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Karaite Judaism or Karaism is a Jewish movement characterized by the recognition of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) alone as its supreme legal authority in Halakhah (Jewish law) and theology. It is distinct from mainstream Rabbinic Judaism (also known as Rabbinism, and its practitioners sometimes as Rabbanites), which considers the Oral Torah, the legal decisions of the Sanhedrin as codified in the Talmud, and subsequent works to be authoritative interpretations of the Torah. Karaism is thought to have arisen in the 7th-9th centuries CE in Baghdad and possibly in Egypt. Karaites maintain that all of the divine commandments handed down to Moses by God were recorded in the written Torah, without additional Oral Law or explanation. As a result, Karaite Jews do not accept as binding the written collections of the oral tradition in the Mishnah or Talmud. When interpreting the Tanakh, Karaites strive to adhere to the plain or most obvious meaning ("peshat") of the text; this is not necessarily the literal meaning, but rather the meaning that would have been naturally understood by the ancient Israelites when the books of the Tanakh were first written. Due to the tremendous changes in Jewish culture and religious practice over the past 4,000 years, the peshat may not be as easily understood as it once was in Biblical Israel, and must now be derived from textual clues such as language, and context. In contrast, Rabbinic Judaism relies on the legal rulings of the Sanhedrin, the highest court in ancient Israel, as they are codified in the Mishnah, Talmud, and other sources, to indicate the authentic meaning of the Torah. Karaite Judaism holds every interpretation of the Tanakh to the same scrutiny regardless of its source, and teaches that it is the personal responsibility of every individual Jew to study the Torah, and ultimately decide for themselves its correct meaning. Therefore, Karaites may consider arguments made in the Talmud and other works without exalting them above other viewpoints. According to Rabbi Avraham ben David, in his Sefer HaQabbalah, the Karaite movement crystallized in Baghdad in the Gaonic period (circa 7th–9th centuries CE), under the Abbasid Caliphate in what is present-day Iraq. This is the view universally accepted among Rabbinic Jews. However, the claim has been made that Karaites were already living in Egypt in the first half of the 7th century, the evidence consisting of a legal document that the Karaite community in Egypt had in its possession until the end of the 19th century, which document was said to be stamped by the palm of ˁAmr Ibn al-ˁAṣ, the first Islamic governor of Egypt, in which he ordered the leaders of the Rabbanite community not to interfere in the way of life of the Karaites nor with the way they celebrate their holidays. This document was reported to be dated 20 AH (641 CE). Many traditionalist Karaites maintain that the origin of the Karaite Judaism was with the giving of the Torah to Moses, that Karaite Judaism is the form of Judaism practiced by the original Israelites under Moses. Under this view, the Karaites would not have been significantly distinct from any other form of Judaism until the formation of the Pharisees far after the return of the exiles in Babylon. This view proposes that Rabbinic Judaism (which formed from the Pharisees) innovated the religion with the Oral Law, while this view also proposes that Karaite Judaism is primarily unchanged from Judaism's original form. Historians have argued over whether Karaism has a direct connection to anti-Rabbinic sects and views, such as those of the Sadducees, dating back to the end of the Second Temple period (70 CE), or whether Karaism represents a novel emergence of similar views. Karaites have always maintained that, while there are some similarities to the Sadducees, there are also differences, and that the ancestors of the Karaites were another group called Benei Ṣedeq during the Second Temple Period. Karaites were at one time a significant proportion of the Jewish population. In the early 21st century, it was estimated that there were somewhat more than 50,000 Karaites worldwide, over 40,000 of whom had made aliyah (emigrated to Israel) from Arab countries such as Egypt and Iraq.
