Karaites have a historic religious lineage that dates back to the 1st and 2nd centuries. For as long as the religious movement exists, there have been theories and beliefs against their written Torah practices’ validity. Karaite Judaism witnessed centuries of comparisons between Rabbinic Judaism and still does today.
Let’s take a walk through the history and modern activities of Karaism.
Who Are The Karaites? Are They Different From Rabbinic Jews?
Karaites are believers of the Jewish religious movement that acknowledge the principles, doctrines, and ways of the written Torah as sovereignty in Halakha. The fact that Karaite Jews hold the divine commandments given to Moses dear to their hearts singles them from other Jews. In every Karaite’s eyes, God’s divine commandments in the written Torah are enough sovereign words and directions they need to live on Earth. Karaism believes there is no additional law or explanation.
Karaite synagogues are temples for respected teachers of the written Torah where they assist believers in understanding the recorded divine commandments of God to Moses. These synagogues help Karaites understand the exact difference between Rabbinic Judaism and Karaism. As we know, Rabbinic Judaism teaches Oral Torah highlighting the hidden secrets of Talmud and the subsequent works in Midrash. Unlike Rabbinic Judaism, Karaism prefers to stick to the context of the written Torah.
Karaites accept the written Torah’s evident and straightforward interpretations using the first sets of Torah-inspired books by ancient Israelites as a guide. On the other hand, the believers of Rabbinic Judaism treat law and order following the legal operations of the Sanhedrin. Benei Şedeq, as the people called the ancestors of Karaites during the “Second Temple Period” – historians still believe and argue that Karaites have their roots connected to the Sadducees. Many say that Karaites only share similar views as the Sadducees owing to their belief in the divine commandments.
Both Sadducees and Karaites share significant similarities due to the spite and disbelief of the Oral Law and Rabbinical interpretations of the written Torah. Many argue that Karaism started in the Gaonic Period on the lands of Baghdad. In the 7th and 9th centuries, the Karaites movement was fueled by the divine commandments under the Abbasid Caliphate. It’s not strange that a few Arab scholars believe the Karaites already resided in Egypt during the earlier part of the half-century.
The legal document in the custody of the Karaite community residing in Egypt at the time makes this story somewhat believable. Centuries ago, the Karaite population recorded a significantly higher number of the Jewish community. The Karaites are die-hard believers of Genesis 32, which forbids them from population censoring or counting of the Jews. The first Islamic governor’s intervention helped the Karaite community observe their holidays, separating them from the Rabbinic community.
The History of Karaite Judaism: Origins
The radical arguments between Jewish sects regarding the Oral Law’s authenticity can be traced back to the 1st and 2nd centuries BC. The Hellenistic Period, often referred to by the Jews, was the time the first Karaites refused the Talmudic tradition as some innovative religion. The pioneer of Reform Judaism, Abraham Geiger, created the link between a few Sadducees and Karaites, directing them with the Hebrew Bible while making them shun the Pharisees’ belief in the Oral Torah even before Rabbinic Judaism.
Geiger explicitly interpreted the written Torah by comparing the similarities between Karaites and the Sadducees. Although, Anan ben David is considered to be the pioneer of Karaism worldwide. In the 9th century, following the vibrant Karaite movement, Anan ben David’s followers were referred to as Ananites. Anan’s acclaimed Davidic lineage earned him the exilarch proclamation by his followers. Eventually, his aristocratic descent was questioned, leading to his charge of committing treason by the Muslim governmental council.
The “Golden Age of Karaism” is the two centuries when the Karaite movement stormed major parts of the Muslim world. During these years, Karaites successfully obtained autonomy from Rabbinic Judaism and established their institutions across several lands. To date, Karaite scholars are the most conspicuous believers of Jewish Kalam. At a time, the number of Jews practicing Karaism was recorded as 40% of the Jewish community. Saadia Gaon, an influential Rabbi of the Muslim community, initiated the central split of a few Karaites and Rabbinic communities.
Somehow, Russian authorities could differentiate Rabbinite Jews from those practicing Karaites. The Russian authorities eventually came up with by-laws to free the Karaite community from the oppressive legal rulings of Rabbinic Jews. Being descendants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Karaites were in exile hundreds of years before the crucifixion and death of Jesus. This was justifiable reason enough for the Russian authorities to exclude the Karaites from their oppressing laws against the Muslim community at the time.
The Russian authorities studied the Karaite Judaism conversion and the Karaite prayer book for decades to prove Karaism isn’t a threat to its citizens. Although against the Jewish law, the Russians counted as little above 12,850 Karaites residing in the Russian Empire as of 1897. Staying outside their heritage for centuries made most Karaites living in the European region ignorant of their religion. At this point, fanatics exploited their illiteracy introducing false teachings to the Karaite communities across the European region.
