Karaite Judaism

Karaite Judaism

Karaite Judaism or Karaism (IPA2|ˈkærəˌaɪt, ˈkærəˌɪzəm; Hebrew Name|קָרָאִים|Qaraʾim|Qārāʾîm|meaning Readers [of Scripture] ) is a Jewish movement characterized by the recognition of the Tanakh as its scripture, and the rejection of Rabbinic Judaism and the Oral Law (the Mishnah and the Talmud) as binding. The movement crystallized in Baghdad, in present day Iraq.

When interpreting the Tanakh, Karaites strive to adhere to the plain meaning ("p'shat") of the text. This is in contrast to Rabbinical Judaism, which employs the methods of "p'shat", "remez" (implication or clue), "drash" ("deep interpretation," based on breaking down individual words, e.g., breaking down "be'ra'shit" to "beit" "ra'shit", which means two "startings of") and "sod" ("secret," the deeper meaning of the text, drawing on the Kabbalah). In modern times Karaite Judaism has formed its own independent Jewish organization, and is not a member of any Rabbinic organization.

At one time Karaites were a significant portion of the Jewish populationFact|date=April 2007.

Karaites today

Today it is estimated that there are 2,000 Karaites in the United StatesFact|date=April 2007, about 100 families in IstanbulFact|date=April 2007, and about 12,000 in IsraelFact|date=April 2007, most of them living in Ramleh, Ashdod and Beer-Sheva. Other estimates of the size of the modern Karaite movement are as much as double or triple these numbers, estimating as many as 30,000 or more worldwide, with 20,000-25,000 of them living in Israel.cite news |url=http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1178708657471&pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull |author=Joshua Freeman |title=Laying down the (Oral) law | newspaper=The Jerusalem Post]

In the early 1950s, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate originally objected to the immigration of Karaite Jews to Israel, and unsuccessfully tried to obstruct it.

Moshe Marzouk, one of the Egyptian Jews executed in 1954 for planting bombs at Cairo in the service of Israeli Military Intelligence (the Lavon Affair) was a Karaite. Marzouk was considered a hero and martyr in Israel; however, his Karaite identity was downplayed in official publications, which usually just described him as "an Egyptian Jew".

In Israel, the Karaite Jewish leadership is directed by a group called "Universal Karaite Judaism". Most of the members of its Board of Hakhams are of Egyptian Jewish descent.

There are about 2,000 Karaites living in the United States. Most live near Bnei Yisra'el, located in Daly City, California, which is the only Karaite synagogue in the United States. In the central United States, one will find [http://karaites-usa.org the Karaites-USA Organization] .

On 1 August 2007, the Karaites reportedly converted their first new members in 500 years. At a ceremony in their Northern California synagogue, ten adults and four minors "swore fealty" to Karaite Judaism after completing a year of study. This conversion comes 15 years after the Karaite Council of Sages reversed its centuries-old ban on accepting converts. [ [http://www.jta.org/cgi-bin/iowa/breaking/103393.html Karaites hold first conversion in 500 years] . 2 August 2007, JTA Breaking News.]

There are Karaite groups recognised in Lithuania and in Poland, where approximately 250 members are organized in the Karaites Religious Organization of Poland. [http://www.karaimi.home.pl/|//www.karaimi.home.pl/] There are about 80 Karaites living in Istanbul, Turkey, where the only Karaite synagogue in Turkey, the "Kahal haKadosh be Sukra bene Mikra", is still functional in the Hasköy neighbourhood in the European part of the city.

Karaite beliefs

Karaites believe they observe the original form of Judaism, as prescribed by God in the Tanakh, and reject what they consider to be later additions to the Tanakh of Rabbinic Judaism, such as the Oral Law. They place the ultimate responsibility of interpreting the Bible on each individual. Karaism does not reject Biblical interpretation but rather holds every interpretation up to the same objective scrutiny regardless of its source.

Karaites believe in an eternal, one, and incorporeal God, Creator of Universe, who gave the Tanakh to humankind, through Moses and the Prophets. Karaites trust in the Divine providence and hope for the coming of the Moshiach.

