Origin of the Karaites and their Teachings
We will in this study attempt to analyze the often contentious and fiery topic of Rabbinic authority over the Word of G-d. This issue is intertwined with the topic of the Oral Torah of Judaism. We will then mainly address one of the many opposing forces against this Divinely mandated authority – i.e. the Jewish Karaite movement. Karaite teachings have today become a very popular haven of retreat for the booming Hebraic Roots Restoration movement across the world. This movement identifies itself by the sincere attempts of its adherents to break loose from their spiritual captivity “in Egypt” – which remains evident as a hangover from their ancient forefathers’ rebellion (as the Northern 10 Tribes of Israel) against this very Torah authority centered in the Tribe of Judah in ancient Jerusalem. Ulanfortunately the Karaite rebellion against Rabbinic authority and the Oral Torah serves as very fertile ground for eternalizing the ancient 10-Triber rebellion for which HaShem rejected them, leaving just ONE Tribe to continue His Kingdom, i.e. Judah, the very Tribe against whom the Karaites rebel, replacing themselves as the interpreters of Torah above G-d’s mandated appointees, the Rabbinic institution, which dates right back to Moses.
The Karaite opposing and rejection of the Mechoqeck (Lawgiver) Mandate given by G-d to the Tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10) was already active in ancient times and addressed by the Jewish Sages in the Talmud. It is to be found in Rambam (Maimonides) Mishneh Torah, Sefer Shoftim, Laws of Rebels chapter 3 paragraph 3 talking about the offspring and descendants of Karaites:
“The children of these errant people and their grandchildren whose parents led them away and they were born among these Karaities and raised according to their conception, they are considered as a children captured and raised by them. Such a child may not be eager to follow the path of mitzvot (Commandments), for it is as if he was compelled not to. Even if later, he hears that he is Jewish and saw Jews and their faith, he is still considered as one who was compelled against observance, for he was raised according to their mistaken path. This applies to those who we mentioned who follow the erroneous Karaite path of their ancestors. Therefore it is appropriate to motivate them to repent and draw them to the power of the Torah with words of peace.”
Since the symbol of the Nachash (snake) in Genesis, there has been a spirit of rebellion against what is obviously G-d’s Words and Instructions, and against the pious representatives of His unbroken transmission of those Words – the Rabbis. Numerous times the Torah says to the Rabbinic leadership [Moses, Aaron, the Elders, Johsua, Kelev, Etamar, the Judges, the Prophets, etc.] to keep and guard that very selfsame Torah [i.e. Ex. 20:2, Lev. 29:3, Deut.17, Deut. 5:8].
The Hebrew Alphabet, like ancient Egyptian and Chinese, is pictorial – that is, the sacred letters have a graphic dimension. In addition, these letters have sounds, vowels, numerical value and consonants. The sounds and pictures described by our sacred letters go together, as in the song: “love and marriage goes together like a horse and carriage … you can’t have one without the other”.
The Torah injunction to the Guardians of the Torah, is depicted by the pictorial representation of the very letters of the Biblical word ‘Shomer’ (Guard). It represents a picture of a simple handmade corral or fence – a field fence made of inter connected branches, sticks, thorns and thistles. Our Torah leadership are comparable to Shepherds who need to fence in their beloved sheep, “from fear in the [dangerous] night” [Song of Songs 3:7 -8].
Thus the very concrete, physical black ink of the shape of the letters cry out for our leadership to protect and tangibly guard the Torah. That’s not adding, that’s just protecting. Rabbinic leadership owns itself the Divinely mandated right to guard the Torah – not to add to or detract from it, No Rabbi anywhere calls such a protective measure (directive, hedge or fence), a Torah law.
