Shiur #22: The Karaites and the Oral Law (I)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar



     The problems associated with the Karaite sect and the status of the Oral Law did not begin in the time of R. YehudaHalevi. Already in the period following the destruction of the second Temple, movements arose that tried to restrict the authority of the "Rabbanites" and the Oral Law.[1] The phenomenon greatly expanded, however, during the Middle Ages. During the eighth century, sects arose (headed by Anan the Karaite) that wanted to eradicate the Oral Law entirely. At the beginning of the tenth century, Rabbenu Sa'adya Ga'on responded to their arguments in his book Sefer Teshuvot Neged Anan (Book of Answers to the Arguments of Anan), which was a novel philosophical confrontation with the Karaites. RabbenuSa'adya's arguments in this and other books landed a decisive blow upon the sect.


     After Anan came Binyamin ben Moshe from Persia, who wrote the book Mas'at Binyamin. He was not a Karaite in the full sense of the word, but he shared the Karaitic inclination of abandoning the Oral Law in favor of the Written Law. In the tenth century, we hear of the classical Karaites, who rejected the Oral Law and tried to confront Scripture in unmediated fashion, relying on it alone.


     The phenomenon reached its climax in Jerusalem among a circle of ascetic Karaites, who engaged in constant mourning over the destruction of the Temple; they are referred to as the "Evlei Tzion" or the "Shoshanim." They called upon each individual to approach Scripture with nothing but reason and intellect, and not to rely on his teachers or forefathers. They argued that when a person will be called to give a reckoning in heaven, he will not be able to say, "I did such-and-such because that is what I received from my forefathers," just like Adam could not say, "The woman that you gave me, etc."[2]


     One of the most radical Karaites was Daniel Alkamsi, who wrote several books, including Pitaron Sheneim Asar, the first complete commentary to the Prophets written in the Middle Ages. He was also of the opinion that a person must rely only upon his reason and intellect in approaching the Torah. It was precisely in the Diaspora that the Torah reached the entire people, and thus it fell upon each and every individual to strive to reach the proper understanding of the text and to ignore what had been said before him.


     In practice, and despite these tendencies, Karaism did not take hold during this period, and the majority of the Jewish people followed the rationalistic stream, especially in light of the stubborn and successful struggle of Rabbenu Sa'adya Gaon.


     For this reason, R.YehudaHalevi, who authored his book two hundred years after RabbenuSa'adya (at the beginning of the twelfth century), relates to the phenomenon, but does not devote as much attention to it as he does to philosophy.


     The Karaites' arguments are based on two important assumptions:


1)   A person with his intellect alone is capable of contemplating the plain meaning of Scripture and arriving at its proper understanding. He is therefore capable of facing Scripture without any intermediaries or tradition and interpreting it in accordance with his own understanding. This argument is supported by the assertion that "The Lord's Torah is perfect," and its recipients therefore do not require intermediaries to fill in what is missing. As Rihal puts it: "This is exactly what the Karaites say. As they have the complete Torah, they consider the tradition superfluous" (III, 34).

2)   The Karaites tried to diminish the value of Chazal and to undermine the people's trust in them. They argued that the knowledge of the "Rabbanites" is not necessarily any greater than that of the average person, and that the argument that they rely on ancient tradition is not necessarily correct or precise.


These two arguments are summarized by the Rabbi:


This is one of the secrets known only to God, his prophets, and the pious. One must not rely [as did the Karaites] on lack of knowledge of the traditionalists [undermining the standing of Chazal] or on discussion based on [rational] proof [strengthening the standing of the intellect]. (III, 49)




     Rihal attacks the Karaites on these two fronts.


     He first addresses the assumption that man is capable of reaching a true understanding of the Torah with his reason and intellect.


Rihal demonstrates that the Karaites' assertion that the Torah does not require outside intermediaries or an exegetical tradition because it is "perfect" is not even true with respect to reading the text:


