Who Are The Karaite Jews?

Information about the Karaite Jews is scarce to begin with, so I believe it is extremely important to discuss who we are as a people. The image above is that of Chief Hakham (wiseman) Moshe Firrouz, the leader of Karaite Judaism.

The Moshe Dari Synagogue in Cairo

Until about 60 years ago Karaite Jews lived almost exclusively in the Middle East, Asia Minor, the Crimea, and North Africa. The overwhelming majority of these being in the Middle East. Egypt and Iraq were the largest of these although significant communities were already living in what would become Israel (mostly in Jerusalem and the Ramle area).

In the 1950’s and 60’s Karaite Jews were forced to flee the Middle East, along with Sephardic Rabbinical Jews, suffering random arrests, long internment in prison, and property confiscation at the hands of totalitarian Arab governments.

Most Karaite Jews relocated to Israel while still others traveled to Europe and thence to the United States. Karaite culture, although very traditional, has now fused with the modern, egalitarian, and fast paced lifestyle of developed Western Society. In the process, a comfortable balance has been struck between ancient traditions and the eccentricities of modern life. We turn our technology off for Shabbat (sunset Friday to sunset Saturday), for example.

Education and hard work are very much hallmarks of Karaite culture. The younger generations in Israel and the US serve in the military (although this is a requirement in Israel), attend universities, and most are professionals and skilled laborers.

I encourage anyone interested in learning more to contact me and visit a Karaite community. We have 13 synagogues in Israel and one functioning synagogue in the US in Daly City, California.

Karaite Jews of America Synagogue in Daly City

Definition of Karaite

The term “Karaite” comes from the Hebrew Kara’iy (one who reads [the scriptures]). A Karaite Jew (by birth or conversion) who has been accepted formally into the Karaite community (to learn more about becoming a Karaite Jew visit Karaite Jewish University). Karaite Judaism is patrilineal accepting as Jewish one whose father was a Jew, to this end, Karaite women have Hebrew names as the daughter of their father (Shifra Bat Yitschak for example).

What distinguishes Karaite Jews from Rabbinical Jews? Over two thousand years ago a religio-political party called the Pharisees formed. They believed that commandments could be added to those written in the Torah. They also believed that traditions could become commandments if they were practiced long enough. As an example, they believed that Jews should wash their hands before eating bread, which is no where commanded in the written Torah. There is nothing wrong with choosing to clean one’s hands before eating bread but to elevate such a practice to the level of a Torah commandment where none exists? Many Jews questioned this practice. When the Romans occupied Judea the Pharisees came to dominate the Temple institution (prior to the rise of Herod the Great), through the Roman court called the Sanhedrin. Many Jews dissented from the Pharisaical interpretation of Judaism including the Sadducees, the descendants of the legitimate Zadokite priests. With the destruction of the Temple and the second exile of Jews from the Holy Land, Judaism went into a form of remission. 

During this time, if the Rabbinical version of history is to be believed, a group of Rabbis wrote the Mishna, the beginnings of the Talmud. Over the centuries many Jews would come under the influence of the Rabbis and their Talmud. By the seventh and eighth centuries CE a majority of the Jewish world was under the sway of the Rabbis. Contrary to their portrayal of history, many Jews did not agree with the Talmud. In time, these dissenters coalesced as the Karaite Jews and were granted a separate legal status by Islamic authorities in the eighth century CE. Some believe that Karaite Judaism was founded by Anan Ben David, but there is little evidence that he had anything to do with the Karaite community in his time. 

Over time, the Karaites formed a more cohesive religious community that included a large movement to return to the Holy Land. A significant Karaite community was established at the southern end of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem that lasted until the time of the Crusades. After the Crusades a Karaite synagogue was built within the Old City of Jerusalem which is still there and is the oldest synagogue in Jerusalem. Aharon Ben Asher, along with many other prominent Masoretes, was a Karaite Jew. Karaites contributed the current pointing system for Hebrew vowels. Official Karaite Torah scrolls include the vowel pointing. 

Eventually, the Karaites dwindled in number, unable to take on converts under Islamic and Russian rule. Families decreased in size. In many cases Karaite Jews had to marry first cousins in order to find spouses. Today, Karaites live in the United States and Israel and we have a mechanism for taking on converts. 

