Breaking News: Earlier this morning, the Supreme Court of the State of Israel
ruled in favor of the Karaites in a court case against the State’s religious authorities, who had tried to prevent Karaites from slaughtering in independent slaughterhouses that were under the Rabbanut’s supervision. I dedicate this post to everyone who worked so hard on that case.
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In the Rabbinic community, there are famous debates concerning the minhagim (and halakha) of Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jews. Everyone is familiar with the Passover/kitniyot debate. And historically it was the case that if you were from an Ashkenazi family, you followed your own minhag; and your Sefardi friends followed their own.
Geographic divisions like this, tend not to exist in the Karaite community. But historically there was one debate that divided the Karaites on theological lines, and caused a rift among geographical lines that somewhat reflects the Ashkenazi/Sefardi divide in the Rabbinic community.
First, I note that it does not really make sense to speak of “Ashkenazi” or “Sefardi” or “Mizrahi” Karaites in the cultural and halakhic sense. These terms generally (though not always) are used to denote the differences in customs among the Rabbinic community. But this is a topic for another day. . .
As a Karaite, I always thought that it was strange that Jewish law could vary on an issue such as the permissibility of certain foods based on where you were from. I would expect the law to vary based on which interpretation seems the most reasonable, regardless of geography. Of course, certain community norms may develop; but we must always make sure we are guided by the text as much as possible.
Back to our Karaite geographic dispute: it concerns the laws of shechita. No, it did not concern how to actually slaughter an animal; nor did it concern which types of animals may be slaughtered.
It concerned the belief system of the slaughterer.
Yes; there was a debate in the Karaite community about whether meat was fit for consumption based on the slaughterer’s theology. And we’re not talking about whether the slaughterer was an idolator or an apostate.
The Karaites who lived in Egypt, the Land of Israel, and Syria believed that an animal that was slaughtered received a form of compensation from God. It is almost certainly the case that the Rabbinic Sage Saadiah Gaon also held this view. The theory goes like this: because slaughter causes more pain than a natural death (in most instances), the animal must be compensated for this pain, and it is God that grants this compensation.
After enumerating other requirements for the shochet, the Karaite Sage Yisrael Ha’Maaravi described the theory of compensation’s application to shechitah as follows: “And [the shochet] should believe that an animal has a good compensation in place of its pain. And if the shochet does not meet these specifications, it is forbidden for him to perform shechitah, and it is forbidden to eat from his shechitah – both for himself and others.” (Translation by Ya’qov Walker.)
In the Rabbinic community, the theory of compensation died, for all intents and purposes, with with Maimonides who disavowed the doctrine. But the Karaite community of Egypt, Eres Yisrael, and Syria held on to the theory of compensation for centuries.
In contrast, the Karaites Crimea, Eastern Europe and Byzantium rejected the theory – especially after Aharon ben Eliyahu’s halakhic work Gan Eden held that a slaughterer need not adhere to the theory of compensation.
But Jews will be Jews, and there remained a rift. The rift came to a head in the 17th century when the Karaites of Crimea, Eastern Europe and Byzantium (who rejected the theory of compensation) and the Karaites of Egypt, Eres Yisrael and Syria (who accepted the theory of compensation) refused to eat meat slaughtered by the other community. This refusal was based on the fact that each community believed that the slaughterers of the other community held the wrong theology.
This is frustrating on many levels – not the least of which is that the Karaites were (and are) too few to be divided.
Well, I am a Karaite from Egypt and I don’t really know what I think about the theory of compensation; but I do know that I will eat properly slaughtered meat by any Karaite from any country, regardless of whether he or she accepts the theory of compensation. And if there is a Karaite shochet or shochetet from Europe or Byzantium out there, I’m ready to place my first order.