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Karaite Pentateuch

This Pentateuch, used by Russian Karaite Jews in 19th-century Crimea, is a reminder that Judaism has a variety of sects within it, some using their own variations on the sacred texts. The Karaites had a particular interest in producing their own version of the Pentateuch: it demonstrated to the authorities that they were different from mainstream Jews, who were then the subject of official disapproval.

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Karaite Pentateuch

Karaite Pentateuch Ortakoi (near Constantinople), printed by Arav Oglo, 1832–5. Numbers 1
BL 1944.f.12, pp. 438–9
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is the Pentateuch?

The Pentateuch is part of the Torah, one of the three main sections of the Bible in Jewish tradition, and also the most sacred. It comprises the first five books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the Five Books of Moses, as they are believed to have been first written down by Moses at divine dictation.

The five books making up the Torah are Be-reshit, Shemot, Va-Yikra, Be-Midbar and Devarim, which in the English Bible correspond to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

The Hebrew titles derive from the first characteristic word appearing in each book, while the name used in the English Bible (usually of Greek origin) describe the central theme dealt with in each book.

Who are the Karaite Jews?

Various strands of Judaism have formed over the centuries, some moving quite far away from the others. Among the earliest of these were the Samaritans, who may have split from mainstream Judaism as early as the fourth century BC. Much more recently, the Conservative, Reform and Liberal movements are interpretations of Judaism that have modernised certain traditions and developed their own liturgical customs and rituals.

The Karaites (literally, 'people of the Scripture') emerged in the Middle Ages. Karaite Jews accepted the Hebrew Bible but rejected the Mishnah and Talmud (the collected teachings of early rabbis) and are not therefore part of mainstream Judaism.

Why did the Karaites want their own Pentateuch?

The 19th century witnessed a tremendous improvement in the social status and economic situation of the Russian Karaites living in the Crimea. This was largely achieved through successfully distancing themselves from the rest of the Jewish population.


Balaklava, in the Crimea, pictured in the early 1850s by William Simpson (British Library Images Online)

This Humash (Pentateuch) was a celebration of the Karaites' newly acquired social privileges. Its publication was sponsored by 12 important Russian Karaites led by Abraham Firkovitch (1786-1874), a bibliographer, amateur archaeologist and famed collector of manuscripts. It was printed without a title page, and contains introductory poems to each of the five main sections. The poems were compiled by the copy editors and translators.

By printing it with a Judeo-Tatar translation (the local Karaite Crimean dialect) the book was intended to convey a forceful message to the Tsarist authorities: that the Karaites had their own Bible and shared little with other Jews.

On the right is a poem by Itshak ben Shemu'el, introducing the book of Numbers, while on the left is the opening section to Numbers with the Judeo-Tatar translation.

How many Karaites are there today?

Karaism flourished in the 10th and 11th centuries, but its numbers have dwindled steadily since. Some sources suggest that there are now around 2,000 Karaites in the US, a few in Istanbul, Lithuania and Poland, and 12,000 in Israel.