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Karaite History Chapter 12

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Dr. Allen E. Goldenthal is the author of the Kahana Chronicles series of books available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions


In the last chapter, we looked at the history of the Khazar’s and how they were influenced by the Karaites even if they may not have been Karaites, themselves. It was concluded, that just like the Khazars, it was not necessary for Rabbi Sanger to see an official conversion process in order to be a Jew. But for the Khazars, adopting the faith means embracing all the laws and traditions. There was no halfway point, and just like those that are true Karaite, Judaism with the Khazars was an all or nothing affair. And as I said, 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 the Torah inscribed upon your heart. In this most recent chapter, we will look at how Karaism arrived at that distinct difference from the Rabbanites.

The Book of the Khazar 1795

Handed down and in my personal library, the history of the Khazars is important for Karaites

Handed down and in my personal library, the history of the Khazars is important for Karaites

Karaite-Rabbanite Relations

There exists texts and letter from the tenth to fifteenth century that show both Karaite and Rabbanite communities living in relative harmony but the truth is, that it was always a stormy relationship from the third century onward. Fundamentally, Karaism saw the Rabbanites as wrong in anything produced as religious dogma by men, and the Rabbanites saw Karaism excluding the role of man in what they considered religious progression. The two are mutually exclusive but something actually changes by the sixteenth century as seen from a Karaite Liturgy printed in Venice in 1529. At that point it wasn’t a case of disliking the other, it was more about absolutely despising them. Here is a note, originally in Italian found in one of the books that was to be reprinted in Venice. This note said:

“This is an instruction for those who have to print these two Hebrew books. These are two Hebrew books of the sect of Hebrews called Karaites, who are different and schismatics from the belief of the other Hebrews whom they call Rabbanites, on which account these Karaites, who are to pay the cost of printing the said two books, wish the printers to be careful not to trust them to the Hebrews who usually take charge of the offices, correct the press, and amend the errors; for being enemies of the said Karaites, they will corrupt the texts, and, through enmity, commit frauds of such a sort that the said books, after coming to light, will be of no service. Therefore, every time that the printers wish to do a fine thing and be well paid, they must make use of Christian persons who are to be found in Venice or in Padova, silled and learned in Hebrew tongue, who will take the work in hand and get these books printed.”

It is clearly evident from this note that even a Christian was preferable to a Rabbanite. To find the answer to why these Karaites despised the Rabbanites it was because they had no faith in the new ‘law given by word of mouth by these Talmudic Jews, because none of what they wrote was from the mouth of prophets or seers, but invented in the time of the transgressors of the Law of the Lord by private persons who collected it from other sources and wrote it down. The Karaites did not refer to these people that added oral tradition as Rabbis, still considering that to be a noble title, but instead called them Rabbanites meaning increasers or usurers. Men that used the law to make personal gain, and wishing to show themselves to be wiser than the written law. How interesting in that many today still view the ultra-orthodox Jew as a money hustling entity that only considers his fellow ultra-orthodox Jew as a worthy being not to be cheated.

As far as the Rabbanite view of Karaites, we only have to look at Maimonides, who said, “These people are called Karaim, or Readers, by way of contempt and derision. Rabbi Mordecai the Karaite in his reply to the inquiries from Trigland confirms the statement from Maimonides and that it was meant as an insult suggesting they can only read the Tanach and are unable to make interpretations because they are too stupid.

Ananites Were Not Karaites

Perhaps Maimonides had somewhat a valid point in that the early Karaite, because they did not make a lot of commentary or provide valid interpretations, the religion lacked structure and was losing adherents as quickly as it was gaining them. Karaism had stagnated and had become a sidebar to Judaism that would likely fade away. Then something of a miracle happened in the eighth century. Karism underwent a major restoration and it was primarily due to the efforts of one man. That man was the rightful Exilarch, or the Jewish King in Exile, Anan ben David. Now there are those, even among the Karaites that will argue that Anan was not the father of Karaism and some will argue to the point that he wasn’t even a Karaite based on the practices of those that called themselves Ananites and followers of Anan. In fact, in an article written by Philoxenus of Nisibis, the Maronite, he describes a case that came before the Caliph to decide upon the outcome when the Jews of Tiberias complained that the Ananites chose the fourth day of the week as their Sabbath. The Caliph decided that any group of ten men can establish a religious practice however they like. Philoxenus then goes on to say that the Karaites still selected the traditional sabbath day and not the fourth day of the week. So, it is clearly evident that the Ananites were not Karaites and Karaites were not Ananites. Exactly who were the Ananites, that is a topic for another discussion and sadly, we may never find enough information as to who they were and why they insisted they were followers of Anan.

