Areas of Karaite settlement.

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The first testimony about a Karaite presence in the Crimean peninsula, dating to 1278, was supplied by the Karaite scholar Aharon ben Yosef (Ha-Rofe), who mentioned a dispute over the calendar between Karaites and Rabbinites (those who follow rabbinic tradition; also spelled Rabbanite) in Solkhat (Eski Krim). Karaites apparently migrated to the peninsula with the Tatar conquerors of Crimea in the mid-thirteenth century. The major centers of Karaite settlement were Kefe (Feodosiia), Solkhat, Chufut-Kale (or Chufut-Qaleh), Mangup, and, later, Gözleve.

Karaites of Theodosia (Caffa). Auguste Raffet, 1837. Print. The illustration depicts Karaites in Kefe (Feodosiya), on the Crimean Peninsula, a key center of Karaite life. (Image courtesy Golda Akhiezer)

After the Turkish conquest of the coastal cities in 1475, most of the territory of the Crimean peninsula became a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. The fortress of Chufut-Kale resembled a Karaite ghetto in the early sixteenth century, after the transfer of the capital of the Crimean Khanate to Bakhchisarai. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Chufut-Kale developed into a flourishing Karaite center, regularly granting aid to other Karaite communities (Łuck [Luts’k], Troki [Trakai], Constantinople, Damascus, Cairo, Jerusalem). The Karaite population of Crimea was granted the status of a dhimmah (protected minority) within a Muslim state and had to pay jizyah (a special tax for non-Muslims). The yarliqs (charters) granted by the khans to the Chufut-Kale community secured the rights of local Karaites, but on occasion the Karaites suffered from the rulers’ arbitrariness. The seventeenth century marked the acceleration of Turkish social intrusion into Karaite society: Karaites adopted Turkic names, and some of their community leaders (e.g., the Agha family) became the “court Jews” and found employment at the Khans’ court (which continued during the eighteenth century), were appointed masters of the mint, and leased customs duties on the sale of wine.

The Crimean community produced such prominent scholars as Mosheh Pasha ben Eliyahu (sixteenth century), who wrote biblical commentaries; Mosheh ben Eliyahu Levi (d. 1667), the author of “Darosh darash Mosheh” (a collection of sermons), who composed many poems and copied books; Avraham ben Yoshiyahu Yerushalmi (d. after 1734), who wrote the exegetical-philosophical treatise Emunah omen on the principles of the Karaite faith versus those of the Rabbinites. Yitsḥak ben Shelomoh (1755–1826) introduced a number of new halakhic regulations and fixed a unified calendar system, elucidated in his work Or ha-Levanah. Crimean scholars taught Torah as well as Karaite and rabbinic literature in their study houses. The first publishing house in the Crimean peninsula was established by brothers Afedah and Shabetai Yerakah (1734), who moved from Constantinople to Chufut-Kale; in 1806, its activity continued under the auspices of the community leader Binyamin Agha.

The Karaite community of Lithuania appeared in Troki, apparently at the end of the fourteenth century (the first evidence is a Karaite marriage contract from 1400). In 1441, Kazimierz Jagiełło granted them Magdeburg rights. The Karaites sometimes extended their charters to the Rabbinites in order to help them to defend their rights. The Karaite community of Troki paid its taxes to the Polish kings through the Rabbinite council. Sometimes this situation and strong economic competition with Rabbinites became a source of antagonism between the two communities.

Karaite school and synagogue (Kenesa), Trakai, Lithuania, 1930s. (YIVO)

Karaites settled also in other towns of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth; among these were Panevėžys (Poniewież; Yid., Ponevezh), Pasvalys (Poswól), Nowe Miasto, Šeta (Szaty), Šventežeris (Święte Jezioro), Halicz, Lwów, Kukizów (Krasny Ostrov), Łuck, Derazhne (Derażne) and other smaller centers. The community of Kiev moved to Łuck because of the Tatar invasion in 1483. That of Derazhne was destroyed by the armies of Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi in 1649.

Communal institutions in Lithuania were formed in the fifteenth century under the influence of the Karaite spiritual center in Constantinople. Students from Troki and Łuck visited Constantinople to study Torah under the guidance of such prominent scholars as Eliyahu Bashyatsi and Kalev Afendopolo. The Karaites of Poland–Lithuania accepted Bashyatsi’s reforms of Karaite halakhah.

