Karaite Judaism

Karaite Judaism or Karaism (pronounced /ˈkærə.aɪt, ˈkærə.ɪzəm/) (Hebrew: יהדות קראית , Modern Yahadut Qara'it Tiberian Qārāʾîm ; meaning "Readers of the Hebrew Scriptures" or "followers/seekers of Torah/Tanakh-based Judaism")[1] is a Jewish movement characterized by the recognition of the Tanakh alone as its supreme religious authority. It is distinct from Rabbinic Judaism, which considers the interpretations of Jewish laws in the Oral law, Talmud, and subsequent works to be authoritative interpretations of the Tanakh.

Karaites maintain that all of the commandments handed down to Moses were recorded in the written Torah at Mount Sinai, 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 ("p'shat") 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 p'shat 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 oral traditions handed down by rabbis and collected in the Mishnah, Talmud, and other sources, to reveal the original meaning of the Torah.)[2]

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. This is reflected in the Karaite saying "Study the Torah diligently, and do not be dependent on my opinion." Therefore, Karaites may consider arguments made in the Talmud and other works without exalting them above other viewpoints.

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. Karaites were at one time a significant proportion of the Jewish population.[3] 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. Today it is estimated that there are as many as 30,000 Karaites or more worldwide, with 20,000–25,000 of them living in Israel.[4] Most Karaites today have made Aliyah to Israel, having immigrated from Arab countries such as Egypt and Iraq.


Karaite beliefs

Karaites believe they observe the original form of Judaism, as prescribed by God in the Tanakh, and do not accept 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 hope for the coming of the Messiah.

Views on the Mishnah

Karaites do not accept the existence of an Oral Law because:

  1. The Mishnah quotes many conflicting opinions.
  2. The Mishnah does not go on to say in which opinion the truth lies. Rather, the Mishnah sometimes agrees with neither one nor the other, contradicting both.
  3. They argue that the truth of the oral law given to Moses could only be in one opinion, not many opinions.
  4. They question why the Mishnah does not solely speak in the name of Moses.
  5. The Oral Law is not mentioned once in the entire Tanakh.
  6. When God told Moses to come up to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah He said, "Come up to me into the mountain, and be there: and I will give you tablets of stone, and a law, and commandments that I have written"; (Ex 24,12). The text states the commands are written, and no mention is made of an Oral Law.
  7. The Tanakh reports that the written Torah was both lost and completely forgotten for over 50 years and only rediscovered by the Temple priests (2Ki 22,8; 2Chr 34,15). It is inconceivable that an Oral Law could have been remembered when even the written Law was forgotten.
  8. The words of the Mishnah and Talmud are clearly the words of people living in the 2nd–5th centuries, CE, stating "Rabbi Eliezer says this... while Rabbi Akiva says that..." in contrast to the Torah, which states "YHWH spoke to Moses saying, speak to the Children of Israel that I command them saying..."
  9. The Torah states, "You shall not add to the word that I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of YHWH, your God, which I command you." (Deut 4:2) It is forbidden to add an Oral Law to the Torah, since it is the opinions of rabbis, not commands from God.
  10. Joshua 8, 34–8, 35 states:

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 commanded, it implies that Moses had not given an Oral Law, since Joshua couldn't have read an Oral Law from the written Torah. Joshua was able to read out from the Torah, every single law that Moses gave to Israel. 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

Karaite interpretations of the Torah

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. 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 Egyptian Karaites, and any tradition therein is rejected if it contradicts the simple meaning of the Torah.

Those 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. 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.

The calendar

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 Chodesh) commences with the observation of a new moon in Israel, and the start of new year in the first biblical month is based the observation of the ripeness of barley (called the Aviv). Before quick worldwide communication was available, Karaites in the Diaspora used the calculated form of the Hebrew calendar used by Jews in general for convenience.

The Shabbat

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 that day. Their prayer books are composed almost completely of biblical passages. Karaites often practice full prostration during prayers, while most other Jews do not 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: ba'ar) a fire in any of your dwellings on the day of Shabbat." In Rabbinic Judaism, the Hebrew word ba'ar is translated as "kindle," which is why Rabbinic Judaism prohibits starting a fire on Shabbat. Karaite Jews hold that throughout the Tanakh, ba'ar explicitly means "to burn," while the Hebrew word meaning "to ignite" or "to kindle" is yatzar. Accordingly, 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.

In fact, some have suggested that the Rabbinic ritual of lighting candles on Shabbat may have been instituted as anti-Karaite halachah in the Middle Ages[5]. 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. The written Torah does not contain the commandment, since it was instituted by Rabbinic decree.

