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Karaite History: Chapter 4

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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

The Maccabees

The Maccabees


Welcome back to my blog on the history of Karaism. In the last Chapter, we were looking at the changing political environment under the Hasmonean Kings. When one reads the stories regarding the Maccabees, it is easy to understand why so many see it as a miraculous victory over the Syrian Greek Empire, a David and Goliath story, where the forces of good defeat the forces of evil. It has all the ingredients to make a Star Wars movie and in fact in the second movie when Luke Skywalker climbs into his ice scooter to take on the elephant like walking tank fortresses, it might as well have been straight out of the pages of the Maccabee battle scene where one of the younger sons, Eleazar runs beneath the Syrian war elephants to stab them from underneath and topple their riders, only to have the elephant fall down upon him and crush him to death but at the same time killing the Syrian’s commanding general. A martyr’s death and a rallying cry for the rest of the army. The miracle of this battle had nothing to do with candles. That was a later addition by the Rabbanites to focus the attention away from the fact that the Hasmoneans were Sadducees and that would suggest that God had fought on the side of their arch enemies and gave them the victory. When the war first began in about 167 BCE, the Chasidim, the early Pharisees thought of the Hasmoneans as part of their enlightened cult. And I use the word cult deliberately, because that is exactly what these early Chasidim were. An anti-government, anti-Sadducee, anti-Temple Services cult. As descendants of Jehozadak’s son Jeshua, the Hasmoneans felt they had a rightful claim to the High Priesthood in Jerusalem, but Ezra changed all that and as a result many of Jeshua’s descendants took up positions in the High Priesthood on Mount Gerzim in Samaria. That fact alone put the sons of Jeshua in the bad books of the Jerusalem priesthood and the Chasidim saw this as an opportunity to gain control. The Asmonean clan, that part of Jeshua’s descendants that remained behind in Judea were little more than local priests in the synagogue of Modin. The Chasidim saw this as a chance to install their own line of Pharisaic leaning priests in the Temple should they win the war. They flocked to the rallying cry of Judah Maccabee, swearing that they would restore the High Priesthood to his family. Everyone saw it as a win/win, as long as they could defeat the Syrians. But as much as the Hasmoneans were in debt to the support they had received from the Chasidim, they were still Sadducees at heart and when they took control of the Temple, this became apparent and the disappointment fueled the anger and resentment of the Pharisees even more. This was the moment, which likely led to the schism that we are trying to identify. Because as I said earlier, without the advent of the Rabbanites, there could be no Karaites and similarly there had to be Karaites in order for the Rabbanites to have a political enemy, even after the Temple had been destroyed in 70 ACE.

Alexander Jannai: The First Karaite?

Following his father John Hyrcanus on the throne, Alexander Jannai took on the mantle of both King and High Priest in Israel. This act on its own terrified the Pharisees because it invested all the power in one man and that meant he could eliminate them with a wave of his hand if he so wished. At first his reign appeared to be quite smooth and prosperous but there was trouble brewing because he refused to share any of his power with the leaders of the Pharisees. Like their radical progenitors, the Chasidim, the Pharisees waited for an opportunity to seize power. One year, while Alexander Jannai celebrated Succoth, one of the leaders of the Pharisees shouted out in the Temple, “Woe to thee, son of a profane woman. What have you done, you who now meddle with the priesthood? Your mother was profane, and therefore you are not fit to be a high priest!” In today’s language, the Pharisee had just called the priest-king’s mother a whore and he was a son of a bitch. This is according to the writings of the Pharisees themselves, so you have to wonder why they would reveal the fact that they first antagonized the King, unless they wanted to cover up the real story in which their involvement had to be much worse.

This offensive Pharisee then took one of the citrons he carried as was tradition during the festival and threw it at the the king, striking him in the face. Fearing for his life, because he was now surrounded by others of the Pharisee sect, the King called for his guard to protect him and by the end of the day the story goes that the Holy Temple had been tainted with the blood of over six thousand.

This was the generally circulated story by the Rabbanites, and even today when they teach history in their classes they repeat this same tale. I should know, this is what they taught me, repeating the story year after year. The response sounds extreme, considering the tossing of one lemon is hardly worth the lives of six thousand men but we have to remember who is telling this story and it is the Rabbanites, that group which ultimately won over the hearts and souls of the Jewish people, and as I have always said, the victor gets to dictate the story line.

Fortunately for us, the Rabbis enjoyed the story of pelting the king with a lemon so much, that they actually preserve an accurate version of the event in their Mishnah (Sukkah 48b, Antiquities 13.13) And the true story goes like this: It was the occasion of the ‘Water Offering” in the Temple during the Succoth Festival. As Alexander Jannai stepped up to the altar to make the water offering, he spilt it on the ground which the Pharisees took as an offense against themselves and he was pelted with hundreds of the esrogim. For those that have never seen an esrog, these dried out lemons can be as hard as rocks and though the book does not admit it, this was clearly a stoning and an attempt on the king’s life. The spilling of the water they considered a deliberate act. Alexander Jannai was rejecting their insistence of an Oral Tradition and therefore this was an act of rebellion on his part against the Pharisees and their attempt to hijack the religion. Should this be true and this was a case of the King insisting that only what was written in the Torah should be practiced, then it is with some justification that he could be referred to as the ‘First Karaite.’

