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[Page 193]

The Origin of the Karaites in Lithuania and Poland

by Dr. J. Brutzkus

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The numerous kehilus [organized Jewish communities] of the Karaites, who from the 8th to the 10th centuries spread over all of the Near East and Africa, gradually disappeared. Their members partially accepted the Muslim beliefs; some returned to the rabbinical tradition or died out. Small remnants remain until this day in Crimea and several small communities in the Polish and Lithuanian cities – Trok [Trakai], Ponevezh [Panevėžys] Neishtot [Naumiestis], Lutsk and Halicz [Halych]. According to the Karaite tradition that was explained to us by Reb Shimkha Yitzhak of Lutsk, there were still communities among those in Lithuania in eastern Europe in the old days: in Kedainiai, Birzai, Shat [ Šėta], Sviato, Ozera, Sletitsh, Pumpian, Posvol [Pasvalys] and Neishtot. Reb Shimkha Yitzhak from Lutsk, who died in 1754, said that there are old Karaite cemeteries in every community[b]), but the Karaite communities disappeared 200 years ago. Only five kehilus remained in Lithuania, which we have enumerated. Although the number of remaining souls was not large, nevertheless the researchers always wondered what trace remained of that withered branch of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe, in Crimea, in Lithuania and Poland.

The Karaites and, in addition to them many educated people wanted to see in the sect the remains of the great Khazar people who, in the 8th century in southern Russia had adopted Jewish beliefs and sometimes mixed with the arriving Jews. This hypothesis says first that the Turkish Dagataish language which the Karaites of Crimea, Poland and Lithuania speak is similar to the language of the Kumyk in Dagastan and the Tartars in northern Crimea; secondly, they are concentrated on the Tavrish peninsula, which was part of the Khazar state. Counter to the Khazars origins of the Karaites are, however, the autonomous

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Khazar sources – the letter of the Khazar King Joseph to Hasdai ibn Shaprut and the letter of the Khazar Jews, which were found in the Cairo genizah [storeroom of approximately 400,000 documents found in the Ben Ezra synagogue], which both corroborate that the Khazars considered the Mishnah [Oral Torah] and Talmud [commentaries] as holy. The same can be inferred from the information that is given to us by the Saadia Gaon [Saadia ben Joseph] and [Jacob] Kirkisani in the 10th century and Reb Avraham ben David (RaBad [Rabbeinu – our teacher – Abraham ben David]) in the 12th [century]. The latter writes clearly in his Sefer ha-Kabbalah [Book of Kabbalah] that the remainder of the Khazars who live at the Idel River (Volga) maintain the rabbinical beliefs. Twenty years later, the same is said by Reb [Moses] Petachiah of Regensburg about the independent Dagestan Jews, who certainly are descended from the Khazars. However, it could be that during the persecutions, sects that then lived in Constantinople also came to Crimea from Byzantium and the Near East.

Rabbi Benyamin of Toledo found 500 Karaite families of 1,500 rabbinites in Constantinople in 1170. In addition, Karaites could have come there from Persia and Georgia. Perhaps the arriving Karaites had an influence on the backward Khazar Jews, who could have forgotten the Torah, as had happened, for example, with the Jews in India and China. This is possible, but this could have happened only after the decline of the Khazar state. We know that the Greeks and the Russians divided the Khazar lands in Crimea and Taman between themselves in 1017, but this land carried the name Khazaria until the 16th century. The people called themselves Khazars or Khazarites and partially assumed Christian beliefs under the rule of the Greeks and [partially] the Muslim [beliefs] under the rule of the Tartars. In 1096, the Jews suffered great persecutions and some emigrated from Crimea to Russia.[c]) However, Reb Benyamin of Tudele mentioned in 1200 about the Jews in Sogdia[d]), in the harbor in Crimea, and said that they stood in contact with the Rosh haGodel in Bagdad. He said the same about the Jews in the land of

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Albania and of the Turkish lands. From this we can infer that in the Southern lands in the 12th century the majority were Rabbanite communities. The independent Khazar Jews of Dagastan, who Reb Petachiah saw in Baghdad, also were [a] Rabbanite [community].

