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“SEARCH thoroughly in the [Scriptures] and do not rely on my opinion.” Those were the words from the eighth century C.E. by a leading Karaite. Just who were the Karaites? What can we possibly learn from the example they had set? If we want to know that answer to these questions, we need to go back in history and look into a long long-standing controversy, which ended up leading to the Karaite movement.
Karaite Judaism (/ˈkɛərə.aɪt/) or Karaism (/ˈkɛərə.ɪzəm/; Hebrew: יהדות קראית, Modern: Yahadut Qara’it from, Tiberian: Qārāʾîm, meaning “Readers”; also spelt Qaraite Judaism or Qaraism) is a Jewish religious movement characterized by the recognition of the written Torah alone as its supreme authority in halakha (Jewish religious law) and theology. 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. It is distinct from mainstream Rabbinic Judaism, which considers the Oral Torah, as codified in the Talmud and subsequent works, to be authoritative interpretations of the Torah. As a result, Karaite Jews do not accept as binding the written collections of the oral tradition in the Midrash or Talmud.
When interpreting the Torah, 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 Torah were first written. By contrast, Rabbinic Judaism relies on the legal rulings of the Sanhedrin as they are codified in the Midrash, Talmud, and other sources to indicate the authentic meaning of the Torah. Karaite Judaism holds every interpretation of the Torah 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 personally its correct meaning. Karaites may consider arguments made in the Talmud and other works without exalting them above other viewpoints.
According to Mordecai ben Nissan, the ancestors of the Karaites was a group called Benei Ṣedeq during the Second Temple period. Historians have argued over whether Karaism has a direct connection to 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 due to the rejection of rabbinical authority and the Oral Law, there are major differences.
According to Rabbi Abraham ibn Daud, in his Sefer HaQabbalah, the Karaite movement crystallized in Baghdad in the Gaonic period (circa 7th–9th centuries) under the Abbasid Caliphate in what is present-day Iraq. This is the view universally accepted among Rabbinic Jews. However, some Arab scholars claim that Karaites were already living in Egypt in the first half of the 7th century, based on a legal document that the Karaite community in Egypt had in its possession until the end of the 19th century, in which the first Islamic governor ordered the leaders of the Rabbinite community against interfering with Karaite practices or the way they celebrate their holidays. It was said to have been stamped by the palm of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, the first Islamic governor of Egypt, and was reportedly dated 20 AH (641 CE).
Karaites at one time made up a significant proportion of the Jewish population. Estimates of the Karaite population are difficult to make because they believe on the basis of Genesis 32 that counting Jews is forbidden. In the 21st century, some 30,000–50,000 are thought to reside in Israel, with smaller communities in Turkey, Europe and the United States. Another estimate holds that, of the 50,000 worldwide, more than 40,000 descend from those who made aliyah from Egypt and Iraq to Israel. The largest Karaite community today resides in the Israeli city of Ashdod.
Arguments among Jewish sects regarding the validity of the Oral Law date back to Hellenistic period, the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. Accordingly, some scholars trace the origin of Karaism to those who rejected the Talmudic tradition as an innovation. Judah Halevi, an 11th-century Jewish philosopher and rabbi, wrote a defense for Judaism entitled Kuzari, placing the origins of Karaism in the first and second centuries BCE, during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (“King Jannai”), king of Judaea from 103 to 76 BCE:
After him came Judah b. Tabbāi and Simon b. Shētaḥ, with the friends of both. At this period arose the doctrine of the Karaites in consequence of an incident between the Sages and King Jannai who was a priest. His mother was under suspicion of being a ‘profane’ woman. One of the Sages alluded to this, saying to him: ‘Be satisfied, O king Jannai, with the royal crown, but leave the priestly crown to the seed of Aaron.’ His friends prejudiced him against the Sages, advising him to browbeat, expel, and scatter or kill them. He replied: ‘If I destroy the Sages what will become of our Law?’ ‘There is the written law,’ they replied, whoever wishes to study it may come and do so; take no heed of the oral law.’ He followed their advice and expelled the Sages and among them Simon b. Shētaḥ, his son-in-law. Rabbinism was laid low for some time. The other party tried to establish a law built on their own conception, but failed, till Simon b. Shētaḥ returned with his disciples from Alexandria, and restored tradition to its former condition. Karaism had, however, taken root among people who rejected the oral law, and called all kinds of proofs to their aid, as we see today. As regards the Sādōcaeans and Boēthosians, they are the sectarians who are anathemised in our prayer.
