Karaite Jews Musical Tradition

Since the establishment of this community, the Karaites have maintained the basic principles of their traditions. Over the course of these many centuries, liturgical chants within the synagogue and outside of it have served as an important feature of the Karaite heritage.



According to the Karaite tradition, the community's origins can be traced back to a dispute between rabbinic sages in the days of Alexander Jannaeus (c. 100 B.C.E) during the Second Temple period.[1] There is no precise information regarding the development of the Karaite community during its initial period, which lasted from its inception until the appearance of 'Annan Ben-David in the eighth century. Ben-David began in Babylon and eventually made his way to Jerusalem. He coined the term B’nei Mikra (Children of the Bible) or the Karaim, thereby unifying the Karaite community and giving it its unique character as a sect that is separate from mainstream Judaism.

During that period, other Karaite communities were founded across Palestine—in Ramleh and Tiberius—as well as in Egypt and Byzantium. In the 12th century, the spiritual center of the Karaites was balanced between Europe and the Near East. During the next few hundred years, additional Karaite communities were formed in Egypt and Byzantium as well as in Crimeria, Lithuania, and Eastern Poland. During that period, the development of the Karaite tradition reached its peak in Kushta (Istanbul); the 14-16th centuries are considered to be the "golden era" of the Karaite community. Later on, families that arrived in Crimeria from Byzantium and Persia founded additional Karaite centers around Europe, while at the same time establishing their religious laws according to decisions of the Turkish Rabbinate. The Karaite community of Crimeria rose to a position of influence only in the 17th century; this newly acquired stature influenced social and religious aspects of the Karaite Diaspora until the end of the 19th century. With the rise of oppressive regimes in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, Egypt flourished as a Karaite center. It is there that an autonomous community arose alongside the rabbinical community. From within this community as well, a leadership arose that initiated immigrations to Israel after the state was established.

There were two primary waves of immigration of Karaites to Israel: in 1949-1950 and in 1956-1957. They established their own towns, such as Ranen and Matsliah, and settled in neighborhoods in the cities of Ramleh, Jerusalem, Ashdod, and Afikim. Over the years they built neighborhoods in additional cities and towns. Today, Israel is the largest Karaite center in the world. There are synagogues and community centers where prayers, religious classes, and various events are held. Local administrations act as liaisons between the different communities and the sect's central administration.


The Karaite Legacy and its Musical Tradition

The Karaite legacy, which was formed and unified over centuries, is based on the liturgy and paraliturgical texts[2] found in the four-volume prayer book (siddur) that was compiled from the 11th to the 16th centuries. The liturgical parts (volumes 1-3) are mostly a series of verses from the Bible as well as a few piyyutim (a specific genre of paraliturgical poems, some of which entered the liturgical canon). The paraliturgical parts (volume 4) are made up of poems, piyyutim, and post-biblical compositions.

The Karaite musical tradition, which is consistent among all of the Karaite communities, is an oral tradition. It is performed by the entire community—women, men, and children—and is an inseparable part of the performance of texts within the various yearly and life-cycle ceremonies.  In some cases, certain pieces are preceded by instructions such as, "ve-tenagen be-niggun galut" (play a Diaspora niggun), "be-niggun bnei keidar" (sung with a Bnei Keidar niggun), and so on. Although there is no information as to how these instructions were supposed to be carried out, it is clear that the pieces were performed, probably with well-known melodies. Therefore, we can assume that there was a type of musical "code" that was known among the members of the community. The Karaite prayer book therefore not only reflects the textual sequence but also documents and immortalizes the performance within the context of annual and lifelong cycles. The Karaites do not have any other traditional music aside from this repertoire.[3]

 The Karaite musical tradition consists of a variety of different melodies. Each is comprised of a "mosaic" of motifs, all of which function in a particular way within the musical phrases. Each melody contains a primary tone[4] and a recitation tone[5] and every piece is comprised of a few verses. In each verse, the same motifs appear. The opening[6] and closing motifs[7] in a melody are usually the same in every verse. The motifs between the opening and closing are constantly being developed throughout the liturgical or paraliturgical piece. Sometimes there is also a heralding motif.[8] The internal organization of the musical phrase is dependent on the text. There is, therefore, a meaningful interaction between the text, its origins, its length, its content, and its music. This can be seen through the development of the motifs that is achieved by adding or subtracting notes, changing the tonal center, and changing the meter and rhythmic patterns of the melody. The example below contains the first verse of the piece Tefilateinu,[9] which includes an opening motif (no. 1), a closing motif (no. 4), and between them, motif no. 2 (which appears in two different versions) and motif no. 3 .In each of these motifs, the primary and recitation tones are marked.

The melodies of the Karaite liturgical musical tradition are organized in a variety of different systems,[10] with each system having a number of variants. In the paraliturgical music there is an even greater number of musical systems, some of which resemble the Western musical modes and scales. Although, for the most part, traditional Karaite music is performed similarly in the various communities, there are still some differences that should be noted. One example is the use of these musical systems. The Egyptian Karaites kept the Eastern melodic systems and attempted to incorporate them into the melodic developments of the pieces, whereas the European Karaites highlighted the tonality and the symmetry of the length of the motifs, as well as the musical phrases that are suited to the different texts. These two traditions went through a form of synthesis, as contact between the Eastern and Western communities became closer; the intricacies of motivic development are replaced by highlighting the aspects of Western tonality.


