Tuesday 22 December 2015

066) Women Studying Torah?

There is much talk today about the role of women in Judaism in general, and their relationship to Torah study in particular. This has become a very emotive matter with everyone weighing in on the issue and bringing their sometimes open, and other times hidden, agendas to the ‘fight’.

It may, therefore, be of value to remove all emotion and politics from the discussion, and instead turn to our multifaceted sources to unearth their definitive perspectives.


The Gemora quotes Ben Azzai who says that it is a mitzvah for a father to teach his daughter Torah. However according to R Eliezer and R Yehoshua it is forbidden for a father to so.[1]


Rambam rules like R Eliezer that is forbidden for a father to teach his daughter Torah.  But this refers to a case where the father takes the initiative and teaches his daughter Torah against her will. However, if she wants her father to teach her, he may do so, and so doing is meritorious.[2]

Others say that Rabbi Eliezer’s prohibition was originally only directed against very young girl children, and not against older mature girl children.[3]

Rambam also writes that the best way a person can come to have a meaningful relationship with G-d is through the study of Torah. This, he says: “ open to all, old and young, male and female...”[4]


Women are obligated to recite the birkat haTorah (blessings over Torah study) and this would cover the learning of the fundamentals of Torah (Yesodei haTorah) which they do have an obligation to study.[5]


The Taz maintains that women may study the written Scriptures but not the Oral Law.[6] And according to Bach this explains why women were present at the Hakel ceremony when the Torah was read out publically.[7]


According to the Chafetz Chaim[8]; “It seems that all of this (prohibition against women learning Torah) applied only in times past when all daughters lived in their father’s home and tradition was very strong, assuring that all the children would pursue their parent’s path...On that basis, we could claim that a daughter need not learn Torah but merely rely on proper parental guidance. But is certainly a great mitzvah to teach them Tanach and ethics...otherwise they may totally stray from G-d’s path...”[9]


According to Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein; “In my opinion, what is necessary for women to be adequately prepared from a Torah perspective for practical living is far more than what she is being taught today. Torah education for women must be strengthened, both quantitatively and qualitatively, including all aspects of Torah...In the same vein I am not opposed to teaching women Talmud...And it is even necessary to establish this as an integral part of the school curriculum, an actual shiur. This is the way I teach my daughter and so my wife was educated. This seems to me to be the recommended approach regarding the women of our generation.”[10]  


In the 20th century, a historic decision was made by Rabbi Soloveitchick enabling boys and girls to study the same texts and subjects at his Maimonodies School in Boston and at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women.


(Once again I present a loose translation and summary of Peninei Halacha who deals with the halachik technicalities very succinctly, and has some profound statements that both men and women may find of great interest.)


We cannot get away from the fact that halacha presents two very distinct approaches to Torah study, required separately of men and women:

While both genders have an equal obligation to study the basic fundamentals and principles of Torah law and philosophy, it is from that point on that the roles diverge.

Once a woman has had a basic education in practical halacha, she no longer has an obligation to further her studies.
Men, on the other hand, even if they know the entire Torah by heart, still have an ongoing mitzvah to continue their study.[11]


Once women have studied the basic fundamentals (Yesodei haTorah), even though they do not have the obligation to continue with the further detailed study of the intricacies of the law (Limud haTorah), if they want to they may exercise that choice. In fact a woman may even study Gemorah in great depth with all the accompanying commentaries (Gemorah beIyun), exactly as her male counterparts would do at an advanced institution of learning.[12]

In fact, if she chooses to do so, our Sages say that she gets a zechut (merit) for her efforts, even though she does not have a halachik obligation to do so.

Throughout our history, we have had a number of women who excelled in the Limud haTorah component and became Talmidot Chachamot (venerable scholars).

For the most part, however, historically women did not exercise this choice and were only educated up to the basic level of minimal fundamentals of Yesodei haTorah. This was the cultural norm for most of the earlier generations.
With the advent of the modern era where women began to assert themselves more and began doing things they never were able to do before, the necessity for them to learn more also became more pressing.

According to the Peninei Halacha, in our times women should be encouraged and assisted to explore more of their Judaism in greater depth and afforded the opportunity to exercise their choice to do, because on so many levels their contribution is more pivotal today than ever before.

In a nutshell, the only halachik difference between men and women apropos Torah study, is that women have the luxury to choose as to how much they want to study, while men have no such choice in the matter.[13]

The ideal, therefore, is actually for women to choose to study as much Torah as they can, in as much depth as they want.[14]

[1] Sukkah 20a 
According to the Yerushalmi , R Elazar ben Azarya says it is a mitzvah for a woman to listen to Torah but no mitzvah to study Torah in depth. (Sotah 3,4)
[2] See Peninei Halacha , Limud Torah LeNashim, Likkutim 1, p.34, Note 3.
[3] Torah Temimah Devarim 11,17
[4] Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei haTorah, 4,14
[5] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 47,14
[6] Orach Chaim 47,10
[7] Bach, Yoreh Deah 246
[8] Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen 1839 – 1933
[9] Likutei Halachot, Sotah 20b
[10] Excerpted from ‘Fundamental Problems Regarding the Education of the Women’ 1980
[11] I.e. In technical terms; both genders have an equal obligation to master Yesodei haTorah (the foundations and fundamentals of Torah), while only men have the further obligation in Limud haTorah. See KOTZK BLOG 64) Gemora Playing Second Fiddle?
[12] See Peninei Halacha, Likkutim 1, Limud Torah LeNashin p. 32
[13] “HaShoni bein gevarim leNashim, sheNashim tzerichot la’asok baTorah mitoch chofesh veratzon gamur”
[14] “HaIdial sheKol HaNashim yelumdu miretzonam et haTorah beIyun.”