Views on the Mishnah

Karaites do not accept the Mishnah because:Books of the wars of YHVH by Salmon ben Yeruham. [http://www.karaite-korner.org/salmon_ben_yeruham.shtml 3 chapters translated into English] ]

# The Mishnah quotes many different opinions from one another.
# The Mishnah doesn't go on to say in which opinion the truth lies. Rather the Mishnah sometimes agreeing with neither one nor the other, contradicting both.
# They argue that the truth of the oral law given to Moses could only be in one opinion, not many opinions.
# They question why the Mishnah does not solely speak in the name of Moses.
#The Oral Law is not mentioned even once in the entire Tanakh.
#*When God told Moses to come up to Mount Sinai to receive the tablets He said: "Come up to me into the mountain, and be there: and I will give thee tablets of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written;" (Ex 24,12). No mention is made of an Oral Law.
#*The Tanakh reports that the written Torah was both lost and completely forgotten for over 50 years and only rediscovered by the Temple priests (2Ki 22,8; 2Chr 34,15). It is inconceivable that an Oral Law could have been remembered when even the written Law was forgotten.
#*The words of the Mishnah and Talmud are clearly the words of men living in the 2nd-5th centuries CE and absent are the familiar Biblical formulae "And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying," and "Thus saith the Lord".

Karaite interpretations of the Torah

Theoretically, most historical Karaites would not object to the idea of a body of interpretation of the Torah, along with extensions and development of "halakha". In fact, several hundred such books have been written by various Karaite sages throughout the movement's history, though most are lost today. The disagreement arises over the perceived exaltation of the Talmud and the writings of the Rabbis above that of the Torah, so that, in the view of Karaites, many traditions and customs are kept that are in contradiction with those expressed in the Torah. This is seen especially by the fact that the Karaites also have their own traditions that have been passed down from their ancestors and religious authorities. This is known as "Sevel HaYerushah", which means "the yoke of inheritance." It is kept primarily by traditional Egyptian Karaites, and any tradition therein is rejected if it contradicts the simple meaning of the Torah.

For those Karaites who do not have such an "inheritance" or "tradition," they tend to rely heavily upon just the Torah and those practices found within it, as well as adapting Biblical practices into their own cultural context. This lack of tradition could be for many reasons; one is that many modern Karaites are the result of the Karaite revival in large part due to the [http://www.karaite-korner.org/ World Karaite Movement] , a revival group started by Nehemia Gordon and Meir Rekhavi in the early 90's. Another may be the fact that Karaite communities are so small and generally isolated that their members generally adopt the customs of their host country. A prime example of this would be the beginnings of cultural assimilation of traditional Israeli Karaites into mainstream society.

The calendar

Karaites use the observational form of the Hebrew calendar used by Jews in the Land of Israel until at least the end of the Second Temple period. Under that system, a month (Rosh Chodesh) commences with the observation of a new moon in Israel, and the start of new year month of Nissan is based the observation of the ripeness of barley (called the "Aviv"). Before quick worldwide communication was available, Karaites in the Diaspora used the calculated form of the Hebrew calendar used by Jews in general, for convenience. Fact|date=February 2007

The Shabbat

As with other Jews, during the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), Karaites attend synagogues to worship and to offer prayers. However, most Karaites refrain from sexual relations on that day. Their prayer books are composed almost completely of biblical passages. Karaites often practice full prostration during prayers, while most other Jews only pray in this fashion on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Unlike Rabbinic Jews, Karaites do not practice the ritual of lighting candles before Shabbat (lest one unintentionally violate the Shabbat, as "kindling a fire" is a prohibition on Shabbat). This ritual may also have been instituted as anti-Karaite Rabbinic 'halachah' in the Middle Ages. [Ref: Jewish Book of Why V.1] The written Torah does not contain the commandment, as the rabbis have decreed, to light Shabbat candles. Additionally, Karaites interpret the biblical prohibition against kindling a fire on the Shabbat as prohibiting a fire from continuing to burn that was lit prior to the Shabbat. Historically Karaites refrained from utilizing or deriving benefit from light until the Sabbath ends, but modernly Karaites use fluorescent light power hooked up to a battery that is turned on prior to Shabbat. Many observant Karaites either unplug their refrigerators on shabbat or turn off the circuit breakers. Purchasing electricity that is charged on an incremental basis during the Shabbat is viewed as a commercial transaction that the Tanakh prohibits. Theoretically these practices are not universal, since different readings of the scriptural Sabbath prohibitions could yield a variety of points of view.


