Qaraite and Rabbanite Calendars: Origins, Interaction, and Polemic
This project, run in collaboration by Sacha Stern (UCL, London) and Ronny Vollandt (LMU, Munich), will investigate an important but poorly known aspect of medieval Jewish social history and is funded by the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung.
Medieval Judaism was divided between two religious movements, the Qaraites and the Rabbanites. The Qaraites broke off from mainstream, Rabbanite Judaism in 9th-century Iraq, and became a powerful Jewish movement in the following centuries. Their main tenet was to reject the authority of the Talmud and rabbinic tradition, and to rely instead on a fresh reading of the biblical scriptures. This led to different interpretations and practices. One of their critical disagreements was on how to reckon the Jewish calendar and when to celebrate the festivals.
Calendars and time reckoning occupied a central position in medieval society, as an organizing principle of society and social life. This project concerns ideological and social divisions between Qaraite and Rabbanite movements, but it also leads to sociological reflections on how people run their lives with different time- frames and calendars, and the impact this exerts on the sense of social belonging and identity.
Qaraites and Rabbanites have been given much attention in modern scholarship, especially since the late 19th- century discovery of the Cairo Genizah, a vast trove of medieval manuscripts in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, in which Qaraite and Rabbanite debates figure prominently. It has long been recognized that the calendar was a major bone of contention between them. Many assumptions have been made about the difference between their calendars, and about the social, polemical, and ideological significance of this disagreement. However, the subject has never been systematically studied, and very many primary sources remain unedited and unknown.
This project investigates the origins and history of Qaraite and Rabbanite calendars in the 9th-12th-centuries Near East and Byzantine Empire, when the Qaraite movement was at its height. Our main sources will be (1) literary sources, including treatises on the calendar, but also texts on the calendar embedded elsewhere, e.g. in biblical commentaries; and (2) dated documents, reflecting the real-life uses of the Jewish calendar by Qaraites and Rabbanites.
We will investigate the still poorly understood origins of the Qaraite and the fixed Rabbanite calendars, which arose in the 8th-9th centuries and which, in our hypothesis, were closely intertwined. We will assess the extent of the differences between them. We will study the calendar disagreement between Qaraites and Rabbanites, its significances on each side of the debate, and its polemical uses; its legal and ideological foundations; its relationship to debates in contemporary Islam; and whether different calendars really led, as has often been claimed, to social schism and divided identities in medieval Jewish daily life and society. We contribute widely to the study of Judaism and Jewish society in the medieval Near East, by raising general questions about social schism, ideology, communal politics, and literary polemics.
The UCL-partner website of the project can be accessed here.