QARAITES, or Karaites, a Jewish sect of the middle ages, claiming to be distinguished by adherence to Scripture as contrasted with oral tradition, whence the name (from קרא qara, to read, as if “readers,” scripturarii; sometimes also בְנֵי מִקְרָא “children of the Text” as read). They have frequently been identified with the Sadducees or with the Samaritans, with neither of whom have they any historical connexion or much spiritual affinity. The schism arose at Bagdad about the middle of the 8th century, when the hereditary claims of Anan, a learned Talmudist, to the office of Resh Galutha were set aside by the Gaonim (heads of rabbinical schools) at Sura and Pumbeditha, because he was believed to undervalue the authority of the Talmud. Anan, nevertheless, allowed himself to be proclaimed Exilarch by his followers, a step construed into treason by the Mahommedan government. He was sentenced to death, but his life was saved by his fellow prisoner, Abu Ḥanifa., the founder of the great school of Moslem theology and jurisprudence. Ultimately he and his followers were permitted to migrate to Palestine. They erected a synagogue in Jerusalem which continued to be maintained until the time of the Crusades. From this centre the sect diffused itself thinly over Syria, spread into Egypt, and ultimately reached S.E. Europe.
Anan, who is said to have died in A.D. 765, was the author of a commentary on the Pentateuch and other works in Talmudic Hebrew and Arabic. Most of these are lost, and we are thus left chiefly dependent on the hostile indications of opponents. His code was recovered in Egypt by the Qaraite Moses b. Elijah Bashyazi (1544–1572). Fragments were published by Harkavy (Voskhod 1897–1898). It is clear that Anan, although theoretically antagonistic to rabbinic methods, was in the end compelled to incline towards them. Considerable influence, too, was exercised on his theology by Abu Hanifa. In general we know that he showed great bitterness against the Talmud and its upholders (the “Rabbanites”) for their modification of the written law by arbitrary additions and subtractions, but there is nothing to indicate that he himself had the insight or the fervour by which he could have become the pioneer of a really great reformation. The questions appear to have turned entirely on points of minute detail. Several of them related to the regulation of the calendar, the new moon, for example, being fixed by the Qaraites by direct observation, not by astronomical calculation, and the intercalary year also being determined empirically; others related to paschal and pentecostal ritual, such as the precise hour for killing the lamb or for burning its remains. The differences which affected social life most deeply were those relating to Sabbath observance and the forbidden degrees of marriage, the Qaraites not recognizing any distinction between relationships of consanguinity and those of affinity, while in their zeal to avoid all risk of infringement of the sacredness of the day of rest they prohibited the burning of any light at all in their houses from sunset to sunset.
Of late years much Qaraite literature has been published. The most valuable contribution to learning made by it is in the direction of Hebrew philology and the natural exegesis of the scriptural text. Little information as to the Qaraites can be derived from their liturgies; they differ fundamentally from those used by Rabbanites in being composed almost entirely of scriptural versicles and in containing practically no Piyyutim (liturgical poems). The controversies as to the rule of faith which so deeply divided the Christian Church in the 16th century gave to this obscure sect an illusory and passing importance, the Catholics frequently hurling the epithet Karaei, in token of contempt, at the Protestants, who in their turn willingly accepted it as sufficiently descriptive of their attitude towards Scripture. The Qaraites never have been numerous; in 1904 their total number was estimated at 12,000, 10,000 being found in Russia: the present community in Jerusalem numbers only a few families. They occur in Constantinople and elsewhere in Turkey, and in Egypt, but are chiefly met with in southern Russia, and especially in the Crimean districts of Eupatoria, Theodosia and Sevastopol. Here their historical capital and chief synagogue was formerly the “Jews’ Castle” (Tshufut-Kale), near Bakh-chisarai. The place is now deserted; its cemetery was the seat of Firkowitsch’s notorious forgeries (inscriptions of 1st century), by which he sought to establish a fabulous antiquity for his sect. According to Strack (A. Firkowitsch u. seine Entdeckungen, 1876) the oldest tombstones do not go back beyond the 14th century. The modern Qaraites are generally, well spoken of for their honesty, perseverance and simple habits of life; they are gradually approximating to the Rabbanites, with whom, in some places, they are on terms of social intimacy. The Russian government exempts the Qaraites from the restrictions to which the rest of the Jews are subject; this circumstance is probably due to the insignificance of the Qaraites numerically.
Among the older authorities may be mentioned Morinus, Exercit. Bibl. lib. ii. ex. 7 (1669); and Triglandius, Diatribe de Secta Karaeorum (1703). See Grätz, Gesch. der Juden, especially in vol. v. (1806), with the additions and corrections of Harkavy in the Hebrew translation; and Fürst, Gesch. des Karäerthums (1865); S. Pinsker, Liqquṭe Qadmoniyyot: articles by A. Harkavy and by S. Poznanski in the Jewish Quarterly Review (e.g. x. 238–276, and vols. xviii.–xx.). See also Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Anan,” “Karaites,” &c. (I. A.)