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Karaite Judaism or Karaism ( // or //; Hebrew: יהדות קראית , Modern Yahadut Qara'it Tiberian Qārāʾîm ; meaning "Readers of the Hebrew Scriptures") is a Jewish movement characterized by the recognition of the Tanakh alone as its supreme legal authority in Halakhah, as well as in theology. It is distinct from Rabbinic Judaism, which considers the Oral law, the legal decisions of the Sanhedrin as codified in the Talmud, and subsequent works to be authoritative interpretations of the Torah. It is thought to have arisen in the 7th-9th centuries CE in Baghdad and possibly in Egypt.
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. As a result, Karaite Jews do not accept as binding the written collections of the oral tradition in the Mishnah or Talmud. When interpreting the Tanakh, Karaites strive to adhere to the plain or most obvious meaning ("peshat") of the text; this is not necessarily the literal meaning, but rather the meaning that would have been naturally understood by the ancient Israelites when the books of the Tanakh were first written. Due to the tremendous changes in Jewish culture and religious practice over the past 4,000 years, the peshat may not be as easily understood as it once was in Biblical Israel, and must now be derived from textual clues such as language, and context. In contrast, Rabbinic Judaism relies on the legal rulings of the Sanhedrin, the highest court in ancient Israel, as they are codified in the Mishnah, Talmud, and other sources, to indicate the authentic meaning of the Torah.
Karaite Judaism holds every interpretation of the Tanakh to the same scrutiny regardless of its source, and teaches that it is the personal responsibility of every individual Jew to study the Torah, and ultimately decide for themselves its correct meaning. Therefore, Karaites may consider arguments made in the Talmud and other works without exalting them above other viewpoints.
According to Rabbi Avraham ben David, in his Sefer HaQabbalah, the Karaite movement crystallized in Baghdad in the Gaonic period (circa 7th–9th centuries CE), under the Abbasid Caliphate in what is present-day Iraq. This is the view universally accepted among Rabbinic Jews. However, the claim has been made that Karaites were already living in Egypt in the first half of the 7th century, the evidence consisting of a legal document that the Karaite community in Egypt had in its possession until the end of the 19th century, which document was said to be stamped by the palm of ˁAmr Ibn al-ˁAṣ, the first Islamic governor of Egypt, in which he ordered the leaders of the Rabbanite community not to interfere in the way of life of the Karaites nor with the way they celebrate their holidays. This document was reported to be dated 20 AH (641 CE).
Many traditionalist Karaites maintain that the origin of the Karaite Judaism was with the giving of the Torah to Moses, that Karaite Judaism is the form of Judaism practiced by the original Israelites under Moses. Under this view, the Karaites would not have been significantly distinct from any other form of Judaism until the formation of the Pharisees far after the return of the exiles in Babylon. This view proposes that Rabbinic Judaism (which formed from the Pharisees) innovated the religion with the Oral Law, while this view also proposes that Karaite Judaism is primarily unchanged from Judaism's original form.
Historians have argued over whether Karaism has a direct connection to anti-Rabbinic sects and views, such as those of the Sadducees, dating back to the end of the Second Temple period (70 CE), or whether Karaism represents a novel emergence of similar views. Karaites have always maintained that, while there are some similarities to the Sadducees, there are also differences, and that the ancestors of the Karaites were another group called Benei Ṣedeq during the Second Temple Period.
Karaites were at one time a significant proportion of the Jewish population, Today it is estimated that there are over 50,000 Karaites or more worldwide, most of whom (over 40,000) have made aliyah to Israel, having emigrated from Arab countries such as Egypt and Iraq.
Arguments among Jewish sects regarding the validity of the Oral Law can be dated back to the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE. Accordingly, some scholars trace the origin of Karaism to those who rejected the Talmudic tradition as an innovation.
Abraham Geiger posited a connection between the Karaites as a remnant of the Sadducees, the 1st-century Jewish sect that followed the Hebrew Bible literally and rejected the Pharisees' notion of an Oral Torah even before it was written. Geiger's view is based on comparison between Karaite and Sadducee halakhah: for example, there is a minority in Karaite Judaism who, like the Sadducees, do not believe in a final resurrection or after-life. The British theologian John Gill (1767) noted,
"In the times of John Hyrcanus, and Alexander Janneus his son, sprung up the sect: of the Karaites, in opposition to the Pharisees, who had introduced traditions, and set up the oral law, which these men rejected. In the times of the said princes lived Simeon ben Shetach, and Judah ben Tabbai, who flourished A. M. 3621, these two separated, the latter from the former, because he could not embrace his inventions which he formed out of his own brain; and from him the Karaites sprung, who were first called the society or congregation of Judah ben Tabbai, which was afterwards changed into the name of Karaites."
However, Bernard Revel, in his dissertation on "Karaite Halakhah," rejects many of Geiger's proofs. Revel also points to the many correlations between Karaite halakha and theology and the interpretations Philo of Alexandria, the 1st-century philosopher and Jewish scholar, as well as the writings of a 10th-century Karaite who brings down the writings of Philo, showing that the Karaites made use of Philo's writings in the development of their movement. Although later Medieval Karaite commentators did not view Philo in a favorable light. These attitudes show a friction between later Karaite theology and possible connections to Philo's philosophy which could serve as either a rejection of their origins, rejecting theological positions no longer accepted, or that Philo's philosophy was not entirely utilized in its founding (although some influences remain possible).
