The Karaite Purim is indistinguishable in many respects from the Purim festivities of Rabbanites. Karaite Jews who are old enough to remember what Purim was like in Egypt tell me that it was a sight to be seen. Both Karaite and Rabbanite Jews celebrated Purim in the Jewish Quarter of Cairo, where the streets filled with belly dancers and stands selling shish-kabab, pasta, pickles, and salads. In Egypt, “[a] wide variety of legal and illegal entertainment was offered, most of which consisted of gambling games.” It was common for Karaite Jews to close their businesses on Purim, and Purim “by tradition was among the favorite holidays when engagements were announced.”
Nevertheless, there are some unique theological and practical differences between the Karaite and Rabbanite observance of Purim.
Purim: How Many Days?
Rabbinic Jews celebrate one day of Purim, on the 14th of Adar (or the 15th in cities that were walled in ancient times). Karaites, on the other hand, celebrate 2 days, on the 14th and 15th of Adar. This is based on interpretations of some interesting passages in Esther 9:17-19, which describe the aftermath of the battles between the Jews and their enemies throughout Persia:
17 That was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar; and they rested on the fourteenth day and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking. 18 But the Jews in Shushan mustered on both the thirteenth and fourteenth days, and so rested on the fifteenth, and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking. 19 That is why village Jews, who live in unwalled towns, observe the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and make it a day of merrymaking and feasting, and as a holiday and an occasion for sending gifts to one another.
Verse 19 states explicitly that village Jews celebrated the 14th of Adar as Purim. Although the verse might imply that the Jews in walled cities kept a different day, the 15th—and this is exactly what the rabbis think it means—the verse does not explicitly says this.
The debate between Rabbanite and Karaite interpretation hinges on how the next verses, describing Mordechai’s reaction, are understood (vv. 20-23). Mordechai writes a letter stating that all Jews (at least all of those under Ahasueros’s reign) needed to celebrate two days of Purim, to reflect the fact that the war continued in Shushan, and the Jews accept this.
20 Mordecai recorded these events. And he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, near and far, 21 charging them to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year—22 the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor. 23 The Jews accordingly assumed as an obligation that which they had begun to practice and which Mordecai prescribed for them.
The Rabbis read this two-day holiday as a reference to two separate days, i.e., that Purim remains a one-day holiday, and when it is celebrated depends on geography. The Karaites, however, read Mordechai’s letter as a corrective, telling all Jews to keep two days of Purim.
The point is reiterated later on:
27 the Jews undertook and irrevocably obligated themselves and their descendants, and all who might join them, to observe these two days in the manner prescribed and at the proper time each year. 28 Consequently, these days are recalled and observed in every generation: by every family, every province, and every city. And these days of Purim shall never cease among the Jews, and the memory of them shall never perish among their descendants.
Megillat Esther reiterates the plurality of the days and the fact that all Jews accepted them multiple times here. In the next verses (29-32), Queen Esther herself will confirm Mordechai’s letter, writing this down in an official document that, yet again, emphasizes that Purim is more than one day.
The point that Purim must be celebrated by all for two days is made clearly by the prominent medieval Karaite halakhist Aaron ben Elijah in his work Gan Eden (1328-1369):
And we are required to do this for two days, since on the 13th day of the month of Adar the village dwellers killed their enemies and rested on the fourteenth, while the people of Shushan killed [their enemies] on the thirteenth and the fourteenth and rested on the fifteenth. Therefore, from that time and onwards, both the people of Shushan and those dwelling in the unwalled towns became obligated to observe the 14th and the 15th: the days of Purim. (Gan Eden, “Inyan Yom HaKipurim” Ch. 5, p. 64b)
Purim on Leap-Years
For Karaite Jews and Rabbinic Jews alike, a leap year is created by adding an extra Adar. But in which Adar should Purim be celebrated? Karaite Jews celebrate Purim in Adar I, whereas Rabbanites celebrate Purim in Adar II. The result is that in leap years Karaites celebrate Purim a month before the Rabbanites. The Karaite practice of celebrating Purim on Adar I fits with the Megillah’s assertion that Purim should be celebrated on the 12th month of the year (Adar II is, in fact, the 13th month).
Purim: Obligatory or a Heavily Ingrained Custom?
In general, according to the Karaite tradition, mitzvoth – i.e., binding commandments – must be set forth in the Torah. We do not have a category of תורה שבעל פה (oral law) or מצוות דרבנן (rabbinic laws). Thus, the Karaite community has debated for over a millennium whether post-Torah holidays like Purim and the four fasts are obligatory or merely heavily ingrained customs.
Purim is Binding
Two of the most influential medieval Karaite Sages, Aaron ben Elijah and Elijah Bashyachi, argued for Purim as a binding holiday, albeit in different ways.