Wednesday 2 December 2015

065) Halachic Attitudes towards Secular Studies:

The following post is loose translation of what is, in my view, a brilliant analysis of the secular studies issue, as presented in Peninei Halacha.[1]

(It is of particular interest to me as I was severely discouraged from pursuing any form of secular studies by my early rabbinic mentors.):


What is the Torah attitude towards secular studies?

First and foremost we need to clearly establish that Torah is considered the most important body of literature as it refines the soul and awakens a sense of G-dliness that lies dormant within.  Secular studies, however, is viewed as essentially a means to an end.[2] The end being an improvement in the quality of life a person with a secular education may enjoy.


The Maharal of Prague (1520 – 1609) writes[3] that all forms of knowledge are aspects of the highest revelation of G-dliness that manifest in this world.[4]  The world was created by means of this knowledge and thus all science rooted in holiness.


Our Sages instituted the recitation of a blessing upon seeing a person well schooled in secular wisdom. The formula is similar to all other forms of berachot, beginning with Baruch Atah...and concluding with Shenatan mechochmato lebasar vadam (who has given of His wisdom to flesh and blood). This again emphasizes the idea that even secular knowledge is part of the composite of holy wisdom.


According to the Gemora[5], anyone who has the ability to delve into secular studies but does not do so, is distancing himself from G-d. Furthermore the Gemora says that as a result of a Jew mastering secular knowledge, he creates a kiddush haShem (a favourable impression) in the eyes of non-Jews.


There remains a legitimate question: If Torah is of primary importance, then surely it would be a squandering of time to take away from it as one would by studying secular literature?
The answer is simply that it is never bitul Torah (a waste of time) to study wisdom.[6]
The Maharal supports this view by quoting Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, of whom it is said that he never wasted Torah time, yet he was extremely proficient at Astronomy. This shows that although he obviously spent much time studying that secular discipline, it was never considered to be bitul Torah.[7]


An apparently opposing view is found in another Gemora[8] which states that one should not study ancient Greek wisdom. The Maharal and Rivash counter this by saying that this was not a blanket prohibition against secular studies, but rather a specific exclusion of classical Greek wisdom which was inextricably intertwined with counter Torah ethics and ethos. It was not referring to general secular knowledge at all.
In general then, the view of many of our Torah giants as well as the classical view of the Sages of the Talmud, was to encourage involvement in secular education.[9]


Anyone who follows modern Torah trends would know that today there is much opposition to secular education in many contemporary religious circles. Given the positive picture the classical sources paint, where did this (in some cases fierce) opposition stem from?


From around the 11th Century, the beginning of the period of the Rishonim, opposition to secular studies started manifesting in earnest. This was because in those days, the main portal through which one acquired secular knowledge was through the writings of Aristotle. And his philosophy promulgated ideas that ran contrary to those of Torah Judaism (particularly the principle of the eternity of the universe which negated the concept of creation, and also the principles opposing Divine providence and those antithetical to the reward and punishment concept).

As a result of indulging in Aristotelian teachings, many Jews of that era became assimilated into the general culture of the times and left the Jewish fold. For this reason we start to see the first wave of opposition to secular wisdom emanating from the Torah world.

It is important to point out that this opposition was never directed against the secular studies themselves, only against the ‘package’ in which they were presented at that time.
The Rashba, for example, imposed a ban upon anyone under the age of twenty five who indulged in secular studies from ancient Greek sources.

Similarly the Rivash also discouraged the study of Aristotelian thought. As did the Maharal of Prague who only permitted indulgence in that literature if one needed to acquire knowledge to debate and defeat the Jewish Aristotelian protagonists.


The second (and more intense) wave of opposition to secular studies came about two hundred years ago at the time of the Age of Enlightenment. On the one hand, students no longer had to go through the portal of Aristotelian philosophy to gain access to secular wisdom as by then it was already widely spread. On the other hand secular wisdom was so popular and enticing that it seemed to offer people everything they were looking for without the imposition of all the restrictions of religion. In fact it was such a successful movement that at the time more than half of all Jews[10] were drawn into its camp.

Understandably there was much consternation in rabbinic quarters, and secular studies were seen as such a threat, that the opposition to it became in some instances quite vehement.


An outstanding exception to the general rule of opposition to secular study was the famous Vilna Gaon. He went so far as to actively encourage his students to study secular wisdom. He instructed his disciple Rabbi Baruch of Shklov to translate Euclid’s Elements into Hebrew so that they could better understand Geometry. The Gaon said that if one lacks a measure of secular knowledge, one will lose out on a hundred measures of Torah knowledge. He believed that Torah and secular wisdom were intertwined.[11]

Another student of the Gaon[12] testified in the name of his teacher that an understanding of the secular sciences was an imperative prerequisite to Torah study. He said that the Gaon mastered Algebra, Geometry, Engineering and Music, as well a host of other such disciplines. The only field he didn’t explore was Medicine as his father strongly advised him not to do so as good doctors never have much free time for anything else.


