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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 or Tanakh based Judaism", from the Jewish name for the Hebrew Bible, "Miqra" מקרא, from the root "qara" קרא meaning “to read".

It is a Jewish movement characterized by the recognition of the Tanakh as its religious authority. Karaites maintain that all of the commandments handed down by Moses were recorded in the written Torah, and that an Oral Law was not given at Mount Sinai. As a result, Karaite Jews do not accept the Mishnah, Talmud, or Rabbinic decrees as binding. Karaite Judaism does not reject the Talmud, but holds every interpretation of the Tanakh to the same scrutiny regardless of its source. Karaite Judaism teaches that it is the personal responsibility of every individual Jew to study the Torah, and ultimately decide for him or herself its correct meaning. This is reflected in the Karaite saying "Study the Torah diligently, and do not be dependent on my opinion". The movement crystallized in Baghdad, in present-day Iraq, in the Gaonic period (approximately 7th to 9th centuries).

When interpreting the Tanakh, Karaites strive to adhere to the plain, or most obvious meaning (p'shat) of the text. Karaite Jews do not take the Tanakh "literally", the p'shat is the meaning that would have been naturally understood by the ancient Israelites when the books of the Tanakh were first written. Since Jewish culture has changed tremendously throughout the past 4,000 years, the p'shat is not as easily understood today 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 the rabbis to reveal the original meaning of the Torah. This 'Oral Law' employs the methods of remez (implication or clue), drash (interpretation, exegesis), and sod (deep, hidden meaning, identified with the Kabbalah), which can often be in discord with the p'shat meaning.

At one time Karaites were a significant portion of the Jewish population.[1] Most Karaites today have made Aliyah to Israel, having immigrated from Arab countries such as Egypt and Iraq.

Karaites today

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.[2] 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."[3]

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 amongst 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 their Northern California synagogue, ten adults and four minors joined the Jewish people by taking the same Oath that Ruth took. Their 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.[4] 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 neighbourhood in the European part of the city.

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 Moshiach.

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 which 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 men 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 which 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 which 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 which 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, though 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, 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 the Torah states "You shall not burn (ba'ar) a fire in any of your dwellings on the day of Shabbat". The Hebrew word ba'ar is often translated as "kindle", which is why Rabbinic Judaism only prohibits starting a fire on Shabbat. However throughout the Tanakh, ba'ar explicitly means to burn. the Hebrew word meaning "to ignite" or "to kindle" is "yatzar", which is not used in this case. 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. The Rabbinic ritual of lighting candles on Shabbat may have been instituted as anti-Karaite 'halachah' in the Middle Ages. [Ref: Jewish Book of Why V.1] (although the second chapter of Tractate Shabbat in the Mishnah as well as in the Talmud discusses the idea of lighting candles, it was not considered a religious commandment until much later in Jewish history) The written Torah does not contain the commandment, as the rabbis have decreed, to light Shabbat candles. Historically Karaites refrained from utilizing or deriving benefit from light until the Sabbath ends, but modern Karaites use fluorescent light power hooked up 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.

Sefirat Ha'omer and Shavuot

The Karaite method of Counting of the Omer is different from the Rabbinic method.[5] 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 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.[2]


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.[2] 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.[6] 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, and 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. If someone's mother is Jewish but his father is not, unless he has joined himself to people of Israel through conversion, he is not Jewish. If a person's father is Jewish and his mother is not, then he is a Jew. The reason being that all descent in the Tanakh is traced patrilineally. The rule of patrilineal descent applies for multiple generations, meaning if every one of a person's ancestors were Jews, except for his paternal great-grandfather, then he is not Jewish. Likewise, if a person's father's father's father is a Jew, he is a Jew, even if he has no other Jewish ancestry.