History and time period
Arguments among Jewish sects regarding the validity of the Oral Law can be dated back to the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE. Accordingly, some scholars trace the origin of Karaism to those who rejected the Talmudic tradition as an innovation. Abraham Geiger posited a connection between the Karaites as a remnant of the Sadducees, the 1st-century Jewish sect that followed the Hebrew Bible literally and rejected the Pharisees' notion of an Oral Torah even before it was written. Geiger's view is based on comparison between Karaite and Sadducee halakhah: for example, there is a minority in Karaite Judaism who, like the Sadducees, do not believe in a final resurrection or after-life.The British theologian John Gill (1767) noted, "In the times of John Hyrcanus, and Alexander Janneus his son, sprung up the sect: of the Karaites, in opposition to the Pharisees, who had introduced traditions, and set up the oral law, which these men rejected. In the times of the said princes lived Simeon ben Shetach, and Judah ben Tabbai, who flourished A. M. 3621, these two separated, the latter from the former, because he could not embrace his inventions which he formed out of his own brain; and from him the Karaites sprung, who were first called the society or congregation of Judah ben Tabbai, which was afterwards changed into the name of Karaites." Gill also traces the Karaite sect to the split between the schools of Hillel the Elder and Shammai in 30 BCE. However, Bernard Revel, in his dissertation on "Karaite Halakhah," rejects many of Geiger's proofs. Revel also points to the many correlations between Karaite halakha and theology and the interpretations Philo of Alexandria, the 1st-century philosopher and Jewish scholar, as well as the writings of a 10th-century Karaite who brings down the writings of Philo, showing that the Karaites made use of Philo's writings in the development of their movement. Although later Medieval Karaite commentators did not view Philo in a favorable light. These attitudes show a friction between later Karaite theology and possible connections to Philo's philosophy which could serve as either a rejection of their origins, rejecting theological positions no longer accepted, or that Philo's philosophy was not entirely utilized in its founding (although some influences remain possible). Others suggest that the major impetus for the formation of Karaism was a reaction to the rise of Islam, which recognized Judaism as a fellow monotheistic faith, but claimed that it detracted from this monotheism by deferring to rabbinical authority. Some claim that Karaism is the original form of Judaism and rabbinic Judaism branched off from it. 9th century: Anan Ben David is widely considered to be a major founder of the Karaite movement. His followers were called Ananites and, like modern Karaites, did not believe the Rabbinic Jewish oral law was divinely inspired. According to 12th century Rabbanite account, in approximately 760 CE, Shelomoh ben Ḥisdai II the Jewish exilarch in Babylon died, and two brothers among his nearest kin, ‘Anan ben David (whose name according to the Rabbanite account was ‘Anan ben Shafaṭ, but was called ben David due to his Davidic lineage) and Ḥananyah, were next in order of succession. Eventually Ḥananyah was elected by the rabbis of the Babylonian Jewish colleges (the Ge’onim) and by the notables of the chief Jewish congregations, and the choice was confirmed by the Caliph of Baghdad. A schism may have occurred, with ‘Anan Ben David being proclaimed exilarch by his followers. However, not all scholars agree that this event occurred. Leon Nemoy notes that "Natronai, scarcely ninety years after ‘Anan's secession, tells us nothing about his aristocratic (Davidic) descent or about the contest for the office of exilarch which allegedly served as the immediate cause of his apostasy." He later notes that Natronai — a devout Rabbanite Jew — lived where ‘Anan's activities took place, and that the Karaite sage Ya‘akov Al-Qirqisani never mentioned ‘Anan's purported lineage or candidacy for exilarch. Anan allowed himself to be proclaimed Exilarch by his followers, a step construed into treason by the Mahommedan government. He was sentenced to death, but his life was saved by his fellow prisoner, Abu Iianifa, the founder of the great school of Moslem theology and jurisprudence. Ultimately he and his followers were permitted to migrate to Palestine. They erected a synagogue in Jerusalem which continued to be maintained until the time of the Crusades. From this center the sect diffused itself thinly over Syria, spread into Egypt, and ultimately reached S.E. Europe. Ben David challenged the Rabbanite