Ask the Rabbi: O brother

Are Karaites considered to be Jews? Can a Jew marry a Karaite?

Karites 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Karites 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Q Are Karaites considered to be Jews? Can a Jew marry a Karaite?- H.G., Florida A The status of Karaites intrigues me daily as I pass the ancient Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City on my way to Yeshivat Hakotel. The restored synagogue, overseen by the Old City's single Karaite family, originates from between the 10th and 12th centuries, considered to be the heyday of Karaism. While the majority of today's 30,000 adherents, mostly of Egyptian origin, live primarily in Ashdod and Ramle, they once formed a noteworthy minority of the Jewish people in places like Persia, Spain and Egypt. Historians usually attribute the founding of Karaism to Anan ben David, an eighth-century Babylonian Jew who opposed the hegemony of the Babylonian Talmud and the tradition of the Oral Law. Anan believed that Jewish law must follow the strict meaning of the Torah, and like the Sadducees and Boethesians before him, rejected the Rabbinite positions that contradicted, to his mind, the plain sense of the Torah. While different scriptural interpretations led to different Karaite practices and sects, Karaites uniformly accepted a lunar-based calendar and rejected the rabbinic calendar. For example, Karaites celebrate Shavuot on the seventh Sunday after Passover (this year June 15), whereas the Rabbinite calendar established the holiday on the sixth of Sivan (June 9). Karaites also do not mark the post-biblical holidays of Purim and Hanukka (the joyful holidays!). Karaites deny the mitzva of tefillin, since they believe Scriptures' ordinance, "These words shall be on your heart... bind the words for a sign upon your hand" (Deuteronomy 6:5,9) represents a metaphor to instill the Torah's message, and not to literally wear a scroll on one's head and heart. For similar reasons they do not hang mezuzot on their doorposts. Most Karaites eat meat and milk together, since the Torah only forbade boiling a sheep in its mother's milk. They produced a rich literature of Bible interpretation, grammar and legal works, although much of it is no longer extant. Given these major differences in ritual, one might deem it impossible for observant Jews to marry faithful Karaites, even if they technically remain Jews. Indeed, in the earliest responsa on this topic, Rav Natronai Gaon (ninth century, Persia) rules that one may not marry a Karaite who maintains his or her beliefs (Otzar Geonim, Yevamot 262). Yet Prof. Simcha Assaf has proven that some Karaites and Rabbinites, who often lived in the same areas, did indeed intermarry, frequently with complex marital contracts (ketubot) stipulating respect for each other's ritual practices. Nonetheless, as Profs. Michael Corinaldi and Ya'acov Shapiro have documented, two mainstream rabbinic positions emerged regarding the status of Karaites, both of which demanded that Karaites fully accept rabbinic Halacha. The more lenient opinion, exemplified by Maimonides, ruled that Jews raised in a Karaite home, like babies taken captive by non-Jews, cannot be punished for their wayward behavior (Hilchot Mamrim 3:2-3). While their parents are heretics, their repentant children will be embraced. Indeed, an early 14th-century writer, Rabbi Ishtori Haparchi, asserts that a large group of Egyptian Karaites adopted rabbinic practices and fully assimilated into the community. A second, more stringent position questioned the ability for Karaite descendants to marry other Jews. Noting that Karaites failed to write proper divorce documents, a certain medieval Rabbi Shimshon (whose identity is disputed), ruled that we must treat all Karaites as potential bastards (safek mamzerim) from illicit second marriages who may not marry into the mainstream community (Ramah, EH 4:37). Many Ashkenazi decisors adopted the more stringent opinion, while Sephardi rabbis tended to allowed Jews to marry repentant Karaites, although exceptions exist in both directions. One later and more extreme Ashkenazi position that ironically opened the door for leniency was proposed by Rabbi Ya'acov Emden (18th century, Germany). He contended that after centuries of living among non-Jews and not practicing rabbinic Judaism, Karaites were no longer Jews (Ya'avetz 2:152). As non-Jews, they no longer retained their blemished lineage and like any other gentile, could convert to Judaism by accepting (Rabbinite) mitzvot and marry any Jew. In the 20th century, the State of Israel recognized the right of Karaites to immigrate under the Law of Return. The rabbinate, however, remains sharply divided over the ability of Karaites and their descendents to marry Jewish Israelis. While prominent Ashkenazi decisors Rabbi Avraham Sherman (Tehumin 19) and Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg (Tzitz Eliezer 5:16) harshly criticized such marriages, two former Sephardi chief rabbis, Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer EH 8:12) and Eliahu Bakshi-Doron (Tehumin 18, 20) adopted more lenient positions, especially in cases when these Karaite descendants had no loyalty toward their ancestor's rituals. While such cases remain rare, they nonetheless represent a fascinating chapter in the ongoing struggles over personal status and marriage in Israel. The writer, editor of, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.