There are instances in the Hebrew Bible of Israelite men marrying non-Hebrew women, and the children, without question, are Israelites. Often there is no indication the women converted to Judaism, some even coming from pagan priestly families. Examples include, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher whose mothers were Bilhah, and Zilpah, non-Hebrew concubines. Ephraim and Manasseh, whose mother was Asenath, an Egyptian and the daughter of a pagan priest. Judah's sons, Er, Onan and Shelah whose mother was Shua, a Canaanite woman. Gershom and Eliezer, the sons of Moses, whose mother was the Midianite, Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro the priest of Midian (Moses then also married a Kushite woman, Tharbis). Obed, the grandfather of King David, whose mother was Ruth the Moabite, who had joined herself the people of Israel. Absalom, a son of David who almost assumed the throne, was the son of Maacah, the daughter of King Talmai of Geshur. The first King of Judah under the divided kingdom was Rehoboam, whose mother was Naamah, an Ammonite woman.

All of the aforementioned offspring of mixed marriages involving Israelite men and gentile women were considered Israelites, including the founders of six tribes of Israel, and Rehoboam who rose to become the first King of Judah. The Children of Israel are the direct descendants of Jacob, regardless of whether their mothers were or were not Israelites. This is evidenced by the patrilineal genealogies given in the Tanakh, and statements from the Torah such as " order to establish you today as a people for Himself, and He Himself be your God, as He has spoken to you, and as He has sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob". Furthermore, in instances where a person is the offspring of a Hebrew mother and an non-Israelite man, they are not called one of the Children of Israel, as the children of mixed marriages involving an Israelite father are, but are referred to as someone whose "mother is an Israelite, and whose father is a ____". Implying that children whose father is descendant from Jacob are counted as Children of Israel; and those with gentile fathers are not counted as such. However it should be noted the People of Israel are made of both native born Children of Israel, and foreigners who have joined themselves to them, there being no distinction made between the native born and the stranger, and one Torah applying equally to both.

Examples of non-Israelites with an Israelite mother and gentile father include the son of the Egyptian man and Israelite woman who blasphemed the name, and Hiram who helped construct the first Temple, whose mother was a widow from the tribe of Naphtali and whose father was a Phoenician from Tyre.

However, anyone who formally accepts YHWH 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. 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.

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.

Pronouncing the Name

Explicitly saying the name of YHWH, 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 "Yahweh", the proper pronunciation is "Yehovah" (with the stress on the last syllable). 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".[7] The same Nehemia Gordon translated from the Hebrew a study by Mordecai Alfandari, according to which the proper and original pronunciation of the Name is "Yihweh".[8]

See Tetragrammaton, Yahweh, Jehovah.

Rabbinic opinions

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.[9]

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.[10]

  • Tefillin: As indicated in Deuteronomy 6:8 among other places, tefillin are to be placed on the arm and on the head between the eyes. However, there are no details provided regarding what tefillin are or how they are to be constructed.
  • Kosher laws: As indicated in Exodus 23:19 among other places, a kid may not be boiled in its mother's milk. In addition to numerous other problems with understanding the ambiguous nature of this law, there are no vowelization characters in the Torah; they are provided by the masoretic tradition. This is particularly relevant to this law, as the Hebrew word for milk is identical to the word for fat when vowels are absent. Without the oral tradition, it is not known whether the violation is in mixing meat with milk or with fat.
  • Shabbat laws: With the severity of Sabbath violation, namely the death penalty, one would assume that direction would be provided as to how exactly such a serious and core commandment should be upheld. However, there is little to no information as to what can and cannot be performed on the Sabbath. Karaites, nonetheless, do keep the Shabbat according to their own, different traditions and interpretations, as described in detail in the special section above.
  • Mezuzah:As indicated in Deuteronomy 6:9, a mezuzah needs to be placed on the doorposts of your house. However, there are no details regarding where on the doorpost, if it is all doorposts or just one, what words go in it, how the words should be written or how the mezuzah should be constructed.

