Introducing Karaite Questions & Answers

Exterior of the historic Karaite Jewish synagogue in Turkey.

Exterior of the historic Karaite Jewish synagogue in Turkey.

Greetings from Turkey, where I am spending the week for work. I have visited the incredibly warm and wonderful Karaite Jewish community here; and I will do a post or two about them next week.  In the meantime, I wanted to tell you about a new project I am working on: Karaite Questions & Answers.

For many years, Acting Rav Joe Pessah of the Karaite Jews of America has asked me to put together something that is the Karaite Jewish equivalent of the Jewish Book of Why. While I think the Jewish Book of Why is a great resource, I wanted to do something a little bit different.

I am aiming to put together a book that helps people think like a Karaite Jew; so each week I will be answering one question an posting the information exclusively at the Karaite Jews of America’s site.[1] Of course, I may post the questions on A Blue Thread once in a while to remind you about the project. You can access the full lists of questions and answers here.

There is one main difference between the book I am working on and the information I am posting on the KJA’s site. For the book, I will also be asking a series of follow-up questions after each explanation. The follow-up questions are intended to elicit conversation, discussion and thought. For example, here is the first question I am posting, followed by one of the follow-up questions. (Note, I am not posting any of the follow-up questions on the KJA’s site – and they will only be available when the project is completed.)

*    *    *

How do we know how to properly slaughter an animal so that it is fit for consumption, when the Torah does not describe slaughter in any detail? 

It is true that the Torah does not describe how to slaughter an animal; but every historical Jewish community (as far as I am aware) slaughtered animals by slitting the front of the neck. Is this simply coincidence? Is this because God gave an “oral law” explaining how to slaughter? Or is something else going on?

The Hebrew word generally used to refer to ritual slaughter is shechitah, and a ritual slaughterer is called a shochet (for males) or a shochetet (for females). From a Karaite perspective, the issue of ritual slaughter is fascinating, because it blends together Scripture, linguistics and tradition.

From a Scriptural point of view, the word shechitah (“ritual slaughter”) is not expressly defined. Yet, it is clear from the Scripture that the Israelites knew how to slaughter long before the Torah was given. For example, we are all familiar with the events of Joseph’s childhood, in which his brothers tried to convince their father that Joseph died. In order to enhance their deception, they slaughtered a goat and put the goat’s blood on Joseph’s coat. See Genesis 37:31. Significantly for present purposes, the Torah describes the act of slaughtering the goat as “vayishchatu” (literally, “they slaughtered”; from the same root as “shechitah”). These events occurred before the Torah was given in the desert. Thus, God did not need to expressly detail in the Torah how to slaughter, because the practice was already known before the revelation.

This raises another question, though: how do we know that shechitah means to kill by slitting the neck as opposed to another method of killing? From a linguistic point of view, we can actually use the Tanakh to retrace what is likely the likely original meaning of the word shechitah. There is a verse in Jeremiah that reads as follows: “Their tongue is a murderous arrow, speaking deceit.”[2]  See Jeremiah 9:7. The word translated here as “murderous” is shachut, from the same linguistic root as shechitah. So, what is the connection between a murderous arrow (Hebrew: chetz shachut) and the act of slaughtering? The answer appears to be related to how an arrow becomes murderous. An arrow is deployed by pulling it back against a bow, much in the same way that a knife is pulled back for the purpose of slaughtering.

So far, we have shown that shechitah was known before the giving of the Torah – so God did not need to describe how it is done – and that the linguistic definition of shechitah seems to support the historical practice of all Jews. But it will not always be the case that the Biblical evidence lines up so cleanly.

In such cases, we are forced to rely on the tradition that has been passed down to us. Here, we can take some comfort in the fact that every historical Jewish movement performs slaughter in a very similar way. We can take even more comfort that the tradition appears to be consistent with the linguistic meaning of shechitah. The Karaites and Rabbanites might disagree about the particulars of the act of slaughtering; but there is no disagreement about the essentials of the act: namely, that it involves slitting an animal’s neck so that the blood spills out.

[And here is an example of some of the follow-up questions the final project will include.]

More Questions:

Are you convinced that the word shechitah means to kill by the neck? Recall the verse in Jeremiah 9:7: “Their tongue is a murderous arrow, speaking deceit.” To play devil’s advocate, what if I reframed the discussion regarding the “murderous arrow” in Jeremiah as follows: the reason the arrow is called murderous is because it has been “shot out” or “fired” much in the same way that deceitful words are shot out of a mouth and inflict pain. And what if I further argued that the connection between a murderous arrow (Hebrew: chetz shachut) and shechitah is that shechitah is a stabbing motion much like an arrow shoots out and impales its victim.

