Who are the Kararites? What is their religion (Karaism)?
In what ways is Karaism similar to Judaism, and in what ways is it different?
Do Karaites claims to be Jews?
Do Karaites claims to be modern-day Sadduccees?
Do all Karaites accept that Anan Ben David was the father of their movement?


Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd edition, 2006.

Encyclopaedia Judaica

The name “Karaites” was not applied to the sect until the ninth century; the precursor of the sect was known as “Ananites,” from the name of its founder, ʿAnan b. David. The sect appears to have come into being as the result of a combination of factors: the amalgamation of various heterodox trends in Babylonian-Persian Jewry, which clashed with the efforts of the heads of the Babylonian yeshivot to consolidate their position as the exclusive and central authority of Jewish law; the tremendous religious, political, and economic fermentation in the entire East, resulting from the Arab conquests and the collision of Islam with world religions.

The Karaite sect absorbed both such Jewish sects as the Isawites (adherents of *Abu ʿIsā al-Iṣfahānī) and *Yudghanites, who were influenced by East-Islamic tendencies, and other anti-traditional movements.

The Karaites themselves, however, trace their origin to the first split among the Jewish people, at the time of *Jeroboam; the true law had subsequently been preserved by the descendants of Ẓadok, who had discovered a portion of the truth. The process of this discovery of the truth was then continued by the exilarch ʿAnan (thus al-Kirkisānī and others).

Karaite Synagogue in the Old City

The unhistorical, fanciful, and biased Karaite sources also influenced the reports of Arab authors. Rabbanite sources, on the other hand, give their own one-sided version of the emergence of the Karaite schism, ascribing it exclusively to ʿAnan’s personal ambition and the injury his pride suffered when his younger brother Hananiah was elected exilarch.

The absorption by ʿAnan’s movement of many elements of an older, extra-talmudic tradition was pointed out particularly by A. Geiger and R. Mahler.

As a matter of fact, ʿAnan’s system included many laws that are quoted from old rabbinic authorities in the Mishna, the Talmud and other tannaitic and targumic sources but were not accepted (e.g., the lex talionis, i.e., the literal interpretation of “an eye for an eye” principle in the criminal law).

Anan cannot, however, be described as a “reformer” of Judaism in the modern sense; far from easing the “yoke of traditional law, he made it more difficult to bear:

he did not recognize the minimum quantities (shi’urim) of forbidden foods fixed by the rabbis; he introduced more complicated regulations for the circumcision ceremony; he added to the number of fast days; he interpreted the prohibition of work on the Sabbath in stricter terms; etc. He was particularly severe with regard to the laws on marriage between relatives, ritual cleanliness, and relations with non-Jews.

In his interpretation of Scripture, he made use of the 13 hermeneutic principles of R. *Ishmael b. Elisha, adding to them the principle of analogy (hekkesh, Ar. qiyās; the latter, perhaps, under the influence of Abu Ḥanīfah, the founder of the Ḥanafite school of Muslim jurisprudence).

The dictum quoted in Anan’s name by *Japheth b. Yeli (commentary on Zech. 5:8), “Search well in the Torah and do not rely on my opinion,” is composed of two clauses: the first in Aramaic, and the second in Hebrew. The second clause, though, is not found in the oldest MS of Japheth’s commentary and seems to reflect a somewhat later development. The first half was possibly designed to uphold the Holy Scriptures as the sole source of the law through a process of thorough investigation; notwithstanding, the fragments of Anan’s Book of Precepts contain several references to the definitive authority of Anan’s own interpretations of Biblical verses.

In the wake of Anan’s activity, numerous groups and parties were formed, mainly in the eastern parts of the Caliphate. Some of them shared the designation “Karaites,” and soon, as related by Kirkisānī, it became impossible to find two Karaites who held the same opinions on all religious issues.

Anan’s adherents, in the stricter sense, called themselves Ananites (Arabic ʿanāniyya, sometimes applied by Muslim authors to Karaites in general) and remained few in number (in Iraq, Syria and Spain). They seem to have disappeared some time during the 11th century.

