My Journey Into Karaism

by Hakham Meir Yosef Rekhavi

My journey into Karaitic Judaism from Rabbinic Judaism was not an instantaneous one, but took a few years to complete along a path that had obstacles at almost every turn. I was born into a traditional Ashkenazic family of Lithuanian extraction. In my early teens I had no qualms with my traditional upbringing and I felt that Rabbinic Judaism was the only legitimate expression of Judaism, an expression that I was completely at home with.

After I left high school I decided to pursue my religious education in a direction that would take me beyond the evening Gemara lessons held by various local Rabbis at their individual homes. I had a burning desire to become a Rabbi and the only way that I could bring my aspirations into fruition was by studying at a Yeshiva. In my mind the best place for me to study would be in Jerusalem, a city that was not only holy but also had an abundance of Yeshivas. It took me a while to find the right type of Yeshiva, there were so many with such different approaches to the method of study and the way they viewed the outside world, but in the end I did find a Yeshiva that appealed to me. It was a Sephardic Yeshiva; its lessons were delivered to small classes of about ten students some classes consisted of a Rabbi and two students or on a one to one basis with time for private study. It geared its students to become religious knowledgeable Jews who would be able to stand on their own two feet when it came to applying the halakha.

It was during my two years of study at Yeshiva that I started to ask myself various question, the sort of questions that one dared not raise. When they did enter my head I quickly suppressed them, for to raise such points and to start upon the chain of thought that I was entering upon was in the eyes of Rabbinic Judaism pure heresy. One such question that entered my mind was, "How come the rulings of some the Amoraic sages are accepted while others are rejected?" I rationalised this legitimate question away by telling myself that the Gemara is not part of the true Oral Law, that being the Mishna, for it could not be as it was the rulings or opinions of the Amoraic sages who lived in the early mediaeval period and was therefore an early mediaeval commentary on the Mishna, and being only a commentary there was bound to be differences of opinion among its sages. This self attained answer did not sit easily upon my conscience and only gave fruit to another question and that being, "If the Gemara is only a commentary on the Mishna then why does one have to accept the opinions of any of the Amoraic sages? Surely as with all commentaries it is up to the educated reader whose opinion he accepts if any!" I decided to go back to the source of the Gemara, the Mishna. Little did I realise at the time that my journey away from Rabbanism towards Karaism had been undertaken.

It was during the study of the Tractate Hullin, which deals with laws and regulations concerning the slaughter of permitted animals and the dietary laws, that I entered upon the next phase of my journey and the credibility of the Mishna and therefore the Oral Law itself began in my mind to come into doubt. We were studying Hullin chapter 8 Mishna 4 which states; "…Rabbi Yose the Galilean says, it is said, 'You shall not eat any carrion,' and it is said, 'You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk' hence whatever is prohibited under carrion is forbidden to cook in milk. It might be deduced that a bird which is also prohibited under carrion is prohibited to be cooked in milk; but there is a teaching that says, in its mother's milk, therefore a bird is excluded for it has no mother's milk." After checking the actual Biblical verse, Exodus 23:19, which this Mishna referred to I realised that Rabbi Yose the Galilean was correct, but I was informed that his opinion is not accepted. How could this be? Surely his opinion was in keeping with the Biblical text! If the Tannaitic sages had received the Oral Law through an uninterrupted chain going back to Moshe himself, how could we not accept the opinion of one of the Mishnaic sages? This meant that we were picking and choosing what we desired from the Oral Law! I then took it upon myself to read the Mishna in depth.

Someone had once told me "that when we search for the truth and we find it, we must be prepared to be shocked, taken aback and even dismayed, for the truth might not always be what we thought it would be." I was about to understand the full force of these words, my religious world was going to be turned upside down, and I would enter into 'the dark night of the soul.'

With an in depth reading of the Mishna I noticed that in various places it mentions Cutheans, which is the Pharisaic name for Samaritans, for example Tractate Bekhoroth chapter 1 Mishna 1, Tractate Berakhoth chapter 7 Mishna 1; chapter 8 Mishna 8, Tractate Demai chapter 3 Mishna 4 amongst others. How could this be? The Samaritans are a phenomenon of the Second Temple period and later, they had not been around at the giving of the Tora on Mt. Sinai and therefore when the Oral Law was also given. Then I noticed much to my surprise that in Tractate Rosh Hashshana chapter 1 Mishna 3 its mentions Hanukka and again in Tractate Meghilla chapter 3 Mishna 4 and 5, and in Tractate Ta'anith chapter 2 Mishna 10 not only does it mention Hanukka but also Purim! The story of Purim took place during the reign of the Persian king Ahasuerus also known as Xerxes, approximately in the year 475 b.c.e and Hanukka in the year 165 b.c.e. Could this mean that the Mishna was of a late compilation as could be seen from the very text itself!? I became perplexed.

