Anan ben David: The Challenge of Karaism


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  1. בשם השם נעשה ונצליה

    My dear brother Hillel, I write to you on my own behalf, and the opinions expressed herein are those of my own and not that of Karaite Jewish University of which I am a founding member of the Board of Directors.
    I take this occasion to write to you after listening to your lecture on “Anan Ben David and Karaism,” for the purposes of pointing out what I believe to be an egregious error in your presentation, which is rare to see with someone with your sterling academic credentials. There has been a resurgence of Karaite Studies in Academia. Not too long ago, in February of 2012, The Israel Science Foundation and The Goldstein-Goren International Center for Jewish Thought held a multi-day event at Ben Gurion University of the Negev that was hosted by Professor Daniel J. Lasker , a prolific researcher on Karaite Judaism, and Chief Rabbi Moshe Yosef Firrouz.

    After listening to your lecture it is clear to me that you bear no animus towards either Karaite Jews or Karaite Judaism, and so I write to set the record straight as to the oldest branch of Judaism known by its current name.

    In your lecture you state in pertinent part:

    Karaism derived this term primarily because of the extreme Devotion to the Bible Text alone, and put in one sentence the essential belief of the Karaite Movement is that the Torah, the first 5 books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are in fact given by God and nothing else. And the task of a Karaite Jew, or a Karaite simply put, is to divine the divine intent buried in that text without the layering of Rabbinic interpretation that followed particularly in the oral tradition And thereby live one’s life as a Karaite Jew…the bible and nothing else really.

    Question: When you say the Karaites were rejecting the oral tradition and emphasizing and only reading the written bible, that’s the TaNakh correct?

    Answer: Not the TaNaKh the Chumash. The TaNaKh is like 24 the books; the Chumash is just the five.
    Question: So there not looking at the Prophets…

    Answer: I’m generalizing, because one thing we see about the Karaite movement, is that especially not under Anan but under a successor it was also a heterodox movement and also willing to tolerate different interpretations within a certain the scope of the parameters of those interpretations. And they did recognize the possibility of limited prophecy given after Moses. But not necessary with the same commanding voice as the Chumash has…the later TaNaKh does not have the ability to overrule the early Chumash.

    Well known Karaite Sage Judah ben Elijah Hadassi who wrote his magnum opus “Eshkol ha-Kofer,” or “Sefer ha-Peles” starting in the year 1148 wrote the following:

    “The Torah and Prophets and Hagiographa are all three called “Torah,” as it is written: “And we have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by following his teachings [which He set before us by His servants the torot] Prophets” (Dan 9:10), and the wisest of all men said about them: “Indeed, I wrote down for you a three-fold love, in wise counsel” (Proverbs 22:20) in the Holy Spirit of your God.”. (page 70a, col.2)

    Commenting on the above passage, the late Professor Uriel Simon of Bar Ilan University said “In another context Hadassi brings proof texts for this Karaite view of the prophetic books and Hagiographa as the only authentic supplement to the Torah.” See p. 205 in “Four Approaches to the Book of Psalms: From Saadiah Gaon to Abraham Ibn Ezra.” (hereinafter “Four Approaches”)

    Tenth Century Karaite Sage, Salmon ben Yeruham, who according to Hebrew University Professor Jonathan Shunary, became know to the scholarly world when Simcha Pinsker published his Lickute Kadmoniot in 1860, commenting on Tehillim wrote: “There is no root or branch [of the Chumash] that is not included in this book [of Tehillim]….It also contains most of the consolations that were written by the prophets in all their aspects and particulars.” (page 169)

    Salmon further explained his belief that Tehillim was revelation from the creator, blessed be he, when he wrote: “The purpose in the revelation (Tanzil, ‘bringing down’) of this book is that we pray from it. Therefore all of it is instruction and guidance for the people of the Exile, teaching them how to repent – to weep, fast, and wear sackcloth, and beseech the Merciful one for salvation.”

    Another great Karaite Sage and Scholar was Jacob al-Kirkisani. Hakham al-Kirkisani would not have wasted his precious time writing commentaries on the Book of Job (Arabic Tasfir Iyob); Book of Ecclesiastes (Arabic Tasfir Kohelet) if he felt they were not works of importance. The man who wrote:

    Thus, Scripture says, confirming the validity of the use of reason: “In order that they may see, know and consider…that the hand of the Lord has done this” (Isaiah 41:20)

    would not have quoted Yeshayahu and the other prophets repeatedly on his treatise on biblical exegesis, if he did not believe that it was part of the Holy Writ.

    The Karaite Tuv Ta’am, which is the Karaite equivalent of the Rambam’s 13 principles of faith , state:
    And His prophets and His messengers and His emissaries and His seers and His angels which prophesy and which are sent in truth and righteousness: Truth! See Karaite Siddur, Volume 2, Vienna 1854, p.110 (Hebrew); reprinted in Karaite Siddur, Volume 2, Ramleh 1977, pp.208-209 (Hebrew)]

    All Karaite Jews living today believe that the TaNaKh is the divine word of the creator.