The Rabbi: Far from it. If the cononantic text of the Mosaic Book requires so many traditional classes of vowel signs, accents, divisions of sentences and masoretic signs for the correct pronunciation of words, how much more is this the case for the comprehension of the same? The meaning of a word is more comprehensive than its pronunciation. When God revealed the verse: "This month shall be unto you the beginning of months" (Shemot 12:2), there was no doubt whether He meant the calendar of the Copts - or rather the Egyptians - among whom they lived, or that of the Chaldeans who were Abraham's people in Ur-Kasdim; or solar [or lunar months], or lunar years, which are made to agree with solar years, as is done in embolismic years. I wish the Karaites could give me a satisfactory answer to questions of this kind. I would not hesitate to adopt their view, as it pleases me to be enlightened. I further wish to be instructed on the question as to what makes an animal lawful for food; whether "slaughtering" means cutting its throat or any other mode of killing; why killing by gentiles makes the flesh unlawful; what the difference is between slaughtering, skinning, and the rest of it. I should desire an explanation of the forbidden fat, seeing that it lies in the stomach and entrails close to the lawful fat, as well as of the rules of cleansing the meat. Let them draw me the line between the fat which is lawful and that which is not, inasmuch as there is no difference visible. Let them explain to me where the tail of the sheep, which they declare unlawful, ends. One of them may possibly forbid the end of the tail alone, another the whole hind part. I desire an explanation of the lawful and unlawful birds, excepting the common ones, such as the pigeon and turtle dove. How do they know that the hen, goose, duck, and partridge are not unclean birds? I further desire an explanation of the words: "Let no man go out of his place [on the seventh day]" (Shemot 16:29). Does this refer to the house or precincts, estate - where he can have many houses - territory, district, or country? For the word "place" can refer to all of these. I should, further, like to know where the prohibition of work on the Sabbath commences? Why are pens and writing material are not admissible in the correction of a scroll of the Law (on this day), but lifting a heavy book, or a table, or eatables, entertaining guests and all cares of hospitality should be permitted, although the guests would be resting, and the host be kept employed? This applies even more to women and servants, as it is written: "That your manservant and your maidservant rest as well as your" (Devarim 5:14). Wherefore it is forbidden to ride [on the Sabbath] horses belonging to gentiles, or to trade. Then, again, I wish to see a Karaite give judgment between two parties according to the chapters Shemot 21 and Devarim 21:10 sqq. For that which appears plain in the Torah is yet obscure, and much more so are the obscure passages, because the oral supplement was relied upon. I should wish to hear the deductions he draws from the case of the daughters of Zelophehad to questions of inheritance in general. I want to know the details of circumcision, fringes and tabernacle; why it is incumbent on him to say prayers; whence he derives his belief in reward and punishment in the world after death; how to deal with laws which interfere with each other, as circumcision or Paschal lamb with Sabbath, which must yield to which, and many other matters which cannot be enumerated in general, much less in detail. Have your ever heard, O King of the Khazars, that the Karaites possess a book which contains a fixed tradition on one of the subjects just mentioned, and which allows no differences on readings, vowel signs, accents, or lawful or unlawful matters, or decisions?[3] (III, 35)


     Rihal asserts that a tradition is necessary even with respect to vowels and accents, for the Torah was given without them, and the pronunciation of the words and division of the sentences are given to alternate explanations, and thus to different meanings. The very fact that the priests studied the Torah and passed it down without dispute teaches that they had read it in uniform fashion both with respect to vowels and with respect to accents, and all the more so with respect to the meaning of the words, which is also given to alternative interpretations (III, 31).[4]


     A Karaite who wishes to explain the Torah on his own and without an interpretive tradition will explain it in accordance with one of the many possible interpretations, but there is no reason to assume that his fellow Karaite will explain it in the same fashion, for the unmediated Torah allows for a wide variety of explanations. Furthermore, even one person will not remain faithful to his own interpretations, for since the possibilities are varied, it stands to reason that over time his own interpretation will change as well:


The Rabbi: The Law enjoins that there shall be "one Torah and one statute." Should Karaite methods prevail, there would be as many different codes as opinions. Not one individual would remain constant to one code. For every day he forms new opinions, increases his knowledge, or meets with someone who refutes him with some argument and converts him to his views. (III, 39)


     The way to avoid this branching out of the Torah to innumerable lifestyles that are unconnected one to the other except for the fact that they all follow from the same text and from the same authority is by adopting a certain interpretation and following it. Here, argues Rihal, we come to the foundation of the Oral Law: tradition and acceptance of authority:


But whenever we find them agreeing, we know that they follow the tradition of one or many of their ancestors. In such a case, we should not believe their views, and say: "How is it that you agree concerning this regulation, while reason allows the word of God to be interpreted in various ways?" If the answer be that this was the opinion of Anan, or Benjamin, Saul, or others, then they admit the authority of tradition received from people who lived before them, and of the best tradition, viz. that of the Sages. (III, 39)


     Once we have come to this point, argues Rihal, it is preferable to accept Chazal as the source of authority over Anan, Benjamin or Saul, for the reasons that he brings in the continuation:


1)   "For they were many, while those Karaite teachers were but single individuals."