Nisuch Ha Mayim

But what about this water offering? Actually, it was part of the Temple services that didn’t originally exist and was insisted upon by the Pharisees that it be added to the ceremony. The Sadducees initially objected to its addition because in the days before the Hasmoneans, they never conducted this act. But the Pharisees were insisted and eventually the priesthood relented. To understand this ceremony better, the actual conduct of the burnt offering and the peace offering on the altar was accompanied by a flour offering and the pouring of a prescribed amount of wine on the altar. This is in the Torah. There is no mention of the water libation in the Torah. According to the Talmud, the Rabbanites claim it was part of the oral tradition that Moses received on Mount Sinai but never recorded. They refer to is as the nisuch ha mayim. Exactly what it meant is as confusing at the Rabbis themselves. Some say it was to praise the waters that God created first before man had a chance to taint them. Others say it was a plea to God to provide the rains for the coming season so there would be a bountiful harvest for the next Succoth. Others refer to them as the living waters, a platitude which the Jews for Jesus have taken up in modern days.

It is at this moment we can witness the first kernels of thought that would eventually sprout into Karaite Judaism. If it wasn’t in the Torah, and it can’t be supported through any religious tract, then it must be pagan in origin and should not come in contact with Temple practices. Clearly, the Sadducees could make a case against the water libation but the Pharisees insisted that the ceremony was a jubilant occasion that the people adored. In fact the Mishna states, "He that has never seen the joy of the [ceremony of the water drawing] has never in his life seen joy." (Sukkah 51a)

Apparently, as the ceremony took place, the Levite's played lyres, trumpets, harps, cymbals, and other instruments, while other Levite's sang. In the Temple area, three golden candlesticks nearly 75 feet high were lit by young boys climbing tall ladders, and the light from these candlesticks could be seen throughout all Jerusalem. Respected men of faith danced and sang in front of these candlesticks while carrying burning torches. As the ceremony progressed through the night, the priest blew the shofar three times. In the manner of the text of Isaiah 12:3, "Therefore, with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation," the evening was characterized by exuberant joy. It was a wonderful occasion that no one wanted to miss. Sometimes Rabbis would perform acrobats and juggle flaming touches as part of the festivities. I don’t know about you, but this certainly reminds me about the story of the Golden Calf while Moses was up on the Mountain for seven weeks and the Israelites had decided they would create their own religion without him. Here we have the High Priests conducting the ceremonies of one of our most sacred festivals ordained in the Torah and the Pharisees with their followers were busy elsewhere, certainly not in the first three courts of the Temple, having what sounds like a drunken festival or circus. In fact, the Rabbis use the following quote from Deuteronomy 14:26 to justify that it was good to spend one's tithe money on food or liquor or whatever delicacies one might desire for the purpose of eating and rejoicing in the presence of the Lord. The tithe money was supposedly intended for the priests and support of the Temple, as ordained in the Torah, but clearly the Pharisees saw it as an excuse for a drunken festival bordering on an orgy, and to withhold the money.

It is obvious that this water libation ceremony was not part of the original practices during Succoth, so the question must be asked, where did it come from. The answer is quite clear, it was a custom that somehow became infused into Jewish life with the return of the exiles from Persia. We all know that fire and water don’t mix. Pouring fire on an altar that is making a burnt offering to God is clearly not a smart idea and the Zoroastrians were against the mixing of the two but in the month of Avan they would pay homage or Avan Advisur Yazad, through the waters of underground sources like wells and springs. The Jerusalem festival used water from the Pool of Siloam as the source for this so-called 'sacred' water. The tenth day of the eighth month the Zoroastrians would make their libation to the waters according to the Yasna whereas Succoth begins on the fifteenth day of the seventh month but there is no reason to think it wasn’t possible to bring the festival of thanking God (in the case of Zoroastrianism, gods) for water and combining it with a festival when thanking God for the abundance of the harvest.. After all, as the Sukkah 51a of the Talmud indicates, the Rabbis loved any excuse for a drunken festival.

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A Failed Coup D'Etat

The King’s retaliation was warranted as this was a coup arranged by the chief Phrarisee, a man named Simon ben Shetah, who just also happened to serve as the King’s chief minister and was said to be the Queen’s brother. And contrary to the claim that Alexander Jannai slaughtered almost all the Pharisees, that was not true because we know for a fact that the Pharisees allied themselves to King Demetrius of Syria who then attacked Jerusalem and defeated the loyal forces of Alexander Jannai. This is again admitted by the Rabbis. So at least the Rabbis are willing to confess that they used violence and began a war against their own people and their rightful king in order to transfer the power to Ben Shetah, even though they tend to gloss over it quickly as merely an anecdote about teaching the king a lesson for some spilt water.

