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Karaite Origins and More

By Shlomo Phillips © July 03, 2016 (latest update: July 25,2017)

Recorded Live on Facebook

         Judaism is the only biblically recognized religion. Historically this is indisputable. Judaism as the religion of Klal Israel began at Mount Sinai when HaShem revealed His Torah through Moshe Rabbeinu ("our teacher Moses"). Over the millennia "Judaism" has taken different outward forms. Prior to 70 CE the religion was Temple based and hence different in some ways than its practice today. First, an overview:

After the death of Shlomo HaMelech ("King Solomon"), and prior to the Babylonian captivity, the northern ten tribes or houses of Israel were "divorced" by HaShem according to the Tanach.

In brief, the Ten Northern Houses of Israel disappeared from history due to spiritual adultery (II Kings 17:18). The Southern Kingdom of Judah was chosen by HaShem to maintain the eternal Covenant. Eventually similar failings by Judah caused it to fall as well, but Judah was never 'divorced' by HaShem, they were merely chastised: "...there was none left but the tribe of Judah only" (II Kings 17:18). "And I [HaShem] saw, because of all that backsliding Israel [i.e. the northern kingdom] had committed adultery. I sent her away and I gave her a bill of divorcement, yet treacherous Judah [i.e. the Southern kingdom], her sister, did not fear, and she too went and played the harlot (Jeremiah 3:8).

This experience and divine punishment was a "culling of the people" by HaShem. It demonstrated the importance of loyalty and obedience to His Torah. Like the exodus from Egypt, these events established that HaShem is sovereign in the affairs of His people and all of humanity. He builds up or removes governments as He desires (Daniel 4:17). HaShem chose in favor of Judah and secured their continued existence as His Elect. From then on the Sinai Covenant and Promise passed only through Judah (and Benjamin) while the northern houses were "lost" and will remain so until the coming of Mashiach (Isaiah 11:11-12; Jeremiah 3:6-18; Hosea 1-3; Amos 9:8-10; Obadia 15-21; Micah 2:12-13; 5:3-15; Zechariah 8:13; 9 & 10; Ezekiel 34-37).

The Perushim (Pharisees/Rabbis)

The legal authority of our people began with Moshe Rabbeinu who authorized the seventy elders. From them it was granted to the priesthood, then to the Judges, then to the kings, and then to the Nevi'im or prophets. During the Babylonian captivity of Judah, the biblical Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly oversaw the transition of divine authority. As the last of the biblical prophets, Malachi, died, the Assembly oversaw the transferring of divine authority from the Prophets to the Perushim (the Pharisees). Since the death of Malachi HaNavi that authority has been held by the Pharisees who, following the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash ("House of the Holy," or Temple) in 70 CE, have been known as the Rabbinate. That authority continues today.

The Sadducees (Tz'dukim)

The origins of the Sadducees is shrouded in mystery and debate. The term Ẓadduḳi (Sadducee) may well have been an adjective denoting "an adherent of the Bene Ẓadoḳ." In other words, the descendants of Zadok. If so, they traced their pedigree back to Zadok, the chief priest in the days of David and Solomon (1 Kings 1:34). As the Pharisees came onto the scene the Sadducees enter as their opposition.

Of the Sadducees we read:

[They] degenerated under the influence of Hellenism, especially during the rule of the Seleucidæ, when to be a follower of the priestly aristocracy was tantamount to being a worldly-minded Epicurean. The name, probably coined by the Ḥasidim as opponents of the Hellenists, became in the course of time a party name applied to all the aristocratic circles connected with the high priests by marriage and other social relations, as only the highest patrician families intermarried with the priests officiating at the Temple in Jerusalem. "Haughty men these priests are, saying which woman is fit to be married by us, since our father is high priest, our uncles princes and rulers, and we presiding officers at the Temple" — these words, put into the mouth of Nadab and Abihu, reflect exactly the opinion prevailing among the Pharisees concerning the Sadducean priesthood (compare a similar remark about the "haughty" aristocracy of Jerusalem in Talmud, Shabbat 62b). The Sadducees, says Josephus, have none but the rich on their side ("Ant." xiii. 10, § 6). The party name was retained long after the Zadokite high priests had made way for the Hasmonean house and the very origin of the name had been forgotten. Nor is anything definite known about the political and religious views of the Sadducees except what is recorded by their opponents in the works of Josephus, in the Talmudic literature, and in the New Testament writings...

