During the long history of Babylonian Jewry, sometimes the Reish Galusa wielded more power, sometimes the Gaonim. Much depended on the political climate and the personalities involved. Generally, however, the position of the Gaon was determined by scholarship, while the position of Reish Galusa was depended on lineage (as the Reish Galusa was traditionally the descendant of King David.)
And it was a dispute over lineage that gave rise to a splinter sect in 8th century Baghdad ― a splinter sect that came to be known as the Karaites.
When Shlomo, the Reish Galusa, died childless in 760, two of his nephews Hananiah and Anan vied for the position. Hananiah got the job and Anan went off to start his own religion.
This is another example of a pattern we have seen previously ― a split among the Jews due to pride and ego. (We saw it, for example, in Part 20 with Rehoboam and Jeroboam.)
The sect that Anan started in some ways was similar to the Sadducees. Like the Sadducees, the Karaites didn’t recognize the authority of the Oral Torah and hence they read the Written Torah literally. (Their name, Karaites, comes from the Hebrew verb, kara, meaning “read.”)
As we saw earlier, it is impossible to live a Jewish life without the Oral Torah as so much of the Written Torah is not specific enough. Thus, where the Torah commands “and you shall write them [these words] upon the doorposts of your home,” how can anyone know which words of the Torah, or indeed, if the entire Torah is to be written on the doorpost? It is the Oral Torah that explains that this passage refers to the words of the Shema prayer, which are to be written on a parchment scroll and then affixed in a specified place and manner on the doorpost. The mezuzah!
As a result of their literal reading of the Torah, the Karaites came to observe Shabbat in total darkness, unable to leave their homes all day except to go to the synagogue. They did away with the observance of Chanukah because it is not mentioned in the Written Torah, as well as with the separation of meat and milk for the same reason. Ironically, because so many statements in the Bible cannot be explained with out the Oral Law, the Karaites had to create their own oral law as a way of translating these statements in the Bible into practical applications.
One might think that this sect would have little appeal but, this was not the case. The Karaites began to attract those Jews who wanted to dismiss the opinions of the rabbis; this turned out to be a huge draw. (5)
That is, until the great sage, the Sa’adiah Gaon entered the picture.
Sa’adiah Gaon is famed for his writings, particularly the Book of Belief and Opinions, and for his critiques of the Karaites which made mincemeat of their beliefs. In addition to being the Rosh Yeshiva (The Dean) of the great Yeshiva of Sura, he was one of the greatest Jewish legal and philosophical minds of the period.
His arguments stopped the spread of Karaitism which could have overwhelmed the entire Jewish world. It was so popular at one point that in the 10th century the majority of Jews in the Land of Israel may well have been Karaites.
However, the Karaites never recovered from the assault of Sa’adiah Gaon on the logic of their beliefs. Their numbers shrunk with time, though unlike the Sadducees, they never completely disappeared.
(During the 19th century, in the Russian Empire, the status of the Karites change until eventually they were legally considered to be a religion totally separate from Judaism. During World War II, the large Karaite community in the Crime was spared by the Nazis who also did not consider them to be Jewish.)
Today, there is a small number of Karaites left, living chiefly in Israel, though no one is sure how many as the Karaites forbid census-taking. Their population has been variously estimated at 7,000 all the way up to 40,000. Until recently the Karaites were reputed to be very religious people, and from the outside appear indistinguishable from Orthodox Jews, though they are forbidden to marry other Jews and marry only each other.
When the Sa’adiah Gaon died in 942, the period of the Gaonim of Babylon was almost over. It would officially end in 1038 with the death of Chai Gaon. By then, a great many Jews had left Babylon, following the opportunities that were opening up for them in other parts of the world conquered by Muslims, especially in Spain.
1) There was a brief, transitional period (475 C.E.-590 C.E.) between the Tannaim and the Amoraim alled the Savoraim. The Savoraim put the “finishing touches” on the Babylonian Talmud by completing the final editing of the text.
2) Sura 17:1-3 reads: “Glory be to Him (Allah) who carried his servant ( Mohammed) by night from the sacred place (masjid ― mosque) of Mecca to the sacred place (masjid ― mosque) that is more remote (el Aksa ) whose precinct we have blessed…”.
3) For an excellent short explanation of the early Islamic connection to Jerusalem see: Bernard Lewis, The Middle east-A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, New York: Touchstone Books, 1995. pp. 68-71. Lewis points out that one of the earliest Islamic names for Jerusalem was Bayt al-Maqdis, clearly derived from the Hebrew phrase for the Jewish Temple, Bayt ha-Miqdash. He also mentions that an equally early Islamic tradition mentions that el Aksa means “heaven” and the claim that it meant Jerusalem was a Jewish plot to Judaize Islam.
4) It is interesting to contrast the Christian and Muslim treatment of the Temple Mount. Part of the early Christian world view was that God had destroyed the Temple and exiled the Jews because the Jews had rejected Jesus. Leaving the Temple Mount in ruins and filled with garbage was the “Christian way” of proving this theological point. The Byzantines then built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the traditional site of crucifixion and burial of Jesus) to the west of Temple Mount and above the remaining Temple Mount platform. This served as a physical demonstration of the victory of Christianity over the Judaism.
The Muslims, on the other hand, chose to clean off the Temple Mount and build their structure (The Dome of the Rock) over the site where the Jewish Temple stood. Building over Judaism’s holiest site was their way of “proving” that Islam had supplanted Judaism. In addition, the dome of the Dome of the Rock is slightly larger than the dome of the Holy Sepulcher and Arabic inscription on the inside of the Dome of the Rock is taken from Sura 112 of the Koran which reads: “Say: He is God alone: God the eternal! He has no children, and He was not born…” an obvious attack against the Christian concept of Jesus as the son of God. (Islam teaches that Jesus was a prophet and that the notion that God has children is a pagan idea. On this Judaism would also agree.) The Dome of the Rock is therefore an architectural demonstration of Islamic theology: Islam is the one true faith. Judaism and Christianity are false.
5) Karaism reached the peak of it’s popularity in Israel the 10th and 11th centuries. After the Crusader conquest of the land in 1099 C.E. the center of the movement shifted to Constantinople and later the Crimea and Lithuania