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The Bible and Suicide

A Brief History of Jewish Sects
by Yoseif Yaron



The period immediately following the second Diaspora, during which the compilation and redaction of the Mishnah and Talmud took place was another time that saw a sharp rise in Jewish sects.  Like the period that preceded it, it was a very difficult time for the mass of Jews. 

Under the Persian Parthian and Sassanid dynasties the Jewish settlements in Babylon developed a system of self-government, somewhat autonomous from the Persian state, headed by the Nasi or exilarch.  The Nasi represented the Jewish population before the king, and was responsible for the collection of taxes, and the administration of justice.  He had under his authority an extensive bureaucracy of officials, in short a government within a government.  As a consequence of this, to pay for their special government, the greater Jewish population of the second Babylonian exile was subject to additional taxes over and above the regular taxes imposed by the state.  Furthermore, there were additional taxes imposed by the yeshivot at with their heads at Sura and Pumbeditha.   To add to this the Jewish population in Babylon, as it had been in Israel, was highly stratified with the landowners, bankers and merchants making up the higher classes and the farmers and peasants comprising the lower classes.  As is always the case, the lower classes were on the receiving end of the hardest of the hardships. Out of these hardships several schismatic groups began forming, many based on their rejection of the Talmud.

One of the most influential of these early groups was the Ananites.  Often confused with the first group of Karaites,3 the Ananites were a group of people who followed the teachings of Anan ben David.  A very ascetic sect, they were actually quite similar in many aspects to the Rabbanites.  While, they defined themselves by their rejection of the Talmud, the Ananites followed the teachings of Anan much like the Rabbanites follow the Talmud.

The Karaites, another group who rejected the Talmud, are defined by their acceptance of the TaNaKh as the only legitimate text of Jewish law - to the exclusion of any other Jewish legal text (even their own).  As implied above, Anan ben David did not found the Karaites - contrary to popular belief.  Karaism, as a system of belief, is very old, and predates the use of the name Karaite.  In fact, no one knows the origins of the name Karaite, which is drawn from the Hebrew word “to read.”  The earliest mention of Karaites, by the name Karaite, dates from the early seventh century (100 years before Anan), when Amar ibn al-'As, the first Islamic governor of Egypt, wrote a proclamation forbidding the Rabbanites from harassing the Karaites and interfering in their religious affairs and real properties.

Another early sect to form during this period of time was the Isunians (who predated the Ananites).  They were founded by a man named Ovadiah, also known as Abu Isa al-Isfahani.  He claimed that he was a prophet, and actually planned a revolt against the Moslem government that had assumed rule over Persia.  He formed an army, attacked the Moslems, and was defeated by them.  After Ovadiah, his pupil, Yugdan claimed to be a prophet, and continued in Ovadiah's path.  His followers claimed he was the Messiah.

The next few sects will be discussed in brief, as there are many to mention.  After Anan, Isma'il al-Ukbari formed a sect.  Little is known about his teachings.  As the prominent historian Ya’aqov al-Qirqisani notes, "Most of Isma'il's utterances lead to a suspicion of insanity, and all well educated people who heard him laughed at him."  Following on the tradition of Anan was Benjamin al-Nahawendi, who was reported to have served as a Rabbinic judge for some years.  He is considered one of the prominent thinkers of Karaism.  A younger contemporary of al-Nahawendi was Musa al-Za'farani, known as Abu 'Imran al-Tiflisi, who gathered a group of followers.   There was also, in Ramla, Malik al-Ramli, whose followers are known as Malikites; and the Mishawites, who followed Mishawayh al-'Ukbari.

Next pageLater Sects > Page 1, 2, 3, 4

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