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Jewish sect founded in the late 8th century by Anan ben David. Karaism rejected the rabbinic tradition of Talmudic law and based its religious life on the literal interpretation of the Bible.

Anan ben David, nephew of the deceased Exilarch of the Bustanai dynasty, also aspired to this high position. The Geonim, the highest religious authorities in Babylonia, doubted Anan’s devotion to Talmudic law and appointed instead his younger brother, Hananiah. Angered by the rejection from the Geonim, Anan proclaimed openly his opposition to the Talmud. His followers rebelled against the Talmudic tradition. They were influenced by the controversy raging in Islam at that time between traditionalists and their opponents. When Anan’s supporters increased in numbers, he became head of the new religious sect that later came to be known as Karaism, from the Hebrew Karaim, or (strict) readers of the Scripture.

Anan recognized the authority of the Bible only. He urged his pupils to search in the Scriptures for the true or literal interpretation of the law. By their strict adherence to the biblical text the Karaites defeated their own purpose. As time went on, the Karaite teachers engaged in hair-splitting interpretations of the Bible no less than the rabbinical authorities whom they criticized. Much confusion resulted from the varied and often conflicting interpretation of Karaite scholars. In many instances the Karaite restrictions were more severe than those of the Talmud. They prohibited the use of light on the Sabbath day altogether, and were even more rigorous in observance of the laws of ritual cleanliness and fasting.

The debates between the Talmudists and Karaites stimulated Jewish scholarship. The defense of traditional Judaism required a thorough knowledge of the Bible and the Hebrew language. Jewish philosophic thought was also mobilized in defense of tradition.

Between the 9th and 12th centuries Karaite communities were established in Babylonia, Persia, Egypt, and Palestine. In the 13th century many Karaites settled in the Crimea in Russia, and spread from there to Lithuania and Galicia. During the last few centuries the Karaites have gradually separated from the Jewish community. For instance, in order to avoid the restrictive measures directed against Jews by the Tsarist regime in Russia, Karaites tried to prove that they were not Jews.

Before World War II, there were about 12,000 Karaites, most of them in the Crimea. The Karaites have at all times professed a love for Zion. Since the establishment of Israel, many Karaites from Egypt have settled in the Holy Land. They have founded several settlements, and have tended to draw nearer to other Jews.

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