... Josephus relates nothing concerning the origin of what he chooses to call the sect or philosophical school of the Sadducees; he knows only that the three "sects"—the Pharisees, Essenes, and Sadducees—dated back to "very ancient times," which words, written from the point of view of King Herod's days [i.e. First Century CE], necessarily point to a time prior to John Hyrcanus or the Maccabean war. Among the Rabbis the following legend circulated: Antigonus of Soko, successor of Simon the Just, the last of the "Men of the Great Synagogue," and consequently living at the time of th`e influx of Hellenistic ideas, taught the maxim, "Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of wages [lit. "a morsel"], but be rather like those who serve without thought of receiving wages" (Ab. i. 3); whereupon two of his disciples, Zadok and Boethus, mistaking the high ethical purport of the maxim, arrived at the conclusion that there was no future retribution, saying, "What servant would work all day without obtaining his due reward in the evening?" Instantly they broke away from the Law and lived in great luxury, using many silver and gold vessels at their banquets; and they established schools which declared the enjoyment of this life to be the goal of man, at the same time pitying the Pharisees for their bitter privation in this world with no hope of another world to compensate them. These two schools were called, after their founders, Sadducees and Boethusians. (Source).

Note that the "Hassidim" or "pious ones" mentioned in this quote are not the modern Chassidim established by the talmidim of the Baal Shem Tov. They preceded them by centuries.

While the Sadducee sect faded away following the destruction of the Temple, Rabbinic Judaism survived and became the main expression and line of authority of the Jewish people, replacing the Sadducees, the Essenes, and all other previous sects. Then came the Karaites.


The origin of Karaism is uncertain. means "Followers of the Bible [only]." Karaites reject what they view as the Talmudic additions of the Rabbinate. They see the rabbis as elevating their Talmud above HaShem's Written Torah. Karaism relies solely on the authority of the Torah as revealed through Moshe Rabbeinu and encourages individual study and personal interpretation. Most Karaites also accept the rest of the Tanach or Hebrew Bible.

But Karaism in fact adopted a large part of rabbinical Judaism, either outright or with more or less modification, while at the same time it borrowed from earlier or later Jewish sects—Sadducees, Essenes, 'Isawites, Yudghanites, etc.—as well as from the Mohammedans. The founder of the sect being Anan, his followers were at first called Ananites, but as the doctrines of the sect were more fully developed, and it gradually emancipated itself from Ananism, they took the name of "Karaites," a term first used by Benjamin al-Nahawendi ("Ba'ale Miḳra" at the end of his "Sefer Linim") and in a quotation in "Yefet."

On Anan's death, between 780 and 800, his son Saul, and then his grandson Josiah, succeeded him as head of the sect, but both of them were too insignificant intellectually to leave many traces in Karaism. But between 830 and 890 men of greater mark appeared among the Karaites, who, while differing among themselves and creating various subdivisions in the new sect, agreed in diverging from Anan's doctrines, and even from his methods of teaching. The leaders of that time whose names have come down to us are: Benjamin al-Nahawendi, Ishmael of 'Akbara, Musa al-Za'farani (called also Al-Tiflisi), Mashwi al-'Akbari, and Daniel al-Ḳumisi (called also Al-Damaghani). Anan was an eclectic, borrowing various regulations of his code (a large part of which has recently been discovered and published by A. Harkavy) from rabbinical Judaism and from Jewish sects; but he attempted to base all this borrowed material, as well as the regulations which he himself drafted, on the Biblical text, resorting with that end in view to the most curious etymologies and exegetical rules. His ascetic views throughout were, moreover, so ill adapted to practical life that an unhampered secular life in agreement with Anan's code was entirely impossible. Anan's successors, therefore, set themselves the task of removing or modifying these shortcomings of Ananism, thus insuring the practical existence of the sect. While the strict Ananites lost more and more ground in the course of the ninth century in consequence of their asceticism, subsisting merely for a time at Jerusalem as strict hermits and mourners for Zion (see Abele Zion), and while Ananism entirely disappeared in the tenth century, Karaism still exists, though it is stricken with intellectual impotence.

