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

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