Karaites wear tzitzit with blue threads in them. In contrast to Rabbinic Judaism, they believe that the techelet (the "blue"), does not refer to a specific dye. The traditions of Rabbinic Judaism used in the knotting of the tzitzit are not followed, so the appearance of Karaite tzitzit can be quite different from that of Rabbanite tzitzit. Contrary to some claims, Karaites do not hang tzitzit on their walls.


Contrary to the beliefs of some, Karaites do not wear tefillin in any form. According to the World Karaite Movement, the Biblical passages cited for this practice are metaphorical, and mean to "remember the Torah always and treasure it." This is because the commandment in scripture is "And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart"… "And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes." (Deuteronomy 6:5,9) Since words cannot be on one's heart, or bound on one's hand, the entire passage is understood metaphorically.


Like Tefillin, Karaites interpret the scripture that mandates inscribing the Law on doorposts and city gates as a metaphorical admonition, specifically, to keep the Law at home and away. This is because the previous commandment in the same passage is the source for Tefillin for Rabbinic Judaism, and is understood metaphorically due to the language. As a result, the entire passage is understood as a metaphor. Therefore, they do not put up mezuzot, although many Karaites do have a small plaque with the Aseret haDibrot on their doorposts. In Israel, in an effort to make other Jews comfortable, many Karaites there do put up mezuzot.


In both Deuteronomy 23:2, and Zechariah 9:6, the Hebrew word "Mamzer" is referenced similar to that of the nations of Ammon, Mo'av, Edom, Egypt, Tyre, Zidon, Ashkelon, Gaza, Philistia, and etc. From such, Karaites have come to consider the most logical understanding of the Hebrew word "Mamzer", which modern Rabbinical Jews tend to translate understand to be a "bastard", to actually speak of a nation people. Karaites think that such an understanding fits perfectly into the context of both Deuteronomy 23 and Zechariah 9, and several Medieval Rabbinical Jewish sages felt it necessary to debate this topic with Medieval Karaite Jewish sages.

Rabbinic opinions

Rabbinic Judaism's scholars, such as Maimonides, write that people who deny the Godly source of the Oral Torah are to be considered among the heretics. However, at the same time Maimonides holds (Hilchot Mamrim 3:3) that most of the Karaites and others who claim to deny the "oral teaching" are not to be held accountable for their errors in the law because they are led into error by their parents and are thus referred to as a "tinok shenishba", or a captive baby.

Rabbinic scholars have traditionally held that, because the Karaites do not observe the rabbinic law on divorce, there is a strong presumption that they are mamzerim (adulterine bastards), so that marriage with them is forbidden even if they return to Rabbinic Judaism. Some recent scholars have held that Karaites should be regarded as Gentiles in all respects, though this is not universally accepted. They hasten to add that this opinion is not intended to insult the Karaites, but only to give individual Karaites the option of integrating into mainstream Judaism by way of conversion.