Another exception to this second wave of opposition was Rabbi Shimshon Rephael Hirsch, who witnessed the devastating blow the Enlightenment had on German Jews in particular, yet instead of opposing secular studies, he chose to embrace them. He established Torah schools which also offered a high standard of secular education. This approach became known as Torah Im Derech Eretz. He determinedly believed that the way to combat the multitudes that were leaving the Torah lifestyle, was not to ban, but rather to offer religious students exposure to, secular literature in addition to their Torah studies.


From what started out as general endorsement and encouragement of secular studies in Talmudic times, to the first wave of opposition to it during the period of Rishonim, to the second wave at the time of the Enlightenment  - the spirited debate continues today creating a great divide within the religious Jewish community. [See Secular Education – A Great Divide?]

We must bear in mind that historically, even amongst the camp that opposed secular education, all our Torah leaders acknowledged the inherent worth of secular study in essence[13]. It has only been in more recent times that a new trend has emerged where some Torah leaders see no intrinsic value whatsoever in secular studies[14]. They believe that our Torah students will become enticed with secular knowledge and thus be drawn away from religious values.

Fascinatingly, if one examines the numbers of religious people who have left the Torah system over the last one hundred year period, it is not clear which of the two ideologies suffered more attrition. All the modern institutions on both sides of the divide seem to have lost a similar number of alumni to assimilation.

Thus, till now, it has not been possible to say with any degree of certainty which system has succeeded in maintaining more adherents than the other.


Finally, the Peninei Halacha cannot resist stating his own arguments in favour of combining both religious and secular studies:

Particularly in our modern times and for the future, it is essential for most religious students to be well educated in secular matters. This is because in truth, secular study has always been essentially endorsed and encouraged by most of our sages throughout our history.

Secondly, from Talmudic times to the Vilna Gaon, excellence in secular education has always been one of the best ways of creating a kiddush haShem (where non-Jews respect Jews because of their prowess and expertise in the secular and professional world).

Thirdly, through pursuing a secular profession, a graduate of the yeshivas can live with dignity by supporting their families with honour. A good profession will place then in a respectful position amongst their peers.

Fourthly, the Peninei Halacha steadfastly maintains that going forward, the most effective way to keep people from leaving the fold in our times, is to allow them to access secular knowledge together with their Torah studies.


(The closing words are mine and no longer a paraphrase of Peninei Halacha).

If ever there was a time when secular education needed to be emphasized, it must be now, in our times and particularly in our market economy. Where is the dignity in keeping religious people poor and (secularly) illiterate? Even the previously forgotten multitudes of indigenous peoples of the third world are all being allowed more and more access to education and are already emerging as a significant middle class. Where is the kidush haShem in intentionally leaving our own people behind to fill their places at the lower stratas of society?

The Vilna Gaon asked many times: “Compared to the Torah scholars of the past, what are our contemporary scholars doing when it comes to Kiddush haShem? In previous generations our scholars made an indelible imprint in the hearts of non-Jews who came to respect religious Jews for their secular knowledge.”[15]

As noted previously[16] the Chareidi segment of our religious population generally discourages and even forbids secular education. It has now grown so large that for the first time they have overtaken the numbers of the Modern Orthodox segment that does encourage secular studies and professional work. One of the Chareidi leaders, Rav Shteinman, recently said that it is better to steal than to get a secular education. This, he said, is because one can always give the money back, whereas the damage of a secular education can never be erased from the soul.

The unsuspecting Torah public need to be made aware of these numbers, trends and statements.

If things continue as they are - until and unless there is some change in mindset of the Chareidi leadership, or a bolstering of the centrist movement - the average religious Jew in our times and in the foreseeable future will be (secularly) uneducated and illiterate.

What dignity will others find in that?

[1] Peninei Halacha Likkutim 1, Chapters 14 and 15.
[2] This view is consistent with the Torah Im Derech Eretz model. The Torah Umadah model gives a more elevated status to Secular Studies. See Kotzk Blog 59) Secular Education – A Great Debate or a Great Divide?
[3] Netiv HaTorah, Chapter14.
[4] “Giluy haEloki hanaleh beyoter sheyeshno baolam”.
[5] Shabbat 75a, as explained by Rambam and Maharal and others.
[6] “Ha’isuk bechochmot ayno nechshav bitul Torah”.
[7] I am aware that some may challenge this conclusion by saying that he needed to know Astronomy in order to understand the Calendar which is crucial for various Halachik observances. But many commentators understand the reference to ‘Astronomy’ as a reference to secular wisdom in general and not Astronomy in particular. Again indicating that secular learning is not bitul Torah.
[8] Bava Kama 82b.
[9] “Zu hayta amadat Chazal.”
[10] “Ve rov hatzibbur hayehudi nimshach achar hahaskallah”.
[11] “HaTorah vehaChochma nitzmadim yachad.”
[12] Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, in his introduction to his book ‘Peat HaShulchan’.
[13] “Muskam al kol Gedolei Yisrael sheyesh erech beyediyat Chochmot chitzoniyot.”
[14] “Omnum bedort ha’acharonim hayu bein gedolei Yisrael shehoru she’adif lilmod beyeshiva shein mushlavim ba limudei chol”.
[15] Kol Hator 5,2
[16] See Kotzk Blog 59).