Anan's eclecticism, which at first did good service to the heretic, since the members of various anti-rabbinical sects apparently found congruous ideas in the new heresy, caused after a time dissatisfaction in different quarters. While the liberals did not take kindly to the aggravations and rigorous ordinances of the new code, which entirely lacked the sanction of national tradition, this code was not strict enough for the rigorists in the sect, and throughout the ninth century and the first half of the tenth there were continuous dissensions, as appears from the detailed accounts of Al-Ḳirḳisani and Saadia. In some Karaite circles of the ninth and tenth centuries there arose, perhaps under Gnostic influence, an antagonism to the ceremonial law and the dogma of traditional Judaism similar to the inimical attitude toward Jewish law found among the first Christian Gnostic circles (the echo of which still appears in the attacks of Christian theologians on Jewish "legalism," although no one religion is exempt from nomism). This antagonism went so far, for instance, that the Sabbath and the feast-days were regarded merely as memorial days during the existence of the Jewish state, their observance being no longer obligatory in the exile, the resurrection of the dead was interpreted in an allegorical and rationalistic sense, as Israel's deliverance from exile, this view being probably borrowed from Sadduceeism; and the advent of the Messiah, as well as the restoration of the Temple, was referred to the past epoch of the Second Temple. The rigoristic Karaites, on the other hand, even forbade any one to leave the house on the Sabbath, to carry anything from one room into another, to wash the face, to wear a coat, shoes, girdle, or anything except a shirt, to make a bed, to carry food from the kitchen into another apartment, etc. In time, however, the extremists, such as the Ananites, 'Isawites, Yudghanites, and Shadganites, disappeared, and the moderate party in the sect organized itself under the name of Karaites. Source

To traditional Rabbinic Judaism, Karaism is but another heretical sect that began with but later abandoned the Sinai Covenant and its Chosen People. Due to differences in maternal verses paternal lineage today it is all but impossible, from a rabbinic perspective, to say who among the Karaites are "really Jewish" and who are not. For simplicity if nothing else, the general consensus is to reject all Karaite claims to being Jewish.

Differences in interpretation led to the formation of the various Jewish sects and movements that arose during the centuries sandwiching the BCE and CE periods. The Sadducees, and their unlikely but possible connections with later Karaism, is dated to this explosive period, as is Rabbinic Judaism and the many other historic Jewish sects like the Essene Brotherhood. Each ancient sect believed they had maintained the line of authority handed down by Moshe Rabbeinu. That the lineage passed through the Pharisees and continues through the Rabbinate is consonant with the Tanach and so if one wishes to base ones Judaism on the Hebrew Bible this seems clear enough, at least to me.

"Karaism appears to have arisen from the confluence of various Jewish groups in Mesopotamia that rejected the Talmudic tradition as an innovation. Some suggest that the major impetus for the formation of Karaism was a reaction to the rise of Islam, which recognized Judaism as a fellow monotheistic faith, but claimed that it detracted from this Monotheism by deferring to rabbinical authority.

In the ninth century, Anan ben David and his followers absorbed sects, such the Isawites (followers of Abu Isa al-Isfahani), Yudghanites, and the remnants of the pre-Talmudic Sadducees and Boethusians. Anan led a polemic with the rabbinical establishment and later non-Ananist sects emerged, like the Ukbarites.

The dispute of the rabbinate Gaon Saadiah and the Karaites helped to consolidate the split between them.

