Cedars of Lebanon: From “The Mantle of Elijah”
It was estimated that in 1942 about one hundred Karaite families were living in the United States—a remnant of a once flourishing Jewish “heresy.” The movement itself will soon disappear entirely, if it has not done so already. But it will have left behind it a history and a body of writing of unusual interest.
The origins of Karaism are still relatively obscure. It rose in the 8th century C.E. in the Near East and flourished in the two following centuries; thereafter its vitality ebbed, but slowly, and there was significant Karaite activity down through our own time. It is possible that Karaism had its roots in older heterodox movements (the Sadducees, the Essenes, etc.); it was certainly much affected by the rise of Islam and by the emergence of Moslem theology and scholasticism. The Karaites rejected the rabbinic (Rabbanite) tradition as codified in the Talmud and aimed to “reform” Judaism by returning afresh to Scripture; in this, their attitude paralleled that of the later Christian Reformation. They also laid greater stress on ascetic practices, and were more inclined to a Messianic nationalism than rabbinic Jews.
Despite their revolt against the Oral Law and their adherence only to the Written Law, the Karaites soon developed a tradition of their own which was no less stringent and complete than the rabbinic one. Some later Karaite thinkers, while still condemning Rabbanism, nevertheless relied freely on the work of its authors, particularly Maimonides. One such was Elijah Basyatchi, born in Adrianople about 1420, and author of a code of Karaite law entitled The Mantle of Elijah (in Hebrew, Adderet Eliyahu) .
The following excerpt from The Mantle of Elijah is condensed from the section printed in the recent Karaite Anthology, translated and edited by Leon Nemoy, and published by Yale University Press under the Louis M. Rabinowitz Foundation grant as Volume VIII of the invaluable Yale Judaica Series.—Ed.
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