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Karaite History: Chapter 3


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

Restoration of the Second Temple

Restoration of the Second Temple


As mentioned in the previous chapter,had there not been the advent of Rabbanism, then there would have been no such thing as Karaism as everyone of us would be painted with only one label. So it is relevant to try and pinpoint the birth of Rabbanism in order to know at what point a counter had to either exist or be initiated. Either Karaism was already in existence to which Rabbanism was a direct response, or it was forced into existence from a prior prototype in order to oppose the growing influence of the Rabbanites. If we can identify the threshold where the schism occurs, then we can probably identify the birth of at least one, if not both of the factions.

Prophecy of The Schism

To identify the birth of Rabbanism, we need to examine an old Karaite document entitled Hilluk or in English, simply Schism. In this book, the author believes he can already detect the first indications of the Rabbanites in a few of the last prophetic books that make up the Tanach. The author believes that the Book of Malachi comments on the rise of these early Rabbanites where it is written that ‘The doctors of the Law are guilty of great negligence. The priests, who should have passed the knowledge of the law from their own lips, so that people would continue to come to them for advice on the law, became preoccupied by other matters, which caused many to stumble themselves at the law and thus corrupted the covenant of the Priests.’ (Mal. II, 7-8). Although we don’t know exactly when Malachi lived, we do know that the second Temple services had been restored for a long time already and the initial enthusiasm was gone. A dating around 400 BCE would be appropriate and in Malachi’s words, the failure of the priesthood to teach the law resulted in others picking up the mantle but in so doing, these so called doctors of the law corrupted the laws through their misunderstanding of it.

As we turn to Malachi once more to see him writing that the priests said there was little profit in serving God and keeping all his ordinances. They pointed out that those that defied God, seemed to profit greatly and were never punished. (Mal. III, 13-15). There is an obvious disillusionment with the old way of life making it rife for others to come along and promise the people a better life if they begin to follow them Zechariah added his own voice to the issue by suggesting even the courts had become corrupted. (Zech VIII, 16-17). If we look solely at the prophetic nature of these writings, then we can select the time as being when the Great Council was no longer under the control of the High Priest and the seats were occupied by lesser men. To be precise, we would be looking at the Hasmonean uprising, when the Jews battled their Syrian overlords and freed themselves from the yoke of tyranny under Antiochus Epiphanes. Following the war against the Syrian Greeks, the High Priesthood was stripped away from the Oniads, the rightful High Priests of the Temple, and the Great Council was replaced by the Sanhedrin, a lower court filled with lesser men.

The years of fighting by the Maccabees meant abandoning the Temple services for the duration of those several years but the Holy Place was already considered contaminated because of Antiochus’s defilement and therefore could not be used until cleansed and rededicated. This vacuum permitted these so called ‘wise men’ to begin teaching their own brand of religion, moving the practices and religion away from the sacred Temple, the Source of Living Power, and devising a new reformation. They had no authorization to do so but nonetheless, they relied on the gullibility of the people to follow their instruction. One of their first acts was to make as many disciples as possible to spread their brand of religion. The author writes, had they been well intended and truthful, then it might have been acceptable, but these Rabbis were ‘utterly’ insufficient, in his own words. They assessed their own righteousness through a scale of their own making, this abomination they referred to as the Oral Law. The author writes, “Instead of a fortress of eternal truth, these Tanaim, doctors of tradition, did no more than prepare for coming generations an ever crumbling heap of their own empty sayings.”

Contention Regarding the Sabbath

The author does not intend to suggest that these wise men intentionally went out of their way to abrogate the laws of Moses. In fact, he believes they actually may have wanted initially to steer the people back to the law in the face of a failing priesthood to do so. But their fault was in thinking that by supplementing the Law with their own injunctions, rather than just enforcing the law as it was written, they would succeed. He points out that rather than enforce the right observances of the Sabbath Day, these Rabbanites added what they called Sabbath Keepings, by instructing that part of the day prior should be added to the Sabbath day (3 hours) for preparation. Even their concept of what was prohibited on the Sabbath Day was corrupted. The Karaites interpreted Malacha as referring to ordinary business. But the Rabbanites made it unlawful to do any activity such as swim or climb a tree, which he uses as his examples, things which one does not do ordinarily but only on a day when relaxing. As soon as the Rabbanites made it oppressive to observe the Sabbath, that was the day they alienated half of the population. The Sabbath was intended to be a joyous occasion to celebrate God’s creation but by preventing activities that brought pleasure and suggesting the entire day must be spent in prayer only served to eliminate the one day that families could engage in relaxing activities of their own. They pointed out that it specified that on this day God rested and relaxed, which the non-Pharisees also interpreted as suggesting once they gave thanks then they too should also rest and relax. The priests would spend the day giving their thanks through their services on behalf of the people who would then benefit from the freedom they were given. Now these rabbis wanted to take that freedom away.

Challenging the Priesthood

Eliminating the threat of the revival of the priesthood became a priority to the Rabbanites. They could not afford to have themselves challenged by the true champions of God’s religion. So they began adding more and more restrictive laws that prevented even men of good character from serving in the priesthood. Where the restriction on the priest from marrying a heathen was all that was mentioned in the Torah, they extended this to include marrying any woman that had been carried captive to a foreign land or whom even associated with foreign women. By their own ruling, Moses would have been condemned, and their filling of what they referred to as deficiencies in the law with their own rulings was clearly an intent to hamper and interfere with the priesthood. Their real target were the Hasmoneans or the Maccabean kings, who had taken upon themselves the right to be High Priests in the Temple, but who’s mothers had been captives of the Syrian Kings. It was a direct attack on the ruling authorities of the Kingdom and the Rabbanites made no effort to hide their disdain for the Hasmoneans even though they had celebrated them as heroes when they first liberated the country.