We find the first information about Karaites in the northern lands in the 11th century in a letter from a poor Talmud scholar in Constantinople to his brother in Egypt. The letter was found in the [Cairo] genizah [collection of fragments of Jewish manuscripts and documents] in Fustat and published by Jacob Mann. The Talmud scholar says that he received from his brother a polemical treatise against the Karaites and gave it to his son, who read the treatise aloud in the large synagogue in Constantinople. The essay pleased everyone and particularly interested the merchants, who came from Russia. The letter is from the 11th century and shows us that in Russia at that time there was a Rabbanite community as well as Karaite Jews. They could have come from Kiev as well as Constantinople, which stood in constant contact with Russia.[e]) A hundred years later (1154-1164), the Kiev monk, Feodori the Greek, described in a letter to the Duke Iziaslaw [II of Kiev] the Jewish customs and said as follows: “Moses told him not to do anything on the Sabbath, not to light a fire, not to slaughter [animals], but to prepare everything on Friday to be eaten the next day and not to go from one room to another.”[f]) The monk could see the custom of sitting in a room in the dark and not moving from the spot on the Sabbath only with the Kariates. Reb Petachiah describes the customs of the “species,” that he found in the land of the Kedars [Ukrainians] on the way from Kiev to Taman, in almost the same words. He says that on the eve of the Sabbath they would slice the entire bread that they would need for the Sabbath, would eat in the dark and sit in one place the entire day. The land of Kedar, about which Reb Petachiah speaks was the land of the Polovtsians.[g])

After the founding of the Tartar Kingdom in

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the Golden Horde, trade began to develop further between Europe and Asia. A large Genoese trade colony in Kaffa and a new Tartar Khazar capital of Crimea developed – Sulkhat. The caravan road from Kaffa to Sulkhat went to Azak [Azov] (Tana) and from there to the Golden Horde or to Derbent. In all the of the cities at the end of the 13th century we find Jewish communities both the Rabbanite and the Karaite. In addition, in the 13th century we find several small communities that remained in the mountains of the Crimean Peninsula. In the city of Kyrk-Or, which later received the name, “Jewish fortress” (Chufut-Kale), the sage, Mordekhai Sultansky, in 1833 found two old headstones from the years 1249 and 1252 before the falsifications of Firkovich. Later, the well-known collector and falsifier, Abraham Firkovich, altered the dates on many headstones in Chufut-Kale and wanted to show that the Samaritans had lived there before the Second Destruction [of the Temple]. However, the learned [Arist] Kunik and Avraham Harkavy uncovered the falsifications.[h]) It can be affirmed that in the 13th century after the attack of the Tartars, Jewish communities remained in the mountain region of Crimea, but we do not know if they were Rabbanite or Karaite. We have much more information from the great trade cities, Kaffa, Sulkhat and Azak (formerly Sarkel). In 1279, the great Karaite Talmud sage, Avraham haRufa [the doctor] ben [son of] Elihu haRufa, lived in Sulkhat. Reb Avraham says in his book, haMivrah [The Choice], that in 1279 there were both a Karaite and a Rabbanite community in Sulkhat that discussed the religious calendar among themselves.[i]) Their brothers in Azak, the city that lay at the discharge of [the River] Don, had a close relationship to the Karaites of Sulkhat.

From Venetian documents from 1347, we learn that in Azak, which the Italians called Tana, there was a separate Jewish quarter in the southern part of the Venetian [colony]. All of the Italians were murdered during the attack by the cruel Tamerlane in 1395, but he avoided the Jews. There is frequent mention of the Jewish quarter in Azak-Tana in the Italian documents of the 15th

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century.[j]) It appears that most here were Karaites.

The Karaite community in Azak-Tana had great significance in the spread of the Karaites to the distant country of Lithuania. The Tartar state was greatly weakened after the attack on the Golden Horde by Tamerlane. The Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas decided to make use of the situation and in 1397 forcefully attacked the Tartars. According to information from the Polish and German chronicles, Vytautas and his troops reached the area of discharge of the Don [River], but he did not reach the Crimean Peninsula. He took many prisoners and settled them in Lithuania. Among the prisoners were a considerable number of Jews, whom he settled in his capital of Trakai. A Karaite Massorah [Masoretic text of the Torah, Prophets and Writings] also connects the founding of the Trakai kehile [organized Jewish community] with the attack by the Grand Duke Vytautas. Thus writes the scholar Mordekhai ben Yosef Sultansky in his history of the Karaites[k]) that Vytautas brought 483 families to Lithuania, of whom he settled 330 in Trakai and 153 in Panevėžys. The place of origin of the Karaites was near Sulkhat, which then was the capital city of the entire area. We have other information about the migration in a copy of an old Trakai document in the collection of the Firkovich, which is located in the Petersburg Public Library. Firkovich says that he took it from a title page of an old manuscript. We find there: in the second year after our arrival in Trakai from the Land of Media from the city of Sulkhat, our leader was Master, Mr. Shmuel Segan HaMaskil [follower of the Enlightenment], the friend of my father, Moshe was born in the holy community of Sulkhat.[l]) From this we see that the Karaite colony really did come to Trakai in 5158 [1398]; this matches the autumn of the year 1397[2], after the war which played out in the summer of that year. A ketubah [marriage agreement] also remains that was written in Trakai in 1400.

