History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

The Karaites.

Back to the Scriptures.

Now that the Talmud was a finished product, the generation of scholars succeeding its editors, called Geonim (Excellencies), had not the authority to modify its laws; they could only explain them. These laws had become very voluminous. While the bulk of Jewry yielded faithful obedience to rabbinic precept, there appeared a protesting few. There always had been — since the days of the Sadducees. Many chafed against the complicated and minute behests of the Talmud. In the eighth century the cry arose, "Back to the Scriptures," and to its few and simple commands; and it would not be downed. We shall see this demand now develop into a religious party styled Karaites, that is Scripturalists, which exercised a deep influence on Judaism and which survives as a small sect to this day.

How the Movement Arose.

In studying a movement it is always well to distinguish between the general cause and the immediate occasion. The general cause for the Karaitic movement lay in the fact that there grew up many independent thinkers who would not yield blind obedience to ancient authority. They wanted to sift the evidence anew for themselves as to the reasonableness and validity of accepted beliefs and observances. Such natures are the progressives, sometimes styled liberab, sometimes radicals. They appear in nearly all ages and in nearly all religions. The existence of such persons within the fold of Judaism was bound eventually to lead to a protest of some kind. It did now. It seemed to these critics that the original laws of the Bible had become lost or obscured in the minute rabbinic rites and forms indirectly deduced from them. Rabbinism had over-reached itself. The time was ripe and the conditions complete for a change. It awaited but the incident to organize them into action. What was the immediate occasion?


In 762 the Resh Galutha (chief of the exile), or to give him his secular title, the Exilarch, died without issue. As it had become a hereditary office since the time of Bostani (640), the position should have gone to the next of kin, the late prince's nephew, Anan. But the heads of the two academies, Sora and Pumbeditha, in whom the power of appointment lay, passed Anan by and installed his younger brother in office.

Conflict arose, and a party rallied around Anan, who left Babylonia and settled in Jerusalem. He had also been of that liberal class that chafed against the old Rabbinical code of laws explained above. Perhaps this was the cause of his rejection. In any event the treatment intensified his anti-Talmudic tendency, for beliefs are often affected by events.

He now started a new movement in Judaism embodying the idea of rejection of all post-biblical laws. The programme sounded attractive. So was the man. Many flocked to his standard. With the watchword "Back to Scripture," — all later law, contained in Mishna and Gemara, the developed product of ages, was rejected at one fell swoop. Henceforward they were to accept as their religious authority only the text of the Bible, or rather of the Mosaic Law —Mikra— from Kara to read—hence the name later acquired by the new sect, Karaites.

Now one reason why the rabbis had added so many rules to those in the Bible, though derived from them, was to meet the growing needs of practical life. Naturally the Bible did not contain the detail regulations to satisfy the changing wants of every age. This the Karaites all too soon discovered. Though they abandoned these rabbinic institutes and went back to the Bible, they also did not find it contained sufficient regulations to cover all needs. They had, therefore, to resort to the very same procedure of deducing new law from the Scripture, which they had condemned in the Rabbanite. Their means of evolving such laws from the Bible were just as arbitrary and later grew just as burdensome as those they rejected. In fact, they adopted the same general rules of interpretation found in the Mishna. Even so, it was not possible to reject every post-biblical law.

The Mistakes of Karaism.

Here are some of the regulations of this new school of Judaism. The fixed Calendar of Hillel II drawn up in the year 359, was rejected and resort was once more made to the more primitive method of observing the seasons by direct observation of the phases of the moon — a retrogressive step. If the rabbinic Sabbath laws had been strict, those of the Karaites were still more severe. The sick must not receive their medicine; the people must not leave their homes (unless they lived as a separate community); the food must not be warmed, nor a fire kindled, even by a non-Jew, on the holy Sabbath day.

The degrees of relationship within which marriage was prohibited were extended beyond biblical and Talmudic law, to include uncle and niece and the step-children of different parents.

It is always easier to diagnose a disease than to find a remedy. We must not be surprised then that in their rejection or modification of some Jewish practices, Anan and his followers showed very unequal judgment. Their laying aside the Tephillin (phylacteries) may have been in the interest of the metaphoric and spiritual interpretation of the precepts to "bind them upon the hand and make them as a memorial before the eyes." We can understand, too, the compilation of a prayer-book made up wholly of biblical selections. But what shall we say of the striking from the calendar of the Feast of Hanukkah because it was instituted in post-biblical times! On the other hand, we are glad to record that females inherited equally with males, where Karaite civil law held sway.

