1000 years ago, the Karaite communities of Ramle and Jerusalem probably would have excommunicated my grandparents.
You see; my maternal grandmother and her sister married my maternal grandfather and his brother, respectively. Two brothers married two sisters (in separate marriages).
I always thought this was beautiful. But from at least the time of Anan and for several hundred years thereafter, the majority of Karaites forbade many types of marriage, including the marriage of two brothers to two sisters.*
And, according to a piece appearing online at the Jerusalem Post this past weekend, some of the Karaites of the 11th Century had no problem tormenting Karaites who violated this prohibition. (See A Problematic Marriage for 11th Century Karaites.)
The Post’s story tells us of a letter written in 1053 by a Jew in Israel to his sister in Spain. The letter depicts how the Karaite women of Ramle, many of whom were immigrants from Toledo, tormented a Karaite couple because the wife’s sister was married to the husband’s brother. This couple apparently adopted Karaite Judaism en route from Spain to the Land of Israel – after they and their siblings were already married.
The Karaite women of Ramle made life so intolerable, that the couple relocated to the Karaite community of Jerusalem. The Karaite community of Jerusalem, however, apparently didn’t treat the couple any better, and the couple returned to Rabbinic Judaism shortly thereafter.
This is where it gets truly interesting.
The aforementioned letter was written in the year 1053, around the same time that the famed Karaite Jeshua ben Judah was living in Jerusalem and seeking to convince Karaites that the Tanakh does not prohibit most of the categories of marriages forbidden by Anan.
According to Nathan Schur’s The Karaite Encyclopedia, Jeshua ben Judah was still alive in 1065, only 12 years after the letter was written. But despite the emerging shift in the Karaite understanding of the laws of forbidden marriage, the Karaites of Jerusalem offered no refuge to this newly-Karaite couple.**
Notably, one of the students of Jeshua ben Judah was a Castillian Rabbanite, who adopted Karaite Judaism. This new Karaite returned to Spain and spread Karaite Judaism throughout Castile. When he died, his wife led the local Karaite community. She was called al-Mu’allima and I previously wrote about her here.
It was apparently a small Karaite world back then too.
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* If anyone is interested in reading some of the marriages forbidden by Anan, the Hebrew and English text of several of his prohibitions appear in Dr. Zvi Cahn’s Rise of the Karaite Sect.
** Jeshua ben Judah summarized his views regarding forbidden relationships in his work “Sefer Ha-Yashar” (English: The Book of the Upright). It is not 100 percent clear to me that Jeshua ben Judah would have permitted the marriage of two brothers to two sisters. In 2007, I asked two well-known Karaites about the permissibility of marriages by two brothers to two sisters. One said that he was aware that this practice often occurred in Egypt, but thought it was forbidden by the Torah. Another disagreed and said that the fact that this prohibition could only be derived through various, complex steps of analogy is an indication that this could not be what the Torah intended.