Avraham Frikovich will not recognize the date of the settling of the Karaites in Trakai that was established from Lithuanian and Polish chronicles and through Karaite tradition. He

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wanted to show that the Trakai Karaites came even earlier and he invented a privilegie [document that defined the legal status of Jews and the rights they possessed] ostensibly issued by Grand Duke Vytautas to the Trakai Jewish community in 1388. All of the historians until now have accepted the privilegie as correct without deeper research, but in truth it belongs to the falsifications by Avraham Frikovich. The first mention of the privilegie was by the Polish writer Balinski in 1836 and Syrokamla in 1858, but, as they write, they received a Polish translation of the privilegie from the same Frikovich.[m]) The privilegie expresses word by word the same thing as the privilegie of the Brisk [Brest] Jewish community of the same date that was listed in the Polish records. The source of the Trakai document can cause suspicion that Frikovich simply entered the word “Trakai” in the document instead of “Brest,” which is in the record in order to show the birthright of the Trakai Jewish community. We could, however, also fully be convinced by the falsification when we research the history of Grand Duke Vytautas. It appears that Vytautas first received the city of Trakai in 1392. In 1388 the city belonged to Duke Skirgaila and in no way could Vytautas give any privilegie to the Trakai Jews. The entire matter is, therefore, a third falsification.

The number of imprisoned Jews settled by whom Vytautas in Trakai was considerable, while an entire half of the city received the name, ¯ydowski koniec [Jewish end] and the lake was called ¯ydowskaja.[n]). In 1414 Guillebert de Lannoy, the French traveler, visited Trakai and noticed that Germans, Lithuanians, Russians and Tartars and a very large number of Jews lived in the city.[o]) It appears that they [the Jews] formed a majority of the population. The Jews received Magdeburg city rights [Magdeburg rights established a set of town privileges; Jews were invited to settle in cities to assist in the development of the cities.] with a separate village mayor in 1414. The Christians who lived in the Jewish half of the city payed taxes along with the Jews. The privilegie of 1444 was approved again in 1485 and 1492.

Only Jews are spoken about in all of the documents, without mention of Karaite or Rabbanite Jews. There actually is a question of whether only Karaite Jews lived in Trakai in the 14th and 15th century or other Jews, too. We find a clear answer

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in the letter of a Karaite, Yosef ben Mordekhai of Trakai to Elijah Bashyazi in Constantinople from the year 5244 (1484). He says a quarrel started between the Karaites and Rabbanite communities in Trakai when Rosh Hashanah should be celebrated. Among the Rabbanite Jews mentioned were Yakov Suki of Kaffa and Ozer the doctor from Charkov [Kharkiv] and many others. As we see, there were Rabbanite immigrants both from Crimea and from Poland. We can surmise that among the captives during Vytautas' time, there also were Rabbanite Jews, but they mixed with the old established Lithuania Jews and lost their Tartar language. The Karaites, as nonconformists, remained separate and adhered to their language, the Chagatai language, which is similar to the language of the Crimean Karaites, the Rabbanite Krymchaks and the Crimean Tartars. In 1483, the well-known Kiev Rabbi, Reb Moshe ben Yakov, came to Trakai and collected money in the Rabbanite community to ransom his family, which was captured by the Tartars during the destruction of Kiev in 1482. At that time, he delivered a great polemic again the Karaite Torah.

Professor Balaban makes an error if he means that only Karaites lived in Trakai in the 15th century.[p]) Along with the two Rabbanites who arrived from Kaffa and Charkov, mentioned in the same were there. Reb Moshe ben [son of] Yakov also would not have been able to come from very far to Trakai to collect money from Karaites, with whom he carried out a constant struggle. Later, too, we find in 1507, the village mayor, Avraham, who is a relative of the Rabbanite parnes [elected head of community], Zubec from Kovna. In 1530 we find a Rabbanite synagogue here, where the famous leader of Lithuanian Jewry, Mikhal Josefovitz, submitted an oath.