Others 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.
Some claim that Karaism is the original form of Judaism and rabbinic Judaism branched off from it.
Anan Ben David (c. 715 – 795 or 811?) (Hebrew: ענן בן דוד) is widely considered to be a major founder of the Karaite movement. His followers were called Ananites and, like modern Karaites, did not believe the Rabbinic Jewish oral law was divinely inspired.
According to 12th century Rabbanite account, in approximately 760 CE, Shelomoh ben Ḥisdai II the Jewish exilarch in Babylon died, and two brothers among his nearest kin, ‘Anan ben David (whose name according to the Rabbanite account was ‘Anan ben Shafaṭ, but was called ben David due to his Davidic lineage) and Ḥananyah, were next in order of succession. Eventually Ḥananyah was elected by the rabbis of the Babylonian Jewish colleges (the Ge’onim) and by the notables of the chief Jewish congregations, and the choice was confirmed by the Caliph of Baghdad.
A schism may have occurred, with ‘Anan Ben David being proclaimed exilarch by his followers. However, not all scholars agree that this event occurred. Leon Nemoy notes that "Natronai, scarcely ninety years after ‘Anan's secession, tells us nothing about his aristocratic (Davidic) descent or about the contest for the office of exilarch which allegedly served as the immediate cause of his apostasy." He later notes that Natronai — a devout Rabbanite Jew — lived where ‘Anan's activities took place, and that the Karaite sage Ya‘akov Al-Qirqisani never mentioned ‘Anan's purported lineage or candidacy for exilarch.
Anan allowed himself to be proclaimed Exilarch by his followers, a step construed into treason by the Mahommedan government. He was sentenced to death, but his life was saved by his fellow prisoner, Abu Iianifa, the founder of the great school of Moslem theology and jurisprudence. Ultimately he and his followers were permitted to migrate to Palestine. They erected a synagogue in Jerusalem which continued to be maintained until the time of the Crusades. From this centre the sect diffused itself thinly over Syria, spread into Egypt, and ultimately reached S.E. Europe.
Ben David challenged the Rabbanite establishment and some scholars conjecture that his followers may have absorbed Jewish Babylonian sects such as the Isunians (followers of Abu ‘Isa al-Isfahani), Yudghanites, and the remnants of the pre-Talmudic Sadducees and Boethusians; later, non-Ananist sects such as the Ukbarites emerged. However, the Isunians, Yudghanites, ‘Ukabarites, and Mishawites all held view that did not accord with either those of the ‘Ananites or the Karaites. Abu ‘Isa al-Isfahani, who was an illiterate tailor, claimed to be a prophet, prohibited divorce, claimed that all months should have thirty days, believed in Jesus and Muhammad as prophets, and told his followers that they must study the New Testament and the Qur’an; Yudghan was a follower of ‘Isa al-Isfahani and claimed to be a prophet and the Messiah and claimed tha the observance of Shabbat and Holy Days was no longer obligatory; Isma‘’il al-‘Ukbari was a madman who believed he was the prophet Elijah and hated ‘Anan; and Mishawayh al-‘Ukbari, who was a disciple of Isma‘’il al-‘Ukbari and the founder of the Mishawites, taught his followers to use a purely solar calendar of 364 days and 30 day months, insisted that all the Holy Days and fast days should always occur on fixed days in the week, rather than on fixed days of the months, and said that Shabbat should be kept from sunrise on Saturday to sunrise on Sunday. Such beliefs were anathema to Ananites and Karaites and their practitioners were excoriated by the Karaites, thus the conjecture that they were absorbed by the Ananites and Karaites is absurd.
Anan now devoted himself to the development of his movement's core tenets. His Sefer HaMiṣwot ("The Book of the Commandments") was published about 770. He adopted many principles and opinions of other anti-rabbinic forms of Judaism that had previously existed. He took much from the old Sadducees and Essenes, whose remnants still survived, and whose writings—or at least writings ascribed to them—were still in circulation. Thus, for example, these older sects prohibited the burning of any lights and the leaving of one's dwelling on the Sabbath (unlike the Sadducees, ‘Anan and the Qumran sectaries prohibited leaving one's town or camp, but not one's house; ‘Anan said that one should not leave one's house for frivolous things, but only to go to prayer or to study scripture); they also enjoined the actual observation of the new moon for the appointment of festivals, and the holding of the Pentecost festival always on a Sunday.
In the "Golden Age of Karaism" (900–1100) a large number of Karaite works were produced in the western, central, and eastern parts of the Muslim world. Karaite Jews were able to obtain autonomy from Rabbanite Judaism in the Muslim world and establish their own institutions. 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 40 percent of world Jewry, and debates between Rabbanite and Karaite leaders were not uncommon.
Most notable among the opposition to Karaite thought and practice at this time are the writings of Rabbi Saadia Gaon, which eventually led to a permanent split between some Karaite and Rabbanite communities.