Abraham Geiger posited a connection between the Karaites and the Sadducees based on comparison between Karaite and Sadducee Halacha...." (Source: New World Encylopedia, emphasis mine).
The Karaites and Pharisees (Rabbinic Jews) are still around. During the "Golden Age of Karaism" -- between the tenth and eleventh centuries C.E. -- according to historian Salo Wittmayer Baron, the number of Jews affiliating with Karaism was as high as 10 percent of world Jewry. Others argue that during this period nearly 40% of all Jews were Karaite but that figure seems indefensibly boated to me. Regardless of percentages, this is no longer the case. Today the sect is tiny and inconsequential. In Israel the Karaites are mainly concentrated in the cities of Ashdod and Ramla. They number 30,000 at most. There are about 5,000 recognized Karaites living elsewhere in the world, including around 2,000 in the United States. The sect is seeking to make a gradual come back. On August 1, 2007, the Karaites converted their first new members in 500 years in the Daly City, California shul (the only full time Karaite shul in the US.

For many people today, especially on the internet, "Karaism" provides a way to "be Jewish" without having to formally study and convert to Judaism, without the need of Torah observance and Rabbinic oversight. Despite this there are various self-proclaimed Karaite groups that seem to be taking the restoration of Karaism seriously.

Recently, as I write this, in the Spring of 2017, one of these groups, Kol Chesed HaTorah, held a well publicized annual gathering at an Alabama State Park. A friend of mine was going to be doing his formal Karaite conversion with them during the event and I was looking forward to attending and congratulating him. I was also curious about this Karaite sect and so booked a reservation for Ahuva and myself at the park for the conference. Upon discovering our intention to attend I received the following curt PM from one of the sect leaders, Yonathan Ben Avraham:

"You are not invited to this group and your presence is not welcome to the group. Please accept my apologies, but whoever invited you had no authorization to welcome you. It's a private event."
This "private event" was well publicized as being open to the public on their website. I can not help but wonder why a Rabbinic Jew with Karaite friends would be refused entry to the publicly advertized event. There seems to be a strong sectarianism with this sect at the least even though it claims to be seeking to develop Rabbinic-Karaite ties. I have had similar experiences trying to gain information about the modern Karaite sect.

Karaites consider themselves to be Bnei Mikra, the "Followers of Scripture." There are various groups today that self identify as "Karaite" but there seems to be no consensus of authority nor identification among them. It appears that anyone who accepts only the Tanach as inspired and authoritative may claim the Karaite title, although some sects do have conversion requirements. Other Karaite sites state plainly that the embrace of a solo-scriptura belief is all that is required to be accepted as a Jew under their sect's determinations.

Nehemia Gordon, founder of Karaite Korner has this to say about the sects origins:

Karaism has been around since God gave his laws to the Jewish people. At first those who followed [HaShem]'s laws were merely called "Righteous" and it was only in the 9th century CE that they came to be called Karaites. The question of why God's followers are today called Karaites is really a question of the origin of the other sects. At first there was no reason to label the righteous as a separate sect because there was only the one sect which consisted of the whole Jewish people. Throughout history a variety of sects appeared and it was only to distinguish the righteous from these other groups which caused them in different periods to take on such names as Sadducees, Boethusians, Ananites, and Karaites (Source)

The God of Israel is not the author of confusion. He is the One God and while His chosen people have always been given to disagreements and debate, since the days of Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly (or Synagogue) Rabbinic Judaism has the vehicle through which the Sinai Covenant and its authority has been handed down generation by generation. Karaism in its many feuding factions, exists outside of this Rabbinic framework.

Nonetheless, various sources speak of two main opposing sects: the Sadducees (Zadokites or Tz'dukim) and the Pharisees (Rabbis). While modern Karaism has doctrinal differences with the Sadducees, both sects rejected the Oral Torah introduced by the Rabbinate. Doctrinally both sects relied solely on the Written Torah. This leads many to conclude that just as the Pharisees became the Rabbinate following the horrific events of 70 CE, so too the Sadducees became the Karaites. According to most scholars, even Karaite scholars however, while certain philosophical connections may have existed as mentioned above, a direct lineage is not at all probable nor likely. Karaism is a latter sect, one considered heretical by the traditional Rabbinate.

