Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Karaite Marriage Ceremony

Probably one of the most traditional and beautiful customs amongst Karaites is the marriage. Long before the actual ceremony, the traditions come to the forefront as future groom and bride prepare for the wedding. Before any announcement, the two families will come together and the dowry will be negotiated. By tradition the dowry could be as large or as small as the two families decided but whatever the endowment it must include the following items; a Persian carpet, copper pots and pans and a heavy copper mortar. Of course the items could vary, stainless steel instead of copper, but essentially these three items met the requirement of a warm home, good food, and the bread of life. When my wife and I married, probably the most cherished item we brought into our household was our Persian carpet. All these years later and I still can't help admiring the handiwork. According to the story, it had actually been ordered by the Shah of Iran. Within the intricate design are ayatollahs hiding behind columns and vases, leering out at all that dare to tred upon the depiction of palacial scenery. I had been told that the Shah wanted a carpet that made a statement, of how he could wipe his feet upon the ayatollah. As history has proven, that was not the case and the carpet was never delivered to him. Instead it ended up in our home where it does provide the warmth and comfort of its traditional values. As for the mortar, it was ceramic and although it's buried in a cupboard in the kitchen, I don't think my wife would even know what to do with it if she had to use it. Grinding grain has definitely become an art of the past and I would not even dare to ask that it be revived. Ground grain comes in a bag now and its my daughter that enjoys baking bread.

The Announcement
Once the negotiations between the two families were completed the invitations were sent out. In traditional Karaite families these were rarely in Hebrew. Most often in either the language of the land or in Arabic. Rather than hold the engagement party in a hall, or synagogue, the affair was usually held at the home of the future bride. The family did all the cooking, not caterers and it was always designed to be a wholesome meal, not a display to make the cover of Cuisine Weekly.

One week before the actual wedding the brides family would hold a trousseau party, where they would put on display all of the future bride's gifts to the new home. Linens, covers, blankets, towels and drapes, all usually hand made and intricately designed, a display of the bride's own handiwork. The meal served usually consisted of fried fish as the food of choice and this was served with a variety of breads. Simplicity was the theme, far different from the one upmanship that seems to be the nature and theme of bridal showers today. At the end of the party, the trousseau would be delivered to the new home or the groom's parent's home. Very often this delivery was accompanied by pomp and ceremony in the form of a parade with gaiety, dancing and music.

The Wedding
The defining moment of any religion is the wedding ceremony. For every sect, culture, or ethnic group the wedding ceremony is distinct and unique. The traditional ceremony amongst Karaites is no different. In eastern Europe and probably most other Karaite Communities there was no wedding hall. Synagogues servicing the communities weren't the large and elaborate structures they are now. They were houses of prayer, not dining halls and certainly not places for dancing and celebration. For the purpose of a wedding community centres, town halls and even a tent had to do. The groom would arrive first, ensure that everything was alright and await his bride who would arrive much later accompanied by her entourage consisting of family, friends, and bridesmaids. Unlike the Rabbanite weddings, the bride was not hidden away but put on public display, often arriving in an open carriage just like a queen, for on this day she was royalty.

The Hacham (leader of the community) would conduct the ceremony beginning with the oath of the Covenant taken on Mount Sinai, the groom would repeat. Then the Laws of Mount Horeb would be recited and once again the groom would repeat these. Then the father or brother of the groom would read out load the Ketubah or marriage document. First in Hebrew then in Arabic. Unlike the Rabbanite weedings the ketubah was not in Aramaic. The bride on the left and the groom to the right would stand up and a single talit (prayer shawl) would be placed over their heads. The talit was a gift from the bride to her future husband, the union beneath it signifiying the household she would provide to her future family. Accepting this union, the groom would place the wedding ring upon his bride's finger and recite "Ani ledodi l'oylum va-ed". "I am my beloved's forever." This would be followed by the seven blessing recited by the Hacham. As he says the blessing over the wine, he then sips it, handing the silver goblet to the groom to sip and then the bride. This is followed by a blessing for the newly wedded couple, followed by lowering the talit to their shoulders so that their heads were bared. Even though this is a happy time, the Hacham would say, "They left, those that escaped from the sword," and then, "Do not let me forget thee Jerusalem." It was a reminder that even at this happy occasion we are still exiles living in a foreign land. Another blessing for the bride and groom and then one for all the guests. As the now wed couple stepped away from the Hacham, the guests would break out into song and shouts of joy. No breaking the glass, this was a time of building, uniting, and strengthening, not destroying.

