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A Brief study into the Karaite Jews and Karaism

Karaism is the original Judaism which has existed throughout history under various names incl. Righteous, Sadducees, Boethusians, Ananites and Karaites, all of whom obeyed the Torah with no additions.

   Karaism has been around since God gave his laws to the Jewish people. At first those who followed YHWH's laws were merely called "Righteous" and it was only in the 9th century CE that they came to be called Karaites (also spelled Qaraites). The question of why God's followers are today called Karaites is really a question of the origin of the other sects. At first there was no reason to label the righteous as a separate sect because there was only the one sect which consisted of the whole Jewish people. Throughout history a variety of sects appeared and it was only to distinguish the righteous from these other groups which caused them in different periods to take on such names as Sadducees, Boethusians, Ananites, and Karaites.

Biblical Period - The Righteous

In the Biblical Period people are described as falling into two categories: the sinners and the righteous. Very often the people were led into sin by false prophets who claimed to be relaying the message of God. In some periods the majority of Israel followed the false prophets and those who remained loyal to YHWH were but a small few (e.g. Elijah at Mt. Carmel). God sent his prophets "from morning till evening" calling on the people to repent but all too often it was only by punishing the nation with a great calamity that YHWH could get them to listen. Much of Biblical history is a repeating of the familiar cycle of sin, punishment, repentance, mercy, and rescue.

Second Temple period- The Sadducees and the Boethusians

   The first reference in the history of Israel to more than one sect takes place some 200 years after the close of the Biblical period, in the first century BCE. Various sources tell us of two opposing sects, the Sadducees (Zadokites) and the Pharisees. The Sadducees followed the Torah as it was written while the Pharisees believed in a second "Oral" Torah which they added to the real one. The Second Temple period saw the rise of several more sects among them another group which only followed the written Torah called the Boethusians and a sect which added several books to the Bible called the Essenes (a.k.a. the "Dead Sea Sect").

   Like the Karaites who were to follow them, the Sadduccees and the Boethusians continued the tradition originated by Moses (Deuteronomy 4:2) of keeping the Torah's commandments with no addition. We often hear in ancient literature that the Sadducees denied the doctrines of the immortality of the soul and reward and punishment in the hereafter. 

   Whether this is accurate or not is of little consequence since they arrived at these beliefs based on an honest interpretation of the Bible (even if most Karaites disagree with them on these doctrines). The Pharisees on the other hand believed that the interpretation of a particular teacher was divine and elevated these teachings to the level of the Torah itself. After time this doctrine got carried away and they claimed that these teachings originated from God himself in the form of a second "Oral" Torah. They even went so far as to claim that when two teachers taught diametrically opposed interpretations of the Bible that both interpretations were from God! The third major sect, the Essenes, had a Bible which consisted of more than our 24 Books and as a result had practices which do not originate in our Bible such as a solar calendar.

   How long these three sects continued to co-exist is unknown. It is often thought that the Essenes and Saducees ceased to exist with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. However this seems unlikely as writings of the Essenes appear as late as the 10th century which seems to indicate that they survived well after the destruction of the temple. References to the Sadducees and the Boethusians continue to appear in post-70 CE literature and they also seemed to have survived for some time.

Middle Ages- The Ananites and the Karaites

   In the early middle ages the Pharisees continued to thrive. They began to call themselves Rabbis and only used the name Pharisees when remembering historical events from the Second Temple period. In the 7th century the Islamic Empire swept the Middle-east. The Muslims had no interest in imposing Islamic religious practice on the Jews and gave them a degree of autonomy under a system known as the Exilarchate. The Exilarchate had been founded hundreds of years before under Sassanian rule but until now only had influence in Babylonia and Persia. Overnight the Rabbanites turned from a localized Babylonian phenomenon into a political power which stretched throughout much of the Middle-east. From the 3rd-5th centuries the Babylonian Rabbanites had developed a body of religious law known as the Babylonian Talmud which they now imposed on every Jew in the Empire.

   Resistance to the Rabbinites was fierce, especially in the eastern provinces of the Empire which had never even heard of the Talmud. The historians tell us of Jewish leaders whose resistance against the Talmud put them in direct conflict with the Islamic government, which had empowered the Rabbis and given them full authority over other Jews. One resistance leader who refused to accept the Talmud was named Abu Isa al-Isfahani and it is said that he led an army of Jews against the Muslim government. Other attempts to cast off the Talmud were also undertaken but all failed and the Rabbanites and their Talmud seemed unstoppable.

