Around Passover, Sara and Elijah, two students from a Talmud study group at UC Berkeley’s (Go Bears!) Hillel, spent the weekend at the Karaite synagogue in Daly City. Not only did they join us for Shabbat prayers, they actually prostrated in the traditional Karaite fashion.
I recently posed six questions to them about their experience at the synagogue.
I was particularly impressed that Sara and Elijah did not treat the synagogue as a museum; they immersed themselves in the full Karaite experience. For example, after Friday night services, they sang Karaite zmirot with Eli Shmuel until early the next morning. After services on Saturday, they led the congregation in the Motzi.
The Karaite Jews of America has extended an open invitation to Elijah and Sara to visit the synagogue whenever they want. Elijah and Sara definitely plan to return, and maybe with some friends.
1. What did you know about Karaites before planning your visit?
Sara: The only thing I knew about Karaites was that they followed only Tanach, and didn’t accept the Talmud as binding. But I had no idea what that meant in terms of daily life. I wondered, how do Karaites observe Shabbat? How do they observe kashrut? What prayers do they say? I came with so many questions.
Elijah: I knew that Karaites do not accept the Talmud as binding, and I basically knew nothing else.
2. Why did you decide to visit the Karaite synagogue?
Sara: Because I’m a Religious Studies minor, Elijah mentioned to me that the only Karaite synagogue in the United States was in Daly City, in case I might be interested in visiting. I couldn’t believe that there was such a unique Jewish community right in our Bay Area backyard. I knew so little about Karaites, and I love learning about different religious traditions, including and especially my own; so I was very excited to explore a new Jewish community and learn about a different outlook on Judaism.
Elijah: I had read about the Karaites and seen that their only North American synagogue was so close to Cal, making this an opportunity that was too incredible to pass-up. As someone interested in both religious studies and Judaism, I was eager to experience a Jewish perspective that I had never encountered before.
3. What had you known about the historical Jewish practice of prostration?
Sara: I knew Avraham Ben HaRambam had tried to bring prostration back into practice at some point, so I knew it was probably once a Jewish tradition. Still, when I saw a YouTube video of Karaite prostration I remember being surprised.
Elijah: I was really only familiar with Muslim prostration and had never heard about Jewish prostration. I’d read the New York Times article about Karaites and I kept looking at the picture of people prostrating in prayer; it seemed like such a delicate balancing act to ensure that tallit and kippah stayed on while also holding the siddur. When I visited, I definitely had trouble properly prostrating.
4. What stood out most about your experience at the synagogue?
Sara: This is the simplest thing, but Karaites’ emphasis on Tanach really struck me. Learning about how carefully Karaites study Tanach and analyze its language made me think about how I sometimes take Tanach for granted. When I’m looking for Jewish inspiration or something to learn, it isn’t usually the first thing I pull off the shelf, even though it’s Judaism’s foundation. But talking with people like Eli, who seems to have almost every line memorized, and reading beautiful Karaite prayers like the Hakdamah, based directly on or composed entirely of lines from Tanach, really reminded me of its depth and how much there is to learn.
Elijah: I was really struck by how Karaite Judaism was at once so familiar, yet so different. It was an undeniably Jewish experience and many aspects of Rabbanite services were present in the Karaite services, but it was a completely new way of experiencing something I had known my whole life.
5. What was the most interesting thing you learned during your visit?
Sara: I don’t even know where to begin! We asked so many questions and learned so much. I learned that Karaites can practice Jewish law differently from each other based on their different understandings of the text. I also learned that there are Karaites in Israel who check when it’s Aviv, which they consider to be not just springtime but a very specific agricultural season in the Torah. And Elijah and I now thankfully have a couple Karaite zemirot for Shabbat under our belts!
Elijah: So much! I learned a great deal about Karaites beliefs and rituals, The major highlights for me were: Karaite zemirot are beautiful, Karaites can use their phones to hunt for the new moon, and (this was perhaps the biggest surprise for me) that Karaites do have an oral tradition.
6. What types of questions did your friends have upon your return?
Sara: A lot of people were curious about Karaite halacha. I got a lot of questions about how Shabbat was observed, what the prayer service was like, and to what extent it felt different from Rabbanite Judaism.
Elijah: Most people were very interested in hearing about what it was like to prostrate. In Talmud discussion, I received some very interesting questions about Karaite theology and religious practice, while my Hebrew professor wanted to know what I thought of Karaite cuisine. (She had had Karaite food in the past and loved it.)
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Today is the 5th day of the 5th week of seven weeks. Today is the 33rd day of the counting of fifty days from the waving of the Omer on the morrow after the Sabbath.