Total Pageviews

Friday, August 30, 2013

Are the Karaites Jewish?

Nadene Goldfoot                                                                         

Karaites  were Jewish people living in ancient Israel who followed the Torah along with all the rest of the 12 Tribes and others. They consider themselves following the original form of Judaism.  It is possible they were members of the Saducees.  Most all Jews  were dispersed at the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE though some were not rounded up and taken as slaves and remained.  The earliest appearance as a sect of Judaism was in 1177-1187 CE by Rabbi Petakhya from Regensburg who met them in "the land of Qedar.  This could have been somewhere in eastern Europe.

They have been found in Constantinople/Istanbul, the Crimean, Asia Minor, the Balkans, Syria (Damascus) Cypus, Moslem Spain (Toledo), Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. The Palestinian and Egyptian centers of Karaites surpassed those of Persia and Babylonia.  Part of this was because of lenient marriage regulations adopted in the 11th century superseding strict rules by Anan and the early Karaite scholars.  Anan Ben David of the 2nd half of the 8th century was perhaps not the  founder of the sect of Karaites, but was with a similar group that joined the Karaites.  He was the oldest son of the Babylonian exilarch and learned in Jewish law but followed one of the messianic sects then prevalent in Babylon.  His younger brother, Hananiah,  then was chosen  by the caliph in about 760 CE  as head of the academy.   Because they were found in  the Pale of Settlement (Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania), I become very interested as my grandfather came from Telsiai, Lithuania and we consider ourselves as Ashkenazis with the DNA haplogroup of Q1b1a, which is 5% of the Jewish population.

The Palestinian Karaites (those that remained in Israel and Judah after 135 CE) were austere, and settled in Jerusalem and adopted the custom of the Avele Zion who mourned for the Temple and prayed continually for redemption.  The Diaspora communities accepted the authority of the Jerusalem scholars.  Karaism was checked in the 12th century.  There was a verbal dispute in Spain that lasted for 150 years when Judah Ibn Ezra in Castile suppressed the Karaites.  They were also weakened in Palestine by the Seljuk Turks and the Crusaders.  Maimonides curbed the Karaite activity in Egypt.  Leadership of the Karaites then went to people in Constantinople, Adrianople, etc. where scholars added more literature.  By the 12th century, Karaism arrived in Lithuania.  It was found in Troki in the 13th century and Volhynia (Luck).

.  From early times in Israel there had existed a tradition of interpretation and analysis of the Written Law of Moses, and this was handed down orally from generation to generation, as each improved upon understanding the statements.  Thus, no one can say that our religion is "old" or stagnant.  Each time it was updated for better understanding and to fit in their contemporary society.  However, with the Karaites, they felt it was up to each person to interpret the law on his own.

Evidently when Assyria attacked Israel in 721 BCE and then Babylon followed up in 597-586 BCE, many Jews eventually found themselves living in Persia along with Queen Esther.  When Jews returned to Israel from the Babylonian Exile, it was most important that they retain knowledge of their descent and history.  Not only for historical reasons, but also this served as status in their society which affected their relationships with other prominent families, like the ruling House of David.  Jews who had assimilated with non-Jewish neighbors while in Babylon, something not often happening, found that their lineage was thought suspicious especially if they had been a member of the priesthood, the Cohens.  This is referred to in the Book of Ezra.

Judean Jews intermingled with previous exiled Israeli Jews from Assyrian times in Babylon. Their leaders were from of the Davidic dynasty.   Jews were able to return to Israel when Cyrus gave them permission.

During the 2nd Temple period of 538-515 BCE, the Oral Tradition handed down was upheld by the Pharisees and supported by the majority of the people, but it wasn't recognized by the Saducees or the Essenes who had developed their own interpretations of the written law.  When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the Pharisaic view won out.  Students would study the Oral Law in many academies.  Then parts of the Oral Law were finally recorded so as not to be forgotten.  Thus, the Mishnah was compiled by Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi.

The very discussion about the laws were recorded later as the Talmud (Gemara).  During the Gaonic Period, the Karaites rejected the Oral Law and denied the validity of the Talmud.  The Gaons were the intellectual leaders, often with power of the Babylonian Jewish community in the post-Talmudic period from the 6th to the 11th century CE.  They were the heads of the academies.  At the end of the 9th century, the academies of 2 different groups moved to Baghdad.

Conventional Rabbis avoided confrontation with the Karaite group until Saadyah Gaon who died in 942 CE attacked them violently and sought to exclude them from the Jewish community.  Various groups closed their ranks and united.  This caused the Golden Age of Karaite literature in both Arabic and Hebrew, producing much writings.  The Gaon failed in his act and much intermarriage continued.  Karaites studied with rabbis and were influenced by them.

