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Karaite History: Chapter 5

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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 previous chapter, we looked at the time period of the Hasmoneans (AKA the Maccabees) as a possible identification of when the schism that birthed both the Rabbanites and the Karaites occurred. In fact, to be even more specific, the finger was pointed specifically at the reign of Alexander Jannai as the causative agent that brought both sects into being. Whereas the Pharisees viewed him as Satan incarnate, the Zadkokites, who had no belief in Hell, let alone an afterlife, they saw Alexander Jannai as sent by God.

As for the Sadducees in general, they were described in the following manner by my teachers. These were the followers of the preaching of a certain Zadok. He gathered people about him whom he instructed to disclaim the truth of the Oral Law. He taught only what was written int the Five Books of Moses. Thus they introduced many customs foreign to the spirit of the Torah. The Sadducees claimed to possess the ‘True” Jewish religion but in realty they were “reform” Jews.” It was hard for me to understand how strict adherents of the Torah could be the reform Jews, while those that were the ones that were making multiple interpretations and whomever won the debate got the bragging rights to declare his opinion was the correct one, were not to be considered reformists. They had completely turned adherence to the Torah upside down and sadly so many of my fellow student followed their teachings blindly, afraid to challenge any of the indoctrinating fables were were being fed.

The Second Temple

The Second Temple

Establishment of Daily Prayers

The Hasmonean period saw a significant change in the reading of the Law in the Temple on the High Festivals and in the synagogues every Sabbath. When Antiochus began interfering with the Temple practices, he forbade the reading of the Law, so instead, the Priests selected an equal number of lessons, fifty-four in total, from the books of the Prophets and read these as an alternative. They called these lessons the Haftorah and the practice continued after the Maccabees won the nation’s freedom. This was the first attempt as an established prayer service because it should be known that prior to this time, there were no formal prayers that were recited by the people in their homes. Each man would make a prayer by himself, praying alone and according to his own level of knowledge, wisdom and eloquence. Most prayers concerned a plea for their immediate needs.

With the interruption of the normal services by Antiochus, the men of the Great Synagogue composed the Shemonh Ahserith, the Eighteen, so that every man would have a common prayer set to recite in the absence of Temple or synagogue services. The composition was in the simple language of the common people, so that they could easily memorize the liturgy. Essentially, this was the first real divergence from the established laws and prayers of the Jewish people. A divergence created out of a crisis situation but nonetheless, it was still not accounted for anywhere in the Torah. Prior to this event, it was the High Priest, Simon the Just that had gathered those books that he believed were sanctified by God into the Canon around 330 BCE. As far as he was concerned, these were the indisputable and undeniable Scriptures and they contained everything that should be regarded as being of divine authority as well as everything that an Israelite needed to obey. If there were any prayers or instructions to be introduced into daily life then it would come from these books and only these books referred to as the Tanach. Had there been any indication of such a thing existing at the time as an Oral Law, as the Pharisees claimed later, then it is obvious that Simon the Just was not aware of it, nor did he give it any heed if he had any knowledge as it was obviously unworthy of consideration. His was the final and absolute word of God and although it went entirely against the teachings of the Pharisees, there were no objections at the time, as they knew they had no leg to stand on since any claim to an Oral Tradition had obviously been dismissed by those who would be in the know.

Hillel And Shammai

But when the Great Synagogue ceased to exist, it was replaced by the Sanhedrin, and the men of this group were a combination of priests and so-called learned men, often with opposing ideas and political motivations. Even the millennia old tradition of closing the Temple services and the prayers in the synagogues with the word MeOylum, meaning from Everlasting, was subject to changes by this group who eventually replaced it with the common refrain used today, Amen. As far as they were concerned, the lessons from the Tanach could not be forever as it was always their intention to change, obscure or displace them with their contrived assertion of there being Oral Traditions. Controversy became the norm during this period and the spirit of cooperation was replaced by personal hatreds and party antagonism. With Ben Shetah as the president and Ben Tabbai as the vice president of the Sanhedrin, there could be no reconciliation between Sadducee and Pharisee. The Pharasaic command of the Sanhedrin did not end with Ben Shetah, but continued afterwards without interruption because of Salome Alexandra. Around 32 BCE, the eighty year old Hillel, a Babylonian that migrated to Jerusalem when he was already forty, took over the reigns of the presidency. On his mother’s side he claimed royal decent, his father being a Benjaminite, and so it was a meaningless claim, the society still being patriarchal, but nevertheless he and his descendants afterwards insisted that they be considered as royals and even donned the title of Nasi or Prince. When Shemaiah and Abtalion, as president and vice president of the Sanhedrin, were both killed by Herod the Great, there arose an issue as to what should be done about the Passover, since its first evening fell on the eve of the Sabbath. The people were confused as to which prayers and rules they should follow, as they didn’t know which one held precedent and so they asked Hillel for the answer. He ruled that the Passover was superior and therefore the Sabbath had to give way, claiming that he was told so by both Shamaiah and Abtalion before they died. It would be surprising if this was true, as then why would this even have become an issue if Hillel knew the answer long before these two days coincided. Soon afterwards Hillel was proclaimed president of the newly formed Sanhedrin. It was Hillel that classified the Mishnah into six orders, thus preparing the base upon which the oral tradition or Talmud would be built.

