Several months ago, I wondered aloud: “What’s the difference between Kol Melacha and Melechet Avodah?” I still laugh at the response I got: “If only there were a book in which wise men discussed these issues and wrote it down.” Of course, the “book” referred to in the response is the Talmud and the “wise men” are the Rabbis.
Perhaps, I have Talmud envy – not in the 10th Commandment sense, of course. And definitely not in the “binding law” sense. But I would so love books that were highly-regarded expositions of Karaite thought and were widely available. I recently discussed this with someone whom I’d met through the Karaite Jewish University. His views were telling about the accessibility of Karaite literature: “Shawn, you can go into just about any major bookstore and find books on the Dead Sea Scrolls, which relate to a movement [i.e., the Essenes] that hasn’t existed for over 1000 years; but you can’t find a single book on Karaism, a movement that exists to this day.”
After I poked fun at Ray Lewis’ Talmudic bona fides last week, I thought this would be the perfect time to survey some of the commercially-available, English-language works that might serve as an introduction to Karaite Judaism.
An Introduction to Karaite Judaism: History, Theology, Practice, and Custom: This is a central text used by the Karaite Jewish University. In my estimation, it is the best introduction to Karaite Judaism in the English language. Since the book serves as an introduction, it is (necessarily) light on citations and exegesis; for example, the book states that bathing is forbidden on Shabbat, but does not explain why. The work discusses important concepts with respect to Jewish life-cycle events, the Jewish calendar and living a Karaite Jewish life in the modern world. Among the contemporary issues touched upon are adoption and birth control.
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The Karaite Jews of Egypt: 1882-1986: I have referenced this book several times on A Blue Thread. With good reason: Mourad el-Kodsi’s work is the most detailed and thorough accounting of Karaite Jewish culture and practices. Since most of the Karaites in the United States and Israel descend from Egypt, the book provides valuable insights into customs that one is likely to see in Karaite synagogues and communities in those countries. My favorite portion of the work, however, is the recitation of the various occurrences during the respective reigns of the Chief Hakhamim of the Karaite community.
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Karaite Anthology: Excerpts from the Early Literature: To me, Leon Nemoy’s Karaite Anthology is still the gold standard of introductions to classical Karaite thought. According to the book’s description, Zvi Ankori gave this work high praise: “This book marks the first attempt in any language to present a chronological exposition of seven centuries of evolution of this interesting Jewish sect through a selection of excerpts from the writings of its spokesmen. . . . [A] pioneering achievement.” While the book contains some of the Karaite v. Rabbanite rhetoric that characterized much of Karaite literature in medieval times, I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Samuel al-Magribi’s explanation of the laws of Passover and the counting of the Omer.
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As it is Written: A Brief Case for Karaism: There is a saying in Hebrew that roughly translates to “a baker should not comment on his own work.” So, in the interest of disclosure, I note that I am a co-author of this primer; but I have never received (or sought) any compensation for the work. The work is intended to be the concise argument for the textual and logical reasons why Karaites are Karaites. It is a very quick read (with some portions of the work reproducing information available at the Karaite Korner) and a very affordable purchase online. The book is consistently popular at various conferences I have attended.
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I write this post with the hope that classical Karaite works (or even new Karaite works) will become available in the English language. Whenever I speak publicly on Karaite Judaism, both to Jewish groups and in academic settings, I receive numerous requests for such works. I am also of the opinion that, for Karaite Judaism to succeed, we need to enter a new Golden Age of Karaite literature. B’sha’ah Tovah.