Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Emor 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Emor 5760/2000

"From the Day after the Sabbath You Shall Count..." (Lev. 23:15)

The Karaites, their Calendar and Customs

Dr. Yaakov Geller

Center for Basic Studies in Judaism

This week's reading sets forth the calendar of the festivals (Lev. 23:1-44). Our Karaite brethren, [1] however, follow their own calendar based on sighting the moon, and do not go by our system of calendar computations and leap years, which was established by Hillel III in the fourth century C.E. Consequently the Karaites' festivals, holidays and fast days do not coincide with the days observed by Jewish world at large. Several of the differences between their calendar and ours, arranged according to the order in which the festivals are discussed in this week's reading, are presented below.

Although they celebrate Passover on the 15th of Nisan, two years ago that date according to their calendar fell on a Friday (while our Passover was on Thursday). They do not "sell chametz," their Haggadah differs from ours, and they do not drink four cups of wine or have haroset in their Seder.

The Karaites interpret Leviticus 23:15, "And from ... the day after the sabbath you shall count off seven weeks," as indicating that the counting of the Omer should always commence on a Sunday, so that the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) according to their reckoning always falls on a Sunday and not on the 6th of Sivan, as in the rabbinic calendar.

They celebrate Rosh ha-Shanah on the first of Tishre, but only observe one day, not two, as we do. Even though it is called "a day when the horn is sounded" (yom teru'ah, Num. 29:1), they do not blow the shofar, for they interpret teru'ah as lifting up their voices in prayer, not sounding the shofar.

Likewise their Yom Kippur is on the same date as set in the Torah, i.e., the "tenth day of the seventh month" (Lev. 23:27), but falls on a different day of the week from ours. In 1488 Rabbi Ovadiah Bertinoro attested that sometimes the Karaites of Jerusalem and of Egypt did not celebrate Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur on the same days, but that they "saw nothing bad in that." [2]

The Karaites begin their celebration of Sukkot on the 15th of Tishre, but, as is already clear, this date in their calendar does not coincide with ours. They do not observe the commandment of the "four kinds" (etrog and lulav). Moreover, they have no specific guidelines on building their sukkah, which they erect especially in their house of prayer. Likewise they do not observe Simhat beit ha-shoevah, Hoshanah Rabbah, or the custom of beating willow branches, all of which do not appear in the Torah. They have hakkafot only in the morning and not on the eve of Shemini Atzeret (Simhat Torah).

The Karaite calendar does not take note of our holidays of Hanukkah, Tu-b'Shvat, or Lag Ba'Omer because these days are not mentioned in the written Torah. Three of the four fast days associated with the destruction of the First Temple are observed in Karaite tradition, but on different days from us: the "fast of the fourth month," which we observe on the 17th of Tamuz, they mark on the 9th of Tamuz (cf. II Kings 25:3-4); instead of the Ninth of Av the Karaites fast on the 7th and the 10th of Av (II Kings 25:8; Jer. 52:12-13); instead of the Fast of Gedaliah, which we observe on the 3rd of Tishre, the Karaites fast on the 24th of Tishre (Neh. 9:1). The fast on the 10th of Tevet is the only one which they observe on the same date (Jer. 52:4-5). They do not observe the Fast of Esther but celebrate Purim for two days, and on leap years they only observe it in the first month of Adar.

From their festivals we move on to a discussion of their customs. In rabbinic Judaism the Sabbath is a day of joy, both physically and spiritually, as it is written: "call the Sabbath 'delight'" (Is. 58:13), and is made pleasant by having kiddush, singing table hymns, feasting, illuminating the house, studying Torah, and going out. The Karaites, in contrast, turned the Sabbath into a dark day of proscriptions. On the basis of the verse, "You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day" (Ex. 35:3), Karaite women do not light candles in honor of the Sabbath. They have no light or heat in their homes, but sit in the dark and eat cold food. Therefore Rabbi Zarhiyahu ha-Levy wrote in Sefer ha-Maor, "Whoever does not eat cholent (hammin) on the Sabbath should be investigated on suspicion of being a heretic" (i.e., a Karaite). [3] In recent times their sages have made a concession and begun permitting food to be kept warm in thermoses on the Sabbath, and they now illuminate their homes on the Sabbath eve. On the basis of the verse, "Let everyone remain where he is: let no man leave his place on the seventh day" (Ex. 16:29) the Karaites do not leave their houses on the Sabbath except to go to their synagogues or attend to absolutely essential matters; nor do they carry objects, for they do not acknowledge the concept of an eruv. Breaking bread on the Sabbath is forbidden by them, as is straightening a bed as well as having sexual relations, for they view intercourse as plowing and harvesting, and Scripture says, "you shall cease from labor even at plowing time and harvest time" (Ex. 34:21; cf. Ibn Ezra's commentary on this verse).