In response to the position taken by the Karaites in regards to the authority of the Talmud, Orthodox Judaism counters by pointing to the innumerable examples of biblical commandments that are either too ambiguous or documented in such a concise fashion that proper adherence is absolutely impossible without the details provided by the oral tradition. [Rietti, Rabbi Jonathan. The Oral Law: The Heart of The Torah, [http://jewishinspiration.com/tape.php?tape_id=33] ]
*Tefillin: As indicated in Deuteronomy 6:8 among other places, tefillin are to be placed on the arm and on the head between the eyes. However, there are no details provided regarding what tefillin are or how they are to be constructed.
*Kosher laws: As indicated in Exodus 23:19 among other places, a kid may not be boiled in its mother's milk. In addition to numerous other problems with understanding the ambiguous nature of this law, there are no vowelization characters in the Torah; they are provided by the masoretic tradition. This is particularly relevant to this law, as the Hebrew word for "milk" is identical to the word for "fat" when vowels are absent. Without the oral tradition, it is not known whether the violation is in mixing meat with milk or with fat.
*Shabbat laws: With the severity of Sabbath violation, namely the death penalty, one would assume that direction would be provided as to how exactly such a serious and core commandment should be upheld. However, there is little to no information as to what can and cannot be performed on the Sabbath. Karaites, nonetheless, do keep the Shabbat according to their own, different traditions and interpretations, as described in detail in the special section below.For Karaites, in sum, the rabbinic interpretations above, as codified in oral law, are only one form of interpretation. They are definitley not divinely ordained for them, and therefore are also not binding as 'halacha' or practical conduct religious 'law.'

History of Karaism

Karaism appears to be a combination from various Jewish groups in Mesopotamia, that rejected the Talmudic tradition as an innovation. Some suggest that the major impetus for the formation of Karaism was a reaction to the rise of Islam, [Oesterley, W. O. E. & Box, G. H. (1920) "A Short Survey of the Literature of Rabbinical and Mediæval Judaism", Burt Franklin:New York.] which recognized Judaism as a fellow monotheistic faith, but claimed that it detracted from this monotheism by deferring to rabbinical authority.

In the 9th century CE Anan ben David and his followers absorbed sects such the Isawites (followers of Abu Isa al-Isfahani), Yudghanites and the remnants of the pre-Talmudic Sadducees and Boethusians. It must be noted that the Boethusians were an offshoot movement of the Sadducees that differed on issues of purity, and calendarical issues. Anan led a polemic with the rabbinical establishment and later non-Ananist sects emerged, like the Ukbarites.

The dispute between rabbi Gaon Saadiah and the Karaites helped to consolidate the split between them.

Karaites, Sadducees, and Philo

Abraham Geiger posited a connection between the Karaites and the Sadducees based on comparison between Karaite and Sadducee halakha. However Dr. Bernard Revel in his dissertation on "Karaite Halacha" rejects many of Geiger's proofs. Dr. Revel also points to the many correlations between Karaite halakha and theology and the interpretations of the Alexandrian philosopher Philo. He also points to the writings of a 10th century Karaite who brings down the writings of Philo showing that the Karaites made use of Philo's writings in the development of their movement.

The Golden Age of Karaism

The "Golden Age of Karaism" was between 10th-11th centuries CE in which a large number of Karaitic works were produced in the central and eastern parts of the Muslim world. Karaite Jews were able to obtain autonomy from Rabbinical Judaism in the Muslim world and establish their own institutions, and even forced the yeshivas to move to Ramle.Fact|date=March 2007 Karaites in the Muslim world also obtained high social positions such as tax collectors, doctors, and clerks, and even received special positions in the Egyptian courts. Karaite scholars were among the most conspicuous practitioners in the philosophical school known as Jewish Kalam.

According to historian Salo Wittmayer Baron, at one time the number of Jews affiliating with Karaism comprised as much as 10 percent of world Jewry, and debates between Rabbinic and Karaitic leaders were not uncommon.

Most notable among the opposition to Karaitic thought and practice at this time are the writings of Rabbi Saadia Gaon (himself a practitioner of Jewish Kalam thought), which eventually led to a permanent split between some Karaitic and Rabbinic communities.