establishment and some scholars conjecture that his followers may have absorbed Jewish Babylonian sects such as the Isunians (followers of Abu ‘Isa al-Isfahani), Yudghanites, and the remnants of the pre-Talmudic Sadducees and Boethusians; later, non-Ananist sects such as the Ukbarites emerged. However, the Isunians, Yudghanites, ‘Ukabarites, and Mishawites all held views that did not accord with either those of the ‘Ananites or the Karaites. Abu ‘Isa al-Isfahani, who was an illiterate tailor, claimed to be a prophet, prohibited divorce, claimed that all months should have thirty days, believed in Jesus and Muhammad as prophets, and told his followers that they must study the New Testament and the Qur’an; Yudghan was a follower of ‘Isa al-Isfahani and claimed to be a prophet and the Messiah and claimed that the observance of Shabbat and Holy Days was no longer obligatory; Isma‘’il al-‘Ukbari believed he was the prophet Elijah, and hated ‘Anan; and Mishawayh al-‘Ukbari, who was a disciple of Isma‘’il al-‘Ukbari and the founder of the Mishawites, taught his followers to use a purely solar calendar of 364 days and 30 day months, insisted that all the Holy Days and fast days should always occur on fixed days in the week, rather than on fixed days of the months, and said that Shabbat should be kept from sunrise on Saturday to sunrise on Sunday. Such beliefs were anathema to Ananites and Karaites and their practitioners were excoriated by the Karaites, thus the conjecture that they were absorbed by the Ananites and Karaites is absurd. Anan devoted himself to the development of his movement's core tenets. His Sefer HaMiṣwot ("The Book of the Commandments") was published about 770. He adopted many principles and opinions of other anti-rabbinic forms of Judaism that had previously existed. He took much from the old Sadducees and Essenes, whose remnants still survived, and whose writings—or at least writings ascribed to them—were still in circulation. Thus, for example, these older sects prohibited the burning of any lights and the leaving of one's dwelling on the Sabbath (unlike the Sadducees, ‘Anan and the Qumran sectaries prohibited leaving one's town or camp, but not one's house; ‘Anan said that one should not leave one's house for frivolous things, but only to go to prayer or to study scripture); they also enjoined the actual observation of the new moon for the appointment of festivals, and the holding of the Pentecost festival always on a Sunday. The Golden Age: In the "Golden Age of Karaism" (900–1100) a large number of Karaite works were produced in all parts of the Muslim world. Karaite Jews were able to obtain autonomy from Rabbanite Judaism in the Muslim world and establish their own institutions. Karaites in the Muslim world also obtained high social positions such as tax collectors, doctors, and clerks, and even received special positions in the Egyptian courts. Karaite scholars were among the most conspicuous practitioners in the philosophical school known as Jewish Kalam. According to historian Salo Wittmayer Baron, at one time the number of Jews affiliating with Karaism comprised as much as 40 percent of world Jewry, and debates between Rabbanite and Karaite leaders were not uncommon. Most notable among the opposition to Karaite thought and practice at this time are the writings of Rabbi Saadia Gaon, which eventually led to a permanent split between some Karaite and Rabbanite communities. Russian Karaimi (Qaraylar): During the late 19th century, Russian Karaites began to be differentiated from Rabbanite Jews, which freed them from various anti-Semitic laws that affected Jews. The Tsarist governor of the Crimea told the Karaite leaders that, even though the Tsarist government liked the idea that the Karaites did not accept the Talmud (which the church taught was the reason the Jews did not accept Jesus), they were still Jews and responsible for the death of Jesus and subject to the new antisemitic laws. The leaders, hearing that, devised a ruse by which they could be freed of the oppressive laws and told him that the Karaites were already settled in the Crimea before the death of Jesus. The Tsarist government then said that, if they could prove it, they would be free of the oppressive laws. Avraham Firkovich was charged by the community leaders to gather anything that could help "prove" that they were not in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus and, thus, not responsible for his death. Through his work he helped establish the idea amongst the Tsarist authorities that the Karaites were descendants of the exiled northern kingdom of Israel and therefore were already in exile for centuries before the death of Jesus and were thus