Excommunication and the Halakhah of Marriage

The Rise of the Karaite SectWell, this is a serious bummer.

1000 years ago, the Karaite communities of Ramle and Jerusalem probably would have excommunicated my grandparents.

You see; my maternal grandmother and her sister married my maternal grandfather and his brother, respectively. Two brothers married two sisters (in separate marriages).

I always thought this was beautiful. But from at least the time of Anan and for several hundred years thereafter, the majority of Karaites forbade many types of marriage, including the marriage of two brothers to two sisters.*

And, according to a piece appearing online at the Jerusalem Post this past weekend, some of the Karaites of the 11th Century had no problem tormenting Karaites who violated this prohibition. (See A Problematic Marriage for 11th Century Karaites.)

The Post’s story tells us of a letter written in 1053 by a Jew in Israel to his sister in Spain. The letter depicts how the Karaite women of Ramle, many of whom were immigrants from Toledo, tormented a Karaite couple because the wife’s sister was married to the husband’s brother. This couple apparently adopted Karaite Judaism en route from Spain to the Land of Israel – after they and their siblings were already married.

The Karaite women of Ramle made life so intolerable, that the couple relocated to the Karaite community of Jerusalem. The Karaite community of Jerusalem, however, apparently didn’t treat the couple any better, and the couple returned to Rabbinic Judaism shortly thereafter.

This is where it gets truly interesting.

The aforementioned letter was written in the year 1053, around the same time that the famed Karaite Jeshua ben Judah was living in Jerusalem and seeking to convince Karaites that the Tanakh does not prohibit most of the categories of marriages forbidden by Anan.

According to Nathan Schur’s The Karaite Encyclopedia, Jeshua ben Judah was still alive in 1065, only 12 years after the letter was written. But despite the emerging shift in the Karaite understanding of the laws of forbidden marriage, the Karaites of Jerusalem offered no refuge to this newly-Karaite couple.**

Notably, one of the students of Jeshua ben Judah was a Castillian Rabbanite, who adopted Karaite Judaism. This new Karaite returned to Spain and spread Karaite Judaism throughout Castile. When he died, his wife led the local Karaite community. She was called al-Mu’allima and I previously wrote about her here.

It was apparently a small Karaite world back then too.

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* If anyone is interested in reading some of the marriages forbidden by Anan, the Hebrew and English text of several of his prohibitions appear in Dr. Zvi Cahn’s Rise of the Karaite Sect.

** Jeshua ben Judah summarized his views regarding forbidden relationships in his work “Sefer Ha-Yashar” (English: The Book of the Upright). It is not 100 percent clear to me that Jeshua ben Judah would have permitted the marriage of two brothers to two sisters. In 2007, I asked two well-known Karaites about the permissibility of marriages by two brothers to two sisters. One said that he was aware that this practice often occurred in Egypt, but thought it was forbidden by the Torah. Another disagreed and said that the fact that this prohibition could only be derived through various, complex steps of analogy is an indication that this could not be what the Torah intended.


Filed under Jerusalem, Jeshua ben Judah, Karaite Press, Marriages, Ramle, Spain

15 Responses to Excommunication and the Halakhah of Marriage

  1. Zvi

    The inhuman rigidity exhibited by the Qaraites of Yerushalayim and Ramle at the time is appalling. This attitude may have been justified if Qaraism were truly Scriptural i.e. there was a hierarchy led by the Kohanim + Zeqenim who had determined that such nuptial unions were forbidden. Most Qaraites in those two cities, therefore, behaved in a blatantly non-Qaraite manner toward this couple in their lack of tolerance.
    The very observant traditional Qaraites will be well served to learn the lessons from a case like this lest they cause Jews who have chosen Qaraism to renege.

  2. Tomer

    Regarding the second footnote, Rav Jeshua ben Judah would indeed have forbidden the marriage of two brothers with two sisters (source: Adderet Eliyahu P. 287 1966 edition. Note that this work is not by Rav Jeshua but the author does follow his opinions on incest).
    This prohibition is based off analogy. Whether or not the analogy used can accurately be described as “complex” or far removed from the incest prohibitions found in the text of the torah is a matter of opinion.

