Really, I’m Flattered, But . . .

Real-Life Karaites Pray Here.

Real-Life Karaites Pray Here!

It seems like whenever an orthodox rabbi wants to win a halakhic debate he compares his opponents (or their position) to Karaites (or Karaism). To be honest, these comparisons are sometimes the best publicity Karaites can get. I can name dozens of Karaites whose first introduction to Karaite Judaism was through a rabbi who criticized them for holding Karaite beliefs.

But there’s something deeper and more troubling going on with these comparisons.

Let me start by giving you an example from the historical fiction (heavy emphasis on fiction) book, Savior’s Day, that I reviewed a few weeks ago. In a climactic scene – a fictional trial of Aaron Ben Asher accused of aiding Karaites by penning the Aleppo CodexSaadia Ga’on and Aaron ben Asher accuse each other of being Karaites in order to curry favor with the crowd. (Savior’s Day, pp. 109-117.)  The only reason such a tactic makes sense (even in historical fiction) is if it is rooted, at least somewhat, in real life.

In fact, we see such comparisons all the time. The most interesting examples that come to mind concern two very well-known and highly regarded rabbis:  Rabbi David Bar-Hayim and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, z”l.[1]

For years, Rabbi David Bar-Hayim has been trying to convince Ashkenazi Jews that they are permitted to eat kitniyot during Passover. According to one source, the “injunction [against kitniyot] was unanimously accepted by Ashkenazic Jews; many Sephardic Jews, however, continue to eat kitniyot on Passover.” Among Rabbi Bar-Hayim’s arguments in support of the permissibility of kitniyot for Ashkenazi Jews is his theory that the custom of prohibiting kitnityot was a Karaite custom that made its way into Rabbinic Judaism “in France towards the end of the 1100’s.” (See Kitniyot – A Karaite Custom?Although, Rabbi David Bar-Hayim suggests that this explanation reflects the “documented facts,” he does not cite any examples of Karaites living in France at the time. He simply appears to be using Karaites as a tool to advance his stated agenda.[2]

And the late Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits actively encouraged Rabbanites to re-evaluate their approach to the Oral Law given the Jewish return to the Land of Israel. Apparently frustrated with the strict Rabbinic adherence to codified rabbinic commentaries, Rabbi Berkovits accused his fellow Orthodox Jews of being “Karaites of the Oral Law.” Of course, “Karaites of the Oral Law” is a contradiction; but he too was using Karaites in a less than flattering manner in order to get Rabbanite Jews to re-evaluate their halakhic views. (See Dennis Prager’s Can Halachah Ever Be Wrong;Aaron Wexler’s Just a Thought: On Codification.)

Rejecting a position because it is reminiscent of a Karaite view is not, in my opinion, intellectually honest. A more appropriate approach is to evaluate the merits of the issue on its own terms – rather than evaluating the person or group associated with the opinion. This is actually one of the bases for the fundamental tenet of Karaism which encourages everyone to search the Scripture for answers, rather than relying on someone’s opinion. So, as much as I love the free press, perhaps we can all think twice before invoking caricatures of Rabbanites and Karaites in order to prove our points.

*  *  *

[1] I have tremendous respect for the knowledge and wisdom of these rabbis. I pray to be one-tenth as knowledgeable as them one day. My thoughts here are limited to the types of arguments they are making and not the rabbis’ halakhic bona fides or the substance of their positions. For the most part, these debates I mention concern issues internal to Rabbanism.

[2] It is true that some Karaites did not eat certain kitniyot, so it is possible that the Ashkenazi ban resulted from Karaite influences. But I know of no Karaite community living in France during the time frame mentioned. According to Professor David Lasker, “there is very little indication of Ashkenazic familiarity with Karaism, let alone any actual Karaite communities in Franco-Germany” in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. (See Lasker, David, From Judah Hadassi to Elijah Bashyatchi: Studies in Late Medieval Karaite Philosophy; Brill (2008), p. 197.) In any event, the Babylonian Talmud records Rabbinic discussions regarding the permissibility of rice (a type of kitniyot Ashkenazi Rabbanites do not consume) on Passover; so at the very least the issue of kitniyot did not originate from the Karaites.   See Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 35a. 

10 Comments

Filed under ben Asher, Hametz, Karaite Rabbanite Relations, Talmud

10 responses to “Really, I’m Flattered, But . . .

  1. The Ashkenazi ban of Qitniyot has absolutely nothing to do with Karaites (there were no Karaites in France until the 20th century nor did 12th century French Ashkenazim have any contact with any Karaites or Karaite literature, which up to that time had mostly been written in Judæo-Arabic). It derives from a purely Rabbanite custom whose origin, by the 12th century was forgotten by the Ashkenazim and who mistakenly applied it to Passover.

