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Karaite History: Chapter 11

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Yes, I know it has been a while since I wrote the last chapter on the history of the Karaites and some of you may have already forgotten what was written in those previous ten chapters. The fact is, that I have never been busier than during this CoVid Crisis we are experiencing. As a medical auditor/vaccine virologist, the number of companies attempting to develop new production processes for an effective corona vaccine have mushroomed and people like myself have to ensure that nothing makes it onto the biologicals healthcare market that are ineffective, unsafe or lack any functional potency. It’s a huge responsibility and unfortunately has cut into the time available for my historical narrative writing. None of us had any idea we would now be starting our third year of dealing with CoVid and sadly there is still no light to show us that we’re approaching the end of the tunnel. But that is the new reality, and whatever this new norm might be that government officials keep referring to, it doesn’t mean we can’t try to recapture some of the old habits and pass-times that we used to enjoy prior to CoVid. With Chapter 11, I hope to be initiating a return to producing a regular posting for those of you that enjoy the history of how, we as Karaites, came into existence. I use the term we collectively, meaning those of us born into the Karaite Faith and those that have adopted the Faith, including those that have gone through a formal conversion, as well as those that have make the commitment on their own accord and are trying to learn about Karaism without any supportive network. The one point the history of Karaites brings to the forefront was that there was never any formal ceremony to becoming a Karaite, the same way you never underwent a formal conversion to become any kind of Hebrew in the ancient past. You adopted the customs, the practices and the language, and by the third generation, if your family and descendants had not transgressed, then you were officially part of the community. The specific rituals of conversion developed much later. This was pointed out in Chapter 10 when discussing the Khazars or the people of the Crimea that were practicing an ancient form of Judaism, based strictly on the Torah and many have conflated with being Karaites..

Khazar Warrior

Khazar Warrior

Rabbi Sangar and the Khazar King

I was last discussing Sefer Khazarim, which told the story of Rabbi Isaac of Sangar who traveled to the land of the Khazars. What he sees there is the practice of Judaism where the priesthood is fully in control of the religious practices, and even though he strongly disagrees with the continued existence of a hierarchical practicing priesthood, the rabbi still makes certain that he pays homage to the Priests and Levites, just in case they might be the “official’ Judaism, as well as not wishing to offend the King.

It’s probably a fact that these Khazar priests were practicing the rituals as they had been done in the days of the Tabernacle, since they had no Temple structure recorded by Rabbi Isaac, but interestingly, the Rabbi cannot contend with the fact that they simply exist. So, he tries to play a mind game with the King, asking “What do you think of these priests, living off the bread of the Lord, never having to seek an actual livelihood, living a life of leisure while everyone else contributes to their welfare?” This was the same attitude as the Pharisees displayed during the time of the Temple against the Sadducees, making one thing clear that the intersect rivalries in Judaism were as poisonous then as they were in the ancient past and even in the present.

But fortunately, the king was a wise man and his answer actually surprises the Rabbi by answering, “Surely this is the highest degree of perfection a man can obtain, nothing surpassing it, except for the excellence of angels. Those that receive this right also expect to have the gift of prophecy, especially now that the Divine Presence is within them.” The King then says, “But pray, let me know what you have to tell me about the Karaites, for I see them very diligent in their worship, more so than the Rabbanites.”

Khazar Vs. Karaite

So, it is clear that the Khazar King does not consider himself or his people to be Karaites even though their adherence to the Torah would have been pretty much identical, and the fact that the Khazars had preserved the priesthood would suggest their adherence to the Torah was probably even more pure and accurate than the Karaites. As the predecessors, the Khazars may have seen the Karaites as their spiritual forefathers, the religious standard that they attempted to achieve. What is clear, is that they saw the main distinction being that the Rabbanites were imperfect, impure in their practices, and less adherent to the Torah. Based on their attitude towards the Rabbanites, there was very little to distinguish them from the Karaites. In my book Blood Royale, (available from Amazon Books) I have a chapter that touches on the adoption of the Jewish religion by the Khazars. I talk about how part of the arrangement for the marriage of the Princess Thaliah, daughter of the Exilarch, was that King Bosiah of the Khazars would adopt Judaism but he chooses instead to set aside land for the princess, who would then marry his brother Prince Yusef of the Khazars, in which they set up their own tribal nation where the entire tribe would adopt the Jewish religion. The story from Rabbi Isaac of Sanger obviously indicates that they were successful in doing so, but interestingly chose to practice according to Karaite law and not Rabbinic laws and teachings. But more importantly, I want to point out that they created this Jewish nation, almost identical to Karaism, not through conversion ceremonies and religious examinations, but through the people’s genuine commitment to adopt the customs, the principles, the traditions, but most importantly, the language. Although Rabbi Isaac does not indicate that he spoke to the King in Hebrew, I am assuming he did, as every translation of the Torah into another language tends to lose many of the inferences that are inherent to the Hebrew language, and it is highly unlikely that the Khazar priests and Levites were conducting their rituals in anything but Hebrew. This point, that they learned the Hebrew language is clearly suggested in the next paragraph and I don't think I can emphasize this point enough; to be Karaite you must be able to read the Torah in the Hebraic language.

