'Spiraling back to the roots of the Torah while evolving'

As Karaites undergo a resurgence, why is their Passover different from all others?

An ancient stream of Judaism whose members distrust rabbinical authority, Karaism is seen growing in popularity among skeptical Israelis

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Bruce Brill examines barley in Jerusalem, Israel on March 22, 2023. (Canaan Lidor)
Bruce Brill examines barley in Jerusalem, Israel on March 22, 2023. (Canaan Lidor)

Outside the walls of Jerusalem, Bruce Brill carefully picks apart a single grain of barley. He meticulously strips off three sets of chaff to reveal a juvenile seed, its contents still white and gelatinous. Brill shakes his head in disappointment.

Brill’s interest is neither botanical nor agricultural: He’s performing an ancient religious rite occurring annually at the end of the Hebrew month of Adar. Once a common practice to confirm the arrival of spring and Passover, today it’s observed only by Karaites – members of a tiny but ancient stream of Judaism that accepts neither Rabbinic Judaism’s authority nor its calendar.

The Hebrew calendar, introduced in the year 359, is supposed to tell Jews when to celebrate Passover, supposedly making Brill’s barley inspection unnecessary. But Karaites reject the calendar, which they say is flawed and leads to deviations from what the Torah commands.

More than a mere calendrical issue, the Karaite barley search is part of that stream’s independence and suspicion of the rules and teaching of Rabbinic Judaism. This rebelliousness has relegated Karaism to Judaism’s sidelines for centuries. But as many Israeli Jews become estranged from the Chief Rabbinate, Karaism recently has been experiencing a rejuvenation – and the promise of continuity.

The calendrical distrust manifested in barley searches is but one of Karaite Judaism’s divergences from rabbinical norms. Karaites – there are an estimated 50,000 worldwide, mostly living in Israel — have egalitarian services and marriage contracts. They follow a patrilineal definition of who’s a Jew and they bow down like Muslims in prayer. Many observant Karaites don’t wear kippot, do not separate their dairy from their meat, and some do not celebrate Hanukkah.

On Passover, some Karaites drink beer, which is strongly prohibited in Orthodox Judaism because it interprets the fermentation of barley as the equivalent of leavened bread, which the Torah bans on the holiday. On this issue and others, these Karaites stick to the letter of the Torah, which says nothing about drinking beer. They also eat pasta, arguing it is as unleavened as matzah.

Women attend an egalitarian prayer at the Karaite synagogue in Ramle, Israel on September 23, 2018. (Universal Karaite Judaism)

These potentially attractive concessions could make observing Passover a breeze, but it was the calendar that led Bruce Brill, a 75-year-old New York-born former intelligence analyst for the NSA to develop Karaite leanings.

“About 20 years ago I learned that the Hebrew calendar that we all use is off,” said Brill, a father of five who lives in Nokdim near Jerusalem. “It led me to think about other issues that don’t hold up in how Judaism is practiced today.”

Brill, who immigrated to Israel in 1974, observed occasional discrepancies between the Hebrew calendrical date and the phase of the moon, on which that calendar is based. Known as the Hebrew calendar drift, astronomers say it has pushed the calendar forward by about two weeks over the past 1,664 years.

That’s a minor deviation considering the complexity of the Hebrew calendar’s task: aligning the solar year (365 days) with the lunar year (348 days). But on Passover, that two-week shift is crucial to some Karaites because they believe it may render the ceremony unkosher.

That’s because the Bible stipulates that only ripe barley may be served as a wave offering – the grain sacrifice that kohanim, Jewish priests, used to offer God on Passover at the Temple in Jerusalem. Until the barley is ripe, Karaites do not celebrate Passover, the weeklong holiday that begins with the Passover Seder on the 15th of Nisan (this year, it falls on the evening of April 5).

Brill eventually did find ripe barley last month in Sderot. He informed a large Karaite WhatsApp group of the find, attaching photos as proof, which allowed hundreds of Karaite families to observe the holiday roughly with the rest of the Jewish People: Karaite Passover begins this year on April 6.

The delay owes not to barley issues, but to how Karaites rely on observations for the first day of the Hebrew-calendar month, when the crescent moon makes its first appearance. When there’s a discrepancy between the calendar and the first sighting, they ignore the former and treat the sighting as the true beginning of the month, dating any holidays in that month accordingly.

It’s part of “seeking to stay as close as possible to Judaism’s source,” Brill said.

Karaite men pray at the Karaite synagogue of Beersheba in 2017. (Universal Karaite Judaism)

At a time when many Israelis regard the Chief Rabbinate, the supreme authority for Orthodox Judaism in Israel, as corrupt and out of touch with the non-observant majority, Karaite Judaism is attracting new members, leaders of two Karaite communities told The Times of Israel.

Melekh ben Ya’aqov, 54, discovered Karaism about 20 years ago, after leaving the Jewish Orthodox lifestyle in which he had been raised in New York. He tried to resume it as a yeshiva student in Jerusalem after immigrating to Israel in 1993, but eventually turned to Karaism instead.

“I didn’t know what Torah was, but I knew that what I was studying in yeshiva wasn’t it,” said ben Ya’aqov, who now heads an organization called the World Alliance of Qara’im.

The establishment of that group, which has hundreds of members, is part of a new chapter in the long history of the Karaites, who have existed as a group for 1,200 years.