  1. Given how easy it was to rephrase this narrative, what concerns do you have regarding the conclusions we are able to draw from the text today – thousands of years removed from the biblical language and culture?
  2. What logical arguments might you make to analyze this new proposed connection (the “stabbing motion” theory) between the original meaning of shechitah and the act of slaughtering
  3. What linguistic tools might you employ to help assess the meaning of shechitah?

*    *    *

Well, there have it. If you have a question you would like answered or have comments on an existing question or answer, please email Shawn directly ( Persons providing comments and questions will have no copyright or other ownership interest in the resulting work.

*    *    *

[1] The KJA is not paying me to produce this project, and I am not on the board of directors of the KJA. I have decided for now that the best place to host this information is at the KJA’s site, because I believe the KJA is currently the organization best positioned to build a cohesive Karaite Jewish movement.

[2] This verse is actually part of the traditional Karaite Jewish liturgy for Yom Kippur as part of our confession of sins.


Filed under Questions & Answers, Shechita

29 Responses to Introducing Karaite Questions & Answers

  1. Yeriyah Wolf

    This is a worthy study. To which I hope to be an eventual asset.

  2. Yeriyah Wolf

    Please do keep me in the loop.

  3. Yeriyah Wolf

    What is the name given to the set apart knife used in the slaughter?

  4. Isaac s

    A rabbanite similarly asked me regarding Berit Milah “how do you know where the spot is?” Instead of “searching scripture well”, I gave a similar response to that of Shawn. I told him that this ritual was done for thousands of years continuously. Surely it was widely known the “spot” on which the ritual is to be performed.

  5. Ana Carolina Lopes

    What a wonderful project!
    When will it be complete?

    • Isaac s

      Anna, I’m just curious, are you jewish? Or are you just a curious researcher?

      • Ana Carolina Lopes

        Hello, Isaac.
        Well, my history is bit complicated.
        I was born in a christian family and was a christian too until some years ago, but reading the Bible I saw that the christianism could not be right way, and I leave it.
        But I live in Brazil and here there is not Karaite community.
        Summing up, that’s it.

        • Isaac s

          I admire your courage. But how did your family react?

        • Isaac s

          I am part if a rabbinate family. My family is unaware that I am a karaite. Rabbanites are very against the philosophy of karaism. I’m scared to let them know. Do you still live with your parents?

          • Ana Carolina Lopes

            I understand your fear.
            Now, you know your parents better than anyone, and you know how to talk to them.
            Of course, in the beginning will be hard, but by time they will be more conformed.
            Or maybe it’s better to wait until you don’t live with them anymore.
            I really don’t know.
            And, yes, I still live with my parentes.

        • Isaac s

          Yes; I was thinking about letting them know after I’m married. I don’t know if they’ll stop me from working on my project if they know that it’s karaite-related. Are you able to practice Karaism with convenience?

        • Isaac s

          Don’t worry; do your best. And at the moment, I can’t practice Karaism either. Try to not transgress any sins actively. And there is a large rabbinic community in Brazil. Maybe that can help you with certain aspects of Karaism–believe it or not.

          • Ana Carolina Lopes

            I’m really trying to do my best. Of course, I don’t eat forbidden animals, but the industrialized food I eat doesn’t have kosher certification. And, unfortunately, the closest rabbinic community is 300km away.

  6. Matityahu

    Ah, but Torah does tell us how to slaughter! We are commanded to slaughter in a way that causes the blood to pour out on the ground like water (Lev. 17:13, Deut. 15:23, 12:16, 12:24). An arrow would puncture the neck and cause the blood to spurt out.

  7. Aaron

    Shh.. I’ve personally found Karaites intriguing. However, my community considers “Karaite” a four letter word. Here’s my question:
    Why does it seem the Karaites target Chirstians for conversion as opposed to reaching out to the 300,000 Russian Jews in Israel who are not halachaly (rabbinically speaking) Jewish, but are Jews according to the Karaites?

    I would think they would be a better demographic to grow the Karaite movement

    • There are quite a few Jews from the FSU that are involved with the Karaite movement. Most of them are Halakhically Jewish.

      • Aaron

        The response doesn’t really answer my question. I would think the Karaite movement would do more of a Chabad style outreach (the Lubavitchers have been very successful in the whole Baal Tsheuvah thing). If you said to me “look, we want observant Jews, if you’re secular we’d rather not have you” then I’d get it. I would think that aggressive outreach of FSU Jews who are not consider Jews by the state of Isreal, would not only legitimize their standing in Israel but would also give substantial political power to the Karaites in Israel. I could be completely wrong, but it seems like a win-win relationship to me.