Wednesday 18 November 2015

064) Gemora Playing Second Fiddle?

I just love Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s fourteen volumes of articulate and practical Halacha, entitled Peninei Halacha.

Now, I may be mistaken, but in his Laws of Torah Study[1], there seems to be a rather conspicuous absence of the word ‘Gemora’. This is surprising because Gemora usually forms the very backbone of any programme of Torah study.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that he doesn’t believe in Gemora study, but look at the following extracts from his writing and see if you agree with me:


He divides the obligation of Torah study into two distinct segments:
PHASE 1: The first phase is known as Yesodei ha Torah (learning the foundations and fundamentals of basic Torah literature). This takes about twenty years to master, and ideally, the first twenty years of one’s life should be spent in pursuit of this rudimentary acquisition of Torah knowledge.
PHASE 2: The second category is known as Limud haTorah (the lifelong in depth study and expansion of the basic fundamentals acquired during the first phase). 

In defining which books are studied during the Yesodei haTorah phase, he mentions Chumash (Bible) with Rashi’s commentary, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). A child would begin these books at the age of five and complete them on a basic level by ten years of age.

Then from age ten to twenty, the teenager student would move on to Halacha by studying Shulchan Aruch (the Codes of Law), with special emphasis on learning the practical laws of daily life.  The other ‘impractical’ laws are just to be scanned so as to get a general overview alone. The practical laws are to be studied with the reasons and explanations as found in the Talmud.

This is amazing! Usually the order is reversed. One usually studies Gemora (a word he does not use in this chapter) as the primary text, and then only does one moves on to the Halacha as derived from the Gemora. More time is usually spent on Gemora than on Halacha.

Here, however, he clearly says that the primary study for a teenager is Halacha, which is only to be supplemented and elaborated upon by the relevant explanations as found in Gemora.[2]

In addition to Halacha as ‘supplemented’ by Gemora, the young student should also be exposed to an extensive[3] programme of Hashkafa (principles of theology and philosophy so as to integrate the theories and technicalities of law, with real life in the real world). Rabbi Melamed suggests the study of Kuzari, Maharal of Prague and even Maimonides’ Moreh Nevuchim as examples of this type of study, as they clearly define the parameters of Jewish belief. The student should also be allowed to choose the genre of philosophy that appeals to him or her (including Chassidus or Mussar).

This too is amazing! Usually these ‘philosophical’ issues are glossed over in favour of the more ‘important’ technical studies comprising primarily of Gemora.  And some of the books he suggests the students read are considered to be somewhat contentious in many circles!


As mentioned above, the Peninei Halacha strongly advises the student to strive to attain a basic general understanding of all practical Halacha, skimming the laws that are no longer relevant today. To this end, it is suggested that one studies works that are known to summarize all basic Halacha. Even the study of Talmud should, on this view, be Halacha based[4]. This means that only tractates dealing with practical issues should be carefully selected for study (as opposed to a random selection of Talmudic literature). Additionally these texts should be studied with the commentary of the Rosh, who is known to have summarized the views of all the Rishonim who preceded him. 

He makes an interesting point that in actuality, no book yet exists that has satisfactorily managed to summarize Halacha appropriately for the purposes of mastering Yesodei haTorah.[5]  Either way, extensive Talmudic study of general Gemora should only take place after a thorough grounding in the basics.[6]

Thus by around the age of twenty, the student would have acquired a thorough background to Halacha and theology, and should then be in a position to make an informed decision as to whether to remain in the world of Torah study, or to get involved with furthering a career of his or her choice. Rabbi Melamed strongly suggests that only exceptional students who show a great propensity for scholarship should remain in the world of full time study.


After completing the phase of yesodei haTorah, one moves into the second (adult) phase of Limud haTorah. The question now becomes; During this phase, how much time should be dedicated towards the study of Torah on a daily basis?

The undeniable truth (no matter what side of the spectrum we sit on and what we would like to believe), is that there remains two very distinct and contradictory viewpoints in this regard. And both are well rooted in Talmudic sources:

1)  Torah must be studied for the vast majority of the day, every day, and work is to be secondary - only occupying a fraction of one’s time. Rabbi Yishmael said; ‘Make Torah your permanent fixture. Study it for most of the day while work should consume a small amount of your time.’[7]

2) Many other sources, however, extol the value of work over study, requiring one to spend the majority of the day in pursuit of an honest livelihood. One such example is; ‘Engage much in work, and do business in good faith’.[8] Another source describes the life of a typical Jew in Talmudic times that would spend the best part of the day toiling in the fields and only return at night when he would study engage in a little study.[9]

Because of such contradictory statements on study policy, it is no surprise that the Torah world is greatly divided on the issue. Some believe that Torah must be studied all day and work is either discouraged or sometimes expressly forbidden. Others believe that only exceptional scholars should be afforded the opportunity to engage in full time and lifelong study, while the vast majority of all others should be participating in economic activity in order to sustain their families. 

The Peninei Halacha is firmly of the latter camp encouraging most religious Jews to support themselves with dignity and honour. Work is never considered bitul Torah[10] (taking away from Torah study time)!


Now, someone who find himself working most of the day, and only has limited time for Torah study, needs to know what type of learning to focus on during that precious time. In this regard, Rabbi Melamed unequivocally makes the most interesting statement; ‘The Poskim (Halachic authorities) write that those who only have a short period of time to study during the day, should not just study Gemora. 

