Thursday, October 14, 2010

Rabbanite-Karaite coexistence in Eastern Europe, Part I

One of the remarkable untold stories of Eastern European Jewish history is the saga of the Karaite communities of Lithuania, Russia, and Poland; specifically their relationship vis- a- vis the rest of the Jewish population that formed the majority of the Jews in the region.

The origins of the eastern European Jewish Karaites are shrouded in obscurity, although it seems that the first Karaite Jewish settlement in the region was in the Crimean Peninsula.

Who were these Karaites? What sort of Judaism did they practice? And most importantly what was their relationship and attitude toward their local Rabbanite brethren. The simple answer is: neither hostile nor always benevolent. The reader of history will find that the Karaites are scarcely mentioned in the conventional history of Eastern European Jews which may indicate that the group was not considered to be much of a threat (although they do play a role in the controversies surrounding the controversial Rabi Nachman Krochmal and his work—see later).


The two main barriers separating Rabbanite from Karaite in Eastern Europe was their differing attitudes toward Judaism and two very different spoken tongues. The Karaites of course utterly rejected the extra-biblical literature of the Rabbis, clinging fast to the 24 books (in itself a Rabbanite canon) of the Hebrew Bible (although, ironically developing over the centuries a sort of "oral law" of their own). They also did not speak the Yiddish of the their neighbors (although many understood it and/or used it as needed) but rather their own Turkic-Jewish hybrid language known in Trakai (the center of the Karaites in Eastern Europe) as "Karaj Tili" or simply referred to as "Karaim Language" .


One of the best known Eastern European Karaite figures is Crimean-born Hacham Avraham Firkovich (1786-1874). The latter was a prodigious writer and traveler (he spent some time in the Ukrainian town of Berditchev where he first encountered followers of the Hassidic movement) and also the undisputed leader of the eastern European Karaites.

His persona was complicated, as was his relationship to Rabbanite Judaism and its leaders. One of his published tracts מסה ומריבה (published in Eupatoria, 1838) was a sharply worded polemic against Rabbanites but he later retracted it, not wanting to upset the usually amicable relations between the two sects.

Remarkably, Firkovich had many Rabbanite admirers and even received approbations from Rabbanite leaders for some of his works! (1). As mentioned, Firkovich was an enigmatic figure. He is credited by some with beginning the process of stripping the Karaites of their Judaic identity, a process which began as a means of protection against the harsh anti-Jewish laws enacted by the Czarist authorities. This trend later continued and even intensified during the Nazi occupation of the region. Today most Karaites in the region do not consider themselves ethnically Jewish at all but use the term “Karaim” to denote their ethnicity (2). Firkovich was accused by some of forging many of his “findings” in order to support his conjecture that the Karaites were in the region long before the Jews (supposedly) crucified Jesus in Jerusalem (an obvious attempt to spare his followers the persecutions that followed the deicide charge). (3)

In 1853 the Karaites from the city of Trakai, Lithuania sent a letter to the Russian authorities asking that they stop being designated as 'Jews' but rather as a separate entity. In 1857 Firkovich sent a similar letter along with evidence of his "findings". These efforts were crowned with success when the Imperial Czarist authority in 1863 exempted the Karaites from the laws and restrictions affecting the Jews.


Firkovich’s disciple and successor, Hakhan (emphasis on the 'n) Seraya Shapshal likewise remains a very controversial figure. He is especially maligned by many Rabbbanites as a traitor for giving the Nazis (under severe coercion) a list of Karaites, thereby condemning many Rabbanite Jews who falsely co-opted a Karaite identity, to the gas chambers (a charge which is now vehemently denied by many Karaites—see footnote). (4)

Nazi persecutions skipped the Karaites for the most part (A Nazi commission was set up to ascertain the Jewishness of the Karaites, Rabbis were consulted, all of whom denied the Jewishness of the group, a move that was motivated out of genuine concern for their welfare).

Accusations against Shapshal notwithstanding, many Karaites assisted their Rabbanite brethren although some did indeed cooperate with the Nazi authorities (as did some Rabbanite Jews, unfortunately, such as some of those working for the Judenrat and Kapos in the Concentration Camps).

The Zionist activist Israel Cohen, who was active in the interwar years in Europe, in his book "Travels in Jewry" recounts a visit to the Lithuanian city of Trakai which had a significant Jewish population- both Karaite and Rabbanite- and described the cordial relations that reigned between the two communities. Some of the same Rabbis who fought the "Haskalah movement" tooth and nail didn’t seem to have a problem with Karaites. Again, this could have been perhaps because the Karaites were not considered to be a religious threat, whereas the latter were (5).


The Karaites of Troki received a writ of privileges in 1441 and 1507 which stipulated among other things the barring of Rabbanite Jews from the city. In 1646 the writ was ratified again by Wladyslaw the 4th. Nevertheless Rabbanite Jews did settle in the city. The Karaites were opposed to it mostly for economic reason (they feared competition). Beginning in 1643 the Karaites of Troki along with all other Jews in the area belonged to the Central Community in Vilna. In that same year 2 Karaites from Troki litigated one of their own judges at the Central Rabbinical court in Vilna which also served as the supreme court of “our brethren” the Karaites.

Relations between Rabbanites and Karaites were generally good. The Vilna community borrowed the writ of privileges from the years 1632 ad 1653 and had it in its possessions for several years. (6).

Troki Karaites were dealt a heavy blow with Russian invasion of the region. The Vilna community urged the vaad to help them but this time the vaad let them down and did not respond with aid. The Troki Karaite Kehilla, once the jewel of eastern European Karaism never again restored its former glory (7).