“We’re what you might call neo-Karaites,” ben Ya’aqov said of his organization and community, which is mostly made up of Jews who had not been raised in the Karaite philosophy but discovered it later in life.

Israel also has a large community of traditional Karaites, most of whom are descended from Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s from Egypt, which used to have an ancient Jewish community and had been also the center of Karaite Judaism for centuries.

Men inaugurate a new Torah scroll at the Karaite synagogue in Ramle, Israel, in 2013. (Universal Karaite Judaism)

The neo-Karaites sometimes study with Egyptian Karaites, but the communities rarely mix, according to ben Ya’aqov. The Egyptian Karaites have their own umbrella group, the Universal Karaite Judaism, which is based in Ramle near Tel Aviv.

Eliyahu Eltahan, the head of that group, describes Karaite Judaism as “running along parallel tracks” to Rabbinic Judaism. “We have our own rabbis and chief rabbi, our own kosher butcher shops, rabbinical courts, synagogues, conversion course. We even have our own mohalim,” he says proudly, using the Hebrew-language word for people who perform circumcision.

The Egyptian Karaites, who have 12 communities in Israel, including in Jerusalem, Beersheba and Ofakim, have been more insular than the neo-Karaites, according to Oshra Gezer, a 48-year-old Egyptian Karaite.

“You couldn’t become Karaite when I was young,” Gezer, who has one daughter, said. “But these days, our rabbis are performing mixed marriages, between Karaites and non-Karaites, who then join our ranks. Both this dynamic and the advent of neo-Karaism are recent developments that make us grow,” she said.

Both men and women pray on both sides of the partition of the Karaite synagogue in Ramle, Israel, during a service in 2013. (Universal Karaite Judaism)

As a woman, Gezer feels “privileged” to be a Karaite, she said. “Karaite marriage contracts are egalitarian; neither men nor women can withhold a divorce. The status of women is equal to men,” she noted. Gezer used to take this for granted, but has “come to realize how fortunate my daughter and I are,” she added.

Gezer is a member of a newly established three-woman team at Universal Karaite Judaism responsible for strengthening the status of women in that community. “We’re highlighting egalitarianism as an alternative to Orthodox exclusion,” she said. “It’s part of our outreach, and it’s already leading to an intellectual revival within Judaism.”

These days, Egyptian Karaites have an interest in outreach. In 2016, World Karaite Judaism opened a visitors center in the Old City of Jerusalem, complete with a museum and a synagogue that functions both as a prayer house and a display.

Resembling Muslim mosques and some synagogues in the Caucasus, the Karaite one in Jerusalem is entirely carpeted, and visitors take off their shoes at the entrance as a sign of reverence, said Avi Yefet, the synagogue’s caretaker.

Situated in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, the Karaite visitors center, which was built with donations, is frequently the target of hate crimes by Orthodox fanatics, Yefet said. “Some of them think we’re Messianic Christians. Others know we’re Jewish and hate us all the same, maybe even more. They’ll barge in here and hurl insults or throw garbage over the fence,” he said.

A member of the Karaite community of Ramle, Israel, carries a Torah scroll during a service in 2015. (Universal Karaite Judaism)

Though they reject later interpretations of the Bible, including the Talmud, the Karaites are neither primitivists nor purists, ben Ya’aqov said. “Yes, we believe we need to stay closer to the pure word of the Torah, but we’re not about riding around on donkeys,” he added.

Some Torah laws, like the prohibition on murder, are “eternal,” ben Ya’aqov said. But others, such as animal sacrifices, “were concessions to humanity at a given time.” A vegetarian, ben Ya’aqov questions whether sacrificing live animals “has any relevance in the modern age,” he said, even though the Torah devotes long passages to the practice.

“Karaism isn’t about circling back to old times,” Ben Ya’aqov says in explanation of this apparent contradiction. “It’s more like an upward spiral: Spiraling back to the roots of the Torah while evolving, taking into account all the wisdom, all of the advancements that humanity has made.”

The time is ripe for this because of the reconsolidation of the Jewish People in Israel, he said. “The Rabbinate was more powerful and necessary in the Diaspora, but now the Jewish People are back to our land. We can forgo the scaffolding and worship as intended,” he said. Besides, he argued, the internet age has made it more convenient to announce holidays according to sightings.

But does this vision really justify abandoning the Hebrew Calendar, an astronomical masterpiece that has united the Jewish People across continents through some of its darkest hours, and still today acts as its loudest metronome?

Even some Messianic Jews, a controversial offshoot of Judaism that the Rabbinate considers heretic or not Jewish at all, oppose the Karaite rejection of the Hebrew calendar as too revolutionary.

To abandon it would be to “sever ourselves from fellowship and community with the Jewish people and one another,” Thomas Lancaster, a prominent Messianic writer, wrote in a 2021 op-ed about that aspect of Karaism. “We should celebrate [the holidays] along with all Israel and on Israel’s authority, not independent of the greater people of God.”

Ben Ya’aqov concedes that giving up the calendar “sacrifices convenience.” But it’s worth it, he argues. “The calendar is a sign of unity, but there’s no real unity: Our people are completely fractured, and much of it is due to attempts to dictate Judaism top down, as the Rabbinate does, introducing many distortions to Judaism,” Ben Ya’aqov said.

“We need to reconstitute Judaism around its foundations,” Ben Ya’aqov said. “So we need to break some things, like the calendar, to make our People whole again.”

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