Scripture and Schism: Samaritan and Karaite Treasures

Exhibit at the JTS Library
December 14, 2000 - April 5, 2001
Online selections available indefinitely

Introduction: The Makings of a Jewish Schism

Who are the Samaritans and the Karaites? The Samaritans claim descent from the biblical Israelites of the Northern Kingdom in Samaria, while the Jews trace their origins to Judeans of the Southern Kingdom who were exiled to Babylonia. The Samaritans furthermore accept only the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, as their sacred text. The Karaites accept all twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible, and in this they agree with the Jews. But ever since their origins in eighth-century Iraq, they have rejected rabbinic law as expressed in the Talmud. They maintain instead that the Bible is the sole authentic source of Jewish law.

The Samaritans and the Karaites do not have much in common beyond their special relationship to Scripture. While the two groups had some limited contact and even influence on each other during the Middle Ages, their histories have taken completely different paths. The Samaritans have always lived within pilgimage distance of their place of worship, Mount Gerizim, near Shechem in Samaria. Although during ancient and medieval times, Samaritans lived as far away from Mount Gerizim as Cairo, Damascus, and the Greek isles, the Samaritan diaspora rarely rivaled the Shechem community in religious and cultural importance.

The Karaites, by contrast, never lived in or near one particular place. For much of their history, they maintained a group of representatives in Jerusalem. But the majority of Karaites have always lived among the rest of the Jews. In the Middle Ages, the major communities of Karaites were in Iraq, Syria-Palestine, Egypt, North Africa and Spain. From there they migrated to the Balkans and Turkey, and then to the Crimean peninsula, Russia, Poland, and Lithuania. Until the twentieth century, western Europe was the only major Jewish habitation without Karaites.

The second major difference between the Karaites and the Samaritans is that the Karaites are a Jewish sect, while the Samaritans are not. The Karaites might not accept the term 'sect' because it is usually applied only to groups one finds beyond the bounds of acceptable belief and practice. In this sense, the Karaites might equally call the Rabbanites a sect. But both Karaism and Rabbanism are ways of practicing Judaism, regardless of what one believes to be the true way. The Karaites have never questioned their status as Jews (with the exception of a few dark episodes in modern times), and the rest of Jewry has agreed with them.

The Samaritans do not consider themselves Jews, nor do they wish to be so considered. The Jews were exiled from Judea by the Persians in the sixth century BCE. The Samaritans claim to have inhabited Samaria continuously both before and after the Persian conquest. Therefore, the Samaritans were never Jews, even though they had close contact with the Jews at various points in their history. Josephus called the Samaritans an ethnos — a nation separate and distinct from the Jews — and Samaritans today agree with him.

The Samaritans' and Karaites' rejection of rabbinic literature has often led to the mistaken notion that their religions are strictly biblical. In fact, the Samaritans developed their own body of post-biblical law and tradition, called hillukh, and the Karaites theirs, called sevel ha-yerushah (the burden of tradition). Neither group ever claimed unchanging adherence to biblical laws.

In rabbinic polemic as in the popular Jewish imagination, Samaritans and Karaites have played the role of the quintessential heretics. One of the aims of this exhibition is to widen this view of the Samaritans and Karaites as irredeemably 'other' by presenting them through their own writings. Only by placing the Samaritans and the Karaites in historical context can we alter the mistaken notion that their sole reason for existence was to counter rabbinic Judaism.

Marina Rustow