They are merely placing a hedge of roses around to save the Torah laws from being carelessly trampled. Thus it is a Biblical directive to make fences around the Torah Law values. The Torah commands us in no uncertain terms to make whatever protective decrees that those in authority deem necessary [Deut.17]. Rabbis are often accused of making their own ‘man-made’ laws. The fence made by the Shepherd is man made for a specific purpose indeed, utilizing the Shepherd’s intelligence, creativity and wisdom. With these concepts now in mind, you can see, touch, feel and hear the deep Biblical basis for the following representation as defined by the Mishnah:
- Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua;
- Joshua to the Elders;
- the elders to the Prophets;
- and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly (the 120 leading Prophets and Sages towards the end of the Tanach – O.T)
Through Biblical analysis we learn that these above sages reviewed the Torah many times. They taught three main guiding principles:
- Be exact [deliberate] in judgment – fair, honest, careful and just;
- build up many students, [develop to an independent level], and
- make a fence for the Torah. – Enact provisions and cautionary rules to safeguard against transgression [ArtScroll Siddur pg. 545].
You know dearest reader and friend, that a Torah Scroll or book is called a ‘Sefer’ in Hebrew. So to answer the question: Why did the Rabbis make a fence around the Torah? The answer is: to make a “safer Torah”.
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Texts for your consideration:
- Gen. 49:10: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; …”
- “that the L-ord’s law may be in your mouth” [Exodus 13;9] – this is literally ‘Oral’ Torah.
- “These are the statutes and judgments and Torahs” [the Hebrew says Torahs, in the plural – one oral and one written] Lev, 26;46.
- Deuteronomy 17;8 -12 “… and unto the judge that shall be in those days,…” [we only have the sages of our present days or times].
If the prophet calls Judah the bow and Ephraim the arrow, it means that Judah by necessity needs to be intuitive, creative and active in explaining the Torah – just as a archer must be with his students and when out on missions. An Archer is no good as a mindless robot. He needs to use his G-d given mind and body to the N’th degree.
In Exodus 20;22 it says “G-d spoke from heaven”, and in Deut. 4;36 “… out of heaven He made thee to hear …”
These are but a few simple examples of how G-d communicated His Torah orally. All of the Bible was originally oral. Moses received it word to mouth from G-d Himself on Mt Sinai. Only later did G-d write the Ten Words on Stone and Moses wrote it on Scrolls.
The same applies to other faiths, i.e. the Koran and NT were completely oral for many years. Even when the written down process began, it still took hundreds of years before it was canonized officially, with many ulterior and/or alternative texts being ignored.
Because of the Torah positive Command it was incumbent on each Israelite to write his own Scroll of the Torah (5 Books). Whereas this was impossible for every individual to do, they would group together and hire a scribe to write a Scroll for public and private reading and studying. In ancient times already, they were counting the letter and word values for wider and more intellectual interpretation and understanding of the Bible. (Deut. 31:19 – Footnote Herz Pentateuch)
Compare this to Christianity though, where the Bible Scriptures were hoarded by the spiritual leaders and teachers. The Bible was locked up and available to the priests only for centuries until the advent of the printing press. Thus, Christian believers were dependant on the Oral teachings of their priests – but, according to the Church views. The Church born from Roman Empire times was strongly anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic and followers had no insight into the Scriptures itself. Hence an entire anti-Jewish and anti-Torah religion was instituted to oppose the Rabbinic interpretations. History abounds of how followers of the Original Bible Faith and of Jewish principles were persecuted by the Roman Empire. The monumental buildings testifying to these persecutions remain to this day in Rome as tourist attractions amongst the palatial buildings of the new Faith of Catholicism which replaced the Jewish Faith with a new totally anti-Torah religion. This new religion, though claiming the same Bible of Judah as its foundation, was based on the oral interpretations of the Popes and bishops of Rome
It took more than a millennium for the average Church goer to find the Bible Truth for themselves. Throughout this great time period, the liberal accessibility of Torah and its oral interpretation by Jewish sages and wise teachers continued unabatedly since the days of Moses – though unwontedly for non-Jews.
The obligation to read and conform to the Bible resulted in the Jews thus always being far more literate than other nations – hence more successful because they could read and write accurate records of farming procedures, business, education, etc. This earned them the scorn of the nations for witchcraft. In modern times their business aptitude was decried by the nations in anti-Semitic theories of Illuminati and World Control conspiracy theories.
