Karaite Judaism

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(Redirected from Karaism)


Karaite Judaism is a Jewish denomination characterized by reliance on the Tanakh as the sole scripture, and rejection of the Oral Law (the Mishnah and the Talmuds) as halakha (Legally Binding, i.e. required religious practice). The word "Karaite" comes from the Hebrew word קְרָאִים (Standard Hebrew Qəraʾim; Tiberian Hebrew Qərāʾm), meaning "Readers (of Scripture)". This name was chosen by the adherents of Karaite Judaism to distinguish themselves from the adherents of Rabbinic Judaism.

The adherents of Karaite Judaism rely on the Tanakh as the sole scripture. When interpreting scripture Karaites strive to adhere to the p'shat (plain meaning) of the text. This is in contrast to Rabbinical Judiasm, which employs the methods of p'shat, remez (implication or clue), drash ("deep interpretation," based on changing the meaning of the words and the way they are read to another meaning) and sod ("secret," the Kabbalistic meaning of the text). There are approximately 50,000 adherents to Karaite Judaism, most of whom reside in Israel. Karaite Judaism is in a period of growth and renewal in the USA. However, exact numbers are not known, as most Karaites have not participated in any religious censuses.


Karaite beliefs

Karaites and the Rabbinic Oral law

Karaites do not accept the Rabbinic Oral Law as halakha because:

  • They do not believe that the Oral Law is mentioned in the Tanakh.
  • They believe that all the Torah was written down during the lifetime of Moses and Joshua, and that there is only one Torah.
  • They believe the Oral Law "adds" or "takes away" from the plain meaning of the text.
  • They believe it to contradict the text at times.
  • The Mishnah and Talmud record the opinions of Rabbis who disagree with each other. The Rabbis explain that whenever there are such disagreements, "both opinions are the words of the living God". Karaites maintain that it is unreasonable to believe that God would contradict Himself.
  • The Tanach reports that the written Torah was lost and forgotten for over 50 years and only rediscovered by the Temple priests (2Ki 22:8, 2Chr 34:15). Karaites believe that it is inconceivable that an Oral Law could have been remembered when the written Law was forgotten.

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. 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 which are in contradiction with those expressed in the Torah. This is seen especially by the fact that the Karaites also have their own traditions which 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 is found to be in disagreement with the Bible.

Missing image
An example of full prostration as shown in the American Karaite Siddur

For those Karaites who do not have such an "inheritance" or "tradition," they tend to rely heavily upon the Tanakh and those practices found within it, as well as adapting Biblical practices into their own cultural context. This lack of tradition could be for many reasons; one is that many modern Karaites are the result of the Karaite revival in large part due to the World Karaite Movement (http://www.karaite-korner.org/), a revival group started by Nehemia Gordon and Meir Rekhavi in the early 90's. Another may be the fact that Karaite communities are small and generally isolated that its members generally adopt the customs of their host country. A prime example of this would be the beginnings of cultural assimilation of traditional Israeli Karaites into mainstream society.

The Calendar

Karaites rely on observations of the Moon to begin their months, and on observations of barley (called the Aviv) to begin their years, as deduced from statements in the Torah (Aviv is both a marker for the first month of the Biblical Hebrew calendar, and the next-to-last stage in the growth of barley, which it was in during the plague of hail shortly before the first Passover). Before quick worldwide communication was available, Karaites in the Diaspora used a variety of methods to determine the calendar, including observation and calculation, along with reports from Jerusalem.

The Sabbath

As with other Jews, during the Jewish Sabbath Karaites attend synagogues to worship and to offer prayers. However, most Karaites refrain from sexual relations on the day. Their prayerbooks are comprised almost completely of biblical passages. Karaites often practice full prostration during prayers, which is practiced by most Jews only on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.


A karaite Tzitzit with blue threads
A karaite Tzitzit with blue threads

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


Contrary to the beliefs of some, Karaites do not wear tefillin in any form. According to the World Karaite Movement, the Biblical passages cited for this practice are metaphorical, and mean to "remember the Torah always and treasure it."


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. Therefore, they do not put up mezuzot, although many Karaites do have a small plaque with the Aseret haDibrot on their doorposts. In Israel, in an effort to make other Jews comfortable, many Karaites there also put up mezuzot.

History of Karaism

The Golden Age of Karaism

The "Golden Age of Karaism" was a period of time in which a large number of Karaitic works were produced. The amount of Jews affiliating with Karaism comprised approximately 40% of Jewry, and debates between Rabbinic and Karaitic leaders were not uncommon. Most notable are the writings of Rabbi Saadia Gaon and his attacks on Karaism, which eventually led to a permanent split between Karaitic and Rabbinic communities.

Russian Karaites

During the 18th century, Russian Karaites spread many myths externally which freed them from various anti-Semitic laws that affected other Jews. Avraham Firkovitch helped establish these ideas by forging tombstones in Crimea which bear inscriptions stating that those buried were of the "lost tribes" of Israel. Other myths included the invention of the Khazar origin, or that they were not Jewish, among others. These actions were intended to convince the Russian Czar that they could not have killed Jesus, which was an underlying reason for the anti-semitic laws.

Intermarriages between Karaite and Rabbinic Jews, however, still took place. Russian Karaites relate that because they were prohibited from learning their ancestors' beliefs under communism, many were taught and believed these myths. Because of the above, and a ruling by Orthodox Rabbis intended to save the Karaites, the Nazis of the World War II generally left the Karaites alone during the Holocaust.

Crimean and Lithuanian Karaites

See main article: Crimean Karaites.

The Karaim (Turkish Qaraylar) are a distinctive Karaite community from the Crimea. Their Turkic language is called Karaim. Some Karaim resettled in Lithuania during the 1400's.

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 its King to allow persecution of Karaite Jews. It became common during the 11th century for a Karaite to be flogged to death if he or she did not abandon his or her beliefs. With Royal Assistance, Rabbi Todros Halevi and Joseph ibn Alfakhar successfully drove out the surviving Karaite population.

Missing image
Karaite Synagogue Bnei Yisrael

The Karaites today

See also List of Karaite Jews

In Israel, the Karaite Jewish leadership is directed by a group called "Universal Karaite Judaism". Most of the members of its Board of Hakhams are of Egyptian Jewish descent.

There are about 2,000 Karaites living in the United States. Most live near the only Karaite synagogue in the United States, which is located in Daly City, California.

Karaite writings

An Israeli Stamp featuring the Karaite Jews.
An Israeli Stamp featuring the Karaite Jews.

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

The most well-known Karaite polemic is חיזוק אמונה (Faith Strengthened), a comprehensive Counter-Missionary polemic which was later translated into Latin under the name of 'The Fiery Darts of Satan'. Many Counter-Missionary materials produced today are based upon or cover the same themes as this book. Scholarly studies of Karaite writings are still in their infancy.

Further reading

  • Karaite Anthology (Leon Nemoy) ISBN 0300039298
  • Karaite Jews of Egypt (Mourad el-Qodsi)
  • Karaite Separatism in 19th Century Russia (Philip Miller)
  • An Introduction to Karaite Judaism (Yaron, et. al.) ISBN 0970077548
  • Karaite Judaism and Historical Understanding (Fred Astren) ISBN 1570035180

External links

  • Karaim website (http://www.turkiye.net/sota/karaim.html) Information about Turkic/Crimean Karaites

Spanish persecution of Karaites

he:יהדות קראית nl:Karatisch jodendom no:Karaittisk jdedom pl:Karaimi


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