Modern Commentary

Torah & Spirit
Family Life






Women in Karaite Judaism

Women in the Karaite tradition have always been considered equal. They have never been barred from serving in any religious office. They have never been labeled second-class citizens. In fact, what information there is in Karaite legal texts on the different roles of women is usually a reaction to Rabbinic injunctions laid against them. What follows is a brief discussion of the status of women in the Karaite tradition, with an eye to contrasting it with Rabbinic laws.

MISWOT [commandments]
The Torah specifically states when a miswah [commandment] applies to men, and when a miswah applies to women. In all other cases where the Torah dictates a miswah, that miswah is binding on all Isralites - men and women, by implication. Consequently, for example, Karaites have always held that women must wear Sisiyot. We have always held that women are required to study Torah (in contrast to the many Rabbanite assertions that they should be prohibited from Torah study); and we have always held that women are obligated to pray just as often as men.

In Torah law, a woman can sue for divorce. If a man refuses to give his wife a divorce, the beit din [Jewish legal court] can seize his power of attorney and grant the divorce in his stead. There are no ‘agunot [women whose husbands have abandoned them and cannot remarry because their husbands refuse to give them a divorce]in Karaite Judaism.

A woman’s property is hers, and it always remains hers. A husband has no rights to his wife’s property unless she gives it to him. If they should divorce, her property remains hers and he has no claim on it. Furthermore, when a woman dies her children get her property not her husband.

In Karaite law, female witnesses are just as good as male witnesses. Karaites have never made a distinction between the two - both witnesses are valid in any legal situation.

Women have always been able to hold leadership roles. This was true even in the Middle Ages, the height of misogyny. In the 11th century, in Spain, after the Rabbanites killed the Karaite leader Sidi ibn al-Taras, his wife, al-Mu‘alima (which means the teacher), took over for him as the leading Hakham of the Karaites in Spain.

From Tehillim [Psalms]we know that women used to sing in the Beit Hamiqdash [Temple]. Tehillim [Psalms] 46:1, 68:26 are Psalms that were written specifically for women to sing, and accompany with dancing and the playing of instruments. Consequently, women in Karaite Judaism have never been constrained from singing or speaking in the Beit Kenesset [synagogue]. As one might conclude from this, women can, in fact, hold the position of Hazzan [one who leads the prayers]. Again, no religious role in Karaism is forbidden to women.

Conjugal rights belong to the woman, not to the man. If a man takes a second wife, it can only be with the permission of the first.

The Torah does separate between men and women in specific instances. As mentioned previously, there some are miswot in the Torah that are given specifically to men, and some to women. For example, men become tame’ [ritually impure] if they experience a nocturnal emission. Women are unable to have nocturnal emissions, therefore this law does not apply to them. Women become teme’ot at the time of their niddah [menstrual period]. Men are unable to have a menstrual period, therefore, this law does not apply to them.

In the Karaite Beit Kenesset there is separate seating for men and women; however the reason for this is not strictly gender based. Karaites do much of their praying kneeling down on the floor. When women kneel down, they run the risk of exposing themselves to men that might be kneeling behind them. Therefore, in the Karaite Beit Kenesset, women sit either beside the men, or behind them. As this tradition is based on modesty, rather than the exclusion of women, there is no Mehisah [dividing wall] between them.

If anyone has a specific question relating to the roles of women in Karaite Judaism, please write us for more information: Questions