Home | Category: Jewish Sects and Religious Groups / Jewish Sects and Religious Groups


Karaites in Paris in 1937

The Karaites are a Jewish sect that practice Judaism according to Halacha (Jewish Law) and do not accept the Mishna, Talmud or any other later interpretation of the Torah. The oldest surviving Jewish group that opposes rabbinic Judaism, they only recognize the Pentateuch, Prophets and Writings. Karaites are also known as the Baale Mikra, Israelite Karaitoes, Karaim, Karaite Jews and Qaraites. The word Karaite is derived from the Hebrew word “kara” , “to read.’

Most Karaites live in Israel and are of Egyptian origin. They have traditionally lived in isolation from other Jews as well as from non-Jews. Whether they should be regarded as members of the Jewish community remains a matter of debate among Orthodox Jews. Maimonides scolded Jews who followed Karaite practices. In Israel, some Karaite customs have been made illegal by the Orthodox Chief Rabbanite, which is the exclusive legal authority there.

There are an estimated 8,000 to 30,000 Karaites in Israel. The numbers are inexact because the Karaites refuse to allow themselves to be counted for political and religious reasons. Before the founding of Israel a community of between 3,000 and 6,000 Karaites lived in Egypt. There were also some in Lithuania and the Crimea. Many were artisans, particularly goldsmiths and silversmiths. They have mostly emigrated to Israel, where many are working-class construction or factory workers or work as teachers or civil servants.. A few Karaites live in the United States and Europe. Around 100 Karaite families live in Istanbul.

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; BBC - Religion: Judaism bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism ; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research yivoinstitute.org ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish History.org jewishhistory.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu

History of the Karaites

From the A.D. 1st century to 19th century Rabbinic Judaism was the dominant form of Judaism. Professor Joshua Shanes wrote: There were tensions in Rabbinic Judaism from the outset. For example, starting in the Middle Ages, the Karaites challenged the rabbis’ authority by rejecting the oral Torah. [Source: Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston, The Conversation, June 15, 2023]

The Karaites were established by Anan Ben David in the A.D. 8th century in Babylon. Their roots are matter of some dispute. Some believe they are descendants of the groups that existed in the second Temple period and were mentioned in the Dead Sea scrolls but most believe the sect came into existence when it was founded by Anan Ben David in the 8th century.

The Karaites arose in Babylonia under Arab-Muslim rule and probably under Arab influence. Its members rejected the authority of the oral law and based their beliefs upon the direct interpretation of the Scriptures. [Source: Jacob Kat, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Encyclopedia.com]

According to the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: The sect spread to Palestine, Egypt, and other Mediterranean countries with some outposts in the Crimea, Poland, and Lithuania. Although strongly opposed by the rabbinates, the Karaites at no time rejected the basic conception of Judaism as an institutionalized revealed religion whose observance was incumbent upon all members of the Jewish people, and they rejected the rival religions of Christianity and Islam. The links between the two communities were not severed, and intermarriage was at times countenanced and even legalized. In modern times the sense of common nationality drew the two groups together, although in Israel the Karaites view themselves, and are viewed, as a sect apart.

Russian Karaites

The Karaites in Russia speak a Turkic language and have traditionally not regarded themselves as Jews. Many Jews don’t regard them as Jews either. There are only a handful left in Russia. They are mostly assimilated. Many speak only Russian.

The origin of the Russian Karaites is not clear. Some think they are descendant of the Khazars. More likely they are remnants of a sect that was founded in Baghdad in the A.D. 8th century and made their way the Crimea via the Byzantine Empire by the 14th century. Under the Tatars and the other groups that ruled Crimea they distinguished themselves as traders and were treated the same as other Jews. Under the czars they were often treated differently and given exemptions to taxes and military service that other Jews had to honor. In World War II, the Nazis decided their “racial psychology” was not Jewish and they were spared persecution.

Karaite Beliefs

Karaite religious beliefs can be summed up by the statement from Anan David: “Don’t rely on me, but study diligently the Holy Scripture.” In other words, Karaites must take it upon themselves to understand the religious texts and not rely on rabbis or other religious leaders to interpret the meaning of the texts. Karaite rabbis and commentary on religious matters exist but are not given as much weight as they are in Orthodox Judaism.

Karaite synagogue in the Crimea

The Karaite religion has three main components: 1) The Torah is regarded as perfect and complete; 2) “hekesh” , analogies from the texts can be applied to matters not addressed directly in the Torah: and 3) “hayerusha” , customs that have been passed down over many generations that are regarded as having legitimacy because they do not contradict anything in the Torah. Russian Karaites reject the Talmud’s divine origin and say it is based on folk tradition.

Karaites tend to interpret the Torah more literally than Orthodox Jews and interpret some passages differently. They make a great effort to treat synagogues as if they were an ancient Temple and keep them ritually pure. Menstruating women, women who have just given birth, people who have had just had sex or been in contact with the dead are all prohibited from entering their synagogues. Worshippers remove their shoes when entering and pray by bowing towards Jerusalem. Their main synagogue in Jerusalem was built underground.

Karaite Religious Practices

The Karaites have a number of customs and practices that are different from other Jews. Karaites follow a slightly different calendar than the one used by Orthodox Jews so their religious holidays sometimes are on different days. Many do not celebrate Hanukkah. On the Sabbath Karaites are forbidden from having sex because it is regarded as an impure act and must eat their food cold. Making a fire or turning on a stove are regarded as a form of work. Much of Karaite music is based on religious text, particularly the Psalms.

Karaites have traditionally not married non-Karaite Jews. Marriage to cousin is regarded as incestuous and results in children not being allowed to marry. Karaites in Egypt were allowed to practice polygamy although few actually did.

Karaites have strong restrictions on working on the Sabbath and butchering cattle. Their liturgy is very different from that of Talmudic Jews. Karaites have traditionally observed separation of the sexes: with women being forbidden from entering a kitchen or room of men when they are menstruating. While women are menstruating household chores have been performed by menopausal women or males.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated February 2024

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.