 Thus, we find the Vilna Gaon in Lithuania (Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman 1720-1797), a Talmudist. We know he traveled in Poland and Germany, finally settling in Vilna, Lithuania.   He was one against the Hasidism spreading in Lithuania.                            
When the Russians annexed Lithuania and Crimea in the 18th century, Russian Karaites received privileges and rights from the Czars which were denied to the Rabbanites.  The Russian Revolution cut off the Crimean Karaites from others.  350 Karaites survived in WWII in the Crimea and the Russian 1970 census showed a population of the USSR at 4,571 .  In 1991 Troki had 288.  Many from Jerusalem and Damascus had moved to Egypt and then in 1948 they moved back to Israel in Matzliah and other places.  In 1990 Israel had 25,000 Karaites.

Karaites doctrine is conservative and more stringent than rabbinical teaching.  They forbid levirate marriage and all Sabbath illumination and is stricter on laws of purity. That means that  sexual intercourse is encouraged for married couples for Shabbat by Rabbinites, while it is forbidden by Karaites.  They have different laws of ritual slaughter which prevents inter-mingling with the Rabbanites.  They do not celebrate Hanukkah as that is a post biblical historical event.  They don't use tephillin or mezuzot.  Their own Oral Law has evolved with time and sometimes is the same as rabbinical tradition.  The only big difference we Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews have with them is the sanctity of the Oral Law.  Their literature deals with practical observances and doesn't discuss ethics and metaphysics, with the exception of Aaron ben Elijah who was influence by Maimonides.  Anon abolished the afternoon prayer but he said this was from the post biblical period inserted by the Rabbinites.  He wrote prayers from biblical verses.

Intermarriage between Karaites and Ashkenazi Jews rarely happened, especially not in the Austrian Empire.  Some did take place  in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union.   Examples show marriage contracts with special clauses to fit a Karaite-Rabbanite marriage.  A few converts went over to Karaism, most likely with the wife converting.   The rule of being Jewish with Karaites is through the father which used to be followed by Rabbinical Judaism until the 4th century BCE.  Some men from both communities had a special inherited title added to their name.  Cohen shows a descent from the priests who served in the temple in Jerusalem.  Levi is the name of the tribe who served the priests.  This would be found in both groups.

Eastern European Karaites were found who spoke a Turkic language.  It is thought that perhaps they descended from one or more Turkic-speaking tribes who had converted to Karaite Judaism like the Khazars or Kipchaks.  I know that my grandfather b: 1871 in Telsiai, Lithuania, spoke Yiddish and had a Yiddish-German surname of Goldfus, so he wasn't a Karaite, though could have had a few of their genes.   "DNA study has led us to conclude that they also descend in part from ethnic groups that lived in the Byzantine Empire and in Asia. They may have small amounts of Western European and Caucasus region ancestries (the Byzantine Empire at times included portions of those regions)." Brook.  Today, Karaites are a very small minority, and most Rabbinical Jews do not even know that they exist.

Resource: The Genetic Signatures of East European Karaites
by Kevin Alan Brook, Leon Kull, and Adam J. Levin
The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia
Corrected .  


Nadene Goldfoot said...

from Kevin Alan Brook, author of the
"Jews of Khazaria",
Rabbi Petakhiah's travelog about Karaites in the land of Qedar
specifically places them in eastern Europe.
It was definitely not in Arabia (in his usage of the term Qedar).
This isn't the first reference to Karaites in the world, only the first
reference to them in eastern Europe.

Another error: Anan Ben David was NOT the founder of Karaism, but of a
similar movement that later got combined with Karaism.

Nadene Goldfoot said...

Thank you Mr. Brook, for helping me to get the facts correct. After trying to find Qedar, I mistakedly concluded it was in Arabia. Eastern Europe is then where they have been found. My Jewish Encyclopedia gave me the wrong info about Anan, then. I shall go correct my errors.

albertuk said...

There is some debate whether Anan was the founder of Karaism or not. I adopt the view that he was. But if he wasn't, then he was his most important promoter and greatly helped the sect to "take off". This is because there is not much reference about the existence of Karaism before Anan. Anyway, it is surely an open question. I mention the above in my web page at

Unknown said...

Karaites are actually mentioned in the Talmud - Pesachim 117a. There's little doubt that Anan ben David was not the originator of this sect as the Karaim originally existed in several sects (as many as 10) which later coalesced into a more homogeneous entity in latter times. Today Karaites are experiencing a renaissance of sorts in Israel but outside Israel the movement is bordering on non-existence.