Anan’s descendants, who, like Anan before them, were given the honorific title of nasi (“prince”) by their contemporaries, lived first in Jerusalem, and then, from the early
11th century, for the most part in Egypt. The names of his son, *Saul b. Anan, and his grandson, Josiah b. Saul b. Anan, are known from the prayer for the dead in the Karaite Sabbath and festival liturgy; neither seems to have had any role in the further development of the sect. Saul is also mentioned in Sefer ha-Kabbalah, by Abraham ibn Daud, and Josiah in Eshkol ha-Kofer, by Judah Hadassi, and in Gan Eden, by Aaron b. Elijah the Younger of Nicomedia. Karaite traditions about Anan’s emigration to Jerusalem and his settlement there refer possibly to his great-grandson, whose name was Anan.

As the non-Rabbanite, proto-Karaite movement did not recognize any single leader, it was not long before many groups arose in its midst, in opposition to the Ananites. Thus, in the first half of the ninth century, the ʿUkbarites, whose founder was *Ishmael of ʿUkbara, came into being in ʿUkbara, near Baghdad, at the time of the caliph al-Muʿtaṣim (833–842).

Ishmael was violently opposed to Anan, “often denouncing him as a fool and an ass.” Nothing of Ishmael’s writing has been preserved, and the little known about him and his school derives almost exclusively from the reports of al-Kirkisānī, at whose time (second half of the tenth century) the group was probably no longer in existence. In his teaching, Ishmael rejects, inter alia, the Masoretic variants (keri and ketiv, the reading of certain words in the Bible in a manner that differs from their spelling).

….It follows that in the 9th century and the beginning of the 10th, the Karaite movement was a conglomeration of various anti-Rabbanite groups, some of which had sprung up after Anan’s death. Al-Kirkisānī gives a vivid description of the countless differences on questions of religious ritual obtaining among the various Karaite groups, some of which still existed in al-Kirkisānī’s time.

In order to counter the Rabbanite arguments in polemics with the Karaites, based upon these heterogeneous views, al-Kirkisānī concludes his description with a characteristic observation: the Karaite readers of his work, he states, had no reason for concern, for in this respect there was a great difference between them and the Rabbanites:

“They [i.e., the Rabbanites] believe that their laws and regulations have been transmitted by the prophets; if that was the case, there ought not to exist any differences of opinion among, them and the fact that such differences of opinion do exist refutes their presumptuous belief. We, on the other hand, arrive at our views by our reason, and reason can lead to various results.”

The many sects which had come upon the proto-Karaite or early Karaite scene after Anan disappeared as fast as they had sprung up, without leaving any noticeable trace upon the
movement. By their gradual self-liquidation, however, they prepared the ground for the consolidation of a well-defined, uniform doctrine which has subsisted to this very day as Karaism.

The outstanding representative of the new movement in the ninth century was Benjamin b. Moses *Nahāwendī (from Nehavend, Persia; c. 830–860), who laid the groundwork for
the new development of Karaite doctrine and was also the first Karaite writer to employ, according to some sources, the term Kara’im (Benei Mikra).

Rabbanite scholars, such as Saadiah Gaon and Judah Halevi, regard Anan and Benjamin as the fathers and founders of the Karaite sect; Arabic and Karaite authors also refer to Karaites as Aṣḥāb ʿAnān wa-Binyāmīn (i.e., followers of Anan and Benjamin). The Karaites themselves put Benjamin almost on the same level as Anan, and in the memorial prayer (zikhronot) Benjamin’s name follows immediately upon those of Anan, Saul, and Josiah.

It was Benjamin, in particular, who turned the free and independent individual study of the Scriptures into a basic principle of Karaism. In theory it became possible for Karaism to tolerate differing interpretations of the Bible. Benjamin also differed from Anan in making no special efforts to maintain a hostile attitude to the Rabbanites and stress a fundamental opposition to them. He sought to base each law upon the Bible (without differentiating between the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa) and freely borrowed from the Rabbanites (although he declared such regulations as not binding upon Karaites). Furthermore, he advised his coreligionists to adopt the Rabbanite view in cases where the Bible did not provide a clear prescription.

Benjamin is also the first Karaite to whom Karaite sources ascribe statements concerning dogmas and religious philosophy. Seeking to remove all taint of anthropomorphism
from the conception of God, he embraced in his exegesis of the Bible ideas that are reminiscent of *Philo’s theory of the Logos (which he may have known in Arabic translation or by the way of the Maghāriyya – the cave dweller – sect, mentioned by al- Kirkisānī; see also *Sects, Minor). Accordingly, the creator of the world, its builder, and its guide, was an angel created by God to represent His will; it was this angel who performed the miracles, revealed the Law, etc., and it is to this angel that the anthropomorphic passages in the Bible refer.

