Karaites - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The main principle underlying Karaite Judaism can be summed up by a statement attributed to Anan ben David: "Don't rely upon me, but study diligently the Holy Scripture." Hence, according to Karaite belief, every person has the ability to comprehend the word of the Torah, and intermediaries are not required to mediate between humans and God. As a result, rabbis are never elevated to saintly status as they are in some Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewish traditions. Additionally, although Karaites do have books of commentary, they are not regarded as binding documents that dictate human action.

The Karaite religion has three basic components. The first is the written text of the Bible. The Torah is regarded as perfect and complete on the basis of the following passage: "Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish from it, that ye may keep the commandments of Jehovah, your God, which I command you" (Deuteronomy 4:2). The second is hekesh, or analogy. For example, the Bible forbids marriages between a man and his mother's or father's sister, so by analogy, a woman is forbidden to marry her father's brother or mother's brother. The third is sevel hayerusha (lit., "burden of inheritance"). These are customs that have been transmitted from one generation to another that are viewed as not contradicting or concealing the intent of the biblical text. For example, when a boy is circumcised on the eighth day as commanded by the Torah, the baby is placed on a velvet pillow and introduced to the mother several times by another relative prior to the actual procedure. In Egypt bar mitzvahs were not held for boys coming of age, but in Israel Karaites frequently hold bar mitzvahs, because of pressures to conform, and the practice may become integrated into their sevel hayerusha.

Karaite interpretations of biblical commandments sometimes vary from those of Rabbinite Jews. For example, the passages from Deuteronomy (6:8-9 and 11:18-20), "And thou shall bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes" and "And thou shall write them upon the posts of thy house and on thy gates," are taken allegorically to mean that one must always keep God's commandments in mind. Thus, it was not Karaite custom to use tefellin (phylacteries) or mezuzot (doorpost scrolls; sing. mezuzah ). In Israel, however, Karaites have developed a modified form of mezuzah in the shape of the Ten Commandments.

Karaite interpretations of the Bible may also be more literal than those of Rabbinite Jews. For example, the passage from Exodus that prohibits the seething of a kid in its mother's milk is taken at its word and does not require the separation of all meat and all milk.

The Karaites formally oppose any practices related to astrology, divination, luck, or fate. Nevertheless, some Karaites adopted folk beliefs and practices from their Egyptian surroundings, such as the use of amulets to ward off the evil eye or determining one's future through the reading of coffee grinds.

Religious Practitioners. In Egypt, Karaite religious practitioners were called hakhamim (sages or wise ones). The leader of the community was addressed as hakham akbar and oversaw the activities of the religious court and the religious council. These leaders were not always of Egyptian origin and sometimes came from as far away as Crimea or Turkey.

In Israel, hakhamim are also referred to as rabbis. A chief rabbi is elected by a Karaite religious council comprised of shohetim (ritual slaughterers), mohelim (circumcisers), and rabbis. In 1991 Karaites opened a beit midrash (house of study) in Jerusalem to train future rabbis. Prior to that, Karaite rabbis were trained through apprenticeship to other rabbis.

Ceremonies. The Karaite synagogue is treated, as much as possible, as a microcosm of the Temple on the basis of a passage from Ezekiel (11:16), "Although I have removed them far away among the nations, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them a minor sanctuary in the countries whither they are come." The Karaites make every effort to maintain their synagogue in a state of purity for worshipers at the time of daily prayers, Shabbat (Sabbath), and holidays. Menstruating women and women who have just given birth are not allowed to enter the synagogue. Likewise, people who have recently engaged in sexual relations or come in contact with the dead are forbidden entry to this holy site. Those who do enter, males and females alike, must cover their heads and remove their shoes because it is written, "put off thy shoes from off thy feet; for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5). The synagogue floor is covered with rugs and the worshipers pray facing Jerusalem and prostrate themselves facing the Ark as the priests prostrated themselves toward the Temple altar.

The Karaites attempt to structure their prayer services after Temple activities. Two services are held every day, one at sunrise and one at sunset, to correspond with the times that sacrifices were performed at the Temple. On Shabbat and holidays, additional prayers are recited to replace the extra sacrifice that would have been offered. On these days a Torah scroll referred to as the "Sefer Kourban" (Sacrifice Book) is also removed from a glass case and opened in lieu of the Temple sacrifice.

Shabbat is viewed as a time for spiritual pleasures rather than worldly pleasures. Unlike the Rabbinites, the Karaites strictly forbid sexual intercourse on Shabbat because it generates impurity and is considered a form of labor. Shabbat candles are not lit, and any use of fire is prohibited. Food is eaten cold.

The Karaite calendar is based on the actual observance of the new moon or the possibility of the observance of the new moon based on available scientific data. Holidays can fall on any day of the week, with the exception of Shuvuot (Feast of Weeks) because it is stated in Leviticus that the Omer should be counted from "the morrow of the Sabbath" (23:15). Passover and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) are observed for seven days rather than eight.

Therefore, the dates of holidays do not necessarily coincide with those of the Rabbinites. The shofar (ram's horn) is not blown on Yom HaTeruah (Day of Shouting or Cheer, known to Rabbinites as "Rosh Hashannah") because neither the Temple nor the Temple altar are still standing. Hanukkah is not celebrated because it is a holiday of postbiblical origin.

Passover is a very central holiday for Egyptian Karaites because it serves as an allegory for their own historical exodus from Egypt. During the Passover seder, or meal, which is only held one night, the Karaites read from their own Haggadah that retells the story of the hasty departure of the Jews from Egypt in biblical times. Instead of wine, they drink a homemade grape juice from red, seedless raisins because they say that the juice would not have had an opportunity to ferment, and they eat bitter herbs and lamb. During Passover week, Karaites refrain from eating leavened bread, anything derived from soaked grains, or food prepared outside of the home.

Arts. The Karaites have a body of literature that addressed issues of Karaite law ( halakhah ). Two of the authors that continue to be studied and cited frequently by contemporary Karaite scholars are Aaron ben Elijah, known as the "latter," who wrote Gan Eden and Keter Torah and lived in the fourteenth century in Nicomedia and Constantinople, and Elijah ben Moses Basyatchi who wrote Aderet Eliahu and lived in the fifteenth century in Constantinople.

Another aspect of the arts that plays a central role in Karaite life is traditional Karaite music. Music is an integral part of Karaite services and life-cycle ceremonies and consists of two broad categories. The first is that of synagogue liturgy and is derived primarily from the Psalms; the second is a body of poetic texts sung after services or for occasions such as weddings or circumcisions. The musical style creates an atmosphere of community and cohesion, but the unique contributions of talented participants are also highlighted, and women as well as men are allowed to display their knowledge and skills.


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Jun 13, 2014 @ 1:01 am
I understand the shoe removal, but why cover the head (scripture)

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