Who Could Karaites Marry?

How Karaite law dictated who was considered "marriageable."

Reprinted from

Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia

with permission of the author and the

Jewish Women’s Archive


In order to contract marriage, the parties must be “marriageable,” that is: the partners must be Jewish, the woman must be unmarried, and the parties should not fall into any of the kinship categories prohibited by Karaite law.

The Parties’ Religious Affiliation

Karaite TextMarriages with non-Jewish partners are not acceptable for Karaites. Marriages with Rabbanite partners were perfectly legal and commonly practiced before the thirteenth century. Medieval Karaism was and saw itself as an integral part of Judaism, and such marriages did not entail any form of “conversion” of any of the parties.

Seven marriage contracts involving Karaite and Rabbanite individuals have so far been discovered in the Cairo Genizah. These marriage contracts stipulated the mutual tolerance of those practices in which the Karaites and the Rabbanites differed. These specific stipulations concerned differences in dietary laws, restrictions on lighting the Sabbath candles and the promise of Rabbanite husbands not to make love to their Karaite wives during Sabbath and festivals–practices strictly forbidden by Karaite law. Due to the differences in calendar, Karaite and Rabbanite festivals did not coincide, and the marriage contracts always included a clause which guaranteed that both parties would be allowed to observe their festivals on their respective dates.

Marriages between Karaite and Rabbanite partners came to a halt when Moses Maimonides (Rambam, 1138-1204) argued that while the Karaite marriage itself was binding, their bill of divorce was invalid (probably because of its formulation in Hebrew). Since the children issued from the second union of a Karaite divorcée would be illegitimate (mamzerim), and since it was not always possible to ascertain that a divorce had not occured in previous generations in a Karaite family, Maimonides decided to consider all Karaites as potential mamzerim, and therefore prohibited for marriage.


While the marriage of a woman to more than one man at a time is forbidden, a Karaite man could in principle have more than one wife provided he could fulfill all his duties towards both women. However, the right of the husband to take a second wife could be restricted through the inclusion of a special anti-polygamy clause in the betrothal or marriage contract.

Prohibited Categories of Kinship

The prohibited categories of kinship are derived by Karaite authors from all three principles of the Karaite halakhah: the biblical text, the analogy, and the consensus of the community. The most important categories of prohibited relatives are mentioned in Leviticus 18:6-18 and 20:14. They are: parents, stepmother, mother-in-law, sister and half-sister, stepsister, grand-daughter, father’s and mother’s sister, wife of father’s brother, daughter-in-law, brother’s wife, stepdaughter and step-grand-daughter, and wife’s sister, even after the first wife’s death or divorce.

These categories, some based on consanguinity and others on ties by marriage, are all considered as blood relations and called she’ar basar (“flesh”). Unlike the Rabbanites, who put limits on the use of analogy in the matters of incest, prior to the eleventh century the Karaites used analogy, and analogy upon analogy to the fourth degree in order to derive from these basic categories further forbidden degrees of kinship. These analogical derivations were based on three principles:

1. The prohibitions set in the Bible work “upwards” and “downwards” along generations. For example, the prohibition of granddaughters in Lev. 18:10 concerns all the generations of their descendants, and implies the prohibition of grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.

2. The prohibitions apply from one gender to the other. When Lev. 18:9 states, for example, that a sister is forbidden to her brother, this implies that also the brother is forbidden to his sister.

3. The prohibitions apply across lineages. The biblical “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) was understood literally, and implied that all the members of the wife’s family become automatically the kinsmen of the groom and his family. This widening of the prohibited degrees of kinship by marriage (rikkuv) was practiced from Anan’s times until the second half of the eleventh century.

Other prohibited degrees of kinship derived from other biblical verses, include Benjamin al-Nahawendi’s prohibition (based on Song of Songs 8:1) of the marriage between milk sisters and brothers, i.e. otherwise unrelated individuals who were nursed by the same woman.

This excessive use of analogical derivations from the Bible led in practice to the multiplication of the prohibited categories of kinship. These prohibited categories included three cases in which the Karaite law was in opposition to Rabbanite rules:

1. The marriage of a man to his wife’s sister even after the dissolution of the marriage (derived in a different way by Karaite authors from Lev. 18:14 or Lev. 18:18).

2. Marriage with one’s niece, based on principles of gender equivalence and continuity along generations. Lev. 18:12-13 contains a prohibition for a man to marry his maternal or paternal aunt, and since it applies to both sexes, it also prohibits a woman’s marrying her paternal or maternal uncle, and effectively the uncle to marry his niece.

3. The marriage of two brothers with two sisters, derived either from the literal interpretation of Gen. 2:24, or from Lev. 18:16: “Do not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is the nakedness of your brother.” According to the principle of gender equivalence, whoever of his own kin is forbidden to the husband, the corresponding kin of his wife is also forbidden to him. Thus, one’s wife becomes her husband’s brother’s sister, and so does her sister.

This extensive use of analogy widened the circle of consanguinity to such an extent that marriageable partners became increasingly scarce. The rules of rikkuv were finally abolished in the eleventh century through the arguments of Yusuf al-Basir and especially his Jerusalemite disciple, Jehoshua ben Jehuda. Since then, the prohibited kinship degrees (she’ar, “flesh”) have been only those explicitly mentioned in Lev. 18:6-18, their blood relatives (she’ar ha-she’ar “flesh of the flesh”), and those who are derived from them by analogy to the first degree only.

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