According to the legend of the Rabbi Sultansky, the Karaites immediately settled in Trakai and Ponevezh during the village mayor's time. Later, we see smaller communities in Briz, Kaiden and Neishtot; As Shimkha Yitzhak Lutski says, there also were smaller communities in other shtetlekh [towns] in Lithuania. In a 1483 letter from the Trakai kehile to the Constantinople [kehile], they describe their very good position.[q]) The Lithuanian

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Karaites in the 15th century were in frequent contact with their brothers in Crimea and Constantinople. Many letters survive that were exchanged by the Trakai kehile and Elijah Bashyazi and Caleb Afendopolo, from which we can see that many young men came from Lithuania to Constantinople to study. In 1495, Grand Duke Aleksander drove all of the Jews out of Lithuania. The Karaites and the Rabbanites left Lithuania for Poland. The Karaite Doctor Yosi Nisanavic (1595-1666) said that they left for Rtnia. Today, that word is understood as the shtetl [town] Ratno [Ratne] in Poland and it was very surprising to them. However, we need to correctly read it as Ruthenia, that is Galicia, where there were then large Jewish communities and also several Karaite [communities], such as in Lemberg and Halicz [Halych]. And we do find in the documents a Karaite Moshe from Trakai in Lemberg in the year 1500.[r])

In 1503 all the Jews who had been driven away received permission to return to Lithuania and they again settled in their houses The Karaites settled again in Trakai, where the Jews received the old privileges. In 1507 the king designated a certain Avraham, a Rabbanite Jew, as village mayor in Trakai. When the famous rich man, Mikhal Jozefovitz, was designated as an elder for all of the Jews in 1514, the Karaites protested and received a separate tax managing committee. However, they later reached an agreement with the national council of Lithuania about the division of the taxes.

The origin at the time of the immigration of the Lithuania Kariates subsequently was established – Grand Duke Vytautas brought their ancestors from southern Russian in 1397 and the majority of the commerce from Azak-Tana [Azov-Tanais] at the mouth of the Dan [River].

In 1503, when the Grand Duke Aleksander permitted the Jews to return to Lithuania, the Kiev Jews refused to return and remained in Crimea. Before the expulsion, there must have been a considerable Karaite community with eminent scholars. Thus in 1484 Elija Bashyazi makes mention of his opinion of Reb Yehuda Mamankerman. In his letter to the Lutsker kehile in 1487, he also shows that they can turn with questions to the same Reb Yehuda.[s]) He also is mentioned in other letters from Kaffa, in which other respected representatives are recorded: Shimkha ben Moshe, Avraham ben Lev, Reb Nisen, the minister and chief of the Lord, Cher Ahron and Krovo, Reb

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Skharye. The leaseholder of the Tomaczna, Ahron is also mentioned in the Russian akts [documents]; his representative in Kaffa was his son-in-law. During the expulsion from Kiev in 1495, his son converted[t]) just like the other rich Jews. After the expulsion, no Karaite community existed in Kiev and we do not find any Karaites there until the 16th century.

Another old Kariate community was in Lutsk. The first information that we have about it belongs to the year 1450, when the Lutsk refuah, Reb Yakov[u]) came to Constantinople. Later in 1483-87, we often find the Lutsk community mentioned in polemical writings by Elijah Bashyazi and Caleb Afendopolo against Reb Moshe of Kiev. During the Tartar attack on Kiev in 1482, many Karaites escaped to Lutsk from Kiev and remained there, as for example, the previously mentioned Simkha ben Moshe and Avraham ben Levi. Lutsk in the 15th century was a large trading city. We find Karaite merchants from Kaffa and Constantinople here. After the expulsion, the Karaites emigrated to Galicia in 1495 and returned. In the 16th century their number in Lutsk was much smaller than the number of Rabbanite Jews.

At the end of the 15th century, we also find a Karaite community in Lemberg, the largest trading city in Galicia, which carried on business with Crimea and Constantinople. The first known document is in connection with the year 1475, when the Karaites from Lemberg made an agreement with the Rabbanite community of the suburb about taxes.[v]) They were obligated to pay five marks of silver annually and to take part in the fortification work. Therefore, they were freed from all work, from all guard work; from accompanying thieves to prison, from finishing Moroccan leather and from serving the wagons and the kitchen of the king. In addition to the suburbs, Karaites probably also lived in the very center of the city because we find a Karaite spot there on which the large synagogue, the Nachmanowiczes, was later built.[w]) The further fate of the Lemberg Karaite community is unknown to us. We surmise that in the 16th century, its members spread to smaller cities. We find communities in Halych, in Kukizov and Krasny-Ostrov.

