Karaites discarded the yoke of rabbinic authority


One of the groups that found it hard to deal with changes in Judaism and wanted to have Judaism return to practice Judaism in the manner described in the Torah are the Karaites. They are in this respect very similar to the ancient Sadducees. However, while the behavior of the Sadducees is to a large extent unknown today that of the Karaites is known because Karaites composed a wealth of literature and they still exist today.

Karaites are a Jewish group that began around 760 CE. They reject the Talmud and rabbinic Judaism and insist that Jews should observe Torah laws as expressed in the Bible. The name “Karaite” means “Scriptualists.”  The name was applied to the group about a century or two after the group began.  Anan ben David is considered by many to be the founding father of the movement.

The movement started in Iraq and Persia by Jews who objected to the authority exerted by the leaders of the Babylonian Talmud Academies, called Gaonim (Gaon in the singular). The Talmud had recently been completed but had not been accepted by the general Jewish community. The Gaonim felt that it was their role to encourage Jews to live by Talmudic laws. In 762, the Abbasid dynasty set its caliphate center in Baghdad near the academies of the Gaonim and aided them. As a result, the Gaonim became the religious leaders of the Jewish world. Their hegemony lasted until around 1038.

Anan recognized that Judaism of his day was radically different than what is stated in the Torah and insisted that Jews should revert and obey what the Torah demands. Yet he was not a total literalist. He realized that it is impossible and unwise to entirely return to biblical laws in their literal form and encouraged the use of interpretations, but not the interpretations advocated by the rabbis.

Among much else, Karaites taught:

  • Anan forbid the use of lights on the Sabbath, as the Sadducees had done, but contrary to the rabbinic allowance of lights that were lit before the onset of the Sabbath.
  • He interpreted Genesis 2:24 which states that when a man and woman marry they become one flesh as meaning they become blood relatives with the result that the husband is now the brother of his wife’s sister and is forbidden to her, and his relatives are forbidden to her relatives until the fifth generation. There is no indication that anyone ever interpreted this verse in this manner before Anan, so this was not a reversion to a prior biblical practice. Anan’s view was dropped by Karaites in the eleventh century because the number of Karaites was small and they needed a larger pool of candidates to marry.
  • Karaites insisted on a shift from Aramaic, which was the language of much of the Talmud and many prayers, to Hebrew, the language of the Bible. As a result, the Karaites produced an outpouring of grammatical and exegetical works based on a correct understanding of Hebrew biblical words and proper Hebrew grammar. Many rabbis were influenced by these writings.
  • While the siddur, the prayer book for most Jews contains both Hebrew and Aramaic prayers, the prayer book for the Karaites is composed sole in Hebrew.
  • Karaites ate milk and fowl together in violation of the rabbinic extension of the milk-meat prohibition to include poultry.
  • They prohibited having sex on the Sabbath since they felt it was not in keeping with the solemnity of the day.
  • In contrast to the rabbinic three services daily, Karaites have two in commemoration of the two daily offerings in the ancient temples. The third evening service was a late rabbinic addition.
  • Karaites read Deuteronomy 6:8 and 9 metaphorically and not as commands requiring the wearing of tephilin and the placing of mezuzot on doorpost as interpreted by the rabbis.

Because of the Karaite’s love of the Torah, their careful reading of its text, their interest in its grammar, some but not all scholars believe that Ben-Asher and his son Aaron who were largely responsible for the creation of the Masoretic Text of the Bible, which among much else, indicated what is the correct text, were Karaites.

One of the chief opponents of the Karaites was the Gaon Saadiah (882-942). He contended that all of the rabbinic interpretations were not human innovations but part of the Oral Law that God revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai. He ignored the fact that we know the origin of many of the rabbinic innovations such as Hillel’s pruzbal and more significantly the Torah was not revealed on Mount Sinai. The Torah itself states that it was composed over time when the events occurred. Only the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) were issued on Mount Sinai.[1] Additionally, the Karaites referred to the different practices in Babylon and in Israel as proof that the Oral Law originated with the rabbis and not God.

Not all Rabbinites were anti-Karaites. Abraham ibn Ezra, among others, quotes the tenth century Karaite Bible commentator in his own Bible commentary.

Interestingly, in order to save themselves, the Karaites petitioned the Russian Government to consider them a separate religion from Judaism. In 1863, the Russian Czar decreed that Karaites are a separate religion. This ultimately spared many Karaites from the fate of Jews under Hitler and Stalin.

In 1971, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Chief Rabbi of the Sephardim,[2] ruled that Karaites are Jews in every way and it is permissible for Jews to marry them.



[1] Rabbi Akiva did believe the entire Torah was revealed on Mount Sinai even though it records events that occurred later.

[2] Jews from Spain, Portugal, Africa, Israel.