My Personal Heresies: Or Going Karaite All Over Again

The gift that keeps on giving.

A few years back, I met a young Jewish college student at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. He was fascinated by the concept of Karaism. And although he has certain Karaite affinities, he proudly declares, “At no point did I consider myself a Karaite” and at no point did he consider becoming a Karaite.

Among the reasons he is interested in Karaism, is because, as he put it, once you accept that Karaism is an option, “then, everything is on the table.” I’ve thought about this statement from time time. And I realized, there is no point to being a Karaite if everything is not on the table.

So here are some views that I think are supported by the plain meaning of the text – but clearly would put me outside the normative bounds of Karaism (and Rabbanism).

Before we get started, here’s the usual disclaimer: Search the Scripture Well and Do Not Rely on My Opinion.

Personal Heresy 1: Fire on the Sabbath Day

In my last post, I expressed (in a footnote) that I was open to the view that the Sabbath-fire prohibition only applies to fires on the Sabbath Day (and not to any fires on any night time portions that are affiliated with the Sabbath). Why am I open to this? Because the text tells me so. It says clearly that the prohibition relates to “Yom Shabbat” (the Sabbath day).

But Shawn, in Judaism the day starts in the evening and then continues for the next day till the next evening. Setting aside whether this is correct, let’s look at another use of the word “Yom” and see whether this view that I am open to is possible.

  • Berit Mila: The Torah tells us that we are to circumcise a male child on the eighth “yom”. In fact, I spoke to several Rabbanite mohels who told me that a circumcision is to be performed as early as possible in the day time. Two even objected to performing a circumcision in the evening (i.e, the erev that starts the 8th day). Interestingly, these two had no problem at all performing the circumcision at the Karaite Jews of America, and they had no problem at all with the Karaite minhagim (customs), they only had a problem with the time of day. I do not know what the historical Karaite literature says on when a circumcision might be performed, but in the Bay Area, the community has no problem doing the ceremony at night.

So, here’s your challenge. If you think that it is impossible that the fire prohibition applies only to the day time, then prove me wrong.


Personal Heresy Number 2: Stop Marrying Your Niece; Marry Your Brother’s Wife’s Sister Instead.

A great example in which the Karaites, in my humble opinion, stretched logical inference too far is in the laws of forbidden marriages (or “incest”). And this is a great example in which the Rabbanites didn’t stretch far enough, again in my opinion.

Let’s start with the place where the Karaites got it right. 

The Torah says:

  • Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy father’s sister: she is thy father’s near kinswoman. (Leviticus 18:12).

Here the Torah clearly forbids a man from having relations with his paternal aunt. From this, the Karaites deduce that a man is forbidden to his maternal aunt. But they also deduce that a woman is forbidden to her uncle. After all, these relationships are all structurally the same. And in the traditional Karaite reasoning, there is no basis to distinguish between a “man and his aunt” and a “woman and her uncle.”

The Rabbanaites on the other hand do not make this analogy and they maintain that “uncle-niece” relationships are not forbidden, and in some rabbinic sources this union is even called a “mitzva gedola” (a very big, good deed).  Setting aside western values over this type of relationship, I think the Karaites have the better argument. To overcome my view, someone would have to explain to me why the Torah would specifically forbid “nephew-aunt” relationships but not also intend “niece-uncle” relationships.

Now for where the Karaites got it wrong.

The Karaites have a super complex web of forbidden marriages. From this web, the medieval Karaites forbade (as do the modern Israeli Karaites) two brothers from marrying two sisters (in separate marriages, duh). Now, I admit, I am biased here, because my grandmother and her sister married my grandfather and his brother (in separate marriages).  But – aside from that – I really think it is the wrong view.

The prohibition on two brothers marrying two sisters comes from the medieval Karaite interpretation of Leviticus 18:11, which the Karaites interpret to forbid marriages between two pairs of close relatives (“she’erim”).

  • The nakedness of thy father’s wife’s daughter, begotten of thy father, she is thy sister, thou shalt not uncover her nakedness. (Leviticus 18:11).

Oy. where to begin.

The best place to begin is Tomer Mangoubi’s Section 17 of Mikdash Me’at (warning: this stuff is super technical). As an aside, I shared this section with an Orthodox Rabbi and he was blown away that Tomer (then in his early 20s) could write and reason like this without having spent 10 years in Yeshiva. Go Team Karaite! This is actually very important stuff to study, because it will strengthen your understanding of logical deduction and will also explain various Karaite marriage crises throughout history.

But I’ll summarize here. The Karaites (correctly in my opinion) believed the verse does not apply to a literal sister. They believe it applies to a step-sister, and the phrase “begotten of thy father” is hyperbole. (There is linguistic support for this, but that is not relevant here.) Because under this interpretation, the Torah is forbidding a union between two closely related persons (that is, a “man and his father” may not have [separate] relations with a “woman and her daughter”), the Karaites analogized that other close pairs, such as two brothers and two sisters, are also forbidden.

But why? Even accepting the Karaite interpretation of the verse, why should an example relating to a forbidden vertical relationship (mother-daughter, or father-son) be analogized to a horizontal relationship (brothers, sisters).

Anyway, if you think I’m wrong and that uncles should be allowed to marry their nieces and two brothers are forbidden from marrying two sisters. Prove it to me.

I have many, many other personal heresies that I am open to.