Change and Preservation in the Karaite Musical Tradition

The liturgical Karaite song is sung in a responsorial  manner, whereas paraliturgical songs are sung either in a responsorial manner or by the entire congregation. This practice of involving as many members of the community as possible in the chanting can probably be traced back to an ancient tradition of continuous contact between those who are leading the service and the congregation, a practice that continues until today. By contrast, other musical elements – such as range, melody, or rhythmic patterns – have changed over the years, therefore revealing a constant process of preservation and change, such as the expansion or reduction of the melodic range, the function of the motifs in a melodic line, the number of repetitions, and their appearance in different variations within the same melody.

Musical analyses can show that the different Karaite communities are most likely influenced by the same Middle Eastern source, whose origins can be found in the formative years of the Karaite tradition during the Middle Ages in Byzantium, the Land of Israel, and Persia, and whose remnants can be found in both liturgical and paraliturgical music. However, the musical repertoire does not only reflect a joint past but also the forces in play that influence all of Karaite music, namely, emphasizing distinct Eastern and Western Karaite identity, as well as the continuous renewal that takes place within the preservation of tradition. The shared musical elements reveal the connection of the Karaites to their surroundings, on the one hand, and their efforts to preserve and express their identity, on the other hand.

The developments and innovations are manifest in the ability of the community to change only one musical element at a time; therefore, the general style does not change all at once. These changes are made within the structure and therefore do not damage the overall structure. The traditional structures are maintained, which are apparent in the music. It remains important to perform the texts properly and within the correct context, in order to preserve the unique tradition. It should be noted that the basic musical elements do not change but their importance and usage do change from time to time and from place to place. It is interesting that in those communities in which we witness the crumbling of religious structures (for instance, where the status of the local rabbi is not very high) as well as social structures (such as where the role of social institutions is weakened and there is a decrease in teaching tradition to youth), changes in attitudes towards the traditional music also appear, especially in regards to the abandoning of the most basic and traditional elements.

Two forces, therefore, influence the performance of the liturgy. The first is preservation of the performance, such as the precision of performance of the texts, and the character in which they are performed (even if the melodies have been or are going through a process of change). The second regards the involvement of the congregation, both in responsorial singing and the change in the roles of the soloists – among the cantor and the special guests.

The liturgy seems to be the oldest layer of Karaite sacred poetry; it only contains a few variations on a repertoire of texts that remain the same regardless of time or place in which it is performed. On the other hand, the paraliturgical texts comprise a later and more creative layer and reflect environmental influences and changes in outlook. These texts are a kind of opening for secular music to seep into the sacred poetry, both in Eastern Europe and in Egypt. Whereas the liturgical songs were not, for the most part, influenced by Western elements, these influences can be found in the paraliturgical songs, where constant processes of change occur and are more prominent than in the liturgical songs. The piyyut, “Matok Dvar Torah,” is an example of a paraliturgical song with a variety of melodies. [11] The following figure contains three melodies in which the internal textual/musical division is the same, despite the geographical and chronological distance between them. The first melody is one that is known today in the State of Israel. It was composed by the Karaite Baruch Moshe Taneni, who also composed melodies to other very popular piyyutim that are sung at paraliturgical events and at various Karaite social gatherings:

The second melody to the same text is performed by Avraham Kanai, a Jewish Karaite from Kazakhstan. The third melody originated in Russia and was circulated by Ania Janjakovsky. These three melodies contain both similarities and differences. They demonstrate an interesting phenomenon prevalent in many contexts; the same piyyut is known in distant communities and, even if the melodies are different and the ratio between the syllables and the melismas[12] is varied, they include shared musical elements, which combine compositional and performance techniques as well as both Eastern and Western musical influences.

This tradition combines well-preserved structures from the past, as well as innovative components that create new meanings for traditional values. On one hand, there is a rich repertoire of traditional melodies and, on the other hand, there is constant generation of melodies that become part of the familiar repertoire. The songs allow for new kinds of expression and symbolize the renewal suitable to the needs of the society.

The musical framework represents two different patterns of behavior of the individual and of the community, both within the synagogue and outside of it. On one hand, the historical musical structure reflects the preservation of the liturgical tradition and expresses the community’s past and ideologies. On the other hand, the Karaite musical tradition is in a constant process of self-development that is expressed in the autonomy of each separate community and reflected in the differences of musical versions, the new melodies that are used for paraliturgical texts, and the adaptation of these communities to their environments. The fixed and changing structures of the society and their musical manifestations, as well as the importance of music as a symbol of identity and belonging, are principles that have been anchored in Karaite culture for generations, and remain to this day.

Today, the sacred poetry of the Karaites is in the process of change and innovation within the preservation of the overall framework. The music is becoming increasingly multifaceted and constitutes not only an expression of the continuity of processes that are happening in the community, but also a central element in transferring Karaite heritage from generation to generation.