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Reb Simhah Isaac from Lutsk remembers other cemeteries in Brod, Bilshivtski, Lubaczów, Rozdilna, Pustomyt and Chwastów, but we have no other facts about them. Perhaps individual families lived there. The only Karaite community in Galicia, which remains until today, is in Halych, where 50 families still live. The oldest document about the community, a letter from Yitzhak ben Avraham of Traki to Reb Yehuda ben Ahron in Halych, was written in the year 1581.[x])

With the smaller Lutsk community, these were the only remnants of the Karaites in all of Ukraine. In the 17th century, a community still existed in Derazhne, 40 kilometers from Lutsk, but it was completely annihilated in 1648 during the Chmelnitsky Uprising. [There also were] the communities of Balta, Starodub and the three communities in Bessarabia, which Reb Simkhah mentions – Khotyn, Binder and Akkerman (Belgorod). We know about the latter from the letters from Caleb Afendopolo and from many inscriptions on manuscripts from the 16th century.

The remaining remnant of Karaites in Lutsk and Halych speak the Tartar language that they themselves call Dagatai; this is the best proof that they came from Crimea where the Karaites, the Rabbanite Jews and the Tartars all speak the same language. In the 14th and 15th centuries many poor came to Galicia and Volyn from Crimea who also spoke the Tartar language until the 18th century. One can consider that at the same time the Karaites from Crimea came to Kiev, Lutsk, Halych and Lemberg for commercial purposes. If they had come directly from Constantinople, they would have spoken Greek because that Karaite community to this day [speaks] the Greek language. We also find the same wonderful conservation of language in Traki where the Karaites speak Dagatai to this day, while their neighbors, the Tartars, who came in much larger numbers in Vytautas' time, completely forgot their language and speak Belarusian. Even more surprising is that in the small, secluded communities in Lithuania and Ukraine the old Karaite literature and traditions were preserved and many educated writers emerged. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Lithuanian and Polish Karaites also provided the wisdom for Crimea, but the torn-off branch of the Jewish faith gradually died out in volume and in quality. The greatest blow was the assimilation of the last century [the 18th century].

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Much discussion has brought out the question about the race of the Karaites. In order to dispense with the Jewish lack of rights in Russia, the Karaites wanted to differentiate themselves more from the Rabbanite Jews not only in their faith, but also in their race. They claimed that they belonged to the Mongol race according to their origin from the Khazars. However, this cannot be proven anthropologically. In every case, we cannot find any difference between the Karaites and the Krimtshakes [Krymchaks] (Rabbanite Jews) from Crimea. On the other hand, the Karaites differ greatly from the Dagestan mountain Jews, who have determined their great amount of Khazar blood.

Recently, the blood groups of the various branches of the Jewish people have been researched. It was revealed that the in-born Crimean Jews, the Krimtshakes and the Karaites, are very different from the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic Jews by blood group. They are very close to the pure Turkish tribes of the Kirgiz or Uzbek. We also find the same blood composition with the Dagestan and Bukharan Jews. If we connect these blood groups with Khazar origins, we must conclude that the Rabbanic Krimtshakes are closer to the Khazars than the Karaites. The medical blood research among the Trakai Karaites was carried out

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by a separate scientific expedition that was sent from Italy in 1937. Alas, the leader of this expedition, Professor [Corrado] Gini fell into the hands of the scholar [Seraiah] Shapshal and was shamelessly fooled. The scholar told his Karaites that it was important that even more of them belong to blood group B which would show their Asiatic origins. In addition, everyone, who found themselves in blood group A almost cried, and no longer sent their children and relatives to be inspected. The result was that such a percent of group B, was not found elsewhere in the world. However, Professor Gini did not understand and created a hypothesis that Karaites are a separate pre-Uyghur race.

The origin of the eastern European Karaites certainly lay in the old kehilus, which remained in Crimea after the Khazar times, but in the course of centuries many more immigrants from Byzantium, Persia and the Asiatic shores of the Black Sea, where there were remnants of the formerly numerous Karaites sects, joined them. According to blood composition, one can see the mixing of Khazar converts among the Karaites, but it is clearer among the Rabbanite Jews from Crimea, Dagestan and Turkestan.