During the late 19th century, Russian Karaites began to be differentiated from Rabbanite Jews, which freed them from various anti-Semitic laws that affected Jews. The Tsarist governor of the Crimea told the Karaite leaders that, even though the Tsarist government liked the idea that the Karaites did not accept the Talmud (which the church taught was the reason the Jews did not accept Jesus), they were still Jews and responsible for the death of Jesus and subject to the new antisemitic laws. The leaders, hearing that, devised a ruse by which they could be freed of the oppressive laws and told him that the Karaites were already settled in the Crimea before the death of Jesus. The Tsarist government then said that, if they could prove it, they would be free of the oppressive laws. Avraham Firkovich was charged by the community leaders to gather anything that could help "prove" that they were not in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus and, thus, not responsible for his death. Through his work he helped establish the idea amongst the Tsarist authorities that the Karaites were descendants of the exiled northern kingdom of Israel and therefore were already in exile for centuries before the death of Jesus and were thus not responsible for it. Through referring to the tombstones in Crimea (and altering the dates) and the gathering of thousands of Karaite, Rabbanite, and Samaritan manuscripts, including one Rabbanite document from the southern Caucasus that claims that the Jews there were descendants of the exiles from the northern Kingdom of Israel.
While that ruse did help relieve the Karaites of many of the oppressive laws, they still were second class citizens. A new ruse was to convince the Tsarist government that the Karaites actually were descendents of Turks/Mongols of Khazar origin that were converted to the Karaite religion by descendants of exiles from the northern kingdom of Israel and thus Karaites were otherwise not Jewish descended. These actions convinced 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).
All this was for external consumption. Within the community Ḥakhamim still taught that the Karaites were and have always been a part of the Jewish people, prayer was in Hebrew, the lineage of Kohanim, Levites, and families of Davidic descent were meticulously preserved, books printed in Hebrew adamantly stated that the Karaites were Jews.
By the early 20th century, most Eastern European Karaites were no longer very knowledgeable about the religion and Seraya Szapszal, a Karaite soldier of fortune who had been the tutor to the son of the last Qajar Shah of Persia and a Russian spy, managed to get himself elected Chief Ḥakham of the Karaites in the Russian Empire (by that time, due to Russian regulations, the position was more of a political one than a spiritual one), and influenced by the Pan-Turkic movement in Turkey (see Dan Shapira's work on the subject), made his position into that of an Emperor-priest, changing the title Ḥakham to Ḥakhan (being a cross between the Turkic titles Khaqan and Khan), forbade the use of Hebrew, introduced pagan elements (such as the worship of sacred oaks trees in the cemetery), and claimed that both Jesus and Muhammad were prophets (thus appeasing both the Russian Orthodox Tsarist government and the Muslim Turkic peoples).
After the Bolshevik Revolution, atheism became official state policy and Karaite religious schools and places of worship were the very first religious institutions closed by the Soviet government. After that the only information about the Karaites that was allowed to be taught were the Szapszalian doctrines, and the official definition according to Russian law (carried over from Tsarist law) was the erroneous one that the Karaimi were the Turkic descendants of the Khazars and not Yevrei (the word in Russian for Rabbanite Jews) or Zhidi (the pejorative word in Russian for Rabbanite Jews). Not all Eastern European Karaites (Qaraylar [pl.], Qaray [sing.] in Qarayça [Karaite Judæo-Tatar]; Karaim [sing.], Karaimi [pl.] in Russian) accepted the Szapszalian doctrines. Some Hakhamim and a small part of the general Karaite population still preserved their Jewish heritage, but most dared not oppose Szapszal openly due to his official standing vis-à-vis the Soviet government.
The Karaim (Turkish Karaylar) 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 ca. 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). Until recent years the Qaraylar significantly outnumbered Karaite Jews in the region. Qaraylar claim to be the only group which most authentically preserves the ancient Karaite ideas of Abu Isa and Jacob Qirqisani. As a result of Qaraylar divorcing their movement from Judaism at large in previous centuries, the Mo‘eṣet HaḤakhamim committee promotes the exclusion of the Qaraylar from Universal Karaite Judaism and ‘Aliyah.
During the 10th and 11th Centuries, Karaite Jews in Spain had become "a force to be reckoned with." In Castile, high-ranking Rabbinical Jews such as Joseph Ferrizuel persuaded the king to allow the persecution and expulsion of Karaite Jews by the Rabbanites. With royal assistance, Rabbi Todros Halevi and Joseph ibn Alfakhar successfully drove out a large portion of the surviving Karaite population.
Karaites believe they observe the original form of Judaism, as prescribed by God in the Tanakh, and do not accept what they consider to be later additions to the Tanakh such as the Oral Law of Rabbinic Judaism. They place the ultimate responsibility of interpreting the Tanakh on each individual. Karaism does not reject Biblical interpretation but rather holds every interpretation up to the same objective scrutiny regardless of its source.
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 the majority hope for the coming of the Messiah.
Karaites do not accept the existence of an Oral Law because:
וְאַחֲרֵי-כֵן, קָרָא אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה, הַבְּרָכָה, וְהַקְּלָלָה—כְּכָל-הַכָּתוּב, בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה.לֹא-הָיָה דָבָר, מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה מֹשֶׁה—אֲשֶׁר לֹא-קָרָא יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, נֶגֶד כָּל-קְהַל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף, וְהַגֵּר, הַהֹלֵךְ בְּקִרְבָּם.