When I confronted the Rabbis of the Yeshiva with my findings it was clear to them, even before it became clear to me, which direction my search was taking me. They undertook it upon themselves to keep on eye on me and if necessary to halt me in my path before I would reach in their eyes the point of no return. I was given private classes in order to prove to me the validity of the Oral Law, but these one to one classes only spurred me on to delve further into my research and to discover the truth for myself, whatever that truth maybe or in whatever direction it may take me.

Then I noticed something else in the Mishna, something that according to Rabbinic doctrine was impossible to be, out right contradictions between the Tannaitic sages! For example Tractate Peah chapter 4 Mishna 5 says, "Three times daily were there attendances of the poor: in the morning and at noon and in the afternoon. Rabban Gamliel says, These times were given as a minimum. Rabbi 'Akiva says, They were given as the maximum." This was an out right contradiction between two major Tannaitic sages. I also noticed contradictions between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, Tractate Berakhoth chapter 8 Mishna 2 states, "The School of Shammai say, They wash the hands and after that fill the cup. But the School of Hillel say, They fill the cup and then wash the hands." Again in Tractate Shabbath chapter 1 Mishna 5, "The School of Shammai says, They must not soak ink or paints or vetches unless they will be dissolved the same day, but the School of Hillel permit it." The more I read the Mishna the more I saw that it was full of such contradictions. I came to the conclusion that throughout the Mishna various sages contradict each other, but yet again if the Pharisaic Sages have received their tradition through an uninterrupted chain going back to Moshe himself, how could disagreement arise among them? They should have been of one mind in every particular and seeing that various schools had their adherents, to which school does the truth belong, for all the differing views of the various schools cannot be correct. The fear of my Rabbis was becoming a reality; I was turning my back upon the Oral Law. So to combat their fears they tried to put the fear of eternal damnation into my soul by informing me that according to such great Rabbis as Maimonides, "He who does not believe in the Oral Law will have no share in the world to come," "but this is the opinion of man and not of God" I retorted.

The Rabbis at the Yeshiva scathingly informed me that my views and opinions on the Oral Law were Sadducean and therefore the same as the heretical Karaites. I was then given a swift rebuttal of the Sadducean/Karaite view of the Tora and I noticed that the word 'heretics' crept in a lot during this refutation of the Sadducean/Karaite opinion. I knew of the Karaites through my readings in Jewish history, my Yeshiva was situated in the Old City of Jerusalem around the corner from the Karaite synagogue, so I decided to visit the Karaite synagogue and check out their views on these matters. So the week after Pessah in 1981 on a Shabbath I went and paid a visit to the Karaite synagogue. I did not know what to expect as I walked through the heavy wooden door of the Karaite synagogue and descended the ancient steps that led into the prayer hall, "Would I find the answers to the questions I had been asking?" I thought to myself, "Would this be the conclusion to my journey? Or would my aspirations lie elsewhere?" As I noticed the Karaites in prayer I held my breath in excitement, they were bowing down in prayer! This was a dream come true! I had always held the opinion that one should prostrate in prayer and that the act of genuflection was in complete accordance with the Mikra for is it not written, "When Solomon finished offering to YHWH all this prayer and supplication he rose from where he had been kneeling," (1 Kings 8:54) and again, "Now when Daniel learned that the writing was signed, he went into his house; his windows were open in his chamber toward Jerusalem, and he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously." (Dan. 6:11) In the past I had not dared to voice this opinion of mine, but here were others of the same mind as myself. After the service I talked to members of the congregation about their opinions on the Oral Law and the Mikra, I had so many questions to ask. I realised that I could not ask all of my questions in one shot and that I would have to come back another time, and I did.

I went back many times to the Karaite synagogue asking my questions and every Shabbath I would pray there. Hakham Moshe Dabah and his family who lived in the apartments above the synagogue befriended me and I spent many a Shabbath with them. I purchased from them my first Karaite books, a siddur and Aharon ben Eliyahu's Gan Eden. The more I read Gan Eden the more I became convinced that Karaite Judaism held the true way of the Tora.