2)   "The view of the Rabbis is based on the tradition of the Prophets; the other, however, on speculation alone."

3)   "The Sages are in concord, the Karaites in discord."

4)   "The sayings of the Sages originate with 'the place which God shall choose,' and we must therefore accept even their individual opinions. The Karaites have nothing of the kind."


The superiority of the traditional Sages over the Karaites is focused on two things:


1)   Their closeness to God (tradition from the prophets, the place chosen by God).

2)   Their greater numbers and their collective agreement.[5]


These two arguments appear many times in Rihal's book. According to Rihal, collective agreement is indicative of truth, as we saw with respect to the revelation at Mount Sinai (IV, 11), the manna (I, 86), Shabbat(I, 87) and history and prophecy (I, 48).


We see, then, that Rihal attacks the arguments of the Karaites, claiming that it is impossible to understand the Written Law or to apply it, without the Oral Law that is passed down together with it from one generation to the next.




     Attention should be paid to the fact that Rihal adopts the same method with respect to the Karaites as he had adopted with respect to philosophy:


Philosophers justify their recourse to speculation by the absence of prophecy and divine light. They established the demonstrative sciences on a broad and unlimited basis, and on that account separated without either agreeing or disagreeing with each other concerning that on which they held such widely diverging views later on in metaphysics, and occasionally in physics. If there exists a class representing one and the same view, this is not the result of research and investigation, but because they belong to the same philosophic school in which this was taught, as the schools of Pythagoras, Empedocles, Aristotle, Plato, or others, as the Academy and Peripatetics, who belong to the school of Aristotle. (V, 14)


     The similarity is not coincidental. Rihal identifies the phenomenon of Karaism as a direct result of the philosophical view that the only way to examine the natural world and the Divine world is through the intellect. The intellect establishes our spiritual world, and therefore it is the only criterion by which we can analyze, infer, and adopt ideas and concepts. The difference between the philosophers and the Karaites, Rihal argues, lies in the fact that the philosophers are more consistent in their views, and on the face of things they are unprepared to assume anything that does not follow from reason. "On the face of things" because Rihal demonstrated that the created world allows for a wide variety of possible understandings. Rihal showed this with respect to the question of the eternity of the world as well as with respect to other questions.


     The Karaites adopt the Torah as a source of authority given by God, but as for its interpretation, they wish to follow the philosophical view that views human reason as the sole arbiter of the truth. Rihal argues that just as this is impossible with respect to the world, it is also impossible with respect to the Torah. In other words, God created His world and gave Israel His Torah in such a way that they are not fully comprehensible without a traditional interpretation.


     The Karaites' assumption that the world was created in perfect manner so that an accompanying interpretation is unnecessary, or the assumption that the Torah was given in a perfect manner so that there is no need for a tradition or for Chazal, has an important ramification regarding God's relationship with the universal world and the religious world.


     I will use a wonderful analogy brought by the Maharal to explain this ramification:


For example, when you see a builder, namely, a carpenter, and he is the cause of a house, and he dies and the house remains, or if you see a father, who is the cause of his son, and the father dies and the son remains – you should not say that the builder is the full cause of the house, or that the father is the full cause of the son. Do not say this, for the cause must remain together with that which it causes, for if it is the cause of its existence, it is also necessary for its continued existence. When the house remains after the builder dies, it is because the builder did not cause the house to come into being or to remain in existence. The builder was merely the cause of bringing the pieces of wood together, and putting the one on top of the other, and in the absence of the cause, the pieces of wood would not have come together. But the standing of the house is in itself, because the earth bears it. What causes the house to stand, then, is the earth, and certainly this cause remains with that which it causes. And it is impossible for this cause to be removed and that which it causes to remain. And similarly, the father is not the cause of the son, but rather the father is the cause for planting the seed, and this cause remains, for if there is no father, there is no planting of seed. But the cause of the son's continued existence is the nature that God implants within him. For how is it possible for the cause to provide more than that what it has? Were the father the cause of the son's existence, it would turn out that the father gave the son more that what he himself has, for he would give his son existence even after the father himself dies, and the son would have life after the father's death. And it is impossible for one to give something that one does not have. Rather, the cause of [the son's] existence is different, namely, God, who is the cause of everything, and there is no cause other than Him. (Netzach Yisrael, introduction)


     The Maharal speaks of the connection between one who performs an action and an object. He makes a clear distinction between a craftsman and God; the craftsman creates an object, but the connection between them comes to an end with the completion of the object, while God created the world and is the cause of its continued existence.


