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Karaite Synagogue Bnei Yisrael

Karaites, Karaite Judaism or Karaism is a Jewish denomination characterized by the sole reliance on the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) as scripture, and the rejection of the Oral Law (the Mishnah and the Talmud) as halakha (legally binding, required religious practice). The word "Karaite" comes from the Hebrew word קְרָאִים (Standard Qəra’im Tiberian Qərā’îm), meaning "Readers (of Scripture)," and is derived from the old Hebrew word for the Hebrew Bible, Mikra, or Kara. This name was chosen by the adherents of Karaite Judaism to distinguish themselves from the adherents of Rabbinic Judaism, who called themselves "rabaniyin" (“Followers of the Rabbis”) or talmudiyin (“Followers of the Talmud”).

Karaism requires each individual to read the Tanakh and take personal responsibility for interpreting the meaning of the text. This necessitated the study of the ancient Hebrew language in which the Tanakh is written. Beginning in the ninth century, the polemic between Karaite Jews and Rabbinic Jews became a catalyst for the development of Hebrew scholarship and resulted in the creation of the first Hebrew dictionaries and grammatical works, as well as numerous Biblical commentaries and works on religious philosophy.

During the ninth and tenth centuries, Karaites were a significant portion of the Jewish population. Today there are left an estimated 20,000 Karaites in Russia, 2,000 in the United States, about 100 families in Istanbul, and about 12,000 in Israel, most of them living near the town of Ramleh. In modern times Karaite Judaism has affiliated itself with Reform Judaism.


Karaism appears to have arisen from a combination of various Jewish groups that rejected the Talmudic tradition as an innovation. The Islamic conquest of the Middle East during the seventh century extended the authority of the Exilarchy, a system of autonomous Jewish self-government already established in Babylonia and Persia, to cover all the Jewish communities in the Empire. Resistance to the Exilarchy arose among various non-Talmudic groups, especially those in isolated communities in the east. During the second half of the eight century, Anan ben David organized a coalition of non-Talmudic groups and campaigned for a second Exilarchate to govern those who did not follow Talmudic law. The caliphate granted Anan and his followers’ religious freedom to practice Judaism according to their own traditions. During the ninth century the followers of Anan ben David absorbed sects such the Isawites (followers of Abu Isa al-Isfahani), Yudghanites and the remnants of the pre-Talmudic Sadducees and Boethusians. Anan borrowed some of his doctrines from Rabbinical Judaism, but supported them with references to the Hebrew Bible. His extreme ascetic practices were difficult to follow in everyday secular life, and during the tenth century the extremist Ananites disappeared.

The Golden Age of Karaism

Karaism reached its epitome during the ninth and early tenth centuries. (According to historian Salo Wittmayer Baron, the number of Jews affiliating with Karaism comprised as much as ten percent of world Jewry.) The idea of unrestricted study of the Bible as the only source of religious truth was attractive, not only to non-Talmudic Jews, but to liberals within traditional Judaism who were dissatisfied with the stagnation within the Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbedita. The leaders of these academies did not have the philosophical methods to counter the arguments of the Karaites. At the end of the ninth century, several Rabbinical scholars took up the study of the Bible, Hebrew grammar and secular scientific and philosophical works. The most outstanding of these was the gaon Saadia al-Fayyumi (882-942) the first great Jewish philosophical writer after Philo of Judea. Saadia was the first to organize a Hebrew dictionary, the Agron, which became the foundation for Hebrew lexicography and was widely used by the Karaites. He created, in part, the rules and categories used by later grammarians to develop the study of the Hebrew language. He also launched a vigorous attack on the Karaites in defense of Rabbinical Judaism, which stimulated scholarship on both sides in the fields of Hebrew grammar and lexicography, religious philosophy, law, and biblical exegesis. Saadia’s attacks on Karaism eventually led to a permanent split between some Karaitic and Rabbinic communities, which were, however, reconciled by the time of Maimonides.

A large number of Karaitic works were produced during “The Golden Age of Karaism.” Al-Kirkisani was the first Karaite writer to defend the use of reason and investigation in religious matters; he began a schism within Karaism between those who followed scientific investigation, who patterned their theology on the Islamic Motekallamin and the Motazilites; and the orthodox Karaites who rejected philosophy and science. Among the philosophical writers were Yusuf al-Basir and his pupil Abu al-Faraj Furkan (Jeshua B. Judah). The orthodox writers included Sahl ibn Mazliah, Solomo ben Jeroham, and Yafith ibn Ali. After the middle of the eleventh century there were no original Karaite writers, but there were significant exegetes, translators and editors.

