The Karaites: A Medieval Jewish Sect

The Karaites, biblical fundamentalists, challenged the authority of rabbinic Judaism.

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Reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

As in the west, so in the east, the Jewish community entered the Middle Ages well equipped with spiritual authority and institu­tional organizations sanctioned by ancient texts and traditions. The central [rabbinic] current of Judaism continued to maintain and cultivate this heritage, but Judaism had other facets as well. New forces began to question the social institutions and fundamental dogmas of the rabbinical tradition. 

The Muslim conquest led to the emergence of two such forces, having more than one trait in common: Karaism and activist messianism. The Karaite "heresy" was to have a long history. Even today there are about seven thousand Karaites living in Israel, where they maintain their separateness by only marrying within their community. But it was only during the Middle Ages that they actually constituted an alternative to rabbinical Judaism.

 History of the Karaites

The Karaites are first mentioned in written sources in the late eighth century. They themselves claim to be descendants of dissident sects of the First Temple period, and the rabbinical tradition traces them back to opposition trends of the Second Temple period. Although no direct affiliation to any particular sect in ancient times has been proven, they could have borrowed some of their customs and forms of organization from certain Jewish sects in Persia. 

karaite shul

Karaite synagogue

The beginnings of Karaite activity are associated with the figure of Anan ben David--a learned and aristocratic man, probably belonging to a family of exilarchs, the leaders of Babylonian Jewry. His immediate followers were a small group of intellectuals who formulated the sect's tenets and preached them in Jewish centers throughout the caliphate, including Palestine. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Karaite communities were protected by eminent members of the sect who had reached influential positions in the ruler's court. Led by a nasi (prince) claiming Davidic lineage, the Karaites attracted many scholars of distinction in biblical exegesis, law, Hebrew lexicography, and philosophy.

The Karaite Challenge: Approaches and Customs

The best part of the Karaite intellectual effort was directed at proving the errors of the Rabbanites. Their critical acuteness and thorough knowledge of rabbinical doctrines ensured the high level of their polemics. And their religious attack was accompanied by bitter social criticism of the Jewish leadership, the exilarchs, the geonim (heads of the academies), and the dignitaries which surrounded them.

Islamic influence was apparent in all aspects of Karaism—in their philosophical outlook, in their spiritual views, customs, laws, and judicial processes. The main hallmark of the Karaites is their rejection authority of the Oral Law and the belief in the necessity of direct, independent, and critical study of the Bible. A "Karaite" reads the Mikra (the Pentateuch) and recognizes the Scriptures as the exclusive source of religious law.

This biblical fundamentalism was the basis of their entire religiosity, and placed them irrevocably in opposition to talmudic Judaism. Some of the Karaite doctrines and customs distinguishing them from the Rabbanites are the literal interpretation of the biblical rules concerning the observance of the Sabbath, celebrating the festivals differently (they do not blow the shofar on Rosh ha‑Shanahnor do they wave the "four species" on Sukkot; and they ignore Hanukkah since it is not mentioned in the Bible). In addition, they are particularly severe with regard to the law on marriage among relatives. Their liturgy is mostly biblical psalmody, and they practice different methods of ritual slaughter--a custom which widened the rift between them and the Rabbanites, as they cannot share the same food.

The Karaite attack was not powerful enough to demolish the rabbinical citadel but it did succeed in breaching its walls, for the sect recruited many converts. Towards the end of the eleventh century, the sect had adherents in most communities within the Muslim world and the Byzantine Empire: in the eastern parts of the caliphate, in Palestine and Egypt, in North Africa, in Spain, and in Asia Minor.

The Karaites, however, considered the dispersion a calamity. Their doctrine emphatically stressed the obligation to live in the Land of Israel. Residing in Jerusalem, praying at its gates, submitting to severe practices of purification--these concrete measures were to hasten the End of Days: and without them there was no hope of Redemption. Hence the constant propaganda for a Return to Zion. And indeed, many of the sectarians were not content to preach, and sought to realize the ideal. Consequently, between the ninth and eleventh centuries, the "roses”--as the Karaites called themselves in contradistinction to the rabbinical "thorns”--comprised the majority of the Jewish community in Jerusalem.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University