When I was nine or ten, the rabbi at the conservative synagogue where I received my Jewish education asked me a simple question: “Shawn, do Karaites wear tefillin?”
I knew that I had never seen a set of tefillin anywhere near my Karaite community. But instead of saying “no,” I lied and told him that Karaites did wear tefillin. (Sorry, Rabbi!)
Looking back on that exchange – as I often do – I think I was just insecure that the Karaite interpretive tradition is different from the Rabbanite tradition.
Karaites are often accused of interpreting the Bible literally. But this isn’t correct. Karaites seek the peshat (or “plain meaning”) of any given verse. Sometimes the plain meaning is literal and sometimes it is figurative. But in all instances Karaites ask themselves a simple question: “How would the average Israelite have understood this commandment 3500 years ago?”
The issue of tefillin is a perfect example where Karaites understand passages metaphorically and Rabbanites understand them (rather) literally.
There are four “tefillin passages” in the Torah. (Ex. 13:9; Ex. 13:16; Deut. 6:8; Deut 11:18.) The four “tefillin passages” generally state that God’s commandments shall be upon our hands and between our eyes. [1.] In the Karaite tradition, we understand these verses to command us to keep the Torah near to us and to speak about it so that it steers our actions at all times. The Torah is our ornament, our crown jewel and our guidepost.
This is an amazing concept – so amazing that similar metaphors are enshrined in the Tanakh itself: “Listen, my son, to the teaching of your father and do not abandon the instruction [literally: Torah] of your mother; because it is a beautiful wreath for your head and a necklace upon your throat.” (Prv 1:8-9.)
In the Rabbinic tradition, wearing tefillin is a holy and important act. I remember the shock on the face of a Chabad rabbi (someone whom I’m actually quite fond of) when I recently expressed that I was of the opinion that Moses never wore tefillin.
I wasn’t actually trying to shock him or say anything offensive. I was just trying to answer his question honestly – more honestly than when I was first asked about Karaites and tefillin some 20+ years ago.
Today, I recognize that Karaites and Rabbanites (and other Jewish movements) have different interpretive traditions. And such differences should generally be embraced, as long as we’re all seeking an honest understanding of Tanakh. After all, the underlying concept of these four biblical verses is to hold God’s commandments – however we understand them – sacred.
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 To be precise, the first two of the tefillin passages refer to our Exodus from Egypt; whereas the last two refer to the Torah (or verses from the Torah). The Karaite Korner has an excellent (and more detailed) explanation as to why Karaites understand these four passages figuratively.