'Eẓ ha-Ḥayyim," that the inculcation of the belief in God's unity, and especially in His government of the world, is the main purpose of every single precept of the Law; wherefore it is our duty to search after the object of each commandment. The Sabbath day has for its special object the inculcation of the belief in the divine creation and guidance of the world, while other festivals are intended to counteract the influences of paganism and fatalism. Two treatises of this work have appeared as separate books: one comprising five sections and twenty-two chapters on sheḥitah (the law for the slaughtering of animals); another, "Ẓofnat Pa'aneaḥ" (Discloser of Secrets), comprising eight chapters on incestuous marriages. The whole work is the best and most comprehensive exposition of the Karaite system of the Law, and presents the opinions of all Aaron's predecessors with impartial and frank criticism. It is chiefly owing to this work that he exerts a great influence upon the Karaites.

Aaron's third work, "Keter Torah" (the Crown of the Law), is composed after the manner of Ibn Ezra's commentary on the Pentateuch. Like his other works, it also contains a review of the philosophical and exegetical interpretations by all his predecessors, with a fair criticism of the same, and helps to supplement and elucidate his ritual work. Of special interest is his preface, in which are stated the main differences between the Rabbinites and Karaites in regard to Biblical exegesis.

Editions of Aaron's Works.

The "'Eẓ ha-Ḥayyim," of which many manuscripts exist in Leyden, Munich, Vienna, and Leipsic, was first published, with a large commentary ("Or ha-Ḥayyim") by Luzki, in Koslov, 1835. A critical edition, with valuable information and a summary of the one hundred and fourteen chapters in Hebrew by Caleb Afendopulo, and one in German by the editor, Franz Delitzsch, appeared in Leipsic, 1841. Of the "Keter Torah" there is extant a Koslov edition (1866), besides manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, in Vienna, and in Leipsic; while the "Gan Eden" exists, in manuscript only, in Leyden and Leipsic. Portions of the latter have been published by Schuparth, Trigland, Danz, and Lanzhausen.

  • Jost, Annalen, 1839, No. 11;
  • Jost, Gesch. d. Judenthums, 2:362-366;
  • Fürst, Gesch. d. Karäert. 2:261-280;
  • Neubauer, Aus der Petersburger Bibliothek, p. 58;
  • Hamburger, in Winter and Wünsche's Jüdische Literatur, 2:99-108, where a few specimens of Aaron's writings are given in German translation;
  • M. Schreiner, Der Kalam in der Jüdische Literatur, in Thirteenth Report of the Berlin Lehranstalt, 1895, pp. 57-60.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Aaron ben Elijah, the Younger, of Nicomedia'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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