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Karaite Women

Updated on January 23, 2013

I'm glad you asked that question bp10191960 . It was actually a topic upon which I intended to write sooner than later and your question provided the incentive to act upon it now. Many are confused about the issue of women's rights in Karaism thinking that because Karaism is based on the Torah that it would be archaic in its treatment of women. In fact the exact opposite is true. The Torah was very progressive in its attitude towards women and it has only been the later religious interpretrations by Rabbanite Judaism, Christianity and Islam that have deemed woman as second class citizens.
Let me explain:


Based on the daughters of Zelophehad, the leadership of Miriam and the judging position of Deborah, it was clear right from the onset of Judaism that women could hold title and positions of power. The right to title was never clearer than in the fact that Among the Karaites, unlike the Rabbanites, our daughters have equal rights of inheritance with our sons. And if we as men should remarry after our first wife's death, and have children by our second wife, our first wife while alive was entitled to issue a special document to ensure that her property would only be inherited only by her own children. This first wife could also enforce the inheritance of her estate by her children from a previous marriage by inserting a special stipulation into her marriage contract. These laws were specifically instituted in Karaism based on the daughters of Zelophehad to ensure that women were protected. In fact this was on equal status to men and this has been preserved in Karaism from this ancient tradition.

The Torah explicitly mentions that both men and women were required to come and learn the Torah in the Jubilee year. This meant that not only women had to observe and keep the commandments but they had to be educated in order to study the Tanach. There is even evidence that in the 10th century, that the leader of the Karaite community of Spain, and this was a large and significant community was a woman referred to as "The Teacher" [al-Mualema]. I should mention that she only came into the position of Hacham after the Rabbanites killed her husband, the Karaite leader Sidi ibn al-Taras. I add this only because I have some Rabbanite readers that refuse to believe that their ancestors actually persecuted and killed their Karaite brethren which I have alluded to in many of my articles, especially since some of those killed were my direct ancestors. But referring back to women in leadership positions, you won't find anything comparable in Rabbanite Judaism until recently and that is only in the reform communities as the Orthodox still won't tolerate it.

One of the most subservient conditions was the levirate marriage in which the widow of a man was forced to marry his brother as if she was chattel having only one role and that was to produce a child. As Karaites unlike the orthodox Rabbanites, we do not require fulfillment of the levirate marriage.

Furthermore, the right to divorce is not exclusive to the male as Karaite law grants women the same rights to divorce as men. Even if the man should refuse to give his wife a bill, in the event that he refuses to deliver a bill of divorce then the wife can present her case to the Karaite beit-din (religious court) and if her case is solid it will grant the couple a divorce by judicial decree. Unfortuantely, beause the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate has exclusive legal authority in matters of personal status concerning Jews in Israel the Karaite beit-din is acting without official status in this matter but it is still upheld within the Karaite community. It should also be mentioned that conjugal rights belong to the woman, not to the man. Because theoretically by Karaite law a man can take a second wife, the rights of the first wife are protected since to do so has to be with her permission.

Furthermore, unlike the Rabbinites, there is no Karaite prayer thanking God that as men we were not born a woman. Also our women are given freedom of dress and may dispose of their property without their husbands' permission. After all, it is their property and as indicated previously, under Karaite law, the husband is not the automatic heir of his wife for any of her belongings. If she were to die childless then accordingly those possessions she brought into the marriage are to be returned to her father or her brothers, while the husband retains only the delayed portion of the dowry as written in the Ketubah. And if the couple should have children, the her possession only remain with her husband until his death, at which time the children inherit it.

So as can be seen, in the Karaite tradition women have always been considered equal. They have the right to serve in any religious office; they have never been classified as second-class citizens; and wherever there has been a Rabbinic injunctions against women, then Karaism has come to their defence to ensure that we did the opposite. Because Rabbanites actually took away a woman's legal standing, it was Karaism that proclaimed that a female witness in court was equal to any male witnesses.

Of interest, we know that from Psalms women used to sing in the Temple. Psalms 46:1, 68:26 are Psalms that were written specifically for women to sing, and accompany with dancing and the playing of instruments. So women in Karaite Judaism were never prohibited from singing or speaking in the Knessah [synagogue] which again was prohibited by Orthodox rabbanites until recently. But as a consequence of the liberal attitude in Karaism, women could always hold the position of Hazzan in the Kenessah.

