Karaites: A Different Way of Being Jewish

The "Temple" area of the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City, as seen through a window in the Karaite Museum.
The “Temple” area of the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City, as seen through a window in the Karaite Museum.

Like most Jerusalemites in the holy city, I had often walked past the Karaite Synagogue. Sometimes I even wondered what it was like inside, how it differed from synagogues in which I have prayed. Last week, I got to see.

At the time, all I knew was that the Karaites rejected the Talmud and two thousand years of Rabbinic tradition. Shulie Mishkin, our guide for the morning in the Old City, mentioned they are similar to the Saducees and Essenes of the Roman period. However, as a distinct group they first appeared in Jerusalem in the 7th or 8th century. Karaites have lived in Jerusalem since. They called themselves ”Lovers of Zion” and believed it was important to live in Jerusalem, even in its destroyed state. Their cemetery in the Hinnom Valley contains graves from the tenth to the twentieth centuries. 

When we arrived at the museum, Avi, the Karaite representative, invited us to sit and watch a short video on the history of Karaism. While in the museum, he said, we would have the opportunity to see the synagogue, but could not enter it for reasons of ritual purity.

Principles of Karaite Interpretation

Karaites consider themselves a branch of Judaism, and allow intermarriage with other Jews. They believe the whole Tanakh (Bible) is holy. Indeed, most of their prayers are from the book of Psalms. As we walked through the museum, Avi stopped several times to explained their customs in detail. The three foundations of their religious observance are the Tanakh, analogy, and tradition. Because the Tanakh gives no details about how many mitzvot are to be carried out, many commandments need explication. Rabbinic Judaism relies on certain principles of interpretation that are enumerated in the Talmud. Karaites use only analogy to explain the laws.

Avi gave us an example, using the line from the Sh’ma: “uk’shartem otam–You will bind them [my commandments] upon your arm and as totafot between your eyes.” This was interpreted by the Rabbis as meaning we should put on tefillin when we pray in the morning. These small boxes of animal skin contain certain paragraphs of the Torah written on parchments. The Karaites, however, do not wear tefillin. In B’raishit, it says that Jacob’s soul was k’shura, bound up, with the soul of his youngest son, Benjamin. Karaites point out that here K-SH-R is a spiritual, not physical, bond. Using analogy, they hold therefore uk’shartem means spiritually binding the words to the body. Thus the boxes with words of the Torah are not necessary.

Further along in the room we saw an exhibit of Karaite tzitzit, the fringes tied to the corners of any garment with four corners. Two differences between their tzitzit and those of mainstream Jews were immediately apparent. The knots are tied in a different pattern, and the blue thread is prominent.

Tzitzit tied according to the Karaite tradition.
Tzitzit tied according to the Karaite tradition.

In D’varim (Deuteronomy), when God commands us to tie fringes on the corners of our garments, it is specified that the fringes include a blue thread. When the Temple was destroyed the identity of the blue dye was lost. To compensate, two traditions arose. Some Sephardi Rabbis held that the color blue is more important than the specific dye used. Accordingly, some eastern Jews continued to tie tzitzit with a blue thread. Most Ashkenazi Rabbis however, ruled that in the absence of the traditional dye, the tzitzit should be plain undyed wool. Like the Sephardim, Karaites feel that the color is more important than its source, and they tie blue and white tzitzit on four-cornered clothes.

How the Karaite Calendar Differs from the Standard One

The calendar, and thus when holidays are observed, also differ. The Jewish calendar is a combination of lunar and solar cycles. New months begin at the time of the new moon. However, the major festivals (Succot, Passover, and Shavuot) must be celebrated at specific times in the agricultural cycle, which is governed by the movements of the sun.

When the Temple was destroyed and the Sanhedrin no longer existed, there was no one to proclaim the new month or to reconcile the lunar year with the solar one. A new type of calendar was required. Somewhere between 320 and 385 CE, Hillel II, also known as Hillel the Younger, calculated the calendar that we still use today. The Karaites, however, adhere to the calendar as it was originally practiced. New months begin only when the new moon is sighted.

Karaite experts go out into the fields in late winter to check the state of the growing barley before proclaiming when the month of Nissan will begin in the spring. Passover must be celebrated at the time of the barley harvest. Avi pointed to a large photo of men checking the barley in the field. Stalks of barley at different stages of ripeness were below the photo, with explanations of what the experts looked for. If the grain in the fields looks like it will ripen in March, they declare that the month of Nissan will be proclaimed when the next new moon is sighted. If the barley is not sufficiently mature, they rule that an extra month is needed. A second Adar is proclaimed at the next new moon. The start of Nissan is then proclaimed when the following new moon is sighted. Thus, the lunar year is realigned with the solar one. 

The Karaite Synagogue
The "hall" area of Karaite synagogue. Before entering to pray, worshipers remove their shoes.
The “hall” area of Karaite synagogue. Before entering to pray, worshipers remove their shoes.

Following our tour of the museum we descended another floor to see the synagogue. A window to our left allowed us to peer into the synagogue and see its “temple.” This is a raised area in the front where the Chazan stands to lead the prayers. Cohanim also stand there to bless the congregation. The sanctuary contains no chairs. The congregation stands or sits on the floor for most of the prayers, and bows down at appropriate points. The lack of chairs made their sanctuary look empty, but waiting to be filled, with people, perhaps, or with the sound of prayer. 

The sanctuary had no windows, and was below street level, so a multitude of lamps hung from the ceiling. This, of course, led to a question. One of the big differences between Karaites and those they call Rabbinites relates to the use of fire on Shabbat. Karaites hold that absolutely no fire may exist on Shabbat. Mainstream Jews believe that fire is acceptable if it was lit before the Shabbat and nothing is done to change the fire. Thus we have warmth and light in our homes and synagogues on Shabbat, while the Karaites have neither. If they cannot light the lamps on Shabbat, how do they see to read the Torah and pray?

To his credit, Avi did not duck the question. It is disrespectful to pray in the dark, he said, and therefore, it is permitted to light the lamps and use electric lights on Shabbat. Artificial light can be used only in adherence to some very specific rules, which he did not go into. I wondered if his air of discomfort with his answer was because discussing the use of light on the Shabbat was too close to Rabbinic interpretation of Torah law. This was the only point in an hour and a half at which he seemed less than confident during his explanation.

Karaite mezuza on museum entrance.
Karaite mezuza on museum entrance.

As we walked out of the building, one of the women in our group noticed the mezuza attached to the door post. It was a small thick metal plaque of the Ten Commandments. “What’s written inside?” she asked.

“Nothing,” said Avi. “It’s empty. The metal plaque itself reminds us to observe God’s commandments.”

So at the end, although we have many differences, nonetheless Karaites are similar to those who observe mainstream Rabbinic Judaism. We all keep the commandments in the way we believe God meant them to be observed.

(Although Karaites do not observe Chanukah, Avi added, “We do eat sufganiyot, because that’s Israeli.”)

 

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