The fatal mistake of Anan is that he did a right thing in a wrong way. He found that the simplicity and grandeur of the Scripture had been marred and that the tendency of the Talmudic system was towards dry legalism and trifling minutiae. In founding a new school to correct abuses that always cluster around institutions in process of time, his duty was to revise rabbinic law, not to abandon it altogether. In lacking this power of discrimination, he missed his opportunity. Ruthlessly to cast aside with the undesirable so many rites, endeared by long sanction, and many others wise and worthy in themselves, was to invite opposition and to court unpopularity. The movement may then be said to have suffered from the limitations of the man. When we have said that he was not a religious genius, we have almost said everything. But that the movement survived the man (though it ceased to bear his name) may be regarded as some testimony of greatness.

The Improvements of Karaism.

The Karaites took an enlightened attitude towards other religions. They acknowledged the greatness of both Jesus and Mahomet and recognized that Islam and Christianity both had messages for the world.

The early Karaites practised rigid self-denial; asceticism is a not unusual characteristic of new sects in the first stage of enthusiasm. This moderated with time. So did their extreme radicalism, with which they began.

For a long time great bitterness prevailed between the Karaites and the Rabbanites, the latter comprising the bulk of Israel. Anan became a rival Resh Gelutha. On the one side, Karaites were excommunicated, and they in their turn would not eat or intermarry with the conservatives.

The great and lasting service rendered to the cause of Judaism by the Karaites, for which we are even still grateful, was the new impetus given to Bible study. For, as all law had to be deduced from the Scriptures anew, it involved a thorough scrutiny of its text, This meant, too, a more scientific knowledge of Hebrew grammar than had hitherto prevailed. This gave birth to a new literature on the Bible. Scripture commentaries were written not only by the Karaites but, in emulation, by the Rabbanites also. For, to maintain the validity of their Talmudic laws, which the Karaites criticised, it became necessary also to trace their roots to the Law of Moses. But, for many years, the preponderance of scholarship was on the Karaite side.

It was just the period, too, when Arabic learning was ripening to its best. So Jewish scholarship now received a double incentive, from Hebrew learning within and from Arabic culture without.

With its centre at Jerusalem, Karaism steadily spread, reaching Babylonia, Egypt, the Crimea and, later, Spain. Its zealous disciples made earnest propaganda in its cause.


Karaism.—Some Karaites went so far as to allow to each the right of individual interpretation. This occasionally led to confusion, to the forming of sects within the sect, each with its separate regulations. Something of the same character occurred and with the same consequences when the Protestant Reformation took place in the Church in the sixteenth century.

For some famous Karaite scholars and the propaganda they made for the cause, see Jewish Literature, Abrahams, pp. 76-82.

Sunnites and Shiites among Mohammedans correspond respectively to Rabbanites and Karaites among the Jews.

The Calendar.—Hillel II is said to have been the man who equalized the lunar and solar year by the addition of a month (2nd Adar) seven times in each nineteen years.

Karaites and the Messiah.—On one or two occasions anti-Talmudic movements were heralded by self-styled Messiahs — deluded enthusiasts who thought that the time had arrived to lead their people back to the Holy Land — and that they were the chosen instruments of the divine will. One such appeared in Syria about 720, and another in Ispahan about 760.

But Messiah uprisings due to local persecution were only accidental associations of anti-Talmudic movements — not their legitimate outcome. On the contrary, the opponents of rabbinic rule were mostly the rationalists among the Jews, the last to be carried away by mystic dreams.

Sahal.—One of these Karaites of the tenth century was the zealous Sahal of Jerusalem. He compiled a Bible commentary, a Hebrew grammar and a manual of religious observance. He tried hard to win the Rabbanites over to the Karaite fold. Very severe was he in denunciation of prevailing superstitions, such as invoking departed spirits and making vows to cure disease. This gives us an insight into the credulity of those days.

Rivalry of the Two Schools.—A curious polemic comes down to us from the year 1346 of the distinctions between Karaism and Rabbinism as enumerated by the former:

"First: They maintain that there were several enactments really communicated to Moses. We do not believe that there was any commandment orally communicated, which is not written in the Book of the Law.

"Second: They maintain that whatever is written in the Law requires an interpretation according to the said tradition. We, the true sages, have turned from this slippery path of tradition and closely kept to the safe road of Scripture.

"Third: They maintain that the Law itself permits them to add to the precepts and enactments of the written Law; but we, who fear the Lord and tremble at His word, we men of justice, have seen that nothing is a greater stumbling-block to Israel than the invention of the second law." — From The Hebrew Review, Zedner, London, 1860.

Theme for Discussion:—The likeness and difference between Sadducees and Karaites.