Karaites (Heb. קראים, Karaim, i.e. Readers) is the name of one of the oldest and most remarkable sects of the Jewish synagogue, whose distinguishing tenet is strict adherence to the letter of the written law (i.e. sacred writings of the O.T.), and utter disregard of the authority of the oral law or tradition (q.v.).
Origin. — Up to our own day it has been impossible to determine the age in which the Karaites originated; certain it is that they existed before the 8th century, to which their origin was formerly assigned. The Karaites themselves claim to be the remains of the ten tribes led captive by Shalmaneser. The Rabbins (e.g. Aben Ezra, Maimonides, etc.) unjustly assert that this sect is identical with the Sadducees (comp. Rule, Karaites, p. viii), and that they were originated by Ahnan (about A.D. 640), because the latter was ignored in the election of a new Resh-Gelutha (q.v.); but the investigations of our day lead us to believe that the Karaites must have originated immediately after the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity, although they did not organize into a distinct sect until after the collection of oral tradition, and that for this, and no other reason, we find no mention of them as such in the New-Test. writings, nor in those of Josephus and Philo. Upon the completion of the Talmud it is well known that a great agitation prevailed in the Jewish community, especially in the western synagogues, and particularly at Constantinople, where, on the ides of February, A.D. 529, Justinian was obliged to interfere, and actually prohibited the reading of the Mishna in the synagogue. In the conversion. of the Khazars (q.v.) to Judaism, the Karaites, as we learn from the Sepher Chozri, SEE JUDAH HALEVI, already appear as a distinct sect. From inscriptions collected and examined by Abraham Firkovitch, the celebrated Russian Jew, within the last twenty years, there are indications that in the Crimea at least Karaites may have flourished as early as the first half of the 4th century (compare Rule, p. 83; N. Y. Nation, June 7, 1866). The external unity, however, of the Jewish Church was not broken apparently until the time of Ahnan ben-David. It is true, even in the days of Christ, the internal peace of the Jewish fold was much disturbed; synagogues differed greatly from each other, but ostensibly these differences were provoked only by ignorance of the Hebrew, and the introduction of Greek and other foreign idioms; on doctrines and discipline there seemed to reign universal harmony. Not so after the publication of the Talmud. There were many who inclined to pay strict deference only to the inspired writings of the O.T.; and when, in the middle of the 8th century, a Luther in the form of Ahnan ben-David arose in the Jewish midst and declared his opposition to the Rabbinites, a party was formed in his favor at Jerusalem itself, which soon extended throughout Palestine, and even far away through all the East,as well as towards the West. The personal history of this great Jewish reformer is rather obscured by the fables of Arabs, and the calumnies of some Rabbinites; and it remains to be settled whether, as the Karaites assert, he was born at Beth-tsur, near Jerusalem (and of the lineage of king David), or in Beth-tsur (Bazra) on the Tigris, and consequently imbibed his reformatory notions from the Arabian or Persian dissenters from Mohammedanism known as Mutazilites (q.v.). Certain it is, however, 'that at the time of the election of a new Resh-Gelutha Ahnan must have enjoyed some distinction, or he could never have presented claims for the office of "leader in Israel." In the year 761 we find him at Jerusalem in a synagogue of his own, expounding the new doctrine, and, after kindling great enthusiasm among a host of disciples who had quickly gathered about him, sending forth from this centre of Judaism "letters of admonition instruction, and encouragement to distant congregations, with zealous preachers who proclaimed everywhere the supreme authority of the Law, and the worthlessness of all that, in the Talmud or any other writings, was contrary to the law of Moses" (comp. Pinsker, Likute Kadmonioth, or Zur Geschichte u. Liter. des Karaismus, Append. p. 33 and 90). Ahnan died in 765, yet within that astonishingly brief period the Karaites had spread over Palestine, Egypt, Greece, Barbary, Spain, Syria, Tartary, Byzantium, Fez, Morocco, and even to the ranges of the Atlas, and by all the Karaites in these distant lands his death was mourned as the loss of a second Moses. Under Rabbi Salomon .ben-Jerukhim (born in 885) they prospered greatly in the 9th century, and even up to the 14th they seem to have increased, but thereafter their condition becomes obscure, and light first again breaks upon the Karaites' history with the opening of the present century (see below).