These Rabbanites, who came to refer to themselves as Chasidim, claimed that only through intense study could a man find the secret thoughts or the intent in the heart of the Lord behind the Laws provided. This mystical belief appealed to many of the people because this concept of the unknown gave license to follow God in any conceivable manner that one could justify and the hope that by unlocking some secret dialogue, they could have a better life. Though the Rabbanites did not see it at the time, it gave free license to the fragmentation of Judaism. Essentially, this concept was the green light for the birth Christianity and later Islam.

The more supplementary statutes that were added, the more the original intent of the commandments became blurred, buried and forgotten. One group within Judaism took the mystical search to the extreme, moving into their hills where they could search for the spiritual and philosophical meaning of every word. This group known as the Essenes no longer required the Temple in Jerusalem as the foundation stone of their faith. It is not the intent of these articles to discuss the Essene sect but only to point out that their existence was the result of the Rabbanites establishing the challenge of the law according to the Torah and permitting the writings of men to supersede the writings given directly from God.

The Levites

The Levites

Zadok and Boethus

Among the priesthood, one high priest in particular, a disciple of Antigonus of Socho, who himself followed Simon the Just, decided there must be a counter to the Pharisees and their mystical religion. Zadok taught that there was no spiritual world and no resurrection in the Last Days. His followers became known as the Sadducees. The Rabbanites lumped another colleague with Zadok, the priest Boethus to their group of enemies. Boethus was also a disciple of Antigonus of Socho. How strange that the great Rambam, the patron saint of Rabbis, referred to both of these men as heretics and infidels. We have to imagine two of the most significant priests of their time, enforcing strict adherence to the religion according to the Torah begin referred to as heretics. The hypocrisy is overwhelming. Maimonides condemned both men for denying the Oral Law and later his son stated that from these two evil priests came the heretics known as Karaites. In his condemnation he states that these Karaites had the audacity to interpret the law according to their own mind, rejecting the decisions of wise men. It is even stranger that the party of interpretation of the law as if God needed a middle man, would be accusing the other party as interpreting the law according to their own mind. The only value to this statement is to assume that the son of Maimonides believed that this was the origin of the Karaites and therefore they were a later development that separated from the Temple religion of the priests. But the fact that there are numerous areas of conflict between Karaism and the Zadokites would suggest that his assumption was incorrect.

Let me point out in the defense of the Sadducees, that it is written in Deuteronomy XVII, 9-11, that when it comes to the interpretation of the law, sentencing and judgment that it would be the mandate of the Priests and Levites and judges. Their word would be final and there would be no other interpretation. Clearly, the Torah is stating that the those priests among the Sadducees along with any appointed judges would find what is written in the Torah sufficient to make their judgment. It is not suggesting that they should use other guidance or political views or any other influence to make their interpretations. But in response to this, the Rabbanites claimed that they were the true judges being referred to in that sentence and therefore they were the final approval of the law and the others were not permitted to impose their judgment without proper reason and having rabbinical clearance. Considering the book of Deuteronomy was dated to the time of Josiah, when the concept of Rabbis did not even exist, and the book was not intended to be prophetic, it renders their statement as both false and ridiculous. Deuteronomy was a description of the governance of the people at that time and was not intended to be subject to further interpretation. It essentially is the constitution for the governance of the Jewish people throughout time. But this support of the Zadokites through Deuteronomy must not be confused with being a direct support of those later referred to as the Karaites. Whereas the Sadducees tended to be a party consisting of the aristocracy, the elite and the priesthood, Karaism was not restricted to social status. Therefore, it was not saying that Karaites should be the interpreters of the law; that still remains the jurisdiction of priests and judges. And it is their affirmation as to that is where exactly the authority belongs, which is the hallmark of Karaism.

In Conclusion

The birth of Karaism, if we even were able to fix a date which is not an exact science, may have had more to do with the time of Hyrcanus, two hundred years after Zadok. After the victory of the Hasmoneans or Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek armies, this priestly family proclaimed their land to be a kingdom, adopting for themselves the title of both priest and king. This new kingdom was dependant on its new ally Rome for its survival. Simon Maccabee was the first to rule but he did not take on the title of King. That was left to his son John Hyrcanus, who took upon himself the duo titles of both priest and king. Essentially, it was the proclamation of a theocracy in its truest form. A faction among the priesthood saw this as an affront to God’s authority, feeling that the proclamation of being both High Priest and a King in Israel could never be invested in the same person. To subvert God’s commands in such a dramatic manner (remember that God would choose who to anoint as King; not man) could only be a sin, but they remained silent in their objection. They left it to the Pharisees to vocally oppose the throne and that will be be subject of the next chapter in this story. But as for these dissenting priests, one must ask, could these men have been the progenitors of the Karaites? Was this the starting point of the schism that would never heal?

Until the next Chapter.

Shalom Aleichim

Dr. Allen Goldenthal

Avrom Aryeh-Zuk Kahana