The word Karaite comes from the Hebrew word Karaim, meaning readers. Karaim are Jews who adhere only to the Tanach, i.e. the Scriptures, but not to rabbinic Judaism, which includes the Talmud and many other interpretations of the Scriptures. This sect was founded in the 8th century by Anan ben David in Persia, now Iran. At first the group were called Ananites. After the 9th century they were called Karaites. Thereafter they produced great literature in Arabic and Hebrew. However, opposition from the rabbinic establishment reduced their numbers severely.
Karaites adhere only to the reading of the text of the Bible and therefore distinguish themselves from rabbinic Judaism.
It has been estimated that there are about 50,000 Karaim worldwide. The majority live in Israel and are concentrated around Beersheba and Ashdod. The Karaim have a High Priest, a Kohen Gadol. They regard Jerusholayim as their Holy City where Kanie al Kumin founded the Karaite “congregation of the Roses” around 880.
Rabbinic law is based on the oral tradition of the Jews. Karaites reject the oral tradition because it is not mentioned in the Tanach. They assume that the entire Torah was written during the lifetime of Moses and Joshua and therefore there is no other sacred scripture. They further believe that the Oral Law takes away the plain meaning of the text and that it contradicts the text of the Torah at times.
Since the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Gemorah disagreed with one another, the Karaites conclude that these rabbinical opinions cannot be the word of God as God does not contradict himself (I agree). Finally, the Karaites will not believe that the Oral Law was remembered by anyone until it was written down.
The Karaites also object to the elevation of rabbinic opinion above the Torah and the observance of customs and traditions not found in the Torah.
Karaites refrain from sexual relations on the Shabbat, which gives rise to the following story: “A Jewish man asked a Roman Catholic priest whether sex is work and must be avoided on the Sabbath. The priest said that it is work and cannot be performed on Sunday. Remembering that the priest is a celibate, the man asked a Protestant minister the same question. The minister agreed with the priest and nixed sex on Sunday. So the Jewish man remembered that for Jews the Sabbath is on Saturday and finally asked a rabbi about this. The rabbi disagreed with the priest and minister and guaranteed that sex is not work and therefore could be done on Shabbat. The man wanted to know how the rabbi could deliver such a guarantee. Said the rabbi: “If sex were work, my wife would have hired someone to do it for her.”
Karaites do not use Tefillin. In accord with the sentence in Deuteronomy, i.e. Devarim 6:5-9 which commands that one “bind them (these words) for a sign upon your hand and frontlets between your eyes,” the Karaites say that one cannot literally reach the heart and therefore the commandment is only metaphorical. For the same reason, Karaites do not place a Mezuza on the doorframes of their houses.
There is one Karaite synagogue in the United States, located in Daly City, Calfornia.
Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Football & American Identity (2005) & Youth Culture and the Generation Gap (2005) with Dr. Ursula A. Falk.