Anan ben David

Anan ben David

Anan Ben David ( _he. ענן בן דוד) is often considered to be the founder of the Karaite movement (a form of Judaism that split off from rabbinic Judaism due to its rejection of the oral law), or at least the founder of one of the main groups forming the Karaite movement. However, later Karaite sages are highly critical of Anan, leading some to believe that he had no part in Karaism.


In the second half of the seventh century and in the whole of the eighth, as a result of the tremendous intellectual commotion produced throughout the Orient by the swift conquests of the Arabs and the collision of Islam with the older religions and cultures of the world, there arose a large number of religious sects, especially in Persia, Babylonia (Iraq), and Syria. Judaism did not escape this general fomentation; the remnants of Second Temple sects—the Sadducees and Essenes—picked up new life and flickered once more before their final extinction.

At this time new sects also arose in Judaism; including the Isawites, the Yudganites, the Shadganites, the Malakites, the Mishawaites, and others. All these groups may have quickly disappeared, or been assimilated by rabbinical Judaism, if not for the actions of Anan Ben David.

When, about the year 760 CE, the Jewish exilarch in Babylon (probably Isaac Iskawi) died, it appears that two brothers among his nearest kin, probably nephews of his, Anan and Josiah (Hassan), were next in order of succession to the exalted office. Eventually Josiah was elected exilarch by the rabbis of the Babylonian Jewish colleges (the Geonim) and by the notables of the chief Jewish congregations; and the choice was confirmed by the calif of Baghdad.

According to some records, Anan Ben David was proclaimed exilarch by his followers. This step was construed by the Muslim authorities as rebellion against the authority of the calif, who had formally invested Josiah with the position. Such an act on the part of a dhimmi (follower of a religion tolerated by Islam) in a Muslim state was a capital offense. He was arrested by the authorities one Sunday in 767, and thrown into prison, to be executed on the ensuing Friday, as guilty of high treason. Luckily for Anan, he met in jail a prominent fellow-prisoner, the founder of the Muslim casuistic school of the Hanifites, Abu Hanifah al-Nu'man ibn Thabit. He gave Anan Ben David advice which saved his life: He should set himself to expound all ambiguous precepts of the Torah in a fashion opposed to the traditional interpretation, and make this principle the foundation of a new religious sect. He must next get his partizans to secure the presence of the calif himself at the trial — his presence not being an unusual thing at the more important prosecutions. Anan was to declare that his religion was different from Rabbinical Judaism, and that his followers entirely coincided with him in matters of religious doctrine; which was an easy matter for Anan to say, because the majority of them were opposed to the rabbis. Complying with this advice, Anan defended himself in the presence of the calif Al-Mansur (754-775), who granted his favor.

However, not all scholars agree that this event occurred. Leon Nemoy notes that "Natonai, scarcely ninety years after Anan's secession, tells us nothing about his aristocratic (Davidic) descent or about the contest for the office of exilarch which allegedly served as the immediate cause of his apostasy." He later notes that Natonai - a devout Rabbinical Jew - lived where Anan's activities took place, and that the Karaite sage Ya'acov Al-Kirkisani never mentioned Anan's purported lineage or candidacy for exilarch. (See "Karaite Anthology"; Yale Judaica Series 7)

Anan now devoted himself to the development of his new religion and its new code. His "Sefer ha-Mitzvot" ("The Book of the Precepts") was published about 770. He adopted many principles and opinions of other anti-rabbinic forms of Judaism that had previously existed. He took much from the old Sadducees and Essenes, whose remnants still survived, and whose writings — or at least writings ascribed to them — were still in circulation. Thus, for example, these older sects prohibited the burning of any lights and the leaving of one's dwelling on the Sabbath; they also enjoined the actual observation of the new moon for the appointment of festivals, and the holding of the Pentecost festival always on a Sunday.

Abu Hanifah was accustomed in certain cases to take the words of the Qur'an not in their literal, but in a symbolical sense (Ta'awil); and Anan adopted the same method with the Hebrew text of the Bible. Illustrations of this method are not infrequently, indeed, afforded by the Talmud itself. Thus he interpreted the prohibition of plowing on Sabbath (Ex. xxxiv. 21) as applying to marital intercourse; the word "brothers" (aḥim, Deut. xxv. 5) in connection with the levirate marriage he interpreted as "relatives," etc.