The reason why so little is yet known about the Karaites is that their writings are not generally accessible. Towards the close of the 17th century Protestant theologians interested themselves in their behalf, and in 1690 Peringer (then professor of Hebrew at the university at Upsala) was sent to Poland by the king of Sweden to make inquiries into their history. In 1698 Jacob Trigland (professor at Leyden) went thither for the same purpose, and the results of his investigations, which remain of great value to this day, were published in the Thesaurus of Sacred Oriental Antiquities. Trigland says that he had learned enough to speak of them with assurance. He asserts that, soon after the prophets had ceased, the Jews became divided on the subject of works and supererogation, some maintaining their necessity from tradition, whilst others, keeping close to the written law, set them aside, and that, thus Karaism commenced. He adds that, after the return from the Babylonian captivity, on the re-establishment of the observance of the law there were several practices found proper for that end, and' these, being once introduced, were looked upon as essential, and as appointed by Moses. This was the origin of Pharisaism, while a contrary party, who continued to adhere to the letter, founded Karaism. Wolfius, the great Hebrew bibliographer, depending on the Memoirs of Mardachai ben-Nissan, a learned Karaite (published by Wolf under the title of Notitia Kareorum, Hamburg and Leipzig, 1714, 4to), refers their origin to a massacre among the Jewish doctors under Alexander Janneeus, their king, about a hundred years before Christ, because Simon, son of Shetach, and the queen's brother, making his escape into Egypt, there forged his pretended traditions, and, on his return to Jerusalem, published his visions, interpolating the law after his own fancy, and supporting his novelties from the notices which God, he said, had communicated by the mouth of Moses, whose depositary he was. He gained many followers, and was opposed by others, who maintained that all which God had revealed to Moses was written. Hence the Jews became divided into two sects, the Karaites and Traditionists. Among the first, Juda, son of Tabbai, distinguished himself; among the latter, Hillel (q.v.). In later history he agrees with what has been said above. It remains only to be stated that Wolfius reckons not only the Sadducees, but also the Scribes, in the number of Karaites. But such a classification is wholly inconsistent with our present knowledge of the Sadducees and the Scribes. Karaism cannot be regarded as in any sense a product of Sadduceeism; the two are the opposites both in principle and tendency, or, as Rule has it, " Sadduceeism and Karaism are just as contrary the one to the other as unbelief and faith."
Doctrines and Usages. — Although the Karaites are decidedly opposed to assigning any authority to tradition, they by no means reject altogether the use of the Talmud, etc. Quite to the contrary, they gladly accept any light that they can get in their investigation of the O.T. Scriptures, but it is only as exegetical aids that they are ready to accept Jewish traditionary writings. Selden, who is very express on this point, observes, in his Uxor Hebraica, that besides the mere text, they have also certain interpretations which they call hereditary, and which they consider proper traditions. Their theology seems to differ only from that of the Rabbinites in being purer and free from superstition, as .they give no credit to the explications of the Cabalists, chimerical allegories, nor to any constitutions of the Talmud. In short, they accept only what is conformable to Scripture, and may be drawn from it by just and necessary consequences. The Karaites, in distinction from the Rabbinites, have their own Confession of Faith, which consists of ten articles. They are (as translated by Rule, p. 128) as follows:
1. That all this bodily (or material) existence, that is to say, the spheres and all that is in them, is created.
2. That they have a Creator, and the Creator has his own soul (or spirit).
3. That he has no similitude, and he is one, separate from all.
4. That he sent Moses, our master (upon whom be peace !).
5. That he sent with Moses,' our master, his law, which is perfect;
6. For the instruction of the faithful, the language of our law, and the interpretation, that is to say, the reading (or text), and the division (or vowel pointing).