    According to the Talmud, one should not eat Polim [fava beans] on holidays because it was a symbol of mourning to do so instead of eating meat. By the 12th century in France they had forgotten the reason for the custom and incorrectly surmised that, since Passover was the only holiday with dietary restrictions because of Hames, not eating Qitniyot must have something to do with Hames. This custom is mentioned for the first time in France and Provence in the beginning of the thirteenth century by Rav Asher of Lunel, Rav Shemu’el of Falaise, and Rav Peres of Corbeil – from there it spread to various countries and the list of prohibited foods continued to expand. Nevertheless, the reason for the custom was unknown and as a result many sages invented at least eleven different explanations for the custom. As a result, Rav Shemu’el of Falaise, one of the first to mention it, referred to it as a “mistaken custom” and Rav Yeruham called it a “foolish custom”.

    Also, there is no Karaite ban on Qitniyot. All Karaites eat rice on Passover and green fava beans are a favourite amongst Karaites of the Middle East. What some people do avoid is dried beans, not because they are considered Hames in themselves, but, rather, because in the open markets in the Middle East they are often kept in open sacks next to grains and that the scoops that are use to take them from the sacks may be the same ones used for the grains and there is a chance of them getting mixed.

    These days place where one should be careful when it comes to rice is with so-called “enriched” rice, because what is used to “enrich” the rice is often derived from grain which is Hames.

    The Rabbanite Rav who claimed it was a Karaite custom did so not because of any historical accuracy but to use the Karaites as the “boogeyman” against whom one must be on guard as the source of everything that the Rabbanites consider wrong or evil.

    • Zvi

      Hakham Qanai, I do not see how the French rabbis, who were fairly conversant in the Talmud and the responsas that followed it, would have forgotten by the 12th century the Talmud’s claim that one should not eat fava beans on holidays because it was a symbol of mourning to do so instead of eating meat.

      • Zvi, I did not say the Rabbis had forgotten. It was the people that had forgotten. The Rabbis actually opposed the ban on Qitniyot as a “מנהג שטות”. Later generations, because of the Rabbanite dictum “מנהג מבטל הלכה” and the later idea of “אין מבטלים מנהג ישראל” went out of their way to invent reasons for the custom that had taken hold even though it actually violated what the Talmud says about Qitniyot not being Hames.

        Rabbanites, especially Ashkenazi Rabbanites (but even in the Mishnah and Gemara), fossilize many customs whose origins they do not know and turn them into law “because this is the way our grandfathers did it”. It it like the story of the Orthodox woman who was teaching her daughter, who was about to get married, how to maintain a Kosher home, and told her that “you must always cut of the end of the roast before putting it into the oven”. The daughter asked “why?” The mother said “I don’t know but that is the way your grandmother always did it. Let’s go ask her what the reason is.” They then go to the grandmother’s house and the mother asks “Mama, I am teaching my daughter how to maintain a Kosher home before she gets married and she has a question. Why do you cut of the end of the roast before putting it into the oven?” The grandmother then replied “because my roasting pan was too small to hold the whole roast.”.

        • A good example of this is the Lubavitch Hasidim saying that it is commanded that the Etrogh that they use during Sukkot must come from Italy (and even go so far as to claim that in Biblical times Etrogim were imported from Italy, even though the name and origin of the fruit is from Persia). The origin of the custom that they have turned into law was the fact that during the time of Shne’ur Zalman of Lyadi Russia and Turkey were on beligerant terms and it was impossible to import Etrogim from Eres Yisra’el as they had formerly done and the only way they could get them was from Italy.

  2. Eddie

    Actually R’ Eliezer Berkovits was a truly great man, and Rabbi. His statement “Karaites of the Oral Law” was quite reasonable. It is not a contradiction,because he was referring to the written /oral law, ie the Talmud etc. What he meant by this, is that the Ultra orthodox have taken an approach to the Talmud/Halacha, which resembles that of the Karaites to the TNK, i.e. there are no external sources of halacha. He argued that there were additional Oral law principles which are not written.

  3. Zvi

    Hakham Qanai is a little mistaken; some Qaraites *have* abstained from consuming Qitniyot, and R. Moshe Dabbah subscribes to this view as well (at least theoretically); at one time (during Hag haMassot of 2008) he was adamant that those who do not do likewise are “not real Qaraites”.

  4. maurice

    I don’t understand why the rabbis of all people would be so bent against adherents to the Torah. The term “Karaites of the Oral Law” is quite clever as it refers to its ‘literal’ interpretation. But name calling is typical of too many ‘traditionalists’ these days. Respect for them is misplaced.

  5. Isabelle Cohen

    France is often associated with Ashkenazi Jews which is not correct. 80% of Jews in France are Sefardim and do eat kitnyot – my family is among that number.

    • Yes; great point. I have family that left Egypt and went to France. Today, the majority of Jews in France are of Sephardic origin. But 900 years ago, that was not the case. (Where is your family from prior to France?)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s