Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia
with permission of the author and the
Jewish Women’s Archive
Karaite legal sources often deal with rules pertaining to betrothal, marriage, divorce, ritual purity, and incest. Crucial to the identity and the continuity of Karaite community, these issues had considerable impact on the relationships between Karaites and mainstream Rabbanite Jews. In consequence, they were subjected to sustained polemical discussions and modifications during the emergence and the “golden age” of the movement, between the eighth and the twelfth centuries, in Babylonia, Egypt, and Palestine.
The biblical rules of levirate (the duty of a man to marry the widow of his deceased brother or kinsman) and its possible exemption by halizah (Deut. 25:5–10) were compulsory when a childless woman was widowed or when her fiancé died after the betrothal and before the actual marriage. However, the strict incest rules actually forbade the real brother of the deceased to marry his widow, and the duty of levirate marriage was incumbent upon “permissible” family members (e.g. cousins).
Before the actual marriage, the marriageable partners became engaged to each other in a betrothal ceremony (erusin). The act of betrothal constituted a binding financial engagement, which involved the payment by the fiancé of a part of the marriage payment and his promise to pay the second part of the marriage payment at a later stage. The payment was made to an agent (pakid), who had been previously appointed by the fiancée in court, in the presence of two witnesses.
The betrothal, the money transfer and further guarantees for the period between the betrothal and the marriage itself are recorded in a written document (sefer erus), established before the court and witnesses. If the actual marriage did not take place at the date agreed on, the fiancé was bound to provide for his fiancée’s needs. In case of breach of promise, the fiancé had to release his fiancée with a letter of divorce and also pay a penalty equal to one half of the advance marriage payment.
Three elements are essential for contracting a Karaite marriage: marriage payments (mohar), writ (ketubbah, marriage contract, pictured) and sexual intercourse (bi’ah). The mohar given by the Karaite groom consists of three distinct payments, all three necessary for the validity of the marriage: the basic marriage payment and the additional marriage payment, which is in turn divided into advance (mukdam) and delayed (me’uhar) portions.
The basic marriage payment was given by the groom in its totality on the day of the marriage. Its amount, derived from Exodus 22:16 and Deuteronomy 22:16, was fixed at an early stage of Karaite halakhah to fifty silver coins if the bride was a virgin, and twenty-five silver coins if she was a widow or a divorcée. The amount of the additional marriage payment was not fixed, but negotiated according to the economic capacities of the parties. It was paid in two portions: advance, which was paid in totality at the betrothal, or partly at the betrothal and partly at the marriage itself (together with the basic marriage payment), and delayed, which remained as a debt upon the husband, stipulated in the ketubbah.
The wife brought into the marriage the dowry or trousseau given to her by her father or his heirs. The dowry legally belonged to the wife, but remained under her husband’s jurisdiction for the duration of the marriage.
In Karaite law, the husband is not the automatic heir of his wife. If she dies childless before her husband, her entire dowry must be returned to her father or his heirs, while the husband retains only the delayed portion of the additional marriage payment. If the couple has children, the dowry remains with the husband until his death, when the children inherit it.
Among the Karaites, unlike the Rabbanites, daughters have equal rights of inheritance with sons. However, after his wife’s death the widower could remarry and have children by a second wife, who could potentially share the inheritance left by the first wife. To prevent this, a Karaite woman was entitled to issue a special document to ensure that her dowry would be inherited only by her own children. The wife could also enforce the inheritance of her estate by her children from a previous marriage by inserting a special stipulation into her marriage contract.
The legal procedure of Karaite divorce, its possible grounds, the instrumental role of the letter of divorce and its consequences are all derived from Deuteronomy 24:1–4: “If a man takes a woman and marries her, and if later she finds no favor in his eyes because he found in her a shameful thing, he will then write for her a letter of divorcement, give it into her hands and send her away from his house. If this woman, after departing his house, marries another man, and if this latter husband hates her too and writes her a letter of divorce, gives it into her hands and sends her away from his house, or if this latter husband dies, her former husband who divorced her cannot take her again to be his wife”.
However, the unilateral aspect of the divorce described in the Bible–initiated and carried out exclusively by the husband–was not maintained by the Karaite sages, who strengthened the rights of the woman: in order to divorce his wife, the husband must have solid and sufficient reason to do so, not trivial incidents or disagreements, and the woman’s readiness to discontinue the marriage must be taken into consideration. Some early scholars accepted the woman’s right to initiate the divorce by demanding the courts to coerce her husband to write her a letter of divorce, especially if the husband did not fulfill his three obligations: food, clothes and sexual intercourse. From the early eleventh century, the Karaite halakhah introduced a real reinforcement of women’s rights in matters of divorce: divorce by juridical decree.
The Karaites obeyed the rules regulating the behavior of and towards women during the period of menstruation or after childbirth with particular care. The blood of menstruation (niddah), vaginal discharge (zavah) or childbirth (ledah) render the woman unclean. For a prescribed period of time, she may not have sexual intercourse with her husband, nor may she enter places of worship.
The impurity caused by the blood of a menstruating woman can be transferred to any person or objects (bedding, clothing or seat) in contact with her. After a certain length of time, and according to her condition, she must purify herself by immersion in running water (though not in a ritual bath, as Karaites do not practice the institution of mikveh). Purification is also required for people or objects that she rendered unclean.
Since the ramifications of contact with menstrual blood are important, Karaite authors often deal with the ways of determining the beginning of menstruation. When a woman feels the first blood of menstruation, there is no doubt when the period of seven ritually impure days has begun. But since women often see blood only later, without knowing the precise moment when their menses have begun, Karaite authors advise that a woman should check regularly for blood when the usual time of her menstruation approaches, and in case she does not feel the exact moment, her period of impurity counts from the last time she checked.
The period of seven days of ritual impurity is counted from the moment she sees her blood. If she sees no further blood on the eighth day, she is ritually pure, and permitted to her husband after washing (unlike the period of at least twelve days prescribed by the Rabbanites). If she notices any blood after the seventh day, the woman is considered to have a discharge (zavah). Now, in order to be permitted to her husband, she needs to count seven “clean days” once blood flow has ceased.
The rules concerning a woman after childbirth are based on Leviticus 12:1–8. According to the Bible, a woman is unclean for seven days after the birth of a boy and for two weeks after the birth of a girl. In addition, she may not participate in religious life nor may she enter the sanctuary for a further thirty-three days after the birth of a boy and sixty-six after the birth of a girl. According to most Karaite authors, a woman is unclean (and may not engage in sexual intercourse with her husband) just as she is during menstruation, for the full forty days after the birth of a boy and eighty days after the birth of a girl.
In conclusion, while Karaite laws concerning women and their status are mostly similar to those practiced by mainstream Rabbanite Jews, there are several differences which result either from the Karaite reinterpretation of relevant biblical passages or from the influence of Muslim laws and customs. Many of these distinctive features, such as the wife’s right to initiate divorce or the equal rights of daughters and sons to their father’s estate, indicate the high legal and social position of Karaite women in medieval Jewish communities.