   Then in the 8th century a last glimmer of hope appeared in the form of a shrewd leader named Anan ben David. Anan organized various non-Talmudic groups and lobbied the Caliphate to establish a second Exilarchate for those who refused to live according to the Talmud's man-made laws. The Muslims granted Anan and his followers the religious freedom to practice Judaism in the way of their anscestors. Anan himself was not a Karaite; although Anan rejected the Talmud he used similar irrational methods of interpreting Scripture as the Rabbis, such as intentionally taking words out of context. Anan's followers became known as Ananites and this group continued to exist down until the 10th century. On the other hand, those Jews who continued to practice the Tanach-based religion of their anscestors became known as Bnei Mikra ("Followers of Scripture") which was also abbreviated as Karaim ("Scripturalists"), in English "Karaites". This name derived from the old Hebrew word for the Hebrew Bible: Mikra, Kara. The name Karaim, meaning "Scripturalists", distinguished these Jews from the camp of the Rabbis who called themselves Rabaniyin ("Followers of the Rabbis") or Talmudiyin ("Followers of the Talmud").

Nehemia Gordon is the creator and host of the Hebrew Voices podcast, downloaded over 8 million times in 2018. He has written two popular books on the Hebrew origins of Christianity and is active in interfaith dialogue. Gordon holds a Masters Degree in Biblical Studies and a Bachelors Degree in Archaeology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has worked as a translator on the Dead Sea Scrolls and a researcher deciphering ancient Hebrew manuscripts. Gordon is currently working on cutting edge research utilizing Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible.

Makor Hebrew Foundation is a 501c3 tax-deductible not for profit organization.

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This is a Jewish religious movement characterized by the recognition of the written Torah alone as its supreme authority in halakha (Jewish religious law) and theology. Karaites maintain that all of the divine commandments handed down to Moses by God were recorded in the written Torah without additional Oral Law or explanation. Karaism is distinct from mainstream Rabbinic Judaism, which considers the Oral Torah, codified in the Talmud and subsequent works, to be authoritative interpretations of the Torah. 

the READERS of Hebrew Scripture

Torah scrolls

Nehemiah Gordon

by Nehemia Gordon

Who are the Karaites?

Israel's Karaites follow Bible, not Talmud


The Jewish News of Northern California

REHOVOT, ISRAEL - Israel today is home to some 30,000 Karaites who are Jews, but Jews with a difference. They are followers of a movement that broke away from mainstream Judaism in eighth-century Babylonia, and retained its separate identity and customs to this day.

Israel's Karaites don't look any different from other Israeli Jews. Moreover, they attend the same schools, hold the same kind of jobs and serve in the same military units.

   But in one significant respect they are different: While the religious life of other Jews is governed primarily by the oral law, as embodied in the Talmud, the Karaites reject the Talmud.

   More than 1,000 Karaites live in the Bay Area, where many worship at the Karaite Jews of America's congregation in Daly City, led by Rav Joe Pessah. Founding members are from Egypt, and fled from Cairo after the Six-Day War in 1967.

   For them, only the Bible counts. That makes the Karaite form of Judaism more restrictive in some respects, less so in others.

   Much has been written about the "December dilemma" confronted by diaspora Jews, who must convince their children to forego celebrating Christmas and to concentrate on Chanukah instead. According to Ashdod Karaite Rabbi Eliyahu Dabbah, there's a December dilemma for Israeli Karaites, too: They don't celebrate Chanukah because the saga of the Maccabees is not mentioned in the Bible. 

   "So when that holiday comes around," Dabbah explains, "our children feel like outsiders. This forces us to make compromises, which take the form, for example, of the lighting of Chanukah candles in some Karaite homes."

   Regarding the Sabbath, the prohibition of work extends beyond the 39 actions forbidden in mainstream, rabbinic Judaism. Karaites are enjoined from any activity not forming part of the prayer service or not absolutely essential for the satisfaction of physical needs.

   For example, the Karaites don't try to circumvent the prohibition against kindling a fire — and by extension, turning on a light– on the Sabbath.

   So, rather than following in the footsteps of rabbinic Jews, who may install an electrical system to automatically switch household lights on and off on Shabbat, the Karaites, if they are true to their traditions, simply sit in the dark.

   At the same time, the kashrut practices of the Karaites are much less restrictive than those of rabbinic Jews. The prohibition in the Bible against "boiling a kid in its mother's milk" was extended by rabbinic Judaism to a total ban on the combined consumption of milk and meat.

   Karaites reject that extension, though in different degrees. All agree that chicken and milk products can be eaten together. As for beef, some Karaites eat it with milk products, if the milk and meat are from different sources; others don't mix the two at all.