Having remained separate from the Sadducee and Pharisee argument for so long, Alexander Jannai suddenly declared himself to be a Sadducee after the stoning and the war. Making his peace with Demetrius, the Syrians withdrew, much to the surprise of the the Pharisees that thought they would be installed into power by this foreign king. Alexander’s announcement as being a Sadducee was an open declaration that there was no final judgment day and no Resurrection, which only served to infuriate the Pharisees further. In so doing, the few slain Pharisees became martyrs (and the story became 6000) and those that survived preached to the people that the promise of God to make their suffering through life all worth it by rewarding them in the afterlife was now being taken away by their king. It was a war cry that swelled the ranks of the Pharisees because an afterlife was the only hope for the wretched poor and needy. The schism was now complete and could never be repaired. The riots and protests that ensued resulted in a further three thousand of the Pharisees being killed. The leaders of the movement fled for their lives and hid at Bathshemesh, only to be pursued by Alexander’s army, and then carried back to Jerusalem where they were hung. Their failed coup only served to further fuel their sympathizers and enrage a small element of the common people.

Alexander the Piercer as he was called from then on, failed to capture the supreme leader of the movement, Simon ben Shetah, who had fled to Egypt. After some time had passed, Queen Salome Alexandra, described as a sister to Simon ben Shetah, got her husband to agree to permit him to return from Alexandria with immunity. It was probably not the wisest thing to do but the king had grown tired of the protests and thought it might be possible to bring about peace between the factions. No sooner did Ben Shetah return, he began preaching to the people but because Alexander Jannai still hoped for a peaceful outcome, he did not lay a hand upon him. Even as Simon ben Shetah preached that the royal Sadducees had voided the law, and only the Pharisees were God’s defenders of the law, he still remained untouchable.

The Maccabees

The Maccabees

Birth of the Talmud

The absence of the king’s action permitted Ben Shetah to exalt his own dignity as a man of God, and declared to the people that he would restore the Law of Moses to the people exactly as it had come from the lips of Moses. He convinced his followers that there was a select few people that had received the true and full laws directly from Moses and they passed it on orally from generation to generation, preserving it and he was now the lone survivor of that long line of wisemen that had received the Oral Tradition. The day he made that pronouncement was the day that the people of Judea became divided into two factions. Ben Shetah restored the Order of Wise Men and imposed his new set of laws upon all that followed. He was a tempestuous and intolerant individual, in many ways the equal of Alexander Jannai in cruelty. When Judah ben Tabbai, one of his followers disagreed with one of his interpretations, he forced ben Tabbai to bend to his will or suffer expulsion. It was said that ben Shetah was incapable of forgiveness and he made every effort to magnify his office. In so doing, he rose to the head of the Sanhedrin or court in Jerusalem, a clear indication of how extensive the King’s forgiveness or foolishness was and how much he could be influenced by the Queen. But Shetah was never going to forgive the King and when the opportunity came, he summoned the king to appear before the court because one of the king’s servants had committed murder. The King appeared in front of this kangaroo court because Ben Shetah convinced the populace that as the servant’s master, not even a King, can be above the law.
Leading the prosecution, “Ben Shetah said, “if an ox kills a man, and the owner of the ox according to the law must make restitution, then it is the same principle that a man must answer for his servant.” Though nothing in the Torah says these are the same principle, since the ox is an animal that behaves only according to instinct, whereas the servant was a man that acted upon his own free will, Shetah had just extended the rules of God of his own accord. By agreeing to make restitution, the King unwittingly gave credence to the Oral Tradition and the Talmud was born and perhaps as a counterbalance, Karaism as well. According to Rabbi Judah the Levite in his Book of Cozri, he describes this timepoint as thus, “In the days of Judah ben Tabbai and Simon ben Shetah began the sect of Karaism on account of something that happened between the Wise Men and King Jannai:" Clearly, the governance of the Pharisees was the final straw that broke the back of Judaism and caused the great divide between those that supported the Torah and those that wished to follow the new Oral Tradition. Whether one can state that this was actually the moment Karaism was born, as Judah the Levite has done, may still be premature, but clearly the schism was in the works and Alexander Jannai played a big role.

In Conclusion

This takeover of the government by the Pharisees through the use of the Syrian army is glossed over as only the negative actions of the King and the Sadducees is emphasized by the Rabbanites. That’s to be expected. The fact that thousands of the Jewish supporters of the King both in his army and from the general populace that fought against the Syrians and died is not even mentioned is a sad commentary on how far the Rabbanites will twist the truth. It really was a coup d’etat and even though Alexander Jannai was permitted to remain as king in Judea, his power was diminished and the story of his appearing on trial before ben Shetah was purely for the purpose and satisfaction of humiliation and to demonstrate to the people who was now really in charge. There is no doubt that this was the timepoint whcih Rabbanism was born and the Oral Tradition became the new law of the land, only to be formalized three hundred years later into the written books of the Talmud.

As for Karaism, I’d still like to believe that the day the King poured the libation on to the floor was the day Karaism was born as he made the statement, ‘There is no Law but the Torah.’ He was signifying those of us as Karaites would no longer tolerate the addition to and the confounding of our ancient traditions and the word of God is unalterable.

Until the Next Chapter

Dr. Allen Goldenthal

Avrom Aryeh-Zuk Kahana

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