*Daniel b. Moses al-Qūmisī, who lived toward the end of the ninth century, seems to have been the first eminent Karaite scholar to settle in Jerusalem. He was the first to make the“mourning in Zion” a basic tenet and a hallmark of Karaism. In an epistle ascribed to him he fervently urged Karaites in the Diaspora to immigrate to Ereẓ Israel. In the same epistle he also expounded his particular positions on halakhic issues and, perhaps for the first time in Jewish history, proposed a set of normative, binding beliefs (“articles of faith”). He opposed Benjamin’s method of Bible exegesis and denied the existence of angels, interpreting the term malakhim as natural forces employed by God to serve as His emissaries (cf. Psalms 78:49; 104:4).

Opposing also Benjamin’s leaning toward Rabbinic halakhah, he called for strict adherence to the literal sense of the Scriptures. This may also explain his fight against Anan, whom he had at first revered as “first among the sages” (“rosh ha-maskilim”), only to denounce him later as “first among the fools” (“rosh ha-kesilim”). Yet in his commentaries there are cases of alternative and homiletic interpretations.

It may be assumed that it was his attitude to Anan that caused al-Qūmisī’s exclusion from the Karaite memorial prayer, in spite of the great respect in which he was held by later Karaite writers. al-Qūmisī wrote commentaries on several books of the Bible, but of his commentaries only the one on Minor Prophets survived almost complete. He also taught that, in case of doubt, the more rigorous interpretation of the law should be accepted.


In the tenth century, when Karaism was already fairly consolidated, the movement adopted an aggressive attitude, designed to spread its doctrine. This was also the golden age of Karaite literature (with most of the Karaite works of this period being written in Arabic). Karaite attempts to gain mass support for their beliefs among the Rabbanites (which, however, seem to have attracted only a few converts of no particular distinction) brought forth, on both sides, an apologetic and polemic literature.

There were in this period (ninth and tenth centuries) a considerable number of outstanding Karaite theologians, religious teachers, grammarians, lexicographers, and biblical exegetes. Rejection of secular sciences, which Anan had advocated, was not followed by all Karaites. Some Karaite scholars became active participants in the flourishing Arabic culture. Others (e.g. al-Qūmisī, Salmon ben YeruIim ) prohibited any
engagement in “foreign” books and sciences as leading to heresy.

In view of the special significance attached by Karaism to the study of the Bible, the Karaites dedicated themselves with great zeal to massoretic and grammatical exegetic studies and must have had a stimulating influence upon Rabbanite scholars. The view of Jewish historians (such as J. Fuerst, S. Pinsker, H. Graetz) that some of the first and most appreciated Jewish massoretes and grammarians (notably Aharon ben Asher), and biblical exegetes had been Karaites, has been discussed again in recent research and probably proven correct.

The greatest Karaite mind of the tenth century was Abu Yūsuf Yaʿqūb al-Kirkisānī, whose work on religious law, Kitāb al-Anwār wa-al-Marāqib, particularly its opening chapter, represents one of the foremost sources for the history of the Karaite sect.

*David b. Boaz, a descendant of Anan, attained great repute as a biblical commentator, and is also said to have composed a work (in Arabic) on the basic doctrines of religion. In the second half of the tenth century, David b. Abraham *Alfasi, a native of Fez (Morocco) who emigrated to Ereẓ Israel, became known as a lexicographer and biblical exegete. At the end of the century *Japheth b. Eli in Jerusalem translated the entire Hebrew Bible into Arabic and added his extensive commentary, becoming the most important Karaite Bible commentator. Japheth’s son, Levi b. *Japheth, in addition to Bible commentary, also wrote an important book of precepts (extensive fragments of the Arabic original and the medieval Hebrew translation survived).

One of the most active opponents of Rabbanism, and especially of Saadiah Gaon, was *Salmon b. Yeruḥim (mid-tenth century). In a similar vein was the work of *Sahl b. Maṣliaḥ ha-Kohen, a skillful and eloquent Karaite missionary who wrote a commentary on the Pentateuch and was a religious teacher; his Hebrew introduction to his Arabic-language book of precepts contains important information on the Karaite community in Jerusalem.