Instead they should concentrate on practical Halacha with an emphasis of unravelling the reasons for and meaning behind those Halachot. During this time they should also engage in understanding Hashkafa (theology)’.[11]


According to my reading and understanding of the Peninei Halacha, it seems as if a vision emerges that radically differs from the common and popular approach to Torah learning  which seems to emphasize the overriding importance of Gemora study (with less emphasis on Halacha and little or no accent on theology). This less known view, surprisingly, does not seem to be unique to Rabbi Melamed, as his references are wide and numerous. This being the case, one wonders why more people do not seem to follow this approach to Torah study.

It is remarkable to discover an outlook that somewhat downplays the primary role of Gemora , whilst elevating the study of Hashkafa (theology and philosophy) to a place of importance, and at the same time requiring a practical and penetrating analysis and understanding of the reasoning behind Halacha.

Although this view is intended to apply across the board, perhaps educational systems could adopt some of these approaches, especially with students who show little or no real interest in Gemora.

UPDATE 22-11-2015:

A Rosh Yeshiva friend of mine pointed out three different approaches to this issue, and explained that as a general rule;

1) The Hungarians focused primarily on Halacha and ruled (paskened) directly from the Shulchan Aruch.

2) The Lithuanians focused primarily on Gemora and even ruled from Gemora, often bypassing the Shulchan Aruch itself.

3) The Sefardim ruled on almost any source that related to the question at hand, whether is was Gemora, Shulchan Aruch or even a view of a Rishon or Acharon.

Although I know there are exceptions to this, I found this breakdown enlightening as it shows the various approaches to what is considered the 'key' body of Torah literature.


Another friend of mine referenced an anomaly that has become somewhat prevalent today;

In some (neo-mystical?) groups, they rule directly from the Zohar. I know of people who are not as diligent with regard to kosher observances because they claim that mystically only meat requires extreme kosher diligence.  They would, for example, permit falafel to be eaten even in a non kosher venue, disregarding all auxiliary issues of kashrut (such as heat transference, vessels, knives and spices etc). Disconcertingly, many of them have the appearance and apparel of regular frum Jews.

This again emphasizes the importance and imperative of a solid grounding in the fundamentals of Yesodei HaTorah.

[1] Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, Hilchot Talmud Torah.
[2] Et kol haHalachot halalu, yes lilmod im hata’amim hayesodi’im shehem mevo’arim beTalmud.
[3] Limud rachav uma’amik.
[4] In note 2, p 9, we read that the great Rishonim and Acharonim espoused this view as well. They maintained that the very purpose of the mitzvah of Torah study is to know what do and how to act in practicality. The Vilna Gaon also encouraged the study of tractates that lean more to the side of practicality. See Hakdamat Biur HaGra on Shulchan Aruch, where he writes that the purpose of studying Shass is to learn practical halacha.
[5] Considering that a work that satisfactorily summarises all practical halacha, would have to be a modern book (in that it would have to contain rulings from halachic authorities up to the present day), I would venture to suggest that the Peninei Halacha would certainly come very close to being such a work. 
[6] See Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, p12.
[7] Berachot 35b.
[8] Nidah 70b.
[9] Berachot 4,b.
[10] Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, p. 19.
[11] Ibid.

Wednesday 4 November 2015

063) How the Karaites (unwittingly) Changed the Face of Judaism Forever

Karaite synagogue in the Old City

In one of the first formal works of halachic literature, Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi[1] , also known as the Rif, instituted a number of innovations that hitherto had not existed. These changes were as a direct result of the practices of a sect of fundamental Jews, known as the Karaites, who adhered only to the literal Biblical texts and completely disregarded all Rabbinic literature.

Tzvi H. Adams[2] describes four instances where halacha underwent a dramatic change, due to Rabbi Alfasi’s desire to actively disassociate himself from Karaite practices.

1)     Rabbi Alfasi sounded the shofar on Rosh HaShana when it fell out on Shabbat (something it can do five times in ten years), even though this explicitly went against the Talmudic ruling never to sound the shofar on Shabbat.[3]  The reason why he did this was to protest the fact that the Karaites never sounded the shofar on Rosh HaShana, as they could find no scriptural imperative to do so.[4]
2)      Rabbi Alfasi ruled that maariv or evening prayers were henceforth to be considered an obligatory prayer service.[5] Traditionally maariv was regarded as an optional service, as it did not correspond to the tamid offering of the Temple ritual which took place only in the morning and afternoon. The Karaites thus prayed twice a day corresponding to the Temple sacrifices, and Rabbi Alfasi wanted to disconnect from these Karaite customs. Interestingly enough, the Jews of France and Germany, where there was no Karaite presence, continued to pray only twice a day.

3)      He further ruled that the minor fast days (such as the Fast of Ester) would also transition from optional to obligatory, as the Karaites did not fast on those days. In fact they had a very different fasting calendar altogether. By making the fasts mandatory, Rabbi Alfasi found yet another way of separating the Rabbinite (as mainstream Judaism was known) and Karaite communities. (Again, the Jews of France and Germany having no Karaite communities continued to regard these fasts as optional.)

