Karaite Jews in Crimea

Karaite Jews in Crimea


Karaite “Kenesa” (synagogue) in Crimea

Karaite Judaism (sometimes referred to as Karaism) is a Jewish heretical movement that recognizes only the Bible as a source for legal authority, as opposed to mainstream Judaism, which considers the Oral Torah (as codified in the Talmud) as authoritative in decisions regarding Jewish Law. Historians believe that Karaite Judaism began in Baghdad in the 8th century CE. Its founder, Anan Ben-David, was bitter at having been passed over for a leadership position in the Jewish community, so he broke away and formed his own sect which eventually came to be known as the Karaites. At its height, the movement may have commanded a not-insignificant percentage of world Jewry. But the number of adherents dwindled significantly over time, and there are now just an estimated 30,000–50,000 Karaites left, most living in Israel, with smaller communities in Turkey, Europe and the United States.

Crimea mapOne of these communities can be found in the Crimea, which has been in the news recently following the crisis between Russia and Ukraine. Only 800-1,500 Karaites remain in the region, but their history goes back more than 700 years. Karaite Jews migrated with the Tatar conquerors of the Crimean peninsula in the mid-13th century, with the first mention of the group coming in 1278 regarding a dispute between Karaites and Rabbinic Jews over which Jewish calendar to use. The town of Chufut-Kale developed as the leading Karaite center in Crimea.

The Karaite Jewish population of Crimea was granted the status of dhimmah (a protected minority) within the then-Muslim state and they had to pay a special tax levied on non-Muslims. This continued for several hundred years until the 17th century, which saw an acceleration of Turkish social intrusion into Karaite society. Karaite Jews adopted Turkish names and some found employment in the court of the Khans.

Karaite Jews spread out from Crimea to neighboring Lithuania by the 14th century, settling initially in the town of Troki and later spreading throughout the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Troki became a Karaite spiritual center of its own in the 16th century. Crimea saw an influx of Karaite Jews in the 19th century following a famine and plague in Poland and Lithuania. After the annexation of Crimea and incorporation of some parts of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth into Russia in the late 18th century, most Karaite settlements in Eastern Europe became part of the Russian Empire, and have stayed that way until today.

Under Russian rule, the Karaite Jews successfully petitioned the Empress Catherine the Great to be legally differentiated from the mainstream Jewish community in Russia, in large part to have an easier life, although also for theological reasons, such as their refusal to accept the authority of the Oral Torah. This led to an exemption to the double tax imposed on the general Jewish population, freedom from the restrictions of the “Pale of Settlement,” and the granting other privileges such as the right to purchase certain property and an exemption from obligatory military service, which had been imposed on the Jews of Russia.

In order to bolster their claim of differentiation from the Jews around them, in 1839, the Karaite community asked Abraham Firkovich, a collector of ancient manuscripts, to document an alternative Karaite history. By reviewing the tombstones in the cemeteries of Chufut-Kale and Mangup, he claimed that the earliest burials dated to the 6th century BCE.

According to Firkovich, the Karaite Jews were one of the Lost Tribes of Israel who were expelled from the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians. After their wanderings around Armenia, Persia, and Media, the Karaites came to Crimea during the time of Persian King Kambiz II (6th century BCE). A further story bolstering this version of Karaite history was that around the year 750 CE, the Karaites tried to convert the Khazars to Karaite Judaism. The Khazars, originally a semi-nomadic Turkic people, created the kingdom of Khazaria, which became one of the foremost trading empires in the medieval world, controlling the Silk Road between Europe and China. At the same time of Firkovich’s work, yet another theory on the origins of the Karaites in Crimea emerged – that they not only tried to convert the Khazars to Judaism, but they ethnically merged with them.

Firkovich’s work has been criticized, with historians claiming he altered the dates on the tombstones he referenced. Genetic testing of both Y chromosomal DNA and mitochondrial DNA has shown that Crimean Karaites are indeed partially of Middle Eastern origin and related to other Jews, but that is to be expected since the movement began as a breakaway from traditional Judaism.

The Karaite Jewish community’s success in convincing the Russian czars that they were not the same as the Rabbinic Jews around them led to the Karaites’ rapid assimilation into Russian society; many converted to Christianity and the numbers of Karaites identifying as Jewish dwindled. In 1879, it is estimated that there were only 9,725 Karaites in Russia, although another report puts the number at 12,894 in 1897. Sixty years later, the number dropped to just 5,700.

The Soviet era, with its repression of religious expression, saw increased denial by the Karaites of their Jewish heritage and a strengthening of the Turkic influence. In the 1930s, the secular Karaite philologist Seraya Shapshal created a new theory describing the Altai-Turkic origin of the Karaites and the pagan roots of Karaite Jewish religious teaching. As the leader of the Polish and Lithuanian Karaites, he issued an order canceling the teaching of Hebrew in Karaite schools, and replaced the name of the Jewish holidays and months with Turkic spelling. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, for example, became Byrhy Kiuniu, literally “Horns Day” (after the blowing of the shofar on the holiday).

Since the fall of the Former Soviet Union, there has been a splash of national activities among the Crimean Karaites, but it has not had a Jewish component. Still the small Karaite synagogue in Yevpatoria was restored and opened again in 1999, and the restoration of the Great and Small Kenases (the Karaite term for synagogue) in Chufut-Kaleh is underway.

There have been many prominent Karaite Jewish scholars from Crimea. These include the 16th century Moshe Pasha ben Eliyahu, who wrote biblical commentaries; another Moshe – poet and scribe Moshe ben Eliyahu Levi, from the 17th century; and Yitzhak ben Shlomo who lived until the 19th century and who fixed a unified calendar system.

Karaite cemetery

Karaite cemetery

The Karaite cemetery near Chufat-Kale can still be visited; it has an estimated 5,000-7,000 tombstones, the earliest dating from the 1360s (not the 6th century BCE as Firkovich claimed) and the most recent burial coming in the 1920s.

The term “Karaite” comes from the Hebrew “kara” – to read – which is consistent with their adherence to the written bible but not the Oral Torah.

More information on the history of Karaite Jews in Crimea can be found here, here, here and here.