Karaite Judaism (or Karaism) is a Jewish movement characterized by the sole reliance on the Tanakh as scripture, and the rejection of the Oral Law (the Mishnah and the Talmud) as halakha (Legally Binding, that is, required religious practice). The word "Karaite" comes from the Hebrew word קָרָאִים (Qaraʾim), meaning "Readers (of Scripture)." This name was chosen by the adherents of Karaite Judaism to distinguish themselves from the adherents of Rabbinic Judaism. They originated in Baghdad during the Middle Ages.
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; that is, breaking down "be'ra'shit" to "beit" "ra'shit" which means two "startings of") and sod ("secret," the deeper meaning of the text, drawing on the Kabbalah).
At one time, Karaites were a significant portion of the Jewish population. However, today there are approximately 30,000 Karaites in the world, with 20,000-25,000 of them living in Israel, mostly in Ramla, Ashdod, and Beersheba. In modern times, Karaite Judaism has formed its own independent Jewish organization, and is not a member of any Rabbinic organization.
Karaism appears to have arisen from the confluence of various Jewish groups in Mesopotamia that rejected the Talmudic tradition as an innovation. Some suggest that the major impetus for the formation of Karaism was a reaction to the rise of Islam, which recognized Judaism as a fellow monotheistic faith, but claimed that it detracted from this Monotheism by deferring to rabbinical authority.
In the ninth century, Anan ben David and his followers absorbed sects, such the Isawites (followers of Abu Isa al-Isfahani), Yudghanites, and the remnants of the pre-Talmudic Sadducees and Boethusians. Anan led a polemic with the rabbinical establishment and later non-Ananist sects emerged, like the Ukbarites.
The dispute of the rabbanite Gaon Saadiah and the Karaites helped to consolidate the split between them.
Abraham Geiger posited a connection between the Karaites and the Sadducees based on comparison between Karaite and Sadducee Halacha. However, Dr. Bernard Revel in his dissertation on "Karaite Halacha" rejects many of Geiger's arguments. Dr. Revel also points to the many correlations between Karaite Halacha and theology and the interpretations of the Alexandrian philosopher Philo.
The "Golden Age of Karaism" was a period of time between the tenth and eleventh centuries C.E., in which a large number of Karaitic works were produced in the central and eastern parts of the Muslim world. Karaite Jews were able to obtain autonomy from Rabbinical Judaism in the Muslim world and establish their own institutions, and even forced the yeshivas to move to Ramle. Karaites in the Muslim world also obtained high social positions, such as tax collectors, doctors, and clerks, and even received special positions in the Egyptian courts. Karaite scholars were among the most conspicuous practitioners in the philosophical school known as Jewish Kalam.
According to historian Salo Wittmayer Baron, at one time the number of Jews affiliating with Karaism comprised as much as 10 percent of world Jewry, and debates between Rabbinic and Karaitic leaders were not uncommon.
Most notable among the opposition to Karaitic thought and practice at this time are the writings of Rabbi Saadia Gaon (himself a practitioner of Jewish Kalam tought), which eventually led to a permanent split between some Karaitic and Rabbinic communities.
During the eighteenth century, Russian Karaites spread many myths that saved them from various anti-Semitic laws that affected other Jews. Avraham Firkovich helped establish these ideas by forging tombstones in Crimea which bear inscriptions stating that those buried were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Other deflections included claiming to be among those Jews with a Khazar origin, or claiming that Karaites were otherwise not strictly Jewish descended. These actions were intended to convince the Russian Czar that Karaite ancestors could not have killed Jesus; that thus their descendants were free of familial guilt (which was an underlying reason or pretext, given at that time, for anti-Semitic laws). Because of the above, and/or rulings by Rabbinic Jewry intended to save the Karaites, the Nazis of World War II generally left the Karaites alone 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. According to a Karaite tradition, several hundred Crimean Karaites were invited to Lithuania by Grand Duke Vytautas to settle in Trakai c. 1397. A small community remains there to this day, which has preserved its language and distinctive customs, such as its traditional dish, called "kibinai," a sort of meat pastry, and its houses with three windows, one for God, one for the family, and one for Grand Duke Vytautas. This community has access to two Kenessas (synagogues).
During the tenth and eleventh centuries, Karaite Jews in Spain had become an important social group. 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.
The Karaites today
In the early 1950s, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate originally objected to the arrival of Karaite Jewish immigrants in the country and unsuccessfully tried to obstruct them.
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. In central America, one will find Karaites-USA Organization and Beth EdatYah Karaite Congregation.
