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Karaism in Lithuania

With only 290 adherents the Karaite faith is the smallest of the tradional religions in Lithuania. Considered by many Jews to be a type of Judaism, the Lithuanian Karaism followers have always considered themselves to follow a different faith.

Unlike the Jews the Karaites do not recognize Bible commentary (such as the Talmud) as divine. Every Karaite is expected to understand the Old Testament (especially the Ten Commandments) himself/herself. Having originated in 8th century Iraq and further developed in Eastern Europe the Lithuanian Karaism blended in many Christian and (especially) Islamic practices (for example, human and animal depictions are banned). Other traditions (such as many holidays) are unique to Karaism.

The definition of “Karaite” attracted a surprising interest from governmental institutions knowing that these communities never numbered more than several thousands in the Eastern Europe. They were regarded as a separate community by the Russian Empire where they enjoyed more privileges and less discrimination than Jews. Even Nazi Germany had a separate policy on the Karaites and this saved the community from the persecutions which the Jews had to face.

Although their names are incorrectly used intechangibly, Karaism and Karaite Judaism (a form of Jewish faith) have differing religious practices.

Karaites pray at Kenessas and currently there are two Kenessas in Lithuania: one in Trakai and one in Vilnius. The Karaite community in Trakai is the liveliest one. Until the 19th century Karaites enjoyed a separate town charter in Trakai and currently there is a Karaite museum there. The iconic three-windowed Karaite homes in Trakai high street are another part of their heritage.

Almost all Karaites are ethnic Karaims, a certain Turkic ethnicity. Both Karaim and Hebrew languages are used in their liturgy.

Karaite kenessa in Žvėrynas Borough, Vilnius. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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  1. “With only 290 adherents the Karaite faith is the smallest of the traditional religions in Lithuania”

    Not Just Lithuania, but in the WORLD. Bare in mind that there are extremely few Karaites (Karaylar) in Lithuania who actually pray or know anything about our Church.

    “Almost all Karaites are ethnic Karaims, a certain Turkic ethnicity.”

    Absolutely correct!

    “Considered by Jews to be a type of Judaism, the Lithuanian Karaism distanced itself from the Jewish religion over the centuries. Unlike the Jews the Karaites do not believe in Talmud.”

    Sadly this is incorrect. You have (like most people) confused here the tiny Karaite Church with two branches in Lithuania with Karaite Judaism (which has about 30,000 adherents worldwide). Please see http://www.karaism.info or http://www.karaite.info for details.

    • Thank you for the information. I know that Karaites of Lithuania are not of the same religion as the adherents of Karaite Judaism, however, as you noted, many incorrectly believe so (especially among the Jews), that’s why it is written “Considered by Jews to be a type of Judaism”.

      Or are the sentences “Lithuanian Karaism distanced itself from the Jewish religion over the centuries. Unlike the Jews the Karaites do not believe in Talmud” also incorrect?

    • greetings, I visited Trakai a few summers ago & was fascinated by the history of the Karaite people. Luckily, I was there when the kanessa was open, though there was no on around to explain any of the particulars of the Turkic group, only a sort of watchman wearing a fez and he was asleep in his chair at the entry to the building. It does seem a very hybrid clan, with a melding of Christian, Jewish & Moslem tradition and with a cuisine that seemed rather Turkish or Middle Eastern. I also sought out a small restaurant in Vilnius offering “authentic Karaite cusine” but no one in the place had any notion of the people responsible for the cuisine. Perhaps, comparing the Karaite people to a group like the Druze, a people with a similarly mixed religious tradition is not too far off the mark. Thanks for your comments at this site.

  2. I’ve always suspected that the Karaites in Lithuania were simply Tatar-speaking Jews. I bet they came to Lithuania at the same time as the Lithuanian Tatars (Lipka Tatars, I think they were called.) If so, they would’ve had almost nothing in common with the Ashkenazi Jews who settled in Lithuania after the Black Death. I’ve asked countless Rabbis, and they can find no evidence of any communication, cooperation, or any business whatsoever between the Karaites and the Ashkenazim.

    As for the Karaites claiming that they weren’t really Jewish, I can’t fault them. They were living under some of the nastiest rulers in the world, and they were just trying to survive.

    • Perhaps the quote that „Lithuanian Karaism distanced itself from the Jewish religion over the centuries“ implies that they once considered themselves to be of Jewish faith, however I have no such information (just as you do not have). The quote was meant as “throughout the known centuries Lithuanian Karaites and Jews kept distance”, perhaps I should edit it. Indeed you are correct that Karaims were moved in at the same time as Tatars, click here for more info on their ethnic history.

      From what I understand Lithuanian Karaism developed separately in muslim areas, later evolved in Christian areas. So while it has many similarities with Judaism, it also adopted Christian, Islamic and unique practices. So I guess it is subjective to say whether the Lithuanian Karaites are of Jewish faith or not. All Abrahamic faiths are similar, they all share the Old Testament, however, Christianity and Islam are universaly considered separate religions rather than denominations of Judaism. On the other hand, e.g. Mormons (LDS) are considered to be Christians by many even though they also have an additional holy book in addition to the Christian Bible. There are disputed issues such as whether the Messianic Jews are of Jewish faith.

      So a lot depends on the standart you apply – how different the faiths must be to be considered separate religions rather than „denominations“ of a single religion. Alernative possibility is to rely completely on self-identification – in that case Lithuanian Karaites are not of Jewish faith.

      • Thank you for writing about Karaylar Augustinas!

        I do think that the sentence „Considered by many Jews to be a type of Judaism, the Lithuanian Karaism distanced itself from the Jewish religion over the centuries.“ causes problems. Karaylar have no particular aversion to the Jews or Judaism, just that our religions are not the same.

        Perhaps it could be re-written to clarify that although many consider them Jews, Karaylar have never considered themselves Jews although just like any Church we do consider ourselves “Spiritual Israel”. Karaism and Qaraite Judaism are not the same thing, even though many of the less educated Qaraite Jews began to call themselves Karaites and their religion Karaism -a relic of a self-defense strategy which Jews employed during Nazi times to escape the Holocaust (although in fact comparatively few Karaylar actually escaped).

        Unlike Qaraite Jews who strongly oppose all Talmud, Karaylar never had any animosity towards the Talmud as an interesting book useful for historical reference, but not as having any divine authority (as the Jews consider it).

        The rapidly being forgotten truth is that Karaits were Nestorians (See for example Johann Reinhold Forster, Robert Kerr, Henry Howorth, E.J. Brill, David James, etc. and especially Douglas Morton Dunlop’s “The Karaits of East Asia”). After the Schism of 1552 Karaylar influenced by trends from Crimea which had been allied to the Ottomans since 1475 began to adopt Ananite-Hanafism also known as Karaimism (which although close to Qaraite Judaism, still should not be confused with it).

        Please see http://www.karaim.eu for more info :)


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