Pharisees, Sadducees and Karaites

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sadduceesIt is a commonly held belief in the orthodox Jewish community that the Sadducees and the Karaites are basically the same thing. The Sadducees, along with other sectarians, challenged the Pharisees and their interpretations of the Written Torah.

However, as I hope to explore a bit in a post sometime soon, they had their own Oral Traditions and methodology. It was a close cousin to the Pharisees and they did not disagree on all that much nor was there a very wide berth separating the groups. There was even some cross-pollination and we will see in that future post.

The Karaites came on the scene 800 years later. The Sadducees were long gone and the only group that was left standing from the tumultuous Second Temple Period were the Pharisees. While in some small ways, one can trace Karaite theology to some aspects of sectarian Second Temple movements, there was likely no continued, unbroken chain connected them to sectarians.

This has been debated in academic circles for a while now and I don’t intend on resolving the debate in this post although I lean toward the side that says that Karaites started from scratch in the 9th century as a response to Islam.

Either way, it has become accepted wisdom in orthodox Judaism that Karaites are very similar to Sadducees and the terms are used interchangebly. I may have found an early source for this confusion. In his commentary on the Mishna in Avos, Maimonides says that Antignos Ish Socho taught that we should not do Mitzvos in anticipation of reward. Maimonides quotes the Avos D’Rabbi Nosson and writes that Tzadok and Bytus took this to mean that there is no reward in the next world and thereby launched their respective sectarian groups of the Sadducees (Tzadokim) and Boethusians (Bytusim). Maimonides continues and says that these groups survived to this very day (12th century) and are now called Karaites.

It seems that Maimonides lumps them together. This might be a mistake or just a clumsy way of grouping similar groups together. In truth, they are not so similar. Karaites would reject the Sadducee interpretations of the Torah as much as they would deny the truth of Pharisee interpretations. It’s imprecise to lump them together in an academic sense. Perhaps it makes sense to lump them together in a religious sense.

I think that this note by Maimonides could be one of the reasons rabbinic orthodox Judaism now fails to distinguish between the two groups. I would prefer precision for the sake of accuracy and truth. But more importantly, there is a lot we can learn about contemporary Judaism by looking at these groups and we can only even begin to do this if we have our terminology correct. Now that we do, I hope to continue exploring the relationship between the Pharisees and Sadducees in my next post on this topic. Hopefully tomorrow.

Read Maimonides here: JPG1, JPG2

  • Jonathan Baker

    If you want to compare the Karaite with Sadducee halacha, good starting points would be R’ Revel’s “The Karaite Halacha”, and the writings of Aharon Shemesh – he has a short book in English, and a longer book in Hebrew on what the DSS tell us about the Sadducees and their approach to Halacha. They both started with rejecting the Oral Law, but the Sadducees developed theirs by prophetic inspiration – if there was a shayla, the sage would go off to a cave and meditate until the answer came to him. I don’t know how the Karaite halacha developed.

    • david a.

      >>>> They both started with rejecting the Oral Law,
      By the Oral law, I take it you obviously mean our mishna,Talmud and subsequent halakhah. But this is simply not true for the Sadducees. They could not have rejected something that was only in the making, as they preceded mishna and Talmud by centuries.. I know you believe that the Oral Law goes back to Sinai, but if we are seeking truth, we must accept that this belief is at best a bit exaggerated, and at worst not true. As the Dead sea scrolls show, undeniably, that every sect had its own oral law. and who is to say which was the most “authentic”

      >>>> … the Sadducees developed theirs by prophetic inspiration

      and how do you think many of the Israelites received their “law” during the first mikdosh if not from the Nevi-im.

      • Jay

        The Sadducees and Beithosians — if there was even any distinction between the two – never considered their body of interpretation and traditions+customs to have been delivered to them Divinely, which in turn means they can not be considered an oral law.
        Moreover, the Sadducees never claimed that they developed their interpretations and traditions through prophesy.

    • Joe in Australia

      And how do you know that the DSS talk about Sadducee halacha? I grant that you are some reasons to infer it, but everything we know about the Sadducees says that they were powerful and had no need to live on a mountaintop in the Judaean desert.

      • david a.

        I never said or meant to imply that the DSS were Sadducee. I said that the DSS prove that there existed an Oral tradition substantially different than mishna/talmud and extant centuries before the mishna. and therefore likely that there many more Oral traditions, including one for the Sadducees..

  • Adam Kenigsberg

    For one thing, I don’t know of any group extant today, calling itself the Sadducees.

    However, there are (depending on how you count and who you believe) between 20-50 thousand Karaites still around today.

    They even started allowing Gentiles to convert to join Karaite communites, a few years ago.

    Whereas the Samaritans (Cutim) are a historical oddity, with a handful of families left, the present day Karaites are vibrant, and growing.

    The difference is, the Karaites (at least for now) do not seek to challenge Orthodox Judaism.

    Karaites regard Orthodox Jews as their brethren. On basic theological and moral issues, I agree much more with my Karaite friends, than with my Reform friends.

    Karaites have their own religious authority in Israel. They are not part of the Rabbanut, but they have independent authority to perform weddings, funerals, and other rites, according to their traditions.

    If Reform truly wanted “religious freedom” in Israel, they would do exactly what the Karaites have done.

  • Daniel Purisch

    The association dates back at least to the time of Saadia Gaon, who wrote that the founder of Karaism was joined with “those who remained from the culture [tarbut] of Zadok and Boethus”. I don’t recall what the original source is, but an excerpt containing the source is at II:103 in Pinsker’s Likutei Kadmoniot, a collection of sources on Karaism compiled in 1860:

  • I haven’t been aware of any major conflation of Sadducees and Karaites in mainstream Orthodox thinking. Most Orthodox Jews I know understand the difference. Can you provide sources?

    • What I do find an ignorance of, in all Jewish circles, is how large a movement Karaism was, even in the late medieval period. In some cities, the Karaite community dwarked the Rabbinic one (see, for example, the travel letters of R Ovadia MiBartenura)

      • david a.

        in my reading, i ran across a figure that at some point they represented 40% of jewry…however, i don’t know how legitimate this figure is .

        • Jay

          This figure came from illustrious historian Salo Wittmayer Baron (OBM).

    • Just check out the Facebook thread where people are literally yelling at me for even suggesting they are two different things!

  • I would be hesitant to call the Rambam clumsy here, since he is notable for exact use of words. It could be that while there are many differences, the fact that they don’t accept the complete Rabbinic tradition leaves them “the same”, outside nortmative tradition. That said, it does make sense that the Tzedukim were closer to the Perushim than we generally think, this is why they were considered a threat. Had they been more like reform, the Perushim likely would not have to have taken them seriously.

  • B’Lakevood

    After reading your interesting post, I noticed a Maharatz Chayus (sorry Rebbetzen David if I spelled his name incorrectly;)) who discusses this dilemma, and actually seems to be questioning the Ramba”m on this as well. He brings some marei mekomos that should probably be further investigated by you, or anyone who really wants to clarify this topic.
    The Maharatz Chayus is in the Vilna Shas at the end of Avos, in the section titled “hagahos vechidushim lepairush hamisnah al meseches avos”, in the first piece.

    I do think it’s important to realize that as far as I can tell, all of ancient history is subjective. No one recorded “History” or “Current events” in those days for any reason other than to promote their own position and agenda. So, to say “I would prefer precision for the sake of accuracy and truth” is probably more than wishful thinking. We can’t even get precision as to what happened in Benghazi, imagine going back two thousand plus years!