I was recently having a discussion with a fellow Karaite regarding the various stages of Karaite thought. In brief, he summarized that there were (in his estimation, as well as others) three main periods of Karaite halakhic literature: (i) early; (ii) late; and (iii) very late. Today, I am going to use the example of women and techellet and demonstrate how each of these periods approached this issue.
In my opinion, we can trace the decline of the Karaite movement by looking at the methods these sages employed in explaining our religious conclusions, regardless of whether we agree with the ultimate conclusion itself. At the end, you get to vote who got it right.
This is the basic framework that my friend suggested:
(i) Early Karaite Sages: These Sages (up till the 13th Century) were willing to engage meaningfully with the text and were willing to reach conclusions that differ from our Rabbanite brethren.
(ii) Late Karaite Sages: These Sages (13th Century up through the 15th century) were willing to engage meaningfully with the text but were not as willing to reach conclusions that differ from our Rabbanite brethren.
(iii) Very Late Karaite Sages: These Sages (16th-20th Century) were mostly summarizing the Karaite practices of their day.
Let’s see how this plays out with respect to women and blue fringes.
The Torah says: “Speak to the Children of Israel (“bene Yisrael”), and say to them, that they shall make themselves tassels (sisiyot) on the corners of their garments throughout their generations; and place on the tassels of each corner a blue thread.” Numbers 15:38. The Torah continues and tells us the purpose of the commandment: “and you shall see it and you shall remember the all the mitzvoth of Hashem and you shall do them.”
(i) The Early Karaite Sages:
As far as I can tell, the majority of Early Karaite Sages held that women were obligated to wear blue fringes to the same extent as men. In fact, I do not know any Early Karaite Sages that held that women were *not* obligated. [1.] But their precise ruling is not important, let’s look at their reasoning.
- H’ Jacob al Kirkisani (1oth Century): H’ Jacob wrote Kitab al-Anwar (“The Book of Lights”) in which he says that because the purpose of the commandment applies to both men and women, both men and women are obligated to follow the commandment:
And the message [in Scripture] is that the reason for wearing [tzitzit] is what was said ‘and you shall remember all the mitzvoth of Hashem and do them’; it comes out of this that everyone, women and men, are obligated in [tzizit], since everyone is required to remember the mitzvoth of Hashem and do them, and this is in contrast to he who argues that only men, and not women, are obligated in this. (See Kitab Al Anwar wal maraqib XII.42.4.Volume 5)
- H’ Levi ben Yefet (11th Century): H’ Levi wrote a Sefer Mitzvot (Book of Commandments) in which he says that the words Bene Israel are to be understood as “Children of Israel” and not simply “sons of Israel.” Thus, he also concludes that women are obligated to wear tzitziot. In defense of his interpretation of Bene Israel as “Children of Israel” (and not merely Sons of Israel), H’ Levi notes that many of the laws that apply to both men and women open with Speak to Bene Yisrael. For example, this is how the Torah introduces the laws of which animals we are allowed to eat (see Leviticus 11:1-4). And many laws that apply mostly to women, such as impurity from childbirth, are also introduced with “Speak to Bene Israel” (see Leviticus 12:1 et seq.)
- H’ Yehudah Hadassi (12 Century): H’ Yehudah also employs a linguistic and purpose test. In his Eshkol Hakofer, he writes as follows:
The tying of tzitzit [applies also to women], for daughters of Israel are also included in ‘Bene Yisrael’; both are equal in the command of Tzitzit. The words of the commandment are: Speak to Bene Yisrael and say to them that they should make tzitzit for themselves. The holiness of the commandment is also [for women], because women are included in fulfilling all the commandments as it is written, and you shall see it and remember all Hashem’s commandments and do them in accordance with your Rock’s instruction (Eshkol Hakofer 13 Letter Kuf).
(ii) The Late Karaite Sages:
As far as I can tell, the majority of the Late Karaite Sages held that women were not obligated to wear fringes. In fact, I do not know any Karaite Sages from this period who held that women were obligated. But again, their precise ruling is not important, let’s look at their reasoning. They generally interpreted the words “Bene Israel” to mean the “Sons of Israel.” They are also doing a policy analysis of the commandment, and determine that the commandment applies only to “adult men, […] who are concerned about the reward for [fulling the commandments].”
Regardless of whether I (or any Karaite agrees with their reasoning), they are at least engaging in the same types of analysis as the earlier stages. The following is an excerpt from Royal Attire: On Karaite and Rabbanite Beliefs.
(iii) The Very Late Karaite Sages:
As far as I can tell, the Very Late Karaite Sages (not to be confused with the modern Karaite Sages) all held, like the Late Karaite Sages, that women were not obligated to wear blue fringes. The Karaite Jews of America is publishing an abbreviated version of Sefer Appiryon by H’ Solomon ben Aaron of Troki. The book is a fascinating read, and perhaps I will do a post on it at some point. What is troubling, though, is that he replaced textual analysis with a cursory reference to “tradition”: “From tradition, we know that this commandment is for men, and not for women.”
To be fair, he is not writing a halakhic work, but rather an explanatory work, so of course he is not going into detail on all these issues. But it is striking that he believes we know that women are excluded from the commandment based on tradition and not based on any textual source.
Of course, in order to prove that the later Karaite sages were simply documenting existing practices, I would need to provide many more sources. I have read excerpts from the Egyptian Karaite sources of the 19th and 20th Century. This “explanation” theory holds for most of those sources as well.
Although, I have argued the methodology is more important than the result, I am interested to know which sages you believe got it right:
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[1.] Until Karaite literature is more widely available, it is hard for me to truly characterize what the majority and minority views are. For example, I would like to see what H’ Nahawendi felt about this issue (since he tended to disagree with other Karaites on matters concerning women); and that leaves open the question as to whether Nahawendi himself was a karaite