Home schooling exists in Judaism since the days of Abraham. Only because of Roman persecution which disrupted Jewish home schooling, did subsequent Jewish enactment of mandatory education become necessary. This was like a tragic step backwards for the faithful, while to other nations it is a step forward.
Modern Opposers of the Guardians of the Torah
The Written Torah is similar to the magnificent skeleton of the human body. The Oral Torah fills in and out the body, giving skin, eyes, body systems, hair-colouring, personality etc. Together they make the Hebrew people with the Bible the longest living faith.
Remember in the book of Numbers Korach and disgruntled company attacks the authority of Moses, Aaron and the Elders. Well, that was not the last attack but merely one of the first attacks upon the Rabbinical guides, the spiritual leadership of the covenantal faith community. The Karaite schism likewise has character traits of that same old rebellious serpent and Korach and company. Korach was brooding, filled with jealousy and hate for not getting a promotion in the priesthood. His supporters, Dothan and Aviran had similar complaints. They were first born and were skipped over for promotion. The first born had lost a possible aliya potential [not a right but a possibility]. Because of the sin of the Golden calf fiasco [only the Tribe of Levi was completely clean of it] they had one down many levels. Still they felt they deserved an upgrade and hated, despised and nursed envy and jealousy against the Torah leadership of that time.
Likewise the essential founder of the Karaite movement. Anan, lost the position of Exilarch to his younger brother Hananiah. This petty envy and jealousy led to open confrontation. In stead of accepting the majority decision of the Geonin [the undisputed spiritual leadership of the nation], Anan and company opposed the decision and fomented rebellion.
Ten Tribers and Hebrew Roots folk today, who so eagerly though blindly are following the modern Karaite movement, should know that the Karaites immediately declared themselves a new religion and were so recognized by the Muslim Shihite Caliph as a new separate religious faith and people. Many of them are actually non Jews and are proud of it. They were defined by Saadiah Goan (a great Torah authority) as total apostates and heretics and not as another misguided sect. They agreed that they were different and often sought from gentile powers recognition as a new/old religion, completely distinct from Torah Judaism, with many elements of replacement theology.
For a few examples of Karaite non-Jewishness and replacement theological tendencies, we have the following:
In 1795 they convinced the anti-Jewish Empress Catherine II, to drop the double tax that Jews had to pay and were allowed to buy land. Because they were not really Jewish, even though they claim to have the real “Jewish” tradition, the Jews are similar to imposters.
In 1827, they [in Crimea] were exempted from army service by the sick Jew hating Czar Nicholas I and then exempted in Lithuania. At the same time Jewish kids even as young as eight, nine and ten were forcibly inducted for periods of 20 and 25 years. Unbelievable horrors were being suffered by the Jewish Kehillah. All the while the Karaites bad-mouthed us and so proved their hatred towards the nation of Israel, that these murderous despots felt so comfortable with them thus granting them favors. They claimed to have great qualities while the general Jews were full of the worst character deficiencies.
They were successful on even causing the forced exile of a holy, good and ancient Jewish community of Troki and the Karaites gaining sole rights of living there. By 1840 they were officially called “Russian Karaites”, with no reference to their former status as “Jewish – Karaites”.
These kind of tactics helped them become landowners and wealthy while the Jews were only allowed to be artisans and peddlers.
In 1840, in Russia, the Karaites became equal to Muslims in the law of the land. Also independent Church status was accorded them. The Karaites always did things to promote estrangement from the Jewish nation and prove to gentile powers how non-Jewish they themselves really were. We find this in all of Russia and Poland for example. \
During WWII their attitudes “vacillated between indifference to the Jewish cause and some cases of actual collaboration with the Germans [Nazis]” ibid Encyclopedia pg. 776. The Einsatzgruppen gave them positions of trust, authority and favor. The Nazi Ministry of Interior said that the Karaites were not Jewish and with a different “racial psychology” [The Phases of Jewish History, Devorah Pub. 2005, pg. 148]. The point is they always had the wrong spirit and the enemies of our people were quick to spot it and therefore felt and treated them as allies against Eternal Israel, the Jewish people. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, the Arabic saying goes. The very worst enemies of Torah and of those charged with keeping and transmitting it [namely the Jews] saw in the Karaites, friends in their wars against Am Yisrael [the Ben Zvi Institute of the Former President of Israel was very helpful with a wealth of documents, as was Hebrew University’s Givat Ram Campus Library].