Russian Karaites

During the 18th century, Russian Karaites spread many myths externally, which freed them from various anti-Semitic laws that affected other Jews. Avraham Firkovich helped establish these ideas by referring to the tombstones in Crimea that bear inscriptions stating that those buried were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Other deflections included claiming to be among those Jews with a Khazar origin, or claiming that Karaites were otherwise not strictly Jewish descended. These actions were intended to convince the Russian Czar that Karaite ancestors could not have killed Jesus; that thus their descendants were free of familial guilt (which was an underlying reason or pretext given at that time for anti-Semitic laws). In 1897, the Russian census counted 12,894 Karaites in the Russian Empire. [ [http://www.archipelag.ru/ru_mir/religio/statistics/said/statistics-imp/ Results of the Russian Empire Census of 1897, Table XII (Religions)] ]

Crimean and Lithuanian Karaites

The Karaim (Turkish "Qaraylar") are a distinctive Karaite community from the Crimea. Their Turkic language is called Karaim. According to a Karaite tradition several hundred Crimean Karaites were invited to Lithuania by Grand Duke Vytautas to settle in Trakai ca. 1397. A small community remains there to this day, which has preserved its language and distinctive customs, such as its traditional dish called "kibinai", a sort of meat pastry, and its houses with three windows, one for God, one for the family, and one for Grand Duke Vytautas. This community has access to two Kenessas. Until recent years the vast majority of Karaites in the world were Qaraylar. Qaraylar might be the only group which most authentically preserves the ancient Karaite ideas of Abu Isa and Jacob Qirqisani. However, as a result of misinformation, the Moetzet Chachamim committee promotes the exclusion of the Karaylar Jews from Universal Karaism to control Aliyah.

panish Karaites

During the 10th and 11th Centuries, Karaite Jews in Spain had become "a force to be reckoned with." In Castile, high-ranking Rabbinical Jews such as Joseph Ferrizuel persuaded the king to allow the persecution and expulsion of Karaite Jews. With royal assistance, Rabbi Todros Halevi and Joseph ibn Alfakhar successfully drove out a large portion of the surviving Karaite population.

Karaite writings

Karaism has produced a vast library of commentaries and polemics, especially during its "Golden Age." These writings prompted new and complete defenses of the Talmud and Mishna, the culmination of these in the writings of Saadia Gaon and his criticisms of Karaism. Though he opposed Karaism, the Rabbinic commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra regularly quoted Karaite commentators, particularly Yefet ben Ali, to the degree that a legend exists among some Karaites that Ibn Ezra was ben Ali's student.

The most well-known Karaite polemic is Isaac Troki's "Ḥizzuḳ Emunah" (חיזוק אמונה) (Faith Strengthened), [a translation of which can be found at http://faithstrengthened.org/] a comprehensive Counter-Missionary polemic, which was later translated into Latin by Wagenseil as part of a larger collection of Jewish anti-Christian polemics entitled "Tela Ignea Satanæ, sive Arcani et Horribiles Judæorum Adversus Christum, Deum, et Christianam Religionem Libri" (Altdorf, 1681) (translation: 'The Fiery Darts of Satan, or the Arcane and Horrible Books of the Jews Against Christ, God, and the Christian Religion'). Many Counter-Missionary materials produced today are based upon or cover the same themes as this book.

Scholarly studies of Karaite writings are still in their infancy.


Further reading

*"Karaite Anthology" (Leon Nemoy) ISBN 0-300-03929-8
*"Karaite Jews of Egypt" (Mourad el-Kodsi) (1987)
*"Karaite Separatism in 19th Century Russia" (Philip Miller)
*"An Introduction to Karaite Judaism" (Yaron, et al.) ISBN 0-9700775-4-8
*"Karaite Judaism and Historical Understanding" (Fred Astren) ISBN 1-57003-518-0
*"Just for the record in the history of the Karaite Jews of Egypt in modern times" (Mourad el-Kodsi) (2002)
*"The Dead Sea Scrolls in the Historiography and Self-Image of Contemporary Karaites" (Daniel J. Lasker) Dead Sea Discoveries, Nov 2002, Vol. 9 Issue 3, p281, 14p-294; DOI: 10.1163/156851702320917832; (AN 8688101)
*"Karaites of Christendom--Karaites of Islam" (W.M. Brinner) from "The Islamic World: Essays in Honor of Bernard Lewis" Princeton University Press 1989
*"Heir to the Glimmering World" (Cynthia Ozick) A fictional story about a historian of the Karaism.
*"A History of the Jews in Christian Spain" (Yitzhak Baer) Vol 1
*"The Jews of Spain, A History of the Sephardic Experience" (Jane S. Gerber)
*"'The Written' as the Vocation of Conceiving Jewishly" (John W McGinley) ISBN 059540488X
*"The History of the Jewish People: Volume II, the Early Middle Ages" (Moses A. Shulvass)

* “Remarks on Avraham Firkowicz and the Hebrew Mejelis 'Document'.” (Dan Shapira). Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 59:2 (2006): 131-180.

