The Karaites: A Medieval Jewish Sect

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

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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