    In an Introduction to Karaite Judaism: History, Theology, Practice, and Culture [Y. Yaron, Joe Pessah, Avraham Qanai, Yosef El-Gamil] wrote:

    Writing a volume on the beliefs and practices ofKaraite Judaism may, to some, seem strange. After all, one of the fundamental tenants of Karaite Judaism is that the TaNaKh, the Jewish scriptures, is the sole source of Jewish law, and the final authority on theological and legal issues. What the Torah does not provide is interpretation and explanation. Ostensibly, this is the reason behind the Talmud. And, conceptually, 1here is nothing wrong with a Talmud. Karaites have always maintained this. Several prominent figures in Karaite Judaism have written scholarly works on Biblical interpretation, and legal explanation – which is essentially what the Talmud claims to be. Furthermore, one finds examples of Biblical interpretation in the TaNaKh itself. For example, in the book of Nehemyah [Nehemiah] 8.14-15 it is written:

    And they found written in the Torah, which was commanded through Mosheh [Moses], that the Children of Yisra’el [Israel] should dwell in arbor-booths during the pilgrimage festival of the seventh month, and that they should announce and proclaim in all their cities and in Yerushalayim [Jerusalem], saying. “Go out to the mountain, and bring olive branches. branches of oil trees, myrtle branches, date palm branches, and branches of densely leafed trees, to make arbor booths, as [it is] written.”

    Which is an interpretation of Wayyiqra’ [Leviticus] 23.40:

    And you shall take for yourselves by the first day the produce of splendorous trees: branches of date palm trees, the boughs of densely leafed trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before i11i1~ your God for seven days.

    The Karaite objection to the Talmud lies in the fact that the Rabbanites contend the Talmud is more important, and more authoritative.

    As long as the commentary is not contradicted by the TaNaKh, observance of suggested tradition by our Rabbannic brothers is not prohibited. After all, a notable Karaite Sage, Benjamin al-Nahawandi wrote: “As for other rules, as observed and recorded by the Rabbanites and for which I could find no pertinent biblical verse, I have written them down also, so that you might observe them likewise if you so desire.” Page 29. Karaite Anthology: Excerpts from the Early Literature, Yale University Press, Ed. Leon Nemoy.

    Lastly, in your lectures I observed that you like to tell homilies or jokes, allow me one please. In discussing a particular issue with our Chief Rabbi I quoted a position of “Anan ben David” and our Chief Rabbi exclaimed “that he is not Even a Karaite!”

    Modern Scholarship does not treat Anan ben David any better. Professor Moshe Gil, a noted Jewish Historian, wrote in HdO Brill: Karaite Judaism: A Guide to its History and Literary Sources, Edited by Meira Polliack, Prof. Tel Aviv University, an article entitled: The Origins of the Karaites in which he stated:

    Upon closer scrutiny, the assertion that Anan I left Rabbanites Circles does not hold water, especially in view of what we know about his grandson Daniel, in addition to most of the objections noted above, which Nemoy has already raised. Daniel is one of the two main personages in the Affair discussed below – the struggle over the office of exilarchate – that rocked the Diaspora at the beginning of the ninth century, around the years 820, 825. p.81

    Professor Gil adds:

    Salomon ben Yeruhim expressed himself even more explicitly, declaring that Karaites existed only from the time of Benjamin al-Nahawandi and thereafter, which is more than 100 years after Anan ben David. p90.

    I hope this letter opens dialogue between our communities

    אליעזר בן אפרים הכהן
    Eli’ezer ben Ephraim HaKohen
    Founding Member of the Board of Directors
    Karaite Jewish University

    2. It was Professor Lasker who wrote “And for the Karaites themselves, the real question has always been not: “How did Karaism arise?” but: “How did rabbinic Judaism break away from the Torah-true Judaism as represented by Karaism?” The Dead Sea Scrolls In The Historiography and Self-Image of Contemporary Karaites.” P.282.
    3. Our Chief Rabbi is considered by us to be the Chief Rabbi of all of the Children of Israel, be they observant or secular, be they Orthodox or Karaite Jews, be they Ashkenazi or Sephardic, be they reform, Reconstructionist or any other recognized movement within Judaism.
    4. Salmon ben Yeruham’s Commentary on the Book of Psalms, The Jewish Quarterly Review, LXXIII, No. 2 (October, 1982) 155-175.
    5. Four Approaches, page 60-61.

  2. Fascinating. Having been raised in an Egyptian Karaite Jewish family, I thank you for addressing these topics with your audience. 

    I run a Karaite Jewish blog ( and I’ve spoken on Karaite Judaism to the Association of Jewish Libraries and to the Library of Congress. I’ve also co-authored a primer named “As it is Written: A Brief Case for Karaism.”

