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Karaite History: Chapter 6

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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 Fall of Judea

Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 ACE by the Romans, the banishment of all Jews from entering their Holy City meant that schools and institutions had to be built elsewhere. Though the city was destroyed, the spirit was not, and soon there were schools distributed throughout the country. A ruling was made that any town that had more than a hundred and twenty male Jewish inhabitants should have its own synagogue and attached to it a school. Each school would have at least one schoolmaster. Four cities were selected to have shools of higher learning. These were Jabneh, Zephoriah, Caesarea and Tiberias, all of them cities under Pharasaic control. In Jabneh, John ben Judah Zakkai was their first principle, following his father, whom is famous for how he had himself carried out of the city of Jerusalem in a coffin while the city was under siege by the Romans. Though many of his Pharasaic brethren were the ones inciting the revolt within the city, Ben Zakkai deserted them when survival seemed hopeless. One might ask why it took him three years to make that decision to leave the city clandestinely, but I will leave that to others to discuss.

Even though those in charge of these schools were Pharisees, they originally made it the policy that the only teachings taught would be the traditions in the scriptures with only a little help to render them understandable by interpretation. Still a traditionalist, ben Zakkai set up hedges as he referred to them, or a fence around the Laws of Moses so that it would remain protected. But not long after, the descendants of Hillel took over as the rectors in the city of Tiberias, they moved the teachings in most schools towards the Oral Traditions (the later Talmud) and away from teaching them directly from the Torah. As they grew in power and authority, these descendants of Hillel would proclaim and emphasize their royal heritage as descendants of David, even though the only connection was through Hilllel’s mother, but it provided them with the authority to say they “Sealed the Book” in the ancient style of the Torah when they finally finished drafting their Talmud. The first book to be completed was the Mishnah, and in it Judah the Prince included descriptions of the way that Israel had been before the destruction. He painted a picture of the festivals, the rites in the Temple, and the relationships between the tribes, which in so doing actually provides the direct comparison of what should be the normal practices of the Jews based on the Torah versus what they would be doing from then on under the guidance of the Talmud. By 230 ACE, Judah the Prince's school of Tiberias had published its version of the Talmud which he edited and was to become known as the Jerusalem Talmud, even though it had nothing to do with that Holy City.

The Law

The Law

Ultimate Betrayal

Many of the scholars from Tiberias decided to move to Babylon as the school's leadership began to fail, so that in a short time afterwards, the greatest scholars could be found in the East, rather than residing in Israel. By 340 ACE, the Tiberias School was under the authority of Hillel the Prince, aka Hillel II, who moved the studies from the Talmud further and further into speculative matters rather than the Judaism as described in the Torah. His radical insights were so foreign to Jewish mainstream thought that Epiphanius, Bishop of Constantia said of Hillel the Prince, that he was a Christian at heart and that on his death bed had himself secretly baptized. Though the Rabbis will deny that their illustrious leader, a prince of David (false), a scion of Zion, and last son of the House of Hillel, would ever consider converting to Christianity, I would think we have to give credence to the last man tht talked to him.

Here is the comment from the Epiphanius, Bishop of Constantia, “And so the worthy patriarch departed this world from the sacred baptism, and after partaking of the holy mysteries.” You would think that Epiphanius would know because he was there at the time of Hillel’s death, having dismissed everyone from the room so that he could remain alone with the so-called spiritual leader of Judaism. If the chief Rabbi, the so-called Prince of the Jews, rejected his heritage so easily on his death bed, then what does it say about Rabbinic Judaism, other than it had lost its way. It is a commentary of how far the Rabbinical class in Palestine had sunk but fortunately their brethren in Babylon were not about to sink that low and though they were not prepared to call out the descendants of Hillel the Elder for their betrayal of Judaism, they did sever many of their ties to the Palestinian assembly. It is no wonder that Constantine the Great so successfully began his persecution of the Jews in Palestine, forcing upon them mass conversions, when their own leader obviously turned his back on his faith. This Mishnah that Judah ben Zakkai had presumed to be a fence around the Torah to protect it turned out to be nothing more than the tool by which to debase the Torah. As soon as the sacred laws were no longer sacred and the laws of men as expounded in the Talmud were heralded as being superior, then there was no means by which to protect Judaism from its enemies who could easily point out that the people no longer followed the teachings of Moses. The pre-eminence of the Law was superseded by the Mishnah and in so doing, the Rabbis had sounded the death knell for so many of us literally. Moses was no longer the supreme authority of Judaism, the Talmud of Judah the Prince, had stolen that glory and extinguished the flame.