Later Stories Of The Khazars

Two hundred years after Rabbi Isaac of Sangar visited the Khazars, another Rabbi, Abraham ben Simchah writes that he is from the city of Sepharad, in the kingdom of our converted brethren, the Khazars. The sentence is notable for two reasons. One is that historically, we have always associated Sepharad with the Iberian Peninsula. Hence Jews from Spain and North Africa being Sephardic. But suddenly we are left trying to explain the same regional or city name being used for an area in Eastern Europe and Asia, which complicates issues as to which Sepharad is actually referred to in ancient manuscripts. The other noticeable issue is that writing in the year 986 ACE, which would mean that the Khazars had been Jewish for five generations, they are still being referred to as converts, despite Moses saying that after three generations you are a Jew, period.

Rabbi Simchah’s job was to procure ancient Hebrew manuscripts for the Khazar synagogues, which again emphasizes the Khazar recognition and reliance on the Hebrew language to be the cohesive amalgam that bound the people to Judaism. Simchah writes that while in Persia he came across a book called The Travels of Judah the Corrector. In the book Judah says that his father, Moses the Pointer, invented the vowel system used in Modern Hebrew. The Corrector writes that his father’s system will make the verbal meaning clearer so as to reduce the need of lengthy and heated discussions over words in the Torah. What is remarkable, is that here is proof that it was the Karaites that provided the vowel system to the Hebrew writing system, most likely as mentioned because the Rabbanites were constantly disputing the words and changing their meanings, but ultimately it was adopted by the Rabbanites as well. This fact is also attested to by Firkowitch who writes that in the first half of the sixth century, a Karaite by the name of Acha framed the system of vowel and accent signs. We learn that later around 570, Moses the Pointer, son of Mokha, is a student of Acha and he compiled the system as we now know it. So Karaites invented the vowel system and were already well established prior to 550 ACE as a learned community, probably comparable to the schools of Sura and Pumbedita that the Rabbinates talk. endlessly about.

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Obviously, those that attributed the origins of Karaism to Anan ben David in 769 ACE are mistaken as this history I've talked about, was all taking place long beore Anan. But that doesn't mean that Anan didn't have a vital role to play in Karaite history. We will begin looking specifically at Anan's role in the next chapter.

Empire of the Khazars

Empire of the Khazars

In Conclusion:

Essentially, this chapter was devoted to the underlying message of “What is a Karaite”. Today, as I read through the various groups of who is and who isn’t a Karaite, the argument seems to miss the message that is the premise of why I have included the Khazar stories. Metaphorically, it is based on the old adage, that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it must be duck. One does not need to throw it into a pool of water to see if it sinks or swims before they can say it is a duck. I have no issue if one wishes to do an official conversion process or one simply wants to adopt the faith. In either situation, adopting the faith means embracing all the laws and traditions. There is no halfway point, the same way you can’t be a little bit pregnant. Being Karaite, like the Khazars is an all or nothing affair. I don’t need to see a a piece of paper in order to accept you as a brother or a sister. I just need to see that the Torah is inscribed upon your heart. I don't need proof that you follow every rule and commandment in the Torah, I just need to know you try your best and the circumstances in which we live will influence how successful you are. That's the reality of living in a modern world and trying to practice a religion written for nomads in the desert. There has to be adaptation, there has to be moderation, but of those things that you can do, such as study the Torah in Hebrew, adhere to the commandments, preserve the Holy days, and recognize that there is only the one God, and YHWH is his name, those are what define you as a Karaite.

© 2022 Kahana

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