Abraham Firkovic was born into a Crimean Karaite farming family in the Lutsk district of Volhynia, then part of the Russian Empire, now Ukraine. At age 25 he went bankrupt. He then began to study Hebrew, Torah and other holy books. In 1818 he was appointed junior hazzan of the Lutsk Crimean Karaites community. Because of a dispute with the older hazzan had to leave and emigrate to Evpatoria in Crimea, where he was appointed in 1823 to the hacham and the head of local Crimean Karaites community. In 1825 sent a letter to the Czar, that proposed to settle the Jewish population from the border of Russia and bring the Jews working the land, but the proposal was rejected. In 1828 he moved to Berdichev, where he met Hasidism and Jewish Scriptures that were unacceptable to the Karaites, such as the Talmud. The encounter with Rabbinical Jews brought Firkovic into conflict with them, he published a book, "Massah and Meribah" (Eupatoria, 1838). Which raised serious allegations against the Jewish way of life. In later years when he was reconciled with the Rabbinites, he apologized for the sentiments contained in that pamphlet. In 1830 he visited Jerusalem, where he collected many Jewish manuscripts. On his return he remained two years in Constantinople, as teacher in the Karaite community there. He then went to Crimea and organized a society to publish old Karaite works, of which several appeared in Eupatoria (Koslov) with comments by him. In 1838 he was the teacher of the children of Sima Babovich, the head of the Russian Crimean Karaites, who one year later recommended him to Count Vorontzov and to the Historical Society of Odessa as a suitable man to send to collect material for the history of the Crimean Karaites. In 1839, Firkovich began excavations in the ancient cemetery of Çufut Qale, and unearthed many old tombstones, claiming that some of them dated from the first centuries of the common era. The following two years were spent in travels through the Caucasus, where he ransacked the genizot of the old Jewish communities and collected many valuable manuscripts. He went as far as Derbent, and returned in 1842. In later years he made other journeys of the same nature, visiting Egypt and other countries. In Odessa he became the friend of Bezalel Stern and of Simchah Pinsker, and while residing in Wilna he made the acquaintance of Fuenn and other Hebrew scholars. In 1871 he visited the small Karaite community in Halych, Galicia, where he introduced several reforms. From there he went to Vienna, where he was introduced to Count Beust and also made the acquaintance of Adolph Jellinek. He returned to pass his last days in Çufut Qale, of which there now remained only a few buildings and many ruins. However, Firkovich's house is still preserved in the site.
Firkovich collected a vast number of Hebrew, Arabic and Samaritan manuscripts during his many travels in his search for evidence concerning the traditions of his people. These included thousands of Jewish documents from throughout the Russian Empire in what became known as the First Firkovich Collection. His Second Collection contains material collected from the Near East. His visit, took place about thirty years before Solomon Schechter's more famous trip to Egypt. Though this "Second Firkovich Collection" contains only 13,700 items in comparison to Schechter's 140,000, the Firkovich documents are generally more complete.
As a result of his research he became focused on the origin of the ancestors of the Crimean Karaite. Who he claimed where the descendants of Israelite teachers (mainly from the tribes of Simeon and Levi and their Carian bodyguard from Caphtor) who had arrived in Crimea to convert the natives before the common era (thus not being culpable for the crucifixion of Jesus). His theories persuaded the Russian imperial court that Crimean Karaites cannot be accused in Jesus Crucifixion and they were excluded from the restrictive measures against Jews.
Upon his death in 1874, Firkovich's collection was bought by the Russian National Library.
Among the treasures in the Firkovich collection is a manuscript of the Garden of Metaphors, an aesthetic appreciation of Biblical literature written in Judeo-Arabic by one of the greatest of the Sephardi poets, Moses ibn Ezra.
Probably the greatest service that Firkovich rendered to Jewish studies was the awakening of interest in Karaite history and literature, that led to the discussion of his alleged discoveries. His personal contributions to it are mostly of a bibliographical nature, and great caution is necessary in utilizing his materials.
Firkovich's chief work is his "Abne Zikkaron," containing the texts of inscriptions discovered by him (Wilna, 1872). It is preceded by a lengthy account of his travels to Daghestan, characterized by Strack as a mixture of truth and fiction. His other works are "Ḥotam Toknit," antirabbinical polemics, appended to his edition of the "Mibḥar Yesharim" by Aaron the elder (Koslov, 1835); "Ebel Kabod," on the death of his wife and of his son Jacob (Odessa, 1866); and "Bene Reshef, "essays and poems, published by Peretz Smolenskin (Vienna, 1871).
Abraham Firkovich collected several distinct collections of documents. In sum the Firkovich collection contains approximately 15,000 items many are fragmentary.
