Several weeks ago, I was out to dinner with a friend and we were discussing the state of the Karaite movement. “I think if we look at the history of the movement from the outside, the calendar issue is really what hurt Karaites,” my friend posited.
Because the historical Karaite calendar was based on empirical observations of the new moon and the ripeness of the barley, devout Karaites (especially those in the Diaspora) often disagreed as to when the true biblical holidays should be celebrated.
The Rabbanites historically mocked Karaites about this disunity. (Perhaps rightly.)
Well, centuries have passed and (for better or worse) Karaites still aren’t unified on an approach to the calendar. This past month, Karaites throughout the world observed their holidays according to any of three systems: 1) the Calculated Rabbinic Calendar; 2) the Calculated Karaite Calendar; and 3) the Sighting of the New Moon.
Karaites seemingly are obsessed with when to observe the holidays, because Karaites recognize that the calculated Rabbinic Calendar does not in fact correspond to new moon sightings in Israel. [1.] This is a significant issue for Jews, because observing holidays at the correct time is a biblical requirement (see Leviticus 23:4), which Karaites historically took very seriously.
For example, Daniel al-Kumisi, whom many credit with launching Karaism’s Golden Age, encouraged his Karaite brethren to physically sight the new moon and not to fear the Rabbanites on the issue of the calendar. [2.] And interestingly, the Rabbanites themselves also feuded internally about proper times to celebrate their holidays. [3.]
Most interesting to me are examples of ketubot from Karaite-Rabbanite marriages from the middle ages – especially where a Rabbanite man is marrying a Karaite woman. By way of background, in the Rabbinic tradition a woman generally takes the halakhic practices of her husband. So it is telling when a Rabbanite man adopts the calendar-based halacha of his Karaite wife.
In a Karaite-Rabbanite ketubah from twelfth-century Fustat, where Karaites and Rabbanites coexisted, we find that the Rabbanite groom and Karaite bride agreed not to desecrate the holidays of the other community, and that “they both bound themselves sincerely, willingly and forthrightly to follow the custom of the Karaites [Bene Mikra] who observe the sanctified festivals according to lunar observation and to the finding of abib in the Land of Israel.” [4.]
My general view is that if Karaites today had more internal strength and external credibility, the calendar issue today would not lead to a rift. And even some Rabbanites would join in celebrating the holidays on the proper dates. In fact, Karaite authors from 1000 years ago tell us that some Rabbanites (even after the Rabbanite calendar dispute was considered settled) observed the holidays according to the Karaite dates (while some Karaites observed the holidays according to the Rabbanite dates). [5.]
As I see it, Karaites need to focus on re-invigorating the movement in all respects, keeping in mind that Jews are at different places in their journey. At the same time, the Karaite movement must be careful not to “lose” committed Jews who believe that the historical Karaites (many of whom are now following the Rabbanite calendar) are not Karaite enough when it comes to the calendar issue. And these committed Jews should encourage (in a positive manner) all Karaites to return to the proper observations – and should be patient during that process. If we can all do that, the calendar may be actually be a source of education, dialog, and perhaps even strength.
So, whenever you celebrated your holidays this month, Mo’adim Le’Simcha!
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 The calculated Karaite Calendar is much more accurate (but not perfect) when it comes to predicting new moon visibility. I note that many (if not the majority) of the historical Karaites believe that the moon is a local “sign” similar to the sun; just as one observes Shabbat based on the local sunset, the argument goes, one should set the months based on the visibility of the new moon locally – as opposed to the moon that is sighted in the Land of Israel. This might make a good blog topic.
 See The Pseudo-Qumisian Sermon to the Karaites, AAJR, Vol. 43 (1976), pp. 49-105, pp. 78-79.
 See also Calendar and Community: A History of the Jewish Calendar from 2nd Century BCE – 10th Century CE, p. 264-65.
 Dr. Zvi Ankori, Karaites in Byzantium, p. 297 (emphases in Ankori).
 Dr. Marina Rustow, Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatamid Caliphate, p. 19.