    If you or anyone in your class is interested in the Karaite perspective on these issues, I’m happy to be a resource. 

    I can be reached at


  3. Dr Hillel
    I express the following which is my own understanding and opinions.
    Let it be clear that the Karaite Jews are a Jewish religious movement that advocates a return to the pure Hebrew Scriptures ; i.e. the TANACH (The Old Testament).
    You say that the Karaites attach their consideration to the Chumash (the five books of the Torah) only, and less interest in the books of the Prophets and of the Writings Nevi’im ve Ketuvim)(. In fact, ALL of the TANACH is of importance, since :
    First : The Siddurim (Prayer books) mostly consit of Psalms, excepts of the Torah and verses of the books of the Prophets and of the Writings. The Haftarot are excerpts from the books of the Prophets and of the Writings ; not only of Isaiah and Jeremiah, but also of Hosea, Joshua, Judges, Kings I and II, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Micah, and even the shortest book Obadiah containing only one chapter. Besides, the book of Johah is read Yom Kipur ; and the book of Ruth is read on Shavuot.

    Second : One of the methods used by the Karaite Jews to understand and interpret a word in the context of a phrase in the Bible is to examine the meaning of the word as occurred in the whole Tanach. For example, if the Hebrew word עלמה is not clear, (does the word mean a virgin, young lady, unmarried woman, maiden …..?) It is stated in : Proverbs 30 : 19 , Gen. 24 : 43 , Isaiah 7 : 14 , Exodus 2 : 8 , Psalm 58 : 26 , Song of songs : 1 :3 and 6 : 8 . This contextual analysis is not the only method ; there are also the methods of etymological analysis as well as the historical and archaeological analysis.

    Regarding what you evoked towards the end of your lecture, that the Nazis decided that the Karaites are not Jews ; I refer to the long article by Nehemia Gordon : Karaites in the Holocaust? A Case of Mistaken Identity ; .
    Elie Lichaa

  4. Shalom, I support and echo everything written by Elie except for the referral to Nehemia Gordon’s article which contains some substantive factual errors and is tendentious overall, and as such is not an embodiment of good scholarship. Please stear clear of that article.

    1. You may disregard the “some substantive factual errors” in Nehemia Gordon’s article. Any useful information on the topic will be much appreciated.
      Elie Lichaa

      1. My comment was not submitted out of a petty or offensive intent but from an altruistic motive. Most readers do not know what to disregard and that is the real problem, which is not mine.

  5. A Jew is a Jew whether born jewish or converted to Judaism. So is a Karaite Jew. Dr. Hillel says the Nazis decided, after inquiry, that “the Karaites are definitely not Jews”. This leads to misunderstanding and confusion of terms such as : religion, race, people ; and also amalgam between the Karaite Jews and some groups (or communities) calling themselves Karaites. The difference is that the faith of the latters is not in conformity with the Karaites’ Principles of Faith ORIGINALLY formulated by Yehuda ben Eliyahu Hadassi in his book Eshkol Hakofer in 1148.

    1. A more edifying view of this comes from Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his book “Jewish Literacy” wherein on page 167-168 it is stated: “In nineteenth century Russia, the Karaites were officially designated a new religion and where thus spared the czar’s antisemitic legislation (See also Dr. Phillip Miller, “Karaite Separatism in Nineteenth-Century Russia” of Hebrew Union College and Karaites and Dejudaization: A Historical Review of an Endogenous and Exogenous Paradigm (Stockholm Studies in Comparative Religion) by Roman Freund) This change of classification literally saved thousand of Karaite lives [and hundreds of Rabbinic Jews lives by posing as Karaite Jews – See page 125 – History of the Karaites – by Nathan Schur] a century later when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In one of the most bizzare episodes of the Holocaust – the German authorities asked three Jewish Scholars ( Zelig Kalamovitch, Meir Balaban, an Yitzchak Schipper) whether the Karaites were biologically Jewish. To save the Karaites’ lives, THE THREE SCHOLARS LIED, saying that Karaites were not of Jewish origin.”

      This is a complicated issue. Whether or not these Crimean Karaites had biologically Jewish roots (they had long since left Judaism) and formed their own religion adopting Jesus and Mohammud as prophets, they did not hold themselves out to be Jews, see: Don’t Call Us Jews: The Karaites of the Crimea…insist they are not members of the Tribe.” The Jerusalem Report, June 18, 1992.

      However, in contrast of the Karaite Jews of Islam. Professor Daniel J. Lasker has written: “An innovative article by W. Brinner has examined the difference in approach to Karaite origins as expressed by Karaites living in Islamic countries (“Karaites of Islam”) and by those living under Christendom (“Karaites of Christendom”). The former stressed their Jewish identity, since it was advantageous to be considered Jewish by Muslims who were tolerant only of “Peoples of the Book” p. 283 The Dead Sea Scrolls in the Historiography and Self-Image of Contemporary Karaites”.

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