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    Karaites – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. Who are the Karaites?

    A. The Karaites were a dissident group that came into being in the 8th century, calling themselves kara-im (“Scripturalists”) because they rejected the rabbinic Oral Law and had a literalist approach to the Torah.

    Paradoxically, they developed an oral tradition of their own because they could not manage with Biblical literalism alone, without explanations, interpretations and applications.

    Their founder is said to have been Anan ben David in the 8th century, who was indignant at being passed over for leadership of the people and got up to mischief instead. He was probably not the original proponent of Karaism because in ancient times there were underground anti-rabbanite groups such as the 2nd Temple-era Boethusians and Sadducees. Anti-Karaite scholars included Saadia Ga’on and Abraham ibn Ezra.

    Amongst Karaite ideas was the literal reading of the ban (Ex. 35:3) on kindling a fire on Shabbat, which led the Karaites in the pre-World War 2 Crimea to sit in the cold on Shabbat whereas the rabbanites legitimised having benefit from light and heat if turned on prior to Shabbat.

    In Britain, Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler used to say that it wasn’t the Karaites who bothered him as much as the Don’t-Care-ites who were indifferent to all versions of religion.

    Sometimes one comes across a Karaite family in a Diaspora country; indeed at one stage I consulted the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel for advice as to how to handle a handful of Australian Karaites.

    There are currently small numbers of Karaites numbering some 30,000 in modern Israel.

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