In 1688 the Polish Monarch Jan Sobieski offered to settle them in Halicz and many went there. The aforementioned vaad defended the interests of the Karaites, sometimes even against the Rabbanites. In an agreement between the Karaites and the vaad, the Karaites agreed to pay 400 gold pieces annually to the vaad.

Although, relations were usually good, there was soon “trouble in paradise” when Karaite notables asked the authorities to expel the Rabbanites from Trakai (8).

To be continued..


(1). See here

(2.) Much like the Rabbanite “Mihu Yehudi” (literally, “Who is a Jew?”) controversies which consumed Israel in the 70s and 80s and is still far from resolved, the Karaites are now undergoing a similar process, see here

See also this Documentary from the History Channel (sorry I only found one with a Hebrew narration/voice over)

for Part 1

for part 2

(3). See The YIVO encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, Volume 1 p. 516.
Later, his succesor Shapshal would enthusiastically embrace the "Khazar" theory (namely that the Karaites of the Crimea and eastern Europe are descended of the half-Turkic, half-Mongol Khazar people who converted to Judaism). The Khazar episode is deliciously ironic considering the fact that the Rabbanite Jews had tried to disassociate themselves from it ever since it became popular in anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic circles. Recent DNA evidence has shown negligble Turkic or Mongol influence on the Rabbanite gene pool. Similar studies on Eastern European Karaites show a genetic affinity with Jews, though with considerable turkic mtDNA.

(4). See here

(5). Although Rabbi Moses Sofer (better known as the Chatam Sofer), German-born leader of Orthodoxy would later compare the Reform Movement with Karaism (and Sadduceanism). He drew a comparison between them and "the disciples of Zadok and Boethus, Anan (ben David) and Shaul his son"

( ויהי' עדתם כעדת צדוק ובייתוס ענן ושאול (שו"ת חתם סופר ח"ו סי' פ"ט

(6. See Yahadut Lita p. 38. On particularly severe confrontations see p. 55

(7). Ibid, p. 43

(8). Ibid, p. 86


At Thursday, October 14, 2010 9:06:00 PM, Anonymous sakran said...

Wow, it's amazing that they got along just fine. Anything about the Sabbatareans (not to be confused with the Sabbateans) of Russia?

At Thursday, October 21, 2010 12:35:00 AM, Blogger Ha-historion Joel Samuel W. said...

There is much more to this story that remains to be told. And no, I could not find any link to the Sabbatareans or as were known in Russia "Subotniki".

Although some of the aforementioned Subotniki often followed karaite-like practices and customs, it was done more out of ignorance (all they had was the Hebrew Bible and they followed it as literally as they could) than by deliberate design.

At Thursday, October 28, 2010 3:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At Monday, December 06, 2010 6:17:00 AM, Blogger Zvi said...

Shalom Yo'el.

I'm commenting to point out and correct 2 of your errors.

1. The Qaraite Jews never entirely rejected all the notions found in Rabbinic literature since they've accepted the validity of all the statements therein that align with the straightforward meaning (Peshat) of the Text in the Tanakh.

2. The so-called axiom that the Tanakh was canonized by the Pharisees or their Rabbanite successors has never been proven, notwithstanding all the chunks of evidence that have tempted many to reach this conclusion. The Rabbinic "Yavneh Sinod" of 90 CE was not about canonizing the Tanakh which had been sealed quite some time prior to this; some Rabbanites argue it happened circa 400 BCE, namely centuries before the Pharisees even appeared on history's stage.
I've proposed a range of 100 years from 200 BCE to 100 BCE, or more precisely from 163 BCE to 100 BCE (Daniyel was still being written in late 164 after the Maccabees had vanquished the Seleucid Greeks from the Temple Mount and rededicated the Altar as the book's Text shows).
The Pharisees possibly sealed the Tanakh jointly those years, but nobody has managed to prove they canonized it alone.


At Thursday, December 09, 2010 12:20:00 PM, Blogger Ha-historion Joel Samuel W. said...


Thanks for the comment.

As to 1. I agree with you completely. Most Karaites would concur as well.

Regarding canonization, it is indeed interesting to see that both Rabbanites and Karaites ended up revering the same 24 books. The only Hebrew sect with its own very different canon are the samaritans (but theyre an entirely different kettle of fish).

You are correct that no scholar has ever definitively proven when, where and by who, the canon was finalized and sealed but the phenomenon I mentioned is intriguing.

If Lawrence Schiffman is correct and the Qumran sect were Saducccees and if Abrham Geiger and other wissenschaft scholars were correct and Karaism grew out of Saducceanism (a view I vehemently disagree with), the plot gets thicker. As you know the Qumran sect had many extra-biblical works, plus they used a soalr-based calendar, as per the Book of Jubilees.

At Saturday, January 08, 2011 1:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Отличный блог у вас, много интересных постов, буду постоянным читателем!

At Friday, January 28, 2011 2:16:00 PM, Anonymous Yankl said...

Hi Joel,

Could you comment on the claim here:

This article seeks to differentiate between true Karaite Jews (as distinct from Rabbanite Jews) and Karaylar-Karaites, a group who did and does not consider themselves Jewish and who have little in common with Karaite Jews except name and a possible historical connection.

At Friday, January 28, 2011 3:09:00 PM, Blogger Ha-historion Joel Samuel W. said...

If Nehmeiah Gordon permits to do so, I don't see why not.

I am still waiting for genetic testing to be conducted on the karaylar. Some-if not may of them are clearly of Turkic/Mongol origin; perhaps a remnant of the Karaite Khazars who resisted the Khazar King Obadiah's (ostensibly) Rabbinic reforms.


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