Karaite Judaism or Karaism ( /ˈkærə.aɪt/ or /ˈkærə.ɪzəm/; Hebrew: יהדות קראית, Yahadut Qara'it Qārāʾîm ; meaning "Readers of the Hebrew Scriptures") is a Jewish movement characterized by the recognition of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) alone as its supreme legal authority in Halakhah (Jewish law) and theology. It is distinct from mainstream Rabbinic Judaism (also known as Rabbinism, and its practitioners sometimes as Rabbanites), which considers the Oral Torah, the legal decisions of the Sanhedrin as codified in the Talmud, and subsequent works to be authoritative interpretations of the Torah. Karaism is thought to have arisen in the 7th-9th centuries CE in Baghdad and possibly in Egypt.
Karaites maintain that all of the divine commandments handed down to Moses by God were recorded in the written Torah, without additional Oral Law or explanation. As a result, Karaite Jews do not accept as binding the written collections of the oral tradition in the Mishnah or Talmud. When interpreting the Tanakh, Karaites strive to adhere to the plain or most obvious meaning ("peshat") of the text; this is not necessarily the literal meaning, but rather the meaning that would have been naturally understood by the ancient Israelites when the books of the Tanakh were first written. Due to the tremendous changes in Jewish culture and religious practice over the past 4,000 years, the peshat may not be as easily understood as it once was in Biblical Israel, and must now be derived from textual clues such as language, and context. In contrast, Rabbinic Judaism relies on the legal rulings of the Sanhedrin, the highest court in ancient Israel, as they are codified in the Mishnah, Talmud, and other sources, to indicate the authentic meaning of the Torah.
Karaite Judaism holds every interpretation of the Tanakh to the same scrutiny regardless of its source, and teaches that it is the personal responsibility of every individual Jew to study the Torah, and ultimately decide for themselves its correct meaning. Therefore, Karaites may consider arguments made in the Talmud and other works without exalting them above other viewpoints.
According to Rabbi Avraham ben David, in his Sefer HaQabbalah, the Karaite movement crystallized in Baghdad in the Gaonic period (circa 7th–9th centuries CE), under the Abbasid Caliphate in what is present-day Iraq. This is the view universally accepted among Rabbinic Jews. However, the claim has been made that Karaites were already living in Egypt in the first half of the 7th century, the evidence consisting of a legal document that the Karaite community in Egypt had in its possession until the end of the 19th century, which document was said to be stamped by the palm of ˁAmr Ibn al-ˁAṣ, the first Islamic governor of Egypt, in which he ordered the leaders of the Rabbanite community not to interfere in the way of life of the Karaites nor with the way they celebrate their holidays. This document was reported to be dated 20 AH (641 CE).
Many traditionalist Karaites maintain that the origin of the Karaite Judaism was with the giving of the Torah to Moses, that Karaite Judaism is the form of Judaism practiced by the original Israelites under Moses. Under this view, the Karaites would not have been significantly distinct from any other form of Judaism until the formation of the Pharisees far after the return of the exiles in Babylon. This view proposes that Rabbinic Judaism (which formed from the Pharisees) innovated the religion with the Oral Law, while this view also proposes that Karaite Judaism is primarily unchanged from Judaism's original form.
Historians have argued over whether Karaism has a direct connection to anti-Rabbinic sects and views, such as those of the Sadducees, dating back to the end of the Second Temple period (70 CE), or whether Karaism represents a novel emergence of similar views. Karaites have always maintained that, while there are some similarities to the Sadducees, there are also differences, and that the ancestors of the Karaites were another group called Benei Ṣedeq during the Second Temple Period.
Karaites were at one time a significant proportion of the Jewish population. In the early 21st century, it was estimated that there were somewhat more than 50,000 Karaites worldwide, over 40,000 of whom had made aliyah (emigrated to Israel) from Arab countries such as Egypt and Iraq.
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