Karaites recall Egyptian exodus
through their own Passover customs
By Loolwa Khazoom
TEL AVIV, April 19 (JTA) Tradition teaches that on
Passover, all Jews must embody the experience of Exodus, feeling as if we
ourselves have gone through it. For the Karaite Jews from Egypt a community that
rejected rabbinic law from the start no imagination is required.
Every year at Passover,says Sara Moussa, who lives in the San Francisco Bay
area, home to the largest Karaite community in the United States, we tell the
guests at our table that our ancestors were kicked out of Egypt thousands of
years ago, then we were kicked out one more time just a few decades ago. We
never forget that.
The Karaites observe a form of Judaism that its adherents claim is based
entirely on the Bible. The group, which traces its origins to the eighth
century, considers the Talmud and other oral law, upon which much of rabbinic
Judaism is based, to have no authority.
The largest Karaite community is in Israel, with about 25,000 members. There are
about 1,200 Karaites in the United States and 3,000 in Poland and the former
Soviet Union; the rest are scattered in small communities around the world.
Moussa left Egypt in 1966, when she was 16. Like Remy Pessah who also lives in
the Bay area she recalls the anti-Semitic taunts, intimidation and violence from
her Egyptian neighbors that prompted her family to flee.
But for Moussa, Pessah and other Karaite Jews, Passover is not just a painful
trip down memory lane; its also a time of celebration.
Unlike at a rabbinic celebration, however, the Karaite seder does not include
four cups of wine or any alcoholic beverage, for that matter.
We dont allow anything that has fermented,explains Neria Haroeh, grandson of one
of chief hakhamim, or spiritual leaders, of the Karaite community in Israel.
How do you make wine? You take grapes and let them ferment. The process is
forbidden on Pesach,he says.
While wine is out of the question, says Hakham David Elisha, one of the
communitys spiritual leaders in Israel, Karaites do drink grape or raisin juice
the latter because in Egypt fresh grapes were hard to come by during Passover
Only one cup of this juice is sipped, during the ritual blessing before the
Karaites do not have a seder plate, an afikomen or charoset. They do have maror
made of lemon peel, bitter lettuce and an assortment of other bitter herbs,
which together look like a salad.
While the rabbinic Haggadah starts with the story of Exodus, the Karaite
Haggadah opens with something older still.
It begins with the prophecy of Abraham: Your children will be slaves in Egypt
for 400 years,Haroeh says. Then it tells the story of what happened in Egypt,
all the things the Pharaoh did, how the Jews suffered, and finally, how the Jews
Like other Jewish communities, Karaites enjoy many dishes prepared specially for
Passover such as grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice, egg and potato salad,
peanut cookies and many kinds of sweet jam, including one made from carrots and
another from roses.
We celebrate Pesach in the most natural way possible, like the nation of Israel
celebrated it during ancient times,says Yosef Davir, official spokesman for the
Karaite community in Israel. Its the holiday of spring and renewal. Nature
renews itself now too, so we use food that is from nature fruits, vegetables,
fish, meat, juice.
Everything is prepared at home.
We couldnt buy anything outside the house,Moussa says, recalling her childhood
in Egypt. We had to roast the nuts, even the coffee beans, to make sure they
were kosher for Passover, that no bread was next to them.
The most significant dish prepared at home was barbecued meat, seasoned with
salt, pepper and lots of onions.
Around the world, Elisha says, Karaites still eat this dish at the conclusion of
the seder, in honor of the pascal sacrifice.
In the Torah it says there is a sacrificial animal that every family has to
slaughter,he says. We no longer have the Temple, but we have continued to
preserve this tradition. In Egypt we would raise our own goats, then have the
community shochet slaughter them. Every year, since I am a shochet, I still buy
a sheep and slaughter it myself.
Most Karaites dont bother buying sheep or goats to slaughter, but they do
preserve other important Passover traditions, such as throwing or giving away
The Torah says we cant sell chametz and leave it in our homes,Davir says. We get
rid of absolutely everything.
God gave us a brain to prepare things,he continues. The holiday doesnt arrive
out of the sky in one day; we know that its coming in another two months or
three. So we wont go and buy a bunch of pita or macaroni.
The Karaite Passover also involves bringing food and clothing to those less
Usually at Passover we invited people who didnt have the means of celebrating
the holiday,Moussa recalls of her years in Egypt. It was very common throughout
the community. And even if they wouldnt come to your house, you would bring food
Those with the means enjoyed not only giving but receiving.
On Passover we always had brand new clothes,Moussa says. Shoes, socks,
underwear, from top to bottom it had to be new. Wed have special summer dresses,
and the whole house would be clean from floor to ceiling scrubbed and even
painted. In Egypt, you really would feel there is a holiday coming.
But for Karaite Jews old enough to remember their own personal exodus from
Egypt, nothing beats the feeling of freedom.
I am very blessed in the United States,concludes Pessah, not only to celebrate
Pesach, but to live as a Jew without being persecuted.