The decline of Karaism in the East began in the 12th century. No original writer of any significance came to the fore there after the first half of that century, even in the field of religious law. The only exception was in Egypt, where the Karaite communities (mainly in Cairo and Alexandria) still numbered members who possessed considerable financial means and had good political connections, or belonged to the intellectual or professional elite. When *Maimonides took up residence in Cairo their influence, social and religious, decreased, as well as their public standing. Notwithstanding, the Karaite community in Egypt remained the largest in the Islamic east until modern times. Also living in Egypt at this period was Moses b. Abraham *Darʿī, the outstanding Karaite poet of his time.

Other Karaite writers who lived in Egypt (mainly in Cairo) in the 12th to 15th centuries, such as *Japheth al-Barqamānī, Japheth ibn Naghīr, *Israel ha-Ma’aravi, and *Samuel b. Moses *al-Maghribī, played no independent role in the further development of Karaism.

In the Byzantine Empire, on the other hand, Karaism succeeded in gaining a firm foothold. A massive Karaite literature of translation came into being here, produced mainly by former disciples of Jeshua b. Judah who, for the most part, were residents of Constantinople. The most eminent among them was *Tobias b. Moses ha-Avel (known as “ha-Oved” [the worshiper] and also as “ha-Maʿtik” [the translator]) whose major work was the translation of the Arabic writings of Jeshua, as well as of Joseph b. Abraham al-Baṣīr. He also wrote a commentary on the Pentateuch, Oẓar Neḥmad, based primarily upon the works of David b. Boaz and Japheth b. Ali. The only other name to be preserved is that of *Jacob b. Simeon, one of the most prominent Karaite translators of this period.

To this period belongs also the work on Hebrew linguistics entitled Meʾor ʿAyin, by an anonymous author. It seems to have been based on Arabic works of the Golden Age. It survived in a single MS, copied in 1208 (published by M. Zislin, 1990). Prominent religious scholars and biblical exegetes active in Byzantium in the 12th century were Jacob b. Reuben, author of a Bible commentary, Sefer ha-Osher, which consists largely of excerpts from Hebrew translations of works of earlier Karaite authors, especially those of Japheth b. Ali (part of the commentary on the Prophets and the entire commentary on the Writings was printed at the end of the edition of Mivḥar Yesharim by Aaron ben Joseph, 1836); Aaron b. Judah *Kusdini (from Constantinople), of whose works there survives only a responsum on marriage laws; and Judah b. Elijah *Hadassi, author of Eshkol ha-Kofer, an encyclopedic summary of Karaite theology, one of the most important works of Karaite literature and, undoubtedly, the outstanding Karaite work in Hebrew. Most Byzantine Karaite translations and original works of that period contain a considerable number of Greek glosses, or other phrases, which constitute very important evidence of early Medieval Judeo-Greek.

….In the second half of the 13th century, Karaism in the Byzantine Empire entered a period of spiritual florescence. It was in this period that *Aaron b. Joseph ha-Rofe (“Aaron the Elder”), one of the most important Karaite biblical exegetes, was active; highly revered by his coreligionists, he was given the title of “ha-Kadosh” (“the Saint”), most probably for his work in arranging the hitherto unstable Karaite liturgy into an organized ritual, valid to this day. His commentary on the Bible, Sefer ha-Mivḥar, is regarded as the classic Karaite work in Bible exegesis; it shows the influence of Abraham ibn Ezra’s commentary.

*Aaron b. Elijah of Nicomedia (“the Last Aaron”), a codifier, biblical exegete, and religious philosopher who lived in the first half of the 14th century, was regarded by the Karaites as the “Karaite Maimonides”; he was the author of Gan Eden, a systematic code of Karaite law and belief, corresponding in its significance for Karaism to the Turim by R. Jacob b. Asher; of Keter Torah, a Bible commentary which has enjoyed, for many centuries now, a status and prestige comparable to that of Rashi’s commentary among Rabbanites; and of Eẓ Ḥayyim, which attempts to refute the Aristotelian views of Maimonides by a religious philosophy, which, while familiar with Aristotelian terminology and concepts, is basically committed to Muʿtazilite Kalām.