     The world can only be explained and understood through the constant guidance of God. God provides the "operating instructions," but these instructions are not handed over with the completion or purchase of the object. The "manufacturer" allows an "open line" between him and the purchaser, without which the purchaser will never reach full use of the object. This "open line" exists at various levels. The highest level is in the giving and fulfillment of the Torah. After that, there is prophecy and the holy spirit, and last is the tradition.


     The common denominator between the philosopher, who wishes to know the world without the Torah and without tradition, and the Karaite, who wishes to understand the Torah without the tradition, is that both fail to make use of the continuous connection to God that accompanies the world and the Torah.


     When Rihal speaks of the source of the authority of Chazal, he emphasizes the connection of this source to God:


Our law is linked to the "ordination given to Moses on Sinai," or sprung "from the place which the Lord shall choose," "for from Zion goes forth the Law, and the word of God from Jerusalem' (Yeshayahu 2:3). Its mediators were the Judges, Overseers, Priests, and the members of the Sanhedrin… This refers to the time when the order of the Temple service and the Sanhedrin, and the sections [of the Levites], who completed the organization, were still intact, and the Divine influence was undeniably among them either in the form of prophecy or inspiration, as was the case during the time of the second Temple. Among these persons no agreement or convention was possible. In a similar manner arose the duty of reading the Book of Esther on Purim, and the ordination of Chanuka, and we can say: "He who has commanded us to read the Megila" and "to kindle the light of Chanuka," or "to complete" or "to read" the Hallel, "to wash the hands," "the ordination of the eruv," and the like. Had our traditional customs arisen after the exile, they could not have been called by this name, nor would they require a blessing, but there would be a regulation or rather a custom. (III, 39)


     The Oral Law, that is, that body of literature composed at the end of the second Temple period and shortly thereafter, gives expression to the continuous connection between God and His people and to His continued guidance and instruction. This connection is seen first through explicit prophecy or inspiration - "the Divine influence was undeniably among them either in the form of prophecy or inspiration" – and afterwards through tradition - "The view of the Rabbis is based on the tradition of the Prophets" (ibid.).[6]


     From then on, Rihal asserts, with the cessation of prophecy and the holy spirit, the authority of the Sages narrowed and the practices that they instituted fell into the category of "regulation and custom."


     It should be noted that the distinction between the Oral Law prior to the cessation of prophecy and the holy spirit and the Oral law following it, which bases the authority of the Oral Law on Divine revelation of one kind or another, creates a serious problem and leads to a blurring between two realms: wisdom and prophecy. This concern led the Rambam to emphasize the superiority of the Sage over the Prophet in everything related to halakhic decision-making:


If a prophet testifies that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him that the law regarding such-and-such mitzva is as follows, or that the argument of so-and-so is true, that prophet shall be put to death, for he is a false prophet, as we have laid the foundations, for no Torah was given after the first prophet, and nothing may be added, and nothing may be detracted, as it is stated: "It is not in heaven" (Devarim 30). And the Holy One, blessed be He, did not permit us to learn from the prophets, but only from the Sages, the men of arguments and opinions. He did not say, "And you shall come before the prophet who will be in those days," but rather, "And you shall come before the priests, the Levites, and the judge who will be in those days" (ibid. 17). The Sages have already greatly expanded on this idea, and it is the truth. (Introduction to the Rambam's Commentary to the Mishna)


     A sentence such as, "there is no road to the knowledge of the commands of God except by way of prophecy, but not by means of speculation and reasoning" (III, 53) would have disturbed the Rambam, and it would seem that on this issue the Rambam would totally disagree with Rihal. From the Rambam's perspective, there is no difference between the authority of a Sage who lived during the second Temple period and the Sage of our day, for both of them derive their authority from the power that God gave Chazal to use His seal, and not from His revelation to them – "And you shall come before the judge who will be in those days." This authority is so great that it is even preferable to prophetic revelation with respect to halakhic decision-making.[7]


     In contrast to Rihal, the Rambam would say that God maintains a connection to the world through the Oral Law by way of the authority and legitimacy that He gave Chazal to rule in accordance with their own understanding, even if their opinions contradicts Divine truth. Every halakhic ruling issued by an authorized Sage, whether or not it corresponds to absolute Divine truth, receives God's approval by way of the declaration that is sounded through the universe, "My sons have defeated Me."[8]


(Translated by DavidStrauss)


[1] In his historical survey stretching from the second Temple period to the closing of the Mishna (III, 65), Rihal dates the origins of the Karaites to the second Temple period, the days of Shimon ben Shetach.