Original Footnotes
  1. From a work published in Yivo-Bleter [YIVO Pages], volume 13, 1938, with an additional supplement from the author of the book Lite [Lithuania]. Return
  2. A. Neubauer, Aus der Petersburger Bibliothek [From the Petersburg Library], Leipzig 1866, p. 129: Jacob Mann. Texts and Studies in Jewish History and Literature, T. II, p. 570. Return
  3. D. Kaufmann. Gesammelte Schriften [Collected Writings], vol. II, p. 190 and on. Return
  4. The usual spelling in the edition – Sogria – is false. Return
  5. J. Mann, lib. cit. vol. I, p. 50. “Merchants from among the elders of the town came here from Russia and heard about the letter and the next day they blessed you, and me as well.” Return
  6. Regesty i Nadpisi, [Acts and Inscriptions] St. P'burg, 1897, vol. 1, sec. 57. Return
  7. We provide here the important passage of the travel descriptions of Reb Petachiah: “And in the Land of Kedar there are no Jews, but there are pagans. Reb Petachiah said to them, 'Why do you not believe in the words of the Sages?' They said, 'Because our fathers did not teach us.' And on the eve of Shabbat they cut the bread for the entire Shabbat and eat in the dark and sit in the same place all day and their prayers are only songs from the Book of Psalms. When Reb Petachiah showed them prayers and the blessing over the food, they liked it and said, 'We never heard about the Talmud'.” Return
  8. The detailed examination of the question at that time provoked a great polemic; it can be found in the work of A. Harkavy, Die altjuedische Denkmaeler aus der Krim [The Ancient Jewish Monuments of the Crimea], 1876. Return
  9. Reb Ahron haRufa [the doctor], the Sefer haMivrah [The Choice], Kozlov (Yevpatoria), 1835, Torah portion Bo.[1] Return
  10. The documents from the Venetian Senate are called Senato Misti; they are only partially printed. The Jewish quarter, which was located in the middle between the Venetian and Genoese, is mentioned in the years 1347, 1422, 1425 and 1428. Return
  11. M. Sultansky, Sefer Zekher Tzadikim [The Memory of the Righteous], Warsaw 1920. Return
  12. A. Neubauer, lib. Cit. p. 58; j. Mann, lib. cit. vol. II, p. 1121. Return
  13. W[ladyslaw]. Syrokomla. Wycieczki Po Litwie [Trips Around Lithuania] Vilna, 1858, p. 68, 79. Return
  14. Yermolinskaya letopis, god 1430 [Yermolin Chronicle, year 1430]. Return
  15. Guillebert de Lannoy. Oeuvres publies par Uotvin [Works Published by Uotvin], p. 41. Return
  16. haTkufa [The Epoch] XXV, 466-8. Return
  17. See from Jacob Mann [3] 1142 II: In truth, our master Krol[4] and his ministers did not impose on us heavily with taxes, or with any of the various pretexts. We have no impediment to the fulfilment of our religion. We have a court of law and a judge (two terms for judge are used -- one is likely a more rabbinical judge, and one probably a Jewish lay judge) to judge us in accordance with the laws of the House of Israel, and thus it should be for us until the redeemer comes to Zion... Return
  18. Akty Lwowski Grodzkie i Ziemski [Akts of Lwow, Grodski and Ziemski]. Vol. XV, p. 406. Return
  19. J. Mann, lib. cit., II. p. 1162, 1165 and 1173. Return
  20. Regesty i Nadpisi, [Acts and Inscriptions], vol. 1, Sec. 81 and 107. Return
  21. J. Gurland, Ginsel Israel, St. Petersburg, 1866, vol. III, p. 29: J. Mann, lib. Cit., vol. II, p. 588. Return
  22. Akty Lwowski Grodzkie i Ziemski [Akts of Lwow, Grodski and Ziemski]. Vol. XV, p. 279. Return
  23. Balaban, ¯ydzi Lwowscy na Przelomie XVI i XVII [The Jews of Lviv at the Turn of the 16th and 17th Centuries], p. 56. Return
  24. J. Mann, lib. Cit., vol. II, p. 1185. Return


Translator's Footnotes
  1. The author's name is given as Avraham in the above text. Return
  2. The conversion of Hebrew dates varies because a Hebrew calendar year begins in the midst of the Gregorian calendar year. Dates before 1752 also may be inaccurate because of the addition of 10 days by Pope Gregory XIII to correct for the number of days in a solar year. Return
  3. I believe this is https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/mann-jacob Return
  4. Polish word for a king or a high official Return

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The Karaites of the Last 150 Years

by M. Uriel

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

At the end of the 18th century there were Karaite settlements in Lithuania in the following cities and shtetlekh [towns]: Trok [Trakai], Birzai, Posvol [Pasvalys], Neishtot [Naumiestis], Salat [Saločiai], Šventas Ežeras, Ponevezh [Panevėžys], Pumpian, Shat and Vilna. They would write Ponevezh as Pona Vish Elohim Imakhem [Turn and God Is With You] in Hebrew.)[a]

Through the regulations of the Council of Lithuania of the 17th century, we see that the Karaites were employed in trade and crafts. There were merchants among them who brought goods from Prussia. There were Karaites [who were] city dwellers and village lessees. They were involved with distilleries; also among them

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were money-lenders. Horse-traders were relatively more widespread. Of the artisans, mentioned are butchers, bakers, shoemakers, tailors, harness-makers, klezmer [musicians]. They paid the government of Lithuania's head tax through the Jewish Council.