Russian Karaites

During the eighteenth century, Russian Karaites perpetrated a historical forgery which freed them from various anti-Semitic laws that affected other Jews. A Karaite merchant, Simhah Bobowitsch, and his tutor, the Karaite writer Avraham Firkovich, fabricated documents and tombstone inscriptions in Crimea stating that those buried were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, in order to represent the Karaites as an ancient people dwelling in Crimea since the time of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser in the seventh century B.C.E., and dissociate them from the Rabbinic Jews. This hoax was designed to convince the Russian Czar that Karaite ancestors could not have killed Jesus and thus their descendants were free of familial guilt, which a Russian pretext was given at that time for anti-Semitic laws. As a consequence, Russian Karaites received full civic liberties in 1863, and these liberties were confirmed in 1881 by the anti-Semitic minister Nicolai Ignatieff. As a result of the hoax, and also because of a ruling by Rabbinic Jewish authorities in Germany intended to protect the Karaites, the Karaites were generally excluded from the persecution of the World War II Nazis during the Holocaust.

Crimean and Lithuanian Karaites

The Karaim (Turkish Qaraylar) are a distinctive Karaite community from the Crimea. Their Turkic language is called Karaim. Some Crimean Karaim were invited in the 1400s by Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas to settle in Trakai. A small community remains there to this day, which has preserved its language and distinctive customs, such as its traditional dish called "kybynlar" (a sort of meat pastry), and its houses with three windows (one for God, one for the family, and one for Grand Duke Vytautas), and has access to two “Kenessas.”

Spanish Karaites

During the tenth and eleventh centuries, Karaite Jews began to exert considerable influence in Spain. In Castile, high-ranking Rabbinical Jews such as Joseph Ferrizuel persuaded the king to allow the persecution and expulsion of Karaite Jews. With royal assistance, Rabbi Todros Halevi and Joseph ibn Alfakhar successfully drove out a large portion of the surviving Karaite population.

Conflict with Rabbinical Judaism

When interpreting scripture, Karaites strive to adhere only to the p'shat (plain meaning) of the text. This is in contrast to Rabbinical Judaism, which employs the methods of p'shat, remez (implication or clue), drash ("deep interpretation," based on breaking down individual words, for example, breaking down "be'ra'shit" to "beit" "ra'shit" which then means two "startings of") and sod ("secret," the deeper meaning of the text, drawing on the Kabbalah and understood only by the initiated). The need to understand the correct meanings of ancient Hebrew words inspired serious scientific study of the Hebrew language among both Karaite and Rabbinical Jewish scholars.

Rabbinical Judaism considers Karaism a form of heresy because it denies the Mishnah, or Talmudic law. Maimonides wrote that people who deny the Godly source of the "teaching of the mouth" are to be considered among the heretics, and that one who kills a heretic is afforded a tremendous benefit for removing a stumbling block for the pious (Hilchot Mamrim 3:2) However, at the same time Maimonides holds (ibid. 3:3) that most of the Karaites and others who claim to deny the "teaching of the mouth" are not to be held accountable for their errors in the law because they are led into error by their parents and are thus referred to as a tinok she'nishba, or a "captive baby."

Karaite Beliefs and Practices

The Karaites believe in an eternal, one, and incorporeal God, Creator of Universe, who gave the Tanakh to humankind, through Moses and the Prophets. Karaites trust in the Divine providence, hope for the coming of the Messiah and the Resurrection of the dead.

Karaites and the Mishnah (Oral Law)

Solomon ben Jeroham (Salmon ben Yeruham), in his Books of the Wars of YHVH, written during the ninth century, gives several reasons why Karaites do not accept the Mishnah (Oral Law), mainly referring to the integrity of Mosaic law. First, they question why the law is written in the Mishnah if it was intended to be oral. Secondly, they argue that the truth of the law given to Moses can only lie in one opinion; the Mishnah quotes many contradictory opinions and does not confirm which one is the true one. They also question why the Mishnah does not solely speak in the name of Moses.

Theoretically, most historical Karaites would not object to the idea of a body of interpretation of the Torah, along with extensions and development of halakha (Jewish law); several hundred such books were written by various Karaite sages throughout the movement's history, though most are lost today. The disagreement arises over the perceived exaltation of the authority of the Talmud and the writings of the Rabbis above that of the Torah. According to the Karaites, many traditions and customs of Rabinnic Judaism are in contradiction with those prescribed in the Torah.

Karaites have their own traditions, "Sevel HaYerushah," "the yoke of inheritance," which have been passed down from their ancestors and religious authorities; these are practiced primarily by traditional Egyptian Karaites. Modern Karaites rely upon only the Torah and those practices found within it, as well as adapting Biblical practices into their own cultural context.

The Calendar

Karaites rely on observations of the Moon to begin their months, and on observations of the growth of the annual barley crop (called the Aviv) to begin their years, as deduced from instructions in the Torah. (“Aviv” is the next-to-last stage in the growth of barley, and is used as a marker for the first season of the Biblical Hebrew calendar, because it was during this stage that the plague of hail destroyed the barley crops shortly before the first Passover). Before quick worldwide communication was available, Karaites in the Diaspora used the calendar of Hillel II.

