Daniel Eilon
English lecturer turned lawyer turned Israeli Tour Guide

The Way of the Karaites – the Road Not Taken

Karaite Synagogue, in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem Jewish Quarter. Photos: Daniel Eilon

Where two roads diverge we cannot travel down both – we have to choose. Robert Frost’s 1915 poem “The Road Not Taken” was originally intended as a joke – aimed at a fellow-poet’s indecision – but has been taken super-seriously by readers ever since. If you take this choice, you sacrifice the alternatives. The sober truth is that you don’t even know what you are missing.

If you want to venture a few experimental steps down a historic road not taken you can do so in the heart of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter.

Are the Karaites the last remaining faithful adherents of pure original Judaism? Or is the way of the Karaites an innovation, a fork in the road that orthodox Judaism could have chosen but rejected? Take a look at the Karaite visitors’ centre (opened 2016) and the museum of the Bnei Mikra Community attached to their synagogue and decide for yourself.

Long before the advent of Reform and Conservative Judaism and post-Enlightenment secular modes of Jewish life, the Karaites pursued a rationalist, egalitarian and anti-authoritarian alternative to Rabbinic Judaism. You can visit one of the sources of this potentially subversive stream of thought by descending a series of stairs in the Jewish Quarter.

Where is it? Literally underground. Appropriately enough as the location for a strain of Jewish practice now largely relegated to the collective unconscious, the Karaite Synagogue needs to be sought out. It can be found in the shadow of the Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue which was destroyed by the Jordanians in the War of Independence. The rebuilding project of that grand edifice has been in progress since 2012 and is only now coming to a close.

The Tiferet Yisrael is just about to emerge into the light of day from its wrappings of scaffolding and tarpaulins. Visually the Hurva Synagogue, rebuilt and reopened in 2010, and the Tiferet Yisrael together form a pair of white domes. Their reconstruction has restored to Jerusalem two conspicuous Jewish buildings which before the 1948 war were as essential to the skyline as the Dome of the Rock and the domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. By contrast, the discreet Karaite synagogue has never been seen on the skyline, but it may be the longest continually-used extant Jewish place of worship in Jerusalem.

Karaites have lived and worshipped in Jerusalem for over a thousand years. When their synagogue was first built, the Abbasid Caliphs rejected permission for any non-Muslim prayer houses to be taller than a mosque. Accordingly, this synagogue is built deep underneath a residential building. From the entrance courtyard you have to descend several floors to reach it. The prayer hall has no external windows.

Karaite synagogues look different to every other synagogue you have seen. There are no chairs, other than a handful for the use of elderly people who cannot get down onto the carpet. The worshippers remove their shoes. Their tzitzit (fringes) are predominantly blue. Some of the men are not wearing kippot. Their prayer looks Islamic; they kneel and prostrate themselves at every service in a manner which seems to some observers to be somehow un-Jewish. Contrary to popular misconception, kneeling is a form of prayer that is in fact practised in Rabbinic Judaism but it is strictly limited to just the most intense moments that recall Temple ritual on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Following a video introducing visitors to the present day community and its history, you go downstairs to the museum. The exhibits and illuminated manuscripts explain the significant involvement of Karaites in Jewish scholarship, particularly in the fields of grammar and biblical interpretation. A page from the famous and unique Aleppo Codex is displayed to illustrate the Karaite contribution to the Massoretic tradition, the rigorous process of editing the most faithful and accurate text of the Bible.

The Karaites called themselves “roses” by contrast to the Rabbinic “thorns”. The roses’ golden age was from 900 to 1100 CE during which period they formed the majority of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. Since then their numbers and influence have declined in comparison to Rabbinic Judaism. Nowadays there are estimated to be no more than between 30,000 and 50,000 Karaites worldwide. In addition to the synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, there are Karaite communities in Ashdod, Ramle, Be’er Sheva, Moshav Renan, and Moshav Matzliach, with a small diaspora outside Israel in Crimea, Ukraine, Lithuania, Egypt, Turkey and Daly City, California.

On Yom Kippur there will be no air conditioning in the Karaite synagogue. Why? Because they follow the prescriptions of the Torah literally without accepting the authority of what Rabbinic Jews call the Oral Law, encoded in the Mishnah and the Talmud. This means their practice includes none of the ingenious innovations of Rabbinic Judaism. Karaites do not give themselves permission to use a Shabbat clock or ask a non-Jew – a “shabbes goy” – to turn on the lights, the heating or the aircon on their behalf when such activities are forbidden on Shabbat or holidays.

Karaite Judaism does not exclude women from roles of responsibility and does not disqualify women as witnesses. The Karaite wedding contract is more egalitarian in its terms than the Rabbinic counterpart. These are features of their tradition that long predate the feminist movement of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Karaite Judaism is different. Karaites are Jews who have no Shabbat candles, no mezuzot nor tefillin, no scrupulous separation of meat from milk; they do not blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah; by their rule book they are allowed to eat pasta and drink beer at Pesach and they do not sell their chametz, the forbidden leavened foods, during Passover; they have no mikveh, no matrilineal definition of who is a Jew, and they do not celebrate post-biblical holidays like Hanukkah and Lag Ba’omer. Their Haggadah for Pesach has a different text. They do not accept the calculated Rabbinic calendar – according to tradition initiated by Hillel II in the year 359 CE – that replaced the Torah requirement to set the dates of festivals following eyewitnesses sighting the crescent of the new moon; it follows that the dates of the Karaite holidays are not the same as mainstream Judaism.

For example: the text in the Torah literally says that the festival of Shavuot falls on the day after Shabbat (Leviticus 23:15-16). So for the Karaites that means Shavuot must always fall on a Sunday, whereas Rabbinic Judaism interprets “Shabbat” in these verses as referring to yom tov or holiday. Karaites believe that each individual carries the responsibility for understanding and living by the teachings of the Torah. They believe in a direct relationship between each person and God, without the need for intermediary authorities. So if the text says “Shabbat” but a Rabbi says it means something else, the Karaites choose to follow the text, not the Rabbi.

In view of the deep doctrinal differences between the Karaites and mainstream Judaism it may seem to have been a liberal step for the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to have made a historic ruling giving permission for Jewish men to marry Karaite women. It seems his objective was that intermarriage would lead to the Karaites being assimilated into Rabbinic Judaism.

That indeed appears to be the trajectory of history. While Karaites used to be serious competitors to other forms of Judaism they are now unquestionably losing the numbers game. When you visit the Karaite museum and synagogue you glimpse an alternative history, a different halachah, a route that Judaism might have taken. Here at the Karaite centre you can visit a museum that preserves a curiosity from disappearance, a treasury containing some fascinating vestiges from the past. But it is also a working synagogue at the centre of a living community. Historically the way of the Karaites was in the past the road not taken by most Jews. Does this path now have a viable future?

Address: 8 Karaite Street, Jewish Quarter, Old City of Jerusalem

Opening hours: 08:30 – 16:30 Sundays to Thursdays; Fridays by special request (Tel: 02 628 6688)

Entrance fee: NIS 20 for adults; NIS 18 for children, concessions and groups

About the Author
I'm a licensed Israeli Tour Guide, born in Haifa and raised in the UK where I was previously a university lecturer in English Literature and then a copyright lawyer. I'm a recent immigrant now living in Jerusalem. My father was born in Jaffa and my grandmother was born in Be'er Tuvia, so I am both new to this land and a third-generation Sabra.
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