Karaites - Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. The Karaites trace descent patrilineally: a child must have a Karaite father to be considered a Karaite. Karaites base this practice on the fact that, in the Bible, tribes are given male names and that biblical characters are always referenced by their fathers' names. Because the Karaites do not presently allow converts, membership in the group is determined by birth only.

Marriage. Historically, Karaite-Rabbinite marriages occurred, but the Karaites are currently an endogamous group, at least ideologically. Karaites have a category of forbidden marriages called gilui ariyot (incest) that differs from that of the Rabbinites and is cited as a central obstacle to intermarriage. In this category, men are prohibited from marrying their father's sisters or mother's sisters, and women are prohibited from marrying their father's brothers or their mother's brothers. The offspring of such unions would be considered mamzerim (bastards) and would be forever forbidden from taking a marriage partner. Among the Rabbinites, the prohibition applies exclusively to men. Moreover, unlike Rabbinites, Karaites do not require levirate marriage.

For a marriage to take place, three conditions must be met. These include a written contract, mhar (bride-price), and sexual consummation. In Egypt, the Karaite community permitted its members to practice polygyny, although actual occurrences were relatively rare. In Israel, polygyny is illegal. If a marriage is unsuccessful, Karaite law grants women the same rights to divorce as men. In the event that a husband refuses to deliver a get (bill of divorcement) to his wife, and the Karaite beit-din (religious court) agrees that a divorce is justified, then it will grant the couple a divorce by judicial decree. In Israel, because the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate has exclusive legal authority in matters of personal status concerning Jews, the Karaite beit-din is currently operating in a de facto rather than a de jure manner.

Domestic Unit. The Karaite family is basically patriarchal. Among the very religious, menstruating women must sleep and sit in separate spaces from men and are prohibited from entering the kitchen and engaging in food preparation for a seven-day period. These practices highlight the centrality of men in ritual roles because the practices are intended to help guard men from impurity so that they may participate in synagogue services. In Egypt, where Karaites often lived in extended families, postmenopausal women would commonly assume all household chores while younger women were menstruating; in Israel, where the nuclear family is more the norm, men and boys sometimes assume these domestic duties.

Despite the fact that the women's movements are restricted in certain areas, unlike the Rabbinites, Karaite men do not recite prayers thanking God that they were not born women. Karaite women are also allowed relative freedom of dress and may dispose of property without their husbands' permission.

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