Historically Karaites refrained from utilizing or deriving benefit from light until the Sabbath ends, but modern Karaites use fluorescent light power connected to a battery that 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.

Laws of Ritual Purity

Karaites maintain that in the absence of a Temple, ordinary washing should be substituted for the red heifer ritual—Karaites believe this was the practice before the Temple was built.[6][7] For this reason, many of the laws of avoiding tum'at meit are no longer considered relevant in Rabbinic Judaism, but are still followed by observant Karaite Jews.

Sefirat Ha'omer and Shavuot

The Karaite method of Counting of the Omer is different from the Rabbinic method.[8] 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 Hag Ha'matzot. So while Rabbinic Judaism begins the count on the 16th of Nisan and celebrates Shavuot on the 6th of Sivan, Karaite Jews count from the day after the weekly Sabbath to the day after the seventh weekly Sabbath and celebrate Shavuot on the calendar date on which it happens to fall.


A karaite Tzitzit with blue threads

Karaite Jews wear tzitzit with blue threads in them, though it is very important to note that not all tzitzit with blue threads are from Karaite origins. 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.[4]


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 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.[4] Furthermore, the same expressions ("And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand" as well as "and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes") are used in Exodus 13:16 to refer to the ritual of redeeming the first born, indicating that, from a Karaite perspective, they must be metaphorical in nature (because one could never tie the actual ritual to 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 haDibrot on their doorposts.

However there are exceptions. An account in the 19th century tells of a Karaite synagogue in Constantinople that had a mezuzah[9]. In Israel, in an effort to make Rabbinic Jews comfortable, many Karaite Jews do put up mezuzot.


In both Deuteronomy 23:2, and Zechariah 9:6, the Hebrew word mamzer is referenced similar to that of the nations of Ammon, Mo'av, Edom, Egypt, Tyre, Zidon, Ashkelon, Gaza, Philistia, etc. 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, Masechta Yevamos), to actually speak of a nation people. Karaites think that such an understanding fits perfectly into the context of both Deuteronomy 23 and Zechariah 9, and several Medieval Rabbinical Jewish sages felt it necessary to debate this topic with Medieval Karaite Jewish sages.

Four Species

Karaite Judaism maintains that the four species (date palm, fruit of the splendorous tree, myrtle, and thick branch) 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. Olives on their branch are used instead of the etrog. In the book of Nehemiah (8:15), Israel is instructed to construct their sukkot out of the four species, and Pri Eitz Hadar or "fruit of the splendorous tree" is identified as an olive on its branch in the same passage. See also Etrog haKuschi.

Nehemia 8, 15

וַיִּמְצְאוּ, כָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה: אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה בְּיַד-מֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יֵשְׁבוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּסֻּכּוֹת בֶּחָג בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי. 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 branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make Sukkot, as it is written.'

Who is a Jew?

Karaite Judaism follows patrilineal descent, meaning a Jew is someone whose father is Jewish, or who has undergone a formal conversion, since all Jewish descent in the Tanakh is traced patrilineally.

However, anyone who formally accepts the God of Israel as their own God, the people of Israel as their own people, and is circumcised (males only), is a fully established member of the people of Israel (Jew); most Karaites believe this should be done in the form of a vow, 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 during the final redemption.[10]

Pronouncing the Name

Explicitly saying the name of the God of Israel is a controversial issue among Karaite Jews today. Traditional Karaites view the pronunciation of God’s name to be blasphemous, and adhere to the rabbinic tradition of substituting “Adonai”, while coming across YHWH while reading. Karaites mostly coming from a rabbinical background, as well as the majority of converts to Karaite Judaism, do not consider it a prohibition to pronounce the Name, some viewing it as a mitzvah (commandment) to do so. There exists no law in the Tanakh that prohibits one from saying the name of YHWH. 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".[11] The same Nehemia Gordon translated from the Hebrew but was not the author of a study by Mordecai Alfandari, according to which the proper and original pronunciation of the Name is "Yihweh".[12]

History of Karaism


The Karaite Synagogue in the Old City (Jerusalem)

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 halakha: for example, there is a minority in Karaite Judaism who, like the Sadducees, do not believe in a final resurrection or after-life.[13] 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 Shetacb, 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."[14]

Gill also traces the Karaite sect to the split between the schools of Hillel the Elder and Shammai in 30 BCE.[15]

However, Bernard Revel, in his dissertation on "Karaite Halacha," rejects many of Geiger's proofs.[16] 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.