* Karaite Judaism: Introduction to Karaite Studies. Edited by M.Polliack. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2004.

* Kizilov, Mikhail. “Faithful Unto Death: Language, Tradition, and the Disappearance of the East European Karaite Communities.” East European Jewish Affairs 36:1 (2006): 73–93.

* Avraham Firkowicz in Istanbul (1830-1832). Paving the Way for Turkic Nationalism. (Shapira, Dan) .Ankara: KaraM, 2003.

* Karaites through the Travelers’ Eyes. Ethnic History, Traditional Culture and Everyday Life of the Crimean Karaites According to Descriptions of the Travelers (Kizilov, Mikhail). New York: al-Qirqisani, 2003.

ee also

*Judah Hadassi
*Benjamin Nahawandi
*Abraham Firkovich
*Aaron ben Moses ben Asher
*Anan ben David
*Letter of the Karaite elders of Ascalon
*List of Karaite Jews

External links

* [http://www.karaiteinsights.com Karaite Insights Website]
* [http://groups.yahoo.com/group/karaiteinsights/ Karaite Insights Blog]
* [http://qaraim.eu.googlepages.com Central Spiritual Board of the Russian Karaites Aboard]
* [http://www.kjuonline.com/ Karaite Jewish University]
* [http://www.karaites.org.uk/ Teachings of Hakham Meir Rekhavi]
* [http://www.dinur.org/resources/resourceCategoryDisplay.aspx?categoryid=442&rsid=478 Resources > Medieval Jewish History > Karaim] The Jewish History Resource Center, Project of the Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
* [http://judaism.about.com/library/uc/uc_sects_a.htm A Brief History of Jewish Sects]
* [http://www.karaim.net/ www.karaim.net] in Hebrew
* [http://www.karaite-korner.org/ World Karaite Movement]
* [http://www.karaites.org/ Karaite Jews of America (KJA) - Congregation Bnei Yisrael]
* [http://www.karaitejudaism.org/ Karaite Judaism teachings in English]
* [http://www.orahsaddiqim.org Congregation Orah Saddiqim]
* [http://homepage.ntlworld.com/john.hill4/ Radio Ezra, Karaite radio station]
* [http://faithstrengthened.org/ Chizzuk Emunah (Faith Strengthened)]
* [http://www.qumran.com/ Qumran Bet Community]
* [http://www.karaites-usa.org/ Karaites USA]
* [http://i-cias.com/e.o/karaism.htm Encyclopaedia of the Orient : Karaism]
* [http://motlc.learningcenter.wiesenthal.org/text/x12/xm1224.html Museum of Tolerance] The Simon Wiesenthal Center
* [http://www.turkiye.net/sota/karaim.html Karaim website] Information about Turkic/Crimean Karaites
* [http://kluby.o2active.cz/klub.aspx?klID=21693 FORUM Karaite judaism / Czech republic] in Czech
* [http://www.karaimi.org/ Karaimi Polscy] in Polish
* [http://www.karaitskyjudaismus.estranky.cz karaitský judaismus] in Czech
* [http://www.karaitskijudaismus.estranky.cz/ karaite judaism] in Polish
* [http://faur.derushah.com/articlesbyhakhamjosefaur.html#intuitive Intuitive Knowledge of God in Medieval Jewish Theology] by Jose Faur, contrasting the intuitive theology of the medieval Rabbanites with the hyper-rationalism of the Karaites

panish persecution of Karaites

* [http://sefarad.rediris.es/english/cronologia_english.htm Spanish-Jewish Chronology]
* [http://members.aol.com/askinazy/crimeajw.html WJC Report July/August 1994]

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