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General notes about Karaites - Eliyahu ben Eliyahu Kazas III


The above mentioned titles of books that were studied at the Karaite religious schools, give us an idea about the nature of Karaite literature.
Essential part of the Karaite literature solves theological questions.
Philosophy is contained in these books only if the arguments based on common sense support the religious truth.
Philosophy plays, like for the medieval Christian scholastics, the role of housemaid (ancilla) in the relation to the theology.
The most of Karaite literary works interpret laws and commandments of Moses, Karaite works include considerations about holiness of Shabbat and holidays, and its observance, as well as were solved issues of ritual purity and impurity, the issues of permitted and forbidden foods, and issues of religious ceremonies.
Many of the books are polemical in its nature and their goal is to refute the allegations of the Talmud.
Karaite works which extend marginally into astronomy, these works solve only practical issues and determine the new moon and festivals on the base of simple astronomical tables.
It is understandable that comments on the Five Books of Moses are much more frequent than books of commentaries to the other books of the Hebrew Bible, because the Five Books of Moses are the foundations on which is the Karaite religion builded.

These comments are not limited with a clarifying of the meaning of a particular part of Bible, they also contain elements of grammar and linguistics, they explain the meaning of individual words and grammatical forms.

Among the comments on the Five Books of Moses have the special esteem the above mentioned book מבחר ישרים by ribbi Aaron Harofe, the drawback of this work is the curt and simple language and strange way of expressions with help of riddles, from this reason is impossible to read this book without comments and therefore there are a few next comments on these comments.

Karaite literature unfortunately lacks works in the matter of the general history, as same as works in the matter of history of Karaites.
There are no chronicles, or memories that describe life of Karaites in this or that country, in this or that era.
This is the main reason for almost absolute absence of information about life of Karaites in the past.
Karaites have not their legends or folk songs, which reflect their ancient history, or which would describe the heroic deeds of historical figures.

After all, what folk songs or legends could be created by people who did not for very long time live an independent political life, which were separated from their native country and who were not involved in world events?
Destiny of Karaites who lived in the Crimea was very different from the destiny of Talmudists who lived in Western Europe.

Karaites were not put in cruel religious persecution as the Talmudists were, Karaites did not go through the horrors of the Inquisition and Karaites did not die in the hundreds and thousands as martyrs in the bonfires as their brethren who follow the different way of faith of Moses.

The tolerance of Tatars to Karaites is explained by the existence of some common similarities between the religions of Moses and Muhammad, and by the existence of some common similarities between Taurat (designation of Torah in islam) and the Quran, it means the absolute monotheism without a trinity, the absence of images of people or animals in temples and homes, the prohibition to eat pork, circumcision - agreement of Abraham, who was the common ancestor of Jews and Arabs, from which the Tatars embraced their religion.

Oppression by Tatars, under which were Karaites exposed had another character, it was the property and civil oppression, but repression never reached the level of devastating pogroms that hit the European Jews, progroms which were accompanied by the mass murders and theft of their property, and which destroyed the many prominent Jewish families.

Life of Karaites among the Tatars in the Crimea was relatively peacefully, from this reason the legends about heroes-martyrs were not created in similar way as these legends were created in Rabbanite environment.

Also, poetry has among Karaites strictly religious character.
Most of the poetry are spiritual songs, the most of its became part of the prayers and most of them are the Psalms of King David.
But not all religious songs can adequately satisfy the demanding artistic flair.

Among the spiritual songs stand out for its originality and charm the hymns by renowned commentator and reformer of prayer books ribbi Aaron Harofe.

But ribbi Aaron Harofe sometimes in his artistic fervor gets into the dizzying abstract level, from this reason some of his works require a comment.

Among the Karaite authors of spiritual poetry is only few authors who could be for their poetic talent compared with ribbi Aaron Harofe.

The works of most other Karaite authors can be described as an average, their works are stereotyped, monotonous and are formed according to known patterns.

One of them was able to describe and explain in the form of poetry all 613 commanding and prohibiting laws of Moses (ie everything that was commanded and everything that was forbidden by Moses).
The fact is that the thousands of verses of poem contain still the same rhyme, from this reason poem becomes boring.

Another source of spiritual songs is the work מנחת יהודה.
Number of chapters of this book
מנחת יהודה match with the number of parts (parasha) in which are divided the Five books of Moses.
מנחת יהודה contains not very well done verses, which contain grammatically and logically incorrect phrases.
It is a long-standing tradition, which does not do the good reputation to the artistic taste of Karaites, to read in kenasa every Saturday after haftara a chapter from this book.

Within the Karaite literature were developed mainly two specific types of poetry, the first type can be described as elegiac poetry (dirges), or more correctly burial or funeral poetry, the second type can be described as a banquet poetry.

Only rarely was a Karaite burial without the ceremony, which performed hazzan in the name of grieves above the grave of a dead person, part of theis ceremony was piteous song (קִינָה).

In this piteous song is mourned the deceased person, if this person during his/her life enjoyed at least a bit of the esteem and respect in Karaite community, and if he/she had at least a bit of good qualities.

This piteous song contained words such as: the sky lost its colour, the sun went out, the moon and the stars lost its glow, and the whole world was plunged into impenetrable darkness; the pillar that supported the community is fallen, all people mourn in inconsolable grief, all people are clothed in deep mourning etc..

Similar expressions also contain poetic inscriptions carved on thousands of tombstones in Karaite cemeteries in Chufut Kale and Evpatoriya.

According to these verses on the gravestones rest in peace in these cemeteries only people with brilliant mind, with the ideal virtues, who were equal with their wisdom to Daniel and Solomon, fathers of orphans, protectors of widows and benefactors of mankind.

A similar exaggerate occurred in the texts of banquet songs, which sang their authors, mostly hazzans, at the table in the time of banquet that are held on the occasion of various family celebrations, such as marriage.

Inexhaustible source for the poets is Solomon‘s Song of Songs, from this source are derived expressions and poetic metaphors to describe the qualities of the groom or bride's beauty and charm, describing her as a beautiful moon, bright as the sun, and she is attributed by all the qualities attributed by Solomon to the virtuous woman in verses 31:10-31 of book Proverbs.

The truth is that among the poetic expressions contained in the banquet songs we can find few songs which are with its artistic and poetic form above average, but that is only a small number of pearls in the sea of average.

These pearls are manuscripts of poems by ribbi Moshe Derai from end of the twelfth century.

Some of these poems were published by deceased Simcha Pinsker in his remarkable work ליקוטי קדמוניות.

Recently under the influence of European writers is Karaite literature and poetry transfered from heaven on the earth, and Karaite literature as same as Karaite poetry acquire non-religious character.

Where will be directed these first tentative steps of Karaite authors, only time will show.