    • Tomer, thanks for the checking.

      I should note that both of the well-known Karaites, including the one who believed the marriage of two brothers to two sisters to be forbidden, described the reasoning as complex. (And yes; all this is a matter of opinion.)

  3. Maurice.pessah

    Thanks for the article Shawn. This is very interesting one and new to a lot of our KJA people. I sure would love to know where exactly in the Torah (page # section, etc..) this type of marriage is prohibited. I really feel it is a matter of opinion as Tomer has mentioned. I will do more reading here . One thing for sure i know that this type of marriage did occur a lot in Egypt due to the very small number of the community. FYI, I know There are several married karaite couples who came to the US that fall under this category. My late mom and dad, are of course one of them.

    • Hi Maurice, there is actually no verse that says this. The interpretation is based on analogy. So, as an interpretation, you are free to accept it or reject it based on an honest search of the scripture.

      I’ll see if I can do the interpretation justice.

      The interpretation is based on the list of prohibitions in Leviticus 18, specifically 18:6-18:18. Leviticus 18:6 says not to uncover the nakedness of a kin/close-relative/blood relative – depending on how you translate it. Then there are a list of specific prohibitions afterward that – most Karaites believe – provide examples of the general prohibition in 18:6. In this case, as it has been explained to me, Jeshua ben Judah believed that Leviticus 18:11 – which prohibits uncovering the nakedness of your sister or half-sister – also prohibits you from uncovering the nakedness of your brother’s wife’s sister.

      I invite anyone to provide a better clarification of the logic.

      • Henry Mourad

        Actually, there is a simple explanation of why the old Karaites prohibited the marriage. In the Torah, it was the duty of a man to marry his wife’s brother when his brother dies in order to shelter her and her children. So, in the case of two brothers marrying two sisters, if one of the brothers dies, getting married to the other sister would create a case of incest.

      • Mikey

        Isnt there a verse that prohibits us from marrying two sisters? I think Lev 18.18. As Henry said, there is a risk due to Levirate marriage requirements that you might be forced into this. The Karaite law is a fence around this.

  4. Dale

    Shalom Shawn,Torah speaks for itself in is plain and simple within the Torah what is commanded to and not.. You just said it, “Depending on your translate “it”.of which I like to add in something as,”A translatation of a translation is lost.The interpetation of a translation is based on the interpretor veiwpoint. Just look at the words within the Hebrew picture language and try and fit it in the english language…very hard for a western mind-set insight… dealing of “it”.

  5. Dale

    I wanted to return this response:…No one knows whats going to happen or what will take place in our lives.But, speaking for my self, it is the “action and motivation” of our “hearts-mind” that implies the “soul-emotions” of which they do go against the Torah of which it commands of us,not to do.It promotes a safety barrier as to speak for our lives. But remember we will be judge accordingly indiviually as spoken in Ezekiel chapter 18 here is something to think about in verse 21-22…shalom again.

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  8. Ana Carolina Lopes

    Well, reading your post, I’m just thinking… what about I Chronicles 23:21,22?
    It seems to me that brothers married sisters.

    • Excellent question, I am looking into this. There is a separate question as to what we can learn from the narrative portions of Tanakh. Can we accept it as evidence? If so, what type of evidence and what weight does it have.

      • Ana Carolina Lopes

        I think since the Torah doesn’t forbid clearly this kind of marriage and since in I Chronicles 23:21,22 there is no disapproval on this subject, it’s ok.
        But this is just my opinion.

        By the way, I’m following your blog for a while and I like it very much!
        May God bless you for this beautiful work! 🙂

    • Ana,

      This was before the Torah. The Karaite work “Gan Eden discusses this in inyan arayot ch7 136B Col 2. He holds that it happened before the giving of the Torah.

      The sons of Kish/daughters of elazar would have been great great grandchildren to Levi. The Israelites were in Egypt 210 years. So I’d say its very likely Gan Eden is correct on this point.”

      (The quotes are taken from a friend’s response.)

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