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 [11] and Ovadia Yosef [12] 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.[13] 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." [14]

History of Karaism

The Karaite Synagogue in the Old City (Jerusalem)

  • 120 BC

"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.", John Gill (1767)[15]

  • 30 BC

Hillel the Elder and Shammai[16]

Karaism appears to be a combination from various Jewish groups in Mesopotamia, that rejected the Talmudic tradition as an innovation. Karaites may also be the remnant of the Sadducees, the Second Temple priestly class who rejected the Pharisees' claim to an "Oral Law". Some 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.

In the 9th century CE 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. It must be noted that the Boethusians were an offshoot movement of the Sadducees that differed on issues of purity, and calendarical issues. Anan led a polemic with the rabbinical establishment and later non-Ananist sects emerged, like the Ukbarites.

The dispute between Saadiah Gaon and the Karaites helped to consolidate the split between them.

Karaites, Sadducees, and Philo

Abraham Geiger posited a connection between the Karaites and the Sadducees based on comparison between Karaite and Sadducee halakha. However Dr. Bernard Revel in his dissertation on "Karaite Halacha" rejects many of Geiger's proofs. Dr. Revel also points to the many correlations between Karaite halakha and theology and the interpretations of the Alexandrian philosopher Philo. He also points to 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. There is a minority in Karaite Judaism, who like the Sadducees do not believe in a final resurrection or after-life.[18]

The Golden Age of Karaism

The "Golden Age of Karaism" was between 10th-11th centuries CE 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. 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.

Aaron Ben Moses Ben Asher

Aaron ben Moses ben Asher lived in Tiberias during the first half of the 10th century. His family had been involved in creating and maintaining the Masorah for either five or six generations. Ben-Asher rapidly gained fame as the most authoritative of the Tiberias masoretes, and, even after his death, his name continued to hold respect.

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"

Since most Torah scribes today continue to rely on the writing rules of Rambam as their guide, the Masorah as established by Aaron Ben Moses Ben Asher was influential indeed.

His vocalization of the Bible is still, for all intents and purposes, the text Jews continue to use.

Moreover, Aaron ben Moses ben Asher was the first to take Hebrew grammar seriously. 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 also, incidentally, Karaites.

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.

The surprising element was that being a Karaite didn't disqualify Aaron ben Moses ben Asher in the eyes of Rabbinic Jews (like Rambam).

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." That's pretty Karaitic. 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]

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 other 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

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),[21] 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 availability of the Firkovich collections of Karaite manuscripts in the Russian National Library following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The cataloguing efforts of scholars at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and in the United States and England is continuing to yield new insights into Karaite literature and thought.

See also

  • List of Karaite Jews
  • Aaron ben Moses ben Asher—refiner of the Tiberian writing system, regarded as produced the most accurate version of the Masoretic Text.
  • Abraham Firkovich—a famous leader of the Crimean Karaites, a collector of manuscripts, and was an amateur archeologist.
  • Abraham Kefeli—Hakham and Rav in Ashdod, Israel
  • Anan ben David—founder of the Ananites, a group that became a part of the Karaite movement.
  • Avraham Qanai—Hakham of the Karaite community "Orah Çaddıqım" in Albany, New York
  • Benjamin Nahawandi—regarded by some as the proper originator of Karaism as it has come down through the ages.
  • Crimean Karaites—the Turkic-speaking Jews of the Crimea
  • Gerşom QiprisçiHakham Bashi of the High Religious Council of the Crimean/Russian Karaites in Western Europe, the United States and Israel
  • Judah Hadassi—12th century scholar, philosopher, and grammarian from Constantinople.
  • Karaim language—a Turkic language with Hebrew influences
  • Karaite Jewish University
  • Letter of the Karaite elders of Ascalon
  • Nehemia Gordon—arguably the best known Karaite Jew of this era, an author/scholar, and co-founder of World Karaite Movement.


