Saturday, October 01, 2016

The Karaites and Rosh HaShanah

KARAITE WATCH: The Jews You’ve Never Heard Of. In the Bay Area, Karaite Jews struggle to build a future in America (Shira Telushkin, Tablet Magazine).
On Oct. 3, as most synagogues around the world celebrate Rosh Hashanah, about 130 people will gather at a synagogue in Daly City, California, to celebrate Yom T’ruah, the biblical “Day of Shouting.” They will be just a few of the tens of thousands celebrating in congregations across Israel and Europe. The congregation will chant from a Torah scroll, recite their prayers in Hebrew, coddle bored children, and some might even—succumbing a bit to acculturation—dip apple slices in honey. But they will not blow the shofar, wish for each other to be inscribed in the Book of Life, or depart with a shanah tovah. In fact, they will not be celebrating the New Year at all. Rather, the Karaite Jews of America will be celebrating the first day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, a day of sacred assembly called for in Leviticus 23:24.

“The idea of the seventh month as Rosh Hashanah is a borrowed Babylonian concept,” Jonathan Haber explained to me over the phone one afternoon, while he took a break from a hiking trip in northern Israel. Haber, who grew up in a Reform Jewish home in Miami Beach, began practicing seriously as a Karaite while an undergraduate at the University of Florida. He recently moved to Israel, and in early August joined the Israel Defense Forces, complete with a letter from the Karaite Chief Rabbi that ensures he can celebrate the holidays by the Karaite calendar. “The four New Years in the Talmud are adopted from the Babylonian custom of having multiple new years, and that comes from the pagan idea of multiple gods. None of that is in the Tanakh,” he said, referring to the Hebrew Bible.

He’s right, of course. Rosh Hashanah as the start of a new year is a rabbinic interpretation of the verse. And since at least the eighth century CE, Karaite Jews across the world have kept to an interpretation of Judaism in which the Bible is taken as the ultimate authority on religious practice. Long centered in Egypt, Turkey, and Crimea, Karaites will consider the insights of the Oral Law, but they don’t accept their rulings as binding, and outright reject rabbinic traditions that contradict the plain meaning of scriptural verses. As Travis Wheeler, a convert to Karaism from Georgia who is the only formally trained Karaite shochet in the United States put it to me, “Any Karaite—any good Karaite—will read the Talmud” but the words of the Torah always take precedence—and that creed leads to a form of Judaism that is at once recognizable yet strange.

Karaite Jews observe kashrut, Shabbat, and the Jewish holidays (except Hanukkah), and they hold daily prayer services. But they will eat meat and milk together (provided the meat was not the child of the animal that produced the milk, in accordance with Exodus 23:19) and avoid shwarma, that classic Israeli street food, because the animal fat that flavors the meat from on top constitutes biblically forbidden chelev , a prohibition rabbinic law long ago overturned. Karaite tradition forbids women to enter the synagogue during their periods, yet allows women to divorce their husbands by right of the court, avoiding the problem of agunot. Karaites follow patrilineal descent. The Karaite siddur is mostly Psalms and prayers woven together from biblical verses. They remove their shoes in synagogue and pray prostrate on the ground. (To many, this looks like Muslim worship, but the practice is guided by Exodus 3:5, in which God tells Moses from within the burning bush to remove his shoes “because the place on which you stand is holy ground,” and by biblical depictions of Daniel and others praying on their knees.) They don’t require a minyan for communal prayer and they don’t lay tefillin, understanding the biblical commandment to bind the words onto one’s body to be intended symbolically. In some ways, the Karaites still live in the mind-set of the Talmud, where each scholar can consider and establish law according to his own understanding of the Bible. A Karaite motto, quoted in much of their literature, is: “Search scripture well, and don’t rely on my opinion.” This doesn’t make it a total free-for-all—like rabbinic Jews, Karaites derive law from scripture according to their own traditions, scholars, and standards of legal interpretation. They just don’t think man’s word can ever override the written word of God.

A long, informative article. Past PaleoJudaica posts on the Karaites are here and links.