4)      He also instituted a six hour waiting period between meat and milk. Hitherto the standard practice had always been that after eating meat, all one needed to do was kinuach vehadacha (to clean the teeth and rinse the mouth) and then one could partake of milk. The reason for instituting a six hour wait, was again to protest the Karaites who did eat meat and milk together.[6]

The questions of course beg; Who were these Karaites? How significant a threat were they to Rabbinic Judaism? And how numerous and powerful were they that Rabbi Alfasi had to resort to such drastic measures to combat their influence?


The Karaites are (they still exist today) a group of Jews who believe in the literal interpretation of the Torah, without any influence from the vast literature of Rabbinic interpretation. They formed a new religion based solely on the written word of the scriptures, without any recourse to the Oral Tradition, although their claim was that they represented the original form of Judaism as it would have been practiced in Biblical times. The term ‘Karaites’ (or Karaim in Hebrew) is derived from the word mikra, meaning ‘scriptures’.

According to most accounts, the movement began during the post-Talmudic or Gaonic Period (589 – 1038 CE), by Anan ben David (715 – 795). The 8th C saw the rapid spread of Islam[7] and (probably as a result of new theological challenges) also saw the creation of many new religious sects. Judaism, likewise, was also not immune to the emergence of various sects within its own ranks[8]. Karaism was one such sect. However, unlike the other sects that were soon to disappear or become incorporated into Rabbinic Judaism, Karaism was there to stay. At one stage almost half of the entire Jewish population were Karaites, attracting the wealthy and influential. In Babylonia, the majority of Jews were indeed Karaites[33]. This was not a movement to be ignored.

There are many accounts describing the rise of Anan ben David. A popular version describes how his uncle was the Exilarch[9]. In those days the political power rested with the Exilarch, while the religious power was vested within the Gaon. When his uncle died childless, he thought (being a descendent of the House of David and a scholar of note) he would succeed his uncle as Exilarch. But as it turned out, he did not get the appointment. He then tried to become the next Gaon, but again failed in his attempts. Becoming very bitter, he decided to create his own breakaway sect where he could serve as ultimate leader.[10]

Other accounts do exist, painting him in a better light, portraying him as an intellectual who drew on earlier teachings particularly the Sadducees and Essenes who also favoured a more literal reading of the Torah.[11]

Counter intuitively, Anan’s new form of Karaism was more ascetic and stricter than the Judaism practiced in his day. The early followers never ate meat at all (although later generations relaxed some of their former stringencies and did permit the consumption of meat, even with milk).[12]
They never ate warm food[13], nor did they exit their homes, on Shabbat. They were stricter in their laws of slaughtering requiring not just two ducts to be severed, but also veins and arteries. They fasted on the 7th day of every month and also observed a 70 day fast over the Pesach and Shavuot period, with no food to be eaten during the days. They also forbade the use of medicines as only “I, G-d, shall heal you”.[14]

So, unlike the liberal modern reform movements of today, the Karaites practiced a much stricter and harsher form of Judaism.

Around the 10th Century, the Karaites began moving westwards from Iraq and Persia to Israel, North Africa and Spain. Soon they were living side by side with Rabbinites in all their communities, except for France and Germany. According to documents found in the Cairo Geniza[15], there was constant collaboration between the Karaites and Rabbinites, including (what appears to be mutually sanctioned marriages), right up until the 13th Century.[16]


There are fascinating accounts about many great debates between the Rabbinites and the Karaites that took place during this period.


One of the early debates[17] took place between Rav Saadia Gaon[18] and a Karaite named Ben Zuta[19]. Together they tackled the question of whether ‘an eye for an eye’ was to be taken literally. The Gaon argued that it cannot be taken literally because what would happen if one person hit another and only damaged say, one third of the victim’s eye. How would one fairly administer the punishment on the perpetrator without damaging more than a third of his eye, perhaps even causing him to become completely blind? Ben Zuta simply responded with verses that supported equal and corresponding punishments[20]. Then the Gaon asked what would happen if the perpetrator was a blind man? The only way justice would be served in such a case was with monetary compensation. This was again rejected by Ben Zuta.

[It should be pointed out that not all Karaites took ‘an eye for an eye’ literally. Some developed what became known as the Sevel HaYerusha (Burden of Inheritence), which was almost like another Oral Tradition, mirroring that of the Rabinites, as it is very difficult for any system to adhere literally to texts which often contain a degree of ambiguity. This move away from absolute literalism may have taken place under the leadership of Binyamin Nahwendi who succeeded Anan ben David. The movement now became less ascetic, and started portraying itself as more rational (similar to the approach adopted by the early Islamists)[21].