After that, he [Joshua] read all the words of the Torah, the Blessing and the Curse, according to all that is written in the Torah scroll. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua failed to read in the presence of the entire assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that walked among them.
Since Joshua read from the Torah every word Moses had written, this implies that Moses had not been given an Oral Law, since Joshua could not have read an Oral Law from the written Torah. Secondly, there could not have been additional commandments outside of the written Torah, since all the commandments that existed could be read from the Torah scroll.
In addition to this, Joshua 1:8 states: This book of the law is not to depart out of your mouth, but you are to meditate on it day and night, so that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it
Theoretically, most historical Karaites would not object to the idea of a body of interpretation of the Torah, along with extensions and development of halakhah. In fact, several hundred such books have been written by various Karaite sages throughout the movement's history, although most are lost today. The disagreement arises over the perceived exaltation of the Talmud and the writings of the Rabbis above that of the Torah, so that, in the view of Karaites, many traditions and customs are kept that are in contradiction with those expressed in the Torah. This is seen especially by the fact that 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 Karaites, and any tradition therein is rejected if it contradicts the simple meaning of the Torah. Additionally, these traditions are not forced upon any Karaite Jew or Convert to Karaite Judaism.
Those newly entered Karaites who do not have such an inheritance or tradition tend to rely heavily upon just the Torah and those practices mentioned in it, and to adapt Biblical practices to their cultural context. One reason for this lack of tradition is that many modern Karaites spring from the Karaite revival due largely to the revival group known as the World Karaite Movement founded by Nehemia Gordon and Meir Rekhavi in the early 1990s. However, this situation has improved, circa 2006, with the formation of Karaite Jewish University (KJU) which was approved by the Mo‘eṣet HaḤakhamim, the Council of Sages, in Israel to teach an introductory course which could lead to a student's conversion by a bet din authorized by the Mo‘eṣet HaḤakhamim. KJU teaches various forms of Karaite Judaism and includes Sevel HaYerushah in its course materials. Thus, newly admitted converts to Karaite Judaism now have the ability to accept or reject Sevel HaYerushah. Another reason is that Karaite communities are so small, and generally isolated, that their members commonly adopt the customs of their host country. In Israel too, traditional Karaites tend to be culturally assimilated into mainstream society.
Karaites use the observational form of the Hebrew calendar used by Jews in the Land of Israel until at least the end of the Second Temple period. Under that system, a new month (Rosh Ḥodesh) commences with the observation of a new moon in Israel, and the start of new year in the first biblical month is based upon the observation of the agricultural stage of ripeness of the barley (called the Aviv stage). Before quick worldwide communication was available, Karaites in the Diaspora used a calculated form of the Hebrew calendar similar to, yet different from, that used by Jews in general, for convenience.
As with other Jews, during the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), Karaites attend synagogues to worship and to offer prayers. However, many Karaites refrain from sexual relations on that day. Their prayer books are composed almost completely of Biblical passages. Karaites often practice full prostration during prayers, while most other Jews no longer pray in this fashion.
Unlike Rabbinic Jews, Karaites do not practice the ritual of lighting candles before Shabbat, because of their interpretation of the Torah verse, "You shall not [burn] (Heb: bi‘er the pi‘el form of ba‘ar) a fire in any of your dwellings on the day of Shabbat." In Rabbinic Judaism, the qal verb form ba‘ar is understood to mean to mean "burn," whereas the pi`el form (present here) is understood to be, not intensive as usual but causative. (The rule being that the pi'el of a stative verb will be causative, instead of the usual hif'il.) Hence bi`er means "kindle," which is why Rabbinic Judaism prohibits starting a fire on Shabbat. Many Karaite Jews hold that, throughout the Tanakh, ba‘ar explicitly means "to burn," while the Hebrew word meaning "to ignite" or "to kindle" is hidliq. Accordingly, these Karaites take this to indicate that fire should not be left burning in a Jewish home on Shabbat, regardless of whether it was lit prior to, or during the Sabbath. However, those Karaites who view the prohibition to be on kindling a fire often permit a fire to continue burning into the Sabbath.
In fact, some have suggested that the Rabbinic ritual of lighting candles on Shabbat may have been instituted as anti-Karaite halakhah. However, the second chapter of Tractate Shabbat in the Mishnah as well as the corresponding chapter of the Talmud treat lighting Sabbath candles as a basic religious obligation. Since the Mishnah dates to no later than the 2d century at the very latest, and indeed much of its material comes from centuries earlier, it is unlikely that candle-lighting would have been instituted as a measure against Karaism. The written Torah does not contain such a commandment, since it was instituted by Rabbinic decree.