The Karaite take on history has largely been recognized as “unhistorical, fanciful and biased Karaite sources”, Encyclopedia Judaica Jerusalem, vol. 10pg. 766, The Rise of the Karaite Sect, Barron, and many other sources]. In addition, Karaitism was also influenced by Islam i.e. Abu-Hanifah, the founder of the Muslim school of Hanafite jurisprudence, was a great influence for the formulation of the Karaite legal system (which often opposes the Torah).
The same Encyclopedia [pg 763] and many other sources point out: The (Karaite) sect … (is) the result of a combination of factors:
- the amalgamation of various heterodox trends in Babylonian – Persian Jewry;
- the tremendous religious, political and economic fermentations in the entire East, resulting from the Arab conquests and collision of Islam with world religions;
- social and economic grievances of the poorer classes of Jewry, particularly those … migrated to the sparsely settled frontier provinces of the caliphate – Thereby (being) rural and out of touch with the centers of Torah learning and authority.
The Karaite sect absorbed both such Jewish sects as the Isawites [adherents of Abu Isa al Isfahani] and Yudghanites (who were influenced by East-Islamic tendencies and small remnants of … Boethusians). “Innumerable groups were formed, it became impossible to find two Karaites who held the same opinion on all religious issues” Al Kirkisani [founder of a Karaite sect].
We find a further example of the great internal division in Karaitism, in Ishmael of Ukbarte sect who was violently against Anan’s followers and denounced him as a fool and ass, ibid. pg,766.
You have Karaite leaders at one point calling Anan the first wise man then later in their careers, I guess after feeling rebellious even against their own leadership, called him the first of fools, i.e. Daniel b. Moses al-Qumisi, first scholar to live in Jerusalem [ ibid pg.768].
As usual despite their claim to reject Oral Torah they needed to invent their own whenever they wished to implement anything on a practical action, doing level. Without a central recognized leadership it all became a do your own thing game in line with the rebellious attitudes of its founders. Without the Sages their observance led to anti biblically absurd restrictions, anarchy and became a stepping stone for Jews to completely leave the faith and fold assimilation, intermarriage and finally extinction [Refer: The Phases of Jewish History ibib. Pg. 146].
Here, dear reader, for your interest are some offbeat non biblical positions they take. They only have 8 accents of musical notation on the haftorah readings; they disregard the other markings [accents, cantillation notes]. They just swallow, gobble up or draw the rest of the text in an un-natural way into the 8 motives. By the way there existed no way to transmit sounds, pronunciations, vowels and melodies without an advanced Oral Torah transmission system! [Refer: Dr. S. Hoffman, in: Leshonnenu 22  pages 264 to 265].
In attempts to create uniformity of observance they based themselves on exegetical methods they had previously bitterly condemned! [The Phases of Jewish History, the Karaite Schism].
A very crucial Karaite wise guy, Judah HaDassi, used 80 hermeneutical rules, the best ones coming right out of the Talmud [Eshkol hakofer. nos. 114, 168-73]. This implies their applying their own Oral interpretation for their selective interpretation.
Anan and company wrongly translated a term in Leviticus 11:19 as ‘chicken’ and thereby listed it with impure, non kosher birds. They further twisted and perverted texts leading to forbidding marriage between even the most distant relatives, and they complicated the Biblical circumcision procedure, while forgetting some of its crucial aspects. They made ritual purity between husband and wife much more rigid and severe, prohibited kindling light even before Sabbath but insisted on extinguishing it on the Sabbath [an older Karaite law]. This is nuts at best, rebellious, psychologically dysfunctional, hateful of self and family ties at worst.