The Sadducees were not the only Jews that rejected the Oral Traditions. From the same Second Temple period we also learn of the Boethusians. This group also rejected the Oral Torah and based their beliefs on the Written Torah alone. What we know of as Karaism arose from the same scripture-only based convictions, but not from the same historic sources. Another sect, the Essenes, added several books as revealed in the Dead Sea scrolls, so no connection is to be found there either.

According to Josephus (Ant. 13:5-14), King Alexander Jannaeus was once officiating as cohen gadol (high priest) during Sukkot when a group of P'rushim (Pharisees/Rabbis) attacked him with large lemon-like fruit (probably citrons given the timing). Political tensions had been mounting for years. King Jannaeus responded to this insult by forming a deeper alliance with the Tz'dukim (Sadducees) and by having 'thousands of P'rushim' executed. The P'rushim (Pharisees) sought foreign aid from the Romans, but in the end innumerable Jews were executed for treason against the Hasmonean crown.

During this period the Pharisees were more political than religious. They opposed the Hasmonean wars of expansion and the forced conversions of the Idumeans (this position became an issue later concerning the Jewishness of King Herod) which alienated the Pharisees from many of those who were in power among the Jews.

In time the P'rushim demanded that Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus choose between being a political ruler (melech) or the high priest (cohen gadol). He was not qualified to be both by their estimation.

Offended by this demand, Jannaeus sided with the Tz'dukim (Sadducees) and empowered their authority in all matters pertaining to the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple). This move against the P'rushim sparked a riot in the Beit HaMikdash and a brief civil war.

The P'rushim faced persecution from the throne for a time, but king Alexander Jannaeus' days were numbered. He called for a reconciliation between the various factions prior to his death, but it was too little too late to restore Jewish unity. We are called to be one people and yet we have remained fragmented ever since.

Here is an example of how the Sadducees, the Boethusians, and Karaites differ in their Torah interpretations from the Rabbinate. Torah says:

Deuteronomy 4:2 Do not add to the word which I command you, nor diminish from it, to observe the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.

When Karaites and like-minded Jews read this, they conclude that it is forbidden to add to the Jewish canon of study and divine authority. This seems to be the clear and simple meaning. The Talmud etc. may be considered excluded due to the "clear meaning" of such Torah passages. Conversely, Rashi, the great Rabbinic commentator, remarks on this debate:

Do not add: for instance, by inserting five sections into the tefillin [instead of four], by using five species for the [commandment of] lulav [on Succoth] instead of four], or by attaching five fringes [instead of four]. And so too, וְלֹא תִגְרְעוּ nor diminish [from it i.e., three instead of four].

For their part, Karaites do not lay tefillin as Deuteronomy 6:8 commands when read literally, they read this command as being figurative. At places like Deuteronomy 4:2 they take the text literally, while the Rabbinate arguably changes the clear meaning of the text, "do not add nor subtract."

Such differences come from the acceptance or rejection of rabbinic authority.

The Karaite Korner website describes, from the Karaite perspective, how the original Torah-based Judaism was replaced by Talmudic Judaism. Modern Karaism may be dated to these events:
Then in the 8th century a last glimmer of hope appeared in the form of a shrewd leader named Anan ben David. Anan organized various non-Talmudic groups and lobbied the Caliphate to establish a second Exilarchate for those who refused to live according to the Talmud's man-made laws. The Muslims granted Anan and his followers the religious freedom to practice Judaism in the way of their ancestors. Anan himself was not a Karaite; although Anan rejected the Talmud he used similar irrational methods of interpreting Scripture as the Rabbis, such as intentionally taking words out of context. Anan's followers became known as Ananites and this group continued to exist down until the 10th century. On the other hand, those Jews who continued to practice the Tanach-based religion of their ancestors became known as Bnei Mikra ("Followers of Scripture") which was also abbreviated as Karaim ("Scripturalists"), in English "Karaites". This name derived from the old Hebrew word for the Hebrew Bible: Mikra, Kara. The name Karaim, meaning "Scripturalists", distinguished these Jews from the camp of the Rabbis who called themselves Rabaniyin ("Followers of the Rabbis") or Talmudiyin ("Followers of the Talmud").