We were now in the period of the counting of the 'Omer leading to Shavu'oth and at the Yeshiva, as was the normal practice, we commenced learning the laws of the 'Omer and Shavu'oth. Of course I knew that Pharisaic Judaism and its successor Rabbinic Judaism had always held that the bringing of the 'Omer and therefore the beginning of the counting of the weeks to Shavu'oth was on the 16th Nisan, the day after the first day of Pessah. For this was the way that Pharisaic/Rabbinic Judaism had always understand the verse, "And you shall count to yourselves from the morrow after the Shabbath, from the day that you brought the 'Omer of the elevation-offering, seven complete Shabbaths there shall be. Until the morrow after the seventh Shabbath you shall count fifty days." (Lev. 23:15-16) This was the way that I had always been led to understand the above verse and I had always kept the day of Shavu'oth according to this understanding. The source for the Pharisaic/Rabbinic understanding of the phrase 'the morrow after the Shabbath' was the Mishna itself. But there was another opinion! In Tractate Menahoth chapter 10 Mishna 3 it informs us that the Boethusians did not hold to this opinion and in Tractate Haghigha chapter 2 Mishna 4 states, "And the High Priest may not put on his raiment, and mourning and fasting are permitted so as to furnish no support to the views of those who say, The Festival of Weeks must fall on the day following the Shabbath." This meant that the Boethusians started the counting of the 'Omer on a Sunday and therefore for them the word Shabbath in the phrase 'the morrow after the Shabbath' meant Shabbath and not the first day of the festival. What did the Karaites make of this? What was their understanding of the word Shabbath in this instance?

I read through the sections of Gan Eden that dealt with this and I also asked Moshe Dabah for the Karaite understanding of this matter. The Karaite argument was simple and went as follows:

1. The Tora states, "And YHWH to Moshe saying: Speak to the Children of Yisrael, and say to them when you come to the land which I am giving to you, and you harvest its harvest, and you shall bring the 'Omer of the first-fruits of your harvest to the Kohen [priest]. And he shall elevate the 'Omer [sheaf] before YHWH for acceptance for you, on the morrow after the Shabbath the Kohen [priest] shall elevate it." (Lev. 23:9-11) We see here that the word Shabbath with the definite article is meant to define the indeterminate noun a Shabbath.

2. The Tora then goes on to state, "And you shall count to yourselves from the morrow after the Shabbath, from the day that you brought the 'Omer of the elevation-offering, seven complete Shabbaths there shall be. Until the morrow after the seventh Shabbath you shall count fifty days." (Lev. 23:15-16) Therefore if according to the Rabbanites the first Shabbath is a festival day i.e. the 15th Nisan, and not an ordinary Shabbath, then what festivals are the remaining seven Shabbaths? If the remaining six Shabbaths are the weekly Shabbath or if they mean weeks in general, as the Rabbanites claim, then surely they are contradicting themselves as to the meaning of Shabbath in this passage. Why in one instance does Shabbath here mean the day of the festival and in another a regular Shabbath or weeks?

3. It is written in the Tora, "And bread and parched grain and fresh grain you shall not eat until during that same day, until you have brought a near-offering for your God, a law for ever throughout your generations in all your settlements." (Lev. 23:14) This means that we cannot eat from the new harvest until the 'Omer has been brought, and with this the Rabbanites are in full agreement. We then see in the Book of Joshua, "And they ate of the produce of the land, on the morrow after the Passover, unleavened bread and parched grain, on the same day," (Josh. 5:11) This is in complete accordance with Leviticus 23:14, but the Rabbanites claim that we can see from this verse that they ate the grain on the 16th Nisan for it is written, 'the morrow after the Passover.' The Karaite argument then states that the Rabbanites have left out a vital piece of evidence and that is the 15th is never referred to in the Tora as the Passover only the period of twilight between the 14th and 15th is. Therefore 'the morrow after the Passover' does not refer to the 16th but to the 15th as can be seen from the Tora itself, "And they journeyed from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month, on the morrow after the Passover," (Num. 33:3) Therefore on the year of the entry into the Land 'the morrow after the Shabbath,' which is a Sunday fell on the 15th Nisan.

I was convinced by the Karaite argument; my journey into Karaism was almost complete.

It was during this time that I met at the Karaite synagogue a certain middle-aged gentleman named Mordecai Alfandari. Mordecai had also been a Rabbanite and had come from a Sephardic background, some thirty years ago he had dared to ask the same questions that I had asked and had come to the same conclusions. I was not alone! Someone else before me had made the same journey; little did I know at that time that Mordecai would become my mentor and a close personal friend until his death in 1999. This man gently helped me through the transition stage from Rabbanism to Karaism and would latter look upon my children as his grandchildren. Soon after I left the Yeshiva and started a new journey, a journey that would take me into the soul Karaism and give me a true understanding of the Tora.