Ahiezer, G. and D. Shapira. "Karaites in Lithuania and in Volhynia-Galicia until the 18th century." Pe'amim 89 (2002): 19-60.

Algamil, Y. Toldot HaYahadut HaḲarait. Vol. 1-2. Ramleh: HaMo'atsah HaArtsit Shel HaYehudim HaḲaraim BeYisrael, 1979-1981.

--------- The Karaite Jews in Eastern Europe. Ramleh: Mahon Tiferet Yosef, 2001.

Ben-Shamai, H. "The Karaites and the East." Pe'amim. 89. (2002): 5-18.

Firkaviciute, K. "The Musical Heritage of Lithuania's Karaim." Karaite Judaism. Ed.  M. Polliak. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Hirshberg, J. "Music as a Unifying Factor in the San Franciscan Karaite Community," Pe'amim 32 (1987): 66-81.

---------. "The Role of Music in the Renewed Self Identity of Karaite Jewish Refuge Communities from Cairo." Traditional Music 22 (1989): 36-56.

Kollender, R. "Melodic Patterns in Karaite Muisc: Past and Present." Karaite Judaism. Ed. M. Polliak. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

--------- The Role of Music in the Karaite Liturgy in Israel. Diss. Bar Ilan University, 1990. Ramat Gan.

Levi, H. Ma'ayan Haim. Second Pressing. Ashdod: Va'ad Ha'eda, 1996.

---------. "HaMoreshet HaMusikalit HaKaraite: Shamranut, Hadshanut, Uma SheBeneihem." Mikhlol 26 (2010): 113-122.

Schur, N. The Karaite Encyclopedia. Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1995.

Shapira, D. and Lasker, D. Kara'e Mizraḥ Eropah BaDorot HaAḥaronim. Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi, 2011.

Sidur HaTefilot KeMinhag HaYehudim HaKaraim. Ramlah: HaVa'ad HaArtsi Shel 'Edat HaYehudim HaKaraim BeYisrael. Volume 1, 1971; Volume 4, 1964.



[1] This brief historical description is based on many sources, both Karaite and rabbinical. Sources that are especially important to note are: Y. Algamil, C. Levi, D. Shapirah, and D. Laskar, whose details can be found in the bibliography at the end of the article.

[2] The liturgy is the body of sacred poetry of the synagogue. This is, essentially, the prayer, whose texts and melodies are suited to the yearly cycle: secular days, the various Sabbaths, holidays, as well as the various fasts and Purim. During the prayer portions there are also parts that are said that commemorate events from the life cycle: circumcision, days of mourning for members of the congregation, etc. Paraliturgical texts are sacred poetry and songs for use within and beyond the synagogue. It is comprised of pieces commemorating events in the yearly and life cycles, such as Sabbath zemirot, niggunim for festive occasions such as circumcisions, weddings, and others.

[3] The Eastern European Karaite communities also have secular songs, which are not sung in Hebrew.  These include songs in different dialects, such as the Trakai dialect, as well as rhyme schemes that are characteristic of Russian and Polish songs. It is difficult to ascertain the origins of these secular songs, but it seems that at least some of them were created in order to establish a secular Karaite identity alongside the local non-Jewish communities. However, in all of their communities, the Karaites do not consider these songs to be part of their ancient traditions and for that reason I am not discussing this repertoire at length.

[4] Primary Tone – The primary note of a motif or melody that usually ends on the last or penultimate syllable. It is sometimes preceded by a leading tone and is marked in the score with the letter C.

[5] Recitation Tone - A note that either repeats itself over a few syllables during the course of the motif or has an extended rhythmic value in comparison to the other notes in the motif or melody. It is marked in the score with the letter D.

[6] An opening motif appears at the beginning of a musical phrase and usually coincides with the opening of a textual phrase. Sometimes this motif only appears at the beginning of one musical phrase while the other phrases in a piece have their own opening motifs.

[7] A closing motif usually appears at the end of a musical phrase. The primary tone of the motif is usually the primary tone of the melody. The motif may appear as a trill on the last or penultimate syllable of the phrase, or as a trill within the closing motif. In the event that that occurs, the closing motif will have other notes and syllables that appear before its final note.

[8] Heralding is a musical 'signal' that indicates a change of some sort, either in the text, the music, or the performance that will occur later on in the piece. This signaling is in itself a change of one of the musical components, for example, a change of meter, modus, or the relation between the text and the music. The herald usually appears in the motif before the closing motif.

[9] This piece is chanted during the Saturday morning prayers and appears on page 175 in the first volume of the Karaite prayer book.

[10] A modal framework that contains notes that are fixed and that have fixed intervals between them. These notes have regular functions such as the primary or recitation tones. The motifs that make up the melodies are taken from them.

[11] This is a piyyut that is typically sung on the Sabbath (zemirot). It was written in Turkey during the 15th century by Rabbi Moshe Beggi and is printed on page 105 of the 4th volume of the Sidur prayer book.

[12] Melisma: a melodic technique in which one syllable is set to multiple notes.