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Has anyone written an in depth study (utilizing primary source material) of the Sabbath Lamp controversy that hit the the Karaites in the 15th century?

June 21, 2017

The focus should be on the dynamic father-son duo Moses and Elijah Bashyatchi of Byzantium.

While the Bashyatchis instituted many reforms, the lifting of the ban on Sabbath lamps is the most interesting and the most important. It was this prohibition that had the Karaites apart from their Rabbanite brethren for centuries.

The Bashyatzi reforms were not accepted without vigorous opposition (sometimes from their own close family members). The communities became fractured into two opposing camps: one was called מדליקים,literally “the lighters”, i.e. those who lit candles on the eve of the Sabbath and the מכבים, literally the extinguishers, i.e. those who made sure to put out all fires with the arrival of the Sabbath. Tracts like איגרת איסור נר שבת by Byzantine Hakham Abraham Bali (an unapologetic extinguisher) and other apologia that were composed by traditional old-line Karaites have never, to my knowledge, been properly studied.

It is also still unclear exactly which communities accepted this relaxation wholesale; made compromises in Synagogues but not in dwelling places; and who continues to adhere to the original Karaite interpretation of this prohibition to this day.
For instance, it is commonly perceived that this specific Bashyatzi reform was embraced in Asia minor, The Crimea, and Eastern Europe (although a friend informs me that his father once wandered into a dark cold Karaite Kenesa in Birzai, Lithuania on a Friday eve. Other anecdotal evidence points to such anti-reformist tendencies in the Crimea as well) while the deeply traditional Middle Eastern Karaites categorically rejected it. This is certainly no longer true as traditionally most Karaite synagogues in Israel not only light oil lamps on Friday eve but even sell this honor to the highest bidder. By the 1940s, the last Karaite Hakham of Egypt, Crimean-born Toviya Levi-Babovich daringly proclaimed from his Cairo pulpit that “our ancestors were mistaken in their well-meaning zeal to adhere to the literal interpretation of “thou shalt not light a fire in your dwelling places on the Sabbath”.

On the other hand, I have personally witnessed Egyptian Karaites in Israel who still sit in the dark on Friday eve (some even unplug all electrical appliances).
i should think that an exhaustive study of this phenomenon is a scholarly desideratum.


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