        • The FSU Jews *are* considered Jews by the State of Israel – with respect to the right of return. The Rabbanut might not think they are Jews. But the state does. I think Karaites should reach out to every Jew – especially those whom the Rabbanut has rejected.

  8. amalia

    Shalom, I am Jewish & vegetarian. I have a question, the 10 commandments tell us “thou shall not kill”….the Israelites in the desert once reached a very high spiritual level when all they needed to exist was to live on the ‘manna’. When are we going to evolve spiritually as the Jewish nation & get back to that spiritual level when we do not need to shed innocent blood for our appetite & our ‘sins’? Shavout Tov

    • Isaac s

      “Murder” that is prohibited in the Torah is limited to humans. Exodus:11 mentions a whole list of animals that are approved for consuming. Murdering animals for a valid purpose doesn’t affect “spirituality”; sacrificing animals in the temple was a way to get closer to God. But of course, killing animals in vein is sinful. That is alluded to in the prohibition of slaughtering outside the temple. The Torah says that since that is prohibited–it is no better than killing an animal in vein and consequently–“it will be considered [innocent] blood [poured by] him”.

      • Isaac s


        • Daniel N

          Exodus 20:13: “Lo tirtzach” means “Do not murder”.

          Murder and killing are two different things. Murder is immoral or illegal killing. For example, killing someone over an argument or to rob them: that is murder.

          Killing, on the other hand, can be, and often is, both moral and legal; think of the right of an individual to engage in self-defense and the defense of others, a policeman killing a terrorist, or fighting in a war as a soldier.

          There is no commandment to be a vegetarian; however, killing an animal for no reason at all is not permitted.

  9. Davy

    Could someone answer the following question. According to rabbinic oral law the reason Ruth the Moabite was allowed to marry Boaz was because the prohibition in the Torah prohibiting Moabite converts from marrying native Jews applies only to males.
    Yefet Ben Eli wrote a commentary on Ruth but did not even raise this issue. According to classical Karaite halacha sources, how was Ruth able to marry Boaz based on the written Torah alone?

  10. Davy

    With regard to Ruth, the only thing I could figure on my own is that Karaites might have said simply that the prohibition of entering the “kahal” (assembly) of the Israelites (Deuteronomy 23:3) did NOT refer to a prohibition of marriage, but some other prohibition. The problem even with that explanation is simply that it endures for 10 generations, which would have included both David and Solomon within some kind of Torah disability as descendants of Ruth the Moabite convert.

  11. Davy

    I have found the discussion about fire on shabbat in Aderet Eliyahu between pages 86 and 89 (Chapter 17-20). The extensive discussion (which is somewhat difficult to follow easily) is very similar to rabbinic pilpul and is extremely interesting.

    He explains that Karaites themselves were divided (using the same description as the “division” between rabbanites and Karaites) since the time of Yeshua ben Yehuda about the understanding of fire. On the one hand from the time of Anan the main issue was not allowing fire in one’s dwellings. On the other hand the prohibition of not doing any prohibited labors on shabbat included not extinguishing a fire that was on from before shabbat started.

    Thus, according to the interpretations of Anan, one would have to extinguish a fire on shabbat that was left on from Friday before Shabbat, and according to Yeshua ben Yehuda, it is PROHIBITED from doing so, because extinguishing fire is a prohibited labor (“melacha”). He further brings proof from the teachings of Levi ben Yefet who explained that the verse in the Torah does not say “There shall not be found fire in your dwelling”.

    Aderet Eliyahu asks chapter 18, “Can any intelligent person imagine Moshe Rabbenu and the prophets, the seven elders and the princes sitting in the dark?” He then brings linguistic evidence for the penalties involved in damage caused by one’s cow and other linguistic proofs to show that the prohibition of having fire on shabbat is not correct, and based on additional linguistic proofs from Levi ben Yefete he shows that the prohibition is a stringency.

    This material suggests that Aderet Eliyahu did NOT make “reforms” in the use of fire. He says explicitly that the Karaites were divided from the time of Yeshua ben Yehuda as Rabbanites and Karaites were divided.

    • Funny you bring this up. Just last night I had dinner with a Chabad Rabbi who stated plainly that the the verse in question unequivocally says what the Karaites understand it to say.

      In response to your other points, the traditional Karaite view is that you cannot cause a fire to burn. Based on your description, Yeshuah ben Yehudah is discussing whether you are permitted to extinguish a fire. He is not discussing whether you are permitted to cause a fire to burn. These are two different things.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *