Anan ben David

Anan ben David (active 8th century) was a Jewish religious leader in Babylonia who is believed to have founded the Karaite, or Scripturalist, sect about 760. The members of the sect were originally known as Ananites.

The account of the role of Anan in launching the Karaite sect must be viewed critically because it was written by a Rabanite opponent several centuries after Anan's death. The factual core contained in the available sources indicates that Anan was next in line of succession for the important hereditary office of exilarch, or head of the autonomous Jewish community in Babylon (now Iraq), because the reigning exilarch had died childless. However, Anan was passed over in favor of his younger brother Hananiah, who was less learned than Anan but more modest and pious. Anan was evidently rejected because he was apparently associated with a pseudo-messianic movement that displayed anti-Talmudic tendencies.

The Moslem chief of the region confirmed Hananiah for the post. Anan then proceeded to launch a secret organization of his followers, who were anti-Talmudists, and they appointed him as their own exilarch. When this was discovered by the authorities, Anan was arrested, imprisoned, and condemned to the gallows. In prison he met a Moslem legal scholar, identified as Abu Hanifa, who advised him to defend his conduct on the ground that Anan's religion was a different and separate one from that of Hananiah and therefore Anan could not be charged with rebellion against legally constituted authority. Abu Hanifa also advised Anan to stress the fact that his group did not follow the fixed calendar introduced by Hillel II about A.D. 350 but determined its calendar, in the Moslem manner, by actual observation of the moon. This defense, bolstered by substantial bribes, helped Anan gain his freedom.

The current of opposition to the Oral Law and rabbinic interpretation of Hebrew Scripture was an outgrowth or continuation of the Saducean tendency that survived the destruction of the Temple. In Babylonian Jewry it took the form of a rebellion against the exilarchate, which was identified with authority and the upper strata of the Jewish community. Of the numerous rebel movements, only the Karaites have survived to this day.

Though Anan opposed the authority assumed by the rabbis in expounding the Law, he did not hesitate to expound the Law himself. He composed his own Sefer Hamitzvot (Manual of Precepts) in Aramaic, which reflected his rigorous and ascetic inclinations.


Strict Karaite Doctrines

Anan ben David maintained that in exile no meat should be eaten except that of reindeer and pigeons. He extended the prohibition against kindling a fire on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:3) to apply to the burning of lights on Sabbath eve, though the lights were kindled earlier. His followers could do nothing on the Sabbath, except attend prayer services. Fast days were multiplied in Anan's calendar, and feast days were turned into mourning in accordance with Hosea (8:10), "And I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation. …"The 70 days believed to be the period of Haman's preparation for the massacre of Persian Jewry (Esther 3:12) he designated as a period of mourning along the lines of the Moslem Ramadan. On the theory that a man and his wife shall be one flesh (Genesis 2:24), the relatives of a spouse were not permitted to marry the kin of the other spouse to the fourth degree. Thus permissible marriages were restricted to a ludicrous degree and caused a problem in the Karaite community. The Karaites could not receive medical aid because of the Scriptural verse, "I the Lord am thy Healer." These and similar prohibitions made life a gloomy affair for Anan's followers and impelled subsequent Karaite leaders to modify his rigorous code.


Further Reading on Anan ben David

The best treatment of Anan ben David, which includes translated excerpts of his and other Karaite works, is in Leon Nemoy, ed., Karaite Anthology (1952). Volume 2 of Jacob Mann, Texts and Studies in Jewish History and Literature (1935; rev. ed. 1969), contains an interesting and valuable collection of documents. Good background material on the Karaites is available in Zvi Ankori, Karaites in Byzantium: The Formative Years, 970-1100 (1959).