Historically Karaites refrained from utilizing or deriving benefit from fire until the Sabbath ends resulting in Karaites having unlit homes during the night of the Sabbath. However, many modern Karaites now use a fluorescent light powered by a battery that is turned on prior to Shabbat. Many observant Karaites either unplug their refrigerators on Shabbat or turn off the circuit breakers. Electricity that is produced on Shabbat is an obvious violation of Shabbat, no matter who produces it (in contrast to the Rabbanites who claim that work done by gentiles on Shabbat is permitted and even that it is forbidden for a gentile to keep Shabbat and that a gentile who does keep it is liable to the death penalty). Additionally, purchasing electricity that is charged on an incremental basis during the Shabbat is viewed as a commercial transaction that the Tanakh prohibits, no matter when the payment is made, since the recording of the electric meter is considered as conducting a commercial transaction.
Karaites maintain that in the absence of a Temple, ordinary washing with flowing waters (described in the Torah as "living" — flowing — water) should be substituted for the red heifer ritual—Karaites believe this was the practice before the Temple was built. For this reason, many of the laws of avoiding tum’at met (ritual impurity caused by contact with a dead body) are no longer considered relevant in Rabbinic Judaism, but are still followed by Karaite Jews.
The Karaite method of counting the days from the offering of the ‘Omer is different from the Rabbinic method. The Karaites understand the term "morrow after the Sabbath" in Leviticus 23:15–16 to refer to the weekly Sabbath, whearas Rabbinic Judaism interprets it as referring to the day of rest on the first day of Ḥagh HaMaṣṣot. So while Rabbinic Judaism begins the count on the 16th of Nisan and celebrates Shavu‘ot on the 6th of Sivan, Karaite Jews count from the day after the weekly Sabbath (i.e., the Sunday that occurs during the seven days of Ḥagh HaMaṣṣot) to the day after the seventh weekly Sabbath and celebrate Shavu‘ot on the following Sunday, no matter what that calendar date of that Sunday on which it happens to fall.
A Ṣiṣit (alternatively spelled tzitzit, plural: ṣiṣiyot or tzitziyot) is a braided fringe worn by observant Jews (both Karaite and Rabbinic) on each of the four corners of their outer garment or their tallit. The Torah commands Israel to make fringes on the corners of their outer garment containing a thread of tekhelet (Numbers 15:38) and repeats this command using the word for "braids" instead of "fringes" at Deuteronomy 22:12. The purpose of the fringes is stated in the Book of Numbers as a visual reminder to the Israelites to remember the commandments given by God.
The thread of tekhelet is a blue thread which, according to the traditions of Rabbinic Judaism, is to be dyed with a specific kind of dye derived from a mollusc (possibly the murex trunculus sea snail). Due to a number of factors, including the Rome outlawing the use of blue by commoners, the actual source and practice of using a blue thread in ṣiṣit was lost for many Rabbinic Jews, and thus their ṣiṣiyot are usually all white. Against this, Karaites believe that the importance of tekhelet is that the color of thread is blue, and not necessarily that it must be a specific dye. Additionally, it is also believed by the Karaites that the Rabbinic tradition that the dye comes from a mollusc is incorrect because such an un-kosher source would be prohibited by the Torah (a belief that is also backed up by the Oral Law of Rabbinic Jews), proposing instead that the source of the dye was indigo or woad (the "Asp of Jerusalem" plant, taxonomic name "Isatis tinctoria", used as a fast dye in Ancient Egypt). As a result, Karaites do include a thread of blue in their ṣiṣit.
Among Rabbinic Jews, there are specific traditions on how the fringes are to be knotted or braided. Karaites also have traditions on how the fringes are to be knotted or braided, but these traditions were not strictly enforced as they are in Rabbinic Judaism. As a result, besides the usual lack of blue in a Rabbinic ṣiṣit, how the ṣiṣiyot are tied distinguishes Karaite ṣiṣiyot from Rabbinic ṣiṣiyot.
A rabbinic myth against the Karaites is that Karaite Jews wear their ṣiṣiyot on the walls of their homes, implying that Karaites take the statement "that you may look upon it" (Numbers 15:39) literally, and thus use ṣiṣiyot as a wall decoration. However, Karaites do not hang ṣiṣiyot on their walls, but only wear them on their clothing in the same way as Rabbinic Jews do. It is clear from the context of the commands regarding ṣiṣiyot that these are to be worn on the four corners of one's personal clothing.
Contrary to the beliefs of some, Karaite Jews do not wear tefillin in any form. According to Karaites, 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 forehead ornaments 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. Furthermore, the same expressions ("And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand" as well as "and they shall be as frontal ornaments between thine eyes") are used in Exodus 13:9 in reference to the commandments of Ḥagh HaMaṣṣot, in Exodus 13:16 in reference to the ritual of redeeming the first born, in Deuteronomy 6:8 in reference to the ‘Aseret HaDevarim (Ten Commandments), and in Deuteronomy 11:18 in reference to all the words of the Torah, indicating that, from a Karaite perspective, they must be metaphorical in nature (because one could never ritually "write" and "bind" upon their hearts themselves).
Like Tefillin, Karaites 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. 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 Karaite Jews do have a small plaque with the ‘Aseret HaDevarim on their doorposts.
However, there are exceptions. An account in the 19th century tells of a Karaite synagogue in Constantinople that had a mezuzah. (What the gentile visitors mistook for the Rabbanite Mezuzah was, in fact, the plaque mentioned in the previous paragraph). In Israel, in an effort to make Rabbinic Jews comfortable, many Karaite Jews do put up mezuzot, but not out of belief that it is commanded.