I have resisted posting them here because the main point of this blog is to chronicle the traditional karaite view and the experience of a modern Karaite. But maybe that’s the point. The traditional Karaite view is only interesting because it is one peshatist perspective on Tanakh. Other Karaite perspectives are also interesting. And maybe I’ll express those. But probably not.




Filed under Forbidden Marriages, Mikdash Me'at, Tomer Mangoubi

10 Responses to My Personal Heresies: Or Going Karaite All Over Again

  1. Marty Schur

    Hi, I posted this under a different heading and didn’t get a response, maybe you can help out.
    My question is how do Karaites translate the Hebrew word, “ger”? The Rabbanim translate it either as convert or stranger. Do Karaites do the same?
    Personally, I don’t think it ever means convert, just stranger.
    And I’m not sure how to differentiate ‘ger’ from ‘zar’. The latter most often means non-Kohen but it’s also used to just mean a stranger.
    I know in modern Hebrew ‘ger’ usually refers to a convert and ‘zar’ is used for a stranger.
    So how do Karaites translate ‘ger’ in the Tanach?
    Thank you

    • I will endeavor to get back to you. The problem is that our best sources are not published. And the only sources that I might be able to access are later sources. So I am not sure that will help because those later sources (in many cases) just adopted the rabbanite opinion in many cases.

      • Marty Schur

        Okay, thank you. If I’m interpreting you correctly, modern Karaites conform to the rabbinate, that ger means both stranger and convert, whereas historically at least some thought it meant only stranger. Please update me if you find other info. Thanks again.

  2. Shalom Shawn,

    I write to address the issue of Fire on Shabbat. I first note that the problem exists because of the Creator’s imprecise use of the Hebrew Language. (Alan Dershowitz authored a book – “Abraham: The First Lawyer”)…perhaps a lawyer with better drafting skills would have reached greater clarity. Specifically, Beresheet 1:5 states:
    ה וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם, וְלַחֹשֶׁךְ קָרָא לָיְלָה; וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם אֶחָד.
    And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. {P}

    In the same sentence we have two definitions of the word “Yom” or Day.
    One definition is daylight. Another is a unit of the day and darkness or night.

    So the challenge is how does one use the term to specify only daylight or the unit of light and darkness. They should have been two different words.

    • Frank Wassermann

      I have also, like many others wondered about fire on Shabbat. I ask why would God, who brought the nation out of the misery of slavery and protected them during the desert wanderings with great care now let them sit in cold, wet and darkness? The use of fire for any form of work has already been prohibited
      in the forbidding of work. That means cooking in markets, melting metal etc. So why forbid comfort on the day of joy and study? My Bible, “The Jewish study Bible” by the JPS states in Ex 35.3 “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day” I then found this in Isaiah 50.11. ‘But you are all kindlers of fire” etc. This describes them as people who follow their own ideas, maybe translate the Word as they would like it to be, trying to outsmart God like Eve did. Could this be the fire that is forbidden on Shabbat? A warning to do exactly as God said and not try to deviate from His commands to keep Shabbat holy for the purposes that He created it for?

  3. Eddie

    very interesting, thank you

  4. Patrick

    On what Scriptures, exactly, do Karaites base wearing kippahs? It was my understanding that the first wearing of kippahs was instituted during the reign of Greece, and it was actually a forced penalty for the Jewish subjects to be wearing the Cap of Herme, a Greek god, much like the yellow star during the holocaust. And yet, one rabbi is quoted to say that he would go four steps out of his house without a covering on his head (paraphrased).

    I have studied the Torah and the Tanak quite a bit, but have not seen a command to wear a head covering except for the priests.

  5. Dr. David Joseph-Heinemann

    The prohibition on lighting a fire on Shabbat must be understood in the context of the time. Making a fire in those times would have been a strenuous undertaking; finding and cutting wood, etc., would be work which is forbidden. This is no longer the case, so insisting on sitting in the dark, or cold, is non-sensical. The Torah is given as a blessing, but we must not OURSELVES make it a burden, and bye-the-way, since every festival is a Sabbath then the prohibition on MAKING a fire also applies to the festivals.
    Using electricity is not strenuous work, and avoiding the intelligent use of
    electricity is to (by way of Prohibition/Taboo) make fire sacred. This of course is what the Zoroast0rians do -worship fire. The use of a kippah or yarmulke, is also derived from the religion of Persia (Iran), and entered, along with many other practices on the return by our ancestors to our land after the Persians defeated the Babylonians. This is acknowledged by Rabbinate scholars, but not generally discussed by them, like many other practices which are also of pagan origin.
    It is time to restore the purity of our Faith, and using a tallit to cover our heads ( meaning being under G-d’s mercy and Covenant) is all that is required during worship and only then. I myself put a tallit around my shoulders to pray, but place it over my head only when saying the Sh’ma or Amidah prayers, or on other significant occasions, but otherwise am bareheaded during worship, all of which applies to my wife also during worship.
    May we all be Blessed as we struggle to be true to our Creator and ourselves.

  6. stephen

    Hi Everyone,
    I am a non-Jew so I would be a “stranger” in the Torah. I have been interested in Judaism for about 15 years now. Rabbi Nachman of Breslev teachings are about leading a simple Torah life and not being a friend of the world. Personal prayer is also a big part of the teachings.
    I have always felt the second class person, it’s although I can never be good enough in the Rabbinic picture of things.
    The Torah is more open to “strangers” the oral law seems to separate those who are not Jews from G-d.
    How wonderful it would be if your way is the truth.

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