The interior of the Karaite Synagogue in Jerusalem 
at about 800 years old it is Jerusalem’s oldest synagogue

Misuses of “Karaite”

While a Protestant is generally understood to be a Christian who is not an adherent of the Catholic Church. There is no single Protestant Church, there are Anglicans, Lutherans, and Mormons, etc. The word Karaite is not synonymous with Protestant. That is, Karaite isnot just a catch-all term for the various movements that do not observe the Talmud. At one time, our movement was, more or less, a hodgepodge of non-Talmudic Jews; that was 1,200 years ago. Today Karaite Judaism is a religious movement all its own. Thus being a Karaite is like being an Anglican or Lutheran, as opposed to being simply a Protestant. We appreciate that many people are gaining a Karaite world view but respectfully request that non-Karaites please not call themselves Karaites.This is cultural appropriation and is a form of anti-Semitism. There are many people out there who claim to be Karaites and Karaite teachers, please be careful to inquire as to whether they are associated with Universal Karaite Judaism in Israel and/or Karaite Jews of America, the official Karaite communities.

The terms scripturalist, objectivist, p’shatist, and such refer to Non-Talmudic Judaism. One can become any of these by simply making a decision. To be a Karaite Jew one must seek permission to be a member of the community and respect the leadership, traditions, beliefs, and practices of that community. This is not to say that one must agree 100% with the leaders or traditions and practices, but they must respectfully disagree with those who observe them.

It is not uncommon to encounter Christians who use the term Karaite largely because of the books written by Nehemia Gordon. These books are popular among Messianic Christians, and some use the term ignorant of its true meaning. All Karaites are Jews, and therefore no one who is a Christian is a Karaite. There is an unfortunate misunderstanding here which will hopefully be cleared up in the coming years.

Other Karaites

As with many religious movements Karaite Judaism is not without its schisms. Several smaller pseudo-Karaite movements came into existence in the recent past. These divisions stem largely from the works of Abraham Firkovich, a Hakham (wise man) of the Crimean community of Karaite Jews. In the 19th Century Russia enacted a series of laws to punish Jews. These laws included additional taxes, the requirement that young Jewish men serve in the Russian Army, and several other limitations. Hakham Firkovich, acting to protect his community, claimed that Karaites were not Jews, and that they were in fact a Turkic people. He implied occasionally that they believed that Yeshua (Jesus) and Muhammed were prophets sent by Hashem to teach foreign peoples. This misdirection allowed the Karaites to fit in comfortably with the surrounding religions. The Russian authorities accepted these falsehoods and exempted the Karaites from the Jew-specific laws. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his actions, it is important to note that the Karaites were acting to preserve their communities.
The greater number of Karaite Jews in the Middle East never accepted or promoted these falsehoods. The position of the Crimean Karaites (also called Qaraims [sic]) caused little tension between the two communities, for it was understood that it was intended to protect the Karaite communities living in Russia. Several prominent Hakhamim (wise men, Karaite religious leaders) in Egypt were from the Crimea, indicating that these two communities continued to see themselves as one religious group sharing the same basic beliefs. In Lithuania a community formed that calls itself the Kraylar, this community continues to exist in and around Vilnius.
During WWII the Nazis also accepted the claim that the Qaraims and Kraylar were not Jews, although not in all instances and many Karaites also fell victim to the Holocaust. In the years before the Second World War several Rabbis had debated with the Krylar arguing that the Kraylar were actually Jews. When Nazi leaders inquired of them during the occupation, these same Rabbis acknowledged that the Krylar were not Jews, so as to protect the Kraylar from harm. As a result the Kraylar were able to save as many as 6,000 or more Jews from being killed and even assisted the Polish resistance. Many Karaites, Qaraims, and Krylar were not spared. These points are discussed in more detail by Nehemia Gordon in his article.
When the war ended and Israel was founded the pro-Israel and ardently Jewish and Zionist Karaites from the Middle East largely moved to Israel. The Karaite communities in Ramle, Jerusalem, and Beer-Sheva had already existed within the borders of the State of Israel. Many Israelis were survivors of the Holocaust and this created some tension between the Karaites and other Jews. As a result few of the Qaraims and Kraylar chose to move to Israel, although all Karaites were included in Israel’s Law of Return. 
In the years that followed the Karaite Community slowly began to reorganize and recover from the disaster of expulsion. The community in Israel established a Council of Hakhamim to provide leadership. The Karaite Community in the United States, Karaite Jews of America (KJA), was able to purchase and open a Synagogue in Daly City, California. Karaites around the world, including Karaites in Europe, recognize the Council of Hakhamim in Israel as the central leadership of Karaite Judaism.

5 thoughts on “Who Are The Karaite Jews?

  1. This is a precise and concise article. It clears up so much in such condense delivery. My family and I are Conservative Jews and would like to seek Karaite Conversion as we are convinced this is the original Torah derekh .


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