Karaite Judaism in Lithuania | True Lithuania
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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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  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?

      • Now I have edited the article further, hopefully making it more accurate.

        • Hello, my grandfather was from Traki. I’d like to visit the area. Can you recommend an English translator/ expert that can be my guide?

          • We at True Lithuania offer Ancestry tours to Lithuania where we match the visitors who seek to visit the sites where their forefathers lived with English-speaking guides who know these places, and we may even do additional research beforehand to learn more about the exact locations your forefathers lived at (if possible). We will contact you. More about the ancestry tours here: http://tours.truelithuania.com/lithuanian-heritage-tours-of-lithuania-181

        • Augustinas, hello. I am new to this blog. My question is why my Jewish ancestors settled in Devenishkes and other towns in the Dzukish region. My thought is that there was something especially appealing around 1600-1700 in terms of friendliness and openness to Jews which could have been religious or economic. Do you have any idea? Thank you for helping me. Cliff Karchmer

          • This article gives an insight on the historic reasons of Jewish settlement: https://www.truelithuania.com/ethnic-relations-6272

            See the sections “Lithuanian-Jewish relations (1253-1569)” and “Lithuanian/Polish-Jewish relations (1569-1795)”.

            Basically, yes – Jews enjoyed a privileged status compared to Lithuanian peasants, as Jews were seen by many leaders of Lithuania as useful to the economy (together with other merchants and craftsmen). This was coupled with the fact that in many other areas of Europe Jews were discriminated as a state policy – these two things together led to migration of Jews into Poland-Lithuania.

            In a sense, the policies of Medieval Lithuania that attracted Jews (and also Germans, many of whom were also merchants/craftsmen) may be compared to the modern day policies of some countries that attract foreign businessmen by establishing a preferential treatment for them (e.g. free economic zones).

    • 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 🙂

        • Thank you for explainations. I have edited the article accordingly.

          http://www.karaim.eu website does not work though.

          • That sentence looks very good I think. Thank you! 🙂

            For some reason the website does not work with www. but http://karaim.eu does still work on my server.

        • The rapidly being forgotten truth is that Karaits were Nestorians – the most of above mentioned authors do not support this strange hypothesis! Or you can provide us specific books and pages?! It would be very interesting news for experts.

      • This article says that the belief that the Karaites of Lithuania or Crimea are not ethnically Jews is a mistake that only started to be believed in the 19th century. The author goes through the entire history of the belief and he has no hidden agenda. He is simply stating facts.

  3. One must be wrong, Karaite scholars (Troki, Sultanski, Kazas, Firkovich, Shamash, Duvan, …), the last yDNA researches and western scholars OR antireligious panturks – “poturchentzi”, italian ideologist of fascism Corrado Gini, Nazi supporters of racial craniology and other enemies of Karaites.

  4. why are karaites in lithuania wtf

  5. I found Karaites Lithuania on a scrap for newspaper from the 30’s . I googled it and found this interesting piece. Looking to find more. My children are 1/4 Lithuanian. I am always interested in the history and culture.

  6. Karaites are a group of Jews that according ancient Jewish texts (that predates all this modern historical mambo-jumbo and misconceptions) refused to recognize the authority of a Talmud as a authority of The Torah, Tanakh (five books of Moses, plus). However they were in minority and they had left Israel moving North and East picking up local traditions and languages, just as Jews in Europe.
    The ben Asher family of Masoretes was largely responsible for the preservation and production of the Masoretic Text (Torah, Tanakh, Old Testament Translation). It has been suggested that the ben Asher family and the majority of the Masoretes were Karaites.
    Some of the Karaim (plural in Hebrew from Karai) settled in Kremia (Krim) and from there ware pickup by Lithuanian “Kings” and brought to Trakai. They had served Lithuania Kings for centuries and are most likely responsible for fast development of the ancient Lithuania as they were educated, knew commerce, literature, culture, construction, laws, etc.
    Antropologic researches show similiarity between Crimean Karaites of Lithuaniana and Egyptian Karaite Jews.
    One of the main reason of Karaites distancing themselves from Jews was antisemitism (that predates their separation), pogroms, nazism, etc., and who can blame them?
    Modern Israel finally after so many centuries recognizes that Karaites are part of Jewish tribes and accept them. There are still original Karaites living in Israel from the ancient times.