An example of an alternate Karaite way to explain ‘an eye for an eye’ as referring to monetary compensation for damage (instead of the actual taking of an eye) can be found in a different Torah verse; “And one who kills an animal shall render monetary payment, a life for a life”. [22] Since this verse refers to monetary compensation, and since such monetary compensation is referred to as a ‘life for a life’, it shows that the expression ‘a life for a life’ does not always have to be taken literally.[23]]

Rabbi Danzig[24] points out something that the reader may not easily pick up from a cursory reading of the debate; namely that Rav Saadia Gaon’s strategy was to constantly use logic and  rationale in his arguments, while Ben Zuta mainly used verses from the scriptures as the main thrust of his arguments. Apparently this style of debate, one using rationale while the other literal text, was popular at that time.[25]


The Karaites, for their part, didn’t take these debates lightly. They fought back with retorts of their own. An example of such a rejoinder can be found in the writings of Salamon ben Yerucham[26], who is known as a fiery conversationalist who attacks Rav Saadia Gaon.  He writes (I paraphrase):

“I have looked into the six divisions of the Mishna and they are the words of modern man...They contain no majestic signs or miracles and lack the formula; ‘And G-d spoke to Moses’. They are contradictory in content. One scholar declares a thing forbidden, while another declares it permitted. Had I been among them I would not have accepted these opinions, because I am just as great a scholar as them. Saadia’s heart is overlaid with stupidity like fat. I will do battle with him and strike down his sword. I will challenge him lest the blackguard (Saadia) thinks he has an unanswerable argument. If G-d wanted an oral Tradition, He would have instructed Moses to write it down. It is written ‘The Law of G-d is perfect’, so why do we need a written Mishna? And even if the Talmud originated with Moses, then why do we need ‘another view’? Where do you flee you Fayyumite (Saadia)? Come out for battle!”[27]


Almost three hundred years later Maimonides[28] was still engaging in extensive debates with the Karaites. However, his method of debate differed dramatically from the earlier style of the Gaonim. Instead of using rationale and logic, he chose to use the same debating techniques as the Karaites themselves, namely textual verses. Some explain that the reason why he chose this style of argument, was so as not to enter into unnecessary conflict with them. He wanted to show that he could, so to speak, beat them at their own game by keeping to their rules.[29] While he spent much of his lifetime battling the Karaite belief system, he did so amicably and even seems to have been sympathetic to them, hoping that eventually they would return to rabbinic Judaism.

In fact the Rambam wrote that the Karaites ‘should be treated with respect, honour, kindness and humility as long as they do not slander the authorities of the Mishna and Talmud. They may be associated with, one may enter their homes, circumcise their children, bury their dead and comfort their mourners.’

Thus, as opposed to the times of Rav Saadia Gaon, it is clear that in the era of the Rambam and in Egypt at least, relations between both sides did improve. This even prompted a leading Karaite, Elijah Bashyazi, to state that ‘most of the Mishna and Talmud comprise genuine utterances of our fathers, and our people are obligated to study the Mishna and Talmud.’[30]


Amazingly the Karaites continued to survive up to the present day. There are a number of Karaite communities in Israel and North America, with their own synagogues. It is difficult to ascertain the exact number of Karaites today, with estimates from 300 families in Israel to as much as 30 000 around the world.[31]

Karaite Tzitzit resembling 'chains'
Traditional Tzitzit

Interestingly, according to Karaite practice, their Tzitzit are somewhat different from the traditional rabbinic version. The strings are tied to represent chains, as the verse says; ‘Gedilim (chains) shall you make for yourselves on the four corners of your garments.’[32] They also include one blue strand, made out of any dye available as there is no literal indication in the Torah as to the exact origin of the blue thread.


I have never before had the opportunity to look into Karaite history and understand just what a significant movement it was. I have of course come across numerous references to the movement but always believed it to have been a rather small and insignificant cult.  To have discovered that there may have been a time when the numbers of Rabbinites and Karaites were almost equal, and that the Karaites were generally wealthier and better connected politically than their Rabbinic counterparts, is a fascinating and frightening revelation. Imagine the form Judaism could have taken, if after teetering in the balance, the Karaites would have emerged historically dominant and Rabbinic Judaism had become something of a sub-movement?

It is thanks to the codification and innovation of people like Rif and Rambam, who are often accused of over codifying Judaism, that we have the Judaism we have today.

It is also important to understand when and why these new innovations were introduced, so that we do not perpetuate the mistaken belief that they always were there.