During the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth centuries, Troki became a Karaite spiritual center, producing such outstanding scholars as Yitsḥak ben Avraham Troki (author of the anti-Christian treatise Ḥizuk emunah) and the circle of Karaite disciples of Rabbinite scholar Yosef Shelomoh Delmedigo of Crete (1591–1655), whose followers included Yoshiyahu ben Yehudah, Ezra ben Nisan, and Zeraḥ ben Natan; they studied exact and natural sciences, Talmud, and Kabbalah with him.

At the end of the seventeenth century Protestant scholars, who regarded Karaism as a purer version of Judaism not “distorted” by Talmud, began to initiate contacts with Karaites. As a result, Mordekhai ben Nisan of Kukizov (near Lwów) wrote his Dod Mordekhai (1714) in Hebrew on the split between Karaites and Rabbinites. He did so in reply to questions from Jacob Trigland of Leiden University. Later, Mordekhai’s Levush malkhut was published in 1866 by Adolf Neubauer as a reply to queries from King Charles XII of Sweden. Shelomoh ben Aharon wrote his Apiryon ‘asah lo (1866) after visiting Riga University on the invitation of its rector, Johannes Puffendorf, who asked questions about Karaism, the differences between Karaism and Rabbinism, and the reasons for the split between them. The spiritual leader and Kabbalist Simḥah Yitsḥak Luzki was perhaps the last great Karaite scholar in Eastern Europe.

Oraḥ tsadikim (The Way of the Righteous), by Simḥah Yitsḥak Luzki. Crimea, ca. 1800. (The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary)

In the eighteenth century, many Polish–Lithuanian Karaites moved to Crimea after the famine that accompanied the Great Northern War (1700–1720) and the plague (1710) that obliterated most of the Karaite population in their home region. After the annexation of Crimea (1783) and the incorporation of some parts of the former Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth into Russia (1772, 1793, 1795), most Karaite settlements in Eastern Europe (except Galicia, which was annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire) became part of the Russian Empire.

Under Russian rule, Karaites applied to the officials to be legally differentiated from the Rabbinites. In 1795, a Karaite delegation from Crimea came to Saint Petersburg and obtained from Catherine II an exemption from the double tax (imposed on the Jewish population). Karaites also received the right to purchase immovable property, as well as other privileges. In 1827 (unlike Rabbinites) they were released from obligatory military service, and in 1863 they were granted rights that put them on an equal footing with Christian citizens. Karaites were integrated into Russian society, some made military or governmental careers, and many converted to Christianity. Still, by the end of the nineteenth century, Karaite communities existed in many cities of Russia, including Saint Petersburg and Moscow.

From the mid-nineteenth century, a new ideology began to crystallize among the Karaites, primarily due to the activities of Avraam Firkovich and his followers, who created a new version of Karaite ethnic and cultural history. Their interpretations led to the gradual erasure of Jewish elements from the Karaite heritage. Seraya Szapszal (1873–1961), orientalist and Karaite leader (ḥakham) in Poland, proposed a theory about Khazar–Turkic origins for the Karaites. Ignoring their links to Judaism and Hebrew heritage, he put Turkic-pagan customs in the forefront as important elements of Karaite culture. Szapszal created a completely separate self-identification for East European Karaites. Their dejudaizing ideology helped the Karaites to survive during the Holocaust: with some hesitation, the Reich Agency for the Investigation of Families defined Karaites as a non-Jewish population.

In 1879 there were 9,725 Karaites in the Russian Empire; in 1910 there were 12,907. According to Soviet statistics, some 5,700 Karaites existed in 1956. Today there are only about 1,500 Karaites in the territory of the former USSR; and about 100 in Poland.

Suggested Reading

Golda Akhiezer, “The History of the Crimean Karaites during the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries,” in Karaite Judaism: A Guide to its History and Literary Sources, ed. Meira Polliack, pp. 729–757 (Leiden and Boston, 2003); Golda Akhiezer and Dan Shapira, “Kara’im be-Lita’ uve-Volin-Galitsyah ‘ad ha-me’ah ha-18,” Pe‘amim 89 (2001): 19–60; Mikhail Kizilov, Karaites through the Travelers’ Eyes (Troy, N.Y., 2003); Jacob Mann, Texts and Studies in Jewish History and Literature, vol. 2 (Philadelphia, 1935), in Hebrew and English; Philip E. Miller, Karaite Separatism in Nineteenth-Century Russia (Cincinnati, 1993), in English and Hebrew.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 40, Karaites, Collection.