Karaite Studies: The State of the Field (Part II)

Presentaion of Karaite CommunityThis is the second (and, for now, final) post related to the Karaite Studies:  The State of the Field workshop held in Israel in early 2012.

In this post, we’re picking up where we left off by summarizing and annotating the second half of a question-and-answer session between Rabbi Moshe Firrouz, the Chief Rabbi of the Karaite Council of Sages, and various attendees at the workshop. Based on the number of views, the post on the first half of the question-and-answer session was a hit, and YouTube has a video of the entire session.

A little background is necessary before jumping into this post.  A lot questions relate to ritual purity. Karaites generally concern themselves with ritual purity more so than Rabbanites because the traditional Karaite view is that one may not enter a holy place (such as, in the Karaite tradition, the sanctuary of a synagogue) while ritually impure. We’ll discuss this issue in more detail in a later post. Other topics in this post relate to Karaite butcher shops, mikvehs, fertility, and even the permissibility of pets.

As with the first post on the workshop, the time marker for the video (minute:second) appears in parentheses next to the corresponding topic.

Karaite-Rabbanite Marriages (21:00)
In some instances, Karaites leave the community when they marry Rabbanites. In other instances, non-Karaites marry Karaites and choose to join the Karaite community.

To join the Karaite community, one must study with a Karaite Rabbi to learn the important points of Karaite Judaism as well as the differences between Karaism and Rabbanism. At the end of those studies, the individual signs a document indicating a willingness and desire to live as a Karaite.

There is no examination or test of the student’s abilities, because the Karaite attitude is that each person is responsible for his or her own life. The student simply studies to understand what he or she is agreeing to.

Separation of Men & Women During Prayer (24:45)
There is no requirement (in the Scripture) that men and women pray separately; but because the Karaite prayer service involves full prostration, Karaite synagogues tend to separate men and women during prayer to minimize the possibility of being distracted by a person of the opposite sex.

Number of Prayers Per Day (25:55)
Karaites generally have only two required prayers each day:  morning and evening. These correspond to the times of the day that the Israelites were required to bring sacrifices. The evening prayer starts after sunset. A person is of course free to pray more often than these times.

A week in the Life of the Chief Karaite Rabbi (28:42; 29:30)
At the time of the question-and-answer session, Rabbi Firrouz had only been the Chief Rabbi for 13 months. There are ten different Karaite centers throughout Israel and if an individual near any of those communities has a personal issue, the rabbis at the local communities work with them.

Rabbi Firrouz’s role as a Karaite rabbi generally and his role as the Chief Rabbi often become blurred. Rabbi Firrouz teaches courses on Karaite Judaism at a local moshav. He also visits the Karaite center in Ramle and educates new Karaite rabbis. This rabbi training program, which he called a yeshiva, has existed for about 3 years.

Rabbi Firrouz is not a Karaite rabbi by profession. He is a systems engineer in the computer science department at a local university and he is also taking courses with Professor Daniel Lasker to complete his thesis.

Karaite Butchers & Kashrut (29:20)
A few months prior to the question-and-answer session, the Karaite community was sued by the Rabbinate because a Karaite butchery in Ramle was selling meat and calling it kosher. (Editor’s Note:  If anyone is interested in the details of this case, you can find a summary here at the Mostly Kosher blog. And this is a Jewish Weekly article from 1999 that also addresses the issue of Karaite kosher certifications, among other topics.)

Karaite Rabbi Exchange Program (32:00)
The Karaite community of Israel has been in contact with the Karaite community of Lithuania and has discussed the idea of a young-rabbi exchange in order to improve the communication between the communities. One issue, though, is that the Lithuanian community does not speak English or Hebrew well and the young Karaite rabbis in Israel do not speak Russian or other Slavic languages well.  The community is working on a plan to solve the language barrier issue.

Karaite Head Coverings (33:05)
There is no symbolic value to the type, shape or color of any of the head-coverings used by Karaites in the sanctuary. It can even be a hat, as long as it is modest.

Turning One’s Back to the Ark (33:56)
In the Karaite tradition, it is customary not to turn one’s back to the ark, even when exiting the synagogue or leaving the bimah. This practice also occurs in the Karaite community of Crimea.