To those that mention that in the Kenessah there is still separation of men and women while praying, I would point out that the reason for this is entirely different from the Orthodox Rabbanites that place their women behind walls and screens beause they're seen as a distraction to the men while praying. In our case we do so because much of our praying is done while kneeling on the floor and this could possibly result in the women exposing themselves to those men kneeling behind them. Therefore in the Kenessah women sit either beside the men, or behind them a generalized tradition based entirley on the preservation of modesty.

So as you can see, the status of the woman in Karaism is well protected, preserving her equality not only amongst men but before God as well.

Avrom Aryeh-Zuk Kahana


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    • Kahana profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Shalom Teshuah,

      As is written in Isaiah,"Take the millstones, and grind meal; remove thy veil, strip off the train, uncover the leg, pass through the rivers," is an analogy of Babylon being reduced from Empress of the World to nothing more than a common street urchin or peasant. Now she will bare her arms and her legs to toil in the mills like any other woman. She will have to roll up her skirt and bare her legs to cross the river since no one will carry her across in a litter any longer. In the next verse, her shame is exposed but that is a figurative shaming of the once ‘so mighty.’ Essentially there is nothing to do with measuring an actual degree of nakedness but only the metaphoric degree of how the great had fallen.

      But nakedness in itself was never condemned in the Torah. In Genesis it was not God that grew concerned about it. It was man that became aware of his nakedness and grew ashamed in the Garden of Eden. So in fact, God was telling us that being naked was perfectly acceptable as long as we could deal with it but we could not do so and therefore had to address the issue of our passions, lusts and modesty by introducing our own standards.

      Remember that Noah's nakedness was uncovered but this was a reference to having his genitals exposed after he became drunk and his sons purposely and intentionally shaming him in this manner. Lot was similarly exposed at which time both his daughters lay with him and subsequently conceived. In these stories it would suggest that exposure of the genitals or any clothing that would permit the genitals to be viewed in some manner is unacceptable if it is done for evil or lustful purpose. So it is the intention that determines the sinful nature. And now you can appreciate that David watched Bathsheba in her bath which in itself was not a sin; arranging to have Uriah killed so that he could possess her was his sin. From the Song of Songs we know that talk of the flesh is not only acceptable but is valued in its appropriate place.

      What we learn from these passages is that modesty is open to interpretation but if we know the way we have dressed is provocative, then we also know that it is not preserving the modesty that is expected of us.

      Karaism is about making judgments by your own understanding. As long as you preserve the original intent of the Tanach (ie. don't dress provocatively for lewd reasons) and you dress according to the set of beliefs that you have self-defined as being modest, then it is acceptable.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Shalom! I have recently been directed to your hub pages and I am loving them! What a wealth of information!!

      You mentioned in this article that Karaite women have no requirements regarding dress. Thus, I feel it is a good place to ask this question.

      : I desire for my definitions of how to live to be defined by the one who gave me life. So when YHWH says to uncover my nakedness it would be shameful to me ...I want to know what does HE say nakedness IS?

      My question of the interpretation of what constitutes nakedness comes from the word used for thigh in is 47:2. it clearly says in the def that for man it is as much as the calf even. The passage refers to a woman. Verse three says her nakedness has been exposed and her shame uncovered. Verse two sets it all up telling us what takes place for that to happen, and so I am wondering if it is safe to interpret this defines what nakedness is. The word used for nakedness itself in Torah does not explain specifically what nakedness is. We are left to our own imaginations and interpretations. That's why I thought to look for something further defined. Is there something I am missing in the surrounding verses that show this is completely allegorical and not a literal example of YWHW's mind on an example of nakedness?

      This is where my concern is. Is nakedness to be considered down to the calf? I have read it as such for the last year and... well, living in the Deep South... gets a little warm that way... My first love is to follow the standards of living set out for us by Yah - but if that is not something he is really asking of us and it isn't shameful to uncover say, up to the knee even..... well, I think it would be a little more comfortable for me and my girls.

    • profile image


      8 years ago


      Two corrections:

      1.Women could not hold the position of Hazzanit {female} in Bayt haKenesset when ritually impure, so any woman pre-menopause was very restricted in such a capacity.

      Till this very day, in perpetuation of a custom from Egypt, no women may lead services or be called up to Torah readings in Israel, the US (except perhaps in the new neo-Qaraite synangogue of Virginia), France, Switzerland and probably also Turkey.

      2.As far as I know levirate marriages are possible among Qaraites, only they prohibit the Yavam from being the deceased husband's actual brother.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Wow! Women's rights athousand years ago. You should be very proud of that.

    • Margaridab profile image

      Margarida Borges 

      8 years ago from Lyon, France

      It's always interesting to know about other cultures. Thanks!


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