The Real Anan ibn David

But the question as to why Anan ben David is so important to Karaism,even if some of his followers weren’t Karaite lies in the fact that he is said to have enlightened the eyes of the Karaites. In the early eight century, the Jewish communities were becoming fractured. There were those that saw the schools in Sura and Pumbedita promoting nothing but heresies and pushing a Talmud that most of the people did not want. One Jew, by the name of Serini of Syria claimed to be the restorer of the Torah, the destroyer of the Talmud, the Messiah whom the prophets foretold and he would gather up all the Jews to their ancient homeland and subdue the Arabs. Thousands followed him expecting to rebuild the New Jerusalem but when Serini suddenly died in 720, all their dreams were dashed. It looked like Karaism would die with him.

But a small miracle occurred in what Serini had actually achieved, and that was notification to the Rabbanites, that the common people couldn’t care less about the Talmud and only wanted to be governed by the Laws of Moses. This desire did not go unnoticed by the nephew of the Exilarch, whose name was Anan ben David. When his teacher, Rabbi Genai, son of Baruch in 730, wrote a prayer book for the Sabbath and festivals based solely on the Five Books of Moses and the prophets, Anan drew his inspiration from the book and knew the book needed to be introduced into the Karaite community. This would provide their weaken religious structure with the beginning of a written framework that would not attempt to replace the Tanach but would actually enhance it. By 750 Anan was known in Babylon as the great orator of Karaite Law and when his uncle the Exilarch died, without children, it was said Anan should have been the next Exilarch but because of his opposition to the Talmud, the electors, all from the Rabbanite community, chose another for the throne.

Not all of the Karaites were supportive of Anan as their leader but men like Rabbi Japhet the Karaite wrote that Anan was a diligent and faithful instructor of the people. He was a powerful debater and silenced many of the Jews from the house of Hillel. Rabbi Mordecahi wrote that they tried to kill Anan but that the Karaite God kept our prince safe and out of their hands. The reference to the Karaite God as being different from the Rabbanite God is quite interesting as it draws attestation to how strained relations had become, and how Karaites considered that the Rabbanites had replaced God with men. Anan, he goes on further to write, made a multitude of converts, leading by unparalleled vigour and success. The reference to converts was intended to mean Christians and Muslims, not just the Rabbanites. The Karaite revival spread from Baghdad to Jerusalem and from Jerusalem to wherever Karaites were found.

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The Writings Of Anan Ben David

Page taken from Anan's Sefer

Page taken from Anan's Sefer

Karaite Restoration

As to why Anan was so successful, it cannot be because he was proposing a more restrictive Judaism to be followed as detractors say because of the Ananites (The sitters in the dark), but the fact that he was proposing a religion which provided more freedom of action and belief as long as it could be justified by the Old Testament. The fact that the dogma and doctrines of the Rabbanites had become too onerous and burdensome, without any proof by which the people could comprehend or explain the need for such burden, worked in his favour and pushed the people towards Karaism. Anan, as head of the Karaite community became the living expression of liberty and freedom, using the same cries that Serini used to gather his followers. Anan’s revolt against a burdensome and contrary system, emphasized the natural disgust against a system that forbade inquiry and punished contradiction or even doubt. Anan described the Rabbanites as nothing more than a sect of Jews, most likely the successors of the overly proud Pharisees, who had thought themselves superior to all other men. Though Anan would make reference to the fact that he was carrying on Sadducee traditions, the earlier chapters in this series demonstrated that this was not actually true, but it was a very attractive concept to hear by his followers. But more importantly, Anan’s influence was extended even further than just Jews. In an effort to attract Christians to the Karaite faith he wrote, “The lovers of the truth should know that Jesus the Nazarene was a great teacher, a just and good man, one who feared God, and who taught nothing as a statute or judgment except the written Law of God, setting aside all that shall be proved diverse or contrary to whatsoever Moses -- on whom peace -- wrote the Law.” Therefore as Karaites, there is no prohibition to acknowledge Jesus as a thoroughly submissive Jew, who merely advocated the laws of Moses and therefore was not a being superior to any other man, but certainly not a Pharisee, and as written in my book The Caiaphas Letters, was therefore most likely a Sadducee or essentially what we could call an early Karaite.