On August 1, 2007, the Karaites reportedly converted their first new members in 500 years. At a ceremony in their Northern California synagogue, ten adults and four minors "swore fealty" to Karaite Judaism after completing a year of study. This conversion comes 15 years after the Karaite Council of Sages reversed its centuries-old ban on accepting converts.
There are groups with legal recognition in Lithuania as well as in Poland (approximately 250 persons organized in the Karaites Religious Organization of Poland. There are also about fifty Karaites living in Istanbul, Turkey. The only synagogue (Kahal haKadosh be Sukra bene Mikra) is still functional in the Hasköy neighborhood, in the European part of the city. The community also gave its name to another part of the city: Karaköy ("Village of the Karaites" in Turkish), which proves the existence of an important community at one time.
Many modern Karaites are the result of the Karaite revival in large part due to the World Karaite Movement, a revival group started by Nehemia Gordon and Meir Rekhavi in the early 1990s. Karaite communities are so small and generally isolated that their members generally adopt the customs of their host country. A prime example of this would be the beginnings of cultural assimilation of traditional Israeli Karaites into mainstream society.
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 and hope for the coming of the Messiah. Karaites reject the Oral law of Rabbinic Judaism because of the following points:
- They pose the question: If the law as it is in the Mishnah was intended to be oral, then how would it be permissible to be written?
- The Mishnah quotes many different opinions that contradict one another.
- The Mishnah doesn't go on to say in which opinion the truth lies. Rather the Mishnah sometimes says "Others say," agreeing with neither one nor the other, contradicting both.
- They argue that the truth of the oral law given to Moses could only be in one opinion, not many contradictory opinions.
- They question why the Mishnah does not solely speak in the name of Moses.
The Karaite disagreement with Rabbinic Judaism arises over the latter's perceived exaltation of the Talmud above that of the Torah. However, the Karaites also have their own traditions that have been passed down from their ancestors and religious authorities. This is known as "Sevel HaYerushah," which means "the yoke of inheritance." It is kept primarily by traditional Egyptian Karaites, and any tradition therein is rejected if it contradicts the simple meaning of the Torah. Rabbinic Judaism's scholars, such as Maimonides, have written that people who deny the Godly source of the Oral Torah are to be considered among the heretics. However, at the same time, Maimonides holds (Hilchot Mamrim 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.
As with other Jews, during the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), Karaites attend synagogues to worship and to offer prayers. However, most Karaites refrain from sexual relations on the day. Their prayer books are composed almost completely of biblical passages. Karaites often practice full prostration during prayers, while most other Jews only pray in this fashion on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Unlike Rabbinic Jews, Karaites do not practice the ritual of lighting candles before Shabbat because this prayer was instituted as anti-Karaite legislation in the Middle Ages. The written Torah does not contain a commandment, as the rabbis have decreed, to light Shabbat candles. Additionally, Karaites interpret the biblical prohibition against kindling a fire on the Shabbat as prohibiting a fire from continuing to burn that was lit prior to the Shabbat. Historically, Karaites refrained from utilizing or deriving benefit from light until the Sabbath ends, but modern Karaites use florescent light power hooked up to a battery, which is turned on prior to Shabbat. Many observant Karaites either unplug their refrigerators on shabbat or turn off the circuit breakers. Purchasing electricity that is charged on an incremental basis during the Shabbat is viewed as a commercial transaction that the Tanakh prohibits. Theoretically, these practices are not universal, since different readings of the scriptural Sabbath prohibitions could yield a variety of points of view.
Karaites wear tzitzit 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 can be quite different from that of Rabbanite tzitzit. Contrary to some claims, Karaites do not hang tzitzit on their walls.
Contrary to the beliefs of some, Karaites do not wear tefillin in any form. According to the World Karaite Movement, 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.
Like Tefillin, Karaites interpret the scripture that mandates inscribing the Law on door posts and city gates as a metaphorical admonition, specifically, to keep the Law at home and away. This is because the previous commandment in the same passage is the source for Tefillin for Rabbinic Judaism, and is understood metaphorically due to the language. As a result, the entire passage is understood as a metaphor. Therefore, they do not put up mezuzot, although many Karaites do have a small plaque with the Aseret haDibrot on their doorposts. In Israel, in an effort to make other Jews comfortable, many Karaites there do put up mezuzot.
Karaism has 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, the culmination 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 Isaac Troki's חיזוק אמונה (Faith Strengthened), a comprehensive Counter-Missionary polemic which was later translated into Latin by Wagenseil as part of a larger collection of Jewish anti-Christian polemics, entitled Ignea Tela Satanae (The Fiery Darts of Satan). Many Counter-Missionary materials produced today are based upon, or cover the same themes, as this book. Scholarly studies of Karaite writings are still in their infancy.
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