(Editor’s Note:  The Karaites in the United States also took this practice very seriously for a long time. I recall when I was younger, I would retreat backwards down the stairs from the bimah so that I would not turn my back to the Torah. My impression is that in recent years congregants in the U.S. have become more lax about this – for better or worse.)

Specific Place in the Synagogue for Mourners (35:10)
The Karaite community in Israel has a custom for people who are mourning to sit in the back of the synagogue. The idea is that the closer one is to the ark and Torah, the happier one is; but one cannot be both mourning and happy at the same time.

Secular Karaites & Free Will (37:45)
Every group who comes to visit the Karaite community asks about what it means to be a “secular Karaite.” Just like in the Rabbanite community, some Karaites are religious, some are traditional, and some are secular.

In the Karaite tradition, everyone is responsible for his or her own actions. The community does not judge someone who comes to the synagogue less frequently, whether it be once a month or once in a lifetime. The Karaite synagogue is open and accepting to anyone who wants to come. Rabbi Firrouz says that he will try to educate everyone to become more observant, but that he will respect each person’s will and choices. (Editor’s Note:  I often speak to individuals who would describe themselves as reform Jews who live by a Karaite framework. I hope to do a post on this concept in the future.)

No Mikveh (39:30)
In the Karaite halakha, the concept of a mikveh (ritual bathhouse) does not exist. According to the Karaite understanding of the Tanach, people washed for the purposes of making themselves ritually pure and this purification is achieved today by taking a shower. A shower is ideal because the shower water absorbs (so to speak) the ritual impurity and then the water exits the shower.

With a mikveh, on the other hand, the bath water stays in the bath. This water contains the ritual impurity of the last person to use the mikveh. As a result, the next person who uses the mikveh cannot become ritually pure if he or she enters the same (now impure) water that was used by the previous ritually impure person.

In the Karaite tradition, for minor ritual impurities, one becomes ritually pure after sunset, but must shower before sunset (and put on clean clothing).

Menstruation & Infertility (40:50)
The Torah forbids sexual intercourse for seven days beginning with the first day of a woman’s period. (Editor’s note:  In the Rabbinic tradition, the period of forbidden intercourse is generally observed for 12 days by Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews and 11 days by Orthodox Sephardic Jews.)

Rabbi Firrouz recently read a book encouraging all Jews to simply observe the seven days mandated by the Torah (as opposed to the 11 or 12 followed by Orthodox Rabbanite Jews), because some women ovulate during the additional days required by Rabbanite Judaism.  Thus, these additional days of forbidden sexual relations  make it difficult for some women to conceive.

(Editor’s Note:  At the end of Rabbi Firrouz’s discussion on this point, someone can be heard on the video saying that the Karaite view is “like in the Torah.” Another voice responds in Hebrew “ken,” which means “yes.” I guess that just about sums-up the purpose of Karaite Judaism:  the rest is commentary.)

Ritual Impurity and Pets (42:15)
No ritual impurity comes from having live animals – even if the animal itself is unclean.  For example, touching a live pig does not result in ritual impurity. Thus, as a general rule, there is no problem having pets.


Filed under Crimea, Daniel Lasker, Fertility, Free Will, Full Prostration, Head Coverings, Karaite Rabbanite Relations, Marriages, Menstruation, Mikveh, Moetzet Hachamim (Council of Sages), Moshe Firrouz, Mourning, Pets, Prayer, Ritual Purity, Sacrifice, Secular Karaism, What is Karaite Judaism, Women in Karaism

5 Responses to Karaite Studies: The State of the Field (Part II)

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  3. Ilanb

    Regarding the Mikveh. Feeling stupid that I never thought about the concept that you are bathing in someone elses Tameh water.

    And Im glad we are in agreement with the idea of pets. I see dogs as Gods gift to man to watch over him, help him herd his sheep and protect him against intruders and attackers. What a great creation have we in the cainine species.

  4. Hardwicke Benthow

    I have a question regarding ritual purity.

    Many of the finer felt hats (especially antique ones) are made of felt created from animal fur, such as beaver or rabbit. The fur is initially harvested from the pelt of a dead animal before it is made into felt.

    Does not handling or wearing such a hat qualify as touching the corpse of a dead unclean animal, as forbidden in Leviticus 11:8?

  5. M. Hazzani

    What would the Karaite view be on a person who is biologically infertile – with no possibility of becoming fertile – not marrying? What would the implications be on Karaite views on sexuality in this context?

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