Regarding Sabbath they even have themselves divided up between opposing camps of good/light verses evil/darkness! [Z. Cahan, the Halakah of the Karaites, 1936]. As mentioned earlier they could not function without any Oral Torah, so like the Catholic Church Fathers and the Protestant Church Elders they needed to invent oral explanations. Their own collection of traditions is called in a kind of negative way a “yoke of inheritance”, full of things not found in the TaNach. The book of Precepts is an outstanding example of their own mishmash of self produced oral interpretations.
Very important to keep in mind is an inescapable fact, namely, many of their greatest leaders and founders, in their moments of truth, were forced to conclude how together, organized and reliable the Talmud is in general! They, for example, conceded that the prohibition not to “boil a kid in its mother’s milk” should be understood as relating to forbidding any meat cooked with milk.
The Mishawayh al-Ukbari sect of Karaites, although gone, has left its impact, held simply put that all debates, disputes and uncertainties, they were to always follow the Jewish Rabbis. In other words they agreed on the logic and correctness of keeping the festivals in harmony with the rest of historic Jews and Judaism! Now get this, this principle included, as just stated, their confused New year and Calendar issues! If in doubt “go to the sages [Judges] who will be in your days” Deut. 17. Benjamin b. Moses Nahawendi of Persia is likened to the fathers of the movement; Anan, Josiah and Saul. He created a doctrine that has been in use for all sects right up to present times. The point is he told his students to rely upon the Rabbis for all the times the Bible is unclear to them! [L. Nemoy, Karaite Anthology, 1952).
Along these lines, one of the greatest wise men and guides of all time Elijah Bashyazi, took a kinder, more respectful legal attitude towards the sages than these new guys, Johnny come lately, self proclaimed recent Karaites. To paraphrase the chacam, Bashyazi: the overwhelming majority of Mishnah and Talmud is true and faithfully gives over the words, utterances and sayings of our Biblical fathers. “Our people” must study the Oral Torah, it is an obligation and we need to study it with respect.
Moving along in this study, they write off many open practical Commandments, even those very well documented by history and archeology, as merely symbolic ideas i.e. Tzizit and Tefillin.
Hebrew Roots people today will, with a little fast facts, recognize the familiar spirit of rebellion, nasty gossip and slander of historic am Yisrael by this sect. Even a glance at the NT will yield boatloads of Oral Torah totally accepted by its main players. The ethical call not to wear Tzit Tzit and Teffilin in a show off way is very normal Rabbinic kind of censure; the sages always pushing and pulling the nation on to higher levels. Greater humility and service is what it is all about. No mention is made at all, that these ritual holy objects were inventions of the modern Rabbis of that time. All the ritual objects were assumed by the NT to be a logic part of the Faith, right back from the time of the revelation at Sinai etc. No one ever yelled at the apostles, their teacher or friends for keeping the wrong dates of Festivals. Nor did they attack any regular Jewish Pharisees for corrupting festival dates or for plain making up things about the Calendar or Teffilin etc. Nor did the very critical Church Fathers attack the Jews for making up a non biblical calendar. Just the opposite – the NT itself instructed its adherents not to change anything of the sages who are the living olive tree – just let it be a Tree.
What does “..not a jot or tittle” mean? They are all little lines, notes, decorations etc, written in the Written Torah, completely, 100% according to the ancient Oral Torah’s directives! Whatever the NT is saying can only make sense with an Oral Torah explanation and understanding. Besides, after trying to trick the Nazarene, the Sadducees, who rejected Oral law, helped Nazi like Rome. They were the members of the puppet anti- Rabbinic court that sentenced the Nazarene illegally. They were basically wiped out by loyal Jews in the Revolt against Rome and were reprimanded by the Nazarene in the NT that they are ignorant, [being assimilated pro Roman], and that they do not know the power of Hashem!
Now let us address in a few words the noise that a few self proclaimed Karaites leaders are making today. Often we have heard one fellow hailed as a great scholar. Not so in the least, by no academic standards is this fellow a great scholar of anything whatsoever. A degree of M.A. in any field does not a scholar make. He is hailed as having assisted on The Dead Sea scrolls project. This project spans many years. Hundreds of people have assisted the handful of big scholars over the many years. Assisting a professor never made someone, hocus pocus, a Professor. These people did numerous menial things for the real scholars, like bringing them lunch, tea, coffee, simple photo copying and basic back-up technical assistance. There is a huge amount of textual preparation work which is important, but takes no scholarship to perform. If a fellow was a scholar, he would not be merely another one from the scores of little helpers. He would be one of the professors with much post doctoral work under his belt, not merely a student with a M.A.