But there was another teacher at the time that was opposed to what he saw as the self indulgence, elevation and worshiping of men. He viewed Hillel as nothing more than a man reveling in self-glorification. His name was Shammai and he set up a school of thought that was equal in fame to that of Hillel but was primarily based on Torah. Reb Moses Beshitzi, a Karaite Jew wrote in his book “Staff of God,” that the Karaites unanimously rely upon Shammai and are supported by ‘him and his house of judgement’ when it comes to the law. He writes that Shammai received his instruction from Shemaiah and Shemaiah was instructed by Judah ben Tabbai, who although was only the vice president was still a formidable opponent of Ben Shetah. In contrast, the Rabbanites claimed Hillel received his training from Abtalion and in turn Abtalion form Ben Shetah. It can not be determined whether or not Moses Beshitzi is suggesting that Karaites already existed at the time of Shammai or that later on they just respected the judgments made by Shammai. My reading of the word, “supported by him and his house,” suggest that they were contemporaneous and therefore by the end of the first century BCE, Karaites did exist as a sect.

Shammai’s students accused Hillel of divorcing his followers from the Law and separating his rulings from the rule of the Wise Men of Israel, acting according to his own pleasures and preferences and leaning to his own understanding, deluding others by presuming it all to be true by saying, “Thus saith the Lord God”, when he knew the Lord had not spoken such things. In other words, Hillel never said that the judgments he made were simply his opinion but instead framed his answers by saying that ‘God said’ and in that way avoiding challenge by any of his followers.

Seek Your Own Counsel

Seek Your Own Counsel

The People's Perspective

But what is of interest are the thoughts and comments recorded from the common people about what they thought about these two schools of thought. They actually considered both schools of being held in little favour by God, calling Shammai the ‘Scatterer’ and Hillel the ‘Profane.’ Both were believed to have corrupted the law by their own inventions within the Law. After a struggle for ascendancy for three years, both houses were persuaded to call a truce according to the tale that a voice rang out from Heaven saying “Both these and these speak the words of the Living God.” As a result their contradictory statements were recorded in the Talmud, resolving nothing and adding more to the confusion. The people were smart enough to realize that two contradictory opinions cannot both be right and the majority of people were only concerned about getting through their day to day lives, caring little for the theological debates the two schools engaged in.. Doing so under Roman occupation was not easy and very little from either schools tended to make their lives any easier. It became apparent that if either school was going to hold on to their followers then they required demonstrable differences that the people could get behind. The people would follow if they had a personal interest.

The first step towards the full separation of the two schools of thought, and what turned out to be the conversion of each school into a sect occurred with the Talmudic ruling that stated, “If the House of Hillel takes one side, and the House of Shammai takes the other, then the decision according to the House off Hillel is correct.” At that point the House of Shammai declared the truce to be officially over. Even the Karaiite historians would say later that the House of Hillel gained its authority only from the numbers of its followers, but the House of Shammai earned its followers from skill, wisdom and the inherent justice of the decision. They knew that the decisions of a majority will always come into question in the future when the majority shifts but a decision made by skill and wisdom will endure the test of time.

For example, both houses had contrary views on marriage. The House of Shammai said that a man shall not put away his wife unless he finds some uncleanness in her, as is written in Deuteronomy XXIV 1. But the House of Hillel said even if it is a case that she burns his dinner or she just no longer finds favour in his eyes, he can put her away. The famed Talmudist, whom the Rabbanites practically worship as a semi-deity, Rabbi Akiva said, “If another is more beautiful than she, then he can put her away.” Of course there was reason for his rendering this opinion and you can read all about his lechery and sinful life in Beneath A Falling Star. But the House of Hillel gained tremendous support from this ruling on divorce from the male dominated society. Men who never had any interest one way or the other in supporting either of these houses suddenly became supporters of the Rabbanites because it meant they could dispose of wives without any consequences and treat marriage like a revolving door.

