True Lithuania

Karaism in Lithuania

With only 290 adherents the Karaite faith is the smallest of the traditional 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 thousand 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.

Karaite kenesa in Trakai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Although their names are incorrectly used interchangeably, 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.

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