The following morning after the wedding, women would be sent in to the newlywed's house. They had a specific mission they had to conduct in order for the wedding to written into the Religious Court's registration book. They had to bear witness that the marriage had been consumated. In all there had to be ten witnesses to attest to this fact. Let us remember the times past and celebrate the future. As a people let us take joy in the traditions of our past but more so let us celebrate our future.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Karaite Antiquities

Just to do something a little different this time, rather than explore a philosophical point of difference I thought I would provide an insight into ancient historical differences. Since Karaim are descendants of the Sadducean party and Rabbanites the descendants of the Pharisaic party, then it's only natural that we find the sources of conflict between our two sects deriving from differences that began over two thousand years ago. Some disagreements within a family just never get resolved and this certainly was one of those.

Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews 12:297 wrote, "The Pharisees transmit to the people some rules in line with the fathers which were not written in the laws of Moses. And because of this, the line of the Sadducees reject these things. They say that it is necessary to hold those rules that have been written but it is not necessary to observe what is only from tradition. And as a consequence, controversies and great disagreements have occurred between them." What is clear that even way back then, the Pharisees or Rabbanites were well aware that there was no basis in Torah for these traditions. In fact, there was a distinction between what came from Moses and what was merely a family tradition passed down by fathers to sons. How old the tradition was, how appropropriate, or even how legal was never established by the Pharisees and for that reason the Sadducees rejected them outright. As we are all aware in today's society, traditions can be established within a generation or two merely through exposure and have nothing to do with the actual ordained practices. Take for example a movie night or a games night that families establish. Carry that on through a few generations and the grandchildren will think that their ancestors had been playing Monopoly on a Friday night ever since the dawn of civilization. They would not know any differently and they would come to believe that those that did not do similar on a Friday night were mistaken or misguided. From Josephus's own recordings of two millennia ago we can see how the dispute between Karaites and Rabbanites originated. The great disagreements he refers to could only have arisen when the Pharisees refused to acknowledge that their adopted traditions had no basis in Torah or written law. When they recongnized their arguments were not persuasive the transition from Traditions of My Father, to Traditions from Moses occurred, thereby making claim to a Godly origin to these later day traditions.

Manifest Destiny

Destiny was a peculiar concept way back at the time of the Roman occupation. To those that were God fearing, it would have been hard to understand why pagans were allowed to occupy the land and brutalize its citizenry. To the common people, it was not appreciated by them that the Sadduceans were telling them that it was their own fault. That God had nothing to do with the occupation as he does not get involved in the politics of man. Their suggestion to the people was that if they wanted to change their desitiny, then it was a matter of their own choice. Each man was allowed to act according to his own decisions. If the people wanted to break the yoke of the Roman occupation then they merely had to find the middle ground to preserve their culture and heritage while satisfying the Roman occupiers. As history had demonstrated repeatedly, eventually the occupying powers disintegrate and disappear and the people would survive with their freedom in tact. The Sadduceans also emphasized that suvival during one's lifetime was paramount; that there was no afterlife or permanence to the soul. God's reward to mankind was life itself and to waste it was the greatest sin. To the common man, many of whom were led to believe that to martyr or throw away that life there would be a greater reward in doing so, this statement from the Sadducees did not sit well.