In 1761, at the last session of the Council, the Karaites came to an agreement that they would pay only half of one percent (.05) of the taxes that the Jews brought in. However, as small in number as the Karaites were, they had a justice of the peace (judge) in Trok, as did the Christian Polish population. The justice of the peace, Avraham ben [son of] Shmuel, represented the Karaites on the Council of Lithuania at the session of 1761, no matter how much they paid in head taxes.

The Karaites in Lithuania had their

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educated [people]. Yitzhak Troki became famous with his polemical work (Khizuk Emunah [Faith Strengthened]) against Christianity – published in 1595 – and later was strongly praised by the French thinker, Voltaire. Also well-known were: Zorekh ben Nusan and Shlomo Troki. Zorekh Troki was known for his friendship with the well-known Jewish scholar and Rabbi Josef Shlomo Delmegido, who also was a doctor. Delmegido was invited to Vilna by Prince Radziwill as a doctor and there he formed a friendship with Zorekh Troki. When Delmegido left Lithuania and became rabbi in Hamburg and, later, in Amsterdam (died in Prague in 1655), he corresponded with Shlomo Troki.

While the Karaites were treated the same by the surrounding world as the Jews, the Jews often showed friendship to the Karaites, despite the fact that the Karaites were so sharply against and hostile to the Talmud, which was the guide and creative source of Torah for the Jews. The Karaites observed a kind of cheerless faith. Their synagogue (knesiá), where their homes were, was dark on Friday nights. On Shabbos [Sabbath] they sang lamentations. [They] called themselves Mourners of Zion, practiced asceticism; often did not cut a boy's hair until he was seven years old. A boy would be taught a great deal of Hebrew grammar in kheder [primary religious school]. Even children were not permitted to play on Shabbos.

However, the Karaites took a series of customs from the Jews of Lithuania. They had the pillory in which they placed people for the smallest sin.[1] In addition to calling people to the synagogue, their shamas (watchman) would give lashes, watched by the congregation, after checking that a man was wearing kosher [proper] tsitsis [fringed undergarment worn by pious men]. The Karaite community also made use of excommunication for those who sinned.

For the first time, the Karaites were legally separated from the Jews by Catherine II [Catherine the Great] in 1795. When her government placed double taxes on the Jews, an exception was made for the Karaites. In addition, they forbid the Karaites to accept Jews into their communities. According to the legend, which was considered for a long time to be true, government spheres of Catherine II, had previously planned to expand the rights of Jews. Such a legislative process had already been endorsed. However, the state council felt regret and, therefore, officially interpreted it as the Karaites were the more authentic Jews and that the Jews were Rabbinites (rabbinical Jews).

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Nicholas the First freed the Crimean Karaites from the cruel [obligatory military] recruitment and on the 14th of July 1828, the Lithuanian Karaites were freed from the decree. This gave the Karaites a push that they should separate even more from the Jews and throw off their relationship with them. The Karaite groups (if we can term them as the “Karaite masses”) still remained close to the Jews; they even maintained contact with Eretz-Yisroel; as in the old times, when individuals prepared themselves to go to Eretz-Yisroel, they would treat them with honor. The entire community would accompany such a person with prayers. When one returned from Eretz-Yisroel, he then would be [known by the name] Yerusalemi. In the 15th century, they had funds for Eretz-Yisroel in their communities that were named Im Eshkakhekh [Yerushalaim] [If I forget you Jerusalem]. The Lithuanian Karaites maintained contact with their communities in Crimea, Constantinople and Eretz-Yisroel for hundreds of years. However, in the 19th century, leaders arose among the Karaites who understood well that if they continued to consider themselves as Jews in Russia, they would be respected less by the Tsarist government. The Karaite leaders began to fan the flames of hatred and provocations against the Jews. In 1863 the Karaites did receive full citizenship rights in Russia.

