I have been asked several times about the observance of holidays by the Karaite Jews, as opposed to the Talmudic Jews. What follows is a brief description of each holiday. It is important to note that starting about 2300 years ago a group of Jews called the Pharisees broke away from traditional Judaism (now represented by Karaism). The Pharisees believe that “Rabbis” can change the laws in the Torah, add new practices and holidays, and can change the dates and scheduling for the holidays. This is why Karaite holidays tend to be observed on days that differ with those of the Talmudic Jews.
Naturally, Shabbat is observed on the seventh day of the week from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. No work may be done, no fire may burn in your household, and you may not encourage others to work. Karaites refrain from sexual activity and all other impure behaviors on Shabbat. On Shabbat there are evening prayers, morning prayers, a weekly Torah portion is read (the same one being read in Talmudic synagogues) followed by a haftorah from the Neviim (Prophets). There are also evening prayers and a havdallah service to welcome the new week.
Each month begins with the new moon. The Talmudic Jews calculate the beginning of each month according to a calendar they have developed. Karaites continue to observe the new month at the new moon, and when possible, we sight to new moon in Jerusalem to confirm the correctness of our calendar and create uniformity of calendar for Karaite Jews around the world.
The new year begins, according to the Torah, in the spring. When the barley is found to be ripe (at the state of aviv) during the twelfth month the new year commences at the next new moon. If the barley has not ripened a thirteenth month is added to the calendar to correct it for the solar year and the new year begins at the new moon after the thirteenth month.
When the first month begins we count 14 days. On the evening (at sunset) when the fourteenth day begins we observe the Pesach (Passover) which commences the seven days of the Chag Hamatzot (pilgrimage festival of the unleavened bread). On this first day we do not work, because the Torah says it is a day like Shabbat. On the first night we attend special prayers at the synagogue then conduct a seder. On the morning after we have a prayer service at the synagogue with several special prayers and poems and a special Torah reading.
During the Chag Hamatzot we do not have any leavened bread, leavening agents, cheese, alcohol or wine, anything fermented, pickled or soured fruits or vegetables or pickling or souring agents in our home, nor do we consume them. The seventh day of the Chag Hamatsot is Shevi’i Atseret, anger holiday on which we do not work. After sunset, hamets may be eaten again.
Talmudic Rabbis have changed the laws of the Torah to allow many of these forbidden foods during their holiday. Some Talmudic Jews hold additional seders on the second night.
During the Chag Hamatzot, as described in Vayikara (Leviticus) 23:15, there is a Shabbat. Following this Shabbat each farmer was to bring their first Omer of grain to the Kohanim (priests) for a blessing. Upon that blessing everyone could eat their grain harvest. This is the first day of the Omer. The Omer is counted for seven weeks, each week punctuated by a Shabbat, until the seventh week arrives. The Chag HaShavuot (pilgrimage festival of weeks) is always on the Sunday following the seventh Shabbat. Special prayer services are held on Shavuot in the evening, morning, (including a Torah reading) and on the following evening. The book of Ruth is also read on this holiday.
Talmudic Rabbis decided that because the Torah says that the first day of the Chag Hamatzot is a day like Shabbat that the Omer should be counted from the second day of the Chag regardless of which day of the week it falls on. As a result they count seven weeks from there and Shavuot arrives on the 50th day whatever day of the week it happens to be. Despite this change to Jewish practice, the Talmudic Rabbis still set forward that Shavuot may not take place on Shabbat. The Rabbinic Jews also observe a holiday called Lag L’Omer a holiday that commemorates the day when the followers of Rabbi Akiva were slaughtered by the Romans. This holiday is celebrated with Bon fires much like the pagan practices that ancient Israelites were commanded to to participate in.
On the first day of the seventh month the Karaite Jews observe Yom Teruah, the day of shouting. Again special prayer services are held.
Talmudic Jews observe a two day holiday that is called Rosh Hashanah (the new year). Many scholars believe that the observance of the new year in the seventh month was a holiday adopted from the Canaanites by the Kingdom of Judah. The practice has been cemented in the Talmud, but is not observed by Karaites.
On the tenth day of the seventh month Karaites observe Yom Kippur, a day of fasting. No food or water is consumed (the ill, pregnant, nursing, elderly and young are exempted if they wish) from sunset to sunset. Special prayer services take place at the synagogue followed by a big meal after sunset.
On the fifteenth day of the seventh month Karaite Jews observe the Chag HaSukkot (pilgrimage festival of booths). A sukkah is built inside or outside of one’s dwelling and/or at the synagogue. On this day some special prayers are said following by songs and the eating of many different fruits.
Talmudic Rabbis hold that certain grains should be waved around a person’s head while they are blessed. Again a change to Jewish practice.
During the tenth month the Talmudic Jews observe Channukah, an eight day holiday commemorating the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucids in 164 BCE. While some Karaites observe some aspects of this holiday, most do not.
Purim is observed on the 14th day of the twelfth month to commemorate the victory of Mordechai and Queen Esther over Haman and the Persians as described by the book of Esther. This holiday involves the reading of the Megillah (book of Esther) followed by a celebration. Children often wear costumes.
Talmudic Rabbis have established a formula by which they add a thirteenth “leap” month in a given year three times in every nineteen years. When they do this they move the holiday of Purim to the thirteenth month.