The Karaite Jews of America’s Bold Decision to Modernize its Shabbat Service

A group of Karaites praying at a memorial service for a departed loved one.

A group of Karaites praying at a memorial service for a departed loved one.

A few weeks ago, I received a well-reasoned and thoughtful letter from a (non-historically Karaite) Jewish man who has been attending the Karaite Jewish synagogue in Daly City for a few months. He said that the Shabbat service is the best asset the KJA has, because it is more engaging than its Rabbinic counterparts. He added, though, that he hoped the KJA would find a way to make more parts of the service accessible to persons who do not speak Hebrew.

His email to me was well-timed; the KJA had just put together a committee to review its siddur and to reflect on the nature of our services. Exciting things are on the horizon.

Before we jump into the meat of the post, I want to get on record on a few issues. First, I am neither wedded to tradition nor a free reformer. I think that tradition is important when it serves other important goals. I think that change is important when it serves other goals as well. I think that change to accommodate a lack of education is dangerous. Just as I think that tradition to accommodate no-longer-relevant values is also dangerous.  I also spend several hours a week teaching people Karaite prayers. And I want to do more of it.

The heart of the Karaite Jewish service has remained intact for almost 900 years. There is something incredibly beautiful about this. One problem, though, is that the values that formed the basis of the service during the times of the Mourners of Zion and their progeny don’t really speak to people today.

For the uninitiated, here is some background on the structure of the traditional Karaite prayer. Historically, Karaite prayers contained seven key elements, and a prayer according to the Karaite custom should touch on each of these.

1. First, the prayer opens with praise of God and God’s glory. This first step is called shevach (“praise”). For example, at the Karaite Jews of America, the Shabbat morning prayer contains Psalms 103 and 104 toward the beginning of the service. These Psalms focus on God’s omnipotence and his wonders.

2. Second, the prayer contains verses related to the unity of God. This second step is called yachud (“unity”). For example, the first time the Shema is read during the Shabbat morning service is right after the initial praises for God.

3. Third, the prayer contains verses sanctifying God. This third step is called kedusha (“sanctity”). For example, we read liturgical poems by Aharon ben Yoseph, one of which begins “Atah Kadosh” (“You are holy”).

4. Fourth, the prayer contains verses of thanksgiving. This fourth step is called hoda’ah (“thanksgiving”). For example, we read Psalms 136. These verses begin “hodu l’Adonai ki tov” (“Thank God, for He is Good.”)

5. Fifth, the prayer contains verses related to confession. This step is called vidui (“confession”). For example, the Karaite liturgy contains a list of confessions, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

6. Sixth, the prayer contains verses related to supplication and pleas. This step is called either vakashah (“request”) or techinah (“plea”). For example, we read Psalms 106:47-48 and Psalms 40:14.

7. Seventh, the prayer contains verses related to personal pleas. These are usually stated in a whisper and accordingly this step is called tefilah b’lachash (“prayer in whisper”). For example, during the tefila b’lachash, we read Psalms 66:20.

The concluding prayer of the Karaite service is Baruch Shimcha (“Blessed be Your Name”), and it includes all seven of these traditional elements.

The Karaite Jews of America is looking for ways to make its prayers more modern, personal and uplifting; but the beauty of what they are trying to accomplish is that they are trying to do it in the context of the traditional elements of the Karaite prayer. For example, the discussions so far have been around finding the best combination of prayers to satisfy these elements, and on how to sequence the service so that it speaks to participant a bit better.

I do not know if the KJA will be successful in its changes. And I do not know how many changes, in truth, are necessary. But I do know that an organization that is willing to examine its 900 year-old tradition and is willing to find way to move forward within its historical paradigm will generally overcome the obstacles confronting it.

I pray for the KJA’s success in this journey. Sometimes a successful journey brings you back to the place you started. Sometimes you end up on the other side of the world. I cannot wait to see what the “new”service and siddur look like.


Filed under Aaron ben Joseph, Services, Shabbat

22 Responses to The Karaite Jews of America’s Bold Decision to Modernize its Shabbat Service

  1. Marty

    Reference: Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 2, mishpat 13: Rabbi Shimon would say: Be meticulous with the reading of the Shma and with prayer. When you pray, do not make your prayers routine…”
    Prayer must come spontaneously from one’s heart. We need community and that time could be spent learning together or celebrating God and each other through song, music, dance and food.

  2. Esther Massouda

    To who had add this picture and this document.

    Thanks for your help on adding this to the net.

  3. Rural

    This is one of my biggest beefs with synagogue. It doesn’t matter if it is an Orthodox shul or a Reform Temple (which has modified the prayers considerably) as each service lacks that ability to feel both relevant and inspiring. Most Jews are unaffiliated precisely because Judaism as a religion lacks perceived relevance and there is a need to feel spiritually inspired but most shul’s are based on preserving the past and therefore lack a soul to them. I guess I would assert that there is no soul in Judaism and this is why 100’s of thousands of Jews are involved with Buddhism and tens of thousands are into Hinduism. There is nothing to come home for so we search for spirituality somewhere else. Fixing the siddur will not change this yearning for spirituality, in fact as many Jewish denominations have demonstrated, the scope of a siddur changes hardly anything. I have my own ideas about what is relevant for me and what inspires me spiritually in a Jewish context but to appeal to a greater Jewish audience, specifically to the unaffiliated, is a great challenge that most denominational movements have not been able to address. Of course the bigger issue that most Jews cannot address is the simple question of: Why be Jewish in the first place?

