Karaite Jews prepare for Succot with a lemon twist

300 people are expected to attend holiday services at the ancient Karaite synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Karaite Synagogue (photo credit: Maor Dabah)
Karaite Synagogue
(photo credit: Maor Dabah)
Pop quiz: The Four Species of Succot, which starts Wednesday night, are lulav (palm branch), hadass (myrtle), aravah (willow) and etrog (citron) – correct or incorrect?
According to mainstream or rabbinical Judaism the answer is correct. But if you ask Karaite Jews, members of an ancient Jewish movement which strictly adheres to the Bible and ignores the Talmud and rabbinical law, the answer is more complicated.
“The Torah does not talk about hadass, but of etz avot, which is boughs of thick trees and can be from any tree, not just the myrtle,” Maor Dabah, the educational coordinator for the Universal Karaite Judaism Movement, told The Jerusalem Post last week.
“There’s no disagreement over the arava. Regarding the lulav, the command is to use the palm-shaped date. But the lulav isn’t palm-shaped,” he said.
What about the etrog, the revered citron which is the prize possession of many Jewish families during the holiday and can fetch prices of up to a few hundred dollars on the market? Karaite Jews disregard it completely.
“Again, Torah does not use the word etrog. It talks about peri etz hadar, that’s mean ‘fruit of goodly tree’ and can be any fruit which is new and fancy. Citron etrogs are relatively new imports; there were none in the Land of Israel during the First Temple, so we use regular lemons, oranges or olives instead. From Nehemia 8:14 we can easily learn that the commandment of the Four Species of Succot is to build the succa from them, and not to play with them by our hands.”
Besides Succot, Karaite Judaism differs significantly from other rabbinical traditions.
For instance, descent is through the father, not the mother; Karaites do not lay tefillin; Hanukka is not celebrated because it isn’t in the Torah, and the dietary prohibition against eating a calf in its mother’s milk is taken literally and doesn’t apply to mixing dairy and meat products in general.
The Karaite movement emerged as a distinct form of Judaism during the ninth century in Babylon and over the course of history has had ups and downs in its ties with the rabbinical stream.
The East European branch of Karaite Judaism, which survived well into the 20th century, has largely disappeared.
But most members of Egypt’s Karaite community moved to Israel after it was founded.
Today, there are between 20 to 50 thousand Karaite Jews in the world, the majority of which live in Israel.
“We are commanded to live in Israel and we serve proudly in the army,” Dabah said.
“There are concentrations of Karaites in Ramle, Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Moshav Matzliah, Moshav Ranen, Beersheba and Jerusalem. We like to live close to the land.”
He said the biggest Karaite Succot gathering of about 300 people is expected to take place at their ancient synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City on the third day of Succot. But if you’d like to show up at the event and witness the unusual traditions of this branch of Judaism, just remember they’re on a slightly different time than the rest of us.
“We will celebrate Succot a day after rabbinical Judaism this year, so the pilgrimage will be on the 26th of September, which is the third day of Succot according to our calculations, and not the 25th. Those different times happen because we start the months according to the new moon, like in the biblical age,” Dabah said .