So where did this obsession with martyrdom come from? The Pharisees seized upon this hatred for Rome and willingness to sacrifice their lives as an opportunity to sway the masses to their way of thinking. They told the people that to keep what God wished to counsel was worth fighting for and dying for. They advised that all was determined by destiny and that God counselled the will of men rather than let man have free choice. That meant that God knew that if he counselled them to fight off their oppressers then he had to promise an immortal soul that obtained an existence under the ground where the dead were either rewarded or punished. Those that were unrighteous, (ie. did not fight to defend God's words) were given eternal punishment but the righteous, they were promised a new life following resurrection. Inspired by this promise of eternal life, and reward for fighting against the Romans, the Pharisees led the people into one of the great travesties that ever affected the Jewish people. Not only were we killed in the hundreds of thousands, but thousands of others were sold into the slave markets, dispersed across the face of the Empire until Israel was practically depleted of its Jewish population. Everything that befell us as a people following the dispersion was a result of this Pharisaic delusion of the common people.

Accusations Against the Sadducees

Rather than confess to their own responsibility in causing the tragic events that plagued the Jewish people for two thousand years following the Roman Jewish War, the rabbis cast all the blame upon the then powerless Sadducees. As these rabbis wrote their Talmud, they incorporated the following into the Tosefta, Menahot 13:21;

Abba Saul ben Betnith and Abba Jose ben Johanan of Jerusalem say, "Woe to me from the House of Boethus! Woe to me from their rods! Woe to me from the house of Kantheros! Woe to me from their pens! Woe to me from the House of Ananias! Woe to me from their house of whispers! Woe to me from the House of Elisha! Woe to me from their pens! Woe to me from the House of Ishmael ben Phiabi! For they are high priests and their sons are treasurers and their sons-in-law officers! And their servants come and beat us with staves!"

Of course with the fall of the temple, the demise of the priestly families, the Rabbis could say and write whatever they wished. Laying all the blame for what befell the Jewish people at the feet of the now defunct priesthood was their way of telling the people, "Not our fault." But historically it was their fault. And all the denial in the world isn't going to gain them the forgiveness of the millions that died as a result of their pursuit of power.

But the descendants of the Sadducees still existed and they were well aware of the truth and they were not about to remain silent. Eventually even the people began to reexamine their plight and realize that what had befallen them was not a result of the the Sadducean teachings but the radical teachings of the Pharisees. Had they adhered solely to the Torah, they would have found the path through the Roman Empire and life would have continued fairly normally for the next several hundred years as it had done under the Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Seleukids etc. To counter this doubt developing amongst the people the Rabbis became extremely antagonistic against those holding Sadducean beliefs. Rabbi Eleazar of Modi'im proclaimed, "He who profanes holy things and spurns the set times, he who exposes his collegue in public, he who voids the covenant of our father Abraham, he who discovers parts of the Torah contradicting our Oral Laws, he has no share in the world to come, even if he is an upholder of the Torah and a doer of good deeds." This they incorporated into their Talmud as a new law found in Mishna Abot 3:12. Translated, what it means is that the Sadducees and later Karaites were to be considered heretics and rejected from the Jewish community. Even though we were upholders of the Toran and as he admitted, good people, the fact that we did not accept the calendar and timing of the holy days set by the Rabbis, and would dare to expose their mistakes in public by showing how the Torah contradicted their Oral Laws in so many places, we were degenerates and this meant banishment. It is still with this attitude that the Rabbanites accuse the Karaites of not being Jews. And it is stil with this attitude that the Jewish people are made to suffer because they are under the influence of those whom admittedly want to put a hedge around the Torah thereby isolating the people from the rest of the world (Mishna Abot 1:1). But even though the Rabbis tried to coerce the people not to listen to the voice of Sadducean descendants, they were unable to stop free thought from manifesting itself in at least part of the population. And as the kernel of truth began to grow, Karaism was born and once again we are determined to be a voice that spreads the truth.