Abraham Geiger, a 19th-century German scholar who founded Reform Judaism, posited a connection between the Karaites and 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 halakha: for example, a minority in Karaite Judaism do not believe in a resurrection of the dead or afterlife, a position also held by the Sadducees. 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 AM 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.
American scholar Bernard Revel rejects many of Geiger’s proofs in his 1913 published dissertation, The Karaite Halakah. Revel also points to the many correlations between Karaite halakha and theology and the interpretations of Philo of Alexandria, the 1st-century philosopher and Jewish scholar. He also notes the writings of a 10th-century Karaite who refers to Philo’s works, showing that the Karaites made use of Philo’s writings in the development of their movement. 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, rejection of theological positions no longer accepted, or that Philo’s philosophy was not entirely used in the founding of the Karaites (although some influences remain possible).
Early 20th-century scholars Oesterley and Box suggested that Karaism formed in a reaction to the rise of Islam. The new religion recognized Judaism as a fellow monotheistic faith but claimed that it detracted from its belief by deferring to rabbinical authority.
Anan ben David (Hebrew: ענן בן דוד, c. 715 – 795 or 811?) is widely considered to be a major founder of the Karaite movement. His followers were called Ananites; they did not believe the rabbinical oral law was divinely inspired.
According to a 12th-century Rabbanite account, in approximately 760, Shelomoh ben Ḥisdai II, the 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 Geonim) 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, “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.” Nemoy later notes that Natronai — a devout Rabbanite — lived where Anan’s activities took place, and that the Karaite sage Jacob Qirqisani never mentioned Anan’s purported lineage or candidacy for Exilarch.
Anan’s allowing his followers to proclaim him as Exilarch was considered treason by the Muslim government. He was sentenced to death, but his life was saved by his fellow prisoner, Abu Hanifa, the founder of the madhhab or school of fiqh (Muslim jurisprudence) known as the Hanafi. Ultimately, he and his followers were permitted to migrate to Palestine. They erected a synagogue in Jerusalem that continued to be maintained until the time of the Crusades. From this center, the sect diffused thinly over Syria, spread into Egypt, and ultimately reached Southeast Europe.
Ben David challenged the Rabbanite establishment. Some scholars believe that his followers may have absorbed Jewish Babylonian sects such as the Isunians (followers of Abu Isa), Yudghanites, and the remnants of the pre-Talmudic Sadducees and Boethusians. Later, sects such as the Ukbarites emerged separately from the Ananites.
However, the Isunians, Yudghanites, ‘Ukabarites, and Mishawites all held views that did not accord with those of either 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, saying 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. 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, insisting 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. He further said that Shabbat should be kept from sunrise on Saturday to sunrise on Sunday. Most Ananites and Karaites rejected such beliefs.
Anan developed 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 allowed persons to leave their house but prohibited leaving one’s town or camp. Anan said that one should not leave one’s house for frivolous things, but only to go to prayer or to study scripture. The Sadducees required the observation of the new moon to establish the dates of festivals and always held the Shavuot festival 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, the most notable being a work penned by Jacob Qirqisani, entitled Kitāb al-Anwār wal-Marāqib (“Code of Karaite Law”), which provides valuable information concerning the development of Karaism and throws light also on many questions in Rabbinic Judaism. 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 was as much as 40 percent of world Jewry, and debates between Rabbinist and Karaite leaders were not uncommon.