A few decades after these false teachings, the fanatics changed the Hakham title to “Hakhan.” Adding the Mongol-Turkic title ‘Khan’ to the latter part of Hakham. Mohammad Ali Shah Qajar’s contribution to the Karaite ruling committee forbade the use of Hebrew by Karaites. Sadly, the Karaite conversion became forceful across remote parts of the Muslim community in Europe. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 ended with the official inauguration of Atheism in the state’s policy. Several Karaite religious institutions and schools got shut down following the Atheism Soviet policies.
Categories of Belief
Rabbinic Judaism’s scholars and believers have to contradict theologies on the written Torah. Both Jewish communities have varying beliefs, institutional laws, marital laws, and legal rulings.
Briefly, we’d categorize the Karaites’ beliefs, which makes them different from Rabbinic Judaism and other Jewish communities.
Shabbat is a common belief and tradition common to all Jews. A day where the Jewish community offers its prayers, requests, worship, and supplications in their synagogues. The Karaites refrain from sexual activities on Shabbat since their involvements could cause fatigue, which could potentially reduce the quality of their worship. Unlike what the Rabbinic Jews are known for, Karaism doesn’t support the lighting of Shabbat candles. Karaism believes all fires should be put out from the homes of all Karaites on Shabbat. Today, this includes turning off the electric circuit.
– Laws of Ritual Purity
Karaite Jews hold to a high regard for their ritual purity laws and have strict punishments for perpetrators even in Karaite synagogues. Karaism accepts the substitution of ordinary flowing water during cleansing at the temple for water containing ashes from the “Red Heifer” burning ritual. Karaites in Israel and other global communities believe this to be an ancient ritual purity practice before the Tabernacle was erected in the Sinai Peninsula. The Karaite community is guided by Torah Laws that prevent them from making contact with the dead to avoid ritual impurity.
– Interpretations of the Torah
Unlike the Rabbinic traditions where most Hakham writings and the Talmud are placed above the written Torah, Karaism believes solely in the written Torah teachings. The Karaite community believes the indulgence of other writings and the Talmud has resulted in significant customs and traditions in Rabbinic Judaism. The Karaite Laws, “The Yoke of Inheritance,” have passed down their ancestral lineage for centuries but never stray away from the written Torah. The Karaite Judaism conversion allows leniency of the laws to the new Karaites for a given period.
Since new converts have zero connection with the Karaite inheritance, they have no choice but to rely on the Tankah and its laws. Most Karaite communities across the globe are usually small in numbers, making them comply with their host countries’ customs, laws, and traditions. Often, the Karaite laws come secondary, making them primary citizens of their host country. Karaites in Israel, for example, have evolved to strike a balance between Israeli laws and Karaism. Today, many Karaites have moved away from the ancient Karaite Revival, staying faithful to the Karaite prayer book.
– Sephirath Ha’Omer and Shavu’oth
Keeping track of the days from the offering of ‘Omer varies completely from the methods used in Rabbinic Judaism. The phrase “Morrow after Shabbat” is acknowledged and observed among the Karaites as emphasized in Leviticus 23:15-16. For the Karaites, this section of their book is interpreted as the weekly Sabbath. On the other hand, Rabbinate Jews take it to be their day of rest from the first 24 hours of Ḥagh HaMaṣṣot. Karaite Jews celebrate Shavu’oth on the Sabbath after the seventh week, regardless of the date it falls on the calendar.
The Modern Karaite Judaism
The modern Karaites are spread across key countries today with small communities to keep the teachings of their faith. In the United States, Karaites have an increasing population from 4000+ as of 2018. Of course, Israel still hosts the highest number of at least 30,000+ believers of the Karaite community across the globe. Other countries like Turkey, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Russia host Karaite communities of roughly 2,500+ believers. In 2002, the Polish consensus recorded 40+ Karaims in the country, with the majority being Poland citizens.
In today’s world, Karaite Jews are allowed to build Karaite synagogues in selected states with the condition that they abide by the laws bounding religious gatherings. With over 1400+ Karaites living in California, it’s clear the Karaite Judaism conversion is spreading fast in the major parts of the United States. The congregation welcomes thousands of Karaites every Shabbat, and it’s located in Daly City, California. For now, Congregation B’nai Israel is the only Karaite Tabernacle in the US with a permanent dedicated facility.
Today, the Karaite Jewish University graduates thousands of qualified professionals in various fields contributing enormously to modern society. Although the university has been accused severely as a front for Karaite conversion, it forces the students to join Karaism. The Karaite Religious Association across the globe evolves yearly to ensure their laws and practices aren’t so farfetched from modern beliefs. Keeping the Karaite prayer book sacred and obeying the commandments in the written Torah given to Moses isn’t up for a debate or question by any modern belief.