Exhibition | Out of Egypt
History and Origins of Karaite Jews
BY AARON HAHN TAPPER
There have always been many different ways to perform one’s Jewish identity. The category “Jew” has had countless definitions across time and space. Of course, in specific times and places there have been set notions of what being a Jew has meant. Concurrently, during any given period, there has been debate and disagreement over the precise parameters of who has counted as a Jew. As for when the community has had non-Jews define them, the consequences have sometimes been a matter of life and death.
As scholar Daniel Lasker explains, "Despite the general recognition of rabbinic Judaism as 'normative' Judaism, historically there have always been Jewish movements that either have rejected the basic assumption of an oral Torah revealed on Mount Sinai and which contains the authoritative interpretation of the written Torah, or have offered another, significantly different, approach to Jewish sources." Karaite Jews are one such group.
In existence for centuries, this now infinitesimal Jewish sect is commonly described as having surfaced in opposition to Jews who followed “the rabbis,” or, in Karaite parlance, the Rabbanites an authoritative body of Jews adhering to their own interpretations of traditions based in texts such as the Mishnah and Talmud. Karaites have had, and continue to have, a detailed system of law that is unabashedly interpretive. Most contemporary Jews have never heard of Karaites; those who have usually assume they evaporated into history.
Clear indications of the Karaite community's peak numbers have been lost to history. A generous estimate is that there are currently 50,000 Karaite Jews worldwide, most of whom are of Egyptian descent and live in Israel.
Karaites believe their understanding of the Hebrew Bible is authoritative. According to one Karaite source, “Karaism is the original form of Judaism commanded by God to the Jewish people in the Torah... [and has been] around since God gave [God’s] laws to the Jewish people.”
But Karaites don’t have a single unified tradition regarding their origins; rather, they have many. One of their narratives, instead of tracing themselves back to the biblical Hebrews, links them to an unnamed sect of Jews who lived during the first century CE in the Land of Israel and whose central sacred text may have been the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Other traditions connect them to the same era but not to sacred texts from the Qumran caves; instead, these theories suggest that they are either the descendants of the Sadducees or emerged in reaction to the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Contemporary scholars largely challenge all of these notions, arguing that the Karaite community began sometime between the eighth and tenth centuries in the region of today’s Iran and Iraq. Some add that Karaites developed a narrative of their origins retroactively, professing an unbroken lineage between themselves and Jewish communities from centuries past in order to challenge other Jewish authorities, such as the Rabbanites, thereby giving themselves more authenticity.
Even if we accept the general consensus among contemporary scholars—that the Karaite community began sometime between the eighth and tenth centuries—such a perspective necessitates an explanation for why they appeared when they did.
One theory is that an eighth-century CE Jew named Anan ben David started this new faction in response to being censured by Iraqi rabbinic authorities. Others say that Anan established the group (called by some "Ananites") after being passed over to become leader of the Babylonian Jewish community. Still others dismiss both these ideas, saying it is highly unlikely that a new Jewish sect would be launched because of a public humiliation.
Yet another view is that Karaism did not really take off until the ninth century, when a Persian-born Jew, Daniel al-Kumisi, expanded the group’s membership with a missionary’s zeal, dismissing Anan’s importance along the way. According to San Francisco State University emeritus professor Fred Astren, it is likely the Karaites surfaced because of a confluence of trends within the Jewish community.
 Hahn Tapper, Judaisms, 2.
 Lasker, Karaism, 3.
 Whereas the root of the word Rabbanite is rav or rab, meaning "teacher," the root of the word Karaite is qara, meaning "to read." Some say this points to how Karaites are more literal in their interpretation of Jewish law.
Fred Astren, Karaite Judaism and Historical Understanding (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004), 13-14; Aaron Hahn Tapper, Judaisms: A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016), 2-3, 128, 224-226; Daniel J. Lasker, Karaism: An Introduction to the Oldest Surviving Alternative Judaism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2022), 3.