The Revolt of 360 ACE

In an attempt to follow practices of the Christian Church in fixing dates for the festivals, Hillel the Prince decided to use the Greek system. As president of the Sanhedrin, he sent out a decree that all Jews would now follow the new system, appointing the start of the year, the months and the festivals according to this new calender. This all came to a head in what was referred to as the Paschal Controversy of 360 in which adherents of the ancient traditions openly opposed the Rabbis and refused to use the new calendar dating. Some will mistakenly point to this revolt and suggest it was the beginning of Karaite Judaism, but it would be naive to say so, since the movement was obviously well underway at this time but only required a spark to ignite its collective anger and bring it out into the open.

In fact, the opposition was already there from the time the Talmud was first published, a hundred years earlier. On the release of his edited Mishnah, Judah the Prince publicly declared that he had not intended to supersede the Laws of Moses but to pay it homage. But it was soon apparent with the publishing of the Gemara which followed the Mishnah was viewed as nothing more than a collection of garbled and flawed sentences, having little to do with judicial matters and invaded the personal lives of the Jews on a wide variety of trifling matters. The confused mass of text that comprised the Gemara only served to diminish any value and relevance that the Mishnah may have had. Because the entire compilation was presented as a single code of law and a collection of Rabbinic Wisdom, the last being an oxymoron, the Talmud, or Learning as it was called, was advertised as being perfect and conclusive. To call the work of men perfect was an affront to God and all those that held God’s word as sacred and immutable. In their revolt, those opposed to the Talmud set up their own synagogues and ensured that only Biblical Hebrew was used for teaching and prayer, as it had become the custom of the Rabbis to integrate into the services the language of their captors. The fact that there were enough people in organized opposition to set up their own houses of worship, would suggest that the Karaites were not only present in sufficient numbers at that time but they already had their own order of governance.

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The Torah

The Torah

According to Maimonides

That great Rabbinic sage, Maimonides, whom even as a Karaite, we must give due credit to as being admirable for his intelligence and abilities, marks the occasion of Karaism’s birth as beginning when Simon ben Shetah returned form Egypt to take his place as head of the Sanhedrin under King Alexander Jannai. Furthermore, it is the Karaites that write that Ben Shetah began to propagate and insist upon the mysteries of the Oral Law, and therefore in order to make such an accusation they must have been contemporaneous. Maimonides wrote, “Those people were called Karaim, Readers, by way of contempt and derision.” This statement is confirmed by Mordecai the Karaite who writes, “At first, indeed, the followers of Ben Tabbai, colleague of Ben Shetah, but his opponent, were called, ‘the House of Tabbai’, but that sectarian title was quickly changed for the more appropriate name, in as much as being studious of the Scripture, they did not lean upon the broken reed of an allegorical and confused interpretation.”

It is evident that all roads continue to point towards the era of Alexander Jannai as the time when the first Karaites formally appeared as an offshoot of the Zadokites.

In Conclusion

After six chapters as to the origins of Karaism, I think we finally arrive at a time around 100 BCE as the birth time of the movement. It was an immediate response to the rise of the Rabbanites and their Pharisee sect. As ben Shetah took over the reigns of the Sanhedrin, it was seemed necessary that there would be a counter balance. But now that we have provided the roots, it is time we start examining the growth of the tree. Over the next six to seven hundred years, the growth of Karaite Judaism was dramatic, so much so that by the tenth century, Rabbanite Judaism felt threatened. We will start looking at some of the threats that arose.

Until the Next Chapter

Shalom Aleichim

Dr. Allen Goldenthal/Avrom Aryeh-Zuk Kahana

© 2021 Kahana


Thank you Allen, always glad to get this information./ on January 15, 2021:

Thank you Allen always glad to have this information

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