Aaron ben Elijah (c.1328-1369), in his halakhic work Gan Eden, holds that Purim (unlike Chanukah, for instance) was canonized during the period when there were still prophets:
And we became obligated and took [the observance of both days of Purim] upon ourselves, for this was in the time of prophets and the prophets affirmed this [practice]. (Gan Eden, “Inyan Yom HaKipurim,” ch. 5, p. 64b)
Thus, according to Aaron ben Elijah, at the time of the events of Purim, the prophets still had the power to create or solidify binding legislation.
Elijah Bashyachi (c. 1420-1490), in his Adderet Eliyahu, argues differently and suggests that all Jews should keep Purim. He picks up on the phrasing in Esther 9:31, which states that the days of Purim should be kept “at their proper time”:
It would also appear that the meaning of “these days of Purim must be kept at their proper time” (Esther 9:31) [may be] even though they were not commanded [to keep them] in the Torah. For if something is not commanded in the Torah, it is difficult for all of Israel to accept [as a law]. Therefore, [the verse] brings up the obligation to keep Purim as similar to the fasts; just like the fasts (=the 4 fasts) were accepted and are kept at their proper time, so too should they accept Purim upon themselves to keep them at the proper time.
According to Bashyachi, the Megillah offers an argument from precedent. Just as the Jews accepted the four fasts mentioned in Zechariah and treat them as binding, so too can they accept the two days of Purim as binding.
Purim is Nonbinding
Despite the strong push by these two important medieval scholars, some Karaite scholars suggest that Purim is merely a custom. For example, Hakham Moshe Firrouz, the current Chief Hakham of the Karaite community, opines that Purim is not a binding holiday.
The Karaite Jewish case for Purim being a nonbinding holiday is simple enough. Since it was instituted after Moses, Purim does not appear in the Torah’s list of moadim (see Leviticus 23). Thus, the holiday was not instituted (directly) by God and cannot be “obligatory” in the way Torah festivals are.
When I spoke to Hakham Firrouz about Purim in the summer of 2013, he acknowledged that Megillat Esther plainly states that the Jews took upon themselves and their descendants the obligation to keep the two days of Purim (see Esther 9:20-32). Nevertheless, he objected to the notion that humans can bind their future generations with respect to a commandment where there is no clear indication that God was a party to the covenant.
Obligations and Minhagim: Karaite Purim Practices
The Basic Obligations of Purim
Aaron ben Elijah, who believes that the prophets made Purim binding, identifies certain obligations of Purim, based on Esther 9:23, which parallel the Rabbinic requirements for the holiday with some differences. For example, the Rabbinic halacha specifically requires that mishloach manot be food; Karaite tradition does not. Similarly, gifts to the poor, unlike the Rabbinic requirement, do not need to be money.
Drinking, Masquerading, and Games of Chance
Karaite Jews celebrate a Purim feast and make merry on Purim but do not celebrate it as a drinking holiday. Thus, there is no requirement to drink until we cannot differentiate between Haman and Mordechai. Nevertheless, like Rabbinic Jews, we do celebrate Purim with a carnival-like atmosphere. Karaite Jews (at least those in the United States) dress up on Purim and perform Purim skits. I have fond childhood memories of rehearsing Purim skits and celebrating Purim in various Karaite homes and recreation centers. We also play games on Purim, especially games of chance, such as raffles.
The practice of Karaite Jews of Egyptian descent is to read the Megillah on both days of Purim, but only once per day.  The Rabbinic requirement to hear Megillat Esther read twice, evening and morning, is wholly absent from Karaite practice. The Megillah does not need to be read from a parchment, and we have not adopted the Rabbinic custom of booing or using groggers to drown out Haman’s name.
Fast of Esther
We do not have the fast of Esther – and even Karaites such as Aaron ben Elijah and Elijah Bashyachi, who accepted Purim as binding, did not believe that the fast of Esther is obligatory on subsequent generations.
Psalms and Candles – !ליהודים היתה אורה
During our Purim celebration, we recite Psalms 121 (Shir Lama’alot) while attendees at our Purim party light candles. The lighting of candles is based on Esther 8:16: “The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor.”
As part of our festive meal, we have two traditional Purim desserts:
- Bughashah – a rectangular strudel filled with cream.
- Wedan Haman [literally: Haman’s ears], a very thin cookie shaped like large ears.
Sorry, no hamantaschen, but strikingly, the Modern Hebrew word for hamantaschen is actually אוזני המן (Haman’s ears), though I don’t think that this Rabbanite dessert looks much like ears.
If any of you are near a Karaite synagogue, come on by and we can exchange “Haman’s Ears,” as long as it isn’t a leap year.
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February 26, 2015
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Shawn Joe Lichaa is the founder of A Blue Thread, A Jewish Blog with a Thread of Karaite Throughout (ABlueThread.com), and a co-author of As it is Written: A Brief Case for Karaism. He has spoken about Karaite Judaism at many venues, including synagogues, Jewish day schools, the Library of Congress, and the Association of Jewish Libraries.
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