In both Deuteronomy 23:3, and Zechariah 9:6, the Hebrew word mamzer is referenced alongside the nations of Ammon and Moab (in Deut 23:3), and the Philistine cities of Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron and Ashdod (in Zech 9:5–6). From such, Karaites have come to consider the most logical understanding of the Hebrew word mamzer, which modern Rabbinical Jews understand to refer to either children born from adultery or from incest (Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Yevamot), to actually speak of a nation or people. Karaites think that such an understanding fits perfectly into the context of both Deuteronomy 23 and Zechariah 9, (and this was also the understanding of the Rabbanite commentator Yehudah ben Shemu’el ibn Bil‘am). Several Medieval Rabbanite Jewish sages felt it necessary to debate this topic with Medieval Karaite Jewish sages.
Karaite Judaism maintains that what the Rabbanites call the four species are actual three, i.e., fruit of splendorous tree: date palm fronds (Kappoth Temarim), branches of thickly leaved trees (‘Eṣ ‘Avoth), and willow branches (‘Aravoth Naḥal), must be used to construct the roof of the sukkah; they are not made into a lulav and shaken in four directions, as is the Rabbinic practice. In the book of Nehemiah (8:15), Israel is instructed to construct their sukkot out of the species and olive branches, and oil tree branches, as well as date palm fronds, and branches other thickly leaved trees are mentioned in the same passage as materials for the construction.
Nehemiah 8:14–15 וַיִּמְצְאוּ, כָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה: אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה בְּיַד-מֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יֵשְׁבוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּסֻּכּוֹת בֶּחָג בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְׁבִיעִי. וַאֲשֶׁר יַשְׁמִיעוּ, וְיַעֲבִירוּ קוֹל בְּכָל-עָרֵיהֶם וּבִירוּשָׁלִַם לֵאמֹר—צְאוּ הָהָר וְהָבִיאוּ עֲלֵי-זַיִת וַעֲלֵי-עֵץ שֶׁמֶן, וַעֲלֵי הֲדַס וַעֲלֵי תְמָרִים וַעֲלֵי עֵץ עָבֹת: לַעֲשֹׂת סֻכֹּת, כַּכָּתוּב.
And they found written in the Torah, how YHWH had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in Sukkot in the feast of the seventh month; and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying: 'Go forth into the mountains, and fetch olive branches, and oil tree branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thickly leaved trees, to make Sukkot, as it is written.
However, anyone who formally accepts the God of Israel as his own God, the people of Israel as his own people, and is circumcised (males only), is a fully established member of the people of Israel (Jew); Karaites believe this should be done, after living amongst Karaites and studying the Torah, in the form of a vow before the Beit Din, see Exodus 12:43–49, Ruth 1:16, Esther 8:17, and Isaiah 56:6–7; also Ezekiel the prophet states that strangers who have joined themselves to the Children of Israel will be given land inheritance among the Tribes of Israel amongst whom they live during the final redemption.
Explicitly saying the Tetragrammaton name of God is a controversial issue among Karaite Jews today. Some traditional Karaites view the pronunciation of God's name to be blasphemous, and adhere to the Rabbanite tradition of substituting "Adonai", when coming across YHWH while reading. Other traditional Karaites and some of those coming from a rabbinical background, as well some converts to Karaite Judaism, do not consider it a prohibition to pronounce the Name, even though there is controversy amongst scholars as to the correct pronunciation. Some viewing it as a miṣvah (commandment) to do so, the prophet Yirmiyahu observed: Chapter 23, Verses 26–27: "Until when will there be in the heart of those prophesying false prophecies and prophets of the deception of their hearts: Who scheme to make my people forget my name with their dreams that a man tells to his fellow, as their fathers forgot my name for Baʿal". There exists no law in the Tanakh that prohibits one from saying the name of God. Israelites from the Judges period having used it as a greeting, "YHWH be with you," and "YHWH bless you," as is shown in the Book of Ruth.
Nehemia Gordon argued that, though modern scholars universally take the pronunciation of YHWH to be YAH-weh, the proper pronunciation is ye-ho-VAH. He claimed that the Masoretes belonged to the group of Karaites who did not pronounce the name and for that reason omitted (as seen in the earliest complete manuscripts of Scripture) the middle vowel O, "to prevent their fellow Karaites from simply reading the name as it was written". However, the same Nehemia Gordon published an article translated in 1971 from the Hebrew by Ḥakham Avraham Ben-Raḥamiël Qanaï, which was a study by Ḥakham Mordekhai Alfandari, according to which the proper and original pronunciation of the Name is "Yihweh". Rather than attempt an uncertain pronunciation of the divine name some have argued that instead of saying "Adonai" the term YAH should be used based upon Psalm 68:5.
Karaism has produced a vast library of commentaries and polemics, especially during its "Golden Age". These writings prompted new and complete defenses of the Mishnah and the Talmud, 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 ‘Eli, to the degree that a legend exists among some Karaites that Ibn Ezra was ben ‘Eli's student.