A new epoch in the history of the Karaites was opened by the incorporation of Lithuania and Crimea (1793 and 1783, respectively) into Russia. Until then, the external history of the Karaites had been similar, and parallel, to that of the Rabbanite Jews; both considered each other as Jews and regarded even the most violent polemics between them as an internal Jewish quarrel. Wherever the Karaites had taken up residence, they had been treated as Jews. For example, a decree issued by Grand Duke Witold in 1388 describes the Karaites of Troki as “Judaei Trocenses” and grants them the same special legal status as that accorded to Jews of Brest-Litovsk and other Lithuanian communities.

The decree was reconfirmed by King Sigismund I of Poland in 1507, for both Karaite and Rabbanite Jews in Lithuania. In 1495, Grand Duke Alexander expelled both Jews and Karaites from Lithuania, and both were admitted into Poland by his brother, King John Albert. John’s successor, Alexander, in turn permitted the return of both Jews and Karaites to Lithuania. During the Chmielnicki persecutions, hardly any difference was made between the two groups.

In Lithuania, Poland, and Volhynia, the state taxes payable by Jews and Karaites had to be remitted in a lump sum; the Karaites would hand their taxes over to the Rabbanite Jews, and these would add their own taxes and transmit the whole sum to the government. Under the Tatar khans and the Ottoman Turks, Rabbanite Jews and Karaites in the Crimea also had the same legal status.

It was only at the end of the 18t century, when Russia conquered the Crimea, that a difference in status was made between Rabbanite Jews and Karaites under the law. In 1795, Empress Catherine II relieved the Karaites of the double tax imposed upon the Jews, and also permitted them to acquire land. Thus the 1795 law created a wall of separation between Jews and Karaites, each group enjoying civil rights to a different degree (although legislative decrees continued to refer to Karaites as “Jews”).

Inequality before the law of the two groups was further expanded in 1827, when the Crimean Karaites, like the Crimean Tatars, were exempted from the general military draft law enacted by Czar Nicholas I, a privilege that was not extended to the Jews. In 1828, exemption from military service was also granted to the Karaites of Lithuania and Volhynia. In their attempts to improve their legal status, Russian Karaite leaders had at first refrained from resorting to attacks upon Rabbanite Jews; this policy was changed in 1835, when the Karaites, in appeals and memoranda to the Russian government, began to stress their fundamental difference from other Jews, namely their refusal to accept the validity of the Talmud.

They also claimed to possess qualities which distinguished them from other Jews: that, contrary to the Rabbanites, they were industrious people, honest in their behavior and loyal to the throne. In 1835 they succeeded in having the Rabbanite Jews of Troki expelled from the town, on the basis of ancient Lithuanian privileges which granted them the sole right of settlement there.

They also achieved a change in their official designation; instead of “Jews-Karaites” they first came to be called “Russian Karaites of the Old Testament Faith” and eventually simply“Karaites. The special legal status accorded to Karaites, as compared with the other Jews, was also influenced by the difference in their social and economic situation.

Whereas the Jews in the Crimea were mainly peddlers and artisans, the Karaites were wealthy landowners, deriving their income from tobacco plantations, orchards, and salt mines, and maintaining good relations with the authorities. In 1840 the Karaites were put on an equal footing with the Muslims, and were granted an independent church statute. Two dioceses were established, each headed by a ḥakham, with residences at *Feodosiya (Crimea) and Troki respectively; the ḥakhamim were laymen, elected by delegates from all Karaite communities. Each community also elected its ḥazzan, who performed religious functions and served as an assistant to the ḥakham. Finally, in 1863, the Karaites were given rights equal to those of the native Russian population.

On Jan. 9, 1939, the German Ministry of the Interior expressly stipulated that the Karaites did not belong to the Jewish religious community; their “racial psychology” was considered non-Jewish. This decision was subsequently applied to France. In Eastern Europe the Nazi Einsatzgruppen during World War II received orders to spare the Karaites, who enjoyed favorable treatment and were given positions of trust and authority with the German occupation authorities. On Oct. 6, 1942, the ruling of Jan. 9, 1939, was extended to the Crimea and the Ukraine, where the majority of Karaites lived.

The Karaite question continued to be debated by the German authorities who queried the Rabbanite scholars Zelig *Kalmanovitch, Meir S. *Balaban, and Itzhak *Schipper on the origin of the Karaites. In order to save them, all three gave the opinion that the Karaites were not of Jewish origin. The behavior of the Karaites during the Holocaust period vacillated between indifference to the Jewish cause and some cases of actual collaboration with the Germans. No adequate study, however, has been made on this subject.

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