    • Henry Mourad

      We hope with the KJA recent work to change your mind and to prove that spirituality is the main theme in a shortened version, which include the English language as well.
      Prayers cannot be routine so as to loose its intended purpose. Getting closer spiritually to the Almighty and be filled with satisfying emotions is the goal of any prayer.
      Once it is complete, we invite you all to share the experience.

    • Amalia Geller

      I think this is mistake to revise the siddur. Was it not the alterations the rabbinical Jews tried to do tobthe siddur that led to problems. A siddur should have the English translation to the prayers, but we should not rearrang the siddur to make people more ” comfortable. The highest form of prayer is from your heart. As rabbi Nachman taught us about hitodedut
      Shabbat shalom

      Putting this in terms of Eastern thought…it is our dharma. You can leave Bnei Israel anytime any day. A Torah observant New knows the spiritual path is narrow, it is not meant for everyone. This is why the righteous converts neshama is very very high spiritually. If you do not have what it takes to be a Torah observant New, then best to find another spiritual path & make peace with yourself that you do not have a Jewish soul ( Neshama)
      Shabbat shalom

      Shabbat shalom

  4. anne simon

    I am a seventh day adventist who has no church within a 2 hrs drive radius. 6 years ago, there were not many live church /synagogue services on the web except Central Synagogue NY. I bought the siddur to try to figure out what was said and sing along. Then, I bought an ashkenaz siddur then a sephardi siddur. Then I stumbled on your siddur online. It was the best prayer experience ever. The psalms and verses were so well chosen and reflected so well how I felt and understood about Yehovah, I was filled with joy. Thank you for sharing it.

  5. Joan Smith

    Good day
    Are there any Karaites in South Africa (in the Johannesburg/Pretoria area)?
    Would like to attend their Shabbat services

  6. Yitzchak

    Yay… you guys are awesome! Keep it up!!

  7. ilan

    Somebody elses prayer is not your prayer. True prayer comes from you own heart, not a printing press.

    • Zvi

      But even your beloved Samaritans use a “printing press”. And they cannot choose to avoid going to synagogue, uttering their own improvised prayers and remain Samaritan.

  8. B”H
    Routine prayer, no matter how spiritually high level wording they may seem at first, will become routine, and yes , personal prayer no matter how unspiring it may be compared to the traditional spiritually high level of words , they are coming from the heart to the Creator. And it only seems logical will be heard and accepted by Him, before the routine words that will simply be read without any true feeling of them coming from the heart of the worshipper.
    And its said in the writings, God knows the heart of men, and its the heart He judges.
    I myself , say my own personal prayers while the routine prayers are being read by the congregation. I will stop if the Sham is read or some other parts that I feel shoud be said by all the congregation, but then I return to my personal prayers, and once I finish them,I pick up where the congretation is reading from, and will continue to read them to the end of the prayers.
    Routine prayers must be inluded to have it be someting to bring the congregation together. Without them, there would be only silence, and God wants all Israel to pray together as a congregation , a people, and a nation, in order to distinguish them from the rest of the world.

  9. ilan

    But we are not discussing Samaritans are we or dissing them as the case seems to be? I can only speak to the Judaic Rabbinic ideas that I had followed from age 6 when I could read the Aramaic Hebrew of the siddur more easily to 20 years ago when I found that prayer to God is not only supplications, its a conversation, its amazing how much you really have to say to God when you think about it. I think people should look at the Psalms or the works of those such as Yehuda Halevi and see the great variation there is in approaching God with prayer, maybe even hum a prayer as a song to a tune you could refine for yourself. Etching them in writing is no different then the Rabbinical fossilization of much of the Torah.

    • Rural

      The most meaningful services I have been to were those designed around group meditation. The communal effects were powerful and the practice itself adds much in the way of personal development and spiritual inspiration. Jewish Renewal are about the only Jews doing this right now though.

  10. Amalia Gelleri

    I think this is mistake to revise the siddur. Was it not the alterations the rabbinical Jews tried to do tobthe siddur that led to problems. A siddur should have the English translation to the prayers, but we should not rearrang the siddur to make people more ” comfortable. The highest form of prayer is from your heart. As rabbi Nachman taught us about hitodedut
    Shabbat shalom


  11. Arik

    When you speak of a new service I only wonder what the problem was with the old one? You know you should neither add to nor subtract from what is commanded. Either this change is insignificant, or it is wrong. I hope the former.

    • Rural

      Arik- progress and change is inevitable and in this context it seems welcome by the community which is engaged in this particular practice. Changing the Siddur has nothing to do with the Torah’s injunction to not add or subtract as the Siddur, Synagogue, services, etc. are not Torah commands rather they are a particular cultural manifestation. Cultures change over time.

  12. David MARSHALL

    Please, Shawn, keep the prayers all in Hebrew. In Reform they have reached the point where only about 25% of the prayers are in Hebrew. This was a big mistake. It is fine and great to have a parallel English translation in the siddur, but having prayers said aloud in English is a mistake. It has led to disunity in Judaism.

  13. Rachamim Slonim Dwek

    Just another step that Karaites are taking away from Judaism. Judais is not a buffet where you can pick or choose aspects most appealing while rejecting those that are not. Of course the reasoning behind this move was fearof extinction. The movement is dying and the trickle of converts might becone larger were Karaites to enage Goyim and Assimilated Rabbanites on their own level. Sorry but that is just pathetic.

    The truth is that it has been decades since there were any Frum Karaites. The entire movement has been on par with Rabbanite Reform. This move only brings the liturgy in line with Karaite Observance.

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