This week, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the long-time spiritual leader of the Sephardi movement, passed away. The reactions of the Jewish world have been far-ranging and I don’t intend to express any opinions on his legacy or his halacha.
But Rabbi Yosef’s passing reminded me that he has encouraged marriages between Rabbanites and Karaites so that Karaites would eventually accept the Oral Law.
So, I thought this would be a good time to review some historical details regarding Karaite-Rabbanite marriages.
An interesting tidbit comes to us via the tenth century Karaite Sage Jacob al-Kirkisani, arguably the greatest Jewish historian of his era. As Kirkisani records, one of Sa’adyah Gaon’s students said that Rabbanites would marry Isfahanites (but would not marry Karaites) because the Isfahanites “do not disgree with us [i.e., the Rabbanites] over the festivals.” According to Kirkisani, the sticking point for the student was the Karaite refusal to observe the Rabbinically mandated extra day for the Jewish holidays in the diaspora. Amazingly, the Isfahanites, whom the Rabbanites would marry, were adherents to the seventh-century messianic (Jewish) leader Abu ‘Isa al-Isfahani. 
But we know that Karaites and Rabbanites (at some point) did marry each other. A quick survey of marriage documents from the middle ages reveals some interesting ways Karaites and Rabbanites dealt with their religious differences (and it didn’t always play out as Rabbi Yosef hoped):
- at least one “betrothal contract” shows that a Rabbanite man agreed to adopt the Karaite tradition of his fiancee upon marriage; 
- a Rabbanite married a Karaite (potentially for her political connections) and promised not to force his wife “to sit with him by the light of the Sabbath candle, nor to eat the fat tail, nor to desecrate her festivals, on condition that she observe with him his festivals;”  and
- another Rabbanite, similarly, promised not to force his Karaite wife to desecrate her festivals, not to “bring the fat-tail . . . or the flesh of a pregnant animal” into their home and also not to light a Sabbath candle or have fires burning in their house on Shabbat. 
These last few items (the permissibility of slaughtering pregnant animals and having fires on Shabbat) are significant differences between the historical Karaite and Rabbanite halakhot. Perhaps, I’ll post about them at some point.
For now, I just note that even with these stark differences, Karaites and Rabbanites found ways to coexist and even marry – and presumably (if the couple wanted) were able to keep their separate traditions. Of course, over time, the majority erodes away the minority if the minority is not diligent and does not have a proper infrastructure to support education and growth. Perhaps this is what Rabbi Yosef was banking on.
After the footnotes, you will find the official response of Universal Karaite Judaism (i.e., the organization of historical Karaites in Israel), regarding Rabbi Yosef’s passing.
* * *
 Rustow, Marina; Heresy and the Politics of Community, pp. 63-64.
 Id., pp. 250-251.
 Id., p. 335-337.
 Ankori, Zvi; Karaites in Byzantium, p. 297.
* * *
By: Neria HaRo’eh, Chairman of the Supreme Council of Universal Qaraite Judaism (Israel)
The passing of Rav ‘Ovadyah Yosef is a sad and dramatic occasion to thousands of believers among our people who saw him as their Rabbi and leader.
Despite all the fundamental religious differences that the Qaraite Jewish movement has with the approach of ‘Ovadyah Yosef; despite the fact that Qaraite Judaism does not see his way as “Derekh HaTorah [the way of the Torah]”; and in spite of his various rulings and controversial ways of expressing himself – we will neither forget his humanity and compassion, the time that he took care of the needy, the ‘Agunot [wives seeking a divorce], and those undergoing conversion. Nor will we forget that he labored, under a heartfelt conviction, for the betterment of society.
In these moments we send our condolences to our fellow mourners – a large part of the Israeli public – and hope that the Holy One, Blessed is He, will remedy their wounds and will heal their whole body.
Nevertheless, we must remind ourselves that the manifestations of mourning which we now see – such as Sha”s Party leader Aryeh Der’i’s remarks that “sunlight has been extinguished… we have become orphans without a father” – are the result of a Rabbinic worldview which has excessive veneration for this Rabbi, to the extent of treating his words as holier than those of the Living God.
We, speaking for Qaraite Judaism, respect a person’s opinions insofar as he is a human being, and believe that every person, even if he is a grand Rabbi – is only a human being.
Based on this philosophical principle, we disagree with venerating him whether alive or after his death. Yet, along with this view, we share a brotherly empathy for the serious grief experienced by thousands of mourners, and seek to stand by them.
We hope followers of Rav ‘Ovadyah Yosef will continue the positive aspects of his activities, according to Derekh HaTorah [the way of the Torah].
Translated by Ya`aqov Walker HaDani.
7 Responses to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the Karaite Marriage
I am not making this observation out of cynicism. Perhaps, though, there is some symbolism in Ravovadia’s passing at a time when the traditional Qaraites have begun reversing their generation-long tide of accelerated embracing of Rabbinic concepts and practices.
A synthesis of my response and Eddie Zadeh’s to Neriah’s statement:
It is regrettable that Neria omitted even a cursory reference to his worst crimes, namely selling out his own people by enabling harmful concessions to the Palinazis in return for money and honor for himself and his mafia excuse for party (but apparently Neria was not angry with him on a personal level, otherwise he would have hammered away at him with an overkill; and trust me that I know exactly why I say this). At any rate, the rabbi did do some good deeds last century, before he entangled himself through his party in Israeli politics, such as the help he extended to `Agunot (women “chained” to recalcitrant husbands who refuse to grant them the Rabbinic divorce paper, or husbands who have gone MIA in military activities — quite different than Y. Walker has translated the term).
He was a great scholar, and was more moderate than his Haredi counterparts. However, his party Shas was composed of many dishonest money oriented characters. His threats to the public that they would inherit Gehinnom if they did not vote for him are criminal acts based on false prophecy and financial self interest. As was the appointment of his son to be chief rabbi.
-By Zvi Zimri haGelili
I think the main force of conversion (in either direction) is the upbringing of children. Spouses may be able to maintain separate religious practices, but the offspring of that marriage must each choose, and their upbringing will almost inevitably favor one way of doing things over the other.
As for Ovadia Yosef, whatever I may think of his teachings and political activity, he was a force to be reckoned with. His passing marks the end of an era in Israeli society and politics–regardless of who succeeds him.
Great info, Shawn. Thanks.
Sad that in all those contracts not one mention of how children would keep the holidays.
I will see if I can find anything on this point.
Additionally, I wish to state that I second Kphiyr ben Michael’s conviction that we should not be extending our condolences to all those mourning R.O. Yosef given the damage he caused the Land of Israel, its Jewish inhabitants and even the State of Israel by enabling most of the unwarranted concessions to the Palinazis by successive Israeli governments since 1993. Neria’s condolences on his passing are probably a product of his belief that he needs to act as a politician in his capacity of Chairman of the Supreme Council of Universal Qaraite Judaism.