7. That the blessed God sent forth the other prophets.
8. That God (blessed be his name!) will raise the sons of men to life in the day of judgment.
9. That the blessed God giveth to man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.
10. That the blessed God has not reprobated the men of the captivity, but they are under the chastisements of God, and it is every day right that they should obtain his salvation by the hands of Messiah, the Son of David.
A comparison of this confession with the thirteen articles of the Rabbinites SEE JUDAISM, makes it evident that the Karaitic confession was framed later than that of the Rabbinites, with intent to put in bold relief the peculiar doctrines of Karaism. Prayer, fasting, and pilgrimages to Hebron (evidently inspired by the Mohammedan pilgrimage to Mecca) are points of religious practice to which they pay particular attention. They are eminently moralists (revering greatly Le 19; Le 20), very conscientious in their dealings with their fellow-men, temperate and simple in food and dress, although far from being ascetics. In distinction from the Rabbinites, they make the heads of their phylacteries round instead of square, and their prohibition of marriage among persons of affinity extends to degrees almost of infinity. Instead of facing their synagogues towards the east, as do the Rabbinites, they face them north and south, arguing that Shalmaneser brought them northward, so that in praying they must turn to the south in order to face Jerusalem.
Number and Present Condition. — The number of the present adherents to Karaism has been variously estimated; nothing, however, can be definitely or even approximately given until more shall be known of the Jews of Asia. They are strongest, according to modern accounts, in the Crimea, where there are over 4000 of them; but, with Rule (p. 112), we believe that there are many Jews, ostensibly adherents of the Rabbinites, who are truly believers in Karaism; certainly the Reformed schools of Judaism are nothing else than Rationalistic Karaites.
Under the Russian and Austrian governments the Karaites enjoy greater privileges than the Rabbinites; in many respects they are on an equality with the adherents to the state religion of these respective countries. Fortunately for the Rabbinites, however, it is not any want of morality in them, but the excesses of the Chasidim (q.v.) who belong to their number, that has deprived them of the favors which are so freely bestowed on the Karaites. Strangely enough, the Karaites contend that the Messiah will issue from their tribe, and that their princes were once the sovereigns of Egypt.
Literature. — The Kaiaites have, ever since the days of Ahnan, produced writers of great excellence and distinction. Unfortunately, we have thus far succeeded in wresting from oblivion, comparatively speaking, only a few works, but these evince that Karaism has not failed to be active in urging its adherents to literary activity. They have produced an extensive special Hebrew literature of their own, chiefly consisting of works on theology, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, etc. The greatest number of these are deposited in the Imperial Library at St. Petersburg. So long as they lived principally under Mohammedan rule they wrote in Arabic, but when they unfolded a -literary activity in the Crimea and among the Tartars they originated a language peculiar to themselves-a mixture of Tartar and Turkish. Some of their principal later authors are little known to us, e.g. Joseph b. Noah, Jeshua, Jehudah Hadassi, Aron b.-Joseph, Aron b.-Eliah, the celebrated opponent of Moses Maimonides; Eliah Beshitzi, Kaleb, Moses Beshizi, Mardochai b.-Nissan, Salomo b.-Abram Traki, Simcha b.- lsaac b.-Moses, etc.
See Furst, Gesch. d. Karderthums (Leipz. 1869, 5 vols. 8vo).; Beer, Gesch. d. judisch. Sekten, vol. i (Leipz. 1822, 8vo); Jost, Gesch. d. Judenthums, vol. ii (see Index in vol. iii); Gratz, Gesch. d. Juden, ii, 497 sq., and later volumes; and the compendium of Rule, History of the Karaite Jews (Lond. 1870, 8vo). (J. H. W.)