Others suggest that the major impetus for the formation of Karaism was a reaction to the rise of Islam,[17] which recognized Judaism as a fellow monotheistic faith, but claimed that it detracted from this monotheism by deferring to rabbinical authority.

9th Century

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 some scholars, in approximately 760 CE, the Jewish exilarch in Babylon died, and two brothers among his nearest kin, Anan ben David and Josiah (Hassan), were next in order of succession. Eventually Josiah was elected by the rabbis of the Babylonian Jewish colleges (the Geonim) 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 "Natonai, 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."[18] He later notes that Natonai - a devout Rabbinical Jew - lived where Anan's activities took place, and that the Karaite sage Ya'acov Al-Kirkisani never mentioned Anan's purported lineage or candidacy for exilarch.[18]

Ben David challenged the rabbinical establishment and his followers absorbed Jewish Babylonian sects such as the Isawites (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.

Anan now devoted himself to the development of his movement's core tenets. His Sefer ha-Mitzvot ("The Book of the Precepts") 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; 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.

The Golden Age of Karaism

In the "Golden Age of Karaism" (900-1100 CE) 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. 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 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, which eventually led to a permanent split between some Karaitic and Rabbinic communities.

Russian Karaims (Kraylars)

During the 18th century, Russian Karaites left Judaism, adopted Jesus and Muhammad as prophets, and merged with the larger Turkic Tartar community, which freed them from various anti-Semitic laws that affected Jews. Avraham Firkovich helped establish the idea that the Kraylars were descendants of the lost tribes by referring to the tombstones in Crimea that bear inscriptions stating that those buried were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Other changes included claiming to be among those Jews with a Khazar origin, claiming that Karaims 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). In 1897, the Russian census counted 12,894 Karaims in the Russian Empire.[19][20]

Crimean and Lithuanian Karaites

Karaim kenesa in Trakai.

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. Until recent years the Qaraylar significantly outnumbered Karaite Jews. 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 Karaites divorcing their movement from Judaism at large in previous centuries, the Moetzet Chachamim committee promotes the exclusion of the Karaylar Jews from Universal Karaism and Aliyah.

Kraylars and Karaims today

Today many Kraylar and Karaims are returning to the Karaite Jewish faith by abandoning their belief in Jesus and Muhammad as prophets and returning to the practice of Karaite Judaism.

Spanish Karaites

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. With royal assistance, Rabbi Todros Halevi and Joseph ibn Alfakhar successfully drove out a large portion of the surviving Karaite population.

Karaite Synagogue Bnei Yisrael

Karaites today

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 about 12,000 in Israel, most of them living in Ramla, Ashdod and Beer-Sheva.

In the early 1950s, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate originally objected to the immigration of Karaite Jews to Israel, and unsuccessfully tried to obstruct it. Today, Rabbi David Chayim Chelouche, the chief rabbi of Netayana 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."[21]

Moshe Marzouk, 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 and martyr in Israel; however, his Karaite identity was downplayed in official publications, which usually just described him as an Egyptian Jew.

Karaite Synagogue in Ashdod

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 4,000 Karaites living in the United States. The Synagogue KJA Congregation Bnei 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. See, [3] The leaders of the congregation are of Egyptian Karaite Jewish 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 Hackam, Joe Pessah, was also among those who were arrested by the Egyptian government.

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.[4] 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.[22] 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 be Sukra bene Mikra, is still functional in the Hasköy neighborhood in the European part of the city.

Karaite writings

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 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 b. Abraham of Troki's Hizzuk Emunah (חיזוק אמונה) (Faith Strengthened),[23] 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.

Karaites, Aaron Ben Moses Ben Asher, and the Masoretic text

Aaron ben Moses 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 Jews continue to use, and he was the first systematic Hebrew grammarian.

His Sefer Dikdukei ha-Te'amim (Grammar of the 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, it never occurred to Jewish scholars to associate the "Ben Asher" of Saadia's diatribe with the famous Aaron ben Asher of Tiberius. After all, Aaron 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 Aaron ben Moses ben Asher.

In his work Sefer Dikdukei ha Te'amim, Aaron 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 Rabbinic Jews and Karaite Jews in the 10th century despite the writings of Saadia Gaon. See,[5]

Karaism in Rabbinic Jewish opinion

Rabbinic Judaism's scholars, such as Maimonides, write that people who deny the divine origin 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 "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 tinok shenishba (a captive baby), or to one who was forced.[24]

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 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.