The most well-known Karaite polemic is Yiṣḥaq ben Avraham of Troki's Ḥizzuq Emunah (חזוק 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 Tela Ignea Satanæ, sive Arcani et Horribiles Judæorum Adversus Christum, Deum, et Christianam Religionem Libri (Altdorf, 1681) (translation: 'The Fiery Darts of Satan, or the Arcane and Horrible Books of the Jews Against Christ, God, and the Christian Religion'). 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, and owe greatly to the Firkovich collections of Karaite manuscripts in the Russian National Library that have become accessible after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The cataloguing efforts of scholars at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and in the United States and England is continuing to yield new insights into Karaite literature and thought.
Aharon ben Mosheh ben Asher was a Jewish scholar from Tiberias, famous as the most authoritative of the Tiberias masoretes, and a member of a family who had been involved in creating and maintaining the Masorah (authoritative text of the Hebrew scripture), for at least five generations. His vocalization of the Bible is still, for all intents and purposes, the text all Jews continue to use, and he was the first systematic Hebrew grammarian.
His Sefer Diqduqei HaTe‘amim (Grammar of the Punctuation/Vocalizations) was an original collection of grammatical rules and masoretic information. Grammatical principles were not at that time considered worthy of independent study. The value of this work is that the grammatical rules presented by Ben-Asher reveal the linguistic background of vocalization for the first time. He had a tremendous influence on the world of Biblical grammar and scholarship.
From documents found in the Cairo Geniza, it appears that this most famous masorete (and, possibly, his family for generations) were Karaite. It should not be surprising to discover that many masoretes, so involved in the Masorah, held Karaite beliefs. After all, it was the Karaites who placed such absolute reliance on the Torah text. It would be natural that they would devote their lives to studying every aspect of it.
In 989 CE, an unknown scribe of a former Prophets manuscript vouched for the care with which his copy was written by claiming that he had vocalized and added the Masorah "from the books that were vocalized by Aaron ben Moses Ben-Asher". Rambam, by accepting the views of Ben-Asher (though only in regard to open and closed sections), helped establish and spread his authority. Referring to a Bible manuscript then in Egypt, he wrote: "All relied on it, since it was corrected by Ben-Asher and was worked on and analyzed by him for many years, and was proofread many times in accordance with the masorah, and I based myself on this manuscript in the Sefer Torah that I wrote"
With one exception:
It was known that Saadia Gaon had written against the Karaites. In his critiques, Saadia mentioned a "Ben Asher". Until recently,[when?] it never occurred to Jewish scholars to associate the "Ben Asher" of Saadia's diatribe with the famous Aharon ben Asher of Tiberius. After all, Aharon ben Asher was respected throughout the Jewish world. The Karaites were considered outsiders. It was unthinkable that traditional "normative" Jews would accept the work of a Karaite.
Recent research indicates, however, that it is probable that the subject of Saadia's attack was Aharon ben Mosheh ben Asher.
In his work Sefer Diqduqei HaTe‘amim, Aharon ben Asher wrote, "The prophets... complete the Torah, are as the Torah, and we decide Law from them as we do from the Torah." This is a Karaite belief. It also has forced scholars to re-evaluate the relationship between Rabbanite Jews and Karaite Jews in the 10th century despite the writings of Saadia Gaon. See,
Other estimates of the size of the modern Karaite movement put the number at 4,000 Karaites in the United States, about 100 families in Istanbul, and over 40,000 in Israel, the largest communities being in Ramlah, Ashdod and Beer-Sheva. At the 2002 Polish census, only 45 people declared themselves "Karaims", including 43 Polish citizens.
In the early 1950s, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate originally objected to the immigration of Karaite Jews to Israel, and unsuccessfully tried to obstruct it. In 2007, however, Rabbi David Ḥayim Chelouche, the chief rabbi of Netayana was quoted in The Jerusalem Post as saying, "A Karaite is a Jew. We accept them as Jews and every one of them who wishes to come back [to mainstream Judaism] we accept back. There was once a question about whether Karaites needed to undergo a token circumcision in order to switch to rabbinic Judaism, but the rabbinate agrees that today that is not necessary."
Mosheh Marzouq, one of the Egyptian Jews executed in 1954 for planting bombs at Cairo in the service of Israeli Military Intelligence (the Lavon Affair) was a Karaite. Marzouk was considered a hero in Israel; however, his Karaite identity was downplayed in newspapers, which usually just described him as an Egyptian Jew. However, in 2001, the Israeli government, through the Israel Postal Authority, issued a special memorial sheet honoring him and many other Karaite Jews that gave their lives for Israel.
In Israel, the Karaite Jewish leadership is directed by a group called Universal Karaite Judaism. Most of the members of its Board of Ḥakhamim are of Egyptian Jewish descent.
There are about 4,000 Karaites living in the United States. The Synagogue KJA Congregation B'nai Israel is located in Daly City, California, which is a suburb of San Francisco. It is the only Karaite synagogue in the United States with a permanent dedicated facility. The leaders of the congregation are of Egyptian Karaite background. One notable congregant, Mark Kheder, the Synagogue's treasurer, has described his internment in an Egyptian prisoner of war camp during the 1967 Six Day war. The congregation's acting Rav, Joe Pessah, was also among those who were arrested by the Egyptian government. Another, much smaller congregation, Karaite Jewish Congregation Oraḥ Ṣaddiqim, exists in Albany, NY, but they have yet to find a permanent dedicated facility and, in the mean time,continue to use a room in the home of their Ḥakham, Ḥakham Avraham Ben-Raḥamiël Qanaï, as their temporary synagogue.