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And the Rabbanites recognized the key to success as well was giving the people a few tidbits to sweeten their lives and then you can practically buy their support. They quickly realized the Oral Traditions must therefore emphasize and feed desires and wants over the moral requirements of the actual law if they were to win over the people. Promise them a glorious afterlife and suddenly all their suffering seems worthwhile. When Hillel died, he had already left behind the framework for the Talmud as the two schools engaged in physical confrontation, with the loss of many lives. Though these battles were fought by two schools of thought, we can already see the schism between Karaite and Rabbanite in its early stages that would become irreparable. There was little chance that they would come together ever again and with the destruction of the Temple in 70 ACE, the aftermath made certain that the two houses would never sit together ever again.

In Conclusion

Those aware of my past know that in my youth I was taught in the Orthodox teachings of Eitz Chaim and therefore everything I would be taught about the birth of the Pharisees would be slanted in their favor. There were no schools conducted by Karaites at the time, so there was little choice as to where I would receive my education. But to appreciate just how much history could be distorted can only be revealed through actual quotes from the texts they taught us from. So I will close this chapter with paraphrasing from my Lubavitch approved texts, where they describe the Pharisees as the “separated”, because they kept themselves separate from the rest of the sinful people who did not observe the laws of purity proscribed by the Torah. Of course that meant for them, the interpretation of the Torah, as taught by their Sages, which was received from the Men of the Great Assembly, and the latter from the prophets. They credit this interpretation as having the same force of impact and holiness as the Five Books of Moses.” They then went on to say that without their interpretation, “the Torah would be meaningless.” That was their entire defense for proclaiming their words were law. We the people were too stupid to read the Torah and decide for ourselves what God was telling us. They claimed they did this out of love for the people and in return were loved by the people, and “they were kind towards everyone and mild in their judgments at court.” Yet at the same time, “they held themselves back from too much familiarity with the common people who, from ignorance, were not careful enough to preserve their laws of ritual cleanliness. It's obvious that you can’t love the people and despise them simultaneously. I look at this attitude and the way they thought of the people in Judea two thousand years ago and I realize nothing has changed. Most of the orthodox groups still hold the same arrogant view and sneer down at anyone outside their particular religious group. They only love those that follow exactly what they say and curse the rest. It only reinforces my belief in that the key to our long term survival, as a people loved by God, is the restoration of the faith according to our independent reading and understanding of the Torah as is the Karaite Way. That does not mean that my interpretation has to be identical to everyone else’s but it does mean placing my faith in God and adhering to what I see as His essential rules and laws. To those there can be no discussion that ultimately alters their intent. I will sum up my years of teachings at the hands of these Orthodox hypocrites from a statement I made when I addressed their Congress as the school’s valedictorian back in 1968. “I see the truth in God’s words as he delivered them to Moses on Mount Sinai. I see the love He held for mankind when he confided in us His knowledge and understanding of how the world should conduct itself. Woe, to those that still consider the words of man to be superior to anything God has provided to us.” Most didn’t comprehend what I had just said then, just as I think most Rabbanites won’t understand what I have said now.

Shalom Aleichim

Dr. Allen Goldenthal

Avrom Aryeh-Zuk Kahana


Kahana (author) on December 31, 2020:

I'll agree KC McGee that the Talmud has made comments regarding Yeshua that are for lack of a better word, 'despicable' and probably incited many of the anti-Semitic attacks that followed over the centuries. But the Talmud is a legacy of the Rabbanites and you point out just one more reason why Karaites hold the book in disdain.

But rather than engage in a disputation of Christianity and why I consider it unworthy of following, I encourage you to read my series of articles entitled To My Brother Yeshua. There are eight articles and they will provide you with a good overview of my viewpoints. But let me say this, as I have admitted what the Talmud wrote may be shameful, but so too is Matthew 12:31-34 in which Jews are vilified and condemned to hell. Or Matthew 27:25 in which the blood guilt will last for an eternity. To the millions upon millions of Jews that died over two millennia at the hands of so-called devout Christians that followed these precepts to the letter, where is their shame and more importantly, their apology? But denying your Christ is understandable by so many of us when you read the message of Luke 14:26 where it clearly states that to be a disciple of Christ one must hate their father, hate their mother and hate their brothers and sisters. That is truly despicable. These were statements written decades before the statements attributed to John. Before someone decided to edit and replace the word hate with love. So I ask you, "How is it that you can believe in a Son of God and ignore all the statements of hate that it insists upon."

KC McGee from Where I belong on December 30, 2020:

I think it's important to note what is stated in the Holy Bible in 1 John 2 22-23 NKJV which states: 22 Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is ANTICHRIST who denies the Father and Son. WHOEVER denies the Son does NOT have the Father eighter; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also.

These two verses in the bible makes everthing you mention in this article a moot point.

There are at least three sects that exist in the Jewish Faith today. And NONE of them believe Jesus Christ is the son of God.

By the way, I have read what the Talmud says about Jesus and Mary the mother of Jesus. And shame on those who wrote it. It was very disdianful.

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