In response to the position taken by the Karaites in regards to the authority of the Talmud, Orthodox Judaism counters by pointing to the innumerable examples of biblical commandments that are either too ambiguous or documented in such a concise fashion that proper adherence is absolutely impossible without the details provided by the Talmud.[25]

For Karaites, in sum, the rabbinic 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 'halacha' or practical conduct religious 'law.'

Halakhic status as Jews

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 Moetzet Hakhamim, 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 Rabbinic communities is permitted. Two Sephardi chief rabbis, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron [26] and Ovadia Yosef [27] 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 tinok shenishba, like babies taken captive by non-Jews, they cannot be punished for their wayward behavior, because it is the result of their parents' influence [28]. Rabbi David Chayim Chelouche, the chief rabbi of Netayana 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." [29]

See also


  1. From Miqra (מקרא), the Jewish name for the Hebrew Bible, and the root qara (קרא) meaning "to read."
  2. This oral law employs the methods of remez (implication or clue), drash (interpretation, exegesis), and sod (deep, hidden meaning, identified with the Kabbalah).
  3. A.J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically, p. 69.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Joshua Freeman. "Laying down the (Oral) law". The Jerusalem Post. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1178708657471&pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull. 
  5. Jewish Book of Why V.1
  6. Vayyiqra (Leviticus) 22:6.
  7. Yaron, Y.; Joe Pessah, Avraham Qanai, Yosef El-Gamil (2003). An Introduction to Karaite Judaism: History, Theology, Practice and Culture. Albany, New York: Qirqisani Center. ISBN 978-0970077547. 
  8. [1]
  9. Bonar, Andrew Alexander and M'Cheyne, Robert Murray. Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews from the Church of Scotland in 1839, (1842) W. Whyte and Co.
  10. Ezekiel 47:17 וְחִלַּקְתֶּם אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, לָכֶם—לְשִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. וְהָיָה, תַּפִּלוּ אוֹתָהּ בְּנַחֲלָה, לָכֶם וּלְהַגֵּרִים הַגָּרִים בְּתוֹכְכֶם, אֲשֶׁר-הוֹלִדוּ בָנִים בְּתוֹכְכֶם; וְהָיוּ לָכֶם, כְּאֶזְרָח בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל—אִתְּכֶם יִפְּלוּ בְנַחֲלָה, בְּתוֹךְ שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. So shall you divide this land unto you according to the tribes of Israel. And it shall be that you divide it by lot as an inheritance for yourselves, and for the strangers who sojourn in your midst and who bear children among you. And they shall be to you as native-born among the children of Israel—with you they have an inheritance in the midst of the tribes of Israel. And it shall be that in whatever tribe the stranger sojourns, there you give him his inheritance,” declares the Master YHWH.
  11. Nehemia Gordon, The Pronunciation of the Name
  12. Yihweh, This Is My Name Forever
  13. http://www.karaite-korner.org/karaite_faq.shtml
  14. A Dissertation Concerning the Antiquity of the Hebrew Language, John Gill, p. 538-542 [2]
  15. Gill, John. A Collection of Sermons and Tracts ...: To which are Prefixed, Memoirs of the Life, Writing, and Character of the Author, Volume 3. London: George Keith, 1778.
  16. Revel, Bernard. The Karaite Halakah. http://books.google.com/books?id=sWtbAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=karaite&cd=6#v=onepage&q&f=false. Retrieved 2010-05-07. 
  17. Oesterley, W. O. E. & Box, G. H. (1920) A Short Survey of the Literature of Rabbinical and Mediæval Judaism, Burt Franklin:New York.
  18. 18.0 18.1 See Karaite Anthology; Yale Judaica Series 7
  19. Results of the Russian Empire Census of 1897, Table XII (Religions)
  20. http://www.karaite-korner.org/holocaust.htm
  21. Freeman, Joshua. "Laying down the (Oral) law". The Jerusalem Post, May 22, 2007, p. 14.
  22. Karaites hold first conversion in 500 years. 2 August 2007, JTA Breaking News.
  23. a translation of which can be found at http://faithstrengthened.org/
  24. Maimonidies, Mishneh Torah, Judges, Laws of Rebels, 3:3
  25. Rietti, Rabbi Jonathan. The Oral Law: The Heart of The Torah
  26. Tehumin 18, 20
  27. Yabia Omer EH 8:12
  28. Hilchot Mamrim 3:2-3
  29. May 22, 2007, "Laying down the (Oral) law by Joshua Freeman"

Further reading

External links

General Karaite links

Karaite Judaism by region


http://www.northamericanassociationofqaraim.com/ North American Association of Qaraim (Leesville, South Carolina)

Eastern Europe

Spanish persecution of Karaites