The Karaites do not put on phylacteries (tefillin) nor do they place a mezuzah on their doorposts, because they view the verse, "Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead..." (Deut. 6:8) as a poetic depiction meaning that one should apply oneself to studying the commandments with all one's heart (see Ibn Ezra on that verse). As for the commandment of tzitzit (fringes), they observe the verse, "instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments ... let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner" (Num. 15:38), by making fringes of fine silk and wool threads into which they intertwine cords of blue. Of late they have begun to wear prayer shawls during their services. They only require head covering during prayer, when reciting blessings or when reading holy writ, but not throughout the day. The Karaites do not wait between eating meat and milk, nor do they keep separate sets of dishes. In the Karaite ketubbah the bride and groom swear "to observe the Lord's sacred festivals according to the sighting of the moon." [4] Before the Karaites enter their house of worship they remove their shoes, in accordance with the verse, "Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground" (Ex. 3:5). Their house of worship contains no benches or chairs, for they sit on carpets, and kneel and prostrate themselves on the ground.

The Karaites are very strict regarding marriage and have greatly extended the list of forbidden relationships. They forbid marriage between relatives, even an uncle with his niece, although such marriages are permitted according to the Torah. They interpret the proscription, "Do not marry a woman as a rival to her sister" (Lev. 18:, as referring to the woman's niece, not her sister, and they forbid a woman to marry her sister's widower. They also forbid marriage with "rabbinical Jews." To consider a person Jewish they require that the person be born to a Jewish father and mother, not a Jewish mother alone. [5]

Although Karaite women are very assiduous in matters of purity and impurity, they do not bathe in a mikveh but in running water (yetzikah). Hence in Egypt in 1176 Maimonides issued a severe edict against women in the rabbinic Jewish community who, under the influence of Karaite women, disdained to purify themselves in the mikveh. Maimonides ruled that these sinful women should be divorced and deprived of the money guaranteed them in their ketubbah. Moreover, he declared a ban on any rabbi or rabbinical court that ruled otherwise: "publishing a ban in all synagogues, all conceding to this ban, that accursed shall be any woman who does not count seven clean days [after menstruation], or does not immerse in the mikveh, or only washes off, as do the Karaite women." [6]

Because of their strictness regarding the laws of purity the Karaites are precluded from burying their dead or touching a grave. So who buries their dead? Rabbi Ovadiah ben Abraham Yare of Bertinoro attested that poor "rabbinic" Jews bury them. Prostrating oneself on the graves of saints they consider idolatry. In addition to basing their practices on Scripture, the Karaites also rely on hekesh, i.e., deriving interpretations of biblical laws on the basis of their comparison with other laws, and on sevel ha-yerushah, i.e., traditions and practices handed down from generation to generation, provided that they do not contradict the written Torah. [7]

When, why and by whom was the Karaite sect founded?

Karaism was founded in 767 by Anan ben David. After the passing of the Exilarch Shlomo ben Hisdai in Babylonia, Anan was the first eligible candidate for this honorific office, by virtue of his being a brilliant scholar and the elder of two brothers. The geonim who headed the academies, however, opposed his appointment "because he was inclined toward concessions and lacked fear of G-d." According to them, his outlook was deficient and he did not deserve this elevated position. In his stead they appointed his younger brother Hananiah, "because he was humble, self-effacing and G-d fearing."

The historian Moshe Gil ascribes the Karaite split not to Anan ben David I, rather to the ninth-century figure, Anan II, son of Daniel and great grandson of Anan I. Rabbi Natronai bar Hilai (9th c.), gaon of Sura, viewed him as posing a real danger and ostracized him, saying, "Anan -- may his name rot." In their struggle against the Karaites the geonim turned to codification, writing books such as Halakhot Gedolot of Rabbi Simeon, Halakhot Pesukot of Rabbi Yehudai Gaon, and numerous works by Rabbi Saadiah Gaon (d. 942). Even Maimonides' Yad ha-Hazakah (12th c.) was directed against them. Likewise, the rabbis instituted the practice of studying Sayings of the Fathers on the Sabbath and did away with the custom of standing for the reading of the Ten Commandments in the synagogue.

On the attitude of posekim toward the Karaites. Rabbi Moses Isserles (Rema, great 16th century posek from Poland) ruled: "One may not marry a Karaite; they are all potential mamzerim; and they are not to be accepted into the fold if they wish to return" (Shulhan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer, 4.37). Why? Because Karaite marriages are considered valid, but their divorces are not since they are not according to Jewish law. Therefore, all the children and descendents of a Karaite divorcee who has remarried are considered potential bastards. Many other Ashkenazi posekim followed Isserles' lead. A similar ruling was also made by Rabbi Eliyahu Abergil, the head of the Rabbinical Court in Beer Sheba in 1994. [8] On the other hand, some great posekim in Egypt sought to draw them closer to rabbinic Judaism, on condition that they accept the ways of Jewish society and abandon their Karaite principles. "It happened in Egypt, in 1313, that a large community of them [Karaites] were converted to Judaism on a single day by the nagid, Rabbi Abraham ben David Maimuni [great grandson of Maimonides]." [9] When Maimonides was asked how the rabbis should treat them, he responded:

