They don’t accept the “Oral Torah”—the Talmud, the Shulchan Aruch and other halachic (Jewish legal) texts—but they consider themselves to be devout Jews: The Karaites numbered about 40 percent of the Jewish people at their height, but today they have shrunk to less than one percent.
The majority, about 40,000, live inside of Israel. A further 10,000 live abroad.
“We are first of all Jews, and only after Karaites,” stressed Shlomo Gever of the Karaite Jewish Association. “We see ourselves as part of the Jewish people, the descendants of the children of Israel. So long as there is a Bible, there will be biblical people—there will be Karaite Judaism to keep the Bible.”
Gever relates, “In the Second Temple period several factions were formed amongst the people of Israel, including the Pharisees and those who did not accept their path.” The Karaites did not accept the Oral Torah that was added over the generations.
The Book of Spring
In Jerusalem, there is evidence of the existence of the Karaite community there as early as the eighth century CE. On the ancient HaKara’im (meaning “The Karaites”) Street in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City is the oldest and most important synagogue for the community, explained Eilat Lieber, the director of the Tower of David Museum.
Gever explained, “The Karaite approach espouses the simple biblical interpretation— the plain sense of the Bible, without additions, and the prayer book is composed mainly of Psalms and chapters in the Bible, which we read sing in call-and-response.”
As the Jewish month of Nissan approaches, the Karaites read the Book of Spring, which defines how to know when Rosh Chodesh Nissan (the first day of the month) falls, which is followed by Passover.
“The book was written in the 11th century by an anonymous author and explains how they would go out to the fields and find the very special stage” in crop development that would signify the beginning of spring and the month of Nissan.
Today, in the framework of the Tower of David tours of communities in Jerusalem, the Karaite community is being better exposed. “You can come to the Biblical Heritage Center and be exposed to the very special culture of Karaite Jewry and how they influenced the people of Israel.”
Marriage—a tricky affair
Rabbi Haim Borgansky previously told Ynet that all the Jewish authorities “agree that the Karaites are Jews who at some stage (certainly preceding the ninth century CE) abandoned halachic tradition based on the great texts of the Oral Torah, the Mishna and the Talmud, and created a new halachic system based solely on the written Torah.
“Although they are definitely Jews, the question of marriage is a very important question, since their marriage process is halachically recognized, but the divorce is not recognized according to halacha. As such, there’s a big chance that throughout history, a lot of bastards joined the Karaites. As a result, in certain locations, especially in Europe, it was forbidden to marry Karaites, but in other places, such as Egypt (where many Karaites lived, and they and their customs were known), they permitted marrying Karaites who accepted returning to the rabbinical, halachic tradition and whose bastardry was not a cause for concern.
“This dispute is also present in the rabbinical courts in Israel, although in most cases a halachic effort is made to facilitate this matter… A necessary condition for the acceptance of Karaites according to halacha is that they accept ‘the words of friendship,’ meaning that they accept the principles of accepted Jewish halacha and don’t see themselves as Karaites any more.”
(Translated and edited by J. Herzog)