Now with Anan, too, it is found that the greater number of his innovations are based upon analogy. But he distinguished himself from his Muslim model in that he built mainly, not upon analogy of subject as Abu Hanifah did, but upon analogy of expressions, of words (the rabbinical "gezerah shawah"), indeed even upon analogy of single letters; a system which can hardly be considered a step in advance. The earliest sources tell also of another doctrine borrowed by Anan from the Muslims; namely, the belief in the transmigration of the soul (metempsychosis). This doctrine, represented in Greek antiquity especially by Empedocles and the Pythagoreans, had always been wide-spread in India, and was encountered there by a Muslim sect called the Rawendites, adopted by them, and in the middle of the eighth century was carried to Babylonia (Iraq). It is also found in Kabbalah. Anan is said to have written a special work in its defense.

Minute prescriptions

In regard to general characteristics, this founder of Karaism, it must be confessed, was anything but a reformer in the modern sense of the word; for instead of lightening the load of traditional law, he increased the severity of religious praxis, as will appear from the following. Anan rejected all the admeasurements instituted by the rabbis (shi'urim); and instead of any permissible minimum for prohibited things—which the Talmud admits, as for instance shishim, one part in sixty, or ke-zait, "the size of an olive," etc.—he insisted that even the smallest atom of anything prohibited, mingling with an infinitely large quantity of a thing permitted, was sufficient to render the whole of the latter prohibited. In his law-book he maintains that as long as Israel is in exile the flesh of domestic animals, with the exception of the deer, is prohibited. The Talmud relates that after the destruction of the Second Temple, certain ascetics (perushim) sought to prohibit meat and wine because they had been employed in the Temple ritual, and that Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah repressed the movement. The schismatic Abu Isa, just before Anan's time, had succeeded in imposing this piece of asceticism upon his followers as a law. His example was now followed by Anan, who in addition prohibited the flesh of poultry and of all birds with the exception of the pigeon and turtle-dove.

Rules for slaughtering

The additional abolition by him of the injunction against eating meat and milk together (basar be-ḥalab) was thus rendered almost gratuitous. To this limitation of the eating of meat must also be added his regulation concerning the personality of the individual who slays creatures for food; Anan rejected the broad precept of the Talmud that "slaughtering is permissible to anybody," demanded a certain dignity for the act, and required from the slaughterer a complete profession of faith. From this dates the Karaite custom of reciting the articles of the creed preparatory to slaughtering. Finally, not satisfied with the Talmudic dictum that in the act of slaughtering it is sufficient to cut through two ducts—gullet and windpipe—Anan required that in addition two more—arteries or veins—should be severed. In addition to the legal fast-days appointed by the Bible, Anan, by means of word-analogies and peculiar misinterpretation, instituted the following: The seventh day of every month; the 14th and 15th of Adar instead of the rabbinical fast of the 13th, including thus the Purim festival; also a seventy-days' fast from the 13th of Nisan to the 23d of Siwan; including Passover and Pentecost as times of fasting when neither food nor drink could be partaken of by day.

Rules for Sabbath

It was forbidden to go outside of one's dwelling on the Sabbath except for purposes of prayer or necessity. Anything that is ordinarily carried on the shoulders, owing to its size or weight, might not be carried around even in a room. Anan's law-book insists that the Sabbath evening (Friday) must be passed in darkness: lights kindled in the daytime on Friday must be extinguished at nightfall, for it is forbidden to pass the Sabbath in a place artificially illuminated. Cooking and baking must be done on Friday, not only for Friday and Saturday, but also for Saturday night, to forestall any impatient longing for the close of the Sabbath. Viands already prepared must not be kept warm, but eaten cold. Unleavened bread (Maẓẓah) must be made exclusively of barley-meal, and he that prepares it out of wheaten meal incurs the punishment appointed for those that eat actual leaven (ḥameẓ). Nor may this unleavened bread be baked in an oven, but, like the paschal lamb, it must be roasted on the coals. In spite of his pretendedly tolerant utterances concerning the founders of Christianity and Islam, Anan amplified very considerably the traditional injunctions designed to keep the Jews distinct from other nations, particularly in the matter of the dietary laws.


Anan ben David, in direct contradiction of Karaites such as Daniel Al-Kumisi, had small respect for science as is often shown in his law-book. He forbids the use of medicines and of medical aid in general, for it is written, he says, "I, God, am thy physician" (Ex. xv. 26); this is held to prohibit drugs and doctors.His opposition to the astronomical determination of the festivals, of which he boasted to the calif, led him to declare astronomy as a branch of the astrology and divination forbidden in the Bible, thus undermining the very foundation of the rabbinical calendar.

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