This fellow was born and raised in an easy going modern orthodox religious Zionist way, not as a Karaite. So he had some issues with Dad, and has a bit of a rebellious streak. That’s all there is to it. He found in some Hebrew Roots folk a similar bit of unresolved rebellion and also innocence and ignorance.
Now some interesting fast facts about the loud self proclaimed recently made Karaites. Several of them were and are dear friends. The Ministry of Antiquities fixed up an old abandoned Karaite prayer center. The government then advertised to the general public the opportunity to come and take over the little facility. Eventually about five guys showed up to run the place. My good buddy asked why I don’t join them, just to get the keys to a tourist site is so cool. He was also working with Tourists and thought it amazing to be able to possibly take people into a site after hours. Wild and cool and convenient on so many occasions to have a little hall to use. This was a reason to start to get a little into some form of religion. He explained in detail how none of them were Karaites; they were merely secular regular Jews who saw an amazing chance to gain access to a small lovely facility. They did not keep any Karaite festival calendar, nor a dark, locked up Karaite restrictive Shabbat, nor did they keep any religious Torah Shabbos. They were secular, he told me. Get it! However, if some G-Man. a rep, from the Ministry of whatever came calling, he would swear that he is the most devout Karaite that you ever did see! Over the years he has kind of bought into his necessary con job on the Ministries. This fellow, like all the new Karaites that I know, also has a fun, rebellious energy. Hey, being a rebel can be very positive, when used in the right way.
Another guy [may he rest in peace] who was the leading scholar among them, actually worked against missionaries with Reb Shmuel Golding [may he rest in peace] and myself for many years. He came from a liberal traditional Sephardic background, not Karaite. He was a loner and had a serious rebellious personality. Now things did not work out for himself and his wife and child. The relationship dragged on; she wanted out desperately. He did not. She went to the courts, including the Rabbinical one. All agreed, it was time for him to give her a divorce and at least pay child support. He was very angry at everyone’s interference and took off to Israel Where the Rabbis here, as did the ones there, wanted Shalom Bayit [reconciliation and family peace]. However it was not to be. Nothing was happening that could overcome the couple’s personnel issues. So eventually the Rabbis told him to give a divorce and at least pay child support. Neither of which did he ever do. I tried to get him for many years to establish a relationship with the child despite the other problems. It was very intense and involved a great deal of personnel in-depth discussions.
The point here regarding our topic is his rocky road to Karaite conclusions did not happen in an intellectual vacuum. They rather partially grew out of the anger he harbored against the entire Jewish community on both sides of the ocean.
In brief, this is presented as a public service to the many up and coming 10-Israel as well as Hebrew Restoration folk. Forewarned is forearmed. We would not know even how to pronounce the Hebrew Alphabet if not for the Oral Torah. Similarly, in order to understand the Written Torah we have to rely on Oral Torah. Without such a practice, even the Written Torah would not be understandable. Check this out: “You shall keep that which I have entrusted you to guard” Leviticus 18:30. The Sages are the management of HaShem’s system.
Take a look at Daniel 1;3 -16 Where miracles were performed for him and his friends on the merit of keeping Rabbinic protective degrees.
Let it be known, that we, the manna eaters (the Jewish / Hebrew people), the children of our great ancestors, have never lost contact with HaShem, His Torah or our spiritual leadership. They, likened to angels, who so lovingly have passed it on in each generation from Sinai to desert drama and trauma, on through all our trials and tribulations. Through the blood, sweat and tears, glory and joys, we have always had a living, dynamic relationship with our righteous remnant, the giants of mind and spirit, our Sages.
Co-Founder of the Kol HaTor-Project.
His association with the Kol HaTor Vision and Project draws from his passion for the Biblical Prophetical Promise of the Restoration of the House of Israel. Read more.