The Epic of a Letter and of a People - Hasdai ibn Shaprut's Correspondence with Joseph, King of the Khazars
THE dawn of the splendid epoch in the history of the Diaspora called the Spanish Period was illuminated by one of the most distinguished figures of post-Talmudic times: Hasdai ben Isaac ben Ezra ibn Shaprut, of whom H. Graetz has said that from his time on Jewish history bears a European impress. He was the principal minister of Abd al-Rahman III, the Caliph of Cordova ( 912-961), and of his successor Hakem II ( 961-976), being in charge of commercial, financial and foreign affairs, and also Court physician. At the same time he was head of the Jewish communities in the Iberian peninsula and a great patron of Jewish learning, besides being himself a Hebrew scholar and writer. Above all, Hasdai was the protector of his brethren in exile, always on the watch to improve their lot and yearning for their restoration to their own land.
The fascinating life of Hasdai ibn Shaprut is, in a striking way, linked with another most romantic episode in Jewish history, which took place on the opposite side of the then known world: the story of the Jewish kingdom of the Khazars, a people of mixed Turkish and Finnish origin living between the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, the Volga and the Dnieper. Judaism spread among the Khazars gradually, and the seal was set on their conversion when the khakan (king) Bulan formally embraced the religion of Israel about 740. Beginning with the khakan Obadiah, the Khazar kings bore Hebrew names. Although the Khazar kingdom was held in such high esteem in the East that one of the Byzantine emperors married a Khazar princess, the strange kingdom of the Jewish proselytes remained hidden from the greater part of the medieval world. But about the middle of the tenth century certain emissaries from Khorasan and ambassadors of the Byzantine emperor came to Cordova and told Hasdai ibn Shaprut of the Jewish kingdom of Khazaria. This report so excited his curiosity and hopes for a redemption of Israel that he at once took steps to obtain further information about this mysterious empire.
For this purpose Hasdai composed, with the help of his secretary, the distinguished Hebrew grammarian Menahem ibn Saruk, a most notable and impressive letter to Joseph, the king of the Khazars, and, as explained in the letter itself, made all possible efforts to have it conveyed to its distant