  7. One of the foremost Jewish historians in the Warsaw Ghetto, Prof. Meir Balaban, was asked to rule whether the Karaites were Jews or not. He ruled not, thereby saving their lives from extermination by the Nazis. He himself did not survive the holocaust, so we cannot know what his opinion really was.

  8. So Hitler has excluded them from his list cuz of their turkic origin…

  9. Augustinas, there was a comment string about immigration and Jewish people immigration but unfortunately I cannot locate it now on your wonderful knowledgeable site. Someone asked you about why the topic was not researched and you were indicating your site wasnt all about immigration of immigration but of the sites. I would like to share a link to a book on the history of Dayton Jewish community which includes Litvaks. Please move this comment to that string and edit out this sentence.


  10. “Karaism blended in many Christian and (especially) Islamic practices (for example, human and animal depictions are banned)”


    The Islamic prohibition against human depictions and anthropomorphic representations of God is a strictly ancient Jewish practice that Islam adopted from the start. During the iconoclastic period of the Orthodox church, a similar rejection briefly became mainstream. True Karaite tradition, while rejecting Rabbinic interpretations, have created their own body of interpretations which is at odds with the literalist tradition they purport to. Karaites are Turkic in the sense that they may have migrated from Turkic-speaking areas to Lithuania, but they are not Turkic.
    Additionally, I do not know what “Christian” practices you are referring to.

    • The Islamic influences are recognized and emphasized by the Lithuanian Karaite community itself, for example, in this text prepared by their official organization as an introduction to the faith here: http://alka.mch.mii.lt/karaimai/religija.htm

      From what I see (and the arguments have been already posted from both sides under these comments), Lithuanian Karaites are not Jewish by ethnicity and do not consider their religion to be Jewish, emphasizing other syncretic influences and unique beliefs. However, Jews from abroad often like to see the Lithuanian Karaites as Jews (based on the fact that there are Karaites of Jewish ethnicity who consider themselves Jews, although their faith, even if similarly named, is not exactly like that of Lithuanian Karaims).

      It is of course debatable on how much faith should be different to be considered a separate religion: for example, Christians aren’t considered Jews despite having the same roots of their religion, nor are Muslims. To many scholars, it is self-determination that matters: if a population group considers their religion to be separate, as is the case with Lithuanian Karaites, perhaps this should be respected by the outsiders / scholars as well.

      As for the origins of Karaites, they speak a unique Turkic language rather than either Yiddish or Hebrew.

  11. Regarding: “Please see http://www.karaism.info or http://www.karaite.info for details.”
    Neither of these sites now exist.

  12. My Great grandmother Anna Kairat born in Kedainia married in zvriai (or vice versa) to Leopold Unsderfer (born 1842) from Bergaiciai and emigrated into NY settling in Bridgeport (Stratford CT) c. 1890–98. I cannot find any information about them or forebears. Could you direct me to any sources? I would be so very grateful.

    • It may be possible to find sources in the Lithuanian archives. We may help with a search there – we may send you an offer by e-mail.

  13. Consider Arthur Koestler’s argument that they were displaced from Khazaria.

  14. Hello Augustinas. Thank you for interesting article.
    I have a question about Jewish people that lived in a small village/town Staklishkes in Troks ( modern Trakai) uezd in period 18-19 centuries. Is it reasonable assumption that they also belongs to Karaites? Or there were Karaites and “traditional” Jews?

    Thank you in advance!

    Michael Neyman, Brooklyn, NY State, USA

    • Karaims / Karaites of Lithuania do not consider themselves Jews, and were not considered as such by any government that ruled Lithuania either. Thus, if some community is described as Jewish in research about Lithuania or census data, that community is not Karaite. The only exception may be if that research is done by “outsiders”, i.e. researchers who are not well-versed in local ethnic/religious (self-)identifications and discourse.

      Karaims/Karaites, in generally, lived in quite a few limited areas, such as Trakai city, Panevėžys city and Vilnius city. There were many Jewish synagogues in Lithuania but only a few Karaite kenessas, and, naturally, they wanted / needed to live next to their house of worship so they couldn’t live where one did not exist.

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