After the Babylonian exile rabbinic power greatly increased and their followers granted them authority in all matters of religion and beyond. The Sadducees and Boethusians rejected that authority. Later on the Karaites did the same. They saw rabbinic authority as a threat that was altering the original teachings of Torah, as they understood them, and disempowering the Jewish people spiritually. So, who is correct in this debate? It's a matter of personal opinion and emunah. Will one accept the biblical line of authority and the view that the Rabbis have so abused and hence lost that authority? If the later, who today holds the authority among the Jewish people?

With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE all of the parties had to reform themselves. For the Sadducees this was especially difficult since their authority was directly related to and revealed through their Temple services. The Rabbinate had been utilizing a series of local meeting places or synagogues (Greek) in addition to the Temple for a hundred year or so and thus the transition was easier for them. We find little written about the Sadducees after 70 CE. As a ruling class, they ceased to exist as they eventually did as Jewish sect. Some records suggest that the Essenes continued to exist for a while at 70, but it appears that their sect was fundamentally altered from its original state, came to exist in name only, and then too faded.

With the rise of the Nicolaitan Church all records become uncertain, but we do know that non-Rabbinic Jewish sects continued to exist. In the seventh Century the rise of Islam substantially impacted the Christian and Jewish world. Since Muslims regarded the Jews as "the People of the Book," they were granted special protections and opportunities by the growing caliphate. The Muslims were much more favorably disposed towards the Jews than were the Christians during this early period. Rabbinic Judaism prospered during this period and the authority of the rabbis as the leaders and representatives of the Jewish people was solidified.

This was especially the case for those Jews who had remained in Babylon (Iraq). The Babylonian Talmud gradually came to overshadow the Torah in importance. It was said that one can not understand the Torah without the Talmud, and so it became the central focus of Rabbinic Jewish education, not the Torah. This view further empowered the Rabbis because they handled and interpreted the dictates of the Oral Torah. Opposition to their seemingly absolute authority led to the rise of various opposition sects and heresies. Among these was Karaism.

Not all Jews accepted the Babylonian (nor Jerusalem) Talmud. Many Jews, especially in the East, rejected the Talmud and refused to embrace the rabbis as their leaders. This brought them into conflict with the Islamic rulers who were backing and becoming wealthy from their rabbinic support and dealings. Resistance groups, led by people such as Abu Isa al-Isfahani, openly rebelled. The authority of the Rabbis seemed unstoppable however.

By this point most Jews accepted that the rabbis were the continuation of the Divine Authority granted to Moshe Rabbeinu. They regarded all opposition to rabbinic authority as both heretical and potentially disastrous to the unity of our people. To people like the Karaites, it appeared that Rabbinic Judaism had successfully usurped the Torah-only traditions of their ancestors.

In Conclusion

Neither Karaism nor Rabbinic Judaism is the "original" form of the religion, but the Rabbinate correctly claims to be the successors of the Men of the Great Assembly and hence of Moshe Rabbeinu our Teacher. History supports this claim to their authority.

Judaism has always been a living, changing organism. Rabbinic Judaism is large enough to incorporate diverse interpretations, it always has. During the Exodus the Mishkan (Tent of Meeting) was the place where God dwelt and was worshipped. Once the Temple was constructed that became His Home and those wishing to sacrifice had to go there. After the Second Temple was destroyed God's Presence remained with His people throughout the Diaspora and, in a sense, the dinning room table of each Jewish home became the Holy Place. Despite various sectarian claims, despite heretical notions and would be Messiahs. what is certain is that HaShem's Elect People have survived and continue to do so against all odds!

Am Y'israel Chai!

Sources considered:
Origins of Qaraism
The Karaite Jews of America
Karaite Korner
World Alliance of Qaraim

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