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.


  1. Tanakh
    first book of Samuel has fifty mistakes.
    second book of Samuel has seventy mistakes.

    first book of Kings has eighty mistakes.
    second book of Kings has one hundred mistakes.

    Tanakh has three hundred mistakes in four books.

    Book of Ezra has thirty mistakes.
    Deuteronomy has sixty mistakes.

    Tanakh has three hundred ninety mistakes in six books.

  2. "If G-d wanted an oral Tradition, He would have instructed Moses to write it down."

    "...I am just as great a scholar as them."

    These two statements seem to contradict one another. Unless something is lost in the translation.