   Contemporary Karaites also see no reason for rabbinic Judaism's continued emphasis on separate sets of dishes for meat, milk and Passover meals. With modern nonporous dishware, the Karaites say, separate sets are not only unnecessary, but place a heavy burden on the Israeli economy.

   The founder of Karaism is usually said to be Anan, a rebellious scion of the Babylonian family — descendants of the House of David — which enjoyed supreme authority among diaspora Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

   The Karaites became a discernible element in Mideast Jewish life in the eighth through 10th centuries, with special influence in Egypt and in pre-state Israel. At the end of the 11th century, the center of Karaite activity shifted to Europe.

   First the Karaites were concentrated in the Byzantine Empire, and later they established a presence in the Crimea and Lithuania, usually in close cooperation with rabbinic Jews.

   The situation changed when Lithuania and Crimea were incorporated into Russia at the end of the 18th century. In 1795, Empress Catherine II relieved the Karaites of the double tax imposed upon Jews, and permitted them to acquire land. That created a wall of separation between rabbinic and Karaite Jews, each group enjoying civil rights to a different degree.

   The inequality between the two groups grew larger in 1827 when the Crimean Karaites were exempted from the general military draft law, a privilege that was not extended to the rabbinic Jews. A year later, Lithuanian Karaites were similarly exempted.

   A huge disparity between Karaites and mainstream Jews was created during World War II, when the Germans ruled that Karaites were not Jews — a decision that saved most of them from death, although some were massacred at Babi Yar in 1941.

   At the end of World War II, the only sizable Karaite community was in Egypt. But after the Sinai Campaign in 1956, most came to Israel, though some also immigrated to France, the United States and other Western countries.

   While Israel's 30,000 Karaites are scattered all over the Jewish state, they have managed to establish 11 synagogues. The largest is in Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, the home of some 1,500 Karaite families. This rapidly growing port town is the venue for numerous Karaite cultural and religious activities.

   According to Ashdod Karaite Rabbi Moshe Firus, his community doesn't receive as much support from the Ministry of Religious Affairs as do Orthodox congregations.

   Moreover, he adds, the former get regular allocations, while the Karaites are only given ad hoc grants, which can be withheld at will.

   But, Firus adds, the Ashdod municipality, no doubt influenced by the substantial number of Karaite voters in the town, has supported various projects, including the construction of a handsome new community center.

   Even in Ashdod, however, there are things that the Karaites can't do — like putting an identifying sign on their butcher shop. It sells kosher meat, or perhaps more correctly, super-kosher meat, because the Karaite rules for ritual slaughter are more stringent than those of rabbinic Jews.

   But local Orthodox rabbis, who see the Karaites as rivals, have prevented the placing of a sign lest an "ordinary Jew" be "tricked" into buying Karaite meat.

   There is a "mezuzah compromise" as well. The Karaites do not traditionally place a mezuzah on their doorposts. Instead, they put up a little plaque with the Ten Commandments. But in Israel, in order to make other Jews feel comfortable, many have a mezuzah on their doorposts as well.

   There are also differences regarding ritual purification. While traditional rabbinic Jews go to a mikvah, or ritual bath, the Karaites simply take a shower at home.

   When entering a Karaite synagogue, the first thing one notices is a long line of shoehorns hanging on the wall. They are there because visitors must remove their shoes before entering the house of prayer.

   Did the Karaites borrow the custom from the Muslims? Yosef Dvir, secretary of the Karaite community, says no, the Muslims borrowed it from the Jews.

   Moreover, Dvir added, "before Eastern Jews came to Israel, they, like the Karaites, removed their shoes before praying in a synagogue, where they sat on rugs rather than on chairs or benches."

   Karaites have never been numerous. In 1932, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, there were only some 10,000 of them in Russia and approximately 2,000 elsewhere in the world.

   So they are numerically stronger today than they were 65 years ago. But despite their 11 synagogues in Israel (with others in Paris, New York, the Bay Area and, of late, St. Petersburg), their survival is by no means assured.

   While no figures on marriages between rabbinic and Karaite Jews in Israel are available, the phenomenon is common and likely to become more so because the Karaites mix freely with mainstream Jews.

   Moreover, their children are influenced by rabbinic Jewish teachers, pupils and customs at their schools. Their only exposure to their own heritage is at "Sunday schools."

   Be that as it may, the Karaites believe that since God has preserved them for 13 centuries, God will do so for at least 13 more.

Shalom. Amen. Hallelujah.