not responsible for it. Through referring to the tombstones in Crimea (and altering the dates) and the gathering of thousands of Karaite, Rabbanite, and Samaritan manuscripts, including one Rabbanite document from the southern Caucasus that claims that the Jews there were descendants of the exiles from the northern Kingdom of Israel. While that ruse did help relieve the Karaites of many of the oppressive laws, they still were second class citizens. A new ruse was to convince the Tsarist government that the Karaites actually were descendents of Turks/Mongols of Khazar origin that were converted to the Karaite religion by descendants of exiles from the northern kingdom of Israel and thus Karaites were otherwise not Jewish descended. These actions convinced the Russian Czar that Karaite ancestors could not have killed Jesus; that thus their descendants were free of familial guilt (which was an underlying reason or pretext given at that time for anti-Semitic laws). All this was for external consumption. Within the community Ḥakhamim still taught that the Karaites were and have always been a part of the Jewish people, prayer was in Hebrew, the lineage of Kohanim, Levites, and families of Davidic descent were meticulously preserved, books printed in Hebrew adamantly stated that the Karaites were Jews. In 1897, the Russian census counted 12,894 Karaims in the Russian Empire. By the early 20th century, most European Karaites were no longer very knowledgeable about the religion and Seraya Szapszal, a Karaite soldier of fortune who had been the tutor to the son of the last Qajar Shah of Persia and a Russian spy, managed to get himself elected Chief Ḥakham of the Karaites in the Russian Empire (by that time, due to Russian regulations, the position was more of a political one than a spiritual one), and influenced by the Pan-Turkic movement in Turkey (see Dan Shapira's work on the subject), made his position into that of an Emperor-priest, changing the title Ḥakham to Ḥakhan (being a cross between the Turkic titles Khaqan and Khan), forbade the use of Hebrew, introduced pagan elements (such as the worship of sacred oaks trees in the cemetery), and claimed that both Jesus and Muhammad were prophets (thus appeasing both the Russian Orthodox Tsarist government and the Muslim Turkic peoples). After the Bolshevik Revolution, atheism became official state policy and Karaite religious schools and places of worship were the very first religious institutions closed by the Soviet government. After that the only information about the Karaites that was allowed to be taught were the Szapszalian doctrines, and the official definition according to Russian law (carried over from Tsarist law) was the erroneous one that the Karaimi were the Turkic descendants of the Khazars and not Yevrei (the word in Russian for Rabbanite Jews) or Zhidi (the pejorative word in Russian for Rabbanite Jews). Not all European Karaites accepted the Szapszalian doctrines. Some Hakhamim and a small part of the general Karaite population still preserved their Jewish heritage, but most dared not oppose Szapszal openly due to his official standing vis-à-vis the Soviet government. Crimean and Lithuanian Karaites
The Karaim (Turkish Karaylar) are a distinctive Karaite community from the Crimea. Their Turkic language is called Karaim. According to a Karaite tradition several hundred Crimean Karaites were invited to Lithuania by Grand Duke Vytautas to settle in Trakai ca. 1397. A small community remains there to this day, which has preserved its language and distinctive customs, such as its traditional dish called "kibinai", a sort of meat pastry, and its houses with three windows, one for God, one for the family, and one for Grand Duke Vytautas. This community has access to two Kenessas (Synagogues). Until recent years the Qaraylar significantly outnumbered Karaite Jews in the region. Qaraylar claim to be the only group which most authentically preserves the ancient Karaite ideas of Abu Isa and Jacob Qirqisani. As a result of Qaraylar divorcing their movement from Judaism at large in previous centuries, the Mo‘eṣet HaḤakhamim committee promotes the exclusion of the Qaraylar from Universal Karaite Judaism and ‘Aliyah. 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 by the Rabbanites. With royal assistance, Rabbi Todros Halevi and Joseph ibn Alfakhar successfully drove out a large portion of the surviving Karaite population.
Karaites believe they observe the original form of Judaism, as prescribed by God in the Tanakh, and do not accept what they consider to be later additions 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 Divine providence and the majority hope for the coming of the Messiah.