The Shabbat

Like other Jews, during the Jewish Shabbat Karaites attend synagogues to worship and to offer prayers. However, most Karaites refrain from sexual relations on the Shabbat. Karaite prayer books are comprised almost completely of biblical passages. Unlike Rabbinic Jews, Karaites do not uphold the traditional lighting of ritual candles before Shabbat, (in the Tanakh, "kindling a fire" is a prohibition of Shabbat). Most Karaites take this commandment to heart and refrain from utilizing, or deriving benefit from, all forms of artificial light until the Shabbat ends. Theoretically this practice is not universal, since different readings of the scriptural Sabbath prohibitions could yield a variety of points of view.


A karaite Tzitzit with blue threads

Karaites wear ‘‘tzitzit’’ (tassels on the four corners of a prayer shawl or garment) with blue threads in them. In contrast to Rabbinic Judaism, they believe that the techelet (the "blue"), does not refer to a specific dye. The traditions of Rabbinic Judaism used in the knotting of the tzitzit are not followed, so the appearance of Karaite tzitzit is quite different from that of Rabbanite tzitzit. Contrary to some myths, Karaites do not hang tzitzit on their walls.

Tefillin and Mezuzot

Contrary to the beliefs of some, Karaites do not wear tefillin (small leather boxes containing passages of scripture and worn on the head and arm during the prayer service) in any form. According to the Karaite interpretation, the Biblical passages cited for this practice are metaphorical, and mean to “remember the Torah always and treasure it.” This is because the commandment in scripture is, "And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart… And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes." (Deuteronomy 6:5,9) Since words cannot be on one's heart, or bound on one's hand, the entire passage is understood metaphorically.

Karaites also interpret the scripture that mandates inscribing the Law on doorposts and city gates as a metaphorical admonition, specifically, to keep the Law at home and away. Therefore, they do not put up mezuzot, (a small parchment, usually in a case, inscribed with two Biblical verses, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21, and placed on the doorpost of every home and business) although many Karaites do have a small plaque with the Aseret haDibrot on their doorposts.

The Karaites Today

In Israel, the Karaite Jewish leadership is directed by a group called "Universal Karaite Judaism." Most of the members of its Board of Hakhams are of Egyptian Jewish descent. There are about 2,000 Karaites living in the United States. Most live near Bnei Yisra'el, the only Karaite synagogue in the United States, located in Daly City, California. There are groups with legal recognition in Lithuania and Poland. The Karaites are estimated to number about 20,000 in Russia.

Karaite Writings

Karaism produced a vast library of commentaries and polemics, especially during its "Golden Age." These writings prompted new and complete defenses of the Talmud and Mishna, culminating of these in the writings of Saadia Gaon and his criticisms of Karaism. Though he opposed Karaism, the Rabbinic commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra regularly quoted Karaite commentators, particularly Yefet ben Ali, to the degree that a legend exists among some Karaites that Ibn Ezra was ben Ali's student.

The most well-known Karaite polemic is חיזוק אמונה (Faith Strengthened), a comprehensive Counter-Missionary polemic which was later translated into Latin under the name of The Fiery Darts of Satan. Scholarly studies of Karaite writings are still in their infancy.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Astren, Fred. Karaite Judaism and Historical Understanding (Studies in Comparative Religion). University of South Carolina Press, 2004. ISBN 9781570035180
  • Baer, Yitzhak, and Louis Schoffman (trans.). A History of the Jews in Christian Spain: From the Age of Reconquest to the Fourteenth Century . Jewish Publication Society of America, 1993. ISBN 9780827604261
  • Brinner, W. M. "Karaites of Christendom—Karaites of Islam" in The Islamic World: Essays in Honor of Bernard Lewis. Princeton University Press, 1989.
  • Khan, Geoffrey (ed.). Exegesis and Grammar in Medieval Karaite Texts (Journal of Semitic Studies Supplement). Oxford University Press, USA, 2003. ISBN 9780198510659
  • Lasker, Daniel J. "The Dead Sea Scrolls in the Historiography and Self-Image of Contemporary Karaites" Dead Sea Discoveries 9(3) (November 2002): 281-294.
  • Nemoy, Leon. Karaite Anthology: Excerpts from the Early Literature (Yale Judaica Series). Yale University Press; Reprint edition, 1987. ISBN 9780300039290
  • Qanai, Avraham, Yosef El-Gamil, Joe Pessah (ed.), Y. Yaron (ed.). An Introduction to Karaite Judaism: A Guide to Karaite Observance, Theology, and History. Qirqisani Center, 2001. ISBN 9780970077547

External links

All links retrieved October 5, 2022.


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