Karaite Studies: The State of the Field (Part I)

One of my professed goals for starting A Blue Thread is to promote the study of Karaite Judaism at secular and religious institutions. This is the first in a series of posts related to a workshop, entitled Karaite Studies: The State of Field, that was held in Israel from February 27, 2012 – March 1, 2012.*

For today, I’ve created cliff notes and commentary (not to be confused with an oral law) for the first half of a question-and-answer session between Rabbi Moshe Firrouz, the Chief Rabbi of the Karaite Council of Sages (Hebrew: Moetzet HaHachamim), and various researchers and academics in attendance at the workshop. The topics covered in this post range from women in Karaite Judaism; Karaite Torah scrolls; rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem; and efforts of the Karaite community to maintain its halakha (religious interpretations), culture and traditions.

The video of the question-and-answer session is available on YouTube and is approximately 44 minutes long. The discussion begins in Hebrew but switches to English after the first minute or so. The sound improves after about two minutes. Unfortunately, the video itself is a bit dizzying as the videographer tries to focus on each person asking questions and then switches back to Rabbi Firrouz for his answer.

I hope you enjoy these annotations, which reflect Rabbi Firrouz’s answers to the various questions posed to him. The time marker (minute:second) for each topic appears next to the corresponding heading.

Uniformity of Karaite Prayers (2:30)
The liturgy of Karaite communities throughout the world has no marked distinction between historically Ashkenazi and Sephardic countries. In Europe, Karaite prayers are very similar to those in Israel, but the European prayers include some aspects of the local language.

Generally, no difference exists in Karaite prayer style between the Karaite synagogues in Israel and the United States, because both communities came from Egypt. The prayers at the Karaite Jews of America (“KJA”) in Daly City, CA are a bit shorter than the prayers in Israel.

Karaite Attitudes Toward Rebuilding the Temple (5:08)
The Moetzet HaHachamim has not discussed the topic of rebuilding the Temple.

Every Karaite service (including Shabbat) contains prayers mourning the destruction of Jerusalem, but in recent years such prayers have comprised a smaller portion of the service. This reduced emphasis is due to the Jewish return to the Land of Israel, which, in Rabbi Firrouz’s opinion, has marked the beginning of a period of salvation.

Karaite Torah Scrolls and Karaite Scribes (8:40)
Today, the Karaite community does not have any Torah scribes, so the community purchases its Torah scrolls from Rabbanite scribes. No difference exists in the text of the Torah between the Karaite and Rabbanite communities.

In recent years, however, the Karaite community of Israel has purchased three Torah scrolls that include the vowelization. According to Rabbi Firrouz, this is completely prohibited in the Rabbinic halakha, which requires that the scroll be without any such signage. Rabbi Firrouz found a Yemenite community (as he recalled) in Israel that had a Torah scroll with additional signage not found in traditional Rabbanite scrolls.

Some Karaite sages held the belief that the Torah was given with vowels so that there could be only one interpretation of the Torah.

Karaite Torah Trope (11:20)
The traditional Karaite incantation of the Torah is very similar to that of the Sephardic community. Rabbi Firrouz indicated that he has a recording of the Karaite Torah trope.

Leading Prayer Services (13:25)
In Be’er Sheva, where Rabbi Firrouz lives, there are approximately ten different individuals capable of serving as the hazzan (cantor/prayer leader) of a Karaite service. The weekday prayers are usually led by younger individuals training to lead Shabbat services. In Israel, Karaite Shabbat services are approximately five hours long, and one person leads the entire service. (Editor’s Note:  The Shabbat services at the KJA are approximately three hours, including the Torah service, a discussion of the Torah portion and a break of about fifteen minutes or so.)

In Israel, the Yom Kippur service is approximately ten hours and is usually led by two different people, because the service is generally too long for any one person. Rabbi Firrouz, however, knows of at least one person (over 70 years old) who can lead the entire Yom Kippur service from beginning to end. (Editor’s Note:  The Yom Kippur services at the KJA are approximately six-and-a-half hours spread throughout the day.)

Role of Women: Community & Prayers (16:30)
Women can serve as a legal witness, sign a ketubah, read the Torah and chant any of the portions of the prayers that are usually distributed to the community to read. The Karaite halakah does not contain any prohibition similar to the Rabbanite prohibition of Kol Isha. (Editor’s Note:  The traditional Karaite service includes prayers that are read by members of the congregation, in addition to prayers led by the hazzan.)

Divorces and Get (17:45)
(Editor’s Note:  We need some context to understand this issue. Karaites and Rabbanites agree that a woman may not have more than one husband at a time. Thus, if she is legally married to one man, she cannot marry another man. According to the Torah, a divorce occurs when a husband writes “a certificate of divorce and puts it in [his wife’s] hand and sends her away from his house.” Deuteronomy 24:1.

An issue arises where a husband does not want to give his wife a religiously proper divorce. In such cases, not only is she still legally married to her husband, she is not permitted to marry anyone else – because she does not have a certificate of divorce and may only be married to one man at a time.)

According the Karaite halakha, the Karaite Beit Din can dissolve a marriage on a woman’s behalf and give her a Get (a Jewish divorce document), if she can prove that her husband is not fulfilling the requirements of marriage. This is one of the fundamental differences between Karaite Judaism and Rabbanite Judaism. According to Rabbinic halakha, the husband must be the one to issue the divorce document.  (Editor’s Note: In law school, I read a case named Avitzur v. Avitzur about the interaction between civil contract law and Rabbinic halakha.)

Maintaining Traditions (19:40)
Throughout Israel, the Karaite communities have frequent Torah lessons, summer camps and weekend gatherings to educate community members and maintain their heritage.

*The workshop was a collaboration of the Israel Science Foundation and the Goldstein Goren International Center for Jewish Thought, in cooperation with the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Ben-Zvi Institute, Jerusalem.

8 Comments

Filed under Conferences & Workshops, Divorce & Get, Karaite Beit Din, Karaite Jews of America, Karaite Prayers & Melody, Karaite Rabbanite Relations, Karaite Scribes, Karaite Studies: The State of the Field, Moetzet Hachamim (Council of Sages), The Temple, What is Karaite Judaism, Women in Karaism

8 responses to “Karaite Studies: The State of the Field (Part I)

  1. Ron Hefez

    Good Stuff…keep the education coming.

  2. Thank you Shawn!! Keep up the GREAT work!!

  3. Shira and Ziva

    escited about this, toda
    Shira and Ziva

  4. Pingback: Karaite Studies: The State of the Field (Part II) | A Blue Thread

  5. Pingback: Dead Sea Scrolls Go Live | A Blue Thread

  6. Has there been any indication that a sofer/soferet would ever be trained amongst the Karaites? I was actually intending on strengthening my Hebrew and then become a soferet (when I was a Rabbinate) and I am still very interested in the idea.

    • Great question. I know the community is currently undergoing a revival of sorts, but I don’t know if anyone is in training to be a sofer/soferet. My guess is that it would take someone with the necessary desire to go and become certified (for lack of a better word) as a Rabbanite scribe and then learn the Karaite variations in scribal tradition.

      I wish we all had your level of dedication!

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