  1. A.J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically, p69.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Joshua Freeman. "Laying down the (Oral) law". The Jerusalem Post. 
  3. Freeman, Joshua. "Laying down the (Oral) law". The Jerusalem Post, May 22, 2007, p. 14.
  4. Karaites hold first conversion in 500 years. 2 August 2007, JTA Breaking News.
  5. [1]
  6. 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.
  7. Nehemia Gordon, The Pronunciation of the Name
  8. Yihweh, This Is My Name Forever
  9. Maimonidies, Mishneh Torah, Judges, Laws of Rebels, 3:3
  10. Rietti, Rabbi Jonathan. The Oral Law: The Heart of The Torah
  11. Tehumin 18, 20
  12. Yabia Omer EH 8:12
  13. Hilchot Mamrim 3:2-3
  14. May 22, 2007, "Laying down the (Oral) law by Joshua Freeman"
  15. A Dissertation Concerning the Antiquity of the Hebrew Language, John Gill, p. 538-542 [2]
  16. 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.
  17. Oesterley, W. O. E. & Box, G. H. (1920) A Short Survey of the Literature of Rabbinical and Mediæval Judaism, Burt Franklin:New York.
  19. Results of the Russian Empire Census of 1897, Table XII (Religions)
  21. a translation of which can be found at

Further reading

  • Karaite Anthology (Leon Nemoy) ISBN 0-300-03929-8
  • Karaite Jews of Egypt (Mourad el-Kodsi) (1987)
  • Karaite Separatism in 19th Century Russia (Philip Miller)
  • An Introduction to Karaite Judaism (Yaron, et al.) ISBN 0-9700775-4-8
  • Karaite Judaism and Historical Understanding (Fred Astren) ISBN 1-57003-518-0
  • Just for the record in the history of the Karaite Jews of Egypt in modern times (Mourad el-Kodsi) (2002)
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls in the Historiography and Self-Image of Contemporary Karaites (Daniel J. Lasker) Dead Sea Discoveries, Nov 2002, Vol. 9 Issue 3, p281, 14p-294; DOI: 10.1163/156851702320917832; (AN 8688101)
  • Karaites of Christendom—Karaites of Islam (W.M. Brinner) from "The Islamic World: Essays in Honor of Bernard Lewis" Princeton University Press 1989
  • Heir to the Glimmering World (Cynthia Ozick) A fictional story about a historian of the Karaism.
  • A History of the Jews in Christian Spain (Yitzhak Baer) Vol 1
  • The Jews of Spain, A History of the Sephardic Experience (Jane S. Gerber)
  • 'The Written' as the Vocation of Conceiving Jewishly (John W McGinley) ISBN 0-595-40488-X
  • The History of the Jewish People: Volume II, the Early Middle Ages (Moses A. Shulvass)
  • Dan Shapira, “Remarks on Avraham Firkowicz and the Hebrew Mejelis 'Document'”, Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 59:2 (2006): 131–180.
  • M. Polliack (ed.), Karaite Judaism: Introduction to Karaite Studies (Leiden, Brill, 2004).
  • Kizilov, Mikhail, “Faithful Unto Death: Language, Tradition, and the Disappearance of the East European Karaite Communities,” East European Jewish Affairs, 36:1 (2006), 73–93.
  • Shapira, Dan, Avraham Firkowicz in Istanbul (1830–1832): Paving the Way for Turkic Nationalism (Ankara, KaraM, 2003).
  • Kizilov, Mikhail, Karaites through the Travelers’ Eyes: Ethnic History, Traditional Culture and Everyday Life of the Crimean Karaites According to Descriptions of the Travelers (New York, al-Qirqisani, 2003).
  • Daniel J. Lasker, From Judah Hadassi to Elijah Bashyatchi: Studies in Late Medieval Karaite Philosophy (Leiden, Brill, 2008) (Supplements to The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 4), xvi, 296 pp.

External links

General Karaite links

Karaite Judaism by region


Eastern Europe

Spanish persecution of Karaites

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