Among the staunchest critics of Karaite thought and practice at this time was Rabbi Saadia Gaon, whose writings brought about a permanent split between some Karaite and Rabbanite communities.
Anecdote about Karaites in Egypt during the 13th-century
Egypt had long been a bastion for Karaites and their teachings. According to Rabbi David ibn Zimra, in one day in Egypt, a great congregation of Karaites returned to the principles of orthodox Jewry as taught by the Rabbanites during the time of the Nagid, Rabbi Abraham ben Maimonides, who, in his words, “was not reluctant to receive them.”
Karaites, Aaron Ben Moses Ben Asher, and the Masoretic Text
Aaron ben Moses ben Asher was a Jewish scholar from Tiberias, famous as the most authoritative of the Tiberian Masoretes, and a member of a family who had been involved in creating and maintaining the Masoretic Text (authoritative text of the Hebrew scripture), for at least five generations. His Tiberian vocalization of the Bible is still, for all intents and purposes, the text all Jews continue to use, and he was the first systematic Hebrew grammarian.
His Sefer Diqduqei HaTe‘amim (“Grammar of the Punctuation / Vocalizations”) was an original collection of grammatical rules and Masoretic information. Grammatical principles were not at that time considered worthy of independent study. The value of this work is that the grammatical rules presented by ben Asher reveal the linguistic background of vocalization for the first time. He had a tremendous influence on the world of Biblical criticism.
In the nineteenth century, certain scholars suggested that Aharon Ben Asher might have been a Karaite and not a Rabbinic Jew. Aharon Dothan has examined this issue from many angles, and his conclusion is that Ben Asher was a Rabbinic Jew, but Raphael Zer has raised this issue again and presented new evidence.
In 989, an unknown scribe of a former Nevi’im manuscript vouched for the care with which his copy was written by claiming that he had vocalized and added the Masoretic text “from the books that were vocalized by Aaron ben Moses Ben-Asher.” Maimonides, by accepting the views of ben Asher in regard to open and closed sections, helped establish and spread his authority. “The book on which we have relied for these matters is the book that is well-known in Egypt, which includes twenty-four books, which was in Jerusalem for many years for the purpose of proofreading books from it. Everybody relied on it since Ben-Asher proofread it and scrutinized it for years and proofread many times as he copied it. I relied on it when I wrote a Sefer Torah properly.”
What Have We Learned?
Today, there are about 25,000 Karaites in Israel. There are a few thousand others throughout the world, largely in Russia and the United States, in other communities. But we now find that they have their own oral traditions. Therefore, they are nothing like the initial Karaites. Around 750-800 C.E., there were Jews in Babylon that had opposed the rabbinic authority and belief in their oral law. They had responded to the learned leader named Anan ben David mentioned above. He had proclaimed that ever Jewish person had a right to freely study the Hebrew Scriptures as the only source of true religion. No Jewish person should be restricted by fear of the rabbinic interpretation of Jewish leaders or the Talmud. Anan taught: “Search thoroughly in the Torah [the written law of God] and do not rely on my opinion.” It was because of his emphasis on Scripture alone that we find Anan’s followers being called Qaraim, a Hebrew name that means “readers.”
What lesson can we learn from our study of the history of the Karaites? First and foremost, we never want to ‘invalidate the word of God for the sake of our tradition,’ or the traditions of any man. (Mark 7:13; Matthew 15:6) If we are going to be set free from the traditions of men, we must take in accurate knowledge of God’s Word. (John 8:31-32; 2 Timothy 3:16, 17) Jesus said, the only ones doing the will of the Father will get eternal life (Matt. 7:21), and that many would wrong believe they were doing the will of the Father but would, in fact, be doing their own will (Matt. 7:22), so in the end, he would say to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matt. 7:23) Thus, we need to diligently search the Bible, getting at what the author’s meant by the words that they used. Then, we need to apply that meaning, the author’s meaning, the inspired, fully inerrant Word of God in our lives.
Wikipedia and Edward D, Andrews
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