[1] 1013 – 1103. Rabbi Alfasi lived in Fez, Morocco, hence his title Alfasi (of Fez).  His teacher was Rabbenu Chananel, and he spent ten years in his father-in-law’s attic working on his legal code, entitled Sefer HaHalachot. Similar to Rambam who was born about thirty years after Alfasi’s passing, he wanted to create a code that would present the law as derived from the Talmud, but without the lengthy and complicated process of derivation and debate that typified Talmudic literature. His work opened and brought Talmudic concepts to the masses. One of his students was Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi of Kuzari fame. He also taught Rabbi Yosef ibn Migrash who went on to become one of Rambam’s teachers.
[2] See The Seforim Blog – R. Yitzchak Al-fasi Anti-Qaraite Legislative Activity.
[3] See Talmud Bavli, Rosh HaShana 29b.
[4]According to the Karaites, ‘Yom Teruah’ meant not a day of trumpeting but a day of singing, as there is no direct literal connection between teruah and shofar as it relates to Rosh HaShana (as opposed to sounding the horn of trumpeting on the Yom Kippur preceding a Jubilee year).
[5] Rabbi Alfasi was not the only one to consider maariv to be a chova (obligatory).
[6] The Karaites interpreted the verse ‘Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk’ as literally prohibiting only a kid goat and its mother. All other meat could be eaten together with milk. Incidentally, the first generation of Karaites were very ascetic and prohibited eating meat completely. The latter generations were more lenient and permitted meat to be eaten, even with milk.
[7] According to Dr. Henry Abrahamson, the reason why Islam was so successful and spread so fast, was because at that time it placed Reason before Revelation, and virtually created a scientific revolution, appealing to intellectuals in all the lands it spread to.  (Anan ben David and Karaism Jewish History Lecture 2012)
[8] Such as the Malakites, Shadganites, Mishawaites, Isawites and Yudganites.               
[9] Or ‘Reish Galuta’ in Hebrew.
[10] See Jewish History. Org; The Early Geonic Period, by Rabbi Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor.
[11] Another account of Anan ben David’s rise to prominence paints a slightly different picture; Early Islam respected the Davidic line of ancestry.  The Califs wanted the Exilarch (the Jewish political leader) to be of that line. Anan’s younger brother got chosen to be the Exilarch. Anan was upset and led a protest which ultimately got him arrested. In prison he met an Imam who was to go on to establish a rationalist Islamic movement. The Imam advised him to tell the Calif that he (Anan) was not representing the Jewish people, but instead was representing a new and different movement entirely separate from Judaism. The Calif accepted that, and Anan ben David was released and went on to establish the Karaite movement. (See Dr Henry Abrahamson, ibid.)
[12] As the Torah say not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk. Thus only literally a kid in its mother’s milk is forbidden, but any other meat and milk would be permitted.
[13] As the Torah says not to make a fire on Shabbat. The Rabbis agree that you can’t make a fire, but they say you can use one that is already burning.
[14] Shemot 25, 26.
[15] The second story of an old synagogue in Fostat outside Cairo was the final resting place of a huge amount of Hebrew books and documents. Hebrew holy books (and in this case even secular documents ) were not allowed to be thrown away, and were instead respectfully placed in perpetual archival storage. This particular Sheimos (repository containing books with G-d’s holy names) or Geniza (storage) remained closed for 900 years and was only opened in the late 19th Century.
From documents in the Cairo Geniza, it emerges that Rabinites and Karaites interacted well with each other and there appears to have been mutual cooperation even regarding marriage, divorce and conversion. (Further discussion is necessary to understand how these three events were able to take place within a framework of halacha that would have been acceptable to the Rabbinic establishment.  Possibly these documents reflect the situation in Egypt, where in the times of the Rambam there was mutual respect for each other and a workable relationship. Historically Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai were also able to agree on practical halachic standards and procedures, even though their views often differed. –Not that I’m suggesting comparing the Karaites and Rabinites to Hillel and Shamai.)
[16] See The Seforim Blog; Waiting Six Hours for Dairy.
[17] This particular debate is recorded in Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Shemot 21, 24.
[18] Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882 – 942 CE.) was one of the leading rabbinic figures of the Gaonic Period, one of the first to write in Arabic, and whose Emunot veDeot was the first work to reconcile Jewish theology with Greek philosophy.
[19] Also known as Abu al Surri Sahl ben Zuta. He appears to have been a kind of Karaite missionary who was quite eloquent and who chose to write in Arabic to get maximum publicity for his views. See Deconstructing the Bible; Abraham ibn Ezra’s introduction to the Torah, by Irene Lancaster.
[20] “As someone made a wound in another, so shall one be made in him.” (Vayikra 24,20)
[21] Anan ben David and Karaism Jewish History Lecture 2012, by Dr Henry Abrahamson.
[22] Vayikra 24,18.
[23] I found this argument in a modern day Karaite website; Karaite Insights, Figurative Use of the Phase “A Life for a Life”.
[24] Maimonides Heritage Center, Parshat Mishpatim.
[25] See also Yehudah HaLevi, Kuzari 3, 46-7.
[26] 910 – 960. He lived in Jerusalem and is considered one of the Karaites greatest scholars, achieving the title of Chacham. He is also mentioned in the Karaite prayer book as one of their main leaders (See Karaite Siddur i,137b). His chief work is entitled Milchamot Hashem in which he vehemently attacks Rav Saadia Gaon. .
[27] See Karaite vs. Rabbinite, Salmon ben Yerucham, Canto 1 and 2.
[28] 1135 – 1204.
[29] The Rambam used this same technique in his other debate with the Aristotelians, so as not to create conflict either. While discussing the eternity of the universe theory, the Rambam does not challenge them but instead even shows how, in theory, the verses of the Torah could support such a view. Yet, although he himself rejected such a theory, he was prepared to entertain an opposing view as well. See Moreh Nevuchim 2,25.
[30] See Karaites; Attempts at Reconciliation between Karaism and Rabbanism.

The Rambam also imposed a waiting period of six hours between meat and milk, but instead of saying that this was to differentiate between Rabbinites and Karaites (as the Rif did), he gave the reason basar ben shinav (meat maintains its status up to six hours). My theory is that he specifically gave a 'halachic' reason rather than a 'political' one, in order to ensure good relations with the Karaites.                                                                                                                                                 On the other hand, Tosefos located in France, where there was no Karaite community, held that milk could be consumed miyad (immediately after meat, provided one had cleaned and rinsed the mouth prior to its consumption).

[31] Dr Henry Abrahamsom believes the last figure to be a significant exaggeration.
[32] Devarim 22,12. They also braid the tzitzit because the word tzitzit can means ‘braid’ as in a ‘braid of hair’ from the verse; ‘and took me by a braid of my hair’. See Karaite Korner, Karaite Tzitzit.
[33] I thank Dr Avi Harel for pointing this out to me.