[2] Some wish to see the spread of this tendency as part of the strengthening of rationalism during the Middle Ages (Ben-Sasson, Toledot Yisrael Bi-Yemei Ha-Benayim).

[3] Here, Rihal follows many midrashim that deal with the phenomenon, e.g., Eliyahu Zuta, parasha 2, and others.

[4] For this reason, Rihal rejects textual emendations based on logical reason (for example, those found in the Septuagint): "Common sense would in these and other cases alter in all volumes, first the letters, then the words, then the construction, then the vowels and accents, and consequently also the sense" (III, 29). As for disagreements about the text, Rihal asserts that we must follow the majority: "[One must study several copies,] the majority of which cannot be faulty" (III, 27). This is consistent with his fundamental position that great numbers are an indication of truth.

It should be noted that according to modern textual criticism, preference is given to the less frequent reading over the more common one, as reflecting the authentic version.

[5] And similarly: "We can only accomplish this through the medium of their traditional teachings, by the support of their deeds, and by endeavoring to find one who is regarded as an authority by one generation and capable of handing down the history of another. The latter generation, however, cannot, on account of the multitude of its individuals, be suspected of having made a general agreement to carry the Law with its branches and interpretations unaltered from Moses downward either in their memories or in a volume" (III, 24).

And similarly: "For they have divine assistance, and would never, on account of their large number, concur in anything which contradicts the Law" (III, 41).

And similarly: "Those who have handed down these laws to us were not a few sporadic individuals, but a multitude of learned and lofty men nearly approaching the prophets" (III, 53).

[6] Here, Rihal is referring to the Anshei Keneset ha-Gedola, who "received from the Prophets," as stated in tractate Avot, as is evident from what is stated later: "The words: 'You shall not add,' etc., refer to 'that which I commanded you through Moses' and any 'prophet from among thy brethren' who fulfils the conditions of a prophet. They further refer to regulations laid down in common by priests and judges 'from the place which thy Lord shall choose.' For they have divine assistance, and would never, on account of their large number, concur in anything which contradicts the Law. Much less likelihood was there of erroneous views, because they had inherited vast learning, for the reception of which they were naturally endowed. The members of the Sanhedrin, as is known by tradition, had to possess a thorough acquaintance with all branches of science. Prophecy had scarcely ceased, or rather the heavenly voice, which took its place" (III, 41).

The Anshei Keneset Ha-Gedola were the transitional generation. On the one hand, some of them still merited prophecy and a heavenly voice, and they received assistance from the Shekhina since they sat in the place chosen by God (at least during those forty years of the second Temple period when prophecy had not yet ceased). On the other hand, their great wisdom was a combination of inheritance, natural proclivity and toil. All of these provide them with ability that is closely connected to the Divine influence.

[7] It should be noted that in the continuation Rihal presents the generation after the cessation of prophecy in a slightly different manner: "Those who have handed down these laws to us were not a few sporadic individuals, but a multitude of learned and lofty men nearly approaching the prophets. And if the bearers of the Law had only been the priests, Levites and the Seventy Elders, the chain beginning with Moses himself would never have been interrupted" (III, 53).

Here, Rihal speaks of the generation following the cessation of prophecy as "bearers of the Law," that is to say, as preservers of the Law who bear the Torah and pass it down to the next generation. It is not by chance that from this perspective, Rihal ignores the difference between the generation following the cessation of prophecy and the generation of prophecy, mentioned in section 39, and emphasizes the continuity from the days of Moshe on. For from the perspective of bearing the Torah and preserving the tradition, there is no difference between a generation that merited prophecy and one that did not. From this perspective, Rihal's position is closer to that of the Rambam, who does not relate to prophecy with respect to the tradition of the Oral Law, and therefore does not distinguish between a generation that merited prophecy and the later generations, but rather focuses on "the judge who will be in those days."

It should be noted that even the Rambam relates to a difference in levels between "Shmuel in his generation" and "Yiftach in his generation." This distinction, however, is not necessarily connected to the prophecy or its absence, or to the chronological proximity to the source of the tradition, but exclusively to the spiritual level of the particular person.

[8] From the story of the oven of Akhnai (Bava Metzia 59b).