Anan journeyed to Jerusalem in 761 with an army of disciples and built a synagogue there which housed his congregation for a while but as he numbers grew steadily, more and more synagogues were built. There he wrote a commentary on the Five Books of Moses and another book called the Book of Precepts. It was said that the day he arrived in Jerusalem, there was a great celebration by the Jerusalemites who were happy to free themselves from the chains of the Talmud. In 765, Anan died in Jerusalem but not without establishing the great revival in Karaite Jerusalem.

A Prayer of Mourning: A Testament to Anan

Several years ago, I was frantically searching for a Karaite Prayer of Mourning, as I could not find one to repeat over the loss of my mother. I was even told by a Hacham, that there was not one, but it hardly made sense that as a people we would be using the Rabbanite prayer of mourning, without having developed one of our own. Eventually I was able to find the Karaite Zikronoth, or memorial prayer and it is quite revealing for several reasons. Firstly, it is quite old as seen by the reference to Anan ben David but the lack of later Karaite scholars being mentioned would date it to before the twelfth century. Secondly, it provides a Karaite perspective on death. No Heaven, no Hell, only our eternal resting place in the earth or tomb, which we hope will be in at least pleasant surroundings. But thirdly, there does appear t be a reward for those like Moses or Elijah; their spirits get to reside in the Garden of Eden. There is also an explicit hope that the Gentiles will come to seek out the Karaite faith and even though he is at rest (dead) they will seek him out. This is a testament to the impact Anan must have had on the other faiths, and I can’t help but think of the revival of the Karaite faith at this time, and the number of former Christians that are now seeking out Karaism. I truly believe that the Zikronoth was referring to this time in the twenty-first century. As you read the Zikronoth below, think about the points I have just raised.

“May our God, and the God of our fathers, have compassion on our dead, and on your dead, and on the whole dead of all his people, the House of Israel. Chiefly and before all, on our Rabbi Anan the Prince, a man of God, head of the captivity, who opened the way of the Law, and enlightened the eyes of the Sons of the Reading, and converted many from iniquity and from transgression and guided us in the right way. May the God of Israel make him to lodge in a good resting place; in a pleasant resting place may he have his dwelling with the seven companies of righteous men who are waiting in the Garden of Eden, and may there be fulfilled on him the Scripture that is written:

“And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse that shall stand for an ensign to the nations, to him shall the Gentiles seek, and his rest be glorious.” (Is. xi.10.) The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces: Out of heaven shall He thunder upon them; The Lord shall judge the ends of the earth, and he shall give strength unto His king, and exalt the horn of His anointed.” (1 Sam ii.10) His enemies will I clothe with shame, but upon himself shall his crown flourish. (Ps. cxxxii 18) And yet may God fulfil on him the Scriptures that is written: And though, go thy way till the end be, for thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of days.” (Dan. xii 13)

A beautiful farewell for those we lose now, those that have gone before, and those that will die in the future.

In Conclusion

There are those that still claim that Anan ben David was not Karaite and use the practices of the Ananites as proof of his non-Karaite affiliation. I can only hope this chapter has proven to all that Anan ben David was very much a Karaite and in many regards, the father of our religion. Certainly he was not the initiator nor the creator of the Karaite faith, but without his guidance and leadership, we probably wouldn’t exist today. The historical documentation demonstrates how important he was to the Karaites of his age, and the mourning prayer demonstrates how important he was to the generations that followed. Exactly why the Ananites practiced a Judaism different from the Karaite communities and returned to extreme practices that Anan had freed us from is difficult to explain. There are always going to be breakaway cultic groups in any religion. Just because they name themselves after a historical figure does not necessarily mean they will practice the beliefs of that person. It is important that we acknowledge and follow Anan’s most notable teaching which is fundamental to Karaism. “Read, and if what you read seems good to you, then it is correct.”

Until we meet again, L’hitraoit

Avrom Aryeh-Zuk Kahana

Dr. Allen Goldenthal

© 2022 Kahana

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