Judi's Journal 06-17-2011

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The Karaites follow Judaism as it was in ancient days

By Judi Siegal

For most Jews, life without Shabbat candles, the celebrations of Chanukah and Purim, a mezuzah on the door, to name a few, would seem awkward and not “Jewish.” Yet for a few thousand people, mainly in Israel, this is de rigueur as these people consider themselves to be the preservers of the original religion of the Bible, following the way the Torah instructs them to live. These strict literalists of the Hebrew Bible are known as the Karaites, from a Hebrew word Karaim or Bnaei Mikra which means “Followers of Scripture,” one of only two sects of Judaism to break from the mainstream (the other group being the Samaritans).

          The vast majority of the Jews in the world follow, what is known as, Rabbinic Judaism. This means that the rabbis and sages down through the generations have interpreted the laws and traditions found in the Bible. It is also believed by most Jews that when the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai, the Oral Law (the interpretation) was also given. To the Karaites, The whole body of Jewish law contained in the Talmud is also rejected by them. Lighting Shabbat candles, for instance, is an example of rabbinic interpretation. The Biblical injunction is not to create fire on the Sabbath. The rabbis allowed light created before the Sabbath while the Karaites sat in dark homes. Since the holiday of Chanukah does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, it is not observed by Karaites. As for the mezuzah, the Karaites consider the commandment about putting up the object with words from the Torah to be allegory, not something that is necessary to do.

Karaites believe that they follow Judaism exactly as it was practiced in ancient days. They believe that any interpretation invented by humans is not the word of God. The movement was founded between 700 and 800 CE by Anan ben David (the website karaite.korner.org disputes this fact, but other sources (The Concise Jewish Encyclopedia, edited by Cecil Roth New York: New American Library, 1980; The Historical Atlas of Judaism by Dr. Ian Barnes and Josephine Bacon New York: Chartwell Books, 2009) state the that this is historically correct. The literal sect claims it has been in existence since the early Biblical record. Whatever the case, the rabbis of the day denounced Anan ben David for heresy and the break with rabbinical Judaism was now firmly established. His followers were called Ananites at first and the sect reached its zenith in the 10th and 11th centuries under Muslim rule. Even for the Middle Ages, the rejection of the Oral Law, made their beliefs very impractical.

The movement was seen as a threat to Rabbinic Judaism and not many mainstream scholars supported their viewpoint. However, the sect did produce their own scholars such as Benyamin ben Moses, Nahawnedi and Abu Yusuf Yakub Karkasani who wrote in both Hebrew and Arabic.

          Today, remnants of Karaites can be found in Israel and they have their own synagogue in Jerusalem, which they consider to be a holy city. They consider to be living in a time of “Great Exile” because the Nation of Israel has forsaken the Creator for the sake of man-made religion. Redemption will come when a king of the dynasty of David will be anointed and the entire human race will embrace the religion of the Hebrew bible.

          Whether we are Biblical literalists or not, whether we believe in a Second Coming (of Jesus), a messiah of the house of David, or just a messianic age, until then may we all live in peace as we await a day when the world will be redeemed.