The Karaites who live here in Alexandria, Egypt, and in Damascus and elsewhere in Arab and other lands, deserve to be treated with respect, to approach them with probity and to behave with them in ways of humility, truth, and peace, as long as they behave towards us with honesty and desist from making stubborn and disdainful remarks about the great rabbis of our time, not to mention guarding their tongues against poking fun at the words of our rabbis of blessed memory. [10]

Rabbi David ben Zimra (16th c. Egypt and land of Israel) ruled along the same lines as Maimonides: "In any case, I admit that if they were all to agree to enter Jewish society, accepting the Sages as we do, I would permit them to become part of the Jewish community, with the consent of the rabbis,..." [11] Also the chief rabbis of Israel, Rabbi Benzion Uziel, Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, and R. Shlomo Goren, as well as the late rabbis Barukh Teledano and Nissim Ohanah, and chief rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and Rabbi David Hayyim Shelush consented to bring them into the fold and in certain cases to allow them to marry rabbinic Jews. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef attested, "While I was still in Egypt, in 1948, I was presented a certain case and pondered this difficult problem; and after studying what the earlier and later posekim had to say on the matter, I concluded that there is room to accept them into the Jewish community." [12]

In conclusion, there is still much that separates the Karaites from us. They maintain their own institutions of rabbinate, courts, houses of prayer, method of slaughter, and burial. On rare occasions our rabbinical courts permit mixed marriage with a Karaite, on condition that they agree to accept the ways of Jewish society, follow the Shulhan Arukh and abandon Karaite tradition.

[1] The Karaite community numbers approximately 35,000, of whom around 25,000 live in Israel (with communities in Ramlah, Ashdod, Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh, Ofakim, Beer Sheba, Bat Yam, Holon, Acre, Kiryat Gat, and the moshavim of Matzliah and Ranan), and another 10,000 elsewhere around the world (in the US, western Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Crimea, and Lithuania).

[2] Avraham Ya'ari, "Iggeret R. Ovadiah mi-Bertinoro le-Aviv" ("Epistle from R. Ovadiah of Bertinoro to his father") , Iggerot Eretz Yisrael, Ramat Gan 1991, p. 119.

[3] Ha-Maor ha-Katan, commentary by Rabbenu Nissim on Tractate Shabbat, ch. 3; Y. D. Eisenstein, Otzar Dinnim u-Minhagim (1917), p. 396; Sefer ha-Itim by R. Judah Barzilai al-Barceloni, Cracow, 1900, p. 25.

[4] Bit'on Dover Benei Mikra, 30, Adar 2, 5751 (March, 1991).

[5] "Ha-Yahadut ha-Karait ha-Olamit ," Booklet on Karaite Judaism (no place or year of publication given); print-out from Kitzur ha-Aderet, Ramlah 1985; Hayyim ha-Levy, Sefer Toldot Hayyim, Ashdod 1995, pp. 11-31; Hayyim ha-Levy, Sefer Hinukh, Ma'ayan Ha-Hayyim, Ashdod 1999, pp. 12-80; Yosef Algamil, Toledot ha-Yahudut ha-Karaite (Ramlah 1970), pp. 32-37, 99, 107; oral report by Yosef Devir, Ashdod, Spokesman of the Karaite Movement, given on February 4 and 7, 1999.

[6] Resp. Maimonides, Yehoshua Blau ed., Vol. 2, Jerusalem 1986, § 320 (99), p. 589; Yehudah Leib ha-Cohen Maimon, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Jerusalem 1960, pp. 73, 170; Hayyim ben Yitzhak ha-Levy, Tohorat ha-Mishpahah be-Yisrael, Ramlah 1981.

[7] Epistle of Rabbi Ovadiah of Bertinoro, loc. sit.; Ha-Yahadut ha-Karaite ha-Olamit, loc. sit.

[8] Beit Yosef, Tur, Even ha-Ezer 5.7; "I found a source in which R. Shimshon responded that one may not marry a Karaite, ... that they do not divorce according to Jewish law, ... and that their women remarry during the lifetime of their husbands, therefore their children are bastards in that they are born to a woman married to another man." Yediot Aharonot 14/11/1994; 12/12/1994.

[9] Ashtori ha-Farhi, Sefer Kaftor va-Ferah, Jerusalem 1959, p. 13.

[10] Resp. Maimonides, loc. sit., §449 (=Freiman 271), p. 729.

[11] Resp. Radbaz, Part II, § 796; loc. sit., Part IV, § 219.

[12] Michael Corinaldi, Ha-Ma'amad ha-Ishi shel ha-Karaim, Jerusalem 1984, pp. 134-142; Benny Lau, "Al Mishmarti E'emoda le-hahazir Atara le-Yoshnah," Meimad, April-May 1995, pp. 24-25, 29-30; Rabbi David Hayyim Shelush, Benei Ami, Jerusalem 1969, pp. 147-198; Mishpetei Uziel, second edition, Yoreh De'ah, Vol. 1, §63; Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Sefer Yabi'a Omer, Part VIII, Jerusalem 1995, § 12, a lengthy and comprehensive responsum "on whether the Karaites may be accepted into the Jewish community," pp. 409-424.

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