This collection contains material from the Crimea and the Caucasus. It was largely collected between 1839 and 1940. But with additions from Firkovich as late as 1852. It was originally owned by the Odessa Society of History and Antiquities and was stored in the Odessa museum. Some of these documents deteriorated do to chemical treatment performed by Firkovich. Other documents which were suspected forgeries disappeared, Firkovich claimed they had been stolen. The collection was moved to the lmperial Public Library in 1863.
In 1844 the Russian historian Arist Kunik a leading anti-Normanist and Bezalel Stern an influential Russian Maskil would study and partly described the discovery.
Briefly stated, the discoveries include the major part of the manuscripts described in Pinner's "Prospectus der Odessaer Gesellschaft für Geschichte und Alterthum Gehörenden Aeltesten Hebräischen und Rabbinischen Manuscripte" (Odessa, 1845), a rather rare work which is briefly described in "Literaturblatt des Orients" for 1847, No. 2. These manuscripts consist of:Fifteen scrolls of the Law, with postscripts which give, in Karaite fashion, the date and place of writing, the name of the writer or corrector or other interesting data.
Twenty copies of books of the Bible other than the Pentateuch, some complete, others fragmentary, of one of which, the Book of Habakkuk, dated 916, a facsimile is given.
Nine numbers of Talmudical and rabbinical manuscripts.
Contains material from the Crimea and the Caucasus largely collected between 1839 and 1941. It was purchased by the lmperial Public Library in 1862.
Another collection of 317 Samaritan manuscripts, acquired in Nablus, arrived in the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy in 1867 (see Fürst, "Geschichte des Karäerthums," iii. pp. 176, Leipsic, 1869)
In 1864 Firkovich acquired a large collection of Samaritan documents in Nablus. He sold the documents to the lmperial Public Library in 1870. In sum the collection contains 1,350 items.
Contains material collected from the Near East. The material was collected between 1863 and 1865. Firkovich collected in Jerusalem, Aleppo and also in Cairo. Firkovich concealed where he obtained the documents. He possibly collected from the Cairo Geniza thirty years before Solomon Schechter discovered it. Firkovich sold this collection to the lmperial Public Library in 1873.
Firkovich has come to be regarded as a forger, acting in support of Karaite causes. He wished to eliminate any connection between Rabbinic Judaism and the Karaites. By declaring that the Karaites were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. Firkovich petitioned the Russian government to exempt the Karaites from anti-Jewish laws. On the grounds that Karaites had immigrated to Europe before the crucifixion of Jesus and thus could not be held responsible for his death. Which he succeeded in doing.
S. L. Rapoport has pointed out some impossibilities in the inscriptions (Ha-Meliẓ, 1861, Nos. 13-15, 37); A. Geiger in his Jüdische Zeitschrift (1865, p. 166), Schorr in He-Ḥaluẓ, and A. Neubauer in the Journal Asiatique (1862–63) and in his Aus der Petersburger Bibliothek (Leipzig, 1866) have challenged the correctness of the facts and the theories based upon them which Jost, Julius Fürst, and Heinrich Grätz, in their writings on the Karaites, took from Pinsker's Liḳḳuṭe Ḳadmoniyyot, in which the data furnished by Firkovich were unhesitatingly accepted. Further exposures were made by Strack and Harkavy (St. Petersburg, 1875) in the Catalog der Hebr. Bibelhandschriften der Kaiserlichen Oeffentlichen Bibliothek in St. Petersburg; in Harkavy's Altjüdische Denkmäler aus der Krim (ib. 1876); in Strack's A. Firkowitsch und Seine Entdeckungen (Leipsic, 1876); in Fränkel's Aḥare Reshet le-Baḳḳer (Ha-Shaḥar, vii. 646 et seq.); in Deinard's Massa' Ḳrim (Warsaw, 1878); and in other places.
In contradiction Firkovich's most sympathetic critic, Chwolson, gives as a résumé of his belief, after considering all controversies, that Firkovich succeeded in demonstrating that some of the Jewish tombstones from Chufut-Kale date back to the seventh century, and that seemingly modern forms of eulogy and the method of counting after the era of creation were in vogue among Jews much earlier than had been hitherto suspected. Chwolson alone defended him, but he also was forced to admit that in some cases Firkovich had resorted to forgery. In his Corpus Inscriptiorum Hebraicarum (St. Petersburg, 1882; Russian ed., ib. 1884) Chwolson attempts to prove that the Firkovich collection, especially the epitaphs from tombstones, contains much which is genuine.
In 1980 V. V. Lebedev investigated the Firkovich collection and came to the conclusion that forgery cannot be attributed to Firkovich, but rather it was done by the previous owners, in an attempt to increase the price of the manuscripts.
For many years the manuscripts where not available to Western scholars. The extent of Firkovich’s forgeries is still being determined. Firkovich’s materials require careful examination on a case by case basis. His collection remains of great value to scholars of Jewish studies.