The rights that the Karaites received did not increase their number. The talented ones, mainly the young men, began to Russify quickly. They would settle deep in Russia and marry Russian women. The handful who remained in Lithuania simply did not have [women] with whom to enter into marriage. According to their religious laws, they were not permitted to marry cousins, they could not marry a niece. Even in-laws, not of the same blood, were not permitted to marry among themselves. In Trok and Ponevezh, in Vilna, before the First World War, the Karaites met larger numbers of women and many old-fashioned girls. They still spoke to each other in their old language, which they thought, in error, was the old Tartar language. In truth, this was old Turkish, which they preserved in Crimea and protected even more so in Lithuania. Their language was mixed with Hebrew, also written in the Hebrew alphabet. Their last forgotten folksongs and prayers rang sadly among the disappearing communities.

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After the First [World] War, the Lithuanian community remained only a small settlement of several tens of Karaite families in Ponevezh.[b]) The Trok and Vilna Karaite communities were under Poland. The Poles strongly courted the Karaites. They wanted to show the world that the Karaites were the “respectable” Jews and that they treated them very well. There were less than 1,000 Karaite souls in Poland at that time, but many of them occupied high positions. Two hundred fifty Karaites lived in Vilna, but the postmaster of the city was Karaite. It is out of the question that a Vilna Jew could reach such a post, The Karaites shouted even louder that they were not Jews, made appearances against the Jewish faith and against Zionism. In Trok, their scholar, [Seraiah] Shapshal, called himself a “bishop.” The shamas [rabbi's assistant] in Trok called himself a “sacristan” [sexton of a parish church], as in the Catholic church. They wanted to deny any relationship with Jews. Those Polish educated, far from a friend of the Jews, such as Professor Kowalski, were ashamed of the Karaites' neglect concerning their relationship to Jews and [he] reproached the Karaites that, in the end, a number of them were descended from Jews, if they absorbed their religion from the Jews.

In 1936, when the ghetto benches [official segregation of Jewish students to benches on the left-hand side of lecture halls] were created for the Jewish students at Warsaw University, the Karaites immediately “consoled” themselves that have no connection to the Jews. The Karaites also tore off the Mogen-Dovid [Shield of David – the Jewish star] from the iron gate of the Trok knesiá. They also did this in Halicz (Poland), where they had a community.

About the conduct of the Karaites during the annihilation of the Jews in Lithuania, testimony is given here from someone who himself suffered through the Nazi hell:

“The Germans did not persecute the Karaites because they considered them non-Jews.

“In the first ghetto era, many Jews obtained false passports as Karaites and during the death actions they would sneak out of the ghetto into the city and live there as Karaites.

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“It was said in the ghetto that the Karaite “Sage” then sent a roll call list of all the Karaites in his community, with an indication of their addresses, to the Gestapo. That is, all other Karaite passports had been falsified. Then searches took place in the city of everyone who had passed themselves off as a Karaite. Hundreds, hundreds of Jews were then led out to their death…

“At that time, the Karaite “Sage” tried with all his strength to show the Rozenberg general staff that the Karaites do not come from a Semitic race and, therefore, have no connection to the Jews. The people at the Rozenberg general staff turned to Zelig Hirsh Kalmanovich, as to an authority on Judaism, that he find historical material and documents in reference to the origin of the Karaites. In the end, the Germans arranged for a debate between Professor Shapshal and Zelig Hirsh Kalmanovich, on the question of Karaite origins.

“Zelig Hirsh Kalmanovich, the prophet of the Vilna ghetto, did not criticize the Karaites for their hostile behavior to the Jews under the Nazi regime. The opposite, he wanted to protect them from slaughter and agreed during the discussion that the Karaites had absolutely no connection to the Semitic race or to the Jewish people.”[c])

It is interesting that the Cairo (Egypt) Karaites, living in an Islamic world, could gain little by renouncing the Talmud. The Karaites had more opportunity among Christians to present themselves as proper followers of the Tanakh [Torah, Prophets and Writings]. Therefore, they did not renounce their origins, raised their children in the knowledge of the Hebrew language and, for many years, took part in the Zionist collections for Eretz-Yisroel. Now, the Cairo Karaites are making efforts for the State of Israel to acknowledge and accept a plan for aliyah [immigration to Israel] of the Karaites. There is no news from the Karaites in present day Lithuania.


Original Footnotes
  1. Adolf Neubauer of Germany, writing about the Karaites, thought that the Karaites lived in a city [named] Puna. Return
  2. See Back, p. [No page number is given] “Ponevezh,” in the book, Lita [Lithuania]. Return
  3. Dvorzhetski, Mark, Dr., Yerusalem d'Lita in Kamf and Umkum [Jerusalem of Lithuania in Struggle and Death], Paris, 1948, page 332. Return


Tranlator's Footnote
  1. The pillory was placed at the entrance to the synagogue, where those found guilty by a community tribunal would suffer their punishment. Return

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