On 1 August 2007, some members of the first graduating class of Karaite Jewish University were converted, representing the first new authorized members into Karaite Judaism in 500 years. At a ceremony in its Northern California synagogue, ten adults and four minors joined the Jewish people by taking the same oath that Ruth took. The group's course of study lasted over one year. This conversion comes 15 years after the Karaite Council of Sages reversed its centuries-old ban on accepting converts. On 17 February 2009, the second graduating class of converts took the oath this included 11 adults and 8 minors.
There are about 80 Karaites living in Istanbul, Turkey, where the only Karaite synagogue in Turkey, the Kahal haKadosh Bene Mikra, is still functional in the Hasköy neighborhood in the European part of the city.
In Poland, Karaites are a recognized minority, represented by the Association of Polish Karaites (Polish: Związek Karaimów Polskich) and the Karaite Religious Association in the Polish Republic (Polish: Karaimskiego Związku Religijnego w Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej). Karaites live primarily in and around Warsaw, Wrocław and Tricity, they are linguistically assimilated.
Rabbinic Judaism's scholars, such as Maimonides, write that people who deny the divine authority of the Oral Torah are to be considered among the heretics. However, at the same time Maimonides holds (Hilkhot Mamrim 3:3) that most of the Karaites and others who claim to deny the "oral teachings" are not to be held accountable for their errors in the law because they are led into error by their parents and are similar to a tinoq shenishbah (a captive baby), or to one who was forced.
Rabbinic scholars have traditionally held that, because the Karaites do not observe the rabbinic law on divorce, there is a strong presumption that they are mamzerim (adulterine bastards), so that marriage with them is forbidden even if they return to Rabbinic Judaism. Some recent Ashekenazi Ḥaredi scholars have held that Karaites should be regarded as Gentiles in all respects, though this is not universally accepted. They hasten to add that this opinion is not intended to insult the Karaites, but only to give individual Karaites the option of integrating into mainstream Judaism by way of conversion. As opposed this, in 1971 Rav ‘Ovadia Yosef, who was then the Rishon LeṢiyyon/Chief Rabbi of the Sefaradim and ‘Edot HaMizraḥ of Israel proclaimed that Karaites are Jews "LeKhol Davar" (literally, for all purposes) and that it is permissible for Rabbanite Jews to marry with them.
In response to the position taken by the Karaites in regards to the authority of the Talmud, Orthodox Judaism counters first that the majority of the Oral Law codified in the Mishnah and Talmud are the legal rulings of the last Sanhedrin, a body of 71 elders that made up the highest court of jurisprudence in ancient Israel, and that not all of the Oral Law are literally "Laws given to Moses on Mount Sinai". The decisions made by this High Court must be upheld, per se the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 17), this gives their legal rulings divine authority. Secondly Rabbinic Judaism points to the innumerable examples of biblical commandments that are either too ambiguous or documented in such a concise fashion that proper adherence could not be enforced on a national scale without the further legislation provided by the Talmud.
Orthodox Judaism also notes that the Torah was never meant to be observed as a personal covenant between the individual Jew and God, but a national covenant wherein the Torah functions as the constitution of Israel as a whole. Orthodox Jews point out that the Torah could never be enforced as a national law, as it was during the time of Joshua, King David, and Ezra, if every individual Jew had their own opinion on how to observe its commandments. In order for the Torah to properly govern the Jewish people, and its laws be legally enforced with the punishments and penalties described in the Torah, those laws must be legislated and clearly defined by a ruling Sanhedrin.
For Karaites, in sum, the Rabbanite interpretations above, as codified in oral law, are only one form of interpretation. They are definitely not divinely ordained for them, and therefore are also not binding as "halakhah" or practical conduct religious "law".
A person whose mother was a Karaite Jew is regarded as halakhically Jewish by the Orthodox Rabbinate. Likewise, someone who is patrilineally Jewish is regarded as a Jew by the Mo‘eṣet HaḤakhamim, or Karaite Counsel of Sages. Although it is universally accepted that Karaite Jews are halakhically Jewish, there is still a question as to whether or not marriage between the Karaite and Rabbanite communities is permitted. Two Sephardi chief rabbis, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron and Ovadia Yosef encouraged such marriages, hoping it would help Karaites to assimilate into Orthodox Judaism. The Rambam decreed that Jews raised in a Karaite household are considered to be tinoq shenishbah, like babies taken captive by non-Jews, they cannot be punished for their wayward behavior, because it is the result of their parents' influence. Rabbi David Ḥayim Chelouche, the chief rabbi of Netanya is quoted in the Jerusalem Post as saying: "A Karaite is a Jew. We accept them as Jews and every one of them who wishes to come back [to mainstream Judaism] we accept back. There was once a question